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Patty Breen July 27, 2017
(iStock photo/Krivinis)

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Gail Sockwell-Thompson
6 years 7 months ago

So many things I judged came to pass in my own life. Learning to listen with empathy has not been easy, but experiences like those of this author are illuminating.

Robert Killoren
6 years 7 months ago

I have counseled people who were married and civilly divorced seeking an annulment. These people were much like the author. The break-up is very hurtful especially if one's spouse betrayed their love, and pornography hurts just as much as adultery to the spouse who has been cheated on. Annulment procedures are difficult because the paperwork requires one to dredge up all those terrible memories and wounds and having to put them on paper for other people to look at and judge. People who come to talk to me are not those for whom marriage is just a social contract readily torn up if things don't turn out. These are people who have agonized over the decision and decided to make the effort to get an annulment. They can recover over time with help and still find a good marriage. However, there are wounded parties who for some reason cannot take the strain and pain of going through the annulment procedures. If they were to take the first step it is likely that an annulment could be granted. But they can't and if they remarry they are excommunicated (i.e., not allowed to receive communion) adding pain upon pain. Would it be such a departure from tradition to delegate pastors the authority to grant annulments in cases that are truly obvious. Through counseling the priest can get a very clear picture of whether or not there was a marriage in the first place. The annulment procedure which is now heavily bureaucratized and legalistic could be done without all the paperwork, the canon law requirements documented by the priest, and the annulment granted after careful discernment.

Mike Evans
6 years 7 months ago

A major problem both in the past and presently is that few priests really believe in the annulment process. Their seminary and life experiences do not prepare them for a healing role in the face of these difficulties. Most clergy are not trained in annulment processing nor are they attuned to what constitutes 'grounds' in even the most obvious cases. Their advocacy during the process seems to cease once the application is submitted. The most important part of this whole issue is being a companion on the journey from suffering and guilt to vindication and absolution. And there is nothing more celebratory than witnessing a new marriage destined and focused on happiness and love. To our overworked tribunals: Let God do His work and put aside all false suspicions and impediments. Converse personally and pastorally with those in such desperate need of healing. And do not get bogged down in demanding complex paperwork. Blessed are the merciful.

Mike Evans
6 years 7 months ago

Patty, ask for a refund from all your pre-divorce counselors. Their advice was simply erroneous and they should have known better. More importantly, your spiritual counseling was simply unhelpful. It would have been important at the outset for you to have been apprised of the remedy possible through an annulment. Your case is simple and direct. You did not marry whom you thought you were marrying. Pure fraud, and in your case, extremely harmful. The church was not in your way and neither was God. If only you had received merciful and compassionate early advice, a lot of abject pain might have been avoided.

Michael Seredick
6 years 7 months ago

I applaud "America" for printing Patty Breen's article. I'll be celebrating my 50th wedding anniversary in a few months. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but my experiences with guidance from priests in my life was not positive. My wife is Methodist and we respect/attend each other's worship traditions. Our marriage lasted in spite of pre-cana with my 50 years ago pastor passionately trying to talk me out of it as a young man. Again, and hopefully respectfully, I would never seek pastoral advice on marriage problems. Priests walk a beautiful path, but it is not my path which includes sustaining a man/wife relationship, raising children, employment, and trying to love people outside my parochial upbringing.

Britt D Moore
6 years 7 months ago

I'm a bit put off by the statement "God hates divorce." I think it's important to recognize that the Church doesn't approve of it, and that Church teaching is important to us as Catholics, but I don't think we should speak for God...

John Arthur
6 years 7 months ago

I agree. A better title might be: "The Church Hates Divorce, But God Loves Divorced People".

Molly Roach
6 years 7 months ago

I agree too. God is love and does not hate.

Nimit Kumar
6 years 7 months ago

The main reason for divorce is that the ego, Couples don't want to compromise for little-2 things. For a long lasting relation, trust is the essential. http://uspstrackingpoint.com

Mary Therese LEMANEK
6 years 7 months ago

"love the sinner, hate the sin" sounds a lot like "God hates divorce but does not hate divorced people". This phrase would not be comforting to me because it seems to imply that divorce is a sin which is not true. It is unfortunate that the pain of coming to terms with and ending an unworkable, unhealthy relationship has caused as much pain as the marriage itself for too many people.

Shari Grenier
6 years 7 months ago

Agreed. No one can generalize what God hates. A discerning, contemplative, heart is the only place where one knows what God wants. Prolonged suffering based on any generalized rule is a shame and unnecessary.

Clark Goecker
6 years 7 months ago

We are not one. We are many. We are the people of God AND we are on many paths. Here I am Lord - a Catholic, married, divorced and annulled, married and ordained a deacon. Thank you Patty for your inspiring words. There are too many of us out in the pews. We need to continuously reach out.

Bai Macfarlane
6 years 7 months ago

With the non-profit organization, Mary's Advocates, I work to reduce unilateral no-fault divorce. We publicize the canon law on separation of spouses and divorce. In situations in which the marriage is clearly invalid because one party never intended sexual fidelity (as the groom in this situation appears), Mary's Advocates argues that the basis for annulment is relevant to the kind of separation plan that is in accord with Divine Law (canon 1692 §2). The Church, not the secular court, has competence to instruct a man, like this, of his moral and civil obligations toward you and your children (Mitis Iudex c. 1691 §1). Patty, I imagine your divorce would have been easier if the Church was at your side, insisting that this man cause you no further harm and repair damage, as much as possible. You could even have gotten a civil annulment based on fraud in many states.

michael baland
6 years 7 months ago

"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."
He sounds almost human.

Michael Barberi
6 years 7 months ago

Divorce is not a sin. In some cases, remarriage is not a sin thanks to Amoris Laetitia (AL). However, divorce is heart wrenching, extremely painful and it scars those involved, in particular children. Without exception, everything should be done to avoid divorce and save a marriage. However, in many cases that is not reasonably possible. Immaturity, sexual obsessions, selfishness, a lack of faith and belief in the precepts of a Catholic marriage, physical and emotional abuse, as well as other reasons, all contribute to an unhealthy marriage which can lead to divorce.

Contributing to the psychological tragedy of divorce is how the Catholic Church (CC) has historically approached it. I grew up in the 1950s and attended Catholic Elementary School. I have been attending weekly Mass for most of my life. I am now 70 years old and have been blessed with a good marriage of 45 years. However, the CC's teaching approach is deliberately or inadvertently too legalistic and guilt-riddened. Historically, remarriage has been prohibited and sinful under all circumstances save for an annulment. Most divorced and remarried Catholics were excommunicated. However, the Church's pastoral approach is changing.

Thanks to Pope Francis and his Apostolic Exhortation AL, and the changes to the Church's annulment process, Holy Communion is now possible for many divorced and remarried Catholics. In other words, many divorced and remarried Catholics do not have to feel disenfranchised and second-class citizens in the eyes of God and His Church. As Pope Francis said, all are not to be considered as living in sin and excommunicated. That is the good news. The bad news is that it will take time for AL to be implemented throughout the world.

Lastly, there is a healthy theological debate within the CC among moral theologians and biblical scholars about the interpretation of Matthew's exception clause. I don't believe the door on this issue is closed forever. I will not go into a lengthly analysis about the word 'pornea' or to other NT exceptions of the Law that argue for a rethinking of the doctrine of marriage. I have previously posted my comments many times on America Magazine articles dealing with this issue.

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