Divorced Catholics are leaving the Catholic church in droves because of the church’s perceived lack of understanding and resulting feelings of isolation. The annulment process can also add to the trauma of the post-divorce period. As a woman suddenly abandoned while pregnant with our fifth little boy, I fully understand this sentiment. I too struggled with questions about how I fit in, as a divorced Catholic woman, with my faith and with my fellow believers. This is my story.
The People’s Role in the Catholic Church
I had been youth minister before the sudden abandonment, but with our busy vacation Bible school coming up, I was unable to continue my role. I turned to my local pastor who was as shocked as I was by the events unfolding in my life. The man was dear and sweet and offered prayers and some financial support when child support failed to come in, but, try as he might, he was unable to relate to my struggles.
I never thought I would be one of the many divorced Catholics. The phrase divorced woman conjures up images I want no part of, and many church-goers carry around similar images of divorced men and women. Those I had been close to were supportive but often rightly consumed with their own families and few had time to listen to me cry or the ability to understand how deeply our family’s core had been shaken and altered. Several fearfully expressed concern that, if it happened to us, it could happen to anyone. I noticed how often people used it rather than the dirty word – divorce. I wondered how many people were afraid divorce is contagious. I’d be hard pressed to disagree with them, so while I understood, it still left us isolated.
I tried to keep my boys involved in church activities, but I had five children from pre-born to 11 and now had half the number of weekends to do all parish, school, Scout, and other activities. My older boys could no longer be counted on to show up for their scheduled masses and stopped altar serving. The teen youth group met every other weekend, but my boys were often away those weekends so dropped out even before they had gotten fully involved. Church activities conflicted with my work schedule and asking for rides in addition to everything else was another blow to our fragile pride.
Divorced Catholics, Dating, Remarriage, and Communion
Then there was the question of my receiving Communion and my confusion over dating and remarriage. I was told by many that I would meet someone new, and, while in some ways that was a comfort, in others it left me with greater guilt. I had meant my vows of for better or worse, in sickness and in health. Was my husband’s leaving simply a strange and cruel illness through which I needed to be understanding and patient?
As the years wore on, I did begin to think about meeting someone else. I began to have desires, desires mostly for comfort, companionship, and affection of another human being. My ex had filed for an annulment, but the process takes a very long time and those feelings began surfacing before the process was anywhere near complete. How did my desires fit in with my receiving Communion? Was I still married? Was I ever married? If I was married, but my husband was not, what did that mean? Was that even possible? Was I committing adultery by wanting to have another relationship?
The Catholic Annulment Process
Divorced Catholics who wish to meet someone new must first undergo the annulment process. The annulment process, which promotes such healing in some people, added more pain to my experiences. My ex-husband filed for an annulment almost immediately after our divorce was finalized. In what seemed to be the blink of an eye, I had gone from thinking our family was near perfect to wondering if anything in my life had ever been what I thought. I had gone from being youth minister and stay at home wife and mother with a loving husband and four little boys to a single, pregnant woman facing a three day old baby and a text message letting me know my ex had filed for a divorce. We had very little child support and lost our home to foreclosure. I had trouble finding a new place to live with my five boys and little income. I had no job, then worked three jobs at once. I had no healthcare. We relied on area churches for food and Christmas gifts. The man who meant the most to me was suddenly the man who wanted to hurt me the most.
I didn’t understand any of it, and the annulment process only accentuated this confusion and pain. I hadn’t had a chance to catch my breath before being thrust headlong into the annulment process and was caught off guard by the letter addressed to my maiden name informing me of the action. The use of my maiden name felt as though my case had already been decided and that the marriage I had fought so hard for, that I had so believed in, had already been found nonexistent. Again, I was left questioning what was real and what wasn’t.
To make matters worse, cutbacks prevented me from obtaining an advocate. I had no understanding of the process and no help in figuring out what to do next. Local offices had closed, and meetings with diocesan officials were two and a half hours away which meant another hardship in time, money, and daycare. Perhaps the hardest part however was the cruelty I encountered in my tribunal judge. I still hurts to write that, but his questioning was far from compassionate as he cast accusations at me. I left feeling beyond worthless and sobbed the entire two and a half hour ride home.
This is the first part of my series. Before stopping this segment, I want to thank one of the most caring, considerate, compassionate priests I have ever met. After the horror of the tribunal, I asked to speak to a supervising priest and was awarded this blessing. I will talk about this experience a bit more tomorrow, but for now, I do not want my readers to think, as I did, that my tribunal experience is representative of all tribunal experiences or of all priests or even of all judges. The process is difficult, but the clergy usually tries to soften the painful edges, and I want to thank them for the difficult jobs the do.
Soon I will look at who was to blame for my feelings of isolation and why I didn’t turn to one of the more welcoming Christian churches, and then I will look at what I think is the calling of divorced Catholics and what is meant by developing a common language as I read it in 1 Corinthians chapter 14.
I would love to hear your story. How did divorce affect your standing in the church? Did it draw you closer? Push you farther away? How did you overcome negative feelings or are you still struggling? I am always amazed at the insight I gain from hearing from others.
I hope you join me and comment as I continue this short series.