Ever since Pope Francis’ impromptu press conference aboard the papal flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome at the end of July, there’s been much talk of the Church’s approach to divorced and remarried Catholics. This group of the faithful represents a demographic of the Church where wounds can run deep — one that often contains overwhelming pain and frustration.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) noted in a recent report that 28 percent of Catholics who marry in the Church end up divorcing (less than the 36 percent of total divorces in the country, but still a large chunk).
According to Church teaching, those who marry in the Church, then get a divorce and remarry without receiving a decree of nullity (often referred to as an annulment), are considered to be in a permanent state of adultery and are unable to receive the Eucharist.
These teachings are difficult for many who try to follow the rules by applying for an annulment, only to be turned down. The process that is meant to uphold the dignity of marriage instead too often comes across as pedantic and uncaring. It can leave deep-seated hurt that spans generations and results in family members leaving the Church.
But neither divorce nor the teachings of the Faith are going away, so the Church and those who minister in it must continue to walk the fine line of clearly standing up for the dignity of the sacrament, while at the same time being pastorally sensitive to the feelings of the faithful.
According to the Catechism, “Between the baptized, ‘a ratified and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death’” (No. 2382). A remarriage adds to “the gravity of the rupture.” This is the teaching of the Church, but Pope Francis has also emphasized a message of mercy, which has given many Catholics the hope that change in pastoral practice may be possible.
On the flight back from Rio, in response to a question specifically on divorced and remarried Catholics, he said, “I believe that this is a time for mercy.” That marriage is in need of what the pope called “profound pastoral care” is undeniable. The declining numbers of sacramental marriages taking place in the United States along with the divorce rate and the growing numbers who are unmarried but cohabiting suggest a broader crisis. According to CARA, the number of Catholic marriages has dropped from 415,487 in 1972 to 163,775 in 2011 — or 60.5 percent.
Pope Francis called for an extraordinary synod on the pastoral challenges relating to the family for next October. But in the meantime, how can the Church remain faithful, yet be a place of mercy for those suffering from broken marriages?
Perhaps it could start small, with catechesis on why the Church values annulments in the first place. According to the CARA report, only 15 percent of divorced Catholics even seek them. Perhaps, too, dioceses could invest more resources into their tribunals in order to ensure a more consistent timetable where annulments are concerned. Depending on the diocese, tribunals can take anywhere from several months to several years to decide their cases. Couples wait for an outcome, their lives on hold, and their families — parents, children, siblings — wait with them.
Such a standardization wouldn’t assuage all the pain of broken marriages, but it might be a good first step toward easing tensions between the Church and its members, while still being faithful to Church teaching.