Busted Halo
feature: sex & relationships
February 5th, 2009

So I Married a Heathen

What to do with a husband who "isn't anything"


I had to explain it to the priest as I stood fidgeting with my cell phone antenna. No, my fiancee isn’t Catholic or Jewish, and he wasn’t baptized. I resisted the urge to holler, “YES, I am marrying a FILTHY heathen neener neener!” The priest told me curtly that he could not perform the marriage ceremony since my betrothed hadn’t been baptized. The job of blessing our union was passed to the deacon.

Husband isn’t…anything, really, religiously speaking. He is wickedly funny, always there to lend a hand when anybody needs it, he’s sweet and compassionate and very generous. What happens when a twenty-nine-year old Southern Catholic girl with Evangelical parents marries a very logical, scientifically-minded unreligious Midwestern boy?

The Edge of the Bible Belt

I come from a tradition of Catholics. We live in the South, on the edge of the Bible Belt. My husband and I were married in the same church where my father attended school and was an altar boy. I did nine years in a parochial school and I was an altar girl. An interesting twist – my parents are no longer Catholic and have recently defected…er…converted. They attend our city’s Evangelical Christian megachurch. Whether their conversion was peer-pressure induced, a reaction to sex scandals, or a combination of both, I’m not sure. This family’s participation in organized religion is not a sidebar issue.

Husband and his family are not religious.

I do struggle with my faith and the Church – Why aren’t women priests? Am I a good enough person? I go to church with fair regularity. I pray for myself, my family, my three ferrets and four dogs, and for people I don’t even know.

Husband has been to church a handful of times, mostly with me and only for weddings or funerals. He attends mass at Christmas, which was only after several years of tearful shouting matches concerning the melding of our respective holiday traditions. I ask him to go to church with me and he says no. Before we married, we agreed that if we had kids they’d be baptized and raised as Catholics, but Husband didn’t want to be Catholic. I guess I thought we had it figured out.

Blended Faith

There are questions that I wrestle with every day. Did Husband and I know what we were getting into? Are the issues that seem manageable now going to sprout fangs with which to rip us apart later? If I struggle with my faith, am I a hypocrite for promising to raise my children in this tradition? My parents are not Catholic anymore, so how’s that going to work with three vying viewpoints? I worry about these things now, even though they may never come to pass. I handle the uncertainty by praying about it, talking with Husband about it, and sometimes I just think I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

If you Google “my husband isn’t Catholic,” you find a lot of discussion on family planning and how the children fit into the blended faith marriage. Blended faith, in this case, being Catholics and various forms of Protestantism or Judaism. I can’t find a lot of information about those Catholic and Heathen pairings. We will eventually have kids, so when I’m trying to deal with these issues now, Googling that phrase feels like walking with the Ghost of Christmas Future, seeing the coming attractions.

If you Google “my husband isn’t Catholic,” you find a lot of discussion on family planning and how the children fit into the blended faith marriage. Blended faith, in this case, being Catholics and various forms of Protestantism or Judaism. I can’t find a lot of information about those Catholic and Heathen pairings.

Anonymous Christian

I see Husband as basically Christian and living a basically Christian life, but without the label. Partly, I think the pressure from Christians in the South is a turn-off to any would-be Christians like Husband. There are people who go to church and profess loudly their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, yet they actively exclude gays or poor people from their worship or they cheat on their wives and taxes. But there are people like Husband who go into the world kindly, respectfully, and mindfully. They appreciate God’s gifts but without the spectacle of pointing out they’re appreciating God’s gifts. This is not to say that Christians should be perfect, but on some level, there are some people missing the logs in their eyes while they’re lecturing about the speck in ours.

Will these be bigger issues in ten years when I’m coaxing children into going to church? I don’t think this will bother Husband much at all. It’ll bother me while we’re in the pews and I tell them why we really celebrate Christmas. I hope he will come with us sometimes, especially Christmas and Easter, and I hope he will help me teach our children about being thankful and taking care of other people.

Beyond “You Complete Me”

Part of what reassures me is remembering why I married my husband in the first place and what being married is about. It’s going beyond “you complete me” mush and into something more practical and long-lasting. Where I am lacking, I hope he will pick up the slack, and vice versa. For instance, I cannot talk to the bank people. When I have to get on the phone with them, I get mad at them for being dumb and for screwing up my money, so it’s really useless for me to try to talk to them. Husband is very level-headed and knowledgeable and can hash out the issue without calling the bank person a bad name. So we agreed that Husband will talk to bank people. For Husband, I can remember the birthdays and to wash the household linens before they are so filthy they crawl into the washing machine by themselves.

Perhaps we’re creating a relationship with each other and God without the label “Christian” but that is just as divinely guided. Husband may not be a school-figure Christian, but he’s one in practice. Maybe we, and our future children, will be better Christians for it.

[EDITOR’S NOTE — This article was originally published in Busted Halo on June 21, 2006.]

The Author : Sara Thompson

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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • mcasey

    I am a man who married a heathen wife. We found a nice old Irish priest who was happy to marry us in a church, but my wife had to attend all the pre-Cana stuff, which we both actually enjoyed and benefited from.
    My wife is very cool- more Christian in fact than many are by profession- but she doesn’t believe a word of Christianity, from a spiritual perspective. WE have two boys whom my wife allows me to raise in the Church. She doesn’t help, but won’t stand in the way either; that is basically our agreement. She attended both their baptisms (and will attend their other sacraments) mostly because she loves me and doesn’t have any competing faith that would keep her out of a church. But other than that, the boys’ religious education is mine alone. I take them to church myself (no mean feat, at 5 and 3, the elder being adopted with some challenging special needs) and try to teach them to pray (my wife allows this, but thinks it’s weird). Probably the hardest part (other than the madness of chasing them around church on Sunday) is that so much Catholic writing, advice etc. assumes a completely Catholic family, with the mom being the religious backbone. This picture only seems to be getting worse as families like the Santorums gain exposure as the Uber- Catholic family with two devout parents and a zillion home-schooled kids all flowing with piety. A man alone in church with his two rowdy boys (sometimes with dirty nails) gets some very queasy stares from the “perfect” Catholic families in the pews, but we persevere and greet them all with smiles. Overall, the experience is working, despite all the awkwardness and struggles. Perhaps because they see church as something Dada works hard to attend with them, they see it as a cool experience, not something their pious parents drag them to.
    So, don’t despair. It’s a ton of work raising Catholic kids with a heathen mate, but the results can be inspiring. Just smile back at all the perfect couples wondering where your husband is and enjoy the sun pouring down through the stained glass. Your kids will appreciate the effort.

  • Steve


    From here, I can only help you with my prayers for you and your family, which I will offer tonight. If I were you, I would ask someone at your parish, or perhaps your diocesan office, if they have any recommendations for marriage counseling. It is likely that your wife’s view of Catholicism is shaded by misrepresentation of our true beliefs, and perhaps someone closer to your home can recommend a strategy for approaching your family’s problems.

    God bless and be well,


  • Ted Euster

    My wife is an unbaptized woman and an only child of the worst kind of athiest, an estranged Catholic. Her mom has absolutely no respect for her husband (who is very much like Homer Simpson only more selfish an aloof.) She will grasp at any excuse to put the Church down. She has come to hate my family, a v. large practicing Catholic family; I think mostly because, I love them. When she is mad she says and does things that are terrible. In front to my children she says the worst things she can say about my family, me and her father. She has accused me, without cause, of the worst things in from of my children. She brings the worst reading materials into the house many with anti-Catholic atheistic themes. Her mom indulges my children with sweets to the point of it not being healthy. When I explained to her mom how my having to take the excessive bags of potato chips, cakes, candy, sods … away from them puts me in a bad spot – Dad: takes good stuff away, Grandmom: brings the taste things…, she remarked “… that was the idea.” I am only touching the tip of this most horible situation. Last night she threw a Crucifix on the floor shouting “… was s—.” (the “…” being our Lords name) and further shouting how all the priests in the church were (using very explicit images) molesters in fromt of my children. I am at my witts end. How do I deal with this situation. If it were not for my children I would have walked out a long time ago.

  • Kathryn Stewart

    I think it’s important to understand the belief systems of “Christians” vs “Humanists”. There was a whole movement in early American colonization which included renoun artists, writers, philantropists, etc. incl: Thoreau, Longfellow, Emerson, to name a few, who lived caring, philantropic lives but didn’t give a hoot about God. They were known as existentialists, and they believed in doing good for the sake of itself. I married one of these “good” people, and I have been happily married to this man for 32 years. I am a devout Catholic. It has not been all happy. It has been a struggle to raise 3 children with a solid faith life. If I had to do it over again, I don’t know what I would do. I just know I love my God and I love my husband. I let God figure out what to make of his disbelief.

  • Maria

    You know you can be christian without being Christian or Jewish or Muslim. Kind of like catholic with a small c being universal and Catholic with a capital c meaning the religion. But I married a heathen, we got married in my parent’s church in NY by a priest. He then joined the Church and was baptized while I was pregnant with our first child. Like Deacon Tom says, invite him to Mass with you but let him say no without losing face. My husband and I found that often when we taught baptism classes to mixed couples and to Catholic couples.

    Just keep praying and answering questions if they come up.

  • Katrina

    I grew up with a ‘heathen’ father and a Catholic mother. They agreed to raise me in the faith, complete with Catholic school, but my father did not want to be converted. She respected him, and he respected her. After an awful health scare, he decided to join the Church. He says it’s because coming so close to death ‘scared the Jesus into him’, and that he wanted to do right by my mom after all she put up with. Who knows what the truth is? I hope it doesn’t take a health scare like my dad’s, but what you say in your youth isn’t binding. Whatever you do, don’t force the issue. My mom was smart enough to let him come into the faith on his own.

  • Terry

    The article is fine, but there is no such thing as an “anonymous Christian.” Being a good person isn’t being an anonymous christian. You can’t be Christian unless you recognize Christ as the Savior and your actions reflect his love. Being a nice person isn’t enough.

    I feel there is such a sense of relativism in this article and that is a little disconcerting. Our job as a spouse is to help get our partner to heaven. Not to make excuses for them. What I am referring to is the sense of, “well at least he isn’t as bad as these people who claim to be Christian but aren’t good people”

    One has nothing to do with the other. Pray for your husbands conversion. Thank God that he is a nice guy, but don’t be fooled into the “anonymous Christian” business.

  • ConcordPastor

    It disturbs me that the priest gave the impression that on account of the groom not being baptized he, the priest, could witness the wedding but that for some reason, a deacon could. There is nothing about this marriage that precludes a priest witnessing it for the Church. In addition, this priest gave the impression that deacons witness weddings of some presumed lesser quality – and that is not so. This priest was wrong in his response.

  • Emily

    Dear Sara –

    You say that your husband “is wickedly funny, always there to lend a hand when anybody needs it, he‚Äôs sweet and compassionate and very generous,” then conclude that though he technically isn’t Christian, he’s one in practice. My question to you is when did those wonderful traits of your husband get to be solely Christian ones? There are Jews, Hindus, Muslims‚Äîand nonbelievers like your husband‚Äîwho possess those qualities; why do you need to unofficially “label” him Christian?

  • Karen

    Dear Sara:
    Your article could have been written about me about 25 years ago! I was married almost 24 years ago in a Catholic church (by a priest) to a man who had never been baptized (and still hasn’t). Although we live in the northeast, much of the rest of your story mirrors mine.
    Before we got married we decided to raise any children we would have in the Catholic faith and we now have 2 teenage boys who have been raised Catholic, receiving all of the sacraments. Through all of these years my husband has only attended church at weddings, funerals, Christmas and Easter. I will admit that it’s been difficult for me to shoulder the responsibility of our children‚Äôs religious upbringing by myself. My husband has not in any way tried to counter our children’s Catholic upbringing, but at the same time he’s not there to help with it either.
    Although my husband has never been baptized or regularly attended any church, he does hold Christian values. I really like your term “anonymous christian” and I think it fits my husband as well. He is very interested in the Bible and learning about Christianity, but I think because he never had the opportunity to go to church as a child he just doesn’t know how to start now – despite being married to a practicing Catholic for all these years. I think he’ll figure it out one of these days and I pray that he will someday convert to the Catholic church because it is something I would love to share with him. But it is up to the Holy Spirit, not to me.
    On the other hand, our marriage has been solid for over 24 years which sadly, is longer than many Catholic to Catholic marriages. So although I think if we had both been Catholic for our entire marriage it would have made some things better/easier, we have had a wonderful life together just the way we are.

    God Bless

  • Tappy

    One of the reason the mega-churches are thriving is that people are taught biblically how to live successful spiritual lives in today’s culture. I’m a devout Catholic who “defected” then came back. (I was raised Catholic.” The word churches have such good solid teachings on the biblical principle about not being yoked with an unbeliever. I’m 46, married to a Catholic and in the middle of raising two teenage girls. In my humble opinion and based on 19 years of marriage — if you are Catholic, marry a Catholic — the more devout, the better. This is my urgent prayer to God for my own children.

  • southokid

    I was raised in a household described by the author. Not an issue. I grew up knowing good people come in all shapes, sizes, colors and belief systems. Because of this, I am a better Catholic. Use it as a great tool to educate your children (and yourself).

  • anjie_LD

    This article was very reassuring for me. I have been dating an atheist for almost 2 1/2 years. I’m a born and bred Catholic so I’m sure I’ve been raising some eyebrows. I totally agree with the idea that someone can live a life of Christian values without being a Christian. I also believe that we are called to love them and hope for the salvation of all. I consider myself very lucky that I’ve had a solid Catholic upbringing and the gift of faith. Do we turn our back on those have not had such luxury?

    As far as raising kids, only God knows what’s in store. Of course there’s going to complication and carrying the weight of being a ‘single’ Catholic parent. I tend to believe that if we have a family, they will get the experience of knowing what it is like to love and respect the members Church, as well as non-believers.

    Maybe its all liberal hippie talk, but I love my boyfriend and I support those willing to reach out to someone who is a non-believer and not close the door to what can be a rich and fulfilling life.

  • Deacon Tom

    Dear Sara:


    First, the priest who “delegated” the responsibility for assisting at your wedding missed a golden opportunity to make our church a place of welcome. I hope that my brother deacon picked up the slack…

    Second, as a guy who’s been married 43 years (She’s a living saint for putting up with me…) I would suggest that when you want to go to Mass, invite your beloved to come, giving him permission at the same time to say “no” without him “losing face” as it were, and without you losing an argument. As you observed in your initial article, this guy is an anonymous Christian, and some day he may “come out of the closet” – If you need a story from scripture about “anonymous christians as friends of Jesus, there are several: For instance Jesus says “Not everyone who says ‘Lord Lord’ will enter the kingdom heaven, Only those who do the will of my father.” Score one for your guy, who helps people out. Then there’s the story of the Good Samaritan. Score 2 for your guy. Then there’s the story of the … You get the picture.

    Third point, directed at the person who chose the graphic for this story: Why depict an unbaptized person as one who looks like a cartoon devil in flames? In my experience, heathens as a group are far more likely to be “get ‘er done” Christians than are many of our baptized brothers and sisters.


    Deacon Tom (Diocese of Lansing)

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