How to Counsel Someone Who's Dating Across the Catholic/Protestant Divide

“For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” The span of their affection across the contentious divide of warring Montagues and Capulets has inspired hearts for centuries. And after the star-crossed lovers met their fate, and their reconciled families cracked open a bottle of Chianti, we proceeded to relish the warmth and pain of other dramas: Jets and Sharks dancing on the West Side to the frigid water of the sinking Titanic. The storyline is familiar: Love found. Love lost. Love regained, only to be lost again.

One need not serve long in pastoral ministry before romantic tragedies unfold in the congregation. These, however, are not to be relished. With deep sorrow, I have already observed two couples whom I married divorce. It’s heartbreaking. Such experiences cause us to consider factors that either serve or undermine a marriage. And it’s not very long into this consideration before Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 6:14 arise, his memorable statement about “not being unequally yoked with unbelievers.” Indeed, this principle is part of Relationship Building 101: For “what partnership has light with darkness?” Then someone responds: “Yeah, but what if one person in the couple is an evangelical and the other one is a Catholic, disagreeing on some things to be sure, but otherwise standing together on a common Nicene faith?” Good question.

Maybe it’s because I have written on the topic of things Catholic and Protestant that I am frequently (if not constantly) asked for advice on this subject. Such questions reach me through e-mail or come walking into my office, often amid tears. After a recent week when I performed a wedding and a pastoral counseling session surrounding the issue, I was finally motivated to write down a few thoughts.

Counseling Session and a Wedding

The wedding came first. An amber glow upon the bride’s and groom’s faces, illumined by the candles on the table altar behind me, showcased the gravity of the moment. Their sweaty palms, nervous smiles, and mutual pledges of love and fidelity captivated the attention of onlookers. “From this day forth, as long as we both shall live,” they resolutely confessed. With those words, our minds were drawn to the cross of Christ, the covenant that it established, and the cosmic calling of this couple to bear witness to God’s kingdom. “This mystery [of marriage] is profound, and I’m saying that it refers to Christ and his church,” Paul said (Eph. 5:32). As my former colleague Kent Hughes occasionally preached, “Our calling to represent Christ in the world, particularly as husband and wife, is only life and death. That’s all. Nothing less.” Such was the sobering backdrop for my counseling meeting the following day.

Ann’s situation turned out to be simpler than most. Precisely because of the biblical admonition expressed in 2 Corinthians 6, she had already broken up with her Catholic boyfriend. “We’re not equally yoked,” she exclaimed. “What else could I have done?” Apparently, the man whom Ann was dating didn’t understand why their relationship was terminal. Ann wanted advice from me on how to give an answer for the nuptial hope within her.

I had two objectives: I wanted the gospel to illumine her decision to end the relationship and also to enrich her perspective on what it will look like to one day accept a man’s proposal for marriage. Starting with the first, I affirmed that it is possible for Catholics to be born-again Christians who love Jesus and genuinely seek to serve him. In the words of Philip Ryken:

Sometimes we forget that Luther, Calvin, and the rest of the Reformers were born and bred within the Roman church. When Catholics were catholic, they were Catholic too, and it was within the Roman church that they came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. To be sure, the pope would not tolerate their plain teaching of the gospel, so eventually they were thrown out of the church. But God can and does carry out his saving work to this day, even where his gospel is not preached in all its clarity (My Father’s World, 230-231).

You could also say it is necessary to believe with faith alone to be saved, but it’s not essential to believe in faith alone as a body of doctrine. This is how I explain the faith of Catholics who exhibit remarkable Christian virtue while resisting the evangelical doctrines of grace. However, valid as this faith may be, it doesn’t mean such a man is suited for a young woman who is seeking to live her life according to the Bible. To the extent that the Catholic man recognizes the authority and revelation of Christ to be in and from the institution of the Catholic church without reference to Scripture, their yoke is uneven. And this leads me to my second point.

The bar must be higher than simply finding a “Christian man” (this is when I imagine that I am talking to my daughter and become animated). I told Ann, “You want a guy who is a man of the Word, who is captivated by the triune God. Someone whose life is defined by redemptive grace from top to bottom, who embodies it, proclaims it, and understands his marital calling in terms of  shepherding you by this grace. And if the Lord should one day bless you with children, realize that this man will be one of two people who most influence your family’s spiritual life. You’re not looking for perfection, but he must demonstrate a credible trajectory toward gospel priorities.”

Let’s be honest: a depressingly large number of evangelical men in our churches don’t fit this bill. I am not for a moment suggesting that the settlement of godly men is found across the Protestant border. What I am saying is that women who are considering marriage must be sober-minded in their assessment of the spiritual maturity of their prospective husband, a maturity that will be in direct relation to a man’s commitment to God’s Word.

Courage and Solidarity

At a Wheaton College dialogue with Timothy George that I moderated, Frank Beckwith was asked how to think about a Catholic and Protestant relationship en route to marriage. Frank’s answer (from a Catholic perspective) was extremely helpful. He pointed out the manifold challenges awaiting such couples, not least of which is the requisite pledge of the non-Catholic spouse to raise his or her children in the Catholic church. Frank suggested that couples don’t always think seriously about the complexities and inevitable confusion that these mixed marriages create—everything from a divergent understanding of sacramental theology to a different approach to worship. “We have to take our theology seriously,” Beckwith said, “and that means that doing the right thing is sometimes unpleasant.”

Orthodox Catholics and Protestants stand together in a common Nicene faith. But I’m not sure it’s with a fully unified voice. Our interpretation of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” differs at critical points, resulting in basic disagreements of faith and practice. Where we enjoy genuine unity, let’s not be afraid to recognize it. But where there is a lack of solidarity, we must have the courage to acknowledge that as well.

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Chris Castaldo
Chris Castaldo serves as pastor of outreach and church planting at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and is the author of Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic. He is married to Angela. They have three sons and one newborn daughter. He blogs at chris-tocentric.com.

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