Why Would I Need to Convert in Order to Get Married?

Q1: I am a woman who was baptized, belongs, and actively practices my faith in a Roman Catholic church. I am in a love with a man who belongs to an Orthodox church. I do not wish to convert and become an orthodox for marriage but would like to know if there is any way for us to get married in an orthodox church without any conversion. I don’t mind getting married in a Orthodox church and don’t mind raising my kids in Orthodox beliefs but I do not prefer to convert myself. I am okay with attending ceremonies at both churches but do not want to change my faith. –Mariya

Q2: I am writing this mail with a heavy heart. I am a Roman Catholic woman preparing to marry an Orthodox man. My Catholic parish priest is not giving his consent for this marriage, so it will be held in an Orthodox church. However, I want to know if I can continue receiving Holy Communion at Roman Catholic churches (because after marriage I will be an Orthodox).  It breaks my heart to even think of not being able to receive the Holy Eucharist from Catholic churches ever again. I’m unable to find an answer to this on the internet. So kindly advise me on this issue, it is a matter of life and death for me. –Wynona

Q3: I am a Catholic and married to a non-Catholic. I received Holy Matrimony sacrament (sic) in Syro-Malabar Mar Thoma church and was blessed by one of the Mar Thoma priests. For marriage, even though I’ve not got baptized as a Mar Thomite, I agreed to join Mar Thoma church, by signing a promissory note which was a mandate for blessing of marriage in Syro- Malabar Mar Thoma church.

I would like to have authentic information regarding my present rights to receive sacraments like Holy Mass and confession from Catholic Church… please note that Catholic priests did talk against my understanding of a Catholic (sic)….  –Alitta

A: Readers can undoubtedly see that there’s a trend here.  And all of these questions came from the same region of the globe, which tells us that this isn’t a coincidence.  There is a disturbing pattern here of marriages between a Catholic and an Orthodox, in which the Catholic spouse is being forced—or at least strongly pressured—to leave the faith and become a member of the Orthodox Church.  Is this normal?  And what, if anything, can a Catholic do about it?

Let’s first review the theological status of the Orthodox Churches vis-a-vis the Catholic Church.  As was discussed in “Are They Really Catholic? Part I,” the Orthodox  broke away from the Catholic Church nearly a thousand years ago, in what is today known as the Great East-West Schism of 1054.  Unlike the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans and others who left Catholicism during the Reformation, the Orthodox did not—and still do not—disagree with the Catholic Church about its most basic Christian doctrinal teachings, such as the seven sacraments or the Mass.  No, what prompted the Orthodox to break with Catholicism was the primacy of the Pope in Rome, whom they refuse to acknowledge as the supreme head of the Church on earth.

For this reason, the Orthodox are not considered heretics by the Catholic Church; instead, they are said to be in a state of schism, because they do not accept the Church’s hierarchical leadership.  Canon 751 defines schism as the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

It’s important to remember, therefore, that while the Orthodox are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, they nevertheless continue to have validly ordained clergy.  Thus the sacraments that Orthodox priests and bishops celebrate are likewise valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church—although, as we saw in “Can a Catholic Ever Attend an Orthodox Liturgy Instead of Sunday Mass?” they are not Catholic sacraments, and so Catholics are not normally supposed to be celebrating them.

But with regard to the sacrament of matrimony, as was discussed at length in “Why is a Catholic Permitted to Marry in an Orthodox Ceremony?” the Catholic Church today recognizes the validity of a wedding between a Catholic and an Orthodox, if it is celebrated in an Orthodox church (c. 1127.1).  True, the Catholic party is still required to obtain permission to do this from his/her diocesan bishop in advance; but even if the Catholic fails to get the bishop’s approval, the wedding is still considered to be valid.  As we’ve seen countless times before in this space, this is definitely not the case if a Catholic marries in any other non-Catholic or non-Christian wedding ceremony; as per canon 1108.1, such a marriage would be considered invalid for lack of canonical form (see “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” among many others).

In the area of the world where all our questioners reside, there are significant populations of both Catholics and Orthodox, so intermarriage between the two Churches is presumably a fairly common occurrence.  Note that the Catholic Church would always prefer that a Catholic marry another Catholic—because as we all know, when a Catholic marries someone of a different faith, there is naturally a risk that the faith of the Catholic spouse can be weakened or even lost altogether.  And it is precisely because the Church is concerned with the preservation of the spouse’s Catholic faith, that it requires the Catholic party to obtain advance permission from the local bishop (cf. c. 1124), who is to see to it that there are no clear indications that the Catholic spouse will be hindered from continued practice of his/her faith after the marriage.  If he does, then he should not grant his permission for the wedding.

What do the Orthodox think about all this?  Actually, the basic position of the Orthodox Churches on marriage between an Orthodox and a non-Orthodox is strikingly similar to that of Catholicism.  Before describing their position, it should be observed that it is extremely difficult to make general statements that apply to all Orthodox Churches, because there is no Orthodox Code of Canon Law that binds all Orthodox everywhere.  But as a rule, an Orthodox person is supposed to marry in an Orthodox wedding ceremony, before an Orthodox cleric—in other words, the Orthodox have their own version of a canonical form for marriage.  In many cases, an Orthodox may marry a Catholic in a Catholic ceremony, and the Orthodox Church will recognize it as a valid marriage; but because the different Orthodox groupings often have their own interpretations about such things, it can sometimes happen that they will absolutely insist that the wedding must be celebrated by an Orthodox priest for validity.  This doesn’t present a problem for a Catholic spouse, though—because as we’ve already seen, Catholics can marry validly in an Orthodox wedding ceremony.

With all that in mind, let’s examine what is going on in the situations described by our questioners.  Mariya wants to know “if there is any way for us to get married in an orthodox church without any conversion” to Orthodoxy, and this is easily answered: of course!  When a Catholic marries an Orthodox, there is certainly no need for one spouse to abandon his/her faith and embrace that of the other spouse—especially if he/she doesn’t want to.  Throughout the nearly 2000-year history of Christianity, Christians have frequently been marrying people of other faiths or no faith at all, and at no point in that history will you ever find that that in practice, the non-Christian spouse was first compelled to convert.

The theological issues inherent in any discussion of forced conversion are quite involved, and thus are beyond the scope of this piece.  But theological objections to the concept of compulsory baptism in general were already being raised by the clergy at the time of Emperor Charlemagne (742-814), who forced many of his pagan subjects (in the area that is now mostly Germany and northern France) either to become Christian or to die.  To be fair, Charlemagne wasn’t doing anything that was particularly unusual during that era: kings and emperors always knew what was best for their people, who were commonly expected to behave like obedient children and do what they were told.  But this political mentality did not jibe at all with the Christian idea—still hazy back then, and thus still poorly articulated—that a person’s beliefs are dictated by his own conscience, and therefore nobody else can forcibly control what that person truly believes in his heart is true and right.  Sure, it’s possible for you to make every effort to convince someone that he should believe X, and explain exhaustively the reasons why; but if nevertheless he genuinely cannot accept X, then there’s literally nothing that can be done to make him believe what you want.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the great 13th-century Doctor of the Church, would later concretize these ideas in his monumental theological writings.  So there is absolutely nothing new about this.

Taken on its own, Mariya’s question does seem very odd.  Why would she even think that marrying in an Orthodox ceremony would automatically make her become Orthodox herself?  Surely her Catholic parish priest could explain the Church’s teachings on this issue to her, right?  Let’s hold that thought for a moment, and move on to Wynona’s question.

Wynona is a Catholic planning to marry an Orthodox man, but as she tells us, “my Catholic parish priest is not giving his consent for this marriage, so it will be held in an Orthodox church.”  Wynona doesn’t indicate why the parish priest has done this, but it would appear from the context that the priest objects to her marrying an Orthodox man.  Really?  Canon law requires that for a mixed marriage like Wynona’s, it is the diocesan bishop, and not the pastor of the parish, who is to grant (or refuse) permission for a mixed marriage to take place (c. 1125; see “Do Catholic Parents Have to Raise Their Children as Catholics?” for more on this).  If the parish priest knows of some reason why the marriage should not take place, he should of course inform the bishop, so that the bishop can make his decision based on all the facts; but the final decision on allowing a Catholic-Orthodox marriage like Wynona’s is not the parish priest’s to make.

But Wynona’s situation gets even more confusing, because she asserts that “after marriage I will be an Orthodox,” something which she obviously does not want.  We have to wonder, why on earth would Wynona think such a thing?  Throughout history, a Catholic-Orthodox wedding has never required one spouse to convert to the other spouse’s faith.  Where is this idea coming from?

Our third questioner seems inadvertently to have shed some light on this mystery.  Alitta says that she is a Catholic who is already married to a member of the Syro-Malabar Mar Thoma Church.  It can be headache-inducing to attempt to trace the incredibly complex history of the development of the Mar Thoma Church, and to try to categorize their theological beliefs as “Orthodox” or not; suffice to say that their episcopal succession derives from the Syrian Orthodox Church, although they are today in communion with the Anglicans (Church of England).

In any event, Alitta tells us that when she married, she “agreed to join Mar Thoma church, by signing a promissory note which was a mandate for blessing of marriage in Syro-Malabar Mar Thoma church.”  In most eastern liturgical rites, blessing the marriage is a vital element for validity—and so it appears clear that Alitta was forced to promise that she would leave the Catholic Church and become a member of her husband’s faith, or else the wedding could not take place.

Now these confusing questions and strange assumptions all begin to make sense, don’t they?  It would appear that in this part of the world, Catholics—or at least Catholic women—who wish to marry Orthodox are being told that they must become members of the Orthodox Church themselves.  This is, to put it mildly, complete theological nonsense, and it is extremely difficult to imagine that the hierarchy of this or any other Orthodox Church around the world would officially invent a requirement that is so contrary to traditional Orthodox theology and historical praxis.

It would appear, therefore, that there is some serious abuse going on in this region, which involves Orthodox clergy actively seeking to take Catholics away from their faith, in order to join the Orthodox Church.  So what is the Catholic Church doing to combat this?  There does not seem to be any evidence that the Catholic clergy of this region are dialoging with the Orthodox clergy, in order to clarify the theological parameters of Catholic-Orthodox intermarriage.  And judging from our questioners, one doesn’t get the impression that the Catholic clergy are making any effort to educate the Catholic faithful, to explain that it is absolutely not necessary to abandon the Catholic faith, simply in order to marry someone who is Orthodox!

If this were an area of the world where Catholic clergy had little or no theological training, such ignorance and indifference to the problem might be understandable.  But every single year, the Catholic Church spends thousands and thousands of Euros educating priests and religious from this very region, in both theology and canon law.  It’s impossible to be sure, but it could very well be that by now, there are more canon lawyers in this particular area than anywhere else on earth, excepting Rome!  Of course the whole purpose of providing such education is to ensure that priests and sisters can return home, armed with the training and knowledge necessary to address issues exactly like this one.

You have to wonder what the canonists in this region are doing with all that wonderful free law-school education of theirs.  Instead of using their degrees to help the Church with problems such as these, it looks like they are allowing this heart-rending—and entirely avoidable!—confusion to continue unabated.

Readers who donate to charitable Catholic causes might wish to remember this, if they are ever asked to fund scholarships for needy Catholic students from third-world countries who are being sent to study theology and canon law.  This is most definitely not meant as a criticism of those charities, or of those who administer them, since of course they cannot control what it their graduates end up doing with their education; but it definitely appears that the assumptions of donors, that the schooling they pay for will help the Church in poor regions of the world, are incorrect in this case.

To sum up, if any Catholics wishing to marry Orthodox are told that conversion to the non-Catholic faith is obligatory, they should simply refuse, and state fearlessly that this is a matter of conscience that can never be a requirement.  Their Catholic parish clergy should be supporting them 100% in such situations—and immediately notifying the diocesan bishop as to what is going on here.

If the Orthodox clergy then respond by declaring that the marriage cannot take place, the couple can simply arrange to marry in a Catholic ceremony instead.  And if, as in Wynona’s case, the parish priest arbitrarily declares that he “is not giving his consent for this marriage,” the couple must then contact the diocesan bishop—who can explain to the priest that he has no authority to make such a decision.

If a Catholic is forced against his will, as Alitta was, to promise to join another faith, he should of course refuse; but if this has already happened, there should be no uncertainty as to whether the Catholic can receive Catholic sacraments or not.  Any Catholic who has left off practicing his faith, but who now regrets that and wishes to return to the Church, is always welcome back, and can receive the sacraments again—but starting first, of course, with the sacrament of Penance.  It is positively mind-boggling that a Catholic parish priest could not explain this clearly to someone like Alitta.

In the meantime, the Catholic clergy should be meeting with their Orthodox counterparts to discuss and identify these abusive practices, and insist that they be ended.  Any claims that “this is part of our tradition,” or “we’ve always done it this way,” or “in our culture the wife must always embrace the religion of her husband” are completely spurious—because any such “tradition” directly conflicts with Catholic teaching (and Orthodox teaching too, for that matter) and therefore it must be stopped immediately.  In certain circumstances, the Church makes provision for long-term social customs, which can sometimes even acquire the force of law themselves; but canon 24 tells us that no custom can be tolerated if it directly violates the law.  Compelling someone to abandon his faith if he wants to get married can never be defended as a lawful “custom” anywhere on the planet.

We see here a sad instance of a problem that shouldn’t even exist, that makes living one’s Catholic faith even harder for the laity of this area of the world.  Let’s all stop and say a prayer right now that this abuse is ended soon, so that other Catholic women in this region don’t have to fight to retain their faith–simply because they want to marry someone who doesn’t share it.

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