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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

A Match Made in Heaven

Hello, I have a question about soteriology. I'm an atheist dating a nice Catholic boy. We've been dating for a year and a half, so we're at the point where we're trying to talk about points of conflicts between our religious beliefs to discern whether we can find a way to make this work out in the long term.

The primary impediment is my boyfriend's interpretation of Catholic theology surrounding damnation. He believes that, if we were to one day marry and have children, those children would be pretty much automatically damned because they would have an awareness of Catholic teachings, but having an atheist for a mother would poison their faith. Regardless of whether they attended catechism class, my boyfriend believes any hypothetical children would be lost unless I pretended I was a Catholic and lied about my true beliefs.

Is this what the Catholic church asks of an atheist who ends up with a Catholic? I am uncomfortable engaging in a complex, long-term deception. I also wonder, if my boyfriend's interpretation of theology is correct, why the Catholic Church would ever sanction this kind of marriage under any circumstances.

I wonder if you could point us to any resources/teachings on this topic. It's hard for my boyfriend to get spiritual guidance on campus, since the priests are very liberal (well-nigh universalists) so he's not sure they think anyone is in danger of Hell.

Well, there's a year and a half down the drain.

There's no Catholic rule against a Catholic marrying a non-Catholic or an atheist.  But any priest worth his salt will try to discourage such a union, or at the very least, make the Church's teachings very clear.

Children born to a Catholic parent must be raised as Catholics.  No "we'll go to your church every other Sunday".  And very, very certainly not, "you'll just pretend you believe as I do, Mom, and we'll fool the kids."

Ultimately, it is about the danger of Hell, but before that, it's also about what constitutes a Catholic marriage in the first place, which is this: the union of a man and a woman who are responsible for each other's salvation and the salvation of their children. This is not your boyfriend's "interpretation" of Catholic theology. That IS the teaching of the Catholic Church.

How are you going to handle not using birth control, by the way? The reason Catholics may not use birth control is that they are leaving themselves open to God's will.  You don't believe in God. How's that going to work?

And how are your going to actually GET married? You would be lying during your vows if you do it in Church, as you are pledging your troth before God. Very silly for you.  Surely, your Catholic boyfriend who fears for his and his children's salvation, will wish to be married by a priest performing the Sacrament of Matrimony.

I don't agree with your boyfriend that the children are automatically damned because of their atheist mother. He doesn't give himself much credit.  Their faith will meet many challenges. But the idea that you'll have to lie to the children about your beliefs?  Lying is a sin. He's asking you to sin. That's crazy. And it certainly doesn't have anything to do with helping out with your salvation, which is also his job as a spouse.

Marriage and raising a family is about trust. It can't be sitting on the eroding riverbank of lies.

The Catholic church would sanction the marriage, but only if you agree to raise the children as Catholics.   The Church has sanctioned marriages between Catholics and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, etc.  But the Church does warn against such unions, as the non-Catholic spouse must agree to raise the children as Catholics. I don't know how couples work that out, but they often do.  For some, Episcopals ( or Catholic lite as we like to call it) say, it wouldn't be such a stretch.  A Catholic with another Christian will at least agree on the teachings of Jesus, if not the veneration of Mary. and how much we love statues of saints.  A Catholic with a Jewish spouse....well, Jesus was Jewish after all and we can agree on many of the things that God wants from us.

But a Catholic and an atheist?  Good luck with that.  You realize, of course, that Catholics don't believe in luck.


Leah said...

Thank you for responding so quickly. It's true I don't believe that it's sinful to use birth control, but if I were married to someone who were, I'm perfectly satisfied to abstain from sex unless we were ok with having children.

I don't know enough about the Catholic wedding ceremony to know whether it would require me to lie. My impression was that a marriage between a Catholic and a non-baptized person was non-sacremental, but valid. If the Church performs such marriages, I assume the ritual doesn't call for one of the participants to lie. Can you point me to the part of the ceremony you're talking about?

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

This is a great answer. Though sometimes it works differently with kids. They have minds of their own. I was an atheist, married to an agnostic. Of our four children, two developed a profound belief in God at a young age. (We did not prevent them from attending church on their own.) I eventually, long after they were grown, came to the same level of faith. My husband is getting there, too. My other two children are moving from atheism to agnosticism. Sometimes, it just takes time. Thank God, we were allowed that time. (Of course, we do not have a Catholic marriage; that, I guess, complicates matters. Your explanation was elucidative for me; even though I am a [new] catechist, I am still learning.)

Anonymous said...

We don't believe in luck, but we certainly believe in faith. Never underestimate what God can do.

Brian Westley said...

Leah, you know more about mixed marriages than Sister Mary Martha.

She's also wrong about "Children born to a Catholic parent must be raised as Catholics" -- the Catholic parent is obliged to do everything in their power to raise them as such, but there's no such obligation on your part. Of course, it's even worse if the other parent is of another religion which also has a similar requirement.

But you could've expected this kind of reaction, given her dismissive opening sentence.

I'm an atheist married to a (very nominal) Catholic for 22 years, and I think you'd be better off just talking with your boyfriend about this.

JoAnna Wahlund said...

Leah, the Catholic marriage rite is here. It seems to me there might be several problems, namely:

Will you love and honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?

If you go into this marriage believing that the marriage bond can ever be dissolved by divorce (even if your intention is to remain married for the rest of your lives), assenting to the above would be a lie.

Will you accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?

If you, personally, intend to use contraception at any point in your marriage, you would by lying if you answered this in the affirmative.

Also, if you, personally, don't intend to bring up your children according to the law of Christ and His Church (i.e., if you, personally, don't intend to teach your children that God exists, that Jesus exists, that Jesus established the Catholic Church and gave it teaching authority, and that they are to obey the Church) then that would also be a lie.

Also, the priest would say this:

Since it is your intention to enter into marriage, join your right hands, and declare your consent before God and his Church.

Since you don't believe in God or in His Church, what would you be declaring your consent before?

I see where Sister is coming from. You'd be making promises before God that you may have no intention of keeping, and that is a dangerous thing to do.

Muffy's Marks said...

Just some more pain inflicted by the CC upon others. They are so Right, and damn the rest.

Tracy said...

Dear SMM, This has been really interesting, and it backs into the Apostle Paul's teachings on marriage in 1 Cor. 7:10-15. These have always been a bit difficult for me to understand.

Anonymous said...

You're wrong Brian. I was an agnostic/secular/non-practicing Jew when I married in the Catholic Church. I went through a "engaged encounter" interview with a priest and had to formally agree to raise my children in the Catholic Church as a condition for a Church approved marriage. We were already married civilly at the time - so legally I didn't need to do a thing, but to have a dispensation for "disparity of cult" it was absolutely required.

I don't recall making any public expression of faith during he ceremony although that was part of the ceremony generally. At that time I did not believe, so we had a wedding but no mass.

To Leah: if you truly love him and believe in the importance of marriage, ( and you've already said you'd sacrifice for it in your statement about abstaining) it might well be worth the risk. Faith in marriage and crucially in love is not so far from faith in God; that's how I was converted. Good luck to you both.

Martha said...

I think your answer was very laudable, SMM. Good points.

I do think the Catholic party IS obligated to raise the kids Catholic, to the best of their ability, anyway. I had to sign a paper before my wedding to a Protestant, declaring such.

Muffy- if you're so anti-Catholic, what on earth are you doing perusing 'Ask Sr. Mary Martha,' anyway?

Julie M. said...

Dear Leah - Your willingness to attempt to follow Catholic teaching about marriage for your boyfriend's sake is a good sign. Your conscientiousness would provide you with a good foundation for being a great Catholic yourself, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if your relationship with your boyfriend is God's attempt to lead you in that direction! :-)

Sister Mary Martha is right, as she usually is, but sarcasm is her style, and her advice isn't for the thin-skinned. While there's nothing to stop you from being married, if you didn't truly mean the promises you were making, it would open up your marriage to questions of nullity from the start.

There's plenty of people who call themselves Catholic who also don't mean these promises when they make them, and their marriage would be just as subject to nullity as one between a Catholic and an atheist. But a priest would question your motives more openly, and rightly so. It's just common sense.

I encourage you to put off the marriage for a bit, but stay with your boyfriend, and see if they two of you can take steps to come to a fuller understanding of the Church's teaching (because it sounds like he could use it, too). Over time, I think you'll come to the realization of whether or not marriage is right for the two of you.

Leah said...

Thanks for the comment, Julie M.

I should clarify that we're not checking impediments to marriage with a view to being wed sometime in the near future. I just honestly can't tell whether the chances of being able to end up with my nice Catholic boy are as hopeless as they would be if he were a nice Catholic girl.

I can't tell whether the chances are as bleak as all that. If the only way this can be allowed to proceed is if I convert, then I'm not exactly sure what to do, since I can't willfully change my beliefs. So far, we're both ok with staying together while I read apologetics and he prays for a miracle.

Maggie said...

Leah, kudos to you for having the intellectual honesty to 1) explore the possibilities of such a union rather than say "meh, whatever, we'll do whatever we want" and 2) reading apologetics. However, as many converts (from atheism or other religions) can attest (I'm one myself) it wasn't books about theology that converted them... it was personal witnesses and stories of people whose lives were lived out in faith with integrity. I'd recommend Conversion Diary, a blog by a woman who was raised an atheist, married an atheist, and they both became devout Catholics a few years after marriage. She has some great insights on the "stumbling blocks" like birth control, gay rights, salvation, etc. She's also very funny and speaks the truth in love, which is great.

Good luck in your discernment! I'll pray for you :-) (which is not meant to be patronizing, as in "I'll pray for you, poor sad thing." Rather, "I'll pray for you" should mean, "that's a tough situation. I will ask God to send some help your way, because He loves you a lot.")

Maggie said...

Here are some more resources:

For Your Marriage from the USCCB (US Bishops' office)

Engaged Marriage

Catholic Answers Forums have great discussions about things and are moderated by priests and lay people who are faithful to Church teaching.

And just for fun, these are adorable. :-)

Anonymous said...

If you don't believe in luck what's with all the Bingo?

Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin said...

Leah, I don't think you'll be required to convert. Your best bet is to talk to your boyfriend's priest. I think that as long as you treat his beliefs with respect, especially in discussions with your children, you'll be doing okay.

As you have accepted that your life in marriage requires sacrifice, this should be acceptable to you. Your boyfriend is going to have to accept that sooner or later his kids will be exposed to atheists, and perhaps even those whom they respect. It's hardly the end of the world if that person is their mother.

Tienne said...

As a devout Catholic married to an atheist, I am living proof that it's entirely possible to both maintain a loving marriage with someone whose beliefs are at odds with my own and raise our children in the faith when I'm the only one who believes. I've written some posts on the subject at my blog http://takethepoorwithyou.blogspot.com.

In terms of raising the kids in the faith, I think the OP has exactly the right attitude to accomplish that. It IS a requirement of the Church that the non-Catholic party agree to be open to life AND raise the children in the Catholic faith. For my husband, that means supporting my efforts to catechize them rather than actively teaching them something he doesn't espouse. If the non-believer loves their spouse and respects their beliefs, and if the Catholic truly knows and understands and practices their faith, it's emminently doable.

In all honesty, we live a more Catholic marriage than other couples I know where both parties are Catholic!

Maureen said...

My parents were Catholic/Jewish - I was "raised" Catholic, but we also accompanied my not-terribly -obsevant mother to the synagogue on High Holy Days.
Not the slightest problem when I was young; it's only now, as I am growing older that I begin to question whether I am more Catholic than Jewish.....but that is my journey, and the point is that children will not necessarily and automatically be confused by differing beliefs of the parents.
My mother used to say that Jews didn't believe that "the Christ is the Messiah" - and I could accept that without shaking my own Catholic faith.
However, I did grow up in a multi-cultural society, and had a Buddhist "ayah" and a Hindu kindergarten teacher - it's the very best way for a child to be educated.
The religion one follows, after all, is very largely an accident of birth.

Anonymous said...


I'd just like to commend you for your open mind.

I've not come across many atheists willing to learn anything about Catholicism. Most of them have been outright nasty towards me/my faith.

Thank you for your willingness to learn and to try to help your boyfriend live his faith.

Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin said...


you may find Simcha Fisher an interesting read. She grew up in a Jewish household, that (IIRC) converted en masse to the Holy Mother Church when she was four.

her wordpress blog
her National Catholic Register columns

cathmom5 said...

In a Catholic marriage, the Catholic spouse MUST solemnly promise to raises the children in the Faith. I was not Catholic at the time of my marriage to a Catholic. However, I was asked by the priest if I would promise to raise the children Catholic and the priest asked me NOT to teach them my faith. The Catholic Church expects adults to act as adults. While I did not have to sign anything the "obliged" me to keep my promise to allow them to be raised in the Catholic Faith, I, as an honorable person, did keep my word to the priest.

Now, my situation is a little different than the atheist poster, in that I was a Christian, not an atheist, but, believe me, Baptists can be just as hostile to Catholics as atheists can be to Christianity in general. But it is my experience that those who think that they can handle differences in faith (or lack thereof) when they are young and in new love, can and more often than not, feel differently when children come along. All of a sudden their faith or beliefs become more important to them and they want to pass them on to their children.

It is not an advantage to raise children in a multi-religious environment--multi-cultural, okay--but not multi-religious. The Church teaches that all religions are NOT equal and that is the way Catholic children should be raised. Discussion about other faiths and belief systems is good, especially when they're older; tolerance and understanding of other faiths and cultures can even make one's faith stronger. However, making one's children believe all religious belief systems (ie, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc) are on the same level as the Truth is not a good thing. Either the Catholic Church is the "bulwark of Truth" or it is not. Jesus said, "I am the way, the TRUTH, and the Life." We are His Church wherein lies the Truth.

Anonymous said...

Canon Law 1983 specifically states IT IS AN OBLIGATION of the Catholic parent. The non-Christian/ non-Catholic parent no longer signs a promise as in the 1917 Canon Law, but is asked to honor the Catholic spouse's promise and not put up a roadblock.

"Canon 226.2 Because they gave life to their children, parents have the most serious obligation and the right to educate them. It is therefore primarily the responsibility of Christian parents to ensure the Christian education of their children in accordance with the TEACHING OF THE CHURCH."

Glenna said...

Ya know, I'm always amazed...really amazed...which of the commentors above would walk on to a baseball diamond to play ball & announce that they'd only play if there are 4 strikes & you're out? Or independently decide that, since you're not comfortable with the fact that it takes 10 yards to make a 1st down in football, when YOU play it'll take only 5 yds etc?
Sounds ridiculous but that's what you're doing with ease when it comes to where you & your family will spend eternity. Guess what? There is Objective Truth in this universe. Truth does not revolve around what makes you comfortable.
Thank you SMM for spelling that out.

Brian Westley said...

Guess what? There is Objective Truth in this universe. Truth does not revolve around what makes you comfortable.

That certainly holds for religion.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to add my two cents since two years ago I was in a similar situation.
I´m a 22-year-old student and three years ago, I met a wonderful Catholic boy. We fell in love and the better I knew him, the more I was wondering about his faith - what did he believe, exactly? Why did he go to Mass every Sunday? So I started (1) going with him and (2) reading Catholic apologetics and blogs.
Just like one commenter already wrote, it was Conversion Diary that really helped me in my process of learning about the process of converting to the Catholic faith. It was while reading the archives that I realized that, yes, Catholicism can be the sensible choice and yes, there are tons and tons of amazing Catholic intellectuals.
I don´t have time to elaborate much more than that, but I wanted to mention some other Catholic blogs that I love reading: Abigail´s Alcove, Apple Cider Mill, Bad Catholic, Betty Duffy and Standing Over My Head. Hopefully you´ll find these blogs interesting! I certainly did - I was baptized this Easter! I still don´t have it all figured out, by far, but I know it is going to be an amazing journey :)

Regards from Austria.

Anonymous said...

To the person who asked the question,
Catholics and Athesists can and do work out. Ask my other half for proof of that!
You both need to be accepting of one another's faith. If you both truly love one another, then neither will ask the other to convert as the faith (or lack of it) is part of who you are.
If you're meant to be, you will work it out.

Anonymous said...

Brian Westley, spot on. the irony is that Sister Mary martha is NOT Catholic at all, she is living a lie. No true Catholic would write what she has written to you. This is certainly NOT a Catholic blog. There is someone pretending and lying, two people, not you but Sister mary and one commentator who aslso claims to be Catholic. These two people are not Catholic, they are liars and using their lies to inflict misery upon you. No real religious person would do that.

Anonymous said...

I was raised Catholic and had a rebellious youth and fell away from the Lord..when I was about 30 I felt a tug on my heart to get right and back with God. Naturally I attempted to go back to the only thing I had known , the RCC..I went to church on a Good Friday and went into “confession”…the VERY FIRST thing the priest (who did not know me at all) asked me during confession was ” are you married” ? I said yes. He then said ” were you married in the Catholic Church? ” I said No. He then told he could not “absolve” me of my sins, I’d have to get my husband to convert and we would have to take classes and be married in the RCC ( we had already been married 10 years !)..I was shocked. He was basically telling me as far as he and the RCC was concerned I could die and go to hell with these “sins” on me because I wasn’t married in the RCC. I went out in the parking lot sat in my car and cried for about 15 minutes. I suddenly felt the voice of the Lord tell me
” no MAN can forgive you of your sins, only I can and I have”…I stopped crying and had peace. I shared this story with a co-worker who then invited me to his church ( Protestant) and I have never never gone back to the Catholic Church. Shame. I had a sincere desire to know and follow God and was pushed away by a priest. I believe he will answer to the Lord for this.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this response letter is so condescending and offensive and it makes some wild assumptions. An atheist cannot get married because when an atheist takes her marriage vows she will be lying? An atheist cannot possibly be faithful or devoted to her spouse? Seriously?

I think that marriage between an atheist and a catholic can work, provided that the two respect each others' beliefs and neither is a fanatic. I'm an atheist woman and I'm engaged to and madly in love with a Catholic man. Although he attends mass EVERY Sunday, he's a pretty liberal Catholic: he does not believe in NFP, and with a graduate degree in the sciences, he also believes that the bible and the Church's teachings are "symbolic." He probably would have scared me off on our first few dates if he would have said that he actually believes the universe was created in 6 days or something along those lines.

I fully understand that he'll continue going to church after we get married. I would never try to stop him because if going to church is important to his spiritual well being, I would not want to interfere. I've even gone with him on a couple of occasions because I always enjoy being together with him. It also makes him really happy when I go to church with him and making him happy makes me happy.

He also doesn't try to get me to go to church or to force religion on me. He respects that I don't go to church and that I don't believe even when I do go with him. Although I'm baptized and I was raised a Catholic, I don't kneel during parts of the mass when people are supposed to kneel because it's uncomfortable and I don't believe in the whole thing anyway. I also just remain in the pews during communion.

I also realize that he'll want to raise any children we might have Catholic. I'm fine with that because 1. it is important to him and they will be his kids too and 2. I think that learning about religion is important so our kids can make an informed decision about religion. After all, my parents took me to Catholic mass every Sunday growing up, and bible study twice a week, and knowing what is in the bible and the church's teaching were the primary forces driving me to become an atheist.

My fiance is also fine with me explaining my lack of beliefs and the reason for them to our future children. Of course, I'd prefer our children to become atheists who care about other people and who would want to make the world a better place. I'd like them to be guided by their innate sense of right and wrong and the family values my fiance and I will teach them, as opposed to some supposed authority figure's interpretation of some unintelligible document written thousands of years ago by some fishermen.

My fiance and I would like to get married in the Catholic Church, but I'm terrified of the whole process. I think that whoever we will approach within the church about getting married will treat me with the same condescending tone as this nun uses in this letter. I also will not lie about my beliefs to anyone or try to hide my beliefs. With my marriage vows I will love him and be faithful to him for the rest of my life and I think I'm just as well suited to do that as any Catholic.

Unknown said...

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