Marriages start in a church, but where is the church when one ends?

by Bill Tammeus

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I know a man who, fairly late in life, felt called to be a Catholic priest.

But he was the divorced father of several children. The Catholic church, he told me, insisted it wanted his marriage annulled.

If he argued that his marriage had been valid, he would be arguing against his goal of priesthood. So he talked with his children. They convinced him to let the church annul the marriage not because he, his ex-wife, or they considered it invalid, but because the church needed to do it for its own reasons. The annulment, they contended, had nothing to do with their father and mother.

He accepted that position, agreed to the annulment, and today is a priest.

I was thinking about all of this recently as I read an NCR analysis of proposals to update the church's marriage annulment process.

I confess that this is one aspect of Catholic practice that I, as a Protestant, simply don't understand well. Oh, I know the official explanation based on Canon 915 that says, as the author of the NCR analysis wrote, "civilly divorced and remarried Catholics cannot receive the Eucharist at Mass because they are living in a state of grave sin, that sin being the adultery that they commit with their second spouse every time that they make love."

But I've never understood what I consider the rigidity of that position. I agree that divorce happens too often in our culture, and sometimes for frivolous reasons. However, there certainly are cases in which divorce is the least evil of a series of terrible choices. Divorce can be an acknowledgement that something has gone terribly wrong and that opportunities to redeem lives are needed -- lives of both spouses and children.

What went terribly wrong in my own first marriage was that my wife entered into a romantic relationship with another man -- our pastor, in fact -- without first either fixing or ending her relationship with me.

Although I continued to believe (naively) that the union was fixable, she was adamantly convinced otherwise. We were divorced. It allowed me the freedom to meditate on what went amiss and eventually to enter into a second marriage that has been extraordinarily redemptive.

My job is not to tell Catholics what to believe or to criticize Catholic doctrine and traditions just because they don't happen to match those of my Presbyterian faith. But sometimes it's my job to tell my Catholic brothers and sisters how things appear to those of us who are outside of Catholicism looking in.

And in the case of the Catholic practice of marriage annulments, it looks like at times there must be lost opportunities for forgiveness, redemption and healing. (The recent interim report of the Vatican family issues synod suggests that at least some in the church think that, too. Good.)

Yes, the church should provide opportunities for married couples to examine and strengthen their unions. And the church should encourage couples to put more energy into planning their marriage than they put into planning their wedding.

But when marriages have broken down irretrievably, faith communities should provide a healing presence for affected families. At the moment of such searing pain, what's needed is not words of harsh judgment and punishment, but words of love and acts of compassion.

Indeed, in my own divorce, I felt my faith tradition failed me. A marriage that began in a church ended in a civil courtroom. There was no church ceremony, no ritual to bind up my wounds or my former wife's wounds and bless us as we entered this new phase of our lives.

We still don't do that very well in the Protestant world. But my hope for Catholics is that your church will find ways to stand with people in the angst of divorce and provide compassion and a way (perhaps even a sacramental way) forward, not doctrinal roadblocks.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at]

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