Decree likened to "social genocide"

FEW ISSUES have been a cause of more anxiety to Protestants in this State than the Catholic Church's teaching on mixed marriages…

FEW ISSUES have been a cause of more anxiety to Protestants in this State than the Catholic Church's teaching on mixed marriages. Its effect on Protestant communities has been profound. One senior Protestant churchman this week described it as being akin to "social genocide".

Although the situation is generally much more relaxed now, until 1970, under the terms of the Catholic Church's Ne Temere decree, introduced in 1908, both partners to a mixed marriage had to sign a written declaration that they would raise all their children as Catholics. Further, the Catholic partner was required to "work prudently for the conversion of the non Catholic spouse".

Such marriages took place without the celebration of Mass and the penalty for violating the code was automatic excommunication. Before 1908 the tradition was that boys in a mixed marriage were raised in their father's faith while the girls were raised in their mother's.

One of the immediate effects of Ne Temere was to drive the communities apart. A type of social apartheid became the norm as Catholic and Protestant young people were educated apart and socialised separately.


However, that began to change after the second World War, with a growing integration of Protestants into the life of this State.

It has been estimated that, by the early 1960s, between 16 and 22 per cent of Church of Ireland members were marrying Catholics. By the early 1970s the proportion had risen to about 30 per cent.

What few people realise is that Ne Temere had the force of law in this State. In 1950, a Church of Ireland parent, a Mr Tilson, placed his children in a Protestant home so that they could be raised as Protestants.

His Catholic wife took a High Court action against him. The President of the High Court, Mr Justice Gavan Duffy, ruled that, since Mr Tilson had given a written promise to raise the children as Catholics, he was legally obliged to do so. As further justification for his decision the judge referred to Article 44 of the Constitution, which recognised the special position of the Catholic Church.

The children were ordered to be returned to their mother.

Mr Tilson appealed the case to the Supreme Court, but lost. Three of the four judges presiding upheld the High Court decision.

The dissenting judge, Mr Justice Black, was a Protestant. He wondered whether the court would have ruled as it did if the mixed marriage promise had favoured the Protestant party.

ANOTHER broken mixed marriage hit the headlines just over 40 years ago. On April 27th, 1957, a Protestant mother moved her children to Belfast from Fethard on Sea, Co Wexford, where she had been living with her Catholic husband. She told him she would return only when he agreed that the children could be raised as Protestants. Local people believed the woman had been assisted by Protestant neighbours, so they boycotted their businesses. They were supported in this by the Catholic clergy and the Bishop of Ferns, Dr Staunton.

Addressing a conference of the Catholic Truth Society in Wexford in June 1957, the then Bishop of Galway, Dr Michael Browne, spoke of a campaign to entice or kidnap Catholic children and deprive them of their faith. NonCatholics, with one or two "honourable exceptions", did not protest against the crime of conspiring to steal the children of a Catholic father, he said.

Among those present as Dr Browne spoke were the Catholic Primate, Cardinal D'Alton; the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr McQuaid; Bishop Staunton of Ferns; Bishop Collier of Ossory; Bishop Kyne of Meath and Bishop Dunne of Nara.

The boycott continued. It was condemned by the Taoiseach, Mr Eamon de Valera, in the Dail, but he was ignored. It did not end until January 1958, when the woman returned to her husband.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI relaxed the provisions of Ne Temere. Under, his Matrimonia Mixta decree Protestant partner was no longer required to make a promise to raise the children as Catholics and the marriage could take place during Mass.

In 1983, the Irish Episcopal Conference decided that the Catholic partner needed to make only an oral promise to bring up the children as Catholics.

According to the 1981 census, 19 per cent of married people in minority communities were in mixed marriages. Within those marriages, 86 per cent of the children were being raised as Catholics. By 199t, the figures showed that 25 per cent of marriages in minority communities were mixed and 78 per cent of the children were being raised as Catholics.

The Catholic prenuptial inquiry form introduced in 1991 requires the Catholic partner to answer the following question: "Do you promise to do what you can within the unity of your partnership to have all the children of your marriage baptised and brought up in the Catholic faith?"

In the main, the declaration or promise entailed in answering this question affirmatively tends to be interpreted generously where the Protestant partner's concerns are an issue, although there are some "black spots", as the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Rev Walton Empey, said on RTE's Liveline programme yesterday.

Generally, these revolve around some priests of the Catholic Church's rules. However, the four main Christian churches have in place an interchurch standing committee to deal with such grievances, should they arise. "And there are few of those", said a spokesman for the Catholic Church's press office last night.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times