Being a divorced Catholic is not easy. We face many challenges, many temptations luring us to other Christian churches or, on our really bad days, enticing us to just give up on God altogether.
I know firsthand the hurt and isolation divorced Catholics can feel and have already spoken of my feelings of isolation from the Catholic church after my divorce. I have also looked at the Catholic church family and how that family sometimes (unwittingly) contributes to the pain of divorce.
In this post, I look at the effects of divorce on our relationships with Catholic priests, especially when we are vulnerable, newly divorced Catholics in need of empathy. Rather than become angry or disappointed with Catholic priests, I hope divorced Catholics see things a bit differently and realize how valuable they are. Divorced Catholics can actually be a great asset to help our priests and thereby building and strengthening our faith rather than running from and working to subtly (or not so subtly) destroy it.
What Do Some Divorced Catholics Feel About Catholic Priests?
- Catholic Priests Lack the Ability to Understand Family Struggles – Some divorced Catholics feel that, because priests are not allowed to marry, they cannot understand marital problems. This may be partially true but also (at least) partially unfair. Catholic priests probably can’t understand your marital problems any better than I can, but you probably can’t fully understand my marital problems either. Each of us has our own unique struggles to deal with. We cannot truly know another’s pain unless we walk in that person’s shoes; that is impossible, but it does not mean we cannot listen and counsel and sympathize with one another. A Catholic priest has the same ability. Additionally, allowing priests to marry may give some a better perspective on marriage and families, but married priests still cannot solve all problems and their own family issues may present new problems.
- The Inability of the Clergy to Enact Real Change – We often have unrealistic expectations of our clergy, expecting them to be miracle workers. Priests are expected to be preachers, scholars, healers. They listen, usually with heartfelt compassion, to the heart-wrenching stories of their parishioners, but Catholic priests have no ability to enact real change. Through the priest’s prayers, God can change lives, but the priest himself cannot make a sick child well or force a straying spouse to be faithful. We often hope, and even expect, our priests to perform miracles, and we are often disappointed when they turn out to be just ordinary, fallible people – like the rest of us.
- A priest is often isolated – We understand and joke about teacher burnout. We sympathize and give time off and counseling to law enforcement who have witnessed traumatic events, but we expect Catholic priests to run to the heat of the fire continuously and offer them little or no support. They listen without complaint day after day to parishioner problems even though they cannot do much to solve those problems. Who do they turn to for support? Parishioners are often wrapped up in their own families. Dioceses are forced to make cutbacks due to a lack of funds and a declining number of priests. As this shortage of clergy occurs, more and more priests handle tougher and tougher cases for a larger and larger area with less and less support, and yet we still expect them to be fully engaged in our situation. In our pain, we have become part of the Me First World.
The Catholic church is made up of human beings. Most are men and women trying their best to do the Lord’s work, but they are human nonetheless, and that makes them imperfect.
We forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. We must forgive Catholic priests theirs as well.
And perhaps God is calling divorced Catholics to come out of our own pain to reach out to priests and others who have little support, who, despite outward appearances, feel as isolated as divorced Catholics themselves feel. Perhaps, your divorce can be a blessing to someone else rather than a curse to the church – and to yourself.
I am not minimizing the disappointment I sometimes still feel when the priest I thought should have been there for me was not, but I recognize that he cannot do everything and that he did have other strengths with other people. He is still a good and godly man. Just because he is not helpful to me does not change that, and it certainly is not license for me to leave the only faith given to the world by Jesus Christ Himself.
If you are a Catholic feeling isolated or thinking of leaving the church, if you have suffered abuse, divorce, or other hurt and feel no Catholic priest understands you, I would suggest that you just have not found the right Catholic priest. Please keep telling your story, keep reaching out, keep praying, and please do not turn your back on the Catholic faith that will see you through the pain and isolation when you follow God’s plan, in God’s time.