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The Challenges of Mixed Faith Marriages

January 26, 2012

In Hollywood, there are countless images of fairytale nuptials with careful planning, and flawless execution, and virtually all of them end – in some form or another – happily ever after.  My favorite celluloid image is from The Princess Bride, where the Impressive Clergyman (with an equally impressive speech impediment) pronounces, ‘Marriage.  Marriage is what brings us together today.  Marriage, that blessed arrangement, that dream within a dream… Then love, true love, will follow you forever… So treasure your….’ (Reiner, 1987)  It is a metaphor for something that appears to look perfect, but usually is not if you scrutinize closely.  All grooms, and fathers giving their daughters away, recall the awe and splendor of heaven brought back to earth by the last-minute changes, gaffs and missed cues, followed by the reality that life does not have a storybook ending, but a constant journey of adjusting to one another each and every day.

Why Marriage?

So what is this blessed arrangement called marriage?  In Genesis, “God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.”  Genesis 1: 27 (NAB), and, “The Lord God said: ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a suitable partner for him’.”  Genesis 2: 18 (NAB)  So marriage is instituted by God and “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.”  Genesis 2: 24 (NAB)   In liturgical churches – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Lutheran, Anglican/Episcopal – marriage is called a sacrament.  A Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace; a visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation that is Christ Jesus.  It is a mystery.

Title VII of the Code of Canon Law, for both Latin rite and Eastern rite of the Catholic Church, eloquently states,

The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.  For this reason, a valid matrimonial contract cannot exist between the baptized without it being by that fact a sacrament.  The essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility, which in Christian marriage obtain a special firmness by reason of the sacrament.  The consent of the parties, legitimately manifested between persons qualified by law, makes marriage; no human power is able to supply this consent.  Matrimonial consent is an act of the will by which a man and a woman mutually give and accept each other through an irrevocable covenant in order to establish marriage.  (The Holy See, 2003)

The code of Canon Law traces its beginnings back to the Didache – the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles – at the end of the first century.  So, for over 1,900 years, an ‘irrevocable covenant’ called marriage has been made between a man and a woman.  And man and woman, being human and flawed, can complicate anything they get their hands on – even “unity and indissolubility.”

Mixed Marriages

One of the ways a man and woman can complicate this arena is by entering into a mixed marriage.  Sixty years ago, Judson Landis, a professor at (then) Michigan State College defined mixed marriages “as marriages in which there are significant, obvious and unusual differences between the spouses, other than sex.  Differences in faith, race, and nationality are usually the ones usually considered as falling under the definition of mixed marriages.”  (Landis, 1949, p. 401)  The purposes of this article will concentrate on the differences in faith.  Professor Landis goes on to explain that there was very little research on this subject to determine if a mixed faith marriage had any positive or negative effect on the success of a marriage.  He was involved in the studies of marriage for many years afterwards, and went on to write many books with his wife Mary including Personal Adjustment, Marriage, and Family Living in 1960 and Building a Successful Marriage in 1977.  But in 1949, he stated that “Catholics, Protestants, and Jews have frowned upon mixed marriages and have done much to discourage their young people from entering mixed unions.”  (Landis, 1949, p. 402)  Landis explained that while families felt that this was “largely a battle for souls,” the young looking at their potential relationships were just wondering if they had a chance for success.

If the words of Truman’s America sound discouraging, then examine Old Testament language in Ezra regarding mixed marriages:  “Do not, then, give your daughters to their sons in marriage, and do not take their daughters for your sons.” Ezra 9: 12 (NAB)  And in Chapter 10, Ezra himself stands before the people and said, “Your unfaithfulness in taking foreign women as wives has added to Israel’s guilt.  But now, give praise to the Lord, the God of your fathers, and do his will: separate from these foreign women.”  Ezra 10: 10-11 (NAB)  Whoa.  Ezra is very orthodox in his presentation.  But this is a very strict representation of Mosaic Law – one that Jesus was to remind the Pharisees of, that “[b]ecause of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”  Matthew 19: 8 (NAB)

But as it was in post-exile-Restoration Israel, and even in America sixty years ago, it is a point of debate today.   So examine mixed marriage in today’s climate.  The Catholic Catechism breaks down the definition even more.  It defines a mixed marriage as one between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic, and recommends careful examination should be taken by pastors and couples.  It goes on further to differentiate that a marriage between a Catholic and a non-baptized person is called a disparity of cult and needs even more caution.  Christian disunity itself is a tragedy and can cause problems and tension down to the very heart of the marriage.  Yet, it is not impossible for the man and wife who loves and respect each other “when they succeed in placing in common what they have received from their respective communities, and learn from each other the way in which each lives in fidelity to Christ.”  (Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second Edition), 1994, CCC 1634)  There, at least, is the hope that a mutual love for Christ shall foster the unity and dissolubility looked for in matrimony.  It goes on to point out that through “ecumenical dialogue”  many geographic areas in this country have been able to establish a “common pastoral practice… to help such couples live out their particular situation in the light of faith… and encourage the flowering of what is common to them in faith and respect for what separates them.”  (Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second Edition), 1994, CCC 1636).

In regards to disparity of cult, the Christian spouse has the most important job, “[f]or the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband.”  (Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second Edition), 1994, CCC 1637  Cf. 1 Cor 7: 14)  It is through such consecration that the joy of unity can be achieved, as well as the potential for conversion.

Factors to Consider Regarding Mixed Marriages

It can be said that attitudes have gone from ‘Don’t do it!” to ‘Better not do it!’ to – arguably – ‘What-ever.’  There has been a change in perceptions. Perhaps common factors can attribute as to why mixed marriages may occur in the first place.  William Sander, Ph.D., Natural Resource Economics (Cornell), Professor of Economics at DePaul University, Federal Reserve Bank consultant, and author of The Catholic Family: Marriage, Children, and Human Capital, highlighted a study suggesting four central factors – or “determinants.”  First, “opportunity affects the odds of intermarriage.”  (Sander, 1993, p. 1038)  Dr. Sander uses the example that Jews are more likely to enter into a mixed marriage, if their population is fewer.  The same could be said for any small demographic.  Second, “the disposition of others toward one’s group.”  If a denomination or faith is shunned or rejected, then it is likely that they will not intermarry.  Conversely, and the third factor, “the disposition of one’s own group toward other groups” may show that few are willing to cross over that religious line to intermarry.  And finally, the fourth factor, “socioeconomic background also affects the probability of intermarriage.”  (Sander, 1993, p. 1038)  Again, Hollywood abounds with images here from Rich Man, Poor Man to, once again, The Princess Bride.

It is important to note that Dr. Sander, a Catholic Professor at a Catholic University, states that “[i]t is not clear how attitudes of Catholics and non-Catholics toward intermarriage have changed over time.  He also believes that “Catholic effects on family behavior have declined,” but also notes a study by sociologist and author Fr. Andrew Greeley, Ph.D. (Chicago), that “mixed marriages by Catholics have stayed at a relatively low rate – about 1 in 5.”  (Sander, 1993, p. 1038)  Certainly all four of the aforementioned determinants could be considered here to analyze both ends of this spectrum.

Judeo-Christian Marriages

While Dr. Sander’s studies centered around Catholic perspectives, a different study had been conducted – twice – regarding Jewish-Christian marriages.  The first National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) was in 1971, and Bernard Lazerwitz, PhD, D.Sc (Michigan) was running the public opinion survey unit and sample design while teaching at the University of Missouri.  Dr. Lazerwitz remarkably integrated survey data for American Jews with equivalent data for Catholics and Protestants, while concentrating on the consequences of religiosity – or being excessively or sentimentally religious.  He joined the Sociology Department at Bar-Ilan University near Tel-Aviv, Israel soon afterward.  In 1990, the NJPS was conducted again with interesting results.  Dr. Lazerwitz compared the two surveys in the journal for the Sociology of Religion.  He wrote that “a religiously homogeneous family is more able to pass on to offspring the ethnic feelings, identification, culture, and values that help perpetuate a group.”  (Lazerwitz, 1995, p. 433)

But shifts were being made.  Dr. Lazerwitz points out that now “the shift to marital choices based on individual preferences, such as romantic love, weakens the ability of the parents to control marriages.”  (Lazerwitz, 1995, p. 433)  Plus many ‘new’ adults not only rely less and less for their parents for economic support, but likely live elsewhere because of their career, hence they distance themselves from their parents.  Sociologically, they take on an entirely new heterogeneous culture and identification.  But even more fascinating demographics were occurring.

The first data table of this article breaks down marriages as homogeneous – same faith/denomination marriages –  or ‘convert-in’ – or those who converted at the marriage – and heterogeneous – or mixed faith/denomination marriages.  For the 1989 General Social Survey (GSS), there were the percentages were – as Dr. Lazerwitz put it – “as would be expected” – 87% homogeneous, 5% convert-in, and 8 % mixed marriages.  Catholics fared 72% homogeneous, with 13% converting, and 15% mixed marriages.  In 197, the NSPS had Judaism at 93% homogeneous, only 2% converting, and only 5% mixed marriages.  By 1990, though, that had changed.  Homogeneous marriages dropped to 70%, converts went to 5%, and mixed marriages skyrocketed up to 25%!  An increase to 5 to 1 – clearly the most among the three religious groups.  (Lazerwitz, 1995, p. 436)

Dr. Lazerwitz concludes with more interesting trends.  Among them:

  • Conversion to another religion was still rare among Jews.
  • Those who intermarried had a higher divorce rate.
  • Those entering a second marriage had a higher intermarriage rate than first marriages.
  • Conversions into Judaism were successful, and both spouses were more religiously involved than Jewish-Christian or Jewish-none/other marriages.
  • By 1990, being a Jewish woman was no longer an intermarriage barrier.
  • Most converts to Judaism were still non-Jewish women married to Jewish men.  (Lazerwitz, 1995, pp. 441-442)

And lastly, Dr. Lazerwitz noted that the longer the family had lived in the United States, generationally, the more likely intermarriages were to occur.  He called this ‘Americanization.’  If nothing else, the surveys have shown that by and large homogeneous marriages are the norm and mixed marriages are the exception.  It is the trend that all the sociologists are trying to track, in order to guess what direction America is heading, in short, and what is happening in the civilized world at large.

Why Convert?

Marc Musick, PhD, D.Sc (Duke) and John Wilson , PhD, D.Sc (Oxford) teamed up to wonder that though religious switching – that is moving from one denomination to another – occurs largely in connection with marriage, why there was no accurate measure of the extent that this occurs.  They also look to Fr. Andrew Greeley, Ph.D. (Chicago), who terms the switching from one’s denomination of origin as ‘disidentification’ and that he finds the following for analysis:

  • Disidentification is five times as high in exogamous [homogeneous] marriages as it is in endogamous [heterogeneous, or mixed marriages].
  • 15% of those who undergo disidentification  migrate to the faith of their spouse
  • 40% of marriages between individuals of mixed marriages become homogamous through conversion.  (Musick & Wilson, 1995, p. 257)

It is a thorough and exhausting study that covers a tremendous number of variables.  But in the end the likelihood of religious switching is influenced by the denomination of origin and how retentive they are.  And switching is influenced by how attractive to others they are.  One fact that was not a surprise was that “liberals are indeed more likely to switch to more moderate or conservative Protestant groups if the reason is marriage,”  (Musick & Wilson, 1995, p 268)  But one of the statistical surprises was that conservative Protestant churches would have more “pulling power” compared to liberal Protestant churches, when the reason was conversion due to marriage.  As an explanation, they offer that “conservative churches have stronger socioreligious group attachments” and “emphasize communal involvement.”  (Musick & Wilson, 1995, p 269)  Because of these attachment and involvements, it is actually easier to find a homogenous marriage arrangement within the denomination, hence, the need for conversion is less.

Fostering Hope

            Earlier in this discussion, the Catechism spoke of the hope that the unbelieving spouse would be consecrated through the witness of the believing spouse.  Rosalind Birtwistle, M.A., herself in an interfaith marriage, writes that both ancient Hebrews and early Christians recognized the dangers of weakening the faith community, but that “their leaders also hoped that through intermarriage new converts might join the Church.”  (Birtwistle, 2006, p. 340)

The story of the faithfulness of Ruth comes to mind.  Both widowed, Naomi implores Ruth to go back to her own people, the Moabites.  But she will not listen.  Ruth said, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! For wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”  Ruth 1: 16 (NAB)  Ruth knew that to do so meant certain death for Naomi.  So the strength of the group attachment and communal involvement held her true.  And when she had met Boaz, she placed Naomi’s needs above her own.  Such integrity and power is rarely displayed today.


It is difficult at best to try to determine why people do what they do, let alone find logic in such a decision.  In early times we have seen that it is best due to the uncomplicated nature of marrying homogeneously – within the same faith community.  We have also seen the sociological need to branch out to embrace mixed marriages due to the averaging of ‘Amercanization.’  But we have also seen the hope of Ruth, and what redemption it can bring to a nation of believers.

My own personal conclusion is that love could very well make the world go round.  But it should be a love of communication and honesty that enters the murky waters of a mixed marriage.  And then, we hope that it is indeed,” twue wuv…” as the movie shows us.







Birtwistle, R. (2006, July). Daylight and darkness: Images of Christians in mixed marriages. Islam &            Christian-Muslim Relations, 17(3), 331-342. Retrieved June 27, 2009, doi:10.1080=09596410600795001


Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second Edition). (1994). United States Catholic Conference, Inc. New   York: Doubleday.

Holy Bible (1992). Saint Joseph Edition of The New American Bible. New York, NY: Catholic Book            Publishing Corp.

The Holy See. (2003, November 4). Code of Canon Law: Title VII – Canons 1055 – 1057. Retrieved June    27, 2009, from The Vatican:

Landis, J. (1949, June). MARRIAGES OF MIXED AND NON-MIXED RELIGIOUS FAITH. American             Sociological Review, 14(3), 401-407. Retrieved June 27, 2009, from Women’s Studies         International database.

Lazerwitz, B. (1995, Winter95). Jewish-Christian Marriages and Conversions, 1971 and 1990. Sociology     of Religion, 56(4), 433. Retrieved June 27, 2009, from MasterFILE Premier database.

Musick, M., & Wilson, J. (1995, Fall95). Religious Switching for Marriage Reasons. Sociology of Religion, 56(3), 257-270. Retrieved June 27, 2009, from Religion and Philosophy Collection database.


Reiner, R. (Director).  (1987).  The Princess bride.  [Motion picture].  United States: Turner Productions,


Sander, W. (1993, November). Catholicism and Intermarriage in the United States. Journal of Marriage & Family, 55(4), 1037-1041. Retrieved June 27, 2009, from Women’s Studies International database.


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