My wife, our six children, and I were baptized and confirmed in the Greek Orthodox Church, to which all our close relatives also belong. Six years ago, due to a job transfer, we moved to a small, midwestern city where there is no Orthodox congregation; in fact, there is none within over a hundred miles. Near here, however, there are both a Catholic parish and an Episcopal church, which happens to belong to the more conservative wing of the Anglican communion. For the first few years, my family and I worshiped sometimes at the Catholic parish but more often at the Episcopal church, without receiving Communion in either, but neither my wife nor I was satisfied with that.
During my wife’s formative years, her family worshiped for a time at an Episcopal church, and she also has some bias, due to the way she was brought up, against the Catholic Church. Finding herself more comfortable with the Episcopalians, she gradually joined fully and regularly in their services. Our girls, who are among the younger children, accompanied her. She wanted me to do so as well, but I could not, because I knew that Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have more in common. I began going regularly to the Catholic parish, and the two older boys accompanied me. Eventually I requested the Catholic bishop’s permission for us to receive Communion each Sunday, and he granted it. I now accept the Catholic faith without any reservations, so that, even if there were an Orthodox congregation nearby, I could not go back. Instead, I feel a strong desire to become fully Catholic and to bring my wife and all my children into the Catholic fold.
My wife refuses to discuss the matter. We have been blessed with a wonderful, loving, and peaceful marriage, but on this issue we cannot communicate and reach a mutual understanding. I am in a quandary. For some time, I have waited and prayed, regarding the situation as a cross to be accepted. Should I keep doing that? It no longer seems right to delay indefinitely. Should I proceed alone, hoping my wife and children will follow? Except for the older boys, that seems unlikely, and I do not feel it right to go ahead without my wife and the other children, for that will divide the family. Is there some other approach I have overlooked?
This question concerns the religious obligation, flowing from faith itself, to worship God in accord with one’s faith. Since the separation of other Christian churches from the Catholic Church is not total, neither is the already-existing religious division between the questioner and his wife. Still, there are essential differences between the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies, and each spouse ought to act on what he or she believes true. The questioner should not delay taking the steps necessary to be received into the Catholic Church, even though that will risk damage to family unity. At the same time, he should not press his wife to act contrary to her conscientious convictions and should assure her that he will respect them. He ought also to take into account their real, though imperfect, religious unity.
In responding, I shall take for granted something of which you already are aware: though other Christian communions, including the Churches of the East, are separated from the Catholic Church, that separation is not total (see UR 13–23). In particular, the Churches of the East have much in common with the Catholic Church, and not all the differences concern essentials (see UR 14–18). Similarly, the religious difference between your wife and you, though important, is not total, and it may seem greater than it really is. Therefore, both in your own thinking and in communicating with your wife, you should avoid exaggerating the problem of family division.
Still, every person bears personal responsibility for seeking religious truth, embracing it when found, and living in accord with it (see DH 2; CCC, 2104–9). Though Jesus knew that fulfilling this responsibility sometimes would damage familial unity, he offered no compromise (see Mt 10.34–36, Lk 12.51–53). In this matter, then, you and your wife have distinct responsibilities. I strongly suspect that at least a little, and perhaps most, of the strain you have experienced and/or anticipate has arisen from not distinguishing carefully between your direct responsibility for making the right choices bearing on your own religious life and your indirect responsibility regarding the choices your wife and children ought to make regarding their religious lives.
You say you “accept the Catholic faith without any reservations.” That faith includes two beliefs: that only someone invincibly ignorant of the obligation to belong to Christ’s Church can be saved outside her (see LG 14, AG 7), and that Christ’s Church subsists fully in the Catholic Church, but not fully in the Orthodox churches, although they are, in most respects, truly and richly Christian (see UR 2–3, 13–18; CCC, 838). Some might argue that the issues that divide the Orthodox churches from the Catholic Church are not important enough to risk injuring your marriage. But those issues involve truths that, even if not the most central, are essential to the integrity of Catholic faith, so that, having accepted them, you could not concede them without entirely denying your faith (see LCL, 40–41).
You are responsible for acting in accord with what you believe. So, you may not remain Orthodox; you should ask to be received into the Catholic Church. Of course, you must try to choose a propitious time to take this step, and you may have some special reason to delay it briefly. However, there is no reason to think that indefinite delay will win your wife over. On the contrary, acting on your conviction will bear witness to her and your children, and so provide them with an incentive to follow your example, though, of course, they may not. Moreover, if you go on delaying, you are not accepting your cross but failing to take it up, for belonging to the worshiping community whose faith one fully shares is not some sort of self-indulgence but one’s duty to the Lord (see Mt 10.34–39). Then too, failing to act on your conviction will damage your own integrity, your wife’s respect for you, and, therefore, your mutual relationship. Without further delay, then, you should take the steps necessary to be received into the Catholic Church.
At the same time, your wife’s refusal to discuss the matter makes it clear she does not wish to be pressed to enter the Catholic Church. You should fully respect her conscience and her religious liberty. Believing as you do, it is right for you to hope she and all your children will come into the Catholic fold. But it would be wrong to wish that good end to be achieved in any other way than by their coming to see their personal obligation to become Catholics and freely choosing to fulfill this duty, despite the very real sacrifices that might entail—sacrifices of ethnic attachments, relationships with relatives, and so forth. Consequently, you should not press your wife or any of your children who do not see the matter as you do to enter the Catholic Church. Rather, you should continue to pray for them, provide good example, explain your Catholic faith when occasion offers, and hope for the best.
Since the differences between you and your wife in religious belief and in conscientious conviction about what it requires of you already exist, and already you usually attend different churches, you need only openly acknowledge your beliefs and act on them. Pray that your good marriage will weather the storm and trust the Lord to hear and answer your prayer. Remember Peter’s attempt to walk on the water (see Mt 14.28–31), pray for the faith he lacked, and take the step you hesitate to take. Being blessed in other respects with a loving and peaceful marriage, you have good reason to hope your entry into the Catholic Church will not permanently harm your marital communion.
Of course, decisive action by you probably will cause some temporary difficulty, for it will clarify the existing division. But making special efforts to show your wife how much you love her and putting the matter to her in the right way may avoid even temporary trouble. Since she does not wish to discuss the issue, it probably would be better not to try to discuss what you will do, but simply to inform her, as gently as possible, that you are about to take this step. That might be more easily done in writing, very shortly before you are going to be admitted to the Catholic Church. In any case, make it clear that you respect her conscience and will never ask her to act contrary to it. Then, point out that you too are acting out of conscientious conviction, ask her to respect your conscience, and say you trust she will not insist that you refuse to carry out what you believe is God’s will in this matter.
It might or might not help if you can go to Mass Saturday evening or at a time on Sunday that will allow you to accompany your wife to Episcopal services on Sunday. The problem is that you may not receive Communion or participate actively in other elements of Episcopal worship that explicitly or implicitly diverge from Catholic faith (see LCL, 158–59), and sometimes it generates more strain to accompany another family member to his or her church without participating fully than it does to stay away. If you do accompany her, be careful not even to appear to go too far, because she and the children will hardly come to see the truth of Catholic faith if you do not bear clear and consistent witness to it by your behavior.
If you can find a suitable opportunity to discuss with your wife her own choice to participate in Episcopal services, point out to her the real and important differences between Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. If your wife, like many other faithful members of Orthodox churches, shares the faith of the Catholic Church in the matters on which Orthodoxy differs from Anglicanism, she should not be satisfied with participation in Episcopal services. Moreover, if she continues to believe that the Eucharist is what the Churches of both East and West always have agreed in believing it to be, and if she wishes to receive Communion in the Catholic Church, she could be allowed to do so even without assenting to other elements of Catholic teaching—for example, regarding papal primacy—if she considers them false (see CIC, c. 844, §3).
Since you and your wife agree on many truths of Christian faith and requirements of Christian life, you should continue to cooperate, insofar as possible, in catechizing and forming your children. In doing so, as in everything else, both of you must follow your consciences, while doing your best to avoid conflict with each other. So, while trying to avoid conflict with your wife, you should do what you can to catechize your children, including the younger ones, in the fullness of Catholic teaching. Just as you should try to hand on to your children other things you enjoy that you believe to be true and good, so you should try to hand on to them the fullness of Catholic faith, with which God has blessed you (see CCC, 2225–26).