Ecumenical, interfaith marriages should openly discuss religious practice
By Marian Christiana
Marriage preparation is one of the great joys of my job. I love working with couples of all ages who are beginning their marital journey. Their happiness and optimism is infectious, and their enthusiasm spills over into my own marriage, which always is a wonderful job perk.
I have been working with engaged couples for 10 years, and it hasn’t gotten old yet. I’m constantly learning new information that helps me improve the marriage preparation process we use in the Diocese of Knoxville.
As an added benefit, I learn new information that enriches my own marital relationship. I am eternally grateful to my husband, Ralph, because he attentively listens to me comment on some particular aspect of married life that has caught my attention on any given day. Lately, I have been concentrating on how to best help couples blend their faith traditions.
The marriage preparation process that our engaged couples go through gives them a format for discussing their faith traditions. The primary concern of the Church is to uphold the strength and stability of the marital union regardless of whether both spouses are Catholic. Common words used by the Church refer to the ecumenical, or the interfaith, couple.
The ecumenical couple is the union between a Catholic and another baptized Christian. The interfaith marriage is the union between a Catholic and one who is not of the Christian tradition. Approximately 40 percent of Catholic marriages are ecumenical or interfaith marriages.
It can be easy to think only of ecumenical or interfaith couples when discussing the differences of faith traditions. In reality, all engaged couples should be considered ecumenical couples. Even two Catholics may have very different faith traditions or approaches to their faith.
For example, the practice of the faith for a person with a particular ethnic background may differ from a person whose family is from a charismatic Catholic tradition. Therefore, it is important that all couples be encouraged to discuss the topic of their faith and religious traditions with respect, sensitivity, and an open heart, seeking to understand each other’s point of view. The goal then is to find unity in their diversity.
Kathy and Steve Beirne, authors of the book Catholic and Newly Married; 5 Challenges and 5 Opportunities, discuss dealing with religious differences in marriage as one of the five main challenges of married life. They also discuss sharing a spiritual life with your spouse as one of the five key opportunities in marriage. Steve and Kathy point out that newly married couples can approach religious differences in two ways.
One way is to look at differences and see the limitations they may cause a relationship. The other is to look at differences and see opportunities for growth in the relationship. Learning to appreciate and share in religious differences can add a special texture to relationships. The sharing of faith practices can add richness to a relationship that previously was not there.
Kathy and Steve emphasize that coming together as a couple around life’s ultimate questions will not only require respect, sensitivity and communication but also compromise. They suggest that couples have formal conversations about the way they were raised in terms of religious practice and discuss each person’s hope and dreams for their future marriage.
Conversation-starters, such as “our family always attended church together, and I would like to go back to attending regularly, preferably with you,” or “I like the way your family celebrates the holidays with Scripture readings at the dinner table. I would like to do that at our table, too” could open up an incredible dialogue between a husband and wife that will allow the couple to grow in wonderful and unexpected ways.
The Beirnes also suggest an engaged couple learn to share their faith journey by incorporating their shared spirituality into their life aside from just attending worship services. Spiritual growth doesn’t only happen within a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. A couple can look for volunteer opportunities where they can serve together or attend a Bible study class together. Blending two faith traditions will take energy and effort whether you are a true interfaith couple, ecumenical couple or just two Catholics with different faith experiences. Be assured that this work will repay your efforts a hundredfold. Studies of interfaith couples highlight that when couples work to understand their partner’s faith journey and find areas of agreement, religious differences actually strengthen their marriage.
Although Kathy and Steve’s book is geared toward newlyweds, I don’t think these types of conversations should be restricted to engaged couples. All marriages can benefit from open and loving discussions about each partner’s faith journey and how that journey impacts the family. Each partner should feel free to share where they currently are in their relationship to Christ. The discussion can then expand to a meaningful talk on where they are along their faith journey as a couple. The discussion should be open and include how both husband and wife can help each other deepen their faith in God, and how together as a couple they can support the faith journey of all their family members. It is important to remember that each faith journey has its own story no matter how close a couple’s relationship might be. All married couples need to learn to listen with respect and sensitivity to each other’s story and look for common ground. We all benefit when we find that common ground that leads us to a closer, more loving relationship with Jesus, our Lord. ■
Mrs. Christiana is coordinator of the diocesan Marriage Preparation and Enrichment Office.