Divorced Catholics and The New York Times

by Phyllis Zagano

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People meet, fall in love, have children, and live happily ever after in the best of all possible worlds.

Too many folks don't live there.

And too many of these are hopelessly misinformed and confused about what happens when their marriages end. Do you think maybe a bishop or three might write an opinion piece explaining that Catholics are not excommunicated when they get divorced? Do you think that a church-sponsored symposium for media on marriage law might help? Too often, the catechesis of The New York Times is incorrect or misleading, as happened the other day.

Divorced people are not barred from Communion in Catholicism.

That is, as they say, a true fact. But the opening paragraphs of a front-page Sunday Times story cite divorced people who "know" they cannot receive Communion. For those who quickly skim it, the article seems to say the problem is divorce. It is not. It's remarriage. The Times cites no current church spokesperson, no bishop, no marriage tribunal officer. It presents annulments as expensive, out-of-reach perks for the lucky few. It gives no hope for the divorced person sitting in the cold, hard pews.

Yet often, the reasons for a divorce, which ends a couple's civil commitment, can support a church annulment. That would free the parties to remarry. The Times makes it sound like annulments are not worth the trouble.

Sometimes, I think the church's stringent attitude toward marriage protects women more than men. We are no longer living in a world -- at least in a developed world -- where a husband can circle the tent three times, saying, "I divorce you," then ride off into the sunset. Yet there are pockets of humanity where wives with small dowrys end up burned on pyres, where women accused of not bringing their virginity to marriage are murdered, where scoundrels unceremoniously dump young wives, and where 40-something hedge fund managers get trophy wives half their age.

The church argues that a husband should stay with his wife.

Sometimes, it is the other way around. When he comes home with lipstick on his collar, it may be time to show him the door. When he gambles away the food money or spends it wastefully to the point that there is just not enough, she's perfectly correct to get rid of him. When he is an abusive drunk, when he is a violent drug addict, when he is murderous and psychotic, the sane wife calls the police and changes the locks.

So what to do? There is not much heart in a church that says "until death do you part" if destitution or death is a liability of marriage.

The New York Times paints a cold, hard picture of the church. But the church can fairly easily end a marriage for substantial or administrative reasons. 

Substantively: Were they free to marry? Was there a real or metaphorical shotgun behind one of them? Did they know what they were doing? Were there physical or psychological barriers to a true marriage? Did one or both hide an inability or unwillingness to have children?

Administratively: Were both baptized Catholics? Did they marry in a Catholic church? Were both free -- of other marriages, of religious vows or ordination -- to marry? Was all the paperwork in order for a ceremony outside a Catholic church?

The trouble -- or the protection -- is, if all went well to begin with, neither spouse is free to remarry.

But marriages die. And many seek the remedy of church annulment in part to heal their wounds, most often to clear the way for a second marriage. Many do not seek annulments, often misinformed by caricatures of Catholic teaching. Now Pope Francis wants to streamline the process, and he wants to make it free.

It is not only in the poorest countries that people cannot afford annulments, but it is most certainly in the richest where misinformation spreads anger and angst among divorced Catholics.

Of course, the coming Synod of Bishops on the family will look at the hard cases. Of course, there are people whose marriages are technically "indissoluble." Of course, everybody hopes the rules will change or bend a little to recognize that what once was is no longer, and people can get on with new lives.

But in the meantime, I'd like to get the writers, bloggers and pundits who spread disinformation across the land to sit down with someone who knows what he or she is talking about. But who?

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University. She will speak March 11 at University of Illinois, Chicago, and April 16 at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland. Her newest books are Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Sacred Silence: Daily Meditations for Lent.]

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