It’s hard to overcome an attitude. Especially an attitude that is well buried in the consciousness of a whole group of people. 

What attitude? The one that says we divorced Catholics did something wrong, or did not try hard enough, or perhaps aren’t as “spiritual” as others. In a Church that is strongly pro-marriage, as it should be, the huge numbers of us who are divorced are an embarrassment, to say the least. 

My biggest problem with this attitude is that … I used to be that way. I wasn’t exactly judgmental, but I believed deep down that there is always something a couple can do to improve, even save, a rocky marriage. There is nothing like going through the worst nightmare imaginable to change our deepest assumptions. 

How can we, the faithful Body of Christ, be both uncompromising about the seriousness and beauty of the marital covenant, and accepting and loving, without judgment, those among us who are the survivors of divorce? The Church must walk a fine line between the two; for while God ordained marriage and is uncom­promising about its covenantal character, God also loves, comforts and blesses the divorced who turn to him in their sorrow. 

What did Jesus do? 

We do not have to guess “what would Jesus do?” regarding the divorced. The fourth chapter of John’s Gospel has a detailed account of the most famous divorcee of the New Testament: the woman of Samaria who encountered Jesus at Jacob’s well. Jesus did not scold her, tell her she needed to get her act together or call her a sinner. Instead, Jesus offered himself to her as the “living water” she was really searching for in all her marriages. 

That is what the Church as an institution and each of its individual members can do for the divorced: offer Jesus as the balm for our souls. We do not need lectures about the permanence of marriage. We expected our marriages to last “until death do us part,” and we are heartbroken that did not happen. We certainly don’t need condemnation, exclusion or embarrassment, whether overt or veiled. We need Jesus, and we need you to love us as Jesus does. 

Better preparation, but ... 

When we look at the dismal divorce statistics among Catholics, it is natural to ask, What has happened to us? Why are we getting divorced at about the same rate as everyone else in our society? The Church is made up of normal human beings. Thus the Church mirrors life in our culture. The Church may be counter-cultural, but we are not separate from our culture. As Jesus put it, we are in the world, but not of it. 

Until rather recently, a Catholic couple wanting to get married needed only to show up at the pastor’s office, declare their intentions and set the date. They may not have been regular churchgoers. They may not have belonged to the parish. Some priests insisted on a minimum of parish involvement before the wedding, but many did not. Later, more requirements were added. Couples were required to go to “Pre-Cana” classes, but little individual scrutiny was involved, and these classes were considered just another “hoop” a couple jumped through to get to the wedding. Spiritual preparation was a much lower priority than choosing the caterer, the wedding gown and the bridesmaids. 

It seems to me that the Church, until recently, was telling newly married couples: “You’re on your own now. If it’s hard, suffering is part of life, so offer it up. Make it work. Forgive and forget. Go to Mass and confession. Pray. Everything will work out.” Perhaps in a society where the extended family was still available to support young couples and where the parish was the center of social life for Catholics, this was reasonable. What parish and diocesan leaders did not seem to notice was that society was changing. The extended family was no longer there for the new couple, either because of distance or dysfunction. And the parish is no longer the center of society for young Catholics. Newlywed couples, once the vows are spoken, can feel they are on their own to figure out what a “sacramental” marriage is. 

Nowadays, it is not so easy to get married in a Catholic Church. Couples go through an extensive period of preparation and evaluation, meeting in groups and with stable, older married couples. They do psychological “inventories” that bring out incompatibilities. Their wedding may be delayed, or they may not be allowed to marry in the Catholic Church if there are deep problems. This may upset some couples, but, as a divorced Catholic, I think the Church’s new vigilance is a great thing. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has begun an initiative to strengthen marriages, prepare couples more thoroughly and be far more proactive than the Church has been in recent decades. Dioceses, such as the Diocese of Phoenix, are following suit, lengthening the mandatory preparation period and scrutinizing couples more closely for experiences and current “issues” that make marriage more difficult. I rejoice in these trends. Perhaps we can turn this huge ocean liner of divorce around and head in another direction. 

But, what about us divorced Catholics? It is too late for us to do anything about our decisions made decades ago. But the Church could treat us better, with more respect.  

Letting God in 

I have heard so many heart-breaking stories of divorced Catholics who are still suffering from guilt years, even decades, after their divorce. More than anything, we need to support one another and to forgive ourselves. We need to turn to God, who does not condemn, but who always loves us. God’s love for us is not diminished by our divorces. God cannot be anyone other than who God is. And God is love. 

One of the most troublesome Scripture passages for us divorced Catholics is Matthew 19:6: “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” During my divorce, no matter how loved and accepted by God I felt, reading this passage gave me the chills and made me doubt my decision. That is, until I figured out what Jesus was talking about.  

There is an important caveat in this quotation: “What God has joined together.” Only marriages “joined by God” are truly sacramental. Here is the important question for any divorced Catholic: Did God join you and your ex-spouse in holy matrimony? Don’t be too quick to say yes just because you got married in a church and said the words you were told to say. Did you intend for God to join you? Did you ask God about it? Did you even talk to God back then? At the time of my marriage, 40 years ago, I had begun to pray and go to church again (after ignoring God throughout my teenage years), but it never occurred to me to ask God about or even include God in my marriage plans. 

Many of you can say the same thing: God was simply not part of your life when you married. While that is cause for sorrow and regret, it is also an opportunity for healing, for seeing the progress you have made over the years. Understanding Jesus’ words in Matthew 19 can go a long way to scrutinizing our spiritual maturity and our ability to commit to a godly marriage in the beginning. And that, in turn, will help us to forgive ourselves and to rebuild our lives.

Overcoming attitudes 

Yes, it is very difficult to overcome an attitude, especially the attitude that divorced Catholics are somehow inferior to those who have never suffered through a divorce. It is tragic that this is even an issue in the Body of Christ. While we are strengthening our marriage preparation requirements and supporting married couples, it is also time for the entire Church to let go of judging the divorced among us and follow the most important command Jesus has given us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). 

Susan K. Rowland is the author of Healing After Divorce: Hope for Catholics(St. Anthony Messenger Press, $11.99).