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When Interfaith Couples are Not Particularly Religious

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

Results from the Interfaith Research Project (IRP) have clearly indicated that interfaith couples are at once similar and dissimilar. One chief reason why this is the case is because interfaith spouses'/couples' religious and/or ethnic connections vary from one spouse to the next and from one couple to the next.

In this article you will briefly meet a couple who have nominal religious connections to their faith traditions. It should also be emphasized that while this couple is a fictional couple, the observations and descriptions that follow are typical of interfaith couples like this one.

While reading the contexts that follow, please keep in mind that they are offered as a way to help us become more sensitive to the complex nature of the interfaith marriage challenge, and assist us in our efforts to reach out more effectively to these types of couples and families.

Meet Gus and Susan

Gus (41) and Susan (38) have been married for 15 years and are the parents of two preteens. Gus is a successful attorney, and Susan is a stay-at-home mom who has a small but growing home-based business. They live in an upper-middle class bedroom community outside of a large Southern City. Gus was born and raised in this city, while Susan is originally from another past of the country.

When asked to describe their religious and ethnic background, Gus states that he is "a Greek-Orthodox American," while Susan states that she is "Roman Catholic" from a decidedly "Americanized" family.

Both state that they attend St John the Baptist Greek-Orthodox Church about once or twice a month. When Susan's parents are in town, however, she indicates that "my parents, the children, and I will attend Sacred Heart Catholic Church." Asked if Gus attends, both smile at one another and Susan politely states, "he just stay home, or works."

When the couple is prompted to explain why they decided to attend the Greek Orthodox Church, Gus offers the following information. "I'm not what you might consider very religious. I attend because it's my family's church, and I like the people." Elsewhere during this discussion Gus will also infer that he attends St. John's because, "I am proud of being Greek American, and want my children to be exposed to the good things that Greek culture has contributed to my development."

Susan also adds the following: "I knew that attending the Greek Church was important to Gus. And since my family lives in another part of the country and we were going to live near Gus' family, attending the Greek Church seemed like the logical choice." She then also adds, "but I never really thought about converting."

When Susan is asked to elaborate upon her last statement, she states, "religion has never been really priority number one to us, if you follow what I'm saying. Going through the effort of converting never seemed very cost effective to me."

When the couple is asked if they have encountered any challenges related to their religious and ethnic differences, Gus begins. "Things have been fairly easy for us, but I don't believe things would have been quite so smooth if Susan was insistent on being an active Roman Catholic."

Susan agrees with this last statement, and adds, "the fact that Gus' family is in town and they know almost half of the community has made things pretty easy for me…. After we got married everyone came up to me and made me feel at home." She then pauses and remarks, "I like the cultural side, but I still don't feel very close to the religion. The liturgy just doesn't speak to me. And since Gus is usually unable or unwilling to answer my questions, I haven't grown very close to the religion…. But I do worry about the kids religious needs, because I don't know if they have much of a Christian foundation, and I want them to be Christian."

"That's true," Gus says while shaking his head in agreement. "You know, as I get older, time has a way of making us rethink what's really important. When I was younger, religion didn't seem very important, but as my kids have grown, and we age, I'm starting to wonder if I haven't missed the boat on this issue."

"Really," states Susan with some surprise. "I didn't know that." Then she adds, "but he never talks about things like that…. I don't know, maybe its because were too busy, or because Gus thinks that religion is a private matter, or maybe its because of some other reason…. I don't know." Then she turns to Gus and follows up on her initial remark. "I didn't know you've been having these thoughts honey."

Gus just smiles: as if to say, let's continue this conversation later.

Some Observations from This Brief Exchange

While there is a great deal that could be stated in response to the contents of this brief interview, because of space limitations, let us consider the following few points.

  1. According to Diocesan statistics (where they are available), in some regions of our country there are more Greek Orthodox/Roman Catholic marriages being conducted in our churches vis-à-vis single faith Greek Orthodox marriages. This means that Greek Orthodox/Catholic marriages are more the norm and less the exception in many parts of our country.
  2. Like some single faith Orthodox couples that attend our churches, some interfaith couples attend our churches for reasons that may be unrelated to their religious and spiritual needs. For example, some of the primary reasons that compelled Gus and Susan to attend were because, (a) Gus had strong ethnic connections, (b) Gus' family lived nearby, (c) Gus wanted his children to be enriched by the same Greek-American culture that positively impacted his development, and (d) neither spouse had a particularly strong religious identity.
  3. Couples like Gus and Susan often have little incentive to become a single faith couple because religion is of marginal concern to them. As such, Susan is content to simply come to liturgy, but is not convinced that the time she must expend to convert will be "cost effective" to either her, her marriage, or family. This indifference toward religion and/or conversion may not, however, be permanent. Life cycle changes may prompt these types of spouses/couples to reevaluate the role that religion and spirituality should play in their lives.
  4. When and if these types of spouses/couples have a change of heart regarding religion, this can potentially create some marital and family instability. This may especially be the case if only one of the two spouses determines that religion must play a more prominent role in his/her life. It is thus important that the Church be there to assist these spouses/couples in their efforts to meet their individual, couple, and family religious needs and challenges. Furthermore, if the Church is not responsive, then some of these spouses, couples, and families may look elsewhere to fulfill these needs and remedy this new challenge in their lives.