Many couples share everything .... except their faith.
Many spouses are separated by a spiritual gulf because one of the spouses is not a believer, or even baptized, at the time of the marriage, or because one of them (re)discovers the faith during the course of married life or, on the contrary, one of the spouses abandons the practice after the marriage. All these cases are possible.
From a canonical point of view, the Church sees no objection to such a union, as long as the non-believing spouse welcomes the process of Christian marriage (indissolubility, fidelity, fecundity), does not oppose the practice of the believing spouse, and that everything is done to promote the Christian education of the children. In fact, the important thing is that the one who does not believe is not anti-Christian, that they are intellectually honest. There should therefore be no ideological hostility. This is mostly the case at a time when anticlericalism has receded in favor of indifference and an indecisive spiritual quest. Yet, despite good intentions at the outset, despite shared human values, difference is often a source of suffering.
Do not forget that faith is first and foremost a gift from God
For the believing spouse, it means giving up practicing together as a couple, praying together, relying on the other for the religious education of the children, going on a retreat as a couple. “Married in church, I rediscovered Christ sixteen years after my marriage,” says Caroline, 55. “My husband doesn’t mind if I go to Mass every Sunday, but he has a complete block on faith. My two daughters have stopped going, and I find it difficult to go to Mass alone, especially at Christmas. And it is impossible to talk about my beliefs at home.” As a consequence of this gap, there is often an expectation in the believing spouse that the other will follow the same path. A legitimate wish, but one that can become problematic if one tries to convert the other, to bring him or her into line with one’s convictions, forgetting that faith is first and foremost a gift from God.
“When I met Michael,” recalls Charlotte, 42, “I was unhappy that he wasn’t a believer. At first, I pushed him to come to Mass with me, until I realized that it had the opposite effect.” A reaction like Charlotte’s can be interpreted as a kind of self-protection in the face of those who don’t believe, against feeling different. However, a condition for a successful marriage is that each one desires the other to be fully themselves. If God infinitely respects freedom, how can a Christian be compelled to bring the other to be like him or her?
On the other hand, the believing spouse may react with resignation: loneliness, lack of support in the Christian education of the children, and this may lead them down the path of disengagement and indifference. “It’s hard for me to keep up the practice,” says Laura. “I go to Mass less and less, I’m moving away from prayer. Everything changed when my eldest son told me he didn’t want to make his profession of faith: I understood then that I wouldn’t find support from my husband.”
For 58-year-old Marie, her detachment continued up to the point where she had to face some deep questions. When she married Francis, she was a practicing Catholic, and he came from a Catholic background. But soon after the marriage, he stopped practicing as it had become a mere habit. Raising her five children in the Christian faith, Marie felt more and more alone in carrying this dimension. “I respected his choice, yet at the same time, deep down inside, it exasperated me,” she adds. “Ten years ago, I got tired of carrying everything. I let it all go. I hardly ever prayed anymore.”
How to better live your devotion in marriage
Believing/not believing … will the adventure turn out to be a mission impossible? For many practicing spouses, as their relationship with God matures, it becomes the key to renewal, and a way out of the tug-of-war. Going to Mass, parish services, as well as spiritual retreats, Bible groups, even a close link with a community, can allow the believing spouse to find support outside the marriage to better live out his or her vocation to marriage.
Claire, 28-years-old and married for three years, experienced this, having followed a two-year theological training course in evening classes. “It was by deepening my faith that I understood how much I was called to go fully towards the other. If this is the heart of what I believe, then there is no contradiction in living with a non-believer,” she says.
Marie, for her part, went so far as to question herself in depth. “Thanks to psychological work, I was led to a new understanding of life and of God,” she confides. “I realized that I was too focused on the spiritual life to the point of neglecting my humanity. I was able to discuss faith with my husband again and we regained our trust. Now, I no longer blame him for not developing his inner life. I fully accept it.” The resolution of this crisis led her to revise her vision of the sacrament of marriage: “For a long time, I asked myself who I should love first: God or my husband? Spirituality used to keep me away from him, but now it helps me to love him better.”
“Since my conversion, I know that I can meet Jesus, not only in the Eucharist, but also in my closest brethren: my husband,” Caroline confides. Hence the new balance between her external spiritual activities (Scripture classes, retreats with a friend in the same situation) and the renewal of her bond with John, because she recognizes that he may have suffered because of her conversion: “It is important to cultivate other meeting points for the couple. For us, it’s photography, cinema, theater. Above all, I must not give myself only to the Church.” One believes, the other does not, but it works in spite of everything because they have made the choice to love each other.
Couples at the crossroads of faith and non-faith
Between a witness full of hope — because conversions do happen! — and respect for the rhythm of the other, the believing spouse is thus invited to a subtle path. Some people note a mutual enrichment, despite the pain of not sharing a devotion to Christ. Nathalie acknowledges that her non-believer husband has “the role of regulator,” of rational counterpoint in the couple, as if difference had become a source of a beneficial balance for the family. “He reminds me that we don’t live in a bubble,” she says. This richness can spill over beyond the home: these couples carry a specific mission in the Church, at the crossroads of faith and and non-faith.
“I live in the midst of atheists,” Caroline explains. “Perhaps it is not through me that they will discover something of the faith, for no one is a prophet in his own country, but I am there in their midst, like a useless servant. Strengthened by the sacrament we both received, I am convinced that the Lord is working in my husband, even if he doesn’t know it.”
“Being married to a non-believer is a form of poverty,” Claire-Marie added. “At the same time, it allows me to relate to non-believers in a natural way.”
Ultimately, these couples represent the encounter between Israel and Greek wisdom, between the Church and the world. Believing spouses are mysterious signs of Christ sent to the nations—an image that leads us back to the beginnings of the Church, to what Paul said to the Corinthians: “The unbelieving husband is sanctified by his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by her believing husband” (1 Corinthians 7:14). And vice versa. Nice setup, isn’t it?