Dr. Mathias: It’s madness.
The Operative: Madness? Have you looked at this scan carefully, Doctor? At his face? It’s love, in point of fact. Something a good deal more dangerous.
– Serenity (2005)
Patrick Madrid blogged about a call he took on his radio show. Dominic, a 19-year-old Catholic man, told the story of dating a girl whose Presbyterian faith (and parents) caused her to break up with him. Patrick responded gently but with a firm message, basically: Date Catholics. Parents, don’t let your kids date non-Catholics.
This issue is one that evokes strong feelings in many people; this post by Patrick drew more comments than his post about the Archishop of Canterbury urging the Pope to allow female bishops. Julie D. of Happy Catholic took particular issue, as she was an agnostic at the time she married her husband. The comments on both her post and Patrick’s fall strongly on either side, with anecdotes like Julie’s to support them.
I have a few of my own. My mother and her sisters married non-Catholics, all of whom are now among the finest Catholic men I know. If all devout Catholics dated and married only in the Church, not only would Julie not be writing her blog, I wouldn’t even exist. The people supporting this side of the issue point out, rightly, that with God all things are possible and that we should fear no evil (such as the evils of ignorance, prejudice, and false belief).
On the other hand, proponents of the “date Catholics only” side point out, rightly, that mixed relationships – crucially, mixed marriages – can cause tremendous suffering. The problems go beyond the couple – to their families, friends, and most especially their children.
Dominic was forced, after a relatively short period of time, to look down the road and see a certain wisdom in what happened. The concern revolves around marriage. I think very few couples begin their relationship with an eye on that possibility. I think fewer couples, even if they have that foresight, appreciate the difficulties that can come from solid and opposing religious beliefs.
I have no experience of marriage. Even if I did, one experience is hardly a guide for the rest of the world; the comments on Patrick’s and Julie’s blogs relate any number of “horror stories and happy endings.” I’m writing because I do have experience in a long, serious, and “mixed” relationship. The aspiring Dominics out there may recognize the wisdom in the warning but choose to proceed anyway, due largely to unfounded optimism (not that I can blame them). My story, I hope, might make the potential consequences a little more real.
I began my courtship of a young woman when we were both seniors in high school, just barely over six years ago today. She was a beautiful, extraordinarily bright girl who made my mouth go dry when I talked to her. I had learned secondhand that she came from a Mormon family (her 12 siblings might have given it away in any case). I knew nothing about Mormonism. I knew not too much about Catholicism. It didn’t take very long for the subject to come up in conversation, nor very long after that for it to become a debate. I remember the night she brought me a copy of the Book of Mormon to read. She slid it across the table and I examined it for a moment, then got up and came back with a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and dropped it on the table (WHAM). I think we both still have those books.
It was an interesting time for me. I stayed up late into the night reading internet articles about why Mormonism is wrong and why Catholicism is right. At the beginning I printed things out and gave them to her to read. This is to my eternal embarrassment. The material I gave her took a bullheaded approach at best; it was idiotic or outright false at worst. I didn’t see it at the time, but I was setting a negative tone that would never entirely go away. Nor indeed did it do much to endear me to her father.
But my efforts were not all useless. I did learn an enormous amount about the most ancient Church, things of which I had never heard before. And I did begin to expose her to those things as well: Ignatius and Polycarp, auditors of the Apostles; Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, illustrious apologists; and other details of the history between the Acts of the Apostles and us.
Around that same time, I began spending a lot of time on the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry’s “LDS” discussion forum. It exposed me to a wide range of arguments and argumentation. I recall one person’s signature: “Truth without love is too hard; love without truth is too soft.” Most of the discussions on the forum fell into the former category. For the most part I did too. There was sort of an argument-first mentality that neglects to account for the fact that people don’t always take too kindly to arguments, even if they’re flawless. With all the time I spent researching patristics, Scripture, history, and theology (both Catholic and Mormon), I became ready to tear any Mormon apologia or article of faith to shreds. But the ironclad argument does not account for the fact that the opponent happens to love those apologia and articles of faith.
Chalk it up to being young and stupid. Sparks flew at times, but she was very patient. Besides, our religious disparity was not what defined our relationship, nor much of a restricting factor at all. We grew deeper and stronger in genuine love. As time passed, we both began to develop the concrete conviction that we would never marry unless we agreed on faith first. Though we weren’t talking about marriage nor kids at the time, I think the reason for both of us was that we could never do that to our kids.
Our families were fairly patient with it, though with entirely different dynamics. My family, all devout Catholics, was very supportive of us. They were aware of the problem and very concerned, of course, but they never opposed us dating. Nor would they have opposed a mixed marriage, had it in fact come to that. I fondly remember a conversation with my older brother about it. I said if she married me, her family might disown her. He said in that case he’d sit alone on her side of the church at the wedding.
Most of her family was not supportive. In the Mormon church, there is a very definitive answer to the question of dating non-members. That answer is no. As all of them are devout Mormons, this was cause for constant worry, and open pressure on her to end it. (I should note that her younger siblings were likewise opposed in principle, but perhaps not as much in practice. They liked me better for some reason.) As one can understand, this pressure was reflected into the relationship.
I mention the family reactions because it is something new couples must consider. My choice to be in the relationship didn’t cause my family pain, although my mother is still fasting from ice cream to petition the Lord for my girlfriend’s conversion. My girlfriend’s choice caused her family a lot of pain. We all loved each other, of course, and they’re fine people. But her choice did have immediate consequences for her family (which came back down on her).
Going back to the story, in late 2004 we both went to college. Not the same college. Hers and mine were separated by a drive of 55 miles. And for much of our time in college, she didn’t have a highway-worthy car. But I was happy to make that drive often, and so we saw each other twice a week. Our relationship was now somewhat long-distance, but it continued to get deeper and more serious.
The tension over religion would grow as well. It was at some point during my freshman year of college that I started this, my first blog. I believe I still have all the ancient entries preserved; the reader can go back and see what an idiot I was. I still had the mentality that everything Catholic was right and everything Mormon was wrong. I didn’t see much on the internet bringing those two facts together, though, so I started my blog to fill the niche. There was a time when it did indeed, and readers used to have lively discussions here.
I digress. During that time, 2004-2005, I continued to read books and websites and whatnot. I searched for the things that I could present to her to change her mind and convince her to believe in the Catholic faith. Things continued to go nowhere, as far as I could tell.
I should mention that we both participated in varying degree in the activities of each other’s churches. I went to services with her sometimes, and to gatherings of her ward (which Catholics would call a parish) or young adult groups, and so on. She sometimes came to Mass, presentations, or other activities with me. In 2005-2006 she enrolled in RCIA, as an effort to learn about what Catholics believe. At the time we agreed that we’d call it quits if we remained split in faith by Easter. But when it came, we decided to press on.
There were other times she came very close to breaking off the relationship over our religious difference. Each time, either immediately or after a few days or weeks, we came back together. It was still basically the only thing wrong with the relationship. As 2006 became 2007 we began to more seriously consider the future. I believe it was during this year that we burned out on discussing religion. My mentality hadn’t changed, and I couldn’t really bring much new material to the table. And it drove me crazy; it could bring out the best and worst in me. I remember making impassioned, and I think inspired, pleas to her. I also remember becoming as angry as I’ve ever been in my life because of the whole situation.
My writing and reading on the subject of “Catholics are right, all others are wrong” fell off almost entirely. This isn’t to say my religious practice fell off; as time went on, my beliefs only became stronger. Yet this made it harder for me to live in the faith while she did not. So for a time we carried on, without touching the subject much.
Finally, in early 2008, she confided that she was thinking about leaving the Mormon church. She said she heard things being discussed in services and activities and realized she simply no longer believed them. But at that point, she still wasn’t convinced about the truth of the Catholic faith. Still, I was excited, to say the least. In my mind (and I think in hers too), a Catholic marrying a Mormon would be a bad idea – but a Catholic marrying a… something else? We were okay with that. I had finally softened somewhat and become less idiotic when it came to religious discussion. I started to spend more effort trying to find elements of Catholicism with which she could fall in love.
And we had plans. I had a year of college left; she was going to move on to grad school at a college in my city. This was where it was all coming together. Finally we would be separated by mere minutes. I would find a job and be ready to provide for her. I was keeping an eye out for the perfect engagement ring. We had both been through so much and sacrificed so much for each other, and we were ready to commit to a lifetime together.
Then in June 2008, just before she moved to my city, it all fell apart. For reasons I still don’t entirely understand (though I have not put much effort into it), she abruptly and completely re-committed herself to the Mormon faith. She broke off the relationship of about four and a half years, and shortly thereafter decided not to even speak to me. It was the complete end of her in my life, all due to the only thing that ever really came between us: our different religious beliefs.
I can’t speak so plainly as I have in the rest of this story to describe the shattering pain of that summer; it can only be related in something more like poetry. I remember telling a friend many months later that it was not so much having my heart broken as having it thrown to the gutter and stomped on, then dug in with the heel like a spent cigarette, and scraped up with a shovel into a black garbage bag. My days were filled with useless distractions and my nights with anything but sleep. After receiving Communion once I prayed to Jesus to heal the beating abyss my heart once was. The reader understands, I hope, that those were the darkest days of my life.
That’s not unique to a religion-based breakup, of course. But a young lover should know what may lie in store if religious differences make marriage prohibited or direly unwise. My girlfriend and I went all the way to the end – to the point of committing to marriage – and it went down in flames.
And of course, it didn’t end there. Perhaps this will fade with time, but I still chiefly feel regret when I look back on the relationship. If I had known all along what I know now, if I had done a better job at presenting the faith, if I had been a better Catholic… maybe we would never have split up, but more importantly, maybe she would have come to believe. Spiritually, I have never been the same. My best qualities, all the devotion and virtue and sacrifice which God brought out of me through her, feel foreign to me now, a year and a half hence. I look back on something like the before and after photos of a city that suffered a bombing.
I do not question God’s love for me, but like a massive high-speed train, one cannot have so much of one’s own being suddenly halted without enormous consequences. These consequences, for me, are wounds to every aspect of me which I had invested in loving her. In other words, pretty much everything. Some of those wounds have healed, no doubt, and some have not.
This is where I conclude my telling of the story. It’s late, and I don’t doubt I have forgotten many important or enlightening details. But I hope it will still make an impression on anyone like Dominic: let my story convey to you, in some small measure, how much and how quickly that cross you now embrace cheerfully can become the cause of unspeakable pain to your heart, mind, and soul. If you still choose to follow our Lord’s example and give yourself up entirely for the one you love, I bid you good luck and pray you come to something happier. If you choose to go your separate ways, well, perhaps you’ve spared yourself and the other a fate like this.
Please pray about it daily, and choose carefully.