The Church's divorce dilemma

Trying to summarize the challenges the Church faces when it comes to ministering to its divorced and separated members is akin to disentangling a dozen multicolored skeins of yarn. In other words, it’s a knotty, complicated, near-impossible mess of an undertaking.  

Let’s start with the facts. 

According to a study conducted in 2007 by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), approximately 23 percent of Catholic marriages end in divorce. That same study concluded that at any one time, 13 percent of the adult Catholic population in the pews is single as a result of separation or divorce. About the same percentage is divorced but remarried or living with someone. 

Some of those divorced individuals are in good standing with the Church. Others are not. And not everyone knows to which category they belong. Which has something to do with why many will eventually leave the Church as a result of divorce or remarriage. In fact, according to the General Society Survey, 17-20 percent of divorced and remarried Catholics eventually go elsewhere (or nowhere at all) to worship. 

That’s a problem. The number of Catholics divorcing is a problem. The willingness of so many Catholics to remarry without an annulment is a problem. And the gravity of all the emotional, relational and spiritual wounds divorced Catholics carry around with them is a serious problem. 

The Church has an obligation, as the body of Christ, to address those problems, to give divorced Catholics the help and guidance they need and to take steps to prevent more Catholics from ending up in a similar position. That much is clear. 

That, however, is about all that’s clear. Or, at least, that’s all that’s simple and straightforward about the challenges the Church faces in addressing those problems. 

Here’s why. 

Walking wounded 

Set aside the usual obstacles to effective ministry — a shortage of money and religious, time-crunched volunteers and, even more, time-crunched pastors — and you’re still left with nearly a dozen major hurdles for the Church to clear in its outreach to divorced Catholics, starting with the intense emotional wounds left by divorce. 

Those wounds are always deep, and when the person has been divorced against their will — which happens almost as often as not, thanks to the legal innovation of no-fault divorce — the wounds go deeper still. 

“In the immediate aftermath of divorce, you feel like you’re not wanted by anybody,” said Greg Mills, president of Catholic Divorce Ministry (formerly the North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics). “Your self-worth is zero.” 

Helping people address those wounds is a serious challenge for most priests and lay ministers, many who have little to no background in counseling. And that challenge is made all the greater by the pre-existing wounds most divorced people bear — wounds from habitual sin before and during marriage, wounds from the culture or wounds from their own parents’ troubled marriages. 

“So many of the people who come to the Church seeking help are hanging on to old hurts or ideas about what’s going to make them happy, and it ends up just making them more miserable,” said Rose Sweet, author of “A Woman’s Guide to Healing the Heartbreak of Divorce” (Hendrickson, $14.95). “Helping them let go of all that, and see that what they’re truly longing for is Jesus, takes some work.” 

Catechetical obstacles 

So does overcoming some fundamental problems of catechesis. 

According to Vince Frese, co-author with Lisa Duffy of “Divorced. Catholic. Now What?” (Journey of Hope Productions, $19.99), that catechetical challenge starts with countering the idea that being a divorced Catholic is an oxymoron. 

“Many people believe that if they’re divorced, they can’t be Catholic anymore,” Frese told Our Sunday Visitor.  

Accompanying that belief are other questions divorced Catholics have about their standing in the Church: Are they excommunicated? Can they still participate in the sacraments? Can they continue in lay apostolate work or liturgical ministries? If they apply for an annulment, does that mean any children they have will be considered illegitimate? 

Those are the questions those tasked with ministering to divorced Catholics find themselves needing to answer right away. But, because a good portion of the Catholics who seek the Church’s aid in the wake of a divorce are (like many of their married peers) both unevangelized and uncatechized, answering those questions is just the beginning. Deeper more fundamental questions also usually have to be addressed, questions about who Jesus is, what marriage is and what God expects from us. 

Most Catholics, divorced or otherwise, think they know the Church’s answers to those questions. But many don’t. What they really know are the culture’s answers. They’ve bought in to the culture’s ideas of a God who simply wants his children to be nice and tolerant and a Church who can’t be trusted (or listened to) when it comes to questions of sex and relationships.  

Many also have bought into an idea of marriage that isn’t about the two spouses helping each other grow in holiness, but rather about each person’s own personal happiness.  

“They think of marriage as something that lasts for ‘as long as we both shall want,’ not ‘as long as we both shall live,’” said Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass. 

Cultural buy-in 

Much of the reason for that, said Frese, is that “Catholics have been infected by the culture’s idea that we’re somehow entitled to happiness. They think they’re entitled to a happy marriage, and if they’re not happy, they’re entitled to get out. Personal happiness has become paramount. But the Church doesn’t teach that. Christ didn’t teach that. He said put yourself last, not first. Our personal happiness is not supposed to be at the top of the list. Others’ is.” 

Buying into cultural misconceptions like that one, as well as misconceptions about God, marriage and the meaning of life, aren’t just problematic because they can lead people to divorce. They’re also problematic because they can lead people to rush into new relationships, believing that’s the answer to their unhappiness, ignore the Church’s teachings on chastity, and repeat past mistakes, mistakes which more often than not cut them off from the Church and the sacraments.  

Unfortunately, correcting those misconceptions brings us to yet another obstacle facing the Church. And that is the simple fact that many people don’t want those misconceptions corrected. Many of the Catholics in need of or even seeking the Church’s help don’t really want the Church’s help. They don’t want to hear the truth about what the Church teaches on marriage. They don’t want to hear about how their own refusal to live the Church’s teachings might have contributed to their divorce. And they most definitely don’t want to hear if their marriages were valid or whether they’re free to date or remarry.  

“Much of the difficulty starts with overcoming a central belief that the things of God are just there to haul out in case we get in trouble,” Sweet told OSV. “Many people are going to the Church because they know they need something more, but some general comfort or spirituality is all they want of it.” 

Reaping what we’ve sown 

In a sense, the problems faced by divorced Catholics today and, for many, the very state in which they find themselves, are the culmination of the Church’s failures in the 20th century: the failure to evangelize, to catechize, to counter prevailing cultural attitudes, to clearly communicate the beauty of the Church’s teachings on sexuality, to adequately prepare Catholics for marriage, to support marriages, and to come to the aid of marriages in trouble.  

Those failures haven’t been always and everywhere. But they have been widespread. And so it’s not surprising that the Church’s ministry to divorced Catholics is, in many places, not all it should be. 

Nationwide, support programs for the separated and divorced are few and far between. For example, according to Frese, in the Archdiocese of Atlanta less than 15 percent of the archdiocese’s 100 parishes offer any sort of programming for Catholics who are going through or have been through divorce. And those numbers, he said, are fairly typical of (or better than) what you’ll find in most dioceses. 

Even where there are parish-based programs, many aren’t specifically Catholic. That’s true, for instance, of the Divorce Care groups that meet in parishes in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles and dozens of other dioceses around the country. Those groups offer comfort, support and a safe place to talk ... which is good. But they also generally neglect to communicate the truths Catholics most need to hear about sex, marriage, suffering, and salvation ... which is not good.  

Likewise, some Catholic-based groups, such as Beginning Experience, focus solely on helping people deal with the emotional pain of grieving the loss of a spouse, but don’t do direct evangelization and catechesis. That may be fine when it comes to their outreach to widowed Catholics. And it’s a good first step for those going through divorce. But it’s only a first step. 

“Divorced Catholics are suffering in a different way,” said Craig Dyke, who chairs the Diocese of Peoria’s advisory board for divorced and widowed ministry. “They’re dealing with anger, hurt, frustration and the misconception that the Church has turned her back on them. They need more than comfort. They need to hear the Church’s teaching in all its strength.” 

Reluctant witnesses 

To make matters worse, however, plenty of Catholics involved in ministering to the divorced and separated don’t want to give that. They don’t want to tell people the hard truths or, in some cases, embrace those hard truths themselves. 

“When my husband left me and our five children for another woman, I begged our priest to talk to him,” said Anne Bennet, who has been separated from her husband of 15 years for the past two years. “His response to me was, ‘Anne, I don’t want your husband to feel uncomfortable in the Church.’” 

Unfortunately, Sweet told OSV, that response is not atypical. 

“Too many Catholics, priests included, are afraid of making waves, of what people will think,” she said. “They’ve bought into a fake image of what it means to be loving. They’ve defined ‘good’ as never making waves and defined ‘kind’ as not saying anything that would make the other person uncomfortable.” 

“But,” she continued, “Jesus often made people squirm in their seats. He was mean and wild and tough a lot of the time. That’s why they wanted to kill him. But it was all out of love. He wanted the people around him to be holy. He wanted them to get to heaven. So should we.” 

“It’s triage,” Sweet said, summarizing the problems with much of Catholic divorce ministry. “We’re putting Band-Aids on bloody wounds, but leaving the real problems untouched.” 

Beyond triage 

Those Band-Aids, of course, are important. Sometimes it’s all the Church can do. Other times, it’s all that people will let the Church do. But regardless, it’s a level of support the Church should not be content to give. 

“There needs to be a big move within the Church to not focus too heavily on triage,” said Sweet. “We need to shove a sucker in their mouth, then get them on operating table.” 

That is to say, in order for divorce ministry to truly be effective, it can’t end with cookies and a hug. Any divorce ministry worth its salt also has to help people get past all the catechetical and cultural roadblocks standing in the way of healing. It has to evangelize and catechize, to present the tough but loving truths of the Church’s teachings on sex, marriage, divorce and suffering. 

That’s why Sweet has teamed up with Catholic Divorce Ministry to get her 12-part theology of the body-based DVD series, “The Catholic’s DIVORCE SURVIVAL Guide,” into parishes and dioceses. That’s also what Frese and Lisa Duffy have been doing with “Journey of Hope,” a program they developed to help parishes launch and operate solidly Catholic divorce support groups.  

Both “The Catholic’s DIVORCE SURVIVAL Guide” and “Journey of Hope” go against the grain of much of Catholic divorce ministry today. Like other older programs, they are tools parishes can use to offer their divorced members support and encouragement as well as help to work through anger, guilt and depression. But they also are tools parishes can use to help divorced members grow in their faith and tackle the stickiest issues surrounding divorce — dating, chastity, remarriage and annulments. 

And that, said Father Landry, is essential to any divorce ministry that’s going to bear lasting fruit. 

“The Church has a twofold mission,” he explained. “First, welcome everybody. Second, call everybody to conversion. Both elements have to be there. It’s truth that sets us free.” 

An ounce of prevention 

Of course, a more fully Catholic, evangelistic and catechetical divorce ministry is just part of the answer, and, in some senses, the easier part. The real challenge for the Church lies in preventing the problem of divorce in the first place, in doing a better job at all that comes before divorce ministry: marriage enrichment, marriage preparation, chastity education, catechesis and evangelization. 

“We’re asking people to love their spouse as Christ loves the Church, but unless we help them know who Christ is and what that means, we’re never going to get out of this cycle we’re in,” said Sweet. 

Likewise, added Father Landry, pastors can’t just sit on the sidelines while their parishioners’ marriages fall apart.  

“Part of my job as pastor is to bring people to conversion,” he said. “St. John the Baptist said to Herod, ‘It’s not lawful to marry your brother’s wife.’ As priests, we’re called to do the same. When people abandon their spouses, priests need to be courageous and approach the families. It’s not easy. We need to do it with caution. There are usually multiple reasons why the marriage broke down. And there might be times where divorce is sadly necessary, for example to protect kids or a spouse from abuse. But much of the time, if people get help, their problems can be worked through and the marriage can be saved. 

“Helping people walk the way of the cross after their divorce is one thing,” he concluded. “But trying to help people live the truth of the Church’s teachings about marriage while still married is better.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Voices of Divorce (sidebar)

“How do you explain the loss after divorce? It wasn’t just the loss of a marriage. It was the loss of family, identity, home, who you are, where you thought your future was going. My world was shook to the foundation. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I’d given up my job so we could have a family together. Now, I wasn’t going to be a mother. I grieved everything we had planned on doing together.” 

— Jamie 

“There’s nothing going on in my diocese now, and there hasn’t been for a long, long time. The Church used to seem more interested in helping divorced people than they do today. There’s no place for people to go.”  

— Virginia 

“This isn’t just my problem. Every marriage in my book club of 15 women is struggling right now. But priests aren’t talking about it. Are they not aware? There’s a real need for hard-hitting marriage enrichment programs that tackle issues like pornography and communication. Priests need to address how tough marriage can be in their homilies and tell their parishioners, ‘If you’re having a huge communication problem, it’s time for you to see a therapist together. Men in particular need a priest to say that to them, especially if they’re confessing sins like pornography. They need to hear it from a priest that they owe it to their wife and children to get help. 

“My hope for the Church is that we can come to a place where we have some kind of program or ministry where we’re a little more on top of it. We need to get away from this notion that marriage is a private matter or complicated. Frequently, it’s not complicated in the slightest. Someone had an affair and left. If you asked them, they would say there were all sorts of problems, but welcome to marriage. Marriage is not easy. When one Catholic says, ‘I’m leaving’, we need to have something in place where the priest comes to the aid of the family. We need our priests to reach out to the person who has been abandoned, and to the person who left. They need to let them know that they care, that they’re not going to turn a blind eye, that’s what’s happening is not OK.” 

— Anne  

“It’s like we are ghosts in our parishes. We are something weird no one is quite sure how to deal with. There’s nothing for us. I love my Catholic faith, but it’s very hard to figure out how to fit in. 80 percent of my parish is made up of retirees. The other 20 percent is young families with children. I don’t fit in anywhere.  

— Anonymous 

“After I was divorced, I thought I would be unwelcome in the Church. I stayed away, and although I could have gone to reconciliation and received the sacraments, I didn’t know that. I felt so much shame. All I did on Sundays was watch the NFL.” 

— Anonymous

“There are two things that help me a lot: the first is to bring my deep pain to God every morning and offer it to him in a daily morning offering. I usually say, ‘You see how I am being treated, Lord, and you know my pain.’ I pour my heart out to God; I allow myself to weep, even sob, when I feel the need. Then I ask God to unite my suffering to his passion and death. I also ask God to forgive me for my part in the breakdown of my marriage and to forgive my spouse. If I am feeling resentful, I ask God to help me to forgive. 

“The second thing that I often forget to do, but makes a huge difference to me when I remember, is to say ‘Thank you’ to God. I thank him for creating me and for creating my children. I thank him for my faith and for his unconditional love, which has no end. I try to find five things each day for which I am grateful to God.” 

— Anonymous  

Catholics and Divorce (sidebar)

13% of adult Catholics are divorced or separated. 

11% of adult Catholics are divorced and remarried. 

23% of adult Catholics have gone through a divorce. 

Only 15% of divorced Catholics have sought an annulment. 

49% of the annulments sought in the United States in recent years have been granted. 

7 in 10 Catholics claim they are “at least somewhat familiar” with the Church’s teachings on marriage. 

1 in 3 Catholics say they are “very familiar” with the Church’s teachings on marriage. 

Only 1 in 3 Catholics believe it’s important for their spouse to share their faith. 

Only 54% of Catholics know that marriage is a vocation. 

Ten years after their first marriage, nearly 10 percent of Catholics are divorced and remarried. After 20 years nearly 18 percent are. 

Sources: “Marriage in the Catholics Church: A Survey of U.S. Catholics” (2007 CARA report) and the 2000 General Social Survey.

Fact vs. Fiction (sidebar)

Divorced Catholics are excommunicated.  

Fiction  

Simply by the mere fact of being divorced, Catholics are not excommunicated. Those who are Catholic and divorced are always welcome at Mass and encouraged by the Church to remain active in their faith. 

Divorced Catholics can receive the sacraments.  

Fact 

Catholics who are divorced and not in a state of mortal sin are strongly encouraged to receive the sacraments. Spouses who have abandoned their husband or wife, however, for immoral and unjust reasons (another relationship, their career or selfish desires) and who have not repented and confessed their sin, are considered to be in a state of mortal sin and should not present themselves for Communion. 

Divorced Catholics are free to date even if they don’t have an annulment.  

Fiction  

Just as in court, where defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty, all marriages, even marriages between two non-Catholics, are presumed valid unless proven otherwise. Accordingly, for a divorced person to be involved in a romantic relationship without an annulment is a betrayal of the vows they made to their spouse and a grave matter. Divorced individuals should not date unless they have a decree of nullity, and single individuals should not date a divorced person who does not possess a decree of nullity.  

Remarried Catholics without a decree of nullity from the Church cannot receive the sacraments. 

Fact  

A civil divorce cannot dissolve the permanent and lasting bond that exists between two spouses. If the bond truly exists, it is lifelong, and any second civil marriage is a violation of that bond. Remarriage is only possible when the Church recognizes that a valid marriage never existed in the first place, that there never was a permanent and lasting bond. Accordingly, unless the Church has made that recognition by granting a couple a decree of nullity, their marriage is presumed valid and any new civil marriages into which either individual enters are considered adulterous. Adultery is a grave sin and those committing it should not present themselves for Communion.  

It’s a good idea to begin the annulment process as soon as possible.  

Fact 

While the Church asks Catholics to wait until their civil divorce is final before beginning the annulment process (and some for up to six months after), it’s generally wise for a divorcing couple to begin discerning whether or not they have grounds for annulment during the divorce process, and, if they do, begin seeking one as soon as they feel ready. That way, if it is invalid, they won’t find themselves several years down the road having to choose between dating and the sacraments. 

Annulments are just Catholic divorces.  

Fiction  

An annulment does not dissolve a marriage. If a marriage is valid, nothing can do that. Rather, an annulment simply recognizes that a true marriage never existed. It is an acknowledgment by the Church that one or more of the criteria necessary for a valid marriage was missing from the beginning. That does not, however, in any way imply that children born of the relationship are illegitimate.

Resources (sidebar)

Journey of Hope: www.divorcedcatholic.com

Catholic Divorce Ministry: www.nacsdc.org

Rose Sweet: www.rosesweet.com

Beginning Experience: www.beginningexperience.org

Catholics Come Home: www.catholicscomehome.org