GEORGE McNAMARA reports on discussions at the recent conference of the newly-formed Northern Ireland Mixed Marriages Association.
1 WO Northern Irish people wanted to get married — a Catholic and a Protestant. They arranged the wedding in Switzerland, flew out for the ceremony and came straight back.
Another Belfast couple wanted to marry in the bride's church; she was a Methodist. For two years they applied for permission, quoting the canonical law that made it possible.
They gave up finally and went to Connecticut for the service. The bishop there gave his permission, and both a priest and a minister were in attendance. And the local priest who helped them was transferred from a prosperous rural parish to a remote and scattered one.
Stories like these are not unusual for Northern Ireland, where a mixed couple face not only a difficult social and physical situation but enormous obstacles from the Catholic Church.
The history of the present law goes back to the turn of the century. Before 1907, there prevailed the Galway convention under which the son followed the father's religion and the daughter the mother's—with the proviso that. in penal times, the first born was a Protestant in order to secure the land succession.
Then there occurred the anticlericalism in France and the closing of the monasteries.
This provoked the pope Benedict XV, in 1907, to issue the decree Ne Temere, under which both parties had to sign a promise that all the children were brought up Catholic, that the nonCatholic would make no attempt to interfere with this upbringing and had signed the promises "under no moral, spiritual or physical compunction." phis was the law in Ireland, as elsewhere, up till 1970. There were cases in the 1960's in Northern Ireland %vhere the dispensation to marry a non
Catholic was refused altogether. Then, in 1970, Pope Paul issued Matrimonia Mixta. This altered the wording on the promise to "all in my power", made only the Catholic sign it and asked no promises from the nonCatholic at all. In effect this made the ruling extremely flexible, as the phrase "all in my power" gives a wide discretion to the bishop whose permission is still needed. But it has made little difference in Northern Ireland. There the priest has a form with three boxes to indicate the likelihood of the children being brought up Catholic — whether moderate, good or had. He ticks the appropriate box before sending to the bishop. A dispensation then is still conditional on the understanding, if not the promise, that the children will be Catholic. Personal experiences confirm this sense of conservatism, like: "I went to see the curate six times and was told on each occasion he was on holiday — until I saw him coming down the stairs. Ile was embarrassed and difficult. He filled out the forms but gave me the impression he had rather I had not bothered him at all." A 1974 survey of priests in the archdiocese of Dublin found that "a large minority would have preferred in-. termarriage not to have taken place at all". One of those interviewed said: "All (priests) felt embarrassed ... some had a drowning man's fear of it. There was a very definite opinion that this sort of thing was damaging to your career." A couple in the same diocese: "The ignorance of the clergy regarding mixed marriage procedures was such that five days before the wedding a dispensation had not been applied for," And Dublin is among the most liberal in the island.
These sentiments are reflected at the highest level, too. For 2; years an inter
Church working party, including. Cardinal Conway. has sat to consider the question. The result, just before Christmas, was for both sides to re-state their position: no progress at all had been made — and the next meeting is not scheduled until 1977. The point of contention is not so much whether the Catholic hierarchy will permit mixed marriages — they will if you persist — but the manner in which they deal with the subject. Reactions from indifference to hostility, both before and after the marriage, are commonplace.
The Church presents a hard line on marriage in a non-Catholic church joint baptism, joint communion and pastoral care. Only if the non-Catholic is religiously indifferent is there no problem. He wants nothing, so he demands nothing.
It is when the Protestant is devout that this hardness hurts. He feels insulted and his beliefs unrespected. More generally. this hard line, and above all the attitude on children, is the grievance most quoted by Northern Ireland Protestants against the Catholic hierarchy and confirms much of the Protestant paranoia about "Vatican conspiracies." The ruling also leads to white lying. A Catholic bride said: "I signed the promise. I had to, to get the dispensation. But I've no idea ill will keep it. I respect my husband's beliefs: he's a sincere Anglican. But who can tell how we'll feel in three years' time?"
Another Catholic wife felt so strongly that she has brought up two of her five children as Anglican and three as Catholics — a unique situation, especially in Northern Ireandl In England and Wales, by contrast, it is standard, with certain given reasons to permit marriage in a non-Catholic church as well as joint baptism.
The level of pastoral care is also much better. (In England, in fact, 70
per cent of all Catholic marriages are mixed; more than 90 per cent of the Protestants are non-practising). The indifference of the Catholic clergy in Northern Ireland has another important result — in the attitude of • the families. For the physical risks of intermarriage are considerable, especially in working-class areas. Only this week a mixed couple's house in Portadown was petrolbombed; they are an obvious target for both sides. Social ostracism, with all the risks it entails: Where do you live? Who are your friends? is not uncommon.
For many, inter-marriage is the breaking of the most sacred taboo. Ex-1 act figures are impossible to come by, as they are also for couples who give up marriage because of clerical hostility. Most working-class mixed marriages survive by maintaining a very low profile.
In this process of ostracism the priest or minister is the key figure, the intermediary between the tribe and the stray sheep. If his help is absent, the chances of exclusion arc considerable.
Class and religion become very confused here. Opposition to a Catholic spouse (more common, it seems, than the other way round) is as likely in a middle-class as in a working-.class family, whereas violence is more likely in the latter.
Religiosity seems to have little to do with it. The most recent figures show church attendance on the Shankill as less than 10 per cent, while Paisley's congregation, in a middle-class district, packs in 3,000 at a sitting. Baptism is a tribal as much as a religious rite. Curiously, though, in the working class mixed marriage has diminished, in the middle class it is increasing. Higher education is mixed, and most jobs in the professions, Civil Service and business are now open to Catholics.