The issue of mixed marriages was at the core of the 7th meeting of the Presidents of the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Southeast Europe, which took place in Romania in early March. Marriages “with a difference in worship” are reported to be on the increase in that area of Europe, especially with Muslims.
According to a report published by the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE), there are no particular problems in marriages between Latin Catholics and Greek Catholics. But there are some problems arising with marriages between Roman Catholics and Orthodox or Protestants, due to a partly different understanding of the sacramentality of marriage, which may complicate matters such as divorce. Despite stronger theological differences, dialogue is reported to be more advanced with Protestant churches.
But the increase in mixed Catholic-Muslim marriages gives rise to the most concerns. While the bishops acknowledge that there are positive outcomes in terms of building bridges and intercultural relations, such unions also pose significant problems, especially since there are often differences in ethnic backgrounds and identity.
On a doctrinal level, the bishops see risks of religious indifferentism. It is likely that experiences in Southeast Europe will also contribute to deeper reflections on the issue, since the growth of immigration to other parts of the continent will lead to more interreligious marriages in areas where people of non-Christian origins had little or no presence a few decades earlier.
Italy may serve as a case study on the rise of Muslim-Catholic marriages, with many of these couples adopting Islam as the family religion, according to statistics. The Catholic charitable organization Caritas recently released figures showing that the number of marriages between Italians and foreign natives has risen ten-fold in the past 15 years.
The Catholic World Report (March) cites the study as showing that in 1991 there were 60,000 “mixed marriages” in Italy, compared to 600,000 such marriages last year. Italian men preferred women from non-Islamic countries, such as the Philippines, Peru and Romania. In contrast, Italian women tended to marry men from Senegal, Tunisia and Morocco.
The northern part of Italy leads the way in mixed marriages. About 10 percent of the mixed marriages involve a Muslim with a Catholic spouse. In the vast majority of such cases, the children are raised Muslim. If the wife is Catholic, statistics show that she is likely to convert to Islam. These marriages have been shown to be fragile, although much depends on geography. The average Catholic-Muslim marriage lasts just five years in the northern city of Milan, and 13 years in the Southern city of Lecce.–This article was written with Contributing Editor Jean-Francois Mayer