Advice on how to improve relationships with Catholic side of the family

I am after advice and insight in, hopefully, bridging the gap between the Catholic and Atheist sides of my family.

I am myself an Atheist as is most of my family. My older brother married a Catholic many years ago and converted and they and their family are devout Catholics.

I love them and their children (who are now grown ups or nearly grown ups) very much indeed. I do not really understand what has happened but in the last four years relations between them and the rest of our family has become very strained when previously for over 20 years all was well.

It would seem, as our Mother received a letter from my brother and sister-in-law, that they feel we are disparaging about their beliefs. I am at a loss to understand this as we are a very tolerant family and very respectful of one anothers interests, beliefs, way of life, and always have been. There have been no examples given and we cannot think of any ourselves. It is just a general ‘feeling’ they get. They did allude to the fact that they were not comfortable with the way some of us have lead our lives, for example my Divorce.

Our parents are in their 80’s and do not have the health to be able to cope with this all and are devastated and find it hard to understand why they are now being ostracized.

How can I help mend this?

Since I am neither Catholic or Atheist I am probably not the best to answer however from what you have said it does seem strange that this has all happened after 20years, especially as the children are now grown (its not as if they are worried about influence for example).

Are you sure there is nothing else at play here? Maybe it’s not about religion and its something else, but are using that as an excuse? Have you read the letter yourself? Families are funny things and all have their problems, religion being in play or not. Have you tried speaking to your brother?

Speaking from experience, sometimes it’s a mountain of little things that’s the problem and only the last little thing is mentioned instead of it being one big thing.

Thank you for the reply. Yes I have seen the letter and the theme, without going in to too much detail, is as I write above. But I did also wonder if there wasn’t anything else at play here that hasn’t been mentioned.

It is true to say that they have become more involved with the church as the years have gone by. Perhaps they feel we have not been supportive of this, this that is such a huge part of their lives and who they are I guess.

I want them to know that we all love them and respect their choices in life. How can I best do that. I am worried about asking my brother directly or writing to them in case this should sadly do more harm than good.

I think the best thing to do is stay calm about it all, respect their decisions and just respond with love not anger (which is difficult I know sometimes)…Christmas is coming up, could you maybe go to Christmas mass with them? Or buy them presents which are respective of their faith. I’m not saying convert, just showing that for love of your brother you are willing to embrace their beliefs. Write him a letter, keep it cheerful and not too deep so “hey bro, just so you know I respect your beliefs and whatever is best for you and your family, I’m game! Let me know if you need anything, etc”

Yes I’m all up for supporting my brother and family. I harbor no anger just a desire to mend bridges and understand better if I can.

Over the years things can sometimes build up and get out of hand and before you know a problem exists that doesn’t need to be. I have had ongoing trouble with one brother and the way we resolved it was to actually call a truce. Neither side felt they were wrong but for the sake of the family we put it behind us and moved on. You are right about your parents and that is what drove us to call the truce as ours are still alive and a bit older than yours. Call, write or email your family to get the ball rolling, tomorrow could be too late. You will always win with love. I will pray for you to be full of love.

Dear one, I would do and say exactly as you have done and said here. As mountee said, sometimes things can build and build. When that happens, things that may not have been perceived as an attack–or things that certainly were not intended as an attack–can begin to feel offensive. It is not necessarily just, but it is a reality. Perhaps something like that is happening here?

My family is split in this way also. The atheist side is really very bitter of our Catholic faith, and they play it off in mean spirited jokes. It will come out of their mouth and they will laugh, and if my husband or I show any form of being offended they immediately chastise us with “Oh come on! Don’t be so sensitive. It was only a joke.” :rolleyes: I’ve really had to learn to not engage when things like that happen. Just be sure you don’t do that to them. :slight_smile:

While I know you said you were worried about writing to them - I have to say that I think this is the very best thing to do.

Communication with them is important - and will take time. Writing allows for a very controlled and clear communication where the writer can review his/her words before sending them off and, if there is misunderstanding, what was said is documented and can be reviewed.
Additionally - writing takes out the “emotion” that can come through in speaking. Granted the reader might infer emotion, either by knowing the writer or by introducing their own emotion…but that is separate from what is actually written.

So I would suggest that you write them back (or have an e-mail exchange) in order to try to understand better and to smooth things over for the sake of your elderly parents.

It’s hard to say how these things develop in families since people change over time and things that might not bother a person 20 years ago does bother them now…or it could just be a building up of little and mostly inconsequential things over time.
Sadly it is possible to hurt others gradually - and even unintentionally - over time simply because we each hold very different views.
Since they have not given specific examples but just have a more general feeling of being somehow ostracized I would say that this is the most likely case.

Obviously this is something that is important to them since they took the time to sit down and compose a letter about it…something that fewer and fewer people do these days. So I would want to give it serious consideration and a well composed written response.

Wish I could offer more help…


i was going to suggest pray for them…oops! :eek:

Since they took the time to write to your mother, they are definitely interested in making an explanation, therefore they do still care for the family. If your mother is able, let her make the next step in clarifying, or offering apology if necessary. Sometimes, what one party views as good natured kidding, the other side may view as an attack. Very often, hostility toward Catholicism is masked by “jokes”. I regularly have contact with part of our family that disparages Catholicism in many instances as if only in jest. it does bother me a great deal, and I often respond to the person with the truths of my faith which is usually enough to put a stop to further ‘jokes’. If it were not for love of my husband, I could easily cut ties with these folks. However, I am trying to view this as an opportunity to evangelize those lost in darkness. It is not easy at times.

Have them read John 7:53-8:11 :thumbsup:

I have some good atheist friends that I have known for years. In general, they are very tolerant of and interested in my religion, but we have grown a little distant recently. Maybe if I try and explain what I think has happened to us, it will help you to understand what your brother’s family are feeling.

For many years, I have attended gatherings at their house (dinner parties or whatever). Most of their friends are also atheists or Unitarians, and also extremely liberal politically. In general, I had been reisgned to frequent jokes that assume the lack either of intelligence or of good motives on the part of devout Christians or political conservatives. I have understood that similar jokes in the opposite direction would be unChristian as well as poorly receivedand so in general have not made them. As far as discussion is concerned, I am not really bold enough to stand on my own on one side of an issue with a roomful or people (say, 8 or so) on the other side for very long, and for sure it would not be enjoyable, so I state my position honestly if asked, but in general try to change the direction of the conversation if possible.

This worked OK for 10-15 years or so but it has become more difficult lately. Partly this is due to a new feeling of triumphalism on the other side. The atmosphere is something like, “Now the whole country can see that we’ve been right all along about (abortion, gay marriage, whatever). No matter how stupid they are, most people see the light eventually. Except for the nut-jobs right-wing radicals.” Of course nobody is rude enough to say anything like that out loud, but the attitude is pretty implicit in the things they do say. I don’t blame them for this, because I daresay (at least in my more human moments) I’d feel somewhat similar were the positions reversed. Besides, they are in the majority, and on a private occasion, and why shouldn’t they say what they think? It’s not like we’re at work or something.

But when they’re talking about their victories, they bring to my mind not only the sadness of ground lost but also the fear of what is next. Since I’m not in a position to contribute much to the conversation, and there isn’t anyone else to say anything I agree with, I have to do a lot of silent and invisible praying to get through the experience.

It is also harder to take because sometimes it feels like the attacks are coming from everywhere in society. It’s harder to build up a shell for comments like that to bounce off of, because they are coming all the time (not just in that group of people, I mean, but lots of other places).

So, without doing anything wrong, they have caused me to feel outcast and insulted, and mostly I just don’t go to those gatherings any more. Because they are not family, I have that option. It saddens me, though, because they are good people and have been my friends for a long time. And they think (and rightly so) that they are understanding and welcoming and haven’t done anything wrong. It doesn’t mean that a visit to their house is not an ordeal for me, however.

AFAICT, they think I am being weak and touchy and over-sensitive. I daresay they are mostly right. But my pain is real even if it stems from my own weakness. The one thing all living Catholics have in common is being sinners and I am certainly no exception. The atmosphere at my friends’ home feels full of barbs to me, and it’s almost worse because I don’t dislike any of the people. It probably would be a lot worse if they were all family members that I loved, slapping me in the face all unknowing every time I came to visit, respecting me enough to think that certainly I couldn’t be stupid enough to believe that (whatever it is), so it’s OK to light-heartedly joke about that belief (but not finding out what I think about it first).

In addition, of course, sometimes some of the jokes are actually funny, so if I don’t laugh I’m being fake, but if I do, I feel like I’m betraying what I believe. In any case, I can’t come out all school-marm and chastise them for making jokes about what are, to some, very serious subjects. There really isn’t any right answer for me about what to do in this situation, so mostly I do nothing and feel bad about it.

One thing you might do is to think (not on this forum, but in your head) about what your own attitude really is to religious people. Do you think in general they are either not very smart or not very well educated? Or do you think that they are in general hypocrites? You pretty much have to think in general that they are wrong about what should be the most important thing in their lives (or else you wouldn’t be an atheist, you’d be an agnostic). Thinking that your brother (and possibly his wife) are the rare exceptions to the rule of what religious people are like is not as much of a compliment as you might think. And also if you have that attitude, it is very difficult to conceal it, no matter how much you want to. You can’t change that attitude by wanting to, either, but being aware of it can help you think more about what you say.

I hope you are all able to resolve the situation in a loving manner!


I have to agree. Please understand, I offer this not as a criticism, but as insight from my own experience. I can easily imagine any of my siblings posting this somewhere. My dad has sent me letters and asked of others the exact same thing: Why won’t she come near us? What have we done?

Yet in the past when I have told my father exactly what the problem is–specific, repeated incidents of disrespect, abuse, bad behavior–it’s brushed off with, “But that never happened, so why are you mad?” Or, “But you deserved that. So why are you mad?”

My sisters have entirely sided with this, but in a way, I feel they are victims, too, having been raised in an alcoholic family, being brainwashed with the alcoholic version of things to the point they literally CANNOT UNDERSTAND why my sister screaming at me over Christmas dinner should be a problem. Because after all…I deserved it. They are truly incapable, because of their upbringing, of grasping that virtually anyone, including themselves, would object to the things that have gone on, and they take it for granted that nobody treats them these ways because…they don’t deserve it.

So to them, yes, I’m just being a problem child, just ‘being stubborn’ as my mother has told them for 35 years now, and refusing to look at myself and fix all my many (supposed) problems.

I offer this, again, as another perspective of how things might possibly look from your brother’s point of view. Of course, I’m not there, and it could be way off base. Just a possibility.

This is an interesting and thought provoking question. My initial reaction is to say that I don’t have an opinion on religious people. I am more of a live and let live sort of person. As long as someone is not causing harm or upset to others then I care not what they are or what they believe. I certainly do not think religious people are less intelligent. In fact until you mentioned it above such a thing has never crossed my mind! But, I probably have little understanding of what it is like to be religious and why some would choose that path and very likely do not fully appreciate the importance of faith in others lives.I think it is probably the latter that we, the rest of the family and I, are guilty of, if we are guilty of anything.

We don’t joke about religion. We don’t even debate about religion. When we are all together it is as a family and we talk about family things. I honestly don’t think it crosses any of our minds to mention religion for no other reason than we are too busy talking about the children, grandchildren, old times, future hopes and enjoying each others company etc. I have been very lucky in life to come from and be with a loving, warm and stable family. But perhaps therein lies the problem, or one of them. Maybe by not including their faith into discussions we have not fully included them, if that makes sense? I think perhaps we have underestimated the value of religion to them, not intentionally.

Then added to the above, a few of us have done things that I know would be frowned on by the catholic faith in recent years such as divorce, IVF. I know this has not pleased them. Perhaps the last straw to some degree…

A letter is a good idea. I do not want to lose contact with them and I want them to know they have our love and support.

Thank you all for your contributions. You have given me a lot to think about and also helped me to understand a little better. I appreciate it.

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