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Simcha FisherApril 19, 2023
pages of a book formed into a heart shapePhoto via iStock.

When Laura Frese was three days postpartum, she had to take her newborn back into the hospital to be treated for jaundice. They had been home for only 12 hours, and it was right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, before vaccinations, and she had to leave her other two children behind with no family to help. At the hospital, she just couldn’t get herself out of the car.

“I’ve seen my wife cry all of three times,” said her husband, Bradford. This was one of those times. Laura was simply overwhelmed.

So Bradford held her hand and started saying Hail Marys. This comforted her and helped her compose and center herself, and she found the strength to drag herself back through that hospital door.

Not an extraordinary story, perhaps, except that Bradford Frese is an atheist. He does not believe in God or intercessory prayer. But he does love his wife.

“I tried to find some way to comfort her in that moment that was specific to her, and not just what I thought. Not telling her what I needed her to hear, but to understand what might bring her strength in that moment,” said Mr. Frese.

He has noticed that prayer is good for his kids, too. It calms them down, helps them regulate their breathing, and aids in teaching them to hold themselves to high moral standards. He believes it has empirical benefits, if not precisely the ones religious people believe in.

The Freses, who live in Washington, D.C., are part of a growing trend in the United States. In the 1950s, only 5 percent of marriages in the United States were between Christians and religiously unaffiliated people, and fewer than 20 percent were between people in different religious groups, according to a 2015 Pew study. But things have changed. At the time of the study, the share of spouses in different religious groups had climbed to 39 percent, and 18 percent of marriages were between a Christian and a “none.”

As Catholics, it can be illuminating to understand better how these matters land “on the other side”—how it feels to be the non-Catholic married to a Catholic.

Such marriages may be more common than they once were, but they are by no means easy. It might feel, in the first, heady days of a couple’s relationship, like love can smooth over any differences, including those between a believer and a non-believer. In reality, there must be open communication, clarity, flexibility and probably compromise on both sides. How to raise children is a frequent point of contention, and so are matters of sexual ethics. As Catholics, it can be illuminating to understand better how these matters land “on the other side”—how it feels to be the non-Catholic married to a Catholic.

No Longer “Doomed”

Religious leaders used to warn that such marriages were “doomed, absolutely doomed,” said Dale McGowan, author of In Faith and In Doubt and several other books on raising kids without religion. “The fact is, that’s less often borne out than it once was.”

As these marriages have become more common, the warnings surrounding them have become less dire—and with good cause. The risks of marrying outside one’s faith are much more intense when such partnerships cause a rift with your familiar social, political and religious communities. But today, the average American moves 11 times, and the insulated, isolated, homogeneous communities of the past are now rare and fragile. We simply encounter more different people than we used to.

“The culture itself has adapted to the idea of being exposed to different influences,” Mr. McGowan said. And that goes both for the believer and for the non-believer in the mixed-belief couple.

In Mr. Frese’s case, growing up in a religiously diverse private high school in Albuquerque, N.M., helped him to respect people with differing beliefs from a young age. Mormons, Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, atheists and agnostics all mixed together and spoke freely about their beliefs and disagreements, in and out of class. He absorbed the idea that diversity is desirable. He could also see that children who took their religion seriously tended to be kind, and that made a good impression on him.

“It was a big deal in their personal lives, and it motivated them, but it wasn’t a divisive factor,” he said. Still, religious practice didn’t draw him personally. “I’m cut off from this way of thinking. It’s not something I’ve ever been motivated to do or to think about,” he said.

Mr. McGowan said it is vital for a couple to talk about expectations ahead of time, so that no one ends up feeling duped.

Mr. Frese was obliged to think about religion several years into his marriage when his wife, a nominal Catholic when they met, started diving deeper into her faith. They had been married in a vineyard, and for the first few years, she went to Mass only sporadically. But her parish priest encouraged them to get married in the church. Ms. Frese liked the idea, so Mr. Frese agreed, and shortly after the birth of their second child, they had a ceremony in the church with family and friends. She began to be more involved in her faith and in parish life.

The birth of a child is one of three major life events, after the engagement and the marriage itself, that Mr. McGowan calls a “landmark” that “really brings out the issues” in a marriage between a believer and a nonbeliever.

Mr. McGowan said it is vital for a couple to talk about expectations ahead of time, so that no one ends up feeling duped. And he says when shifts in belief do occur, both parties should strive to be as flexible and open to other points of view as possible.

Mr. Frese and his wife did have open discussions about family size before they were married and decided it made sense to have two children, and that a girl and a boy would be ideal. If they had two children of the same sex, perhaps they would try for a third or even adopt (Laura is an adoptee herself).

They had a boy and a girl.

“I was like, ‘Great, I’m gonna have a vasectomy,’” Mr. Frese said.

He was shocked when his wife asked him to wait, because she might want a third child. Her pregnancies had been difficult and complicated, and because of her severe morning sickness, he ended up juggling his job and a lot of child care.

“I said, ‘Well, we had a plan and I’d like to stick to that plan, but I’ll forgo this for you,’” he recalled. So Laura had their third child, a daughter. She made it clear that a vasectomy was not something she believed in, but that the decision was up to him to do what he thought was right for himself.

“So that was that,” he said.

Marriages tend to founder, according to Mr. McGowan, when one spouse adheres to a faith that shuns members who marry outside the faith.

The Freses are perhaps lucky because, although she is Catholic and he is atheist, he said he is the more politically conservative of the two. This combination—a nonbeliever matched with a more left-leaning Catholic—is one of the more statistically successful pairings of believers and nonbelievers, according to Mr. McGowan’s research. Research also shows that atheists pair well with cultural (not religious) Jews and with mainline Protestants.

the frese family poses for a photo, the father has red hair, the mother is of asian descent and their three young kids have brown hair
Laura Frese, a Catholic, and Bradford Frese, an atheist, are part of a growing trend of marriages between people of differing religious and spiritual beliefs in the United States. (Photo courtesy of the Frese family)

Marriages tend to founder, according to Mr. McGowan, when one spouse adheres to a faith that shuns members who marry outside the faith. Islam and Orthodox Judaism outright prohibit mixed marriages (although Islam sometimes allows Muslim men to marry women “of the book”—that is, of another Abrahamic religion, i.e., Christianity or Judaism; and Conservative Judaism, as distinct from Orthodox Judaism, is showing some signs of shifting). And while Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not doctrinally prohibited from such marriages, some communities cut ties with such couples, which can be devastating to a spouse from one of these faiths.

The dynamics are further complicated, said Mr. McGowan, by the fact that for many women, their spiritual life and their family life are closely intertwined. When Mr. McGowan (an atheist) and his own then-Southern Baptist wife were dating in Los Angeles and discussing their future (they now live in Georgia), she told him that if they married, she must continue to go to church. He later discovered that this request was a sort of “proxy redemption” for her own mother’s past. Her mother had married a Baptist minister and expected to live a certain way; but her husband fell away from the church and forbade her to go, ripping away a good part of her identity in the process.

Mr. McGowan said his wife “saw her mom suffering under the loss of that community and the things that defined her,” and she wanted to make sure history would not repeat itself.

He assured her that was not his intention. “As if I would have the right,” he said.

Marriages undergo strain when one spouse cannot bear to acknowledge that there is anything of value in the other one’s point of view.

Bridging the Gap

Marriages undergo strain when one spouse cannot bear to acknowledge that there is anything of value in the other one’s point of view. An atheist spouse may especially chafe if they marry someone who is not devout at the time of the marriage but becomes more God-fearing years into the union. They often report feeling there is suddenly a third person present in the marriage, especially in the bedroom.

“You’re beholden to something outside your marriage,” Mr. McGowan said.

A God they do not even believe in suddenly has an unmistakable and unwelcome authority over their relationship. Even if the spouse who has undergone conversion describes the shift as enlightenment, it feels to the atheist as if their spouse can no longer think freely.

Mr. McGowan said that marriages can survive such dramatic shifts (all lasting marriages face changes, after all), but flexibility and willingness to treat the other spouse with respect even if you disagree are crucial. Even if both spouses are Christian with similar beliefs, sometimes the details can make a big difference, with the potential to drive a wedge between them.

Lynnsie Pairitz is Christian but does not identify with any particular denomination. She and her Catholic husband are raising their four young, homeschooled children Catholic, because that is what she agreed to do when they married. The kids attend faith formation at their local parish in Colorado, and they attend the Catholic homeschool co-op once a week.

“At first I was feeling uncomfortable, but it’s been nice meeting other moms and kids. Some of it is stuff I don’t know. I’m learning along with the kids. That’s something overall in our marriage: I’ve grown overall deeper in my faith because I’ve had to research more of what my faith is. I’ve had to defend more of what my faith is,” she said.

the pairitz family poses for a photo, the mother has blond hair and the father has dark hair with a beard, they have four young children
Lynnsie Pairitz is a nondenominational Christian married to a Catholic. They are raising their four young, homeschooled children Catholic. (Photo courtesy of Pairitz family)

Some of what she learned was new, but still jibed with her existing worldview. This includes natural family planning, which she learned about in premarital counseling from the Catholic Church. She has always felt that the medical community pushes hormonal contraception on women without sufficient regard for their overall physical health and without explaining it well to them. And so, while the ethical arguments for natural family planning were less compelling, the social and medical benefits appealed to her.

“The reason he and I are married is because we had a lot of the same values already, and that’s why we’re able to make the marriage work. Because we had similar ideas and upbringing already, so there wasn’t a big leap to be made,” she said.

This agreement on key values is what Mr. McGowan says is “the most fundamental thing that makes a marriage work” between people with different belief systems. And distinguishing between beliefs and values is important, he says.

“Beliefs are opinions about what’s true; values are opinions about what’s good. You can have the same values for different reasons,” he said.

If one spouse rejects contraception because he believes it’s immoral, and the other rejects it because she believes it’s unhealthy, they have a good shot at avoiding conflicts around family planning.

“They’re arriving at it from a different path, but they can have total integrity,” Mr. McGowan said.

But not all Catholic doctrines can be grasped from a secular point of view. In the Pairitz marriage, like the Frese one, the Eucharist has the potential to strike a note of discord.

Ms. Pairitz acknowledges the division in her home, but said she tries consciously to make strengths out of the things that might divide them, and she and her husband spend a lot of time talking through the points they disagree on.

“I have a hard time with the idea of transubstantiation, which is the whole idea,” Ms. Pairitz said. “And I get jaded at the fact that I am left out.” She says she sometimes prefers to watch the Mass online so she does not feel like as much of an outsider.

Her oldest child is preparing to receive her first Communion. Ms. Pairitz is trying to step aside and allow it, focusing on buying her daughter a pretty dress and planning a party, and trying not to fret about the theology, while simultaneously making sure her daughter is participating of her own free will.

Ms. Pairitz acknowledges the division in her home, but said she tries consciously to make strengths out of the things that might divide them, and she and her husband spend a lot of time talking through the points they disagree on.

“I do think that’s what allows us to have a strong marriage. Because we do have these two viewpoints, we have to discuss it in more depth, more frequently, so we’re very strong and clear on where each other stands. We don’t just go through the motions and not necessarily know why,” she said.

Although she agreed to raise the kids Catholic, she underestimated how much she would have to give up, or how much it would hurt.

“I probably didn’t understand my husband’s commitment to raising children Catholic, and what that entailed. I always kind of thought, hey, we’ll meet each other halfway. I’ll give a little, you’ll give a little, and that’s where we’ll meet. But that’s not how it’s worked out,” she said.

She doesn’t always let him get his way, though.

When parents don’t agree, the key to family harmony is to raise children with the understanding that no question is off limits.

“I have battles I have won,” she said. Their first daughter was baptized in a Lutheran church.

“[My husband] was somewhat uncomfortable [going to a Lutheran church], but the fact we were attending church was better than not,” she said.

Now the pendulum has indisputably swung toward the Catholic side, but the conversation is ongoing. She said that when her kids ask something she doesn’t know, she’ll often end up referring them to her mother-in-law, with whom she has a warm relationship.

The Key to Family Harmony

According to Mr. McGowan, when parents don’t agree, the key to family harmony is to raise children with the understanding that no question is off limits.

He said that when his own children would ask him if Jesus really rose from the dead, he would answer, “Well, people have different opinions. I don’t think he did. I think it’s something people say to make themselves feel better about death. But you should talk to Mom.” And their mother, who was then a Southern Baptist, would then tell them what she held to be true.

Both parents, said Mr. McGowan, told the children, “You should make up your mind, and you can change your minds a thousand times. And we will love you no less, whatever you decide.”

It can be immensely painful for a nonbeliever to see their children being taught something they consider foolish or untrue.

He stressed to them that their beliefs might change over time.

“An identity doesn’t have to be your feet in cement,” he told them.

This is an assurance perhaps easier for a nonbeliever to offer than a believer. Mr. McGowan said that, for example, when one spouse believes in hell and one does not, it is harder to make co-parenting work. A Catholic who believes in immortality sees much higher stakes at play when a child leaves the faith behind, or begins experimenting with things the parent understands to be immoral. But the nonbeliever also suffers on the child’s behalf when there is a mismatch of beliefs. It can be immensely painful for a nonbeliever to see their children being taught something they consider foolish or untrue.

With this in mind, Mr. McGowan’s person-first example of respect for his wife is especially striking. He said, “I fell in love with a Southern Baptist. What if I said the worst thing in the world is for [my children] to be what my wife was when I fell in love with her?” Even though he did not assent to the spiritual beliefs his wife professed, he loved his wife herself, and so wanted his children to be like her in some way. But his wife eventually left her church—and this caused Mr. McGowan some distress.

They both believe that their marriage is supposed to reflect the union of Christ with the church.

“My kids were in the middle of growing up, and we had to work harder to make sure they had outside influences, so they had multiple perspectives. It’s like other kinds of diversity. The more you’re exposed to it, the less you’re afraid of it,” he said.

Reflecting the Union of Christ

In some homes, that diversity is very close to home. Jason Wells’s daughter is very familiar with two congregations: St. Joseph, the Catholic cathedral in Manchester, N.H., where her mother, Courtney Wells, is a cantor, and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, also in Manchester, where Jason is the priest-in-charge. Their daughter serves at the altar at both churches.

Rev. Wells said that when he was in his 20s and unmarried, he wondered how he would meet a partner, because as an Episcopal priest he is not allowed to date anyone in his congregation. But another Episcopal priest knew both him and Ms. Wells, who is an attorney. He knew they both took their faith seriously and could not resist introducing the two earnest young people, who were hard at work at different churches on opposite street corners.

“She was somebody who would sit across the table and talk Latin and saints and liturgy and how much that means to us,” Rev. Wells said. They have now been married for 13 years and have a 12-year-old daughter.

He describes their understanding of the theology of marriage as “90-ish percent the same.” But even an Episcopal priest was required to attend pre-Cana classes at a Catholic church, and he remembers going to Ms. Wells’s church for their mandatory session.

“I was tucking my collar into my pocket as I came into the room,” he recalled. Then afterward he would walk over to his own church to say Mass.

The couple thoroughly discussed the theology of marriage, and the way they wanted to live their spiritual life as a family, with a Catholic priest, who ended up being godson to their daughter. They both believe that their marriage is supposed to reflect the union of Christ with the church. Rev. Wells knows all these things well, because he teaches them to other couples when he counsels them for marriage in his church.

“Courtney felt the Catholic Church respects the Episcopal Church’s sacraments, so [our daughter] was baptized in the Episcopal church I was serving at at that time,” Rev. Wells said.

“We might have some space [to disagree] where we talk about same-sex marriage, but there’s a lot that is very much in line with what the Catechism [of the Catholic Church] teaches,” he said.

But things get a little more complicated when it comes to their daughter.

“What would we do about the sacraments, in what church, in what order?” he said.

So far, they have alternated.

“Courtney felt the Catholic Church respects the Episcopal Church’s sacraments, so [our daughter] was baptized in the Episcopal church I was serving at at that time,” he said.

But she made her first Communion at the Catholic cathedral in Manchester. “We had honest and open conversations about whether it would be hurtful, or if it would feel like a loss, if it didn’t happen this way,” he said.

Their daughter is now 12, and their goal is to raise her so that she will be truly free to make her own choices about her faith. But making that choice requires knowledge and experience.

They hope that whatever their children decide for themselves about faith, it is done thoughtfully, deliberately, for some defensible reason—not just at random or because it is the easiest thing.

“As soon as she could be taken out of the house, she was on Courtney’s hip at the cathedral in the choir loft. She would also bring her to the early liturgy at the church where I was serving,” Rev. Wells said.

That is one thing all the parents in this article, including Mr. McGowan, expressed: They hope that whatever their children decide for themselves about faith, it is done thoughtfully, deliberately, for some defensible reason—not just at random or because it is the easiest thing.

Because they are both so active in public life, the Rev. and Ms. Wells are not only constantly prepared to hash out theological questions at home, but they tend to be representatives for their respective faiths in public, as well.

“Courtney gets dragged into conversations with people who want priests to be able to marry. You’re a projection screen for that, for ‘this is why the Catholic discipline on celibacy is wrong. “Or someone wants to re-litigate Henry VIII with me,” Rev. Wells said. He is glad they can both provide people with a perspective they might otherwise not find.

He jokes that sometimes he would rather just sit down with his coffee and talk about football, but ultimately he’s up for the challenge that his unusual marriage brings.

“That’s a calling of its own, bearing witness,” he said.

When a couple with different faith traditions approaches him, as a priest, for counseling, he tells them to ask themselves, “What is it that is in my faith life that absolutely must come with me, and if it didn’t, I would feel loss or grief?”

A lot of spiritual practices are more compatible in family life than some of our denominational differences would have us believe.

He said a lot of spiritual practices are more compatible in family life than some of our denominational differences would have us believe.

“It is the calling of any family to make their home into a spiritual haven. These couples will be doing it in a way that looks a little different, but if it is born out of good communication and honesty, it makes for a very strong marriage,” he said.

There is one pain they cannot overcome with good intentions and honest communication, though, and that is not being able to receive Communion together.

“The schism hurts,” he said.

He is not sure where his daughter will land, since he describes her as “incredibly, maybe too at home in two churches.” At the very least, she cannot claim no one educated her about the faith.

“Whatever she chooses, it will be done with full knowledge,” he said.

Although Rev. Wells laughed frequently while describing the sometimes offbeat patchwork of their daily life, he acknowledged that this at-homeness in not one but two communities has left him feeling a little bereft at times. “When you’re equally at home everywhere, it’s hard to make a home somewhere,” he said. “You can feel like neither fish nor fowl. Every now and then, there’s sort of a moment of grief. You can’t be with the other families, and there’s nothing about us, short of abandoning your church for another one, that changes that. We’re always a little different from other families for whom these traditions are easier to navigate.”

He recalled the “Peanuts” comic strip in which Charlie Brown asks Snoopy in frustration, “Why can’t I have a normal dog, like everybody else?”

He laughed again and said, “Our family will never be a normal dog.”

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