How do we pray for or model for our spouses, for their salvation, as it says in 1 Corinthians 7:16 and 1 Peter 3:1, 2, 7? And how does this apply to those who are divorced or have annulments?
To begin with, let me briefly touch on the two biblical references made in this question so that we might better appreciate the context of this parishioner’s concern. In the beginning of 1 Cor. 7, St. Paul was being asked to say a word about marriages where one spouse had become Christian after their marriage had taken place and the other had remained a pagan or “nonbeliever”. These Christian spouses really were questioning whether God and/or the Church would require or want them to divorce their pagan spouse or whether or not their marriage was valid in the eyes of God. This is a contemporary question as well that still regularly comes up, especially in the Pacific Northwest as many Catholics are married to agnostics, atheists or fringe believers who habitually opt not to attend church. St. Paul’s pastoral response back then was to say that if the pagan spouse still loved them and was willing to remain married to them then they should stay together. He offered his reason for this position in 7:16 where he said, “For how do you know wife whether you will save your husband or how do you know husband whether you will save your wife?” In other words, maybe continuing in this mixed marriage would lead to God’s grace and mercy and the salvation of the pagan spouse due to the Christian spouse’s holy example. If, on the other hand, it was determined that the pagan spouse could not abide by this new change of faith and that they therefore might become determined to be an obstruction in the spiritual journey of the other spouse who had discovered faith then St. Paul says the Christian spouse was free to divorce and remarry a fellow believer. This is still held to today and is known in canon law of marriage as the Pauline Privilege. It is based on the idea that the sacrament of marriage is for the establishment of family and for the greater good of both spouses and the greatest good of all is Heaven. If a non-believing spouse is essentially standing in Heaven’s way, we have an exceptional case where the Church allows a change of spouse who will not act as such an obstacle. The 1 Peter reference essentially makes this same point so our first pope seems to have been in agreement with St. Paul’s pastoral sense. In that passage, St. Peter spoke of wives and husbands winning their spouses over by their good and holy conduct and by the way they loved and honored the other. So now back to question, which seems to beg for specific guidelines or strategies in winning your non-believing spouse over as we pray for them and live out our faith. How do we pray for or model for our spouses, for their salvation? Well, first let me say that from my life experience and my experience as a marriage counselor and pastor I know that neither nagging nor “preachiness” works. I know some would rather I provide a “magic bullet” but the truth is that it must begin with positivity, encouragement and living out your own faith dynamically and with joy (or in other words…with you yourself becoming a saint). The best approach in marriage is to find someone who shares your faith from the beginning and who can be equally yoked with you and also to be committed to the idea that the couple that prays together stays together. But assuming that did not happen in this case then I always tell couples preparing for marriage that going in to it you must commit to loving your spouse just as they are and not enter into marriage with the plan of changing them. In other words, you have to be ok with the possibility that they never become “enlightened”. Instead of investing energy in trying to change them, try to change yourself and become the best version of yourself you can be for them without any strings attached. If they love you at all, this type of attitude is rather contagious, I find. Eventually, it can be hoped that through your example they might become inspired to work on themselves and part of that involves working on their spiritual dimension. Scripture says that this kind of love is even effective against our enemies (much less our spouses) as it is like heaping hot coals on their heads (Proverbs 25:22). Love always inspires change and so do saints. So be a saint and love them as they are and also as they potentially one day might be. As for former spouses separated by divorce/annulment, this marital obligation no longer applies. However, the Christian obligation of love, forgiveness and praying for others still does. Persevere in doing good and God bless you.