My name is Sophie Francoeur (an alias) and I felt inspired to write to you because of your quality responses that appear on Mehta’s blog. I am writing concerning a friend who is debating whether to join the priesthood.
My friend and I have long decided that we would pursue doctoral studies, which in my case is happening, and which for him was the plan until this rather disappointing news of a possible career change. My friend is intelligent and very capable of making a real difference in the academic world and in philanthropic endeavors. I am uncertain if this is a career decision I should support. I treasure my friendship very much and also do wonder if I should at all influence his decision or if “coming out” atheist should ever happen regardless of which career path he chooses.
I am returning on campus very soon where I will be able to meet my friend. I appreciate your advice into this matter.
Thank you very much,
To respond to you helpfully, I have to assume from your letter that your feelings for your friend are solely those of a good friend. If there are romantic feelings with hopes of a life as a couple, then I would have a different set of suggestions for you.
Your friend appears to be more complicated than you may have realized. He has many facets and many needs. He has more to explore and to express than just his intellect. You both have enjoyed those aspects which you share in common, but you also have characteristics that don’t overlap. Now the challenge you are facing is, can both of you also celebrate your differences?
Although your friend might be very capable of making a positive difference in academic and philanthropic fields, that simply may not be the difference that he wants to make. We each have to follow our own passion, our own muse, or as in his case, our own calling. No matter how good his head is, he won’t make much of a contribution if his heart isn’t in it. Whether or not this is a career decision that you should support is beside the point. It’s his decision.
Your decision is about how deeply you treasure your friendship for him. Are you a friend for him in all that he is, or only if he follows a way of life that you would prefer? Do you care for the real person or for the imaginings you had about him? This cannot be an easy decision for him. He probably is in at least some turmoil, if not a great deal of conflict. He is a person, not an expectation fulfiller. Be a friend to the person. That’s what he needs right now.
Telling him gently about your disappointment is fine, because you must be honest and genuine with him, but be careful not to make it a guilt trip. That could ruin the friendship. Express your opinion, but acknowledge his sovereignty in this. Make it clear that your continued friendship is not conditional on his continuing his doctoral studies.
Consider this: If both of you had for a long time been expecting to enter the clergy, but then you decided to pursue doctoral studies instead, how would you want him to respond? As your friend, wouldn’t you want him to say, “Well, I’m a bit disappointed, but Sophie, I know you have to be true to yourself and find your path”? Now, he might or might not be capable of that kind of graciousness, but that’s not the point. Are you capable of it?
As a priest, he may pick up some negative biases or feel some pressure to not fraternize with non-believers, although that will really remain within his discretion. On the other hand, you as an atheist have no institutionalized rules against having any kind of friends you want. Every person you befriend or rebuff is entirely your choice. Will you choose to be free of disapproval? Do you have it within you to accept that your friend has this need to express his Christianity? Can you be more openhearted toward Christians than perhaps many Christians would be toward you?
Coming out and letting him know that you are an atheist is probably inevitable, because of the closeness of your friendship and the level of your intellects. It’s more likely a question of when. When it happens, if you have already shown your support for him to be what he needs to be, perhaps he will be more willing to accept you for what you need to be.
I don’t have enough information from your letter to suggest when would be the best time to share with him your lack of belief. He may have already figured it out, since both of you are obviously very smart. But I wonder if it might be better to tell him before he leaves for his seminary or wherever, if that is what he decides. Taking divergent career paths will challenge your friendship. In order to not drift apart, you will need a foundation of more openness. If both of you can rise above this difference in your beliefs, your friendship will survive and thrive. It not, well, then that is sad, but without honesty and openness it would gradually lose its vitality, and it would fade away anyway.
Sophie, call forth your very best self, a person who is much bigger than this issue, and encourage your friend to do the same. I think you both might have it within you to form a friendship that will continue to flourish if you base it on acceptance of who each of you are rather than what each of you think the other should be.
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