Complaints about a story on Catholic marriage

Last month we reported on a nationwide survey that examined U.S. Catholic attitudes and practices regarding marriage. Made public Feb. 11, the survey was conducted in June 2007 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University via the Internet polling firm Knowledge Networks.

It was commissioned by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family Life in April of that year.

Since our story came out, we have received some e-mails and a couple of phone calls disputing one element of it: that many survey participants, according to our story, “mistakenly believe that a non-Catholic spouse must promise to raise the couple’s children as Catholic.”

That phrase also generated letters to the editor to Catholic papers around the country and postings in the blogosphere saying we got it wrong.

But the story was accurate. Readers, though, would have benefited from more detail when we first reported it.

The church in fact has not required a non-Catholic spouse to make such a promise since Pope Paul VI’s apostolic letter “Matrimonia Mixta,” issued motu proprio on March 31, 1970. The 1983 Code of Canon Law reflects the revised legislation.

“The obligatory promises prescribed in law apply to the Catholic party. The other party is to be informed about the promises that the Catholic party must make. This is a subtle distinction which is not always clear in practice,” said Siobhan Verbeek, a canon lawyer who is on the staff of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Here are the pertinent sections of the code:

– Canon 1125.1: “The Catholic party is to declare that he or she is prepared to remove dangers of defecting from the faith and is to make a sincere promise to do all in his or her power so that all offspring are baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church.”

– Canon 1125.2: “The other party is to be informed at an appropriate time about the promises which the Catholic party is to make, in such a way that it is certain that he or she is truly aware of the promise and obligation of the Catholic party.”

Verbeek told me that the 1917 Code of Canon Law — the one replaced by the 1983 code — “obliged both parties to make a promise to baptize and raise any children arising from the marriage in the Catholic faith.”

But the provision began to be “relaxed by the mid-1960s,” she said, pointing to a March 18, 1966, instruction from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called “Matrimonii Sacramentum” regarding mixed marriages.

A news story we posted the same day on “Matrimonii Sacramentum” reported that “the Holy See has issued new rules on mixed marriages, softening some restrictions and dropping the penalty of excommunication for Catholics who are married before a non-Catholic priest or minister.”

The story noted that while those rules still required both spouses in a mixed marriage to baptize and raise the children as Catholics, the language used “seems designed to soften the impact of such promises on the conscience of the non-Catholic party.” Another change was the promise no longer needed to be made in writing, the story said.

Four years later came Pope Paul’s “Matrimonia Mixta,” followed by the changes in the 1983 code.

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