Religious Compatibility

Sorting out what faith means to your relationship

A couple places a candle during a Christmas Mass in Lviv, Ukraine. (CNS photo/Gleb Garanich, Reuters)
Question: My boyfriend is a “lapsed” Catholic and not that connected to organized religion. I have a more active and practicing faith. Should I be worried about our religious compatibility?

Answer: There are lots of details to consider, so let’s look at some questions that can help you discern if you need to be worried about your religious compatibility.

First, there are different types of “lapsed” Catholics. The most benign case is likely the most common scenario: a person who has stepped away from their faith, but is not necessarily antagonistic against the Church. If your boyfriend wants to remain Catholic, but hasn’t gone to Mass in a while, then attending with you may be the “excuse” he needs to return. Was there a specific event that caused him to step away from the faith? If so, then I would encourage him to talk about it and seek counsel from a clergy member. Sometimes an interaction with a priest at a critical time, such as during a funeral or wedding can turn someone “off” from going to church. If his faith just slowly fell off his radar, is he open to becoming more involved now with you?

Another type of “lapsed” Catholic is the person who had a difficult experience that didn’t line up with what he or she believed about God. Sometimes it’s hard to feel God’s presence or understand “why” when prayers for protection and healing appear to go unanswered. Is your boyfriend questioning God’s goodness, or power, or love? Is he questioning truth found in Scripture and Tradition? If so, this is great! What’s so great about it? Questioning, and searching, shows that your boyfriend still longs to be with God. Somehow, his “trust” has been broken. I would encourage your boyfriend to start seeking answers. Reading books, using sites like this one, or talking to religious mentors and clergy are just a few ways to discover answers. Does he feel comfortable talking to you about his questions, or does he feel he may disappoint you if he was honest about his lack of faith? Make sure that you can hear his concerns without judging or arguing with him.

The final type of “lapsed” Catholic is the one who rejects everything the Catholic Church teaches. Our faith has some very “countercultural” teachings, and they can be hard to accept. Seeking answers is very different from being antagonistic. If your boyfriend is in this last category, then know that your faith will likely become a point of tension and conflict in your relationship.

Sharing faith

Ok, enough questions about him. Let’s look at where you stand in all this. It sounds like your boyfriend still considers himself to be Catholic, then the question becomes how important is it to you that he, or a future spouse, share in your level of practicing your faith? Let me stress how personal this decision is going to be. There is not “one” answer.

Are you comfortable going to Mass alone, or do you strongly believe that a couple must worship together? Can you go to Mass by yourself and not secretly feel resentful? Are there other activities in the Church that your boyfriend will participate in if he doesn’t go to Mass? What about the other sacraments? Are you ok with possibly not having a Catholic wedding, or a wedding ceremony that includes Mass? I’m not sure how serious your relationship is right now, but would your boyfriend be supportive of raising children in the faith?

Attending Mass and being active in a church community are the “doing” parts of our faith, but there is also the “being” part of “being Catholic.” Do you desire to pray together? If your boyfriend attends Mass with you, is it the same as sharing in the faith together? Would that be enough for you? Is your boyfriend open to spiritual growth? As an active Catholic, I would imagine that your spiritual life and your religious life are one in the same, and that you would like to share both.

My husband was dating a lapsed Catholic before he met me. She refused to attend Mass with him and eventually told him that she would never be open to a mutual expression of faith as part of their relationship. After much agonizing, he discovered sharing his faith was extremely important to him, and he ended the relationship. In another couple I know, one partner lacked faith and decided to attend RCIA to learn more about it. They are happily married and very active in their church. The question remains: if he never changes from how he is today, how important is religious compatibility to you?

This is a discussion to have as a couple, but no matter where it lands, remember he cannot do it “for you.” A person’s faith is a very personal decision. I would strongly advise against “missionary dating,” where you are the missionary and your boyfriend is the one you are trying to convert. If he simply tries to “become more Catholic” in order to keep you in the relationship, then it won’t work. But, if he is open to deepening his faith through his own journey, then you may find a middle ground where you are both comfortable. Remember, the strongest witness you can give is to live your faith in ways that are tangible: giving mercy and forgiveness to others, living a life of chastity and charity, recognizing the dignity of every individual, refraining from gossip, respecting life, and honoring God.

If you continue to have concerns, then listen to those concerns and keep working until you find peace about it. I hope these questions can begin a discussion that will be fruitful for you both, not only as a couple, but also in an examination your faith.

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