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Friday, October 17, 2014

The Catholic Church, Divorce, Gays and Dependence on God's Mercy

Pope Francis and Divorce

Did you see the news articles about a recent report from a synod of Catholic Bishops to Pope Francis?  The report recommended that the Catholic Church consider relaxing it's position on on gays, premarital cohabitation and divorce. 

Although, the Vatican has also been quick to point out that what was released was more of a working document, with nothing decided or definitive yet, it also marks a dramatic shift in the Catholic Church's rigid stance on these issues.  They also followed up by stating that this was only a beginning of a discussion and the church was far from making policy decisions about these very sensitive issues. 

I am interested in focusing on the divorce part of this, since that is kind of the focal point of these blogs.  And I want you to know upfront and that I am not Roman Catholic, (although my wife used to be), so I speak as an outsider.   I am intentionally not Catholic.  

Though I know and respect many good Catholics, there are just some doctrinal and biblical issues that cause me to be more at home in another church.  Know also that this blog is not merely about the Catholic Church’s actions, but their recent statements raise what I think is an important topic. 

For those who are also not Catholic, it might be helpful to know why this is a big deal in the Catholic Church.  Most Catholics I have ever known, experience the topic of divorce as nearly taboo within their church: not only is it discouraged, it is frowned upon to the point that even in the worst marriages, divorce it is seen as a terrible option and failure.  

The Catholic Church’s teaching is that marriage is a sacrament, a spiritual moment of divine significance, and divorce does not automatically free someone from their sacramental obligations.  Therefore divorce alone does not rescind the marriage vows, so if you marry another person without the process of annulment - you are defined as someone who is in an adulterous union - a consequence that results in the exclusion of participation in the sacraments of the church.  Therefore, you would no longer be able to participate in the Eucharist, or communion, or any other of the seven sacraments of the church.   So while divorce is strongly looked down upon, remarriage presents real issues for someone who wants to be an integrated member of their church.  

If you know history, you may recall this topic caused some serious royal problems in England, which eventually resulted in the formation of the Anglican Church.

The alternative provided is annulment of the previous marriage, in which you pay the Church some money (the amount seems to vary depending on the kindness of the priest, and it can be quite expensive) and go through the appropriate paperwork.  In this process, it doesn’t matter whether the marriage lasted 6 months or 40 years, it can be annulled.  

Annulment is the way the church and you agree to officially declare that it wasn’t really the spiritual union that marriage should be (so somehow it doesn’t count), and then you are free to marry.  This is their way of protecting communion and the sanctity of marriage while dealing with divorcing individuals.  For us non-Catholics, it seems very odd, even if we also believe in the sanctity of marriage and consider divorce to be a last resort option not to be taken lightly. 

For a Catholic, to be refused Communion is an important issue, as it would be in many churches.  Important for a catholic, because of the denominational belief in the sacramental nature of communion as a necessary part of salvation.  The impact is that a person who has already been struggling with divorce and then begins to put life back together is faced with the difficult choice between remarriage or communion, unless an annulment is pursued and granted.  

For many though, the annulment itself feels like a charade, so the whole thing can become very awkward.  So for the leaders of the Roman Church to be discussing ways to be more sensitive to the divorced is a very significant thing. 

All of that discussion illustrates how difficult it is to be divorced and remain part of the Catholic Church; it is a very awkward time.  A discussion of how to be more welcoming to divorced individuals is very important.  

Maybe somebody is finally realizing divorce isn’t the unforgiveable sin, if sin is the right word for divorce anyway? (As I pointed out to a friend, if it is a sin, it is the only sin that the Bible also gives specific instructions on how to commit it properly!)  Or maybe they are recognizing the reality that many who end up divorced go on to have meaningful and fulfilling marriages that deserve to be recognized.  Maybe it is that the pope is trying to help his leaders realize that people are important and good doctrine should not be pushing them away, that divorce isn’t a good enough reason to make them feel like second class citizens or exclude them from Communion when they move on in life.  

Now, before you non-Catholics start to gloat or look down our nose at the Catholics (which by the way, is a sin), I would want to point out that we non-Catholics have plenty of issues of our own around divorce, and have plenty of ways we also create a sense of second class citizenship for divorced individuals.  Sermons that strongly condemn divorce while ignoring the biblical provisions for it result in alienation for divorced individuals.   The exclusion of divorced individuals from various leadership roles also isolates and seperates those individuals as well.  

Every divorced person I know recognizes and celebrates the incredible beauty of those who have 30, 40, 50 year marriages, people who have fought hard to make their marriage work. But there can be no smugness for the success of such marriages, the better choice being the humility demonstrated by a happily married individual I knew who, upon hearing of a friend’s divorce responded, “But for the grace of God, there go I.”  

Do you ever think your church (or you personally, for that matter), needs to find ways to be more welcoming to people whose life experience include divorce?  

I know of many instances where a pastor has made statements that, hopefully unwittingly, communicated to the divorced in the congregation that they did not truly belong…not really, because they had failed in their marriage.  Yet those same pastors would consider themselves welcoming to people who have struggled with divorce.  

Maybe before you decide whether your church is welcoming or not, you ought to ask a divorced person in the congregation who trusts you enough to be totally honest about it with you.  You might be surprised at what you hear.  

It seems to me there is something fundamentally troubling about this whole thing, and that is the singling out of divorce as an issue to be discussed, while other relevant issues can so often be ignored or maybe even tacitly condoned.  In the Catholic Church, an example would be the devastating instances of molestation by clergy that have come to light in recent years, but so often poorly handled and rarely condemned as rapidly and strongly as it should have been.  That, it seems to me, is much worse than divorce.  

Non-Catholic churches also have had plenty of scandals (or church secrets) involving pastors, youth leaders, deacons, church organists, and church secretaries.  The toleration or condoning of such things as gossip when disguised as prayer requests.  God's gospel of love proclaimed in a harsh, judgmental manner.  And finally, as a friend of mine likes to point out, the sanctimonious gluttony observed at every potluck fellowship dinner.  

It just seems so wrong to continue such blanket condemnation of the divorced without consideration for individuals or circumstances, while we know that there are other significant issues that we choose to ignore.  (It might be a good moment to remind yourself of verses like Matthew 7:3-5, Romans 2:1-4 and following, or 1 Corinthians 10:12.)

It is amazing to me how frequently Christian leaders like to rant and rail against the sins of others, rather than addressing the sin that affects themselves or their own congregations.  We have to face the reality that sometimes people end up divorced, and sometimes that occurs even though there has been great effort by at least one partner, if not both, to save the marriage.  The reality is, even Catholic marriages fail and people move on in life.  

In fact, reality is none of us are perfect; we all are dependent on God’s mercy.  

In my opinion, when dealing effectively with the theological issues surrounding divorce, requires a balancing act between principles and the genuine needs of people.  I understand the importance of sound theology - and to behave in a manner that suggests that theology doesn't matter - is contrary to God’s teachings.  But to become so harsh in one’s theology that there is no place for individuals struggling in life...  Or the opposite extreme focusing only on God’s love while ignoring God’s call to righteousness...   turns the gospel to mush.

When I look at the life of Jesus, I have no doubt that his theology was sound.  Yet, his theological principles never caused him to turn people away, though some chose to leave.  Instead, Jesus’ theological principles compelled him to invite people to come.  Even people whom the “official religious teaching” declared were unworthy of God’s mercy.  

So maybe Pope Francis and his Bishops have decided that Jesus had a pretty good idea after all, huh?  I hope so.  I’m sure there are some good religious folk who aren’t going to like the idea.  

But God might, just might, be pleased when somebody who claims his name recognizes that all people are important to God.  Even people whose lives are filled with heartache, struggle, poor choices or questionable behaviors.  From God’s perspective, they are important enough that Jesus was willing to die for them.  

If your church has told you (or told others) something less, then maybe your church could learn a thing or two from Pope Francis.

Or maybe you need to change churches.  At least, that’s what I think about it all.

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