Our Catholic-Atheist-Jewish Family

Lisa Murphy (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

I grew up Catholic, attending a faith-based elementary school. As a teenager, and in college, I found others who were exploring Catholicism on a deeper level. Although I decided to examine the swirling belief systems as a theology major at College of St. Benedict, I never thought I was choosing a career path. I was simply a liberal arts student.

However, I did start making the distinction between religion and faith. My religion gives me inspiration, comfort, and insights through the rituals and practices of my church. It is not a perfect institution. Like all of us, Catholicism has some work to do in living out what it says it believes. What is important to me is that I believe I am not on this journey alone — my faith community is there for me. 

When I met the man who would become my partner, he was a non-practicing Jew. He grew up in a conservative synagogue and had become committed to his faith as a teenager and into his early college years. Yet he questioned the existence of God. He fell away from practicing Judaism. Today he is an atheist who is also an active member of his synagogue community, and observes many of its traditions. He feels Judaism gives him a framework for ethics and relationships, even if he still questions the existence of God. 

As a married couple with two daughters, we discussed what role religion and faith would have in their lives. We decided to not determine their religion, but would both be responsible for teaching them about our faith traditions. If they expressed a desire to more closely align with one tradition, they could. We agreed that when our daughters approached the age of 12 they would need to make a decision for themselves. This age corresponds to the age for B’nei Mitzvah, and also would connect them to the confirmation process in Catholicism. 

Both of our daughters now identify as Jewish. The short version, from my perspective, is that they both felt a strong connection to their synagogue community, where they found the worship and liturgical experiences meaningful. They have found a context or framework for living a good, ethical life. To paraphrase the words of one of my daughters, “I can’t find the right words to describe it, but it feels like the right place for me.” 

For me, that is God calling — I wasn’t going to stand in the way just because she was choosing a religion different from mine. 

I’m proud of my daughters and their commitment to practice and deepen their experience and knowledge of Judaism. They are amazing young women, doing their best to live what they believe, and both have a passion for Tikkun Olam – the concept of repairing the world. 

What makes this diversity of beliefs in our family work is that we are open about our spiritual lives. We look for areas of agreement while acknowledging the places where our paths split. 

In our family, both Judaism and Catholicism are practiced. We celebrate the major holidays as a family. For us that includes both a Christmas tree and a menorah at Hanukkah, Passover Seders and Easter dinners, meatless Lenten Fridays and fasting on Yom Kippur. We do this because it is important to support and share key times with the most important people in your life. 

This requires self-knowledge about what is most important to us and to our respective traditions. Over the years, we have uncovered those things through conversation, compromise, and revision.

The road to a shared home with diversity takes work and communication. It has given us a family that embraces each member and values who and what they are.