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:

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16021781602272064901 Allison

    @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.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16021781602272064901 Allison

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

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16142633311407145793 Wine in the Water

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

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08801584133028591211 Laura R.

    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.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    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.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    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

  • Michael

    I had a very eclectic approach to all things spiritual. When I was 10, I discovered a book in my mother's library, which had a very odd title and the author's name was even more so: "The Third Eye" by "Lobsang Tuesday Rampa"! Reading this book was my entry into esoteric teachings and Tibetan Buddhism – and led me on a quest to find the truth about Christian teachings as well. My parents had sent me to Sunday school – they weren't Christian as such (non-practicing Lutherans) but they thought that I should have this exposure, to enable me to make my own decisions regarding a Christian way of life later on. In my tenth year of school I wanted to become a pastor, but after a row with my pastor about eternal damnation, I gave that idea a pass.Many years later I was invited to Midnight Mass in a Liberal Catholic Church. The person who invited me was a lovely young lady and so I went along – the Mass being the furthest thing from my mind. This young lady, now my wife of 27 years, was a "Cradle Roman Catholic". Together we spent about 18 years in that specific Liberal Catholic Church. The Bishop was a man with a wonderful sense of humour and told us of a visitation by Jesus, when he was gravely ill in hospital. All the years, however, something was missing for me: There was never a Bible in the Church, there were booklets for Epistle and Gospel Readings, yes – but no Bible. We had a proper Mass but even so I felt that the founders of the LCC, Theosophists, had introduced too many theosophical teachings and had created what is called by some "Esoteric Christianity". I entered Major Orders and was ordained a Deacon in 1994, but somehow could not bring myself to be ordained a priest. The reason had crystallised itself – this was not a church of our Lord Jesus Christ. In conversations with my wife, I said that I needed a ritualistic Church, with a Mass, with candles, incense, Jesus Christ focus, Holy communion, organ music, devotions to Our Lady etc. She agreed readily and so we started visiting Catholic churches and my heart became more peaceful and I a much more devout Christian. I think if it had not been for some dogmatic “issues” that I have with Christendom and the Roman Catholic Church, I would have converted long ago. Be those issues as they are, I would defend the Catholic Church against all mindless, lunatic anti-Christians like, e.g. Prof Richard Dawkins who wants Pope Benedict XVI arrested because of “Crimes against Humanity”. Lord hear our Prayer. (And how I enjoyed a DVD I watched this afternoon with my priest friend on Pope John Paul II!) Rome sweet Home. Blessings!

  • Webster Bull

    Michael, Thanks for your conversion story. As I have written elsewhere (search on "Gurdjieff"), I had a longtime dalliance with "esoteric Christianity" myself. I would be most interested in a fleshed-out guest post about your experience. You write well, and if you wanted to write at a bit more length about all this, we could publish it. To reach me by e-mail, click on my picture.

  • Michael

    Webster, thanks for your response – and your very kind remark about my writing style. I know that it is but a shadow of the way you write and your command of the language is warm, humorous and engaging. I am a native-German speaker from Namibia and I really enjoy the kind of writing I read in your posts. I find the similarities in your background, the road to conversion and mine quite fascinating – from meditation to Krishnamurti to yoga to men's group! I also read up on the all the posts with reference on Gurdjieff and I downloaded G.K. Chesterton’s book – thanks for the link to Frank.What I love about a site like this one and others, similar to this one, is the gems that you pick up: You read them and think:”Yep – that’s so true” or “Absolutely!! That is what I was after…that’s me!!” One such phrase I read in the Gurdjieff posts, where you mentioned G.K. Chesterton, was “practical romance” – and that is my quest, not to “have religion, but to have a real, practical relationship” with our Lord. This quest is definitely not based on “sola ecclesia” and it is so good to find like-minded souls.Yes, it is not good to be alone as a Christian. One of my charismatic friends – a very humble and God fearing man and who I only knew as “Jimmy”, until I found out quite by chance that he was possibly the best nuclear physicist South Africa once had, he had this little analogy: The devil is very clever. He sees a congregation or fellowship of Christians much as he sees glowing coals in a fire. He will try to scrape out a single coal at a time and pull it aside, on its own onto the sand. On its own, the coal loses its fire (fervour) and dies. That is what he attempts to do with Christians, isolate them and let their faith die. So, let’s believe in the community of Saints and maintain Christian fellowship and remain victorious in Christ. The “Saints” in this case is us – 1 Cor. 1:2.