Do Catholic Parents Have to Raise their Children as Catholics?

Q: A friend’s daughter is planning to marry a Lutheran. They’re going to get married at our parish by the assistant pastor. My friend told me that nowadays, when a Catholic marries a non-Catholic, they don’t have to raise their children as Catholics. I was shocked! Is this true? –Tom

A: The law on this topic was in fact reworded somewhat in the last few decades, but it is surprising to find that many Catholics wrongly think that this fundamental obligation has been eliminated altogether.

As has been discussed before in this space, the current Code of Canon Law was promulgated by John Paul II in 1983, replacing the former code of 1917. While a tremendous amount of church law remained unchanged, there were also a significant number of canons that were amended in the new code. The canon pertaining to the children of mixed marriages is one of them.

Under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, then-canon 1061.1 addressed marriage between Catholics and baptized non-Catholics.  In order to be able to marry a Catholic, a non-Catholic had to give assurances, in writing, that he would not try to “pervert” the Catholic spouse—in other words, he had to promise that he would not attempt to convert the Catholic to a non-Catholic religion. The Catholic’s faith could not be threatened by such a marriage, or the Church would not permit it to take place. Additionally, both the Catholic and the non-Catholic had to promise (again in writing) that the children of the marriage would be baptized and raised in the Catholic faith. If the pastor who received these written promises from the spouses had a reasonable concern that they would not be kept, the marriage could not be allowed (c. 1061.1 n. 3).

In 1970, Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Letter Matrimonia Mixta, on mixed marriages, attempted to take some ecumenical steps forward.  He acknowledged that marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics rarely build ecumenical bridges and achieve unity between faiths—a fact to which perhaps many of us with personal knowledge of persons in such marriages can unfortunately attest! Too often either the different religious beliefs lead to acrimony between the spouses; or one (or both!) of the spouses abandons his faith altogether. While the Catholic Church retains the right to work to safeguard the faith of the Catholic party to such a marriage, it now attempts to couch its rules in language that is less confrontational.  Among other things, in an effort to acknowledge the good intentions of people born and raised in non-Catholic faiths, and to respect their consciences, Paul VI reworked the law pertaining to this aspect of marriage. His emendations were later included in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Canon 1124 of the current code, which is in force today, states that as a rule, marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic is prohibited. But the bishop of the Catholic party can give permission for such a marriage if a just and reasonable cause exists (c. 1125). The Church’s primary concern is still for the faith of the Catholic party to such a marriage. If it appears that by marrying a non-Catholic, the Catholic’s faith will be eroded or even lost, the permission cannot be granted. Thus the bishop should not grant permission if he sees (for example) that the non-Catholic party is so virulently anti-Catholic that he intends to try to prevent the Catholic party from practicing the faith; or that the non-Catholic party is actively working to convert the Catholic over to another faith and the Catholic’s faith appears to be so weak that he is vulnerable to such a possibility. We can see that thus far, there is not much difference between the old law and the new.

But the next parts are a bit different.  Before the bishop can grant his permission, the Catholic party must declare that he is prepared to remove dangers of defecting from the Catholic faith. He must also promise sincerely to do all in his power to ensure that any children of the marriage will be baptized and raised in the Catholic faith (c. 1125 n. 1).

In contrast, the non-Catholic party to the marriage is not required now to make any such promise. The law does require, however, that the non-Catholic be informed of the promises made by the Catholic party to the marriage (c. 1125 n. 2). Note that the law here binds only the Catholic party, and not the non-Catholic.

If the non-Catholic party is sincerely committed to his faith, he may very well object in good conscience to the notion that his children have to be raised in a religion other than his own. Thus problems often do arise when a Catholic and a non-Catholic, who were married in the Catholic Church, have a baby and the Catholic parent wants to raise the child as a Catholic. In such a situation, the Catholic must remember his pre-nuptial promise to do everything in his power to raise his children in the Catholic faith.

But at the same time, as an old Latin legal principle states, “nobody can be obliged to do the impossible” (nemo ad impossibile obligari potest). Sometimes doing everything in one’s power is simply not enough! If the non-Catholic is so insistent that there is, practically speaking, no way for the Catholic to “win” such an argument, then the Catholic party may ultimately be forced to concede for the sake of peace in the family. In such a scenario, the Catholic has in fact done everything in his power to raise the children Catholic—but he wasn’t successful. The results are obviously not ideal, but the effort was made. And in the meantime, the Catholic parent is still expected to make reasonable efforts, when opportunities present themselves, to teach the Catholic faith to his children, even if they are being raised in a different religion.

What happens if a Catholic freely, willingly, and voluntarily agrees to have his children baptized and raised in a non-Catholic religion? Well, canon 1366 actually asserts that a penalty is to be imposed on those Catholic parents who hand over their children to be baptized or brought up in a non-Catholic faith!

Thus it is oversimplistic and very misleading for anyone to suggest that a Catholic does not “have to” raise his children as Catholics. The real requirements, as we have just seen, are much more complex—and more demanding.

Not surprisingly, they are also in complete accord with Catholic teaching. While we Catholics should certainly wish (and pray) that non-Catholics may someday share our beliefs, we cannot force them to do so against their will. A person who was not raised in our Church has a conscience that has been formed in such a way that he may truly not believe that it is best for his children to be raised as Catholics. It goes without saying that we Catholics have a different view of the situation! As difficult and as unsatisfactory as it may be, often the only solution in such circumstances is to keep praying. By the grace of God, over time both the children and the non-Catholic spouse may very well be brought to our true faith thanks to our persevering prayers.

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