A Former Anglican Answers: What About a Non-Catholic Spouse?

EPG’s latest question from the opposite bank of the Tiber, about how a convert should deal with a non-Catholic spouse, has drawn some useful comments, with a particularly powerful testimony from Mary P. Coincidentally, I encountered another answer to the question Saturday morning, when convert and distinguished author Dr. Thomas Howard (left) talked before our men’s group about his “Path to the Ancient Church.”

Raised in an Evangelical family where each meal included prayers as well as hymns accompanied by Mother on the piano, Dr. Howard taught from 1970 to 1984 at Gordon College, a “multidenominational Christian college” in Wenham, Massachusetts. A scholar of English literature with books on CS Lewis and novelist Charles Williams, Howard taught an elective on Lewis and JRR Tolkien at Gordon that drew as many as 200 students. By this time, having spent some time in England, he had become an Anglican. It was at Gordon College, he told us, that he began reading his way into the Catholic Church by studying the Fathers and early Church history. In 1984, he was asked to tender his resignation when he announced that he was going to be received into the Catholic Church. Gordon accepts Catholic students but not Catholic professors.

Howard was 50 years old and out of a job, thinking he “might have to sell pencils on the street.” Instead, a dean from St. John’s Seminary in Boston knocked at his door one summer day and asked if he would be interested in teaching English there. This solved Howard’s job dilemma but it did not solve what might have been a thorny problem in his family: his wife had not converted with him.

The Howards were blessed. When Howard told his wife that he “had to be Catholic,” she accepted it quietly. Not long afterward she told him, “The Lord has given me wings of joy about your becoming a Catholic.” Yet she did not cross the Tiber with him for 10 years, saying she was “not ready yet.” Meanwhile, Dr. Howard began writing successful books from a Catholic perspective, including Evangelical is Not Enough, On Being Catholic, and Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome.

About his wife’s waiting to become Catholic, Howard said, “I never bugged her about it. I never even prayed that she would become a Catholic.” One day, in 1994, Mrs. Howard told her husband, “I’ve decided I want to be an old lady who goes to Mass every day.” And so, he says, she is. Dr. Howard quipped that his wife is “much farther along in the Salvation sweepstakes than I am!”

So there you have it, converts with non-Catholic spouses: You may not even have to pray. Just “don’t bug her,” and try to act with half the dignity and kindness that seem to pour naturally from Dr. Thomas Howard. Who, by the way, drew quite a crowd to our men’s group as our first official guest speaker. Here’s another picture, courtesy of my friend Michael Joens:

"Vaya con Dios, Leonard; Rest in Peace."

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  • @Webster. Fascinating post. I love to read about people's spiritual paths.I have a question for you and others: how is it you call yourself a convert? You were a baptized Christian before, yes?The husband of a parishioner is entering the Catholic Church at our parish on Easter. I referred to him as a "convert" and my priest corrected me. The man is a baptized Christian and raised in the Lutheran faith. My priest said he is a "catechumen" but not a convert.My priest is a canon lawyer, so he is very precise with language. I am also thinking that using the word "convert" to a Christian, nonCathoic spouse could be very off-putting as in – Don't you consider me a Christian too?

  • Webster Bull

    Fair question, A, and I'm sure your priest is technically correct on the point of canon law. But since I was "received into" the Catholic Church, I have heard only of "cradle Catholics" and "converts." Sorry, but for me, you will always be in the cradle! 🙂

  • cathyf

    Allison, if your priest said that the Lutheran friend is a catechmen, then he got it exactly backwards. Catechumens are those preparing for baptism. Those already baptized who are preparing to enter the Catholic Church are "candidates for continuing conversion" or usually just "candidates" for short. Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics and United Methodists even have a formal compact (called LARCUM) that all four recognize that they have the same understanding and theology of baptism.

  • @cathyf: I am sure I am the one who got that wrong. Father said "candidate." He's never wrong about these things. Seriously.

  • We're all converts, some of us just converted when we were babies. 😉

  • Webster, I'm delighted that you got to hear Dr. Howard speak. His book Lead Kindly Light has been one of my favorite resources in my own conversion process and the first thing I'd recommend to an Episcopalian thinking of "swimming the Tiber." Allison, I'm sure that your priest is technically correct in not referring to those of us who are to be received into full communion as "converts." However, the term is used frequently at the church I'm attending, as I'm sure it is elsewhere, and I'm not at all bothered by it; actually, I feel that the change I'm making is so profound that it's really not that inappropriate.

  • Wow, next thing you know we'll be debating how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Sheesh!My wife never bugged me about becoming a Catholic. Ever. It would have been completely counter-productive.

  • You don't concentrate on risks. You concentrate on results. No risk is too great to prevent the necessary job from getting done.-Chuck Yeager