The Promise

When ‘The Promise’ is a Problem
William P. McDonald
Associate Professor of Religion,
Tennessee Wesleyan College, Athens, TN
Ecumenical Covenant Pastor, St. Paul Lutheran Church (ELCA),
Vonore, TN

The starry-eyed couple sits in the priest’s office. Premarital counseling
has been helpful, even enriching…so far. That is, until Father hands the Roman
Catholic of the two a paper to sign while he explains the document’s words “that I
am prepared to avoid the dangers of abandoning the faith and to promise
sincerely to do all in my power to see that the children of the marriage be
baptized and educated in the Catholic Church.”

Suddenly the love boat hits a shoal. Though the two have quite likely already discussed the matter privately, the document comes as an awkward and jarring reminder of their differences. If they weren’t before, they are now well aware of their ecclesial situation as a
Catholic and non-Catholic pair. Why must this part of Catholic premarital
counseling with interchurch couples be so troublesome? Is there a better way?

It is beyond the scope of this article to recount the painful history of
interchurch marriage preparation, though the reader may find Anne C. Roses’s
Beloved Strangers: Interfaith Families in Nineteenth Century America
(Harvard University Press, 2001) a good place to start.

1 There is much to be learned about the subtle changes in marriage preparation across time. We can give thanks for the provisions effected in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, relaxing or suppressing the more stringent requirements of the 1917 code. Still more
positive guidance is offered in the 1993 Directory for the Application of
Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (DAPNE). The liberating
breakthroughs made possible by Vatican Council II are also echoed in
subsequent papal pronouncements on marriage, beginning with Matrimonia
Mixta in 1970. Matters have improved drastically for interchurch couples
preparing for marriage. Perhaps the churches–Catholic and Protestant–are
catching up to the Spirit. However, there are still obstacles that keep the
premarital counseling of these couples vestigially juridical and not fully pastoral,
especially where promises to raise children Catholic are concerned.                                     Here is why, followed by a modest suggestion.

The Roman Catholic in an interchurch marriage signs a document (or
otherwise declares) that he or she will do “all in his/her power” to see that
children are raised Catholic. Whatever latitude in interpretation (more later), the
language is unfortunate.

Marriage is a tough proposition, even for the starry-eyed. For the church to suggest that one party is to use “power” in a way that may magnify and exacerbate division in the name of fulfilling an obligation recalls old legalisms at best, and invites guilt, manipulation, anger (on the part of both) and inequality at worst. It hearkens back to the days when the Roman Catholic party was to “do all in his or her power” to work for the conversion of the non-
Catholic spouse.

“Power” language delegitimizes the non-Catholic partner’s
tradition, implying that, were the children to end up, say, Lutheran, that the
Catholic would have “lost” a battle the church expected him or her to fight and
win. Marriage, by definition, is no place for one to be unilaterally doing anything
with all one’s “power”!

To be certain, the promise being solicited is not absolute. That is, were
the promise to become a threat to the well being of the marriage, or were other
extenuating circumstances in place, such as the devotion of the non-Catholic
spouse to his or her church, then it should not be carried out. Catholics who do
so will not be penalized. This is certainly a humane, pastoral gesture on the part
of canonical requirements. In fact, this is spelled out in DAPNE, noting that non-
Catholics come with an equal sense of duty to catechize children in their faith
(Article 151).

However, the question remains: How can premarital counseling for
interchurch couples be improved upon at this point?

First, remove all suspicions of an ecclesial promise with legal overtones by discontinuing the promise altogether. No more quasi “oaths.” Erase the language of power. True, there has been latitude in interpretation of the document, ranging from the older approach
of binding the conscience with an obligation over against the other partner to the
much improved, more sensitive notion that the Roman Catholic is to find ways to
share his or her faith with future children. If the latter view comports with the
Catholic Church’s gradual movement toward a more pastoral approach in this
matter, then the language used should better reflect it.

A structured conversation–the duty of the priest or deacon to facilitate in
most dioceses–should allow the couple to describe their respective religious
histories, what each means to them, and the extent to which they believe they
are prepared to nurture future children in it.

The clergyman should listen carefully, and help the couple move toward a workable arrangement. Sometimes the result will be the traditional approach, wherein the Catholic party plans to raise children primarily in the Catholic Church, though always with the non-
Catholic’s consent. Or, the conversation might conclude with another
arrangement being the wiser. How children might be exposed to both traditions
should be thoroughly discussed.

At the end of the premarital counseling, the priest or deacon signs a document that he has interviewed the couple and is satisfied that they have intentionally thought through the questions and have (or are on their way toward) a “plan” should the blessing of children arrive one day. The clergyman’s signed statement goes on file in the local diocesan office. There is no document for one or both of the couple to sign.

This would be a small, but significant adjustment. It would render
premarital counseling completely pastoral and not juridical at the point where it
can become most gut wrenching. Even more, it allows the ecumenical couple,
who, after all, are the ministers of the sacrament, to lead the way as ministers of
unity, not pack-mules forced to carry a sign of the church’s division. To do “all in
one’s power” by way of a coercive promise fails to recognize the particular nature
of the domestic church that ecumenical families create. The Spirit calls
interchurch couples to lead the way in taking responsibility for their children’s
spiritual formation. How that will look will necessarily differ from couple to couple.
All churches stand to learn something about the mystery of holy matrimony from
these differences.

Postscript: As Rose recounts in her book, few details of Protestant opinion
on interchurch marriage survive from the nineteenth century. Even now,
discussions of children’s faith do not occupy much time in most Protestant
premarital counseling of ecumenical couples. After all, if few eyebrows raise
altitude over Catholic-Protestant marriages, it would be a surprise if any go up
when a Presbyterian and a United Methodist tie the knot. Perhaps inter-
Protestant premarital counseling curricula should take note of the attention
Roman Catholics give to the subject, so that the starry-eyed of every confession
may be ready if and when children are welcomed into their future homes.

1. For an excellent survey of the problem, with examination of statements by
interchurch couples, see Ray Temmerman’s thesis, “Interchurch Families as Domestic
Church: Familial Experiences and Ecclesial Opportunities,” which argues more
comprehensively for the change I suggest.

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