Catholic-Atheist family

I have been dating a catholic girl for 4 months and accompanied her to mass this evening as she was staying with me on a sunday (I’m atheist). It all seemed to have gone ok and she thanked me for going with her, but then she told me that I should realise that I have to go with her to church throughout our time together and raise our children as catholic if we were to have them.

This took me a back as I didn’t realise that I would have to be involved in this was and had thought that we could be seperate in our beliefs. I’m not sure if I can make a promise to always attend church as a family as I just feel uncomfortable and feel it wouldn’t be sustainable, but wouldn’t stand in the way of children having a catholic upbringing if it was important to her. I’m not sure how my attending church but not taking part or saying anything would help this catholic upbringing, I just think it would cause awkward confusion.

I guess I’m looking for advice on how I can go about making a compromise to work though this?

She should not force the issue on you attending church. Raising the children Catholic, however, is different. To live her faith according to Catholic teaching, her/your children would need to be raised Catholic. You have already stated that you are fine with this, so your real issue seems to be her insisting you attend a church even though you are a non-believer.

My humble advice to you is to communicate this directly with her. You obviously respect her by seeking assistance in a Catholic forum. Religion notwithstanding, the best means for working this out will be dialogue. When it comes to raising kids Catholic, for her there can be no compromise. But if she wants her husband to live as a Catholic, then she needs to marry a Catholic.

A Catholic is obligated to raise their children in the faith and the non-Catholic is to be apprised of this promise in a way that they truly understand the seriousness of this obligation on the part of the Catholic. The Catholic must also be prepared to show there is no danger of defection from the faith before they can receive permission for a mixed marriage or dispensation from disparity of cult.

The non-Catholic is not under any obligation to attend Mass or participate in the religious upbringing of the chilldren.

Sounds to me like what your GF wants is a person of faith who will share her beliefs and practices.

I think it is rather naive of both of you to believe you can “separate your beliefs” in the same household while raising children together. Faith (or lack of it) is at the core of who you are. I mean, these aren’t small things. One of you believes in God and one of you believes there is no God. You can’t get more opposite than that.

Either way the kids are in for awkward confusion.

I really don’t think there is a compromise. Your GF is going to teach your children about a God, a Savior, and a Faith that you consider to be on par with the flying spaghetti monster (to borrow from well known atheists). I mean, how atheist are you really if you have no problem with someone raising your children to believe in a deity? And how Catholic is she if she is ready to have her children raised by someone who doesn’t?

This is a path frought with peril. It isn’t something to enter into lightly, and it isn’t something I’d willingly enter into at all.

If you are really serious about marrying this girl, I suggest that you have a discussion with her about what “raising children Catholic” entails because alot of people don’t really forsee the issues that can arise. If a person is a faithful Catholic, it encompasses their whole life. There is no seperating their faith from their daily life. Your children will be required to pray together daily. They will attend religious instruction. Family events and holidays will be centered around attending Mass. You will have to plan your vacations to include the Sunday obligation. The children will not be able to participate in activities that are contrary to the faith. You will have to agree as parents one issues like birth-control, dating, and the like when they are older. These issues will be non-negotiable for your wife, so you will be expected to go along with them even if you don’t like them because you promised to raise the children in the faith. This can cause a serious strain in a marriage for obvious reasons. In a way, it makes the faithful parent like a single parent. A house divided against it self doens’t usually stand. One parent either gives in to the other’s beliefs, or it ends in seperation.

“But if she wants her husband to live as a Catholic, then she needs to marry a Catholic.”

I’d say if she wants her children to not just be* raised* Catholic, but be Catholic, she should marry- a Catholic.

I think you have to ask her. There is what you are willing to do and what you are not. She knew you were an atheist when you started dating, didn’t she? Be honest and tell her what you told us.

I think you are right, if you go along with this, it’s just going to be a big problem later unless you are sanguine about the whole thing and don’t care. Still, you can’t lie to those theoretical children, they will find out sooner or later you don’t believe in God.

I dunno. I’m not a fan of ultimatums in relationships so I’m having trouble seeing her position. I personally hope for your sake you find God someday, but I think she might believe somehow this will convert you and that’s a recipe for relationship disaster. Besides, why would she want to marry a hypocrite?

You need to talk to her.

Well to attend Mass together as a family is important as it helps the children see it as normal and linked in to everything, it helps with unity. Instructing children in religious belief as if you belive it is not too hard, my father spoke to me about God when I was growing up etc and I took god as a definite thing etc. He was though a strong atheist but found that it made it easier for a child to not be conflicted and confused if they were raised with the one view and then others were presented later. I only found out he dident belive in God when I hit 10-11.

When I married my non-beliving husband we had several long discussions about our religious differences and what it meant to be married to a Catholic. Understanding it’s importance to me, he agreed to support me in my religion as much as possible and when it was not possible, to get out of the way. This agreement has extended to the raising of our children. I have never found it necessary to question the quality of his atheism nor he the depth of my Catholicism.

This is a path frought with peril.

Thankfully, this has not been my experience.

As was mentioned earlier, you seem fine with the children being raised Catholic, its just that you do not wish to participate in the religous aspects yourself. Sit down and discuss this with her, you certianly are not obligated but you do need to be fully aware what it all entails. Without being fully aware of your situation I anicipate other issues to arise, most notably where you are to be married (civil ceremony or in the church). You may wish also to meet as a couple and discuss these matters with her parish priest so that you too can be fully aware of everything your life together whill entail beyond just raising the children in the faith. In the end there are three things to remember - communication, communication, communication.

She shouldn’t force you but as the man of the family your job is the physical and spiritual head of the family. If that’s not something you feel you can live up too it would be better for you and better for her to split before things get too serious. She deserves someone who will take an active role in their faith and the faith of their family. And you deserve someone who won’t be pressuring you all the time to go against your beliefs (or in this case unbelief). Just my personal opinion. Compromising rarely works out as it almost always leaves one or both parties dissatisfied. I’d have a long and serious talk about it. Don’t pressure her to compromise anywhere on her faith and don’t let her force her faith on you. If it’s that big of an issue for you, it would be better for you to let her go. Not just for your own sake but hers as well. You’d both be better off for it down the road.

This really is a tough one. My main concerns would be – if children were involved, would the differences become too much at some point? If the children grow up seeing Daddy as a non-believer, will it become harder for them to believe? If they ask you why you don’t believe, will your answer taint their view of God? Will it become more difficult for their mother to instill Catholic beliefs in them?

So much can happen that is difficult to predict.

I don’t see why you’d have to attend Mass if you don’t believe, but then again I’m not quite sure why your girlfriend wouldn’t be dating someone of her own faith if she intends to raise children in that faith. :wink:

Thank you all very much for your advice. After a good discussion last night I feel that attending mass won’t be too big a sacrifice if it is important to her. I should add that I was a confirmed christian and went to a catholic school myself so do have some understanding.

It was while doing a degree in Physics that I changed, and possibly my biggest concern now is not being able to put across my scientific explanations of how wonderous the universe is for fear of being accused of damaging the religious upbringing. I hope this will not be a problem, but really think it will undermine it in the end in the same way as happened with myself.

It is good to hear that you had a productive dialogue. I am curious about how studying physics would turn one away from a belief in God. My father has a PhD in physics and I have always loved science and physics. Neither of us are drawn away from God as a result.

I invite you to look beyond your understanding in science and physics. One cannot have true faith if all is capable of being scientifically proven. Faith must come first! Understanding will be the result of faith; not the other way around.

Attending an RCIA process would be beneficial for you. Look for one in your girlfriend’s local parish. There is never an obligation to stay.


I don’t know about that. I know something about physics myself (from taking quite a few physics courses in college, and reading about physics from time to time), and I have found that “scientific explanations of how wonderous the universe is” tend to reinforce my faith in God, rather than undermine it. Maybe it just depends on how you look at these issues; I don’t think that modern physics is necessarily opposed to the Christian faith. (In fact, I read an excellent book on that exact subject, that you might be interested in, called Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen Barr.)

As to your original question, I tend to agree with the main sentiments that have been expressed here so far. The Catholic Church itself would not require you to go to Mass regularly if you marry a Catholic woman, however it sounds like this is something that is important to your girlfriend, so it is something that the two of you would need to talk about and agree on, one way or another. (However, she, as a Catholic, would have an obligation to raise her children Catholic.)

If you find that this relationship has a good chance of leading to marriage, let me say the following: I have heard of strong, healthy marriages consisting of a Catholic and an atheist, so it is certainly possible for the two of you to have a great marriage. However, I do think that, as others have pointed out, your religious differences *could *be a huge stumbling block, and that you need to talk thoroughly about these differences and the issues that the differences could cause (maybe even in some type of pre-marital counseling), to be sure that you are both going into marriage with eyes wide open.

Hi Will, and let me begin by greeting you with our traditional Christian greeting: Peace be with you.

Some things to understand here:

  1. The requirements of the church of a catholic in a mixed faith marriage
  2. The personal standards involved in discerning marriage

First, the requirements of the church for those catholics who wish to date people who are not catholic: the person who is catholic must promise to attend their catholic duties faithfully and to do all they can to raise their children as catholics (not violating the childrens’ choice of faith when they reach an age of maturity). The non-catholic does not need to promise to do the same, they merely sign a statement that they are aware of and understand that their spouse has promised to try to raise the children catholic. So insofar as you’ve stated that you don’t have a problem with the children being raised catholic, you more than meet the church’s standards for a mixed faith marriage.

Second, however, is the more personal standards involved in discerning marriage. It’s a fact that children, especially boys, draw from the example of their fathers… fathers, after all, are often seen as those who set the standard of disciplines such as the catholic requirement to attend mass (which, for us, is more than just a discipline, it is a moral obligation which we are disciplined to follow). What she may be saying is that she doesn’t want to deal with objections to attending mass from a child who might say something like “Daddy doesn’t have to go to mass, so why do I?”, and her way of dealing with that is a desire for a husband who attends mass with the family. This is her personal standard she’s using to discern if she wants to marry a particular person… and there’s nothing inherently wrong in having personal standards of what we are looking for in a spouse.

So at this point, you have three options:

  1. You accept that this is her standard for what she wants in a husband and establish that you are willing to do this for her. You continue to date, and serve as a role model for your children that proud and strong men still honor their obligations to others (even if you don’t believe in the authority of the Church to assert a moral obligation to attend mass, you can still represent the strong man who is strong enough in himself to go to mass as proscribed by the church). You continue to date, may eventually be married and have children

  2. You do not accept her standard, and negotiate a different standard with her whereby you don’t have to honor her personal desire for a husband who attends mass with his family… she would have to be willing to change her standards of what she’s looking for in a spouse. You continue to date, may eventually be married and have children.

  3. You do not accept her standard, and she refuses to change her standards regarding what she is looking for in a husband. At this point, you have satisfied the Catholic understanding of what dating is for (to discern marriage) and you have discerned that marriage is not a feasable outcome for you based on her expectations of a spouse and your desire not to meet those expectations. If that is the result, then you should break it off now since the purpose of your dating has been fulfilled and there is no future in it for either of you.

Ultimately, this is something you have to think about, digest, and then discuss with her once you have discerned for yourself if this is a spousely duty you would be willing to perform or not. If not, and she can’t accept that you wouldn’t, there may be some difficult consequences for your relationship, but ultimately it would be for the best for your both to move on and find someone who is compatible with you and your needs in a spouse.

You certainly have my best wishes, and I hope that you can resolve this issue! And again, peace be with you, Will!

Ack! I didn’t see this post before I responded! I’m glad you two worked things out.

I’d also like to say that I have my degree in physics as well, and have found that the rational faith of Catholicism is not contradictory to legitimate scientific reason (according to St Augustine, they can’t be, since truth cannot conflict with truth). You can offer a perfectly rational understanding of science without conflicting with catholic upbringing: provided that said explanation remains within the realm of science.

For example, you can explain how the big bang theory occured without jumping to the exposition that “thus the universe came about without God”, since science can actually make no empirical claims about anything outside of the phsyical universe and therefore the statement that “thus the universe came about without God” is, itself, a faith statement devoid of real science. If the understanding of the church is true, that science sheds light on the means of God’s reality, then there is no threat from discussing rational, empirical science with your children!

And while we’re on the subject, might I recommend a book for you? “What’s so Great About Christianity” by Dinesh D’Souza is an exceptional text that takes a look at completely secular arguments about faith (no using scripture to prove that God exists) and particularly science and where the realm of empirical science ends. If nothing else, it would provide you some interesting perspective on how scientific discoveries are being considered in the faith world!

I agree with this.

It’s a little bit off topic, though not entirely…but in a strange coincidence, I had just read your post when I got in my car and heard a guest on the Drew Mariani show talking about how physics in fact proves the existence of a Creator. It’s been more than 20 years since I took college physics, but the gist of it was that they’ve proven the universe has a starting point, and that before that, there was nothing. Since nothing is incapable of acting or changing, and can only *do *nothing, the theory is that for something (the Universe) to come out of nothing, there must be someone/something that transcends and exceeds the Universe.

I have quite possibly not relayed his words well, but the site is at if you’re interested in reading more.

and the encyclopedias he referenced are at:

I commend you for taking your girlfriend’s faith seriously enough to come here and ask questions.

Run. Away. Now.

Don’t walk, run. You’ve only been together for a few months, and you don’t want to sink anymore time into this. While mixed faith marriages can work I think that your girlfriend has a couple of pretty big issues here.

You went to mass with her for the first time, and afterwards she told you that you would need to go for the rest of your time together? Um, no. Sorry, but she doesn’t get to just spring that on you. But aside from being completely out of line it shows something about her. She wants someone who will share her faith and join her in her religious activities. Presumably these things are a big part of her life. So instead of finding someone to do that she’s telling you that she expects you to fake it. That doesn’t show any love or respect for who you are, and it also makes me think that you aren’t who she wants, even if she doesn’t realize it or won’t admit it yet. The Catholic Church has no requirement that non Catholic partners attend mass, so this one is out of your girlfriend’s own mind.

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