Communication is key for interfaith families

Early in their relationship, Elliot and Mary Eisman weren’t too concerned about the religion of their future children. His background is Jewish and hers is Catholic. When their first child was born, they had to make a decision, and though Mary wasn’t practicing her faith, they baptized their baby Catholic.

“I knew that I would continue being Jewish, and she was the more religious of the two of us in the sense of attending church, so I said ‘That’s fine, we’ll go your direction,’” Elliot said.

By the time Mary returned to the Church 21 years ago, the couple had four children (Elliot had two from a previous marriage), and they took an active role in raising them Catholic, including sending them to Catholic school and attending Sunday Mass together as a family each week.

Though he doesn’t practice the religion, Elliot was raised in a devout Jewish home and has made his children aware of different aspects of Judaism.

“We’ve talked about it over the years and the overlapping Old Testament, Passover, Hanukkah, Christmas, etc.,” he said. “They know the meaning of all of that.”

Church requirements

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ initiative For Your Marriage (, “as many as 40 percent of married Catholics may be in interfaith marriages.”

Overall, 42 percent of U.S. marriages are mixed marriages (consisting of spouses of different denominations or faiths) compared to roughly 20 percent before the 1960s, according to Naomi Schaefer Riley, a New York Post columnist and author of “‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America” (Oxford University Press, $24.95). The book contains results of a 2010 nationally representative survey of 2,500 people, including an over-sample of people in interfaith marriages, which Riley commissioned.

As Catholics marry non-Catholics at a higher rate, they also are raising more children between two faiths. While the Church requires Catholic spouses to commit to raising their children Catholic, interfaith couples wrestle with the decision and how to give their children the benefits of both parents’ faith traditions.

On mixed marriages, canon law states that the Catholic spouse “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.” It then states that “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” (Code of Canon Law, No. 1125).

Many interfaith couples may not be aware of this stipulation and, according to Father Robert Hater, a Cincinnati diocesan priest and author of “When a Catholic Marries a Non-Catholic,” they don’t talk before or after the wedding about the faith tenets they will impart to their children.

To make sure this conversation happens, some priests immediately are up front with couples about what the Church says about raising children in the Faith.

“By addressing it in this way, [I] tend to heal the fear that a non-Catholic has in coming into this environment,” said Father Gary Linsky, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Columbia, South Carolina, and a retired Air Force chaplain who has worked with many interfaith couples.

‘As a family’

When Tom and Lori McKenzie married in 1984, they were young and not even thinking about having kids, let alone whether they would raise them Catholic or Lutheran. The parents of the Maple Grove, Minnesota, couple didn’t seem too worried about it either, said Tom, who noted that other family members also were in interfaith marriages.

When their first child was born, they decided to baptize him Catholic because the Catholic Faith had been stronger in Tom’s family. They moved to northern Minnesota and joined a small Catholic parish that accepted Lori as a Lutheran. She became active in the parish, though she didn’t understand some of the differences between the two faiths.

“I didn’t even understand why they knelt, because we didn’t kneel in church,” she said. “Not really knowing what the whole Mass was about, what they were doing consecrating the Eucharist, etc., because in the Lutheran Church, you don’t really do that.”

When they moved back to the Twin Cities and joined a larger parish, Lori took an active role in educating her now three children in the Faith, teaching Sunday school and taking them to Mass each week when Tom worked. She especially enjoyed teaching the Bible stories she had learned growing up in the Lutheran Church.

Though she attended Mass with her family every week, she wanted to participate more fully with them. When her son, T.J., was preparing for his first Communion, she had a desire that the family receive the Eucharist together and decided to enter the Church.

“After going there for so long ... I wanted to be able to celebrate that as a family, to be able to go up there with him.”

Last spring, T.J. became Father T.J. McKenzie when he was ordained a priest for the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese. He said he doesn’t remember much about his mother being Lutheran but recalled her attending Mass and teaching Sunday school.

He said if he had grown up with two faiths, he might not have taken them seriously. At the same time, Father McKenzie credits his interest in ecumenical dialogue to his interfaith family.

‘Really means neither’

According to author Naomi Schaefer Riley’s poll, one-fourth of the spouses who started their marriage in different faiths eventually belonged to the same faith.

Forty-three percent of Riley’s respondents were raising their children in one faith, 35 percent were raising them in no faith and 22 percent in both faiths. She noted that as children get older and busier, it’s often less practical to raise them in both faiths.

As their wedding approached, Matthews and Kristen Grant, who live in St. Paul, Minnesota, were in agreement about the promise Matthews would make as a Catholic spouse to raise their children in the Church. At the same time, Kristen, then a Methodist pastor, also thought their children should have a connection to her church and that not being Catholic, she wouldn’t be able to answer their faith questions.

Early in their marriage, the couple often attended each other’s churches, but they began to realize that regularly attending Mass and another service would be more difficult with children.

Then the Grants suffered a miscarriage. They found answers and support within the Catholic Church, another step on Kristen’s long journey of study and prayer leading toward the Church, which included letting go of her career as a pastor. A few years later, Kristen became Catholic. She didn’t cite specific aspects of the Methodist faith she wants to pass onto her daughters, ages 8 and 10, saying that many of the teachings are in common with Catholic teaching.

Having lived with two faiths, they think it is better for children when parents raise them in one, Matthews said. “Ideally, that would be the Catholic Faith, but we think it would be better to be raised in a different tradition than to be raised as both — which really means neither.”

Early preparation is key

Regardless of the faith a couple decides to raise their children in, being in agreement is crucial, Mary Eisman said. “Whether you’re different denominations or faiths, (it is important) that you agree that you’re going to raise them together and make a promise that you’re not going to back out on them.”

Despite the challenges in imparting faith in children, mixed marriages should be viewed as a gift from God, Father Hater said.

And, Father Linsky said, marriage preparation offers a chance to affirm interfaith couples and help them work through this issue.

“This is an important opportunity to engage young people who are vulnerable and also to celebrate the fact that they want God in their marriage,” Father Linsky said. “When (the issue of raising children in faith) is not resolved and discussed early on, it will always be like a stone in the shoe that will only get worse.”

Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.

Faith-Centered Home
An important part of raising Catholic children in an interfaith family is creating a faith-centered home, according to Father Robert Hater, author of “When a Catholic Marries a Non-Catholic.” His suggestions for how to create this environment include: