Of all the email queries I have the privilege of answering, questions concerning Catholic spouses are perhaps the most common. In particular, it’s often an evangelical Protestant, married to a Catholic, wondering how she (usually it’s a she) can help her husband obtain a personal relationship with Jesus. Here are a few thoughts to those of you in this situation or who may be counseling such a person.
First, as I propose in my book, Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic, you’ll want to get a sense of the type of Catholic to whom you are married. I propose three:
- Traditional Catholic: Pre Vatican II variety who values the traditions of Catholicism but who doesn’t (hardly ever) read the Bible and chafes on the notion of having a “personal relationship” with Jesus.
- Charismatic (sometimes called “evangelical”) Catholic: Similar to evangelical Protestants with the Bible, Jesus, and the new birth at the center and who choose to remain in the Catholic Church. Very often theses folks supplement their local parish experience with a Protestant small group such as what you find in Bible Study Fellowship.
- Cultural Catholic: This person is Catholic as a function of their ethnicity. They may or may not attend Mass on Christmas or Easter and if they visit the Emergency Room and fill out a registration card, they write “Catholic.” In terms of activity, however, this is the extent of their Christian allegiance.
Getting insight into where your Catholic spouse is coming from is important. Theological perspective is never shaped in a vacuum. We live in a particular context where uninvited forces impose themselves, causing us to ask certain sets of questions, to embrace particular assumptions, and to recognize value in some ideas and not others. To undiscerningly travel along the path of religious conversation without occasionally stepping back to consider how such forces as education, culture, ethnicity, and personal experience influence our views is tantamount to watching a puppet show without recognizing that there is a puppeteer in the background. The Wizard of Oz shouts, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain; the Great Oz has spoken.” But like the characters in the Wizard of Oz, who do choose to explore what lies beyond the curtain, we would do well to investigate matters of religion further.
In this post, I want to address the particular question of how to approach a Catholic spouse who is serious about his Catholicism, at least to the extent that he goes to Mass, and who is unwilling to countenance Protestantism. This was the situation of the dear sister who just wrote. Following was my basic answer to her.
In short, my advice would be, as you serve your husband with a pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith (1 Tim 1:5) encourage those parts of his religious experience that center on Jesus and the Bible. Your intuition is right–the nagging, contrarian wife, albeit with the best motives, usually fails to impart genuine Christian faith. I would try to find activities or people in the Catholic Church who can model and convey a gospel centered vision. The nice thing is that in today’s Catholic America there are examples of this. At the top of my prayer list would be finding an older Catholic man who knows Jesus and who can function as a positive influence. Invite such people over for dinner. Start reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church and share statements such as paragraph 2011:
The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.
Following this statement, the Catechism has a splendid quote from Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (which ostensibly teaches justification by imputation):
After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone. . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.
Read some classic books from Catholic Church history such as Augustine’s Confessions and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis and highlight elements that confront one with the supremacy of Jesus. You may have to do some careful searching. Unfortunately, when you’re moving in Catholic circles, the gospel message is not always as explicit as one would like. But if you patiently pull back the layers, you will eventually find it. With Jesus and his good news of redemptive grace at the leading edge of your life and message, you will be in a good position to serve your husband as a gospel-centered witness.