When I first announced my relationship with my now-longtime boyfriend to my parents, the first thing my dad said was, “Really? The least Catholic person you know?”
This was rich coming from a man who was not Catholic when he married my very Catholic mother and then converted 25 years later when he had truly and personally come to the faith (this was the crux of my rebuttal to his comment). In truth, his comment was the response I knew many of our friends and family shared but didn’t have the courage to say.
From the start, my boyfriend and I were drawn to each other because of our shared passion for leadership, learning, and serving others. We have always had fantastic conversations at the intersections of our scientific and theological studies. As we got to know each other more deeply, we discovered shared difficulties in our family lives growing up, a shared desire for self-improvement, and shared political beliefs.
From the start, my boyfriend and I were drawn to each other because of our shared passion for leadership, learning, and serving others.
Over the course of four years of friendship and dating other people, we discovered the uniqueness of our trust and honesty with each other, and attraction naturally grew. We have learned how to communicate effectively through three years of long distance dating and, through personal tragedy, we have come together to mourn and ask big questions about what “beyond” looks like. It seems to me that, if you removed the outside personas of “church girl” and “agnostic scientist,” our inner selves would look pretty darn similar.
We also still share many essential beliefs: that the ordering of the natural world implies the existence of an all-knowing, first-motion Creator; that there are mysteries that science cannot explain; that miracles happen; that we are both soul and body; and that service to the poor is the crux of the Gospel.
This is not to say that there have not been important conversations surrounding topics like marriage, sex, and children. It is with these subjects that most Catholics begin and end the conversation about dating a non-Catholic. The Catechism tells us:
“In many countries the situation of a mixed marriage (marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic) often arises ... A case of marriage with disparity of cult (between a Catholic and a non-baptized person) requires even greater circumspection. Difference of confession between the spouses does not constitute an insurmountable obstacle for marriage, when they succeed in placing in common what they have received from their respective communities, and learn from each other the way in which each lives in fidelity to Christ. But the difficulties of mixed marriages ... arise from the fact that the separation of Christians has not yet been overcome. The spouses risk experiencing the tragedy of Christian disunity even in the heart of their own home. Disparity of cult can further aggravate these difficulties. Differences about faith and the very notion of marriage, but also different religious mentalities, can become sources of tension in marriage, especially as regards the education of children. The temptation to religious indifference can then arise” (CCC 1633-1634).
Because of the sacramental orientation of the Church, and because of how we as women have been conditioned to view marriage as the be-all end-all of our vocational stories, we often jump to these things immediately when testing compatibility. They are foundational — and for good reason. We should desire a sacramental marriage, because we should desire that special grace from God, and we should strive to belong to the Church community and lean on it for support.
We should desire a sacramental marriage, because we should desire that special grace from God, and we should strive to belong to the Church community and lean on it for support.
Expectations about Faith and Conversion
When dating someone of a different faith, there are also expectations to discuss. Do you want your partner to attend Mass or Adoration with you? Do you want to pray together, and, if so, in what form and how frequently? Are there certain beliefs that, if your partner does not share them, you feel would inhibit your growth in faith and therefore “make or break” your relationship?
A question that often arises from such discussions is whether or not a partner should convert. Some people and/or their families may have expectations that a partner join the Church before or during marriage. I caution against having this expectation. We live in a world where more and more young people are falling away from the Church because of a lack of personal connection to the Faith. Converting to Catholicism based on feeling the need to do so is not a good way to build up our Tradition. Take my dad as an example: He came to the Church 25 years into marriage, because he finally found a priest and community who helped guide him. Now, his faith is flourishing. My mother never expected or demanded his conversion; she just led by example. On this, The Catechism says:
“In marriages with disparity of cult the Catholic spouse has a particular task: ‘For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband.’ It is a great joy for the Christian spouse and for the Church if this ‘consecration’ should lead to the free conversion of the other spouse to the Christian faith. Sincere married love, the humble and patient practice of the family virtues, and perseverance in prayer can prepare the non-believing spouse to accept the grace of conversion” (CCC 1637).
I want to be clear that it is OK to have certain expectations about participation and for those expectations to change along the way, so long as the partners communicate them. I used to not care whether my boyfriend prayed or went to Mass with me. Now, because of how much his presence and perspective matter to me, and because of the ways in which he is now exploring his faith, it is important to me that he attends Mass with me once or twice a month. We also pray or meditate together every evening.
Also, remember that this is a two-way street: You must consider the ways in which a person who doesn’t share your faith can support you in your spiritual growth, but you must also consider the ways in which you may or may not be able to support him in his faith. What are your partner’s expectations? Does he want you to attend weekly service with him? Are there holidays he wants to celebrate?
As you try and lead by example to point your partner to Christ, are you open to your partner’s also leading by example for you? Your non-Catholic partner can lead you in faith at times, and we have much to learn from our non-Catholic brothers and sisters.
Your non-Catholic partner can lead you in faith at times, and we have much to learn from our non-Catholic brothers and sisters.
When Difference of Religion Isn’t the Problem
The most important thing to consider is that none of these concerns, discussions, or questions is exclusive to dating someone who doesn’t share your faith. In fact, assuming that they are is where pitfalls can occur.
Let’s say that you told your significant other that attending Mass together every week is important to you. Attending Mass does not otherwise violate his religious beliefs, nor does it conflict with the timing of his own faith’s religious services. Regardless, he is unwilling to attend Mass with you even once.
Or, maybe you were drawn to your partner because of the fantastic conversations you can have together. However, whenever religion is the subject, he criticizes Catholicism as nonsensical but won’t engage you in a dialogue that allows you to share or justify your opinions. You may even express how this hurts you, and he may respond with comments like, “You’re trying to convert me, and you’re not going to”; “Why does this matter so much to you? You know I’m not Catholic”; or, “We just shouldn’t talk about it anymore, then.”
None of these examples is a “difference of religion” problem. The first is an example of an unwillingness to compromise, a behavioral tendency that will probably pop up later on in other contexts. The second is an example of a willingness to openly criticize or brush off things that you have made clear are important to you, with no consideration for your perspective. This is a big red flag that will also return later. These patterns are behavioral, not religious.
It is important to note that problematic behavioral patterns are possible even when you and your partner share the same faith. Just because a man is Catholic doesn’t mean that he is the man for you (or even that he is a good man).
Just because a man is Catholic doesn’t mean that he is the man for you.
There is nothing to fear about going on dates with someone who does not share your faith. Differences in belief and behavioral red flags won’t become visible if you don’t give someone time and the opportunity. Open communication is vital in any and all circumstances, regardless of whether your religious beliefs are shared or different.
In an increasingly globalized world, it is more important than ever to cultivate openness to loving people of different faiths and non-faiths. The Truth of Christ is present in the whole-hearted pursuit of the goodness of the Lord; in service to those in need; and in the anticipation of a world to come full of peace, rest, and light. May our dating relationships and marriages be microcosms of this beautiful vision.
The Truth of Christ is present in the whole-hearted pursuit of the goodness of the Lord; in service to those in need; and in the anticipation of a world to come full of peace, rest, and light.