When a Baptist Marries a Catholic

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: The distance between Baptists and Catholics is much closer than the distance between believers and nonbelievers.

‘Wedding Rings’
‘Wedding Rings’ (photo: Demiantseva Olha / Shutterstock)

Q. My son, who was raised Catholic, is marrying a Baptist woman and I am not sure how I feel or what the specific protocols are for interacting with my new daughter-in-law. I don't know enough about the Baptist communion, and I am not sure if there are specific actions my wife and I need to be aware of and sensitive to. I’m hoping to connect with a religious authority in this area to help educate us and guide us as we navigate this foreign territory in our limited religious landscape. Is this something you can help us with? — Gilman, Augusta, Maine

A. It’s not clear to me whether you are asking whether you should respect the faith of your son’s fiancée or asking for more knowledge about the Baptist faith. Thus, I will briefly respond to both.

Parents are the first evangelists of their children. So, decisions about how to interrelate with adult children, especially on sensitive matters, should be determined by inter alia what they — the parents — believe will be most conducive to their children’s relationship with Jesus Christ, most consistent with their remaining in or coming to be in a state of grace. 

If your son is resolute on marrying a Baptist girl, then opposing the union would likely drive them both away without accomplishing the end you have in mind. Unlike a child who announces he is “marrying” another member of the same sex, or marrying outside of the Catholic Church, no wrongdoing is necessarily done by one who marries a non-Catholic Christian.

Yet your son’s Catholic faith is precious. Thus, help facilitate his relationship with the Church. Encourage him to remain in the sacraments. Although there are undoubtedly challenges posed by what canon law refers to as “mixed marriages,” welcome his fiancée into the family and make every effort be a witness of Christian charity. Convince her that you don’t resent her for being non-Catholic and don’t view her as a threat to your relationship with your son.

One question to ask is whether she is a devout Baptist. If she is, then she is also a sister in Christ, and you should relate to her as such. In fact, you should be jolly grateful your son isn’t marrying a secular girl. The distance between Baptists and Catholics is much closer than the distance between believers and nonbelievers.

Educating yourself on salient features of the Baptist faith will help dispel misconceptions and enable you to speak intelligently to her about the tenets of her religion. 

Baptists make up the second-largest Christian community in the U.S., with 33 million members, behind the Catholic Church’s 50 million members. Worldwide, the Baptist communion, according to the Baptist World Alliance, is comprised of 246 member bodies in 128 countries for a total of 51 million baptized Christians. The largest Baptist denomination in the world is the U.S.-based Southern Baptism Convention, which totals nearly 15 million members. 

The Catholic Church has held a formal dialogue with the Baptist World Alliance since 1994. The bilateral commission has taken up topics such as Scripture, justification and good works, sin and grace, the sacraments, conversion and Christian assurance of salvation, all in an effort to assist mutual understanding.

The Baptist belief system is governed by the Nicene Creed, similar to the Catholic faith, except they understand “one holy catholic and apostolic church” differently from Catholics. Although they have a strong sense of church as the “community of God’s people,” they don’t believe the Church is a visible hierarchically-organized communion governed by the papacy, episcopate and priesthood. Priesthood for Baptists is roughly equivalent to the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood of the faithful. All Christians are priests to one another, but none is sacramentally consecrated. 

They do hold a doctrine of sacraments as visible signs of God’s grace, but, according to one Baptist catechism, they limit the outward means of grace, the instruments that sacramentally communicate to us “the benefits of redemption” to God’s “ordinances,” especially “the word, baptism, the Lord’s supper, and prayers.” 

The denomination itself draws its name from the fact that the sacrament of baptism must be administered by completely immersing a person in water while reciting the trinitarian formula rather than by dripping or sprinkling water on the head.

The default Catholic position is for the faithful not to marry persons who are members of communions not in union with the Catholic Church. Canon law says that without “permission” mixed marriages are “prohibited.” The 1983 Code (1124-1125) legislates that “permission” from the local bishop be obtained as a condition for such a marriage. This is different from the “dispensation” that was required in the 1917 Code, which understood mixed marriages as imposing an “impediment” to marriage. The 1983 Code no longer considers mixed marriages as impediments, but it still requires ecclesiastical permission in an effort to minimize the risks posed by the spouses sharing differing Christian traditions.

To secure the bishop’s permission the Catholic party must meet the following three conditions: 

1) He must declare and promise to do all in his power to have all children that arise from the union baptized and raised Catholic. The non-Catholic is not asked to make this promise so the burden of its fulfillment rests with the Catholic. The obligation requires the willingness to acknowledge potential problems arising from the disparity of cult, problems such as an anti-Catholic attitude by the non-Catholic, disrespect for the demands of religion more generally, or differences in commitments to religious practice. These would need to be discussed and resolved before the couple marries. 

2) The non-Catholic must be aware — must understand — that the Catholic partner has made these promises and undertaken this obligation. This requires the couple to enter into frank discussion about foreseen obstacles in order to find suitable resolutions; their Catholic pastoral minister should ensure they do precisely this prior to marrying. 

3) Both parties must be catechized in a Catholic understanding of marriage. They should be aware of the nature, properties and ends of marriage. Areas of commonality between the respective traditions should be highlighted. At the same time, the couple should be made aware of those purposes and properties that must not be excluded for the marriage to come into existence. This is where a discussion of the procreative and unitive goods of marriage should take place and the immoral nature of intentionally contraceptive acts.

Additionally, the marriage should be contracted in the presence of a Catholic priest or deacon and before at least two witnesses. A Baptist minister may also be present and actively participate in the Catholic liturgical celebration. Ordinarily also the ceremony should take place in a Catholic church, unless the local bishop has dispensed the Catholic party from this requirement. Failure to conform to these norms does not cause the marriage to be invalid, but it does render the marriage legally illicit (i.e., illegal according to Church law) (Code of Canon Law, 1108, 1127). In order to fix an illicitly celebrated sacrament, the Catholic party should consult his pastor. 

As stated, even with mutual respect, mixed marriages pose problems that mustn’t be whitewashed or overlooked. Child raising is difficult enough for two devout Catholics. If a couple doesn’t share fundamental tenets of belief, the difficulties multiply. As parents of the groom, you should seek to help your son and his fiancée not simply to understand these difficulties but to confront them and find suitable solutions for overcoming them. 

Don’t forget always to show respect for your future daughter-in-law’s religious commitments, while striving to remain a perspicuous witness to the veritatis splendor of the Catholic faith.