I recently attended a service held for of an old neighbor who passed away and was shocked to learn that she was Catholic. Laid out in the boarding school of her youth, it was a poignant goodbye with the religious sisters and her Muslim husband and children around her in prayer. I do not know if her birth family was present. I did not see a priest, so I am guessing she did not receive a Christian burial. What I do know is that my heart burned within me as I recalled my insensitivity to her frequent lighthearted comment that she was “half-Catholic” because of her Catholic schooling. I never followed up on this hint she offered.
I can empathize with her reticence to share her truth. Married to a Hindu, I often found myself in a similar predicament with regard to my children, who went regularly to Mass and Sunday school but were not baptized. Our secrets may have been different, but our fear of public censure was the same.
Their invalid marriages put these Catholics on the margins of the church.
There are many stories like my neighbor’s—of women in interfaith marriages who married outside the Catholic Church because their spouse did not agree to the baptism of their offspring or did not want a church wedding or wanted a wedding according to their own religious rite. Their invalid marriages put these Catholics on the margins of the church. Even though they are baptized and in legal, stable marriages, they cannot receive the sacraments. The result is a relationship with the church that is frequently marked by humiliation and pain, exclusion and longing, fear and stealth.
Some Catholics in interfaith marriages stay away from the church either because they are unwilling to face the embarrassment of rejection or because they are afraid that the demands of the church may jeopardize their “irregular” marriage. But their desire to derive spiritual sustenance from the only God they know persists. And so some enter empty churches clandestinely, while others receive the sacraments in parishes where their marital status is unknown.
Pope Francis has taken a step forward by stressing the need to provide special pastoral care for those in interfaith marriages.
The two recent synods of bishops on the family, which brought to the fore the concerns of the divorced and remarried made me realize how much these couples had in common with Catholics in interfaith marriages. Both stand on the margins of their faith communities with their legal—but canonically invalid—nonsacramental marriages and their unbaptized children. Both are ostracized from the ecclesial community. Both suffer from and pose a challenge to the church’s understanding of the sacraments. Similar questions can be asked of both: How is God’s mercy proclaimed to you? How does the church put into practice her support for you in your journey of faith? Could a change in canon law help you to more fully practice your faith?
In his postsynodal letter, “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis has taken a step forward by stressing the need to provide special pastoral care for those in interfaith marriages and by recognizing these unions as a “privileged place for interreligious dialogue in everyday life.” But the church could go further by applying much of what the pope’s letter advocates with regard to the divorced and remarried to Catholics in interfaith marriages. Asian churches in particular, where such marriages are on the rise, need to remember that even if these couples are not married in the church, “they are not excommunicated and...should not be treated as such.” Pastoral care should allow them “not only to realize that they belong to the church as the body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it.”
If this is to happen, the church has first to acknowledge its responsibility to these alienated Catholics to provide “spiritual help to fulfill their obligations” and “foster the unity of conjugal and family life” (Canon 1128). These Catholics themselves must be viewed as facilitators of grace who make Christ present outside the walls of the church instead of as “lost sheep.” And their decision not to get married in the church must be accepted not as a choice againstthe Christian faith but as a choice for the unity of their marriage.