‘Love, Don't Judge': Divorced Catholics Look to Pope Francis for Acceptance

Unable to fully participate in the church, many Catholics have drifted away from the fold. The Vatican is paying close attention.

When Alicja Bator, a devout Catholic who once considered becoming a nun, was going through a divorce, she felt profound loss, as if someone close to her had died. She met her ex-husband when she was 18 and got married at 24 in a New Jersey church. Seven years and three children later, she filed for divorce. 

“It’s extremely draining and it created a huge guilt in my heart and soul,” said Bator, 37. “I was married before God and to have it fall apart was very difficult."

Bator is one of 11 million U.S. Catholics to have divorced, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. The divorce rate of U.S. adults is 36 percent, higher than the 28 percent rate among Catholics. 

The Catholic Church, however, doesn't recognize divorce, because it considers marriage permanent. Millions of Catholics in the U.S. who remarried outside the church without first obtaining an annulment — a declaration by the church that their marriage was never valid — are banned from receiving Holy Communion, one of the most important rituals of their faith. Considered adulterers by the church, and feeling like outcasts, many have drifted away from the fold, often attending Protestant churches, instead, where they can receive Communion. The Vatican is paying close attention to their plight: Pope Francis last year revived the debate on how the church could integrate the divorced and civilly remarried in the life of the church. 


Confusion About What Annulment Means

An annulment declares that a marriage thought to be binding according to the church fell short of at least one of the five essential elements required by church law. Those elements include that a man and woman be free to marry, be faithful and open to having children. Once a Church Tribunal — a type of Catholic Church court — grants an annulment, the person is free to remarry and participate fully in church life.  

Many divorced Catholics, however, don’t even know an annulment is an option. Those who do are confused about the process, according to church officials. They also feel there aren’t enough support groups and programs in their parishes to help them deal with the trauma of divorce, something church officials also recognize. Out of the 30 million Catholics in the U.S., 4.5 million have divorced and remarried outside the church without an annulment, according CARA.

“Mostly, people wrongly rely on their own limited understanding to assume they could never get an annulment, so they leave the church,” said Rose Sweet, a Catholic author who created “The Catholic’s Divorce Survival Guide,” a DVD series. Well-meaning pastors can even give false information unintentionally, she said. 

Sweet said the church’s approach toward divorced Catholics ranges from “warm reception and support to outright shunning.”

Bator has been divorced for four years but she’s yet to apply for an annulment. She says it has been difficult to reconcile divorce with her faith and she admits she doesn’t fully understand what an annulment offers. She say she filled out an annulment form several months after her divorce but she hasn’t followed through.

“Maybe if I meet a man who truly loves me and would consider getting married then I would go forward with an annulment,” she said.

Catholics who apply for an annulment say the process can be healing, but it can take anywhere from a year to more than two years. The length of time varies by diocese.


Debate Over How to Integrate Divorced Catholics

In October 2014 Pope Francis called a meeting of Catholic bishops, known as synod, to discuss family issues. A second Vatican synod is set to gather this October after the pope returns from his historic visit to the U.S. Bishops are expected to decide whether to recommend changes to how the Catholic church should integrated the divorced, then it will be up to the pope on whether to take any action.

The pope, who will attend the Meeting of World Families in Philadelphia in September, has said the church should make it easier for some divorced Catholics to remarry and receive other sacraments so they can fully participate in the church life.

According to Edward Kurtz, the archbishop of Louisville and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the report issued at the conclusion of the first synod last year looked at a range of areas for reform.

Some bishops want the church to make it easier for a divorced person to receive Communion even if they remarry outside of the church. The pope has indicated, however, that “Communion alone is no solution. The solution is integration.”

According to Archbishop Kurtz, the idea that had the greatest consensus at the synod was removing annulment fees, he said, which average $500, depending on the diocese.

Sweet said the church should ensure that an advocate assigned to help a person seeking annulment doesn’t just assist with paperwork, but also provides spiritual support.

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“In many parishes there is no one there to hold their hand, no one to listen to their story, no outreach. It’s a mechanical process that is cold and sterile,” Sweet said. “But there are parishes where people go through the process and end up with deeper faith.”

Jim Glaser, a registered dietitian, was told it would take two to three years to get an annulment in his diocese in Tucson, Arizona. He said it was “discouraging,” but he was determined to do it.

“It’s not great to hear that it is going to take up to three years for the church to examine testimony from witnesses and make a decision on whether a person’s marriage is valid or not,” said Glaser, 58, who became a single father of five after his divorce in 2011. 

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His ex-wife, who applied for an annulment in San Diego, was able to get it in less than 18 months. Glaser participated in the process. He also spoke with priests and a deacon about his divorce and connected with Sweet. He said all parishes should offer some sort of program to help guide the divorced and let them feel like they are still welcomed in the church, despite their failure in marriage.

Divorce Ministries a Well-Kept Secret

Catholic divorce ministries are active across the U.S., but unlike marriage ministries, which offer preparation for couples getting married, divorce ministries are not required by the church. In parishes where they operate, they are often a well-kept secret, even some divorce ministry leaders admit. 

Sweet, who will lead a panel on divorce at the World Meeting of Families, created her "Divorce Survival Guide” after going through her own divorce in the 1990s. She said she had been unable to find content that would provide healing while being faithful to the Catholic Church’s teachings.

Over 400 parishes have purchased her program so far and are using it in their support groups, according to Sweet. 

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Father Stephen Porter, who’s featured in the guide, offers the divorce survival program at his parish in Rialto, California. He started the support group after realizing that there were people who were “lost and confused and sometimes angry” about their divorce.

His parish also waived annulment fees, and he credits Pope Francis for the move. 

“One of the things I think Pope Francis is trying to do is take away the stigma of divorce and help divorced Catholics not to think of themselves as second class citizens, second class Catholics because their marriage failed,” Father Porter said. “He’s also saying to us priests ‘come on, love, don’t judge, don’t evaluate, just love people where they are.’"

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