What’s it like to be a non-Catholic married to a Catholic?

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.”

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. 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 ….
Read the rest of my feature story in America Magazine

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5 thoughts on “What’s it like to be a non-Catholic married to a Catholic?”

  1. Our good friends had an experience somewhat similar to the one at the beginning of this article. The wife (semi devout Presbyterian) and her husband (a lukewarm Catholic raised in a large devout family) had a toddler who became very suddenly ill. They were at Children’s Hospital getting the baby an MRI. Terrified, they began to pray when the husband said, “I really just need to say a Rosary.” And so he began and she joined him. They’ve been married over 30 years and other than his mother dropping not so subtle hints their faith differences were never really an issue. Their kids were raised Presbyterian, although he never goes up for Presbyterian Communion (the wife, on the other hand, does go up to receive Catholic Communion). One of the kids is today a Catholic, having married into the Faith (Actually, it just dawned on me that it’s that same toddler they prayed for all those years ago). The husband and wife are small business owners, and very conservative politically.

  2. I had a couple of questions while reading the article. I’m wondering if the 12 year old who serves on the altar at both Catholic and Episcopalian masses receives Episcopalian Communion? The article seemed carefully worded to avoid answering that question, so I am left assuming (perhaps unfairly) it’s because the girl receives Episcopalian Communion. And if the Catholic mother is ok with that, I would say that brings up a question of the mother’s commitment to raising a child in the Faith.

    Another (related) question I had was what is the source for the idea that successful interfaith marriages are more the domain of political liberals? Has there been a study? I suspect it’s a question of degree of dedication to propagating the faith. In my experience (and I’ve got plenty of anecdata among my husband’s siblings and their many liberal friends) devout Catholic socialists are much less likely to raise up practicing Catholic children. Among my husband’s 10 siblings, the daily Mass attending socialists have raised nearly 20 Unitarians, Quakers, Presbyterians, Lutherans, agnostics, and Jewish converts and three non-practicing, nominal Catholics. The only siblings who have actually raised practicing Catholics are the political conservatives (who also managed to raise a few lukewarm Catholics). Many of the lukewarm Catholic offspring have married both within and outside the faith, but I don’t think faith matters all that much to either partner in those cases, certainly not enough to appear in an article like this one and all those married lukewarm Catholics run the political spectrum. All to say, I can believe that deeply religious people less intent on raising Catholics (in my experience that’s the socialists) would have an easier time living in a marriage (and raising children) with a differently believing spouse, but I’d still like to see a study of such a broad brush statement.

    p.s. my socialist, daily-Mass-going brother in law regularly receives communion at the rainbow bannered Protestant churches in which his grandchildren are baptized. He told me he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by abstaining. Don’t think the question has come up with other liberal in laws as their children have tended not to remain Christian.

  3. A few thoughts…

    1.) Holy cow, the writing on this is gorgeous. I can tell you worked your butt off on it.

    2.) I have a dear friend who’s Catholic married to a Southern Baptist. Both are devout, and their kids go to two churches every Sunday. It was really interesting seeing another perspective on what I’ve witnessed with them.

    Something she’s said to me is that she’s met Southern Baptist friends who get to know her and are absolutely shocked when they find out she’s Catholic, “You mean you’ve found Jesus in the Roman Catholic Church?!” There’s an evangelistic aspect to these marriages too in that people in the other faith community see the commonalities that we share.

    3.) I’ve been going on a deep dive into the similarities and differences between Catholic and Evangelical communities, so this was super exciting to read for that reason too.

    1. If you truly believe that the end of Catholic marriage is the propagation of Catholic souls, why would you even risk such a union?
      I don’t think mixed marriages were ever advisable, but nowadays, when even devout Catholic couples are finding it nearly impossible to raise functional Catholic adults, it’s sheer hubris. It’s a statistical fact that families headed by non-Catholic or non-practicing fathers are basically guaranteed the loss of their children’s Catholic Faith. I would be very interested to see a follow-up article on these families when their children are adults in about ten years. God bless and keep them.

      1. I’m…not sure I do believe that’s the end of Catholic marriage. I was under the impression the primary end of marriage is to get your spouse to Heaven, and that the purpose of the family (as in, dad, mom, and kids) is to be a school of sanctity. There are valid, open to life marriages that don’t result in kids because of infertility.

        I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that God calls a Catholic and Protestant to get married. Or even a Catholic and atheist.

        I am a little puzzled as to why you replied to my comment with this and not to the main post…

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