MILAN – Though the pope stopped short Friday of granting Catholics his official permission to marry Jews and members of other faiths, he did significantly soften the Church’s stance on marriage between Catholics and members of other faiths. Interfaith marriage is on the rise anyway, Pope Francis acknowledged in his eagerly awaited apostolic exhortation on marriage and family. And besides, the Vatican no longer endorses actively trying to convert members of other religions to Catholicism – why not look at interfaith marriage as an opportunity to encourage dialogue between members of different religions?
Francis’ “Amoris Laetitia” (Latin for “The Joy of Love”) has gotten a lot of attention for its generally more lenient approach to divorce and gay marriage, but perhaps more significant to non-Catholics is the pope’s decrees on interfaith marriage – an issue with which the Jewish world is currently grappling as well.
In the 256-page Church document, Francis deals separately with the issues of marriage between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, which the Vatican defines as “mixed marriages,” and those between Catholics and members of other religions. The latter are more problematic and pose more significant challenges, especially with regard to “the Christian identity of the family and the religious upbringing of the children,” he says. However, marriages to non-Christians are also “a privileged place for interreligious dialogue,” the pope declared – in other words, they are a chance for the Catholic church to strike up dialogue with different religions.
“The idea of seeing mixed marriages as an opportunity is not something new in the Catholic Church,” explains Piero Stefani, a progressive Catholic scholar at the Facoltà Teologica del Nord Italia, a Church-owned institute in Milan. In the Church’s early days during the Roman Empire, it urged new Christian converts who were already married to use their relationships to convert their spouses: “In the New Testament [Corinthians 7:12-15] Paul said that Christians who were married to non-Christians should stay in the marriage in order to ‘sanctify’ [i.e. help convert] their non-Christian spouse,” Stefani says.
“Nowadays the climate is very different: The Church is no longer endorsing a policy of missionary conversion, especially toward Jews. So interfaith marriages are seen as an ‘opportunity’ to start a positive dialogue [about faith] with the non-Catholic spouse, rather than an occasion to convert him or her,” he says.
Francis has repeatedly stated that Catholics should not try to convert Jews.
Since marriages to non-Christian partners are becoming more common, the Pope decreed that Catholic clergy should educate itself on the issues surrounding interfaith marriage so that it can better deal with marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics when such occasion does arise.
The Catholic Church has historically taken a much tougher view on interfaith marriages, with Benedict XIV in the 1700s calling them “detestable marriages which Holy Mother Church has continually condemned and interdicted.”
In 1966, after the Second Vatican Council, however, the Church issued a document reiterating the ban on interfaith marriages and the “dangers inherent in the marriage of a Catholic with a non-Catholic Christian and even more so in the marriage with a non-Christian.” But this time the Church added a new rule that allowed priests to perform them under special circumstances, for instance when the Catholic education of children could be guaranteed.
Under Francis’ Friday decree, intermarriage is still considered a peculiar situation that requires a special permit to be performed. But now, Francis has said, it should no longer be viewed solely as a “danger” but also a possibility.
“Francis isn’t saying anything new in terms of doctrine. What’s changing is the tone of voice, which might change the way the doctrine is perceived,” notes Stefani, the Catholic scholar.
In discussing marriages between Christians of different denominations, Francis has also urges a more moderate approach, though again he does not entirely buck Vatican tradition, stating that they “require particular attention” but are to be valued “for the contribution that they can make to the ecumenical movement” – that is, dialogue between different Christian groups. Therefore he has urged “cordial cooperation between the Catholic and the non-Catholic ministers.”
This declaration from the Vatican comes at a time when the Jewish world is also grappling with rising rates of intermarriage. In America, for example, 35 percent of Jewish Americans who married in the past five years have a non-Jewish spouse, according to a Pew Research Center survey. During the same period, interfaith marriages accounted for 39 percent of all marriages in the United States. Anecdotal evidence suggests that intermarriage rates are higher among European Jews.
Orthodox Judaism bans intermarriage, and some voices in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements also maintain that it poses a threat to the future of Diaspora Jewry, though there are those who would disagree. In January, the U.S. Reconstructionist Rabbinical College lifted its ban on ordaining intermarried rabbis, citing such ban was perceived as “reinforcing a tribalism that feels personally alienating and morally troubling in the 21st century.” Seven rabbis have quit the Reconstructionist movement because of the new policy, describing it as “detrimental to the Jewish people in America.”
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