What is love?
April 16, 2010 6:23 AM   Subscribe

Marriage filter: My wife and I have been married for a little over three years and have two children. She was raised Catholic whilst I am more towards the Hitchens/Dawkins side of things.

Since we first met I have been nothing but crystal clear about my take on religion but agreed that it was personal to each of us and we would not seek to try and convince the other. We were married in a registry office and then held a subsequent 'blessing' in a church of England ceremony. My wife had a rough childhood to put it mildly and has in recent years been drawn back into the certainties that she believes her faith can provide. Our original agreement has gone out of the window and she now proselytizes to me often and I am finding it difficult to handle the changes within her. She recently dropped the bombshell that she does not consider us to be married and has indicated that she would like us to marry in the catholic church. And not so much 'she would like' but more 'if you truly love me then..' line of argument. I am concerned as to the consequences of me not doing this but feel I have already compromised myself once in taking part in the blessing (though my brother says if i don’t believe then it shouldn’t feel like i have compromised - but taking part in the act makes it feel like i am legitimising something i do not respect or feel comfortable with). I feel that I am in a lose lose situation. This may seem like a amateur philosophy debate question but this is a very real situation and I would appreciate comments. What do I achieve by holding my ground? Is this as big a deal as it feels right now? Can mutual respect be enough to keep two people with such different world views together?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Can mutual respect be enough to keep two people with such different world views together?

Yes. It happens all the time. The problem is it does not sound like your wife is respecting you and your views anymore. I've seen situations where one spouse becomes more radicalized over time and I'm afraid to say in both instances it did not work out. Good luck, this must be very difficult to deal with.
posted by the foreground at 6:30 AM on April 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

The argument is often put forward that it doesnt really count if you go along and say the words, seeing as they're in the eyes of a god you do not believe exists, but I would argue its entirely possible to have a world perspective where your personal honesty and integrity, outside of any fear of divine reprisal for lapses, can be compelling drivers of a personal moral code. Bear in mind that you will not just be saying the words that you are married in the eyes of god, but also that most catholic wedding ceremonies call on the celebrants to commit to raising the children in the catholic church. Would you feel comfortable with making that form of commitment, or with not abiding by it once stated?

What you achieve by holding your ground is your right to be a free individual able to come to their own conclusions about the world without emotional blackmail, and potentially signficiant moral rights in how your children will be raised.

As to whether mutual respect can hold a relationship together, then it probably depends on the circumstances, reading your question though, is there a danger that one of you isn't getting the degree of respect they deserve?
posted by biffa at 6:35 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your wife chose to accept you as you were when she married you. You had an agreement to respect each other's beliefs. By trying to rewrite the contract now, your wife is acting selfishly and manipulatively.

If she truly loves you she will accept that you are entitled to your own set of beliefs, even if they are not hers. If she truly loves you, she should show a bit more respect.

If she's serious about this 'not considering you to be married', you should probably be having a pretty serious conversation about the future. There's no excuse for saying something like that unless she really means that she wants your marriage to end. If she's using it to try to manipulate you into joining her church, then that's a pretty childish and dangerous way to behave.

Marriage counselling might be worth considering sooner, rather than later.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:43 AM on April 16, 2010 [14 favorites]

but taking part in the act makes it feel like i am legitimising something i do not respect or feel comfortable with

Perhaps you both need to learn to respect the other's viewpoint. Sure, you may not be proselytizing to her, but your lack of respect for her beliefs probably reveal themselves in other ways.

You two need to sit down and discuss belief and boundaries and how you want to go forward. It'll probably be a long, ongoing discussion for a while.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:44 AM on April 16, 2010

Big Question. I'm surprised, to be honest, to hear that your wife is feeling so connected to the Catholic church in the current environment. Have you spoken to her about that aspect of it at all?

In any event, you certainly sound like a respectful partner but I would say that the most important thing that you can do right now is listen to what she's saying and where she's coming from. Try not to focus too much on the 'if you really love me...' and 'we're not actually married...' and 'jesus died...' parts and try to listen to what's behind it all.

As a guy (like me) it's easy to keep falling back on the logical position that 'we discussed this pre-marriage, took it off the table and you're now in breach of our unwritten pre-nuptial agreement on religion'. But for someone in her position it just doesn't work that way: she feels this way now irrespective of what was agreed before and the sooner you allow this to be a legitimate issue that you can both discuss openly, honestly and respectfully, the more likely you're going to be able to find a solution that can work for your marriage.

Bear in mind that religious beliefs have a nasty tendency to grow stronger and more ingrained in the face of opposition. The born-again Christians that I know used to argue that the rest of the world wouldn't get so emotional and upset by their proselytising if they didn't know deep down that there was truth in it... try arguing against that position.

To answer your questions: 1 - you get nothing by holding your ground just for the sake of holding your ground, be open to her arguments, listen to her and see what happens; 2 - sure it's a big deal and the way you handle this issue will likely have a great bearing on the way you handle the world of other difficulties that are going to come your way throughout a lifetime of marriage; 3 - yes, yes, yes, or at least I believe so but you really need to ramp up the respect, especially when the other person isn't giving you much of it. You know, lead by example, do unto others and all that jazz.

At the moment, I personally feel that you have the moral high ground on the issues that are actually under discussion, but I think that misses the point. This is your wife. This is your marriage. Listen to her, love her and respect her. My belief is that if you can do that then there's a good chance that it will turn out, eventually, that she was only looking for that in the first place and all the talk about getting married in a catholic church was just her way of expressing that need.

Best of luck.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 6:45 AM on April 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

If she is really phrasing it as "if you really love me, then...", ask her if she would be willing to give up her beliefs if she "really" loved you.

I imagine the response will be something to the basic effect of, "Well, it's different because I'm right and you're wrong," and that's the fundamental problem. Point that out and explain that you love her, but you do not ask her to believe what you believe BECAUSE you love and respect her, and that she should treat you equally.
posted by Menthol at 6:47 AM on April 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

If you marry in the Catholic Church, the priest will make you and your wife promise to raise the children Catholic. Were you planning to have children? Would you be comfortable raising the children to believe things you don't?

The problem exists that she believes that her husband and her potential children are doomed to an eternity in Hell if they're not a part of the Church. She clearly loves you...and it's almost impossible for someone who loves someone else to want eternal damnation to happen to them. As interesting as your philosophic sparring has been in the past, it does have the real potential to split you up.

Bottom line: she violated the agreement you two had when you married. Love sometimes just isn't enough to keep two people together. It's a very common story.
posted by inturnaround at 6:48 AM on April 16, 2010

She recently dropped the bombshell that she does not consider us to be married

Yikes. I'm not usually one to denounce relationships here, but that is one hell of a red flag.

The mutual respect question seems irrelevant to this situation, given that your wife is either blind to your views, or you haven't expressed them to her. In any relationship, there are going to be disagreements and compromises -- the two of you were able to get along just fine in the beginning, because you were able to leave your respective faiths out of your everyday lives. However, now that religion is taking a bigger role in your wife's life, this compromise might not be so easy to maintain, especially given that she's essentially asking your to surrender.

You need to make it clear to her how you feel, especially with regards to the "I don't consider us to be married" bit.
posted by schmod at 6:50 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

In trying to look at this situation from both sides, I am convinced that you holding your ground is equivalent to telling your wife that her beliefs are entirely invalid. Of course, her proselytizing is no different. The fact is, with such opposing systems of belief, neither of you can really hold your ground and remain together. I'm not saying that you should or will separate; rather, you both need to be tolerant. Tolerance does not compromise your beliefs. She must accept that you do certain things and abstain from others, and, likewise, you will accept her actions and inaction. When it comes down to the marriage matter itself, visit a Catholic priest, preferably one fresh out of seminary, not at the parish your wife attends, and explain to him that you and you wife were married in this manner and had such and such a blessing, etc. and that you would like to know if the Catholic Church considers that to be a valid marriage. You needn't get into the present conflict, though he might be able to shed some light on what your wife is thinking if you do. That priest should be able, at the very least, to give you a better understanding of your wife and that will help you approach her. Furthermore, if the priest tells you it is valid, than have him share that with your wife. When dealing with religious and philosophical issues you need to approach people on their ground, otherwise you talk past eachother.
posted by dvrcthewrld at 6:54 AM on April 16, 2010

I married a Catholic, and we had a hard time finding a priest who would perform the ceremony, as I am not Catholic and was completely honest about my beliefs and my intent to allow any children we had to choose their own paths. So although your wife's newly rediscovered beliefs may make her conservative enough to want to be officially married in the Catholic church, it will take a pretty liberal priest to be willing to sanction her marriage to a nonbeliever. That could end up being a good thing, as a liberal priest can give you some guidance on mutual respect and finding shared values among your differing religious views.

(Catholic-guy and I are divorced, and our two children consider themselves atheist and buddhist, so ymmv.)
posted by headnsouth at 6:55 AM on April 16, 2010

As an atheist, the only part I have a problem with is the part about agreeing to raise the children in the church. Not sure what to think about that.

But as for the rest of it, try to think of it this way: This is your wife, the woman you have vowed to live with and love for the rest of your life, in sickness and in health, etc. And doing this will make her happy. It won't hurt you in any way. You won't go to hell for getting married in a church. Your liver won't fall out. Your retirement fund won't dissolve. The only consequence is it will make her very happy.

And really, what she wants to do is to become more married to you. She wants to strengthen your commitment to each other. Is that a bad thing? Admittedly, she's not going about this in a way that's likely to make you want to do it, but most people do a lousy job of convincing other people about something they really believe in, because emotions take over and take you off on tangents like "If you really loved me...".

And you're not actually "legitimising something i do not respect or feel comfortable with", you're legitimizing your respect for her feelings. You may have had an "agreement" before you got married, but over the course of a lifetime, people change a lot. Part of marrying someone is deciding that this person is fundamentally a good, decent, honorable person, and whatever changes they may go through in their lives, you trust they will have reasons for those changes that you can respect, and you want to be there with them as they go through it.

Sidenote: One way I've found useful for discussing subjects that are getting heated is to switch the conversation over entirely to email. That way, you can write up your response, then save it as a draft overnight, and then in the morning reread her email and your response, and edit it accordingly. I've found this to be an incredibly useful tool for resolving arguments, as it takes out a lot of the heated emotions and enables you to think more logically about what's going on. It might not be a bad idea for you guys to try it in this instance.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:07 AM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

She recently dropped the bombshell that she does not consider us to be married and has indicated that she would like us to marry in the catholic church

That's only the first bomb.

True enough. Unless the marriage is sanctioned by the church and performed by a priest, you're not married (according to the Catholic church). The Mrs. is living in mortal sin, it weighs on her conscience, and no amount of confession can wipe it unless she stops doing it.

There's no problem with marrying a non-Catholic, per se, dispensations are what the Catholic church is all about, but the problem arises that you as the non-Catholic must agree that your children will be raised as Catholics.

Which is the second bigger bomb. You may well be able to accept your wife's Catholicism, but will you accept her forcing it on your kids?
posted by three blind mice at 7:08 AM on April 16, 2010 [6 favorites]

With the two kids that you have, how is religion being handled? How did you two originally agree that you'd raise your kids regarding religion (there really should have been a discussion like this before having kids, but ...)? How do you think it's going to be handled in the future, and how does your wife think it's going to be handled in the future (hint: this needs to be a conversation). Parenting philosophy can be an uncomfortable subject bound to raise strife. Conflicts at the moment aren't desired, agreements need to be made now.

I agree with others that it seems like your views are not being respected.

People grow and change; ideally one marries someone that they think they will grow and change with in compatible ways. I'm sorry to say, but you and your wife might be growing in incompatible ways. You two definitely need counselling, and need to have some good discussion on how you see your relationship, your kids and views next year, in five years, and in 20 years. If your wife needs for you to be catholic, and you're not going to be catholic ...
posted by nobeagle at 7:14 AM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you marry in the Catholic Church, the priest will make you and your wife promise to raise the children Catholic.

This is actually not true. I am not Catholic but my spouse is and while it is true that in the past, the Catholic Church required non-Catholic spouses to promise (in writing!) to raise the children Catholic, that is no longer the case. They do, however, ask that the non-Catholic spouse remain open to that possibility.

What the Catholic Church requires and doesn't, however, is really beside the point. Your wife will want to raise your children Catholic, given her current stance. Leave the church out of it -- how will you react to your wife's insistence that your children be raised in the Church.

Marriage counseling is, I think, necessary here. The two of you need to regain your ability to communicate on this issue without resorting to emotional blackmail and/or ultimatums and it doesn't sound like you've been able to do that on your own. A professional can help you learn the necessary communication skills; once you can actually communicate about the issue, you can determine -- between the two of you -- whether it's insurmountable.
posted by devinemissk at 7:18 AM on April 16, 2010

No one seems to have pointed out that devout Catholics don't believe in divorce. Marriage is one of the seven sacraments. The fact that your wife wants to marry you in The Church is good because it means she still wants to be with you, but it's not something you should do just to shut her up, or resolve a conflict. She's not going to see it that way. Don't do anything right now, given the problems your having. To her, getting married in a Catholic ceremony will be an unbreakable bond between the two of you. So, if you do decide to do it, it's serious.
posted by dortmunder at 7:23 AM on April 16, 2010

Yeah, as far as I know, devinemissk is right. In the US at least, in 1984, they changed it from both parties promising to raise the children Catholic, to now the Catholic partner promising to expose the children to Catholicism, with no such promise from the non-Catholic partner. That's what a priest told me, at least.

(But this doesn't come close to answering your question, the issue is what you and your wife want to do.)
posted by teragram at 7:32 AM on April 16, 2010

To her, getting married in a Catholic ceremony will be an unbreakable bond between the two of you. So, if you do decide to do it, it's serious.

Isn't that what all marriage supposed to be?
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:34 AM on April 16, 2010

Isn't that what all marriage supposed to be?

Yes, but if the wife in this case thought that were true she wouldn't be asking for an unnecessary second wedding.
posted by dortmunder at 7:41 AM on April 16, 2010

For what it's worth, even if you went through the motions of a full Catholic marriage ceremony, you still wouldn't be considered "married in the church" if you didn't actually believe in the vows you were making. A Catholic marriage is considered null if there was a defect in intent by either party. So your wife's argument that you'd do this " if you loved her" is invalid by the terms of her own faith. It's not enough for you to love her enough to sit through the ceremony; to make it a full Catholic marriage, you'd have to believe, and you don't.

That's a situation your wife created for herself, not recently when she decided to revive her Catholicism, but originally when she made the choice to have children with someone who didn't share her faith. So leaving aside your own feelings about her Catholicism or about religion in general, perhaps you could put the problem to her that way: honey, you chose to enter into a union against the terms of your religion, and since I'm still going to be an atheist at heart, the fake marriage you're proposing doesn't solve that problem. On the other hand, I still love you and I think our children need their father around. What do you think is the right thing to do? What would God want you to do in a situation like this?
posted by Bardolph at 7:44 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

My wife and I help prepare couples for marriage in the Catholic Church. I can tell you for certain that your current marriage is valid, especially if you went and had it "blessed" in a Christian Church in the Trinitarian Form. The deal is that it is not Sacramental which is a different, "higher level" kind of commitment. If you were to divorce, she would be considered still married in the Church unless she got an annulment. But as of now your marriage is not Sacramental, and that's important to Catholics.

Interfaith couples (and that's what you are, even if you don't believe) have an extra responsibility of communication and mutual understanding, but you are not doomed to fail. I recommend you both take the approach of appreciative inquiry rather than drawing your lines in the sand. Both of you need to seek to understand each others' beliefs and to empathize with what draws you to them. Find common ground. There is always a lot of common ground when you start to look for it with Love as a starting point.

From what you relate, it sounds like your wife might not be fully catechized about her own faith. I think it would help for you to encourage her to grow deeper into her faith, to learn more. And then to show that you love her, you might go with her to a few classes and use those opportunities to ask questions and have a respectful dialogue.

The problem with much conflict between atheists and Christians is that it usually is over a very unsophisticated and developmentally immature idea of what and who God is. If either of you think of God as a man in the sky (or other such popular variants) then you are arguing over a caricature of God used to help young children understand God at their level. Not suitable for adults.

When she finds out more about her Catholic Faith, she will encounter a God with whom you both might have a little more room for productive conversation.

God is, above all, mystery. Meaning that God cannot be fully understood or proven. But our fundamental definition of God is the Trinity -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- three persons in a mutually self-sacrificing relationship. That's not three Gods, we don't worship them one at a time, we worship the whole relationship. The Christian God is Love (1 John 4:8), unselfishness, total self-gift. Each person of the Trinity holds a crucial part of the relationship, but the relationship is God. We believe that Loving relationship is the fundamental substance of all Being ("For in him we live and move and have our being" Acts 17:28)

Essentially our God is the very kind of love that makes marriages last. That's no accident. I have never met an atheist that did not believe in love, altruism, empathy, compassion, self-sacrifice for a good cause, etc. Some of the best Christians I know are atheists and agnostics. We do not, as Catholics, love others because some magic man in the sky told us to do so. We do it because that is what is truest to who we are and who God is.

So when your wife draws closer to the heart of her faith, she will hopefully see this. Mutual submission, compassion, self-emptying, and loving can give you a lot of common ground to work with. Meanwhile you can use the phrase "Self-giving Love" everywhere you hear her say "God." That's a place to start.

I work with couples like you all the time, albeit from Houston. There's a happy ending to your story, but there's much adventure in the plot! If you'd like to talk, I'd be honored to give you that time. Just memail me.
posted by cross_impact at 7:46 AM on April 16, 2010 [33 favorites]

Do you know anything about her priest? Would he be a good moderator?
posted by cestmoi15 at 7:49 AM on April 16, 2010

Guys, the Catholic Church recognizes non-Catholic marriage ceremonies and has for AGES. (My grandparents married Catholic/non-Catholic right after WWII, and it "counted.") Whatever ceremony you had IS VALID. You *may* choose at a later date to have the sacrament performed if you have a non-Catholic wedding, but that's a lot less common than it used to be. (Also, it doesn't take a particularly liberal priest to perform a Catholic/non-Catholic wedding; I was married in a relatively conservative diocese in the U.S. where SEVENTY FIVE PERCENT of the weddings they performed were "mixed cult." There were only two couples in my pre-Cana class that were Catholic-Catholic!) Catholicism does NOT say you're living in sin. It says your marriage is PERFECTLY valid, and there's no need for a mulligan on it.

So the fact that she doesn't consider you married doesn't have much to do with Catholicism (or else she's involved in a culty version of it -- they're out there -- or else her understanding of it is EXTREMELY poor).

Which would tend to suggest to me that there's something else going on, some sort of panic about identity or the future or children or your marriage or SOMETHING. If she really, truly thinks your marriage is invalid, your best bet is to find a relatively sane Catholic priest or theologian and have that person explain to her that your marriage is perfectly valid. And in the UK, most priests you talk to will have plenty of practice with "disparity of cult" marriages and may be able to discuss the issues with HER (and you) rationally and help her understand how to function in a mixed-cult marriage -- which doesn't include constant aggressive proselytizing of the spouse, or emotional manipulation.

But this may not have a lot to do with Catholicism or marriage validity and that something else is going on with her that's making her freak out. If it IS about that, then the fastest cure is an explanation of the current validity of your marriage straight from the horse's mouth.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:57 AM on April 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

'if you truly love me then..' line of argument.

Sounds like emotional blackmail. I would call her on that directly.

but taking part in the act makes it feel like i am legitimising something i do not respect or feel comfortable with

Speaking as an atheist, I would feel the same. In your shoes, the tack I would take (because it's really how I feel) is this: "you're asking me to mouth words that you know I don't believe. I don't feel comfortable doing this because I respect you and I respect your faith, even though I don't share it, and doing that seems like a mockery of it. On of of that, taking an oath that I patently don't believe in makes me feel like a liar and a hypocrite. Are you really OK with all of that?"

I have to wonder if there's something else up in your wife's life, possibly unrelated to both her religion and your marriage.
posted by adamrice at 8:36 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

But this may not have a lot to do with Catholicism or marriage validity and that something else is going on with her that's making her freak out.

I have to wonder if there's something else up in your wife's life, possibly unrelated to both her religion and your marriage.

Yeah, I got this sense also. It's really possible this isn't about faith at all. I have to agree with those who have suggested that it might really be worthwhile for your wife to spend some time learning more about her faith. There's a big difference between self-identifying as Catholic based on what you learned as a child and actually living and practicing Catholicism as an adult (and really, that's true for a lot of faiths) and it sounds like she might be doing the former rather than the latter. She may be using the language of faith to express something that actually isn't at all about faith.

So I repeat my earlier suggestion to see a marriage counselor.
posted by devinemissk at 8:54 AM on April 16, 2010

I think the way she's expressing her need ("if you truly love me...") is flawed, and I think it's this that is setting off the red flags rather than the actual need she has to deepen the commitment.

The suggestions to have a chat together with a friendly priest are excellent. The way you're going to work through this is through better understanding of what's really behind this and lots of communication.

My frame of reference is lapsed Church of England, married to my wife for 10 year who is a committed Christian (Chinese originated Pentecostal). I attend her church with her, take from it what I want, but have made the limits of my involvement quite clear. Occasionally I'll get asked by her or friends at church to be baptised into their church, but it's not pushed when I point out that I've already been baptised CoE. I know it's important to her, she knows my point of view and respects it. But the key thing here is that we communicate. We're different people than we were when we first met 15 years ago, but we stay together through love, respect and communication.
posted by arcticseal at 8:59 AM on April 16, 2010

It sounds to me as if your wife was never really satisfied with a Church of England marriage (pace Mr McGee above, I don't think it's technically valid in Catholic eyes unless you got permission first). Maybe if you're patient, try to be relaxed about it and sort out this one thing, it'll be OK. Being a bit nicer to your wife than your duty strictly requires is usually worth the attempt even if it fails in the end.

And just to round out devinemissk's point that you don't have to promise anything, here's the canon law:

Canon 1125. The local ordinary (bishop) can grant this permission [for a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic] if there is a just and reasonable cause. He is not to grant it unless the following conditions are fulfilled:
1. The Catholic party is to declare that he or she is prepared to remove dangers of defecting from the faith, and to make a sincere promise to do all in his or her power in order that all the children be baptised and brought up in the Catholic Church;
2. The other party is to be informed in good time of these promises to be made by the Catholic party, so that it is certain that he or she is truly aware of the promise and of the obligation of the Catholic party.
3. Both parties are to be instructed about the purposes and essential properties of marriage, which are not to be excluded by either contractant.

Good luck, either way.
posted by Phanx at 9:08 AM on April 16, 2010

My wife had a rough childhood to put it mildly and has in recent years been drawn back into the certainties that she believes her faith can provide.

I agree that the source of this comes from her history. Can you drop the conversation for awhile, take actions that really show your wife your security/love/commitment in every day ways, then revisit it in a few months and see if there have been any changes?

If she is newly grabbing on to religion, she may be doing it because she feels her security slipping elsewhere. It could even be the newness of the marriage wearing off and settling into routine.
posted by Vaike at 9:39 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Many of the answers given above are wrong. Your question involves many technical areas of Canon Law. For isntance, while there's a lot that's good in cross_impact's answer, the bit about it being enough that your marriage was blessed in a trinitarian form is completely untrue.

You don't give us enough information to fully know whether or not the Catholic Church considers you to be married and we're not competent to judge anyways.

If you were baptized, and your wife never formally defected from the Catholic faith, then you may not have been validly married according to the requirements of Canon Law. This is because for a Catholic to get married outside of Catholic ceremony requires a dispensation from canonical form from their Bishop.

If you were never baptized, a dispensation from disparity of cult (sometimes called a dispensation from disparity of worship would also have been required). If needed and didn't have either one of these permissions than your marriage is very likely not considered to exist by the Catholic Church (which is what your wife is worried about).

It may not be neccesary for you to go through another marraige ceremony in order for your wife to be satisfied that you are married. You may be able to take advantage of a process called "radical sanation", which come "from the Latin phrase sanatio in radice, meaning 'healing in the root.'" (the link has more information).

I am not a canon lawyer (and IANYCL), but the best thing for you to do is to talk to someone who is. If you contact your local diocese and ask to speak with someone from the "marriage tribunal" they'll be able to give you personalized and highly accurate advice on the legal requirements.

If you got married in the Catholic Church, your spouse would have been required to promise (and may be required again to promise, even for a radical sanation) to do what she can to raise the children as Catholics. This is the promise:
I reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ and, with God=s help, intend to continue living that faith in the Catholic Church. I promise to do all in my power to share the faith I have received with our children by having them baptized and reared as Catholics.
You are not required to make this promise, but the bishop, priest, or deacon who witnesses the marraige, or another cleric is required to certify that you have been informed of the promise.

To make a long story short, as long as you both consented to get married "in a way that did not exclude any of the essential properties of marriage (monogamy, fidelity, permanence, and openness to children)" and as long as she intends to do what she can to raise the children Catholic (success is not required, and you're free to disagree) this question of whether the Catholic Church considers you married may be solvable as a paperwork problem.

As for the issues going forward, there are many happy interfaith couples and many unhappy ones (just like there are happy and unhappy couples who share one faith). Yes compromise and tolerance will be neccesary. Marraige counseling is not a bad idea, but you'll need to find a counselor who is willing to take both your non-religious perspective and your wife's religious perspective seriously.

I don't think you neccesarily need to worry about your wife trying to convert you all the time or anything like that. Catholics are generally advised that if you're not actively enquiring about the faith it's better not to argue, but rather to imitate St. Monica who prayed for he son's conversion. St. Augustine is held to have been converted through the strength of her prayers, not through arguements. There is also the verse of the Gospel that reminds us "For Jesus himself testified, that a prophet hath no honour in his own country." (John 4:44), which, though it doesn't excuse us from any obligation can tell us that sometimes, we're not the best person to convert those close to us. Which is to say, Catholics will be O.k. with saying to your wife that she doesn't have to convert you in order for her to be a good Catholic.

Feel free to memail me if you have any other questions or e-mail me, my email is in my profile. I can also try and help you get in touch with a canon lawyer if you'd like. (Including in the U.K., where I know some priests.)
posted by Jahaza at 10:06 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

What do I achieve by holding my ground?

I say this as a committed atheist...

Sometimes, in relationships, it is a good idea to do things for our partners just to make them happy. This is a concession that costs you almost nothing, and means a lot to your wife. Find a liberal Catholic priest who isn't going to force you to make any promises you can't say in good faith, and then sit through the stupid ceremony. Let your wife have her Catholic rubber stamp seal of approval.

But the issue of "what comes next" is HUGE. You need to make sure your wife is still on the same page about how to raise the kids.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:31 AM on April 16, 2010

Hi, atheist raised Catholic here, and off-spring of a Catholic/Non-Catholic marriage.

My honest advice is to go talk to the priest. They are generally nice guys and will put your mind at ease. They want more Catholic marriages, they want more people going to Mass, so they'll take what they can get, generally, and they won't put a ton of pressure on you. Be 100% honest and up front with your concerns and don't worry about offending him. (Obviously not all priests are the same, but that's my experience.)

They will eventually pressure you to put the kids in CCD/Catholic school, but let me suggest to you that even that would not necessarily be the end of the world. Kids can often get a better education in Catholic School than in public schools, and they generally teach straight-forward science, including evolution via natural selection, etc. You can always give them a grounding in skepticism and exposure to other religious/moral traditions at home, etc..

A Catholic/non-Catholic marriage can work fine. A Catholic/anti-catholic marriage will have real problems. If you love your wife, you don't need to accept her beliefs, but you should probably at least make the effort to learn about them. Catholicism is a fascinating, philosophically rich tradition with a long history. I bet you can find things to appreciate in it, even if you don't accept the authority of the church or the veracity of it's beliefs.
posted by empath at 11:47 AM on April 16, 2010

I'm in a Catholic/atheist relationship (I'm the Catholic), and yeah, your wife sounds like she's dealing with something other than the "status" of your relationship. It also sounds as though she hasn't thought things through yet, so she may not be able to articulate what's really eating at her.

She may be afraid of losing you, and is asking to make the marriage more "formal" to allay her fears. She may be being influenced by someone at church (quite possibly the priest), who is filling her ears with all sorts of strange ideas about "mixed" marriages, and is pursuing those ideas without thinking critically about them. The "if you really loved me" language is classic guilt-based stuff, the bread and butter of Catholic social pressure in the western world. I agree, it's absolutely the wrong way to phrase it because of how defensive and hurt it makes you, but she may not realize that and is phrasing her concern in the way most natural to her.

As others have said above, you need to have a heart-to-heart with her about all this, and indicate your discomfort with what's going on. Point out that you're there for her and all, but that this is one area where you need to reach a compromise. Speak in the guilt-language she understands, namely: using the phrasing of "if you really loved me" is hurtful, and makes you feel manipulated and blackmailed. You parse that phrasing as an ultimatum, and it brings her love for you into question. I assure you, it will bring her up short. Maybe at that point, you can start to have a more rational conversation about what's really going on.

Good luck, and mefimail me if you'd like to talk.
posted by LN at 12:48 PM on April 16, 2010

On second reading, cross_impact has some very positive ways of handling this.
posted by LN at 12:58 PM on April 16, 2010

Just want to chime in here and say, if you're thinking about going the compromise route, and she decides to put the kids in CCD, I wouldn't make a huge deal of it. I know I'm far from the only CCD grad with a guilty Catholic mother and an atheist father who later decided...on my own, soon enough to refuse confirmation...that I was myself a soft agnostic. My father never had to hide his own disbelief, and that wasn't confusing for me at all--if anything, it introduced me early to the fact that religion was a matter of personal belief/choice.
posted by availablelight at 3:19 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Emotional blackmail delivered as an ultimatum is a big red flag. I think you two need to discuss things calmly, preferably with a marriage counselor, especially to understand where your wife is coming from. What else is going on for her that might relate to her sudden and radical change? Perhaps she has mental health issues — has she had any therapy to deal with her unfortunate childhood? Just suggesting that you look into it further and make decisions based on more information.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:56 PM on April 16, 2010

I strongly advise that you ignore Jahaza's advice about consulting a canon lawyer. He or she does not really know what s/he's talking about. This is not a legal question, but here's a quick Canon Law guide:

All legal marriages are valid.
Not all valid marriages are licit.
You have a legal marriage.
∴ You have a valid marriage.
You may not, however, have a licit marriage.

If licitness is a big problem for your wife, the two of you should approach her priest about it. A good priest will quickly calm her fears and transition to an attempt to get at what's really bothering her. It's possible that in her renewed faith, however, what's really bothering her is that you're an atheist.

If I were you, I'd make a visit to your wife's priest contingent upon a visit to a secular marriage therapist as well. As an atheist, you're under no obligation to accept the legitimacy of the legalistic concerns, but if you love your wife this conflict supples an opportunity to begin to work on matters of fundamental concern. Therapy, whether with a priest or with a psychologist, can be quite useful for negotiating new challenges in a marriage.

But to be clear: your marriage is "real" but wasn't "permitted." The RCC's demand that folks get dispensation for disparities of worship is not the kind of bureaucratic nonsense that ought to get in the way of your marriage, and your wife's priest will be the first to tell you so.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:59 AM on April 17, 2010

I'm not an atheist, but my wife was a fallen away Roman Catholic at the time of our marriage. When she decided to go back to the church, we had our marriage officially recognized by the church through a convalidation. This can be as simple as a ten minute ceremony with a priest (or deacon) and two witnesses. In our case, I think we met twice with the priest before the ceremony to discuss where we were coming from and why we were doing this. He also had us read a short Q&A book on Catholic teachings regarding love, sex, and marriage.

When my wife first approached me about wanting to do this, it was pretty upsetting for me. My thoughts and impressions of the RCC were mostly negative, and I was particularly put off by the idea of them not recognizing my marriage. I eventually came to understand that this religion is, to my wife, a significant part of who she is. When I looked at it in that light, I found myself much more willing to learn about this institution that had such an influence on my wife.

To more directly answer you questions:
What do I achieve by holding my ground?
If you hold your ground and refuse to even consider it, you hurt the woman you love. If you "give in" just to stop the argument, that's not much better for you or her. I think the better option is for both of you to learn more about what would be involved. Then, hopefully you can have a less emotional conversation about why you both have such strong feelings about this.

Is this as big a deal as it feels right now?
Yes, I think for both of you. For your wife, not having your marriage recognized could mean she'd be asked not to receive Holy Communion. For a Catholic, this is most certainly a very big deal. For you, you know that people aren't static but it seems that this isn't a change you saw coming. Your mental picture of how your marriage would be is being changed in a way that is leaving you feeling blindsided. Also, a very big deal.

Can mutual respect be enough to keep two people with such different world views together?
I think it can, but I don't think it works if either of you try to say, "I respect you as a person, but I have no respect for these beliefs/principles that are part of who you are as a person." I think you each need to find something to respect about the other person's position, even if it's just "This is what makes the person I love happy". Part of that respect also needs to be in how she approaches this with you. If this is something that has become very important to her, it's only natural that she's going to want to share that with you. You two need to work together to find ways that she can talk to you about this without crossing that line into proselytizing to you.

I hope that you and your wife are able to find that common ground of mutual respect, and are able to move forward in a way that makes each of you happy.
posted by GeekDad at 9:58 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

"For your wife, not having your marriage recognized could mean she'd be asked not to receive Holy Communion. For a Catholic, this is most certainly a very big deal."

Unless she is divorced and remarried without seeking an annulment for the first marriage, this would not be so. As noted above, the marriage is "valid" or legal and RECOGNIZED by the Church as such; it simply isn't sacramental/"licit". And if this happened to anyone? A quick call to the diocesan office to wonder why a Catholic in good standing in a legal marriage was being denied communion would result in little wrath of God descending on the denying priest.

If anyone would like to test this question of marriages outside Catholicism being recognized, try to take a second spouse within the Church on the grounds that your FIRST marriage isn't real because it isn't Catholic. :P I think you'll find a holy bootprint on your butt when the priest kicks you into next week.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:04 AM on April 18, 2010

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