The National Catholic Review

The Ethics of Bystanders to Divorce


 A publication of the Institute for American Values by M. Christian Green discusses “The Ethics of Bystanders to Divorce.” (Propositions 8, July 2012  She claims that divorce affects bystanders, as well as the divorcing couple and children involved. The witnesses of marital breakups and their social networks can be affected.  Bystanders who are actually “stakeholders” should not remain “apathetic” or “indifferent.”

 For Green divorce should be viewed like other “cultural traumas” that can be proved to have wide-spread and long term negative effects.  The divorce culture can be judged as a collective phenomenon that contributes to a population’s “shaky social solidarity” in diffuse but real ways.   Only a misguided view of marriage can see divorce as merely a private, completely autonomous relationship between individuals.  In fact, “contagion theories of divorce” show that interlinked members in a social network will be more likely to divorce.

Well yes, in certain circles I’ve observed that divorce seems an expected option as individuals end their “starter marriages”and decide to move on.  There appears to be little belief in the possibility that couples can change or control their actions in order to build a loving relationship.  Even the older ideal of staying the distance and keeping one’s promise is fading.  At the same time a super high standard of marital happiness exerts pressure toward divorce.  The tide continues despite the hopefulness of an increasing willingness to seek marriage counseling. 

At this moment I happen to be a bystander to two marital breakdowns among family and friends.  I’m certainly not an indifferent or apathetic bystander, but I am hesitant.  How can an individual bystander do the ethical thing? At a minimum I think it right to try and be a peacemaker and support both partners in the marriage and the children as prudently as possible, i.e. shrewd as a serpent and innocent as a dove. 

Yet in another case I’ve thought it right to choose to support the more vulnerable, and more seriously wronged and abandoned partner.  The operating principle is that they need more help now, as well as for a chance to restore the marriage as an equal partnership.  Although I always advocate professional counseling, a good friend solidly on your side is invaluable.

Finally I have to admit to a worrisome anxiety when encountering bystander situations.  I am sometimes assaulted by self doubts and the arguments of other divorce experts.  Am I perhaps wrongheaded in my convictions? Are there really “good divorces” out there in which children, ex-spouses, and families are flourishing?


Michael Barberi | 8/5/2012 - 9:40pm

I have not read the book you referenced, but I would like to know how the authors can back up such assertions. IMO, the vast majority of Catholic divorces are not granted an annulment. The fact that the divorced and remarried are acknowledged by popes as a major problem facing the Church attests to the significant number of Catholics that fall into this category.

What most Catholics are ignorant of, mostly because the Church never makes this issue clear, is the history of the early Church and how they developed the rudiments of a church law of marriage and governance. For example, the Council of Elvira in Spain issued a collection of disciplinary canons around 300-309 AD. One of them proclaimed "If a husband who knows of his wife's adultery, and lives with his wife for a period of time after her adultery, and then left her, he may not received the Eucharist for 10 years." This clearly supports early Church teachings, such as Clement of Alexandra that divorce was permissible for adultery, and Eucharist communion was available after a certain number of years of penance.  

At a later time, these teachings were changed. If they were changed, the Church can change them Ratzinger-Benedict XVI proposed.

Anne Chapman | 8/5/2012 - 1:44pm
David, I have reread both the original blog post and your comment. It still sounds harsh and sarcastic to me. So, since I am apparently missing your point, could you please clarify?

There are many negatives from divorce that hurt all members of the family. How much they hurt bystanders is not a question I can answer. In my experience, it doesn't usually impact those outside of the immediate family, but maybe the experts say otherwise. I don't know.

But I do know that sometimes more harm can be done when divorce does not happen, or is postponed too long than if the inevitable is faced early on in a marriage that simply can't be repaired.  Sometimes a divorce is the best course and ''resisting the inevitable, the healthy break, the new beginning'' sometimes does result in negative effects.  

Could you also clarify what you are trying to say with your remarks about sin and guilt and Freud and the pill and all the rest. I guess I'm too simple-minded to understand what you are getting at. 

I focused on the reality of harm done by divorce and also of the reality of the harm done in some cases when divorce is resisted.  I actually have seen ''good'' divorces, where the formerly married partners heal and go on to form positive relationships with one another that are especially important to the well-being of the children of the family. And I have seen the opposite - when someone resists a divorce when it is clear that there will be no reconciliation. Dragging the process out can cause enormous long-term damage - once again, especially to the kids, but also often to the partner who is prolonging the divorce out of denial.
Michael Barberi | 8/4/2012 - 4:52pm

It is true that Western liberalistic societies have made divorce easy. However, Annie Chapman is correct when she says that many marriages are dead and staying together could only cause more pain and suffering, more negative consequences for both the spouses, children and close family relatives. I agree that there are too many marriages that end in divorce where a sincere desire to make the marriage work is lacking...e.g., forgiveness, marriage counseling etc. However, because some marriages could be saved, but are not, does not make divorce immoral for the other marriages that can not be saved.

There is controversy over Matt 19:6 where Jesus seems to allow for divorce in cases of unchastity. Also, Clement of Alexandra said that "Scripture counsels marriage, and allows no release from the union, "save in the case of adultery" (Clement, Stromata 2.23.137). However, Clement believed that husbands and wives should forgive each other for adultery and strive to make the marriage work (as God has always forgiven the Israelites for their transgressions and Christ died so that our sins could be forgiven). Nevertheless, Clement did not condemn those who divorced for adultery.

Today, the issue of the divorced and remarried is significant problem for the Catholic Church. It is interesting to note that Cardinal Ratinger proposed a solution in the 1990s by which under certain circumstances, the divorced and remarried may have access to reconciliation and Eucharistic reception. However, as Pope Benedict XVI he has not directed a theological study of this issue, at least that I am aware of. 

Anne Chapman | 8/4/2012 - 11:18am
So harsh, David. So judgmental. I can only assume that you have never been part of a family where the parents' marriage was dead, a marriage where the  longer the couple stayed together under the same roof, the more harm was done to both the spouses and to the children.  From your righteous perch you obviously don't understand that in some cases, staying in a marriage (generally done for economic reasons, sadly) would be the sin rather than ending it by divorce - which in these cases is indeed the ''healthier'' and less ''sinful'' thing to do.

The poison that spreads from a truly bad marriage often harms innocents. At least have a bit of compassion for them.
David Smith | 8/4/2012 - 4:57am
Divorce is no longer a sin.  The sin now is staying in an unhappy marriage. Actually, come to think of it, sin is the sin.  Sin is guilt and guilt has been outlawed.

It all started with Freud and the pill.  Together, they banished morality and liberated modern man and woman from the dark tyranny of celibate old men. Psychotherapy is the good new Church, therapists the new priests.  A therapy session takes longer than a confession but it's much healthier.

So, Ms. Green is simply wrong. Any negative effects of divorce are caused by resisting the inevitable, the healthy break, the new beginning.
Michael Barberi | 8/9/2012 - 3:12pm

I think you are correct that your parish is not a good indicator of the wider characteristics of all parishes and the frequency of confession in the U.S. In my parish, almost everyone at the Saturday 5:30 PM Mass receive communion. 

My issue was: married penitents that are in child-bearing years (e.g., 20-50), practice some form of contraception (e.g., only about 3% of all women practice NFP-PC). If 10% of Catholics believe contraception is a sin, then perhps 10% of the 10% (your estimate of people going to confession) might be correct. It seems counter-intuitive that a person practicing contraception would confess this sin regularly, while continuing to practice it. Hence, most people who practice contraception don't confess it as a sin.

I agree with you that a vasectomy is not any less immoral than a tubal ligation according to the Church. A vasectomy is less invasive that tubal ligation. However, those decisions are a private matter between couples. My wife had no issue getting it done and never thought twice about asking me to have a vasectomy. That was her decision not mine. 

The issue of contraception is a big "ho-hum" for many Catholics. They have already made up their minds about this issue. I studied this issue for 7 years because I wanted to fully understand the Church's teaching as well as alternative moral argumentations. I also studied it because Humanae Vitae (HV) is the encyclical that changed sexual ethics for the past 44 years. Its impact is significant and fundamental. Once the Church recognizes that under certain circumstances taking the pill can be a virtuous means of fertility regulation in the practice of responsible parenthood, then other issues such as In Vitro Fertilization between spouses might be permitted as well.  Does it not seem absurd to you that according to the Church (e.g., HV) a married women whose life is threatened by another pregnancy cannot take contracepives or have a tubal ligation to safe-guard her life? She must either practice risky PC or practice sexual abstinance. IMO, the Church's answer here amounts to stoic insensibility.

I believe that the Church one day will allow the divorced and remarried to have access to reconciliation and the Eucharist as well.

Thanks again for your insightful comments. I do appreciate your frequent participation on these and other issues that divide our Church.
Amy Ho-Ohn | 8/9/2012 - 7:42am

I estimate the frequency of confession from my former parish. (My current parish is not a good indicator, because there is a large discrepancy between the times listed in the bulletin and the times there is actually a confessor in the confessional, the latter being a tiny unpredictable subset of the former.) The average weekly mass attendance was about 2000. Confessions were heard for 45 minutes on Saturdays and 45 on Thursdays. The average penitent takes about three minutes in the confessional, but there are not a few middle-aged females who take more like ten minutes. So let's approximate 18 penitents a week and say the average penitent is like me and goes about once every three months. This means out of a mass attendance of 2000, 18*12 = 216 ~ 10% go regularly to confession.

This is pretty approximate, because kids do it in school, some people go to monasteries to do it, a non-trivial number of old-timers still go twice a month or so, a lot of Catholics go to mass bi-weekly or so instead of weekly, etc.

So, the real question we're in disagreement about is, do people who contracept confess it? Maybe a lot of unmarried people who are having relations simply confess that and don't bother with the details. Women older than I were often taught that not confessing sexual sins is a sin but talking about sex with a man is an impropriety, and they think, "Well, everybody's a sinner, you know, but one absolutely mustn't commit an impropriety!" so they leave it out. Women younger than I talk about their sex lives in their blogs, so they probably don't mind. I have always heard that all grave sins must be confessed and that there is no small matter where the 6th and 9th are concerned, so I just go ahead and include them. My sex life isn't particularly exotic anyway.

I think contraception is an enormously important moral issue and an enormously important public health issue, in all the parts of the world where women are forced into marriage in their teens and husbands decide the frequency of marital relations. But for modern Western married people, it's usually a temporary expedient resorted to for a limited number of years. BTW, you are correct that menopause usually occurs around 50, but fertility decreases dramatically long before that.

I don't object to the mention of Fallopian tubes, but I do object to the implication that tubal ligation is in any way more immoral than vasectomy. And it is a fact that tubal ligation is major surgery and vasectomy is much simpler and safer.
Michael Barberi | 8/8/2012 - 9:34pm

Thanks for clarifying what I found hard to understand. Blogging is not a perfect science so we all have respectful questions.

I am not harping on the subject of fallopian tubes. I was only mentioning that many women take this course of action and I am not getting some weird kind of thrill by mentioning this. Honestly, I found your remark an exaggeration of my intentions. Certainly this is not in accordance with anything I have ever written in America Magazine. I also don't believe that most gay men like to say something nasty about women's reproductive organs. I know what you mean by "many gay men" but most gay men I know are respectful of both straight men and women. There are always some exceptions, but I would not characterize many gay men in this manner. Of course, you are entitled to your opinion.

I don't know the average age of marriage, but an average is an average. Most women get married between the ages of 21 and 28, some earlier, some later. Menopause is something that I am not an expert on, but I thought that most women enter this phase in the late 40s, on average. Thus, the reproductive years are closer to 25 years (e.g., age 46 minus age 21 = 25 years) for many married women. Since the average number of children is closer to 2, with a 2-3 year separation, then something like 20 years is the number of years that many married women must practice some type of birth control. I could be wrong, but this is my not-so-perfect understanding.

I don't know where you are getting your statistics when you assert that 5% of Catholics go to confession regularly. Even is this is the case, I would not say that the 10% of Catholics that think contraception is a mortal sin is a substancial percent of the 5%. Most Catholics, if not all Christians, are sinners and those that attend weekly Mass and receive the Eucharist likely go to confession ofte and confess many types sins. Nevertheless, based on the statistics the CUA published, it would be closer to the truth to say that most penitents who practice contraception do not confess it as a sin. Thus, your conclusion that many penitants who practice contraception are confessing it, is misleading.

If I have misunderstood your remarks, kindly offer clarification. If you have reliable statistics to substantiate your claim, please provide them. I am open to education.

As alway, I appreciate your intelligence and do not demean your opinions. This is respectful disagreement and argumentation.
Amy Ho-Ohn | 8/7/2012 - 8:45pm
@Michael, I'm sorry, but I'm completely unqualified to pronounce on the question of Orthodox teaching on divorce and contraception. The Orthodox Christians I know are mostly members of the Russian Church. I think the conditions under which a Russian Orthodox couple is allowed to divorce roughly correspond to those which would qualify a Roman Catholic couple for an annulment. The conditions under which a Russian Orthodox couple is allowed to contracept are also very narrowly delineated. (I think they're supposed to get permission from their priest.) Moreover, although Roman Catholic canon law allows Orthodox Christians to receive communion in our churches, I believe the Orthodox Churches strongly discourage them from doing it.

I don't think the discrepancy is hypocrisy, it's just inconsistency. There is a presumption of good-will and also a rather out-dated Eurocentric assumption that people's nationalities determine their church membership and not many people switch Churches.

I do not understand your statement that assisting at mass without receiving communion is akin to purgatory. It's just not. Most Sundays I don't receive, simply because I'm not organized enough to get to confession. On any given Sunday, about a third of my parish does not receive, for one reason or another. It's no biggie. The rule is that one must receive once in Easter season.

Is it really true that the divorced and remarried can't receive absolution? Not even when the other ex-spouse is also remarried and the new marriage has produced children and it's obvious that ending it can't do any good and will certainly do harm?
Michael Barberi | 8/7/2012 - 7:39pm
Thanks Annie,

The term "defect of form" sounds like it could serve almost any construction.
Michael Barberi | 8/7/2012 - 2:46pm
Ed and Annie,

Thanks for the information. I have two questions and one comment.

1. Where can I find the number of Catholic annulments granted as a percent of those requested? For example, If the percent of annulments granted as a percent of divorces requested is less than 5%, that is not a big deal. If it is 30+%, then that would be significant.

2. If the parties were mature adults when married, conceived and borne children, been married for 5 or more years, then on what basis can an annulment be granted?

2. Good point Annie about priestly and religious vows of celibacy and marriage to Christ that can be broken while the vow of matrimony cannot. 
ed gleason | 8/6/2012 - 10:47pm
Michael; good points except I think most Episcopals 'came over' because of womens' ordination not homosexual ordinations. .. [ I don't think any who have 'come over' are blind at Catholic ordinations (-: ] The Catholic church in the USA gives out more annulments than the rest of the world, much to the distress at Rome. US tribunals uses an easier psychological model for declaring a marriage invalid. Also most annulments go to the more trad Catholics...and more in the more conservative dioceses too. ? they care more? Who knows what consent by the bride or groom goes into a marriage vow anyway. The Wife and I prepared 2500 couples and could not make any accurate guesses and Couples were more candid with us than the presiding priest. [grandma would not come to the wedding if it was not in church] 25 thousand US Catholic priests felt in conscience they could dis-continue their promises to remain celibate ..
'the law is an ass' was said by somebody
Michael Barberi | 8/6/2012 - 9:38pm
Annie, Amy and Ed,

I am perplexed and hope you can appreciate my claim of hypocrisy.

1. Episcopal priests that are married can join the Catholic Church as ordained priests. For many years, these Episcopal priests allowed for divorce and remarrige. Now, as Catholic priests (converted primarily because of the teachings about ordained homosexuals) they deny reconciliation and Eucharistic reception to divorced and remarried Catholics.
> I find this hypocritical because deep within their hearts they are only going through the motions. 

2. Orthodox bishops were members of Vatican II and their voices helped shape the future Catholic Church. This seems to imply that the Orthodox Church is as close to the Catholic Church as one can get.
> I find it hypocritical that the so-called close members of the body of Christ (e.g., the Orthodox and Catholic Churches) have dramatically different teachings (e.g., divorce and remarriage, contraception), while both claim salvation or damnation based on their teachings.

3.  I am all for counseling programs for couples thinking about diovorce. This should be a mandatory step for any Catholic. However, many marriages will not be able to be saved. If they divorce for good and just reasons, even after counseling, how can these Catholics continue in a Church that denies them reconcilation and the Eucharist? The concept of "spiritual communion" and "participating in the Mass" seems to be a unsuccessful attempt to overlook what is obviously a pugatory for these Catholics.

4. Lastly, I not aware that the Catholic Church grants annulments easily, for first, second or third marriages. Can you provide me with more information about this? 
Anne Chapman | 8/6/2012 - 6:58pm
Thank you, Ed.  I am familiar with Retrouvaille - it is advertised in the bulletins of the various Catholic churches I am familiar with, but don't know if it is in all of the church bulletins in the area.  My husband and I will celebrate our 40th this year, and sometimes I wonder how we got so lucky. Because I look around at others - good people, faithful people, honest people - but their marriages didn't work out. However, I have friends in second marriages that have been very successful - these were friends who divorced early in their first marriages, while still in their 20s or early 30s. One of my own children is divorced and will remarry soon and we pray that this second marriage is successful. The second marriages of my friends ''worked'' and I think it's sad that they are condemned forever by the church unless they jump through all the annulment hoops, which some refuse to do because they see it as a somewhat dishonest process, much like the wife of one of the younger Kennedy's did when she refused to cooperate in it. A lot of hypocrisy in the process it seems. My son has no interest in the church at all and doubt he ever will, so it's not a problem for him, but it has been for some of my nieces and nephews. Generally, they don't look back, they just leave the church. I tend to agree with Jim McCrea on the annulment issue, especially because I have known more than one ''orthodox'', ''faithful to the magisterium'' Catholic  in third marriages - after getting annulments. Twice.  Amy's suggestion would probably work fine. As I understand it, the Orthodox permit three marriages before they question it.

Anyway, what I am really interested in hearing from you is whether or not the program, Retrouvaille, has greater success in some circumstances than in others. You mentioned the ''third party'' issue. But if that is not a factor, and the marriage has still broken down, does Retrouvaille have equal success? Is the age of the couple a factor? 

Anne Chapman | 8/6/2012 - 2:02pm
Thank you for your reply, David.  I am thinking about your comments and Michael's, trying to imagine a different kind of divorce.  I have no idea how it would work. However, both the civil and religious cultures need to think long and hard about how much the world has changed and how expectations for marriage have changed, especially in the last 100 years or so.

In biblical times, lifespans were often pretty short. Marriage was a business contract arranged by the fathers. The women were chattel, but neither men  nor women had much choice in their partners and romantic love was not a factor. In biblical days divorce was usually denied to the women - only men could divorce, and I think that reality was Jesus's main focus - the men had more options for survival and support than a divorced woman would have and I think that he was trying to protect women from the injustices of the patriarchal system of his own time in history.  Many people died from accidents and disease that are now more preventable types of deaths. But with shorter average physical lifespans, most marriages also had shorter lifespans. And multiple sequential marriages were common for men, because so many women died in childbirth so each marriage in the sequence might have been relatively short in comparison with the potential for 40 and 50 and 60 year marriages we have today.

In addition to the lengthening of lifespans (including the lifespans of marriages), the options open to women have also changed - very dramatically in the last century especially.  Women initiate divorce more often than men do. The divorce rate among the empty-nesters is skyrocketing. Women are no longer ''stuck'' - they have options that women did not have in earlier generations and many take them if staying married seems more harmful to themselves and their children than divorce would be. Women don't have to prove infidelity or physical abuse to obtain a divorce and they have employment options that were once closed to them. They can now usually support themselves and their children if divorced. although often their economic circumstances worsen - more than those of the husband. This disparity needs to be addressed too. Many men simply don't provide the financial support that was agreed to in the divorce.  I know women whose ex-husbands basically said ''sue me'' when failing to provide support. Lawyers are expensive and many just made do with what they could provide themselves rather than go back to court. All of these factors have to be considered when addressing divorce in the current era. There may be different responses depending on the phase of the marriage - one response when there are children in the home, and perhaps another for empty-nest marriages. Divorce is often not the best solution, but it isn't always the worst solution either depending on what is ''wrong'' in the marriage - especially if the children are grown. Boredom is one thing and maybe there are remedies for that, but living in a cold and distant, or worse, an emotionally abusive environment is bad for all.

I couldn't find the article Ed Gleason refers to (online), but since it seems he has some knowledge and experience with all of this, maybe he could add to his previous comments.
David Smith | 8/6/2012 - 2:14am
Thanks, Michael, for that bit of history. Indeed, change again - but change forward, of course, taking into account changing mores.

Anne, I was being a little tongue-in-cheek, a little sarcastic, and at the same time simply stating the reality.  The Church has fallen so far behind its members in terms of sexuality that it's in effect pushed them out the door.  If it doesn't change, it will be not only smaller but strange - a remnant of ways of thinking that can never, ever become mainstream again.

Yes, I've seen bad marriages that continue, decidedly to the detriment of all concerned.  I'm not at all sure, though, that divorce as we know it would have made things materially better.  What we need, I think, is something a lot more nuanced and flexible than the existing divorce/no-divorce arrangement.  In a society - the West - burdened with a superfluity of laws, surely we could come up with legal structures more accommodative of reality than the draconian mess we've been burdened with.  But if the Church won't bend, it won't be able to take part in developing them.
Jim McCrea | 8/5/2012 - 5:51pm
The Catholic Church effectively gives tacit approval to divorce with what has become the charade of annulment. In their 2002 book, “Catholic Divorce: The Deception of Annulments”, Joseph Martos and Pierre Hegy state:

“Because the grounds for annulment have become so broad that practically anyone who applies for one can obtain it, many observers now regard annulments as ‘virtual divorces.’ After all, the same grounds for divorce in a civil court have ‘become grounds for the nonexistence of marriage in an ecclesiastical court.’ (Page 23) To add to the deceit, many couples who receive annulments do so believing that their marriage was, in fact, sacramentally valid – that the marital bond did exist but that, over time, it began to break down. These couples, understandably, choose not to disclose this part of the story to marriage tribunals so that they can qualify for an annulment.”

In other words it is the Catholic game of nudge-nudge, wink-wink. (Monty Python fans will know what that means.)
David Smith | 8/5/2012 - 1:01am
Anne (# 3), why ''harsh''?  You don't have to read that as sarcasm.
Jim McCrea | 8/4/2012 - 7:51pm
In one word, David: nonsense!

Catholicism fosters divorce under the guise of annullment.  But it also recognizes that many marriages were not put together by God and best be put asunder.
ed gleason | 8/3/2012 - 1:22pm
Many alcohol and drug addicts recover and some don't. Most marriages at some point in the 50 year journey get in trouble. Many recover and some don't. Marriage recovery is helped by a supporting family [not enabling] and community.... and professional help does not have an efficacious track record in either addiction or marriage recovery. . Celebrating 57 years married this week and speak from experience.
see Recovery for Troubled Marriages ..America Oct,10 1992
Michael Barberi | 8/8/2012 - 3:15pm

I base my opinion on the facts as reported by Catholic University of American (CUA) Surveys that demonstrate that only 10% of all post Vatican II Catholic cohorts, including those who attend weekly Mass, consider contraception a sin. As for the principle of graduation, that has the Vatican's imprimatur.

Practicing contraception after menopause makes no sense to me since conception is not possible (or rarely possible). Most married couples take the pill in their 20s to mid 30s, but then many resort to sterilization (e.g., tying their fillopian tubes) because of the fear of long-term pill taking. This was more of a fear 30 years ago with the breast cancer scare, but studies since then and newer pills averted most or a large part of it. People I know do not confess confession as a sin (as the CUA surveys attest). So, I believe you are mistaken.

I don't understand your comment that modern couples will outlive the temptation to commit contraception by a few decades. According to a UN Study, only about 3% of world-wide married women practice NFP-PC. This same percentage holds true for the U.S. as well. Hence, more than 95% of married Catholics practice contraception. This percentage is supported by the CUA surveys when it indicated that 90% of Catholics don't believe taking the pill or using a condom is a mortal sin.
Amy Ho-Ohn | 8/8/2012 - 9:40am
Hi Michael,

I doubt most confessors apply the "principle of gradualism" to contraception and I doubt most penitents do not confess it. I suspect you are generalizing from a small sample. The people I know confess contraception when they have a firm intention to stop doing it (e.g., after menopause) and refrain from presenting themselves for communion in the meanwhile.

The major difference is that unless the man is much older than the woman, most modern couples will outlive the temptation to commit contraception by a few decades. The same resolution is not available in the case of divorce and remarriage.

This is why the issue of divorced and remarried couples has been getting a lot of attention lately (in places like Germany and Austria.) It is a huge pastoral dilemma; a person is aging, maybe ill, maybe approaching death and has no way to receive the Eucharist except to divorce a spouse, possibly a spouse of many decades, probably a spouse who does not want to be divorced.

I don't know what a good answer is. Very often applying for an annulment just means telling one lie ("We were never really married.") instead of another ("Me? Divorced? Of course not!") and the first one is a time-consuming, stressful, expensive lie.
Michael Barberi | 8/7/2012 - 9:43pm

Thanks for this information. Let me clarify my remarks.

The phrase I used "akin to purgatory" was sarcasm. What I was referring to were Catholic couples who have been divorced and remarried and want to receive the sacrament of reconciliation (e.g., absolution) and the Eucharist. Despite their desire to be forgiven and receive the body of Christ, they cannot because the Church forbides it. Hence, it is akin to suffering in a state of purgatory or a long life-time of penance. Clearly, not everyone who attends weekly Mass receives Holy Communion, but those that have the desire to do so are not denied the ability to do it.

I believe I mentioned (perhaps not on this blog) that other so-called "habitual sinners" can receive absolution and receive the Eucharist based on the "principle of graduation". In other words, the Church treats couples who practice contraception as habitual sinners and believe that frequent confession and Eucharist reception will eventually turn them away from the sin of contraception. Of course, this is absurd because few, if any Catholics, confess contraception as a sin. Yet, the principle of graduation is denied to the divorced and remarried. IMO, that is not only inconsistent but contradictory.

Another issue for reflection. A married women who has her fillopian tubes tied after having children and does not want no more for good reasons (and does not want to take the pill perhaps for health reasons), can be forgiven (in the sacrament of reconciliation under the normal rules of confession) and receive the Eucharist. They need not confess the sin again since it is a one time sin. Yet, a married person who takes the pill (e.g., contraceptors) must confess the sin every time they have sexual intercourse...if they want to receive the Eucharist. Sound absurd?

Even murders and rapists are given more flexibility in terms of forgiveness and Eucharistic reception than those who practice contraception. These people are not necessaritly habitual sinners, but many are.

Anne Chapman | 8/7/2012 - 3:57pm
Michael, it seems that most divorced Catholics don't seek an annulment, but of those who do, most are granted one. The US has the most annulments in absolute numbers (35,009 in 2007) but I don't know how many Catholics were divorced then. I read somewhere else that there are six million divorced Catholics, but how many have remarried and of those who remarried how many were remarried in the church was not answered.  CARA might have data also.
Anne Chapman | 8/7/2012 - 3:54pm
Michael, I haven't much time today, but a google brought up some information that might be a starting point. In the US, it seems that most petitions for annulment are accepted and ''tried'' and also granted. It seems the best source of data is the
Vatican Secretariat of State’s Statistical Yearbook of the Church.

There is a lengthy online article about the situation - '' Outside the US, 9.5 percent of first instance ordinary process cases are renounced by those seeking an annulment, while an additional 7.5 percent are abated because the parties failed to follow through with the necessary procedural acts. Of the remaining 83 percent of cases in which sentences are given, 89.8 percent of sentences are granted in favor of nullity—a bit lower, but not much, than the 96 percent rate in the US.''
Anne Chapman | 8/6/2012 - 11:35pm
Interesting comments all. I am learning a lot. Ed is right about the first wave of Episcopal priests who became Catholic - they came over because of women's ordination. In England, the Ordinariate was set up to bring in the disaffected conservative Anglicans who were under special ''flying bishops'' - churches that aren't geographically together supervised by the same bishop. Their objection was also women priests, but the Church of England has allowed them to continue to choose their own priests, who of course are always male.  The Ordinariate has been a bit of a bust, with only about 1000 coming into the Catholic church to date - not the 50,000 ''conservative'' Anglicans expected after all the fanfare following the Pope's announcement.  They may pick up a few more once there are not only women priests in the C of E, but also women bishops. Right now there aren't any, but the US has many women bishops, including the Presiding Bishop (the head of the Episcopal Church in America).  The homosexual priest/bishop issue caused a number of parishes to break away in the US and join dioceses in Africa, and one in Latin America. Also there is a new schismatic church composed of a few breakaway Episcopal parishes who did not want to go under the African bishops.

But, back to divorce and hypocrisy in the Catholic church. The Catholic church does not easily grant laicization to priests, but it does do it. They have taken vows, much like marriage vows - forever. Priests in training go through multiple steps before they take their final vows, which usually is several years after they enter seminary. Those who enter women's religious orders take a series of vows before ''final'' vows. This gives women a lot of time (usually around nine years, depending on their age and education at entry) to decide if permanent vows are for them. But a couple who marries is not given years before their vows are ''final.'' According to the church, those vows are ''final'' on their wedding day, and if they divorce, they are denied the sacraments if they remarry without an annulment. Yet women who leave religious orders and men who are priests but are volunarily laicized are not denied the sacraments even if they marry, which most do. I guess because their first ''marriages'' (to the church) didn't involve sex, so they aren't committing ''adultery''.  I don't know what the logic is - it doesn't seem like there is any actually.

It seems that there is more than a bit of hypocrisy in the church's absolutism about marriage and divorce when it gives priests and women religious YEARS of living the life before their vows are final. And even then, they can leave without being denied the sacraments forever.
Stanley Kopacz | 8/6/2012 - 4:46pm
Here's to all you married Catholics who risk damnation in order to make more Catholics.  Since I am unmarried, the conditional probability that I can become divorced and remarried is zero.  It makes it easier for me to sleep at night.  That love stuff is dangerous.
Michael Barberi | 8/10/2012 - 4:28pm
Hi Amy,

This will be my last comment on this blog.

We will have to agree to disagree. The solution you mentioned for the woman whose life is threatened by another pregnancy... that is to skip communion until menopause is unrealistic. Most Catholics in child bearing years practice contraception and do not refrain from communion until menopause. I am sorry to inform you but your parish is not characteristic of U.S. Catholic parishes. You fail to give any credibility the numerous CUA surveys over past decades. 

Your comment that "you are not sympathic to married people who feel they absolutely must have relations all the time" is characteristic of many orthodox priests and defenders of the faith who are celibate. Most married couples want to have relations because they love each other and want to express that love through the marital act. They do not have an uncontrolled libido or are over-sexed. They are perfectly human. They don't dismiss abstinence but neither do they believe NFP is the only licit form of fertility regulation in the practice of responsible parenthood. Most couples with jobs and children, who experience sickness and illness and the daily grind of life know quite well how to control their sexual appetite. Each spouse respects the other and often abtains out of love many time per month when one is not in the mood. There are always exceptions to the average human experience, but few Catholics believe conjugal abstinence beyond the 4-6 day fertile window per month for most couples is reasonable or necessary. The average NFP program requires 12 days. Additionally, about 30% of women have irregular menstual cycles and NFP does not work for them. Nor is there any intelligible or convincing philosophical or theological argument to support NFP as "God's procreative plan".

The big ho-hum applies to men and women. No responsible married man believes it is the woman's "fault" in a unplanned pregnancy. Perhaps this is not your experience. Certainly, there are exceptions. The major reason for unplanned pregnancies and abortions in the U.S. is the inconsistent use and lack of contraception. "Unplanned" does not mean "unwanted" and most responsible married couples welcome a unplanned child into their families with unconditional love. The overwhelming percent of abortions are performed by unmarried women faced with no responsible male in their lives, and no financial or emotional means to support a child. This is a major problem. However, very few responsible Catholic married couples have abortions.

Lastly, the Eucharist is the center of our faith and the Mass. It will never go away. 

I enjoyed our exchange and respect your opinion, but I do not agree with it. 
ed gleason | 8/6/2012 - 3:08pm
Anne thanks for the request for further explanation....
Retrouvaille, a Catholic lay run ministry for troubled marriages, [peer to peer,] has, using a 12 step type program, allowed about 60-70% of participating couples to 'recover' their marriages. It was founded in French Canada by AA couples and an AA priest.
But it's not just for AA or drugs.. most couples attend because they 'have 3rd party involvement'' [Retrouvaille's nice euphemism] 
Thousands of couples of different faiths and sometimes none, have benefited from this ministry since the 1980s. . Most Catholic dioceses and parishes have given the ministry litte or no support or publicity. 'Not professional' you know.. Even though there is NO evidence in any study that 'professional' help = licensed counseling, has any efficacy over doing nothing. FDA would never approve of professional counseling if it had to pass a study.
Is found in most States and many foreign countries. Still a Catholic secret... 'not professional you know'????[neither were any of the 72 sent out ...2by2 ]
Amy Ho-Ohn | 8/10/2012 - 7:12am
Hi Michael,

Well, it seems our parishes are not similar. In mine, there is a marked tendency for couples of child-bearing age to refrain from receiving communion. I rather think mine is more representative of the Church in America; a solid majority of the congregation is non-white and about half are immigrants from the Global South. (The parish from which I estimated frequency of confession was almost exclusively white.) Refraining from communion while contracepting was also common among European-Americans in the HV generation. Many of my Catholic friends' parents used to do it.

I think what will go by the wayside in years to come is the idea that everybody should always present himself for communion, even those who are not able to make a good confession. Historically, this practice has been very rare and it ends the mass in an awkward, unsightly, tedious anti-climax while the parking meters are running.

As I said, the problem of the divorced and remarried is a very difficult one and I don't know what the answer is. But the problem of the woman whose doctor tells her she must not get pregnant again seems to admit the same solution I mentioned before (contracept and skip communion until menopause.) Anyway, I am not terribly sympathetic to married people who feel they absolutely must have relations all the time; as an unmarried person, I am doctrinally prohibited from having relations any time. Abstinence is not martyrdom.

I believe the issue of contraception is a big "ho-hum" for many Catholic men. "Ho-hum, if she gets pregnant, it's her own fault, no concern of mine, ho-hum." But it is not a ho-hum for the person who has to take it; the cost and medical effects are non-trivial and most women are anything but indifferent on the subject of pregnancy and children.
Amy Ho-Ohn | 8/6/2012 - 2:51pm
How to divorce and remarry and continue to receive communion in the Catholic Church (for free):

1. Convert to Orthodoxy
2. Divorce and remarry
3. "Catholic ministers may licitly administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist and anointing of the sick to members of the oriental churches which do not have full Communion with the Catholic Church, if they ask on their own for the sacraments and are properly disposed." (CIC 844.3)

Amy Ho-Ohn | 8/8/2012 - 5:14pm
"I don't understand your comment that modern couples will outlive the temptation to commit contraception by a few decades."

I mean that once the female is post-menopausal, there is no point to contracepting. This means the part of most people's lives during which contraception is a real issue is actually quite small. Before marriage, contraception is a non-issue, because fornication is a grave sin, and anybody who has decided to commit one grave sin, is probably willing to commit two. The average American marries in his/her late twenties and in the first several years, most couples are trying to have children, so they aren't tempted to use contraception. By the time they have the family they want, the woman is, let's say, 35 and by the time she's 45 the probability of conception is very slight. This means the period of the average modern Catholic married person's life during which contraception is a moral dilemma is about ten years out of about eighty.

The point I was trying to make (delicately) is that post-menopausal women have no use for contraception.

I am not sure why you keep harping on the subject of Fallopian tubes (which is what I assume you mean by "fillopian tubes.") If the intention is to prevent children, it is much simpler for the man to get a vasectomy, which is out-patient surgery and virtually complication-free. I have noticed, however, that many gay men joyfully seize any opportunity to say something nasty about women's reproductive organs, so if it gives you some weird kind of thrill, go ahead. I don't mind.

Finally, I think it is likely that while only 10% of post-Vatican II Catholics consider contraception a sin, only about 5% celebrate the Sacrament of Penance regularly. It is likely that the 10% are a substantial fraction of the 5%, so I conclude many penitents who are practicing contraception confess it. Women talk about these things, and I know it is something most Catholic women I know feel obliged to confess. (I don't know whether or how they actually do it; maybe they mumble something ambiguous.) I suspect your acquaintenances are mostly male and probably men see the matter differently.

Recently by Sidney Callahan