The Disappearing Precept on Catholic Marriage


A subtle, yet significant, change in the Precepts of the Catholic Church was recently brought to my attention. More than just a change, it is actually an omission: the removal of the sixth precept regarding the Church’s laws on marriage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that the precepts of the Church “concern the moral and Christian life united with the liturgy and nourished by it.” The 1994 Catechism promulgated during the papacy of Pope St. John Paul II lists only five precepts:

1. “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.”
2. “You shall confess your sins at least once a year.”
3. “You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.”
4. “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.”
5. “You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church.”
(CCC 2042-2043)

After being made aware of the omitted precept I went back and consulted my copy of The Catechism Explained, written by Father Francis Spirago and published by Benziger Brothers in 1899. Fr. Spirago lists a total of six precepts of the Catholic Church, with the final advising the faithful:

“Not to marry persons who are not Catholics, or who are related to us within a forbidden degree of kindred, nor privately without witnesses, nor to solemnize marriage at forbidden times.”

The Baltimore Catechism 3 from 1949 also addresses Catholic marriage, listing a sixth precept as well which states: “You shall observe the Church’s laws on marriage.”

It is unclear why the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church omitted the traditional precept on marriage. Following the ecumenical focus of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI’s 1970 motu proprio on mixed marriages, it appears that the Church may have simply acquiesced to the increasing indifference among many Catholics who did not see their faith as a priority when choosing a spouse. Considering the confusion among the faithful regarding marriage in recent decades, it would seem that now is the time to highlight, rather than delete, this precept from the catechetical life of the Church.

Listening to a Catholic radio show recently, I heard the tragic stories of one caller after another expressing how their own mixed marriages (or those of their parents) had resulted in entire families falling away from the Church. This disparity of cult, marrying a non-Catholic, was always discouraged by the pre-conciliar Church, as demonstrated by the sixth precept. It should be obvious to us all that mixed marriages have presented a serious obstacle to raising children in the faith over the last four decades.

Acknowledging these challenges, the USCCB’s own website “For Your Marriage” explains the troubling shift in language for the Church with the 1983 revision to the Code of Canon Law:

“Because of these challenges, the church requires the Catholic party (in the marriage) to be faithful to his or her faith and to “promise to do all in his or her power” to have their children baptized and raised in the Catholic faith. This provision of the 1983 Code of Canon Law – with its wording to try one’s best – is a change from the 1917 version, which required an absolute promise to have the children raised Catholic.

“Likewise, the non-Catholic spouse is no longer required to promise to raise the children in the Catholic faith, but “to be informed at an appropriate time of these promises which the Catholic party has to make, so that it is clear that the other party is truly aware of the promise and obligation of the Catholic party,” the code states.

“But suppose the non-Catholic party insists that the children will not be raised Catholic? The diocese can still grant permission for the marriage, as long as the Catholic party promises to do all he or she can to fulfill that promise…”

Thankfully, many Catholics are rediscovering traditional resources such as The Catechism Explained and The Baltimore Catechism. For those parents and parishes who utilize these earlier catechisms for forming the next generation, the importance of a Catholic marriage will be prominently stated within the precepts.

Both clergy and the laity need to reclaim a bit of common sense in the coming years as well. It is unrealistic to expect mixed marriages to produce an environment conducive to effectively raising children in the faith. Something as important as our faith, a matter of (supernatural) life or death, deserves to be nurtured by both parents in a truly Catholic household. This doesn’t mean that disparity of cult can always be avoided. However, it can be discussed, discouraged, and explained why unity of faith is vitally important. To this point, it is interesting to note that 80 percent of the men ordained to the priesthood the last two years came from households where both parents were Catholic (according to the Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood by CARA).

We have seen the near total collapse of the faith in family after family over the last two generations. We have simultaneously witnessed the attack against marriage itself, beginning with an attempt to redefine the very nature and purpose of the male-female relationship. It is a tragic irony that the very disappearance of the sixth precept of the Catholic Church from the Catechism has coincided with the widespread disappearance of sacramental marriage among so many professing Catholics.

Possibly it’s time to once again ensure that all lists of the Precepts of the Catholic Church include the sixth on observing the Church’s teaching on marriage.

Posted on October 18, 2015, in holiness, life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. My father was a product of a mixed marriage. He and his siblings all lost their faith. I am a product of a mixed marriage. I have found my way back. My husband’s father was a product of a mixed marriage—but his father converted eventually. My husband is also a product of a mixed marriage—out of 6 children, my husband is the only Catholic.

  2. I was raised in a Catholic family, where both parents were practicing Catholics. Unfortunately, all 3 of my siblings married non-Catholics, and none of them or any of their children are Catholic, 30 years later. I was the only one who married a Catholic. We are both active Catholics, very involved in our faith. One of our children left the faith during college, but our daughter is currently a 2nd year novice with the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, and our teenage son loves the Catholic faith and is open to God’s call for his vocation, whether that be the priesthood, religious life, or marriage.

    • Thank you for sharing your story Mary. It is unfortunate that your siblings no longer practice their faith, but a blessing to hear that there may be a vocation to the priesthood or religious life for one of your children. Yours is yet another example of why Holy Mother Church always stressed the importance of marrying within the faith, and why it was considered to be a precept of the Church in years past.

  3. I grew up in an almost totally Catholic environment. Exception:the kid who managed our Catholic youth group BB team was Lutheran. My parents conveyed the idea that mixed marriages were an abomination, and so I grew up feeling the same way. Still do because of what I’ve seen as a result of mixing religions. Maybe “bringing up the children Catholic” has worked for some people, but I never have seen it so. The spectacle of one spouse going to the Holy Sacrifice, and the the other going to a non-Catholic church on Sunday irritates me especially when I know that the non-Catholic spouse would be a great Catholic.

  4. I have two church-attending adult daughters who tell me that young Catholic men are MIA. One married a wonderful baptist man who goes to mass with her each week and the other has decided to stop dating although her greatest desire is to be a wife and mother. Where are faithful Catholic men?

  5. “The Church in her supreme authority has defined nothing regarding the form and number of the Commandments of the Church. The Council of Trent while recommending in a general way in its twenty-fifth session the observance of these precepts says nothing regarding them as a particular body of laws. Neither is any specific mention made of them in the “Catechismus ad parochos” published by order of the council and known as the “Catechism of the Council of Trent” or “Roman Catechism”. We have seen that St. Antoninus of Florence enumerates ten such commandments while Martin Aspilcueta mentions only five. This last number is that given by St. Peter Canisius. According to this author the precepts of the Church are: To observe the feast days appointed by the Church; to hear Mass reverently on these feast days; to observe the fasts on the days during the seasons appointed; to confess to one’s pastor annually; to receive Holy Communion at least once a year and that around the feast of Easter. ”

  6. The Church has clearly and directly dropped this precept. The Church has the authority to do so. Referring to an earlier catechism with therefore misinform the reader of what is currently required. Cardinal Pell is the result of a mixed marriage and we can thank God for him.

    • It is bad reasoning to allude to an instance where God has redeemed a bad situation, and to argue this shows the situation wasn’t so bad after all. I’m sure Cardinal Pell would have preferred both his parents to have been Catholic.

      This article is certainly making me think. My wife and I were active non-Catholic Christians when we had our children and brought them up. All four are faithful as adults, the three sons who are married have Christian wives and the two who have children are bringing them up in the faith. I cannot imagine this outcome, or our marriage itself, had we not believed the same as each other.

      But recently I became Catholic, and that has brought a cross in terms of the unity and fellowship of our marriage. I can imagine how it must be for a mixed Christian marriage in its earlier stages, and how it would hamper the spiritual formation of children.

      I’m interested to note that this article does not distinguish between kinds of mixed marriage. There must be an ascending scale of potential difficulty, starting with marrying a non-Catholic Christian, then an agnostic, then perhaps a Hindu, then a Muslim, finally an atheist. Maybe those last three in a different order.

      On a positive personal note, we and all our children are still close, can pray together and encourage each other, for we are all mature adults. One of my married sons (and his wife) preceded me into the Church by a couple of years, so we are quite a mixed family in a wider sense. They’re having so many children, we’re about up to parity in numbers!

  7. The weakness in the argument is the use of the very word ‘Catholic’ Catholic used to mean people who shared and professed the same faith but this is not so today. A Protestanty might well be contented with a Catholic who has a ‘modern’ view of the Church for such ‘Catholicism’ is very much leaning to Protestantism. A what is called ‘traditional Catholic’ will on th other hand present problems. The Catholic may want the Rosary said with the children, the Catholic may want Holy Pictures on the wall, the Catholic may insist on the children going to Mass while the other partner stays at home. Yes, and even on morality thee may be differences between the Catholic and the partner. When all were ‘traditional Catholics and there was parish life which catered for families rather than communities the non-catholic knew what was expected of him in marrying a Catholic – today it does not seem to matter.

  8. How do you bring it back?

  9. I consider myself a fervent catholic, and I would say I know many catholics who were married at the church with a non-catholic. And often what happens, when the catholic spouse is really devouted and prays for the other, is that the other spouse has a conversion later. It happened to many of my friends!

    As long as the four vows/pillars of marriage are there, that there’s a true commitment made in chastity and that the other spouse respects the promise of the other spouse to raise children in the Catholic Church, I think it is a legitimate marriage. Cause though marriage is one of the seven sacraments of Redemption, it was already a sacrament in the Creation. Non-believers are able to commit themselves to true love, because it’s written in our hearts as men and women.

    It’s rare today to find a person who accepts to live chastly and really wish to live all four vows of marriage, even inside the Catholic Church. When you find someone who wants all of that, but doesn’t know Jesus-Christ yet… I would say faith is not far! Everything is sure easier when you share the same faith from the start. But believing in the Catholic Church doesn’t make you necessarily a good spouse.

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