American Marriage vs Religious Union

Jared Kraay, Brandeis University

In America, both Jews and Catholics have struggled to balance their dualistic identities, one national and one religious. As minority religious leaders, Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis preached endogamy in order to establish clear boundaries between their followers and the greater American public. However, because of America’s emphasis on religious freedom, Catholic and Jewish laity have both felt torn between the American ideal of marriage and those espoused by their communities. American society championed individual expression of love and freedom from tradition, while Catholic and Jewish doctrine stresses religious commitment and shared obligation as unmovable pillars of marriage.[1] While exogamy has been a religious issue since colonial times, outmarriage has risen dramatically since the mid-1950s. Geographic isolation from the religious centers of the Old World also strained the Catholic and Jewish Americans historical commitment to endogamy. In 1791, Rebecca Samuels, a young Jewish immigrant, wrote to her parents in Germany about the problem of intermarriage between Jews and Christians, saying: “There is no rabbi in all of America to excommunicate anyone.”[2] For Catholics, the Atlantic Ocean now separated the ever-prevalent Vatican church from their private communities.  While American values presented Jews and Catholics with a similar confrontation of values and sparked similar historic patterns of exogamy, Jewish and Catholic communities responded to outmarriage differently based on different perceptions of religious identity and marriage.

After his travels to the New World, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, remarked in the mid-18th century that America was a “strange mix of blood which you will find in no other country”.[3] This reflected a distinctly individualistic approach to marriage found in America and lacking in Europe. In homogenous European Jewish towns, a couple decided to marry not only because of private affection, but also as a sentiment of communal responsibility. In Catholic Europe as well, marriage was not just a private affair. Marriage was an integral part of not just personal preference but also public identity. For example, in post-revolutionary France, Catholic identity played an important role in shaping a new French politic.[4] In the United States however, both Catholics and Jews felt that their public commitment to their country did not include religious commitment, and therefore religious marriage was not part of good citizenship. Therefore, these minorities could outmarry and still be “good Americans.”  Not only did these religious minorities feel the freedom to marry outside of their respective religions, many felt that exogamy affirmed their Americanism, valuing the pluralistic ideas of personal liberty and privacy over sectarianist restrictions.[5] In a letter to her mother, 19th century Catholic immigrant to America noted the norms of American marriage: “I had considered myself a good Catholic. But when it came to a matter of love, I felt that it was more important that I marry the man whom I love.”[6] Her marriage to a Jew exemplifies the shifting notion of marriage from a public act to a private one.

Throughout American history, Jews and Catholics have responded similarly to American marriage-trends. For example, at the end of the 19th century, most people in the United States married within their faith, and Catholics and Jews followed this trend. In 1870, almost all Jews and 95.4 percent of Catholics married within their faiths; endogamy remained the norm in both communities until the mid-1950s.[7] Historian Gerhard Lenski mentioned that until the fifties, low rates of Catholic and Jewish outmarriage threatened American pluralism.[8] Since these religious minorities reinforced sectarian divides, Lenski felt that the concept of a general American culture was in danger due to factionalism. Lenski’s conflation of Catholic and Jewish marriage trends shows their remarkable similarity.

The fluctuations of American attitudes towards marriage affected both Jews and Catholics similarly. Once endogamy lost its popularity around the 1950s, Catholic and Jewish intermarriage rates both began to rise. American norms of marriage have changed, and as of 2007, not only has Jewish exogamy risen over fifty-percent, more than half of Catholics no longer marry Catholics.[9] For both Jews and Catholics, when the prospects for interfaith cooperation rose, intermarriage also increased. For example, Jews actively attempted to convince their Christian neighbors of their “Americanness” during the McCarthy era. Jews particularly feared for their status, since many communists had Jewish connections, most vividly the executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In order to deter attacks of anti-Americanism, many Jewish religious leaders affirmed their ties with Christian priests and ministers and motivated their congregants to better relationships with their gentile counterparts. Simultaneously, Jewish exogamy rates climbed.[10] As Protestant leaders began to fear the apathy of their congregants, they looked to Catholic priests for advice in maintaining church membership. Consequently, intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants rose.[11]

Exogamy for Catholics and Jews generally conformed to similar sociological criteria. Specifically, Jewish and Catholic rates of outmarriage remained low in suburbs. As Jonathan Sarna writes, one of the largest catalysts for Jewish exogamy historically was lack of available partners.[12] In vibrant Jewish neighborhoods, such as the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, few Jews married Christians and fear of ostracization from the neighborhood successfully deterred intermarriage.[13] Similarly, midwestern suburbs bore a Catholic exogamy rate of twenty percent before large numbers of Catholics began to populate those regions. Once those suburbs became 45 percent Catholic, the percentage of Catholics marrying non-Catholics dropped to just three percent. [14]

Although Catholics and Jews experienced similar fluctuation in rates of exogamy, these two religious minorities define the central dangers of outmarriage differently. For Catholics, children serve as the sole purpose of marriage, and therefore the primary goal of a Catholic marriage was to ensure that offspring would be raised and educated according to Catholic social and religious norms. Although the Catholic leadership certainly frowns upon marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics, the church “tolerates mixed marriages under conditions which it believes may assure the survival of the true religion . . . .”[15] One Catholic woman understands the concern of raising Catholic children, and in a letter to her father in the 1950s, she defends her marriage to a Protestant man.  She promises her parents that they “will gain a son who will be a good Catholic husband and father,” she promises her parents. [16] Catholic marriage defines the religious nature of the family by its commitment to Catholic practice alone.

Judaism, however, discourages interfaith relationships on legalistic, not pragmatic, grounds, particularly between a Jewish man and a gentile woman. The Mishnah[17] rules that the mother’s Jewish status determines the Jewish identity of her child. Jewish law certainly encourages raising a child Jewish, though unlike Catholicism, religious upbringing does not define religious identity. Even non-Orthodox Rabbis echoed such rulings. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, a Reform institution, published that they regard “civil marriage between a Jew and a Gentile as a marriage although not a qiddushin (religious marriage).”[18] While many reform rabbis have conceded to congregational pressure and officiate at mixed-marriages, the official Reform Rabbinate has yet to formally sanction such a marriage.[19]

Given these separate measurements of religious marriage and family, Catholic leadership afforded certain concessions that Jewish rabbis did not. In June 1748, Pope Benedict XIV permitted Catholics to marry non-Catholic Christians in Holland and Belgium, provided the child be given a Catholic education.[20] The Catholic church also passively supported the civil norm that in a case of a mixed-marriage, the son should follow the religion of his father and the daughter should follow that of her mother.[21] Lastly, in 1825, the British Catholic leadership agreed to allow marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics if an accredited Catholic priest was present at the ceremony.[22] Obviously, Jewish leadership could not make such concessions, owing to the specific requirements of legal Jewish status. While Jews and Catholics certainly did not idealize exogamy, both groups attempted to accommodate the phenomenon by reducing its negative ramifications. However, since the Catholic Church and Jewish law defined religious marriage and identity differently, their efforts to mitigate this problem manifested in alternate policies.

Catholicism defined a religious marriage by its prospects to raise Catholic children; therefore, priests permitted interfaith marriage on the basis of an antenuptial agreement between the spouses. The Church believed in an active religious upbringing, and this required religious involvement and consent of both the mother and the father.[23] The non-Catholic spouse had to sign that: “I will not interfere in the least with the free exercise of the Catholic party’s religion” and that “all children . . . born of this union shall be baptized and educated solely in the faith of the Roman Catholic Church.”[24] This declaration does not mention the legal Catholic status of the child nor that of the mother.  The antenuptial agreement would guarantee the child of such a marriage a Catholic education (including baptizing), and this upbringing, though it did not necessarily require two Catholic parents, religiously sanctioned the marriage. The antenuptial agreements seem to have been relatively effective as well. Legal expert James Carty noted that these agreements have been legally binding and commonly used by Catholic communities,[25] guaranteeing Catholic education for children of interfaith marriage.

Since Judaism’s focus on marriage revolves not only around the nature of the child’s upbringing, but also the status of the child and the marriage, Jews often seek conversion of the non-Jewish spouse. For Orthodox Jews, legal restrictions prevent religious marriage between Jews and Gentiles. In the case of a Jewish man or a gentile woman, any child of that union would be regarded as a gentile, irrespective of the child’s upbringing. Therefore, an antenuptial agreement to raise the child Jewish would not solve the issue of the child’s legal status as a Jew. Not only Orthodoxy requires the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse to Judaism. Louis Finkelstien, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) mentioned that Judaism objected to intermarriage stating: “marriage outside the fold because it means the children will not be Jews or will be only half-Jews.”[26] Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, wrote that “we cannot regard as a proper marriage any union between a Jew and a non-Jew who has not been converted.”[27]  Moreover, Jews regard marriage as more than just the conduit of upbringing. The potential compatibility of the spouses also affected the way many Jewish leaders viewed intermarriage. In a convention of Hillel leaders, one representative stated that intermarriages will fail because “such differences are much more than doctrinal. They represent a whole way of life and thought.”[28]

Since the 1950s, American values of individualism, liberty, and civil society have threatened the future of both Judaism’s and Catholicism’s historic commitment to endogamy. Not only did Jews and Catholics comprise a minority of the American religious spectrum, they also were disconnected from the European religious authorities. Although these religions approached exogamy differently, their historical patterns of interfaith marriage shifted nearly identically to meet the common norms of American marriage. Nevertheless, given the different categorizations of religious identity, Catholics and Jews responded internally to these problems in different ways. For Catholics, a religious upbringing defined identity, and marriage solely depended on the prospects of religious offspring. For Judaism, however, marriage includes far more than the potential of procreation, although it is certainly an essential part of a religious union. With a smaller global population than that of Catholics, Jews feared for their survival and this apprehension traverses across all Jewish denominations. As Catholics and Jews continue to oscillate between their American and religious identities, their rates of exogamy may look similar even while their respective definitions of religious union and identity will not.

[1] “Mixed Marriage,” Encyclopedia Judaica. 373

[2] Sarna, “Intermarriage in America.”  128

[3] Ibid., 126

[4] Harrison, Romantic Catholics, 104

[5] Seamon, Interfaith Marriage. 80

[6] Gordon, Intermarriage. 76

[7] Sarna, 130

[8] Schultz, Tri-Faith America. 116

[9] Sarna, 132

[10] Schultz,  93

[11] Ibid., 95

[12] Sarna, 128

[13] Schultz, 111

[14] Ibid.,110

[15] Gordon, 72

[16] Ibid., 88

[17] Tractate Kiddushin 3:12

[18] Seamon, 91

[19] CCAR Official Responsa, no. 190. “Dual Wedding Ceremonies.”

[20] “Mixed Marriage,” Catholic Encyclopedia, 1

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid

[23] Seamon, 67

[24] Gordon, 157

[25] Carty, James. He reasons that the agreement is legally binding because despite its religious implications, either decision of the court would be upholding the religion of either the mother or the father. Therefore, the contract’s religious overtones do not prevent it from being upheld in court. 83–90

[26] Gordon, 187

[27] Ibid.,188. It should be noted that a new resolution of the Reconstructionist movement considers children of intermarriage as Jews so long as they are educated Jewishly. This motion strikingly resembles the Catholic Church. (“A Reconstructionist View on Patrilineal Descent,” Jacob J. Staub. 2001).

[28] Gordon, 197