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This article was published in the Summer 1999 issue of The Journal.

Interchurch Marriage & Freedom of Conscience in Zimbabwe

The question of interchurch marriage presents itself in very different ways in different cultures.  When member of interchurch families from England and Australia went to the Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in Harare in December 1998, they were astonished to find that in Zimbabwe the major issue is whether a wife should necessarily be obliged to change to the church of her husband when she marries him. In this article written for Crossroads (Christmas 1998), a pastoral magazine published the Social Communications Department of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference, Fr Oscar Wermter Sf grapples 'with the pastoral questions raised by interchurch marriages in that context. 

The other day I met a Catholic woman who attended with her Dutch-Reformed husband (both from Masvingo) a memorial mass for a Catholic friend: the wife, who was married in the Reformed Church and is now regarded as a member of that church, asked me afterwards under what conditions she could receive holy communion at Mass, "because I am really a Catholic, I only attend the Reformed Church because of my husband." The husband, who was overhearing the conversation, added, "When we visit my in-laws, we always go to the Catholic church, of course."

The wife follows her husband 
It is very rare in Zimbabwe that a husband and wife who belong to different churches actually live in what used to be called a "mixed" marriage, each attending his/her church and being part of separate church communities. Some husbands who have no church affiliation - either they were never baptised or they have lapsed do not care about what church their wives attend: many Catholic women are in that situation. But other men, even though they are no longer active members of their churches, take it for granted that their wives attend "their" church. They claim the right to determine their wives' religion as part of the general "package deal" of marrying a woman by paying roora(Iobola). Just as traditionally the wife has to move from her parents' home to the home of her husband (and not the other way round!), so the wife has to leave her church and join the husband's church.  

Traditional society was uniform 
Traditional society was not pluralistic. It was uniform. There were no differences in beliefs or religious practices that had to be tolerated. So tradition does not prepare people for today's situation where people are divided by different cultural. religious and social backgrounds which call for tolerance and mutual respect. For instance, if a Christian woman goes home to take part in a kurova guvaceremony, she may want to express her respect for the dead in her Christian way. But there is no room in a traditional setting for a dissident. Traditional society is all-inclusive: there is no difference between being secular and religious, between believers and unbelievers. You either belong and then you subscribe to all that is being done, or you do not belong at all.

(One is reminded of the principle that determined people's church affiliation at the time of the Reformation in Europe: Cuius regio, eius religio.[Whoever rules a region also determines its religion.] If the king or prince of a country was Catholic, all his subjects would be Catholics. If he decided to become Protestant, all his people had to become Protestant too.) 

This of course works both ways: the Roman Catholic Church gains non-Catholic women who become Catholic because of their Catholic husbands, and loses Catholic women who join their husband's non-Catholic churches. 

When Catholic men finally decide to marry in church, they take it for granted that their wives. now that they are married in the Catholic Church, also continue to worship in the Catholic Church. (Maybe they have been doing this for a long time already, though they never got any instruction nor received holy communion.) Often these husbands expect lheir wives to be baptised or received into the Catholic Church on the wedding day. 

Women are vulnerable 
We are normally quite happy about this, or at least condone it, since we assume, not without some reason, that a genuinely "mixed" marriage just does not work and it is better for the children anyhow if the wife follows her Catholic husband. By the same logic, of course, non-Catholic husbands expect their Catholic wives to leave the Catholic Church and join their churches. If wives refuse to do this, they may, in some cases at least, put a heavy strain on their marriages, maybe even causing their break-up. This is why it may not always be very prudent to put pressure on the wife to resist her husband and remain a practising Catholic. If we do not condone this practice, we would have to try and change the thinking of the men; putting the entire burden on the women, who are very vulnerable, would seem to be quite unfair.

It does also happen, of course, that a non-Catholic husband, estranged from his church, eventually decides to follow his wife and children into the Catholic Church. As a non-practising member of another church he was not much concerned with his wife's church affiliation and did not force her to convert to his church. Her and the children's good examples win him over: he no longer wishes to be excluded, as the only one in the family, from what is obviously very important and a source of joy to his loved ones. Often men who enter the Catholic Church through this door prove to be an asset to the Christian community. But such cases are the exception rather than the rule. 

A changing climate in a more mobile society 
Many men may be said to be claiming the right to determine the religion of their wives, not only for traditional reasons, but also because people in Zimbabwe in general seem to think that, essentially, all churches are more or less the same, "since there is only one God and we are all praying to one and the same God". And the more churches spring up, the more people seem to think this. That one church has more to offer in terms of schools, health centres and social services than another may still carry some weight. That one church should offer a more complete presentation of the gospel truth than another seems to count for very little with most of our people, They seem to be seekers of social and economic advantages rather than seekers of the truth. 

The mushrooming new churches ("new religious movements") seem to promote a supermarket mentality: you pick and choose your religious affiliation according to utilitarian criteria, the way you choose a social club. You change your religion the way you change your brand of toothpaste, cigarettes or beer. The more churches, sects, movements, "mushrooms", "ministries", and so on, there are, the Jess loyalty to the church you were brought up in seems to count. Geographical mobility also seems to support religious mobility. When you move into a new neighbourhood and a new job you also acquire a new church affiliation, in line with what is fashionable among your new colleagues. And family solidarity demands that if the head of the family changes his church, the rest of the family follow suit. 

Freedom of conscience
Can this be condoned? Harmony in the family is a value. Different church affiliations in a marriage add stress to married life which is stressed already by many other factors. This is an important consideration. But it cannot be the only one. 

Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are guaranteed as basic human rights. If a woman was brought up in the Catholic Church and has identified with her Catholic religion, she has a right that her conscience and religious adherence be respected. The same, or course, applies to a Methodist woman married to a Catholic. 

Christian disunity is experienced most painfully in maniage and family life. In many parts of the world, couples of "mixed religion" try to come to grips with this problem: while respecting the different religion of the spouse they yet wish to preserve love and unity. 

An ecumenical approach
In ecumenical relationships between the Catholic Church and the Churches of the Reformation, we stress that there is far more uniting than separating us. This must become practical in a "mixed marriage" which we might more suitably call an "ecumenical marriage". 

The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, published in 1993 by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, says that in preparing a "mixed couple for their wedding the priest or deacon "should stress the positive aspects of what the couple share together as Christians in the life of grace, in faith, hope and love, along with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit" (n.148). This Ecumenical Directory continues: "In the interest of greater understanding and unity, both parties should learn more about their partner's religious convictions and the teaching and religious practices of the Church or ecclesial Community to which he or she belongs. To help them live the Christian inheritance they have in common, they should be reminded that prayer together is essential for their spiritual harmony and that reading and study of the Sacred Scriptures are especially important" (n.149). 

While for simple demographic reasons "mixed marriages" will be inevitable (only one in ten Zimbabweans is a Catholic), it might be just as well to let the faithful know that the law of the Church says that Catholics are to marry Catholics and that "mixed marriages" should be the exception rather than the rule. This exception needs a dispensation which is given on condition that "he/she is prepared to avoid the dangers of abandoning the faith and to promise sincerely to do all in his/her power to see that the children of the marriage be baptised and educated in the Catholic Church" (n.150). Again, while dispensations for marriages between Catholics and Christians of' the "mainline churches" (Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and so on) will have to be given without any hesitation, Catholics ought to be warned against marrying active members of "new religious movements" that are positively hostile to the Catholic Church (e.g. ZAOGA, Adventists, and so on). (Pastors know, of course, the old proverb, Mwoyo muti - unomera paunoda, and will not be surprised if their advice is not heeded. But they will also know from bitter experience that quite often people disregarding their advice will suffer ... ) 

There can be little doubt that many young women first get married (room) and only afterwards find out about the church affiliation, if any, of their husbands. A Catholic girl should, of course, find out about her future husband's religion, whether he is prepared to marry her in the Catholic Church and have the children brought up Catholics, before she accepts him. Then her position is relatively strong. Afterwards it is quite weak, and he can dictate to her what he wants her to do. 

Christian divisions are the real problem 
The Catholic Church recognises both the freedom of conscience of the woman, on the one hand, and importance of the couple being united as far as possible in all things, on the other. The Ecumenical Directory of 1993 says, "In carrying out this duty of transmitting the Catholic faith to the children, the Catholic parent will do so with respect for the religious freedom and conscience of the other parent and with due regard for the unity and permanence of the marriage and for the maintenance of the communion of the family" (n.151). 

It sounds like trying to square the circle: if you respect freedom of religion you neglect the "unity and communion" of the marriage.  If you have primarily regard for the latter, you easily disregard the former. So long as the Body of Christ is visibly split into so many churches, communions and "ministries". we shall not be able to offer a simple and clear-cut solution. 

Pastoral advice 
What then can we tell a "mixed" young couple? First, that while one is a Catholic and the other, let us say, a member of the Reformed Church. they are both Christians. Common family prayer and reading together the Holy Scriptures should form a solid enough basis for their marriage. Secondly, precisely as Christians they must respect their mutual freedom of conscience. A true Christian who is aware that we must all follow the voice of our conscience and the promptings of the Holy Spirit will not force his spouse to do something her conscience and will not impose his will on her. If the Methodist bride of a Catholic bridegroom says she wants to be a Catholic, we should make sure that she is saying so willingly and not under duress. Otherwise our admonishing the Catholic bride of a Methodist that she should not abandon her faith cannot be said to be based on respect for the freedom of conscience and religion. 

"Ecumenical couples" in some places try to solve their problem by taking turns attending services in their respective churches: this Sunday we go "Catholic'" next Sunday we go "Anglican", or whatever the case may be. Then very soon the question of receiving holy communion comes up. Can the whole family receive holy communion this Sunday in the Catholic church and next Sunday in the Anglican church? It seems a neat solution to a vexing problem. The bishops of the British Isles in their common statement One Bread One Body have stated that this is not acceptable. 

Does this mean we just have to ignore the non-Catholic spouse (and possibly children) who come with their Catholic mother/father to mass? One possible answer would be to let the non-Catholic spouse or child come forward with the Catholic spouse and give them a special blessing; this gesture would avoid the pretence that our unity is already complete while yet expressing that there is after all some bond of union between us however imperfect.

Oskar Wermter, S1