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Mixed Marriage

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(Latin Matrimonia mixta).

Technically, mixed marriages are those between Catholics and non-Catholics, when the latter have been baptized in some Christian sect. The term is also frequently employed to designate unions between Catholics and infidels. From the very beginning of its existence the Church of Christ has been opposed to such unions. As Christ raised wedlock to the dignity of a Sacrament, a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic was rightly looked upon as degrading the holy character of matrimony, involving as it did a communion in sacred things with those outside the fold. The Apostle St. Paul insists strongly on Christian marriage being a symbol of the union between Christ and His Church, and hence sacred. The very intimacy of the union necessarily established between those joined in wedlock requires a concordance above all in their religious sentiments. Holding this doctrine, it was but natural and logical for the Church to do all in her power to hinder her children from contracting marriage with those outside her pale, who did not recognize the sacramental character of the union on which they were entering (see Marriage). Hence arose the impediments to a marriage with a heretic (mixta religio) and with an infidel (disparitas cultus). As regards marriage with an infidel, the early Church did not consider such unions invalid, especially when a person had been converted to the faith after such marriage. It was hoped that the converted wife or husband would be the means of bringing the other party to the knowledge of the true faith, or at least safeguarding the Catholic upbringing of the children of the union. This held even for Jews, though the Church was naturally more opposed to wedlock between them and Christians, even than with pagans, owing to the intense Jewish hatred for the sacred name of Christ. By degrees, however, the objection to a marriage between a Catholic and an infidel grew stronger as the necessity for such unions decreased, and so in the course of time, more by custom than by positive enactment, the impediment of disparitas cultus making such marriages null and void began to have force. When the Decretum of Gratian was published in the twelfth century, this impediment was recognized as a diriment one and it became part of the canon law of the Church. (Decretum Grat., c. 28, q. 1.) From that time forward, all marriages contracted between Catholics and infidels were held to be invalid unless a dispensation for such union had been obtained from the ecclesiastical authority. Marriages, however, between Catholics and heretics were not subject to the same impediment. They were held as valid, though illicit if a dispensation mixtæ religionis had not been obtained. The opposition of the Church to such unions is, however very ancient, and early councils, legislated against marriages of this character. Such enactments are found in the fourth century Councils of Elvira (can. 16) and of Laodicea (can. 10, 31.). The General Council of Chalcedon (can. 14) prohibits such unions especially between members of the lower ecclesiastical grades and heretical women. While the Western Church forbade these marriages, it did not declare them invalid. In the Eastern Church, however, the seventh century Council in Trullo, declared marriages between Catholics and heretics null and devoid (can. 72), and this discipline has since been maintained in the Greek Schismatical Church. The latter has also shown itself opposed to marriages between members of the Orthodox Church and Catholics, and in Russia various laws were passed ordering that such marriages be not permitted unless the children of the union are to be brought up as schismatics.

The advent of Protestantism in the sixteenth century renewed the problem of mixed marriages in a heightened degree. The danger of perversion for the Catholic party or for the children, and the almost certain unhappiness awaiting the members of such unions caused more stringent legislation on the part of the Church. This was emphasized by the impediment of clandestinity enacted by the Council of Trent. We say enacted by the Council of Trent, because from the twelfth century the validity of clandestine marriages had been recognized by the Church. This was not, however, the original discipline, for it had anciently been looked on as proper for Christians to contract marriages only in facie Ecclesiae (Tertullian, On Pudicity 4). Marriages contracted otherwise were held as null and void by various decrees of the Roman Emperors of the East and capitularies of French Kings, and the same is evident from the False Decretals. The Council of Trent therefore in declaring all matrimonial unions between Catholics and non-Catholics null and void, unless entered into before the ecclesiastical authority, was rather inaugurating a return to the old discipline existent before the twelfth century than making an entirely new law. By its decree the Council requires the contract to be entered into before the parish priest or some other priest delegated by him, and in the presence of two or three witnesses under penalty of invalidity. Marriages otherwise contracted are called clandestine marriages. The Church did not find it possible, however, to insist on the rigour of this legislation in all countries owing to strong Protestant opposition. Indeed, in many countries, it was not found advisable to promulgate the decrees of the Council of Trent at all, and in such countries the impediment of clandestinity did not obtain. Even in countries where the Tametsi (q.v.) decree had been published, serious difficulties arose. As a consequence Pope Benedict XIV, choosing the lesser of two evils, issued a declaration concerning marriages in Holland and Belgium (Nov. 4, 1741), in which he declared mixed unions to be valid, provided they were according to the civil laws even if the Tridentine prescriptions had not been observed. A similar declaration was made concerning mixed marriages in Ireland by Pope Pius, in 1785, and gradually the "Benedictine dispensation" was extended to various localities. The object of the Council of Trent in issuing its decree had been partly to deter Catholics from such marriages altogether, and partly to hinder any communion in sacred things with heretics. By degrees, however, the Popes felt constrained to make various concessions for mixed marriages, though they were always careful to guard the essential principles on which the Church found her objections to such unions. Thus Pius VI allowed mixed marriages in Austria to take place in the presence of a priest, provided no religious solemnity was employed, and with the omission of public banns, as evidence of the unwillingness of the Church to sanction such unions. Similar concessions were later made, first for various states of Germany, and then for other countries.

Another serious difficulty arose for the Church where the civil laws prescribed that in mixed marriages the boys born of the union should follow the religion of the father and the girls that of the mother. Without betraying their sacred trust, the popes could never sanction such legislation, but in order to avoid greater evils they permitted in some states of Germany a passive assistance on the part of the parish priest at marriages entered into under such conditions. As to a mixed marriage contracted before a non-Catholic minister, Pope Pius IX issued an instruction, 17 Feb., 1864. He declared that in places where the heretical preacher occupied the position of a civil magistrate and the laws of the country required marriages to be entered into before him in order that certain legal effects may follow, it is permitted to the Catholic party to appear before him either before or after the marriage has taken place in presence of the parish priest. If, however, the heretical minister is held to be discharging a religious duty in such witnessing of a marriage, then it is unlawful for a Catholic to renew consent before him as this would be a communion in sacred things and an implicit yielding to heresy. Parish priests are also reminded that it is their strict duty to tell Catholics who ask for information that such going before a minister in a religious capacity is unlawful and that they thereby subject themselves to ecclesiastical censure. Where, however, the priest is not asked, and he has reason to fear that his admonitions will prove unavailing, he may keep his peace provided there be no scandal and the other conditions required by the Church be fulfilled. When a Catholic party has gone before an heretical minister before coming to the parish priest, the latter cannot be present at the marriage until full reparation has been made. For the issuing of a dispensation for a mixed marriage, the Church requires three conditions; that the Catholic party be allowed free exercise of religion, that all the offspring are to be brought up Catholics and that the Catholic party promise to do all that is possible to convert the non-Catholic. It is not to be supposed, however, that even when these precautions have been taken, this is all the suffices for the issuance of a dispensation. In an instruction to the Bishops of England, 25 March 1869, the Congregation of the Propaganda declared that the above conditions are exacted by the natural and divine law to remove the intrinsic dangers in mixed marriages, but that in addition there must be some grave necessity, which cannot otherwise be avoided, for allowing the faithful to expose themselves to the grave dangers inherent in these unions, even when the prescribed conditions have been fulfilled. The bishops are therefore to warn Catholics against such marriages and not to grant dispensations for them except for weighty reasons and not at the mere will of the petitioner. The latest legislation affecting mixed marriages is that of the decree Ne temere which went into effect 18 April, 1908. By this decree all marriages everywhere in the Latin Church between Catholics and non-Catholics are invalid unless they take place in the presence of an accredited priest and two witnesses, and this even in countries where the Tridentine law was not binding. By a later decree, Provida, the Holy See exempted Germany from the new legislation. (See CLANDESTINITY; DISPARITY OF WORSHIP; DISPENSATION; SACRAMENT OF MARRIAGE).

Appendix: later decisions of the Holy Office

Since the article on this subject was written, the following decisions have been issued by the Congregation of the Holy Office, 21 June, 1913. The dispensation from the impediment of disparity is never to be granted except with all the explicit guarantees or safeguards. If granted, it is not valid, and the ordinary can declare the nullity in such cases, without recourse to the Holy See for a definitive sentence. The prescription of the Decree "Ne Temere" on the asking and receiving by the parish-priest, for the validity of marriage, of the consent of the parties, in mixed marriages in which due guarantees are obstinately refused by them, henceforth does not apply, but strict observance is to be paid to preceding concessions and instructions of the Holy See on the subject, especially of Pope Gregory XVI, Apostolical Letter, 30 April, 1841, to the Bishops of Hungary.

About this page

APA citation. Fanning, W. (1910). Mixed Marriage. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Fanning, William. "Mixed Marriage." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Ginny Hoffman.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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