I used to think that only so-called mediocre Catholics got divorced, that it was for those men and women who did not try or pray hard enough while they were married. I used to think people who got divorced saw it as an easy, quick exit ramp to something they wanted out of.
And then life happened. I became one of the people admitted to that club that nobody ever wants to join: Catholic. Divorced. Annulled. I became one of the people I used to judge.
One of the greatest mistakes I have made as a Christian has been living for years with a judgmental heart and holier-than-thou, self-righteous attitude. I did not take the time to listen to or get to know people that were really different from me; I naturally assumed I was a better Catholic and a more moral person. I saw faith and morality in a legalistic way, as a Pharisee would. Therefore, I assumed I would never get a divorce and felt that put me ahead on the great scoreboard of the spiritual life.
I used to think people who got divorced saw it as an easy, quick exit ramp to something they wanted out of. Then it happened to me.
I got married at 26—happy, naïve and very insecure. I thought I had the perfect Catholic fairy tale: Meet and a date a former seminarian. Fall madly in love. Have a short engagement. Get married and start really living life because now I was fulfilled through marriage.
Seven months after I got married, my world was utterly shattered. I learned that my husband was a sex addict and a compulsive liar. I was shocked. I felt numb. Everything I had ever hoped and dreamed for from the time I was a little girl was gone in an instant.
Over the next three years, we spent close to $25,000 on efforts to save our marriage: counseling, intensive therapy sessions, therapy groups and even lie detector tests. If there was a shred of hope this marriage could be restored and saved, I knew every single possible option needed to be exhausted.
During this time I was both verbally and sexually abused. I was emotionally manipulated. For half of the marriage, we lived as brother and sister because I did not trust my husband and was afraid to be sexually intimate when I had been so violated by his actions. I could not even imagine the possibility of this man being the father of my children.
More information was dragged out over the time we were married. My husband had first been exposed to pornography as a 10-year-old at unsupervised slumber parties. He began acting out sexually as a boy, and his habits continued and multiplied as he became an adult. He searched out highly sexual movies on Netflix or his own computer in the evenings when I was working late at church. Before I knew him, he had been to strip clubs for his birthdays with friends. Over the course of our entire marriage, the longest length of sexual sobriety he had was three to four weeks.
Being the good Catholic girl I was, I’d had it drilled into my head that marriage lasts until death. Divorce is never an option. But here I found myself in a personal living hell. I was angry with God and even the church. How could this have happened to me? Why would the God I love and serve want me to stay in such a relationship? I felt isolated, alone and frustrated that the church had little to no resources to help me navigate this nightmare.
Going through a divorce and receiving an annulment as a young Catholic woman has been an eye-opening experience. I have realized that divorce and annulment are both things that are misunderstood by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Often, the church does not offer enough support, resources and recovery groups for people in troubled marriages.
Getting a divorce does not mean you were never married or that any children you have are illegitimate. An annulment is not the Catholic version of divorce; it is an ecclesiastical ruling stating that what was believed to be a valid, sacramental marriage actually is not. Perhaps providentially, I went through the annulment process during the Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis. It was emotionally and spiritually exhausting but also healing in so many ways. I did not realize that I had so much more to learn about mercy, grace and true forgiveness.
Divorce does not mean you are less a person because your marriage did not work or could not be saved. Divorce does not even mean you failed or gave up. What it does mean is that you are human. And we human beings are fallen, broken and imperfect creatures. I am broken just as my former husband is broken.
Looking back I can see more clearly the emotional issues and brokenness I did not even realize I was dragging into marriage: raging codependency, emotional insecurities, neediness, manipulation and a controlling mindset. While I was still married, I started to face my personal demons head on with a counselor. And even though my marriage is over, I continue to work hard and to be honest with myself so that I thrive and not simply survive, which I was doing when I was married.
I was so blessed and encouraged by my immediate family, close friends and trusted priests in my life. A defining experience during that time was a meeting I had with a good priest from our seminary. I was looking for some outside perspective and advice. I sat across from this kind, holy man just weeping and repeating I did not know what to do. He just listened and let me get out all the hurt, pain and emotional vomit.
Finally, he leaned forward in his chair and said to me: “Patty, God hates divorce. But he doesn’t hate divorced people. There is hope, but don’t be stupid; be wise and discerning and live in reality.” It was another five months before I ended up leaving the marriage and moving back home with my parents, but those words of pastoral compassion from this priest have stuck with me ever since. They have become a battle cry for me as I see an urgent need for the Catholic Church to step up and do more to support troubled marriages and divorced Catholics.
I see a need in the church and am trying to listen to the voice of the Spirit to discern how I can help to fill this gaping hole in pastoral care. I want my church to speak up and speak out on the pain caused by sexual addiction. I want to hear priests preach from the pulpit on the evils of pornography. I want more than the occasional short letter from a bishop. I want the church to advocate for family causes beyond those related to pro-life issues and same-sex marriage. Catholic marriages are dying, and they need help and pastoral care.
I am just one person. But the Spirit of God has lit a bright fire in my heart to be an advocate who challenges our church to speak to a reality that causes so much suffering in the lives of her members. I am still learning and praying about what that will look like in my own life and personal ministry. Our God cares passionately about the heartbreak and pain of divorce. For when God’s children are in any kind of pain, it matters deeply to the heart of our Father.
Yes, God hates divorce. But God never hates divorced people. In fact, God loves us, like he loves each person, with a love that endures all things.