The Ethical Dilemma: When Your Boss Asks You to Pray, and Should I Marry My Catholic Boyfriend?

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Think Fast or Pray: Recently, while I was at work, I learned that a beloved colleague in my business had been shot by a mentally ill person. He was in critical condition at the hospital and many of my coworkers were affected by this terrible news.

When I learned of the shooting, I was in a meeting with my boss and another coworker. We all knew the victim and all of us were in tears. My boss suggested that we hold hands and pray, so I held hands while she prayed aloud and just kept my head down, listening and thinking about this wonderful person and his family.

When she was finished, my coworker went on to add her prayers, and when she was done they both looked expectantly at me. I just shook my head and said, “Thank you.”

It obviously wasn’t the right time to say “I don’t believe in god/prayer/etc.,” but I am curious to know if others have found a better way to handle such situations.

–Caught Off-Guard

Dear Caught,

Although I expect and welcome readers’ suggestions for what you might have done or might do in the future, the fact is that we inevitably sometimes find ourselves in situations where we don’t have as good a response as we’d like, and even if we had one ready, we wouldn’t have the self-possession to deliver what we prepared.

My suggestion is to disregard the prayer setting and simply express what you’re thinking about the person in question. For example: “I’m so distressed about this terrible event. This is a wonderful person, with a wonderful family and many friends. We must do everything in our power to help him recover and to support his loved ones and everyone who cares about him.” It’s not a prayer but a commitment to productive action. It’s appropriate in any circumstance.

Don’t dwell on what you did say or might have said. Focus on mobilizing yourself and your colleagues to do things that are of more earthly good than praying.


Should Recovering Catholic Marry Practicing One? My boyfriend and I met at a Catholic high school and started dating at the end of our senior year. Nearly three years later, we’re still together; I love him deeply, and he loves me. We’ve discussed having a family together and getting married, and I would love to have this man for the rest of my life.

But the problem is in raising our future children. He identifies with Catholicism and I realized in late junior year that I don’t believe in it. I’ve recently begun to explore aspects of atheism, especially humanism; I probably identify as such. We’ve talked about these things, and he is in support of my belief.

But he dreams of a future raising his kids Catholic. His ideal family time involves attending church on the weekends, having his children go through the sacraments, be put in Catholic school, get married in a Catholic ceremony, die with a Catholic funeral, repent in purgatory for their sins, and eventually be sent to heaven. But he doesn’t subscribe to all beliefs; some he thinks are taught just to prevent pain and heartache. For example: No sex before marriage prevents people from bedding others by whom they could be emotionally and spiritually heartbroken. But he wants to marry me and loves me truly, thus we’ve had sex. I don’t want to shove things like this in his face but what are we supposed to tell our children? All of the rules of the book we didn’t play by?

He says he wants compromise, he wants us to be together, but his demands are unbending. I want a beautiful ceremony where I can profess my love to him in front of everyone, expressing my own thoughts and feelings. I want my children raised loving everyone and knowing other religions and choosing a faith or lack thereof on their own.

I know as I sit here writing about these things that the obvious choice is to leave him. But he is such a wonderful person, treats me with respect, loves me dearly, and is truly a person little girls dream of marrying one day. And when I attempt to talk about these things with him, I find myself not saying anything because I don’t want to break up with him. Especially now, I’m going through an extremely difficult time in my life and he has done more than support me through it.

But I have this fear that if I let him raise my kids how he wants that I will one day resent him and them, or if they decide against religion he will think I poisoned them. I have no one to talk to about my thoughts (I don’t have the money) except him, as all my friends and family are religious and would probably judge me.

What do I do? Can a Catholic and a non-religious person marry?


Dear Drowning,

Before I answer, I’d like you to reread your own letter and give yourself the advice you think I would offer. Hint: You said it yourself.

But before I get to that, I have to note that what I found even more alarming than the situation with your boyfriend is your assertion that you have no one but him to talk with about this. No one should ever have only one person in their life they can confide in, especially if what they want to confide is a point of contention. You must cultivate other people—friends, colleagues, trusted teachers (but not ones from Catholic school, unless they are as disenchanted as you). You say you have no money to talk to anyone—by which I believe you mean a therapist or counselor. But perhaps there are free or affordable services in your community, school, or workplace that can give you even just a single session with a neutral, non-religious counselor. You can also look for atheists, humanists, or Unitarian Universalists in your area or online to develop a non-religious community for yourself. One of the reasons you feel so unable to speak up is you feel if you break up with your boyfriend you’ll have no one. You have to cultivate others—even just one or two—in your life to whom you can make non-believer confession. Otherwise you will remain too emotionally isolated and vulnerable to make any sound decisions about getting married, let alone raising children.

Another point before I get to my recommendation: There is hardly a Catholic, or practitioner of any other religion, who doesn’t pick and choose which doctrines to follow and which to ignore. Whether or not that’s a sin, it’s the norm. Studies show a vast majority of Catholics practice forbidden birth control and the term “cafeteria Catholic” refers to the long-recognized fact that members of the religion typically cherry-pick among the dictates, as though they’re an array of options rather than requirements. So I wouldn’t be hard on your boyfriend (or yourself) about not being 100 percent. If no Catholics had sex before marriage, there would be a lot fewer Catholics in the world. And if none practiced contraception, there’d be a lot more. So perhaps it balances out. Conversely, even the staunchest atheists are known to utter “Oh God!” during sex or “Bless you” in response to a sneeze. And a non-believer who fakes faith is every bit as hypocritical—and human—as a faithful person who breaks some of the rules. Life, regardless of belief system, is not black-and-white, but many shades of gray (more than fifty).

Now I will spit it out: You cannot marry this man with these unresolved and possibly irreconcilable issues suffocating you. As you say yourself, you are drowning; you expect to become increasingly alienated from each other, and to entangle your children in that disconnect. I’m not saying that no one who is an atheist should marry a religious person, and I’m certainly not advocating splitting up for anyone who is already married—especially if they have children. But what I am saying is that, you, Letter Writer, should not proceed with wedding plans feeling as you do, and as long as your boyfriend refuses to compromise.

You assert that your boyfriend supports your lack of faith, but then you describe how he totally ignores your views. And you say he’s been good to you, but it doesn’t sound as though he plans to be good to the mother of his children unless she’s as Catholic as he is.

Please reread your letter, and then read it again, until what you yourself are saying sinks in. Your boyfriend will probably make someone a good husband, and you will make someone a good wife, but not with each other, at least the way things stand. Right now the two of you are on a trajectory for misery. It’s particularly telling that you relate how he wants to raise his kids and how you want to raise yours, but there’s no common ground for raising “ours.”

I know it’s hard to contemplate breaking up with someone you love, especially when you feel like he’s the only person in your world. But staying together or breaking apart will be exponentially harder if kids are involved. You must tell your boyfriend you can’t agree to his terms. And you need to find other atheists/humanists to provide you with the kind of support you aren’t getting from your relatives.

If, after telling your boyfriend how you feel, the conclusion is you have to break up, break up. He demands a wife on the same page with him, and you deserve someone who loves the real you, not coerced and suppressed you. You’re very young, but old enough to outgrow the “kind of person little girls dream of marrying.” There’s a whole world beyond the one confining you right now. Go for it. There’s no guarantee you’ll find happiness if you leave, but it’s almost a sure thing you’ll be increasingly unhappy if you stay.