Pope Francis is in the United States, and the country is abuzz with excitement. The Catholic school where I teach is sending a group to Philadelphia to see him; every nearby parish has been given tickets to welcome the Pope, and winners of those lotteries have been announced.
It wasn’t that long ago that my husband, children, and I were among those chosen to see Pope Benedict. We sat high up in the nosebleed section but were thrilled to be there. I am certain my children did not understand the significance of the event. I am equally certain I did not understand the significance of the event. The day was a blur of excitement as people cheered, enthusiastically waving yellow bandanas overhead, the exact message pitiably forgotten in my thrill of just being there.
If the crowd for Pope Benedict seemed much like one would experience at a rock concert, I can only imagine the welcome Pope Francis, the Pope so many think will change Church doctrine through the upcoming Synod on Families, will receive.
As a divorced Catholic, critical of the annulment process, one might think I have high expectations about this upcoming Synod on Families, and I do.
One might think I hope for sweeping reform; that I hope divorced and remarried Catholics will be able to receive Communion; that I hope for the “normalization of divorce” so that I am not made to feel uncomfortable and so that my Church is not made to seem unwelcoming; that I hope for the approval of all family types, married, co-habitating, single parent, homosexual.
Little is further from the truth…
Our society is struggling because of self-centeredness, which causes divorce and the break up of the family. What is worse is that self-centeredness and divorce are contagious. To heal society, we must not wish divorce on our worst enemies. This includes our exes and their new spouses.
Why would I not want sweeping reform or for divorce to be “normalized” in the church? Why wouldn’t I want my family to be a norm in the church since divorced families are no anomaly in society? Wouldn’t we be more accepted? Wouldn’t we feel less like outcasts? Wouldn’t we feel more like everybody else?
Yes, but sometimes, feeling like everybody else isn’t what we need and what we want isn’t what is good in the long term. Sometimes, everybody else is just plain wrong and things we think we’d enjoy in the moment aren’t really good after all. Marriage reform seems sweet in the moment, but it may not be good for the Church or our families long term.
According to the National Catholic Register, “only” 28% of Catholic marriages end in divorce, and there is some evidence to show Catholic-to-Catholic marriages have even lower divorce rates. Society would have us believe that number is much higher and that we need to soften our criticism of divorce, that we need to be more approving of divorce, and that the Synod should announce reform to allow such changes.
Although I don’t like being labeled, I would ask the Church to be wary of normalizing or being too accepting of divorce.
I didn’t like the whispers and glances my fellow Catholics gave after my husband left suddenly, even when those whispers and glances were of genuine concern and love. I also don’t want to lose the fact that we are an anomaly rather than the norm. I don’t want my children to think that walking out when life is difficult or boring is okay, that marriage is temporary, or that divorce is acceptable. None of this should be the norm.
As a Catholic and someone who meant my vows, as someone who believes the Father knows all and will one day judge all, I want my children to comprehend the depth of their vows and the meaning of the words they will commit to. I do not want them to have to answer to God for abandoning spouses or for turning backs on the words they gave.
By accepting divorce and by getting rid of consequences such as the ability to receive Communion after remarriage without annulment we open more doors for divorce.
Reforms Could Open Up the Doors for Divorce
Other branches of Christianity have softened their stances on divorce. Their hearts are in the right places. They genuinely love their hurting neighbors, women victims of deserting husbands, left with children to support while their husbands live lives of careless abandon or the man who is quietly, emotionally degraded behind closed doors as he realizes his beautiful bride is a serial adulteress.
Every divorce involves heartache. It is the ripping apart of two that had become one. Amputation is always painful. Living with phantom pain for decades is physically painful and emotionally scarring. Wanting to reach out to make the lives of our suffering brothers and sisters easier by normalizing their situations, by accepting their choices, and by ridding them of consequences such as the inability to receive the Eucharist is a reaction of the well-intended heart; however, Proverbs tells us to not be misled by our hearts. Doing so often applies a quick fix. It’s putting bandaids on amputations.
Our hearts deceive us, and as we look at the example put forth by our non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, we see that accepting divorce has not lessened divorce. In fact, the Bible belt has the highest divorce rates of anywhere in the United States.
In addition, when talking to victims of divorce, we also realize that accepting divorce has not lessened pain or lightened burdens. Women and children still feel powerless and penniless. A woman’s natural desire to mother her children is still squelched by court ordered split custody. Men are still left feeling robbed of time with their children and angry about paying support.
Children are always left victimized financially, academically, emotionally, spiritually, and in so many other ways. To make matters worse, these precious children are torn in two and unable to confide in either parent completely. These children have no safe place to rest their heads, no one base to truly call home. It is always “mom’s house” or “dad’s house.”
It is understandable that other sects do not wish to see church members feeling ostracized because of divorce, but when the pendulum swings too far the other way, when divorce is accepted so that church members are not lost, Church members are already lost. Church is not built to house the beliefs of the people, but to house the people who believe. While I realize the Catholic Church is not actually talking of allowing divorce, this looks like a slippery slope to that end.
It is only by remaining strong in our commitment to the sanctity of marriage that we support the broken. Anthony Jordan, executive director of Oklahoma’s branch of the Southern Baptist Convention said this about the divorce rate among Catholics compared to other religions, “I applaud the Catholics. I don’t think we as Protestant evangelists have done nearly as well preparing people for marriage. And in the name of being loving and accepting, we have not placed the stigma on divorce that we should have.”
We have seen from other denominations that softening stances on divorce does not strengthen people, families, or societies. As difficult as it must be, we must remain built on rock, not on sand. We must assure people that our values are grounded in truth, that marriage is a Sacrament, and that divorce is an evil.
Accepting divorce, allowing remarried, non-annulled Catholics to take the Eucharist, and making the annulment process too easy invites more divorce.
While some reform may be beneficial, we must question the vast reforms suggested simply because reforms make us feel better or because of cases that pull at heartstrings. Instead, we must lift up the married as examples of who we should strive to be. We should be asking about qualities they looked for in a date, in a spouse. We should ask what qualities they sought to enrich in themselves. We should ask what made them stay in their vows when tempted to leave. We should build them up so that they are strong enough in their faith in God and in each other to minister to those suffering outside of the bond of matrimony, as well as those struggling within imperfect marriages.
We should not degrade the bond of matrimony to a seemingly easy to dissolve union because it’s not.
Perhaps even more of a challenge but also of more worth is the fact that, to prevent people from leaving the church, we must speak Truth. We have come far from sermons of hellfire and damnation to sermons all about feeling good and loving one another, but we must not forget that, just as a parent must sometimes say no to a child she loves, the church must also sometimes say no to us if she truly loves us.
Pope Francis Reforms on Marriage
For a while I was concerned by the supposition of many that Pope Francis might change marriage and that divorce would be made more acceptable, but the more I research what Pope Francis has actually said, the more comforted I am.
It is my understanding now that Pope Francis is walking that difficult balance many of us don’t even recognize exists as he works diligently to uphold Catholic doctrine while reaching out to the poor of heart and spirit who have been neglected for too long. Pope Francis crosses lines drawn by those who see only a need for sweeping reform and those who see only a need for closed-eyed doctrine.
Pope Francis said this:
Sunday, October 5, 2014
We too, in the Synod of Bishops, are called to work for the Lord’s vineyard. Synod Assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent… They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.
We are all sinners and can also be tempted to “take over” the vineyard, because of that greed which is always present in us human beings. God’s dream always clashes with the hypocrisy of some of his servants. We can “thwart” God’s dream if we fail to let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us that wisdom which surpasses knowledge, and enables us to work generously with authentic freedom and humble creativity.
My Synod brothers, to do a good job of nurturing and tending the vineyard, our hearts and our minds must be kept in Jesus Christ by “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7). In this way our thoughts and plans will correspond to God’s dream: to form a holy people who are his own and produce the fruits of the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 21:43).
Let us remember the words of Pope Francis. It is our duty to tend to the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize His dream, His loving plan for His people, by caring for the family.
Let us remember also that we must not “take over” the vineyard. It cannot be our pain that dictates what we determine to be the best outcome. It is arrogance to think we can fix problems such as the break up of the family. Let us remember, in our outreach, that we are all sinners and that we must all beg for the intervention of the Holy Spirit to see beyond our own understanding and to nurture the Lord’s vineyard while delivering Truth.
It is not the Truth which turns people away from the Church, but the lack of clarity with which we speak the Truth. With so many foundations crumbling, it is more important than ever to build a solid definition of marriage while at the same time reaching out to those suffering under the depth of what a failed marriage means. It is only when we achieve this balance that we can begin to strengthen our church, to heal our families, to rebuild our hurting hearts.
This article first appeared on Catholic Stand where I am a contributor.
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