What Catholics should know about divorce: it doesn’t define you
Lisa Duffy is a Catholic lay writer and speaker with 24 years of personal and professional experience in healing from divorce. Born and raised in Southern California, Ms. Duffy suffered through the pain of an unwanted divorce in the early 1990s. She brings a divorce support program, Journey of Hope, to parishes in the United States and Canada and appears frequently on Catholic radio and television shows. She currently lives with her family in Charleston, S. C. Her newest book is Mending the Heart: A Catholic Annulment Companion. I recently interviewed Ms. Duffy by email about her work and this new book. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some things you have learned from your own experiences of divorce, annulment and remarriage inside the Catholic Church?
There are so many lessons that someone going through a divorce needs to learn, but three of the most powerful (and difficult) lessons I’ve learned are these.
The label “divorced” does not define a person. It’s an event that happened—terrible as it is—but it in no way is the sum total of who a person is. You may feel like you’re walking around with a big “scarlet ‘D’” on your forehead for all to judge you by, but what you need to focus on is how God sees you. He sees you as his beloved with all the gifts, talents and potential he gave you, especially the specific purpose in life you have to fulfill. It’s the love of God that will carry you through this difficult time.
The label “divorced” does not define a person. It’s an event that happened, but it in no way is the sum total of who a person is.
Another extremely important lesson is that forgiving those who have hurt you is essential if you want to heal from divorce. There are no shortcuts, no half-measures when it comes to this. It can seem impossible to forgive someone for causing such devastation; however, you’ll never move forward if you don’t find a way to forgive. You will always be a victim. The key is to ask God for the grace to forgive because we cannot do it on our own.
Last but definitely not least, the cross of divorce can change a person for the better. This cross is an immense opportunity to grow emotionally and spiritually and to become a stronger, wiser person in the end.
How do you explain the difference between divorce and annulment to people?
A civil divorce decree and a declaration of invalidity (annulment) are apples and oranges, to be certain. A civil divorce decree means the government has terminated your marriage contract, which applies purely on a legal basis. The annulment process, however, does not terminate, dissolve or invalidate anything contrary to what many people believe. It determines whether or not a valid marriage was brought into being on the day of the wedding. If it is determined there was not a valid marriage, the tribunal issues a decree of invalidity stating such.
What are some common misunderstandings Catholics have about divorce and annulment?
One misunderstanding I’d like to address right up front is the myth that receiving a decree of invalidity means your marriage never existed and your children are considered illegitimate. If you want to get someone angry, tell him or her exactly that, but I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.
Receiving a decree of invalidity does not mean your marriage relationship never existed.
Receiving a decree of invalidity does not mean your marriage relationship never existed. The church recognizes that you lived in society under the assumption that your marriage was valid. The technical term for this in Canon Law is “putative” (from the Latin for “supposed”) marriage. You had a real relationship that was witnessed by society, and nothing can make that untrue. The decree of invalidity declares that the bond was not valid, meaning that, although you lived together as husband and wife, your marriage was not an unbreakable covenant between you, your spouse and God.
The list of misunderstandings goes on, such as an annulment is just a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, or it’s just a money maker for the church. Many people believe the process places undue burdens on witnesses and that it takes years and years to get through. I tackle all these and more in my book. But the important thing for anyone to remember is the annulment process is a tool. It’s a valid tool whose purpose is to determine the truth and set healing in motion.
Your new book is called Mending the Heart. What does that mean and how does your book help readers do that?
With all the bickering, confusion and misconceptions among Catholics, people tend to miss a critical aspect of this process, which is healing. A person who approaches the annulment process with sincerity and humility will find great healing. No doubt, the questionnaire is very difficult to get through because you must revisit many painful memories and sift through them with a fine-toothed comb. But there is a cleansing aspect to this, one that helps you face the truth, make peace with the past and move forward. The peace and healing one can receive are amazing.
An annulment is a tool whose purpose is to determine the truth and set healing in motion.
Because many Catholic spouses are now separated, there is a huge demand for information about annulments. How can we better minister to divorced Catholics in the United States right now?
Well, I am a major supporter of divorce support groups in parishes. There simply isn’t enough outreach for Catholics who are suffering so terribly and who are looking to the Church for help. Some parishes are very dedicated to the divorced community and do great work, but overall, most parishes offer nothing. That is precisely why I work hard to get my parish program, Journey of Hope, in the hands of parish leaders. It is so critical to have something to offer.
Pope Francis amended canon law to add a new collaborative form of annulment, simplifying the process when both spouses are cooperating to get one, and saving them both time and money. How do you feel about this change?
As I mentioned earlier, the annulment process is a tool. If that tool can be honed to make it more effective, I think that’s good. But information is also key in a situation like this. We can’t let people assume that “fast track” implies that just anyone can get in line and have a decree of invalidity in 30 days. That error is precisely what many of the major news networks were reporting the day Pope Francis rolled out the changes. It’s dishonest and damaging. However, there are certain cases where this new collaborative form applies; and in those cases, if it can reduce the pain and suffering involved, improve a child of divorce’s life or otherwise help the situation, that’s a good thing.
As a divorced person, you are welcome and encouraged to attend Mass and receive the sacraments as often as possible.
If you could pick a patron saint of divorced Catholics, who would it be?
My pick may surprise you. I nominate one of my favorite saints, St. André Bessette. Why? Brother André wanted to be a priest but was not allowed because he was small, sickly and not well educated. He was only allowed to advance to being a brother and eventually became the doorkeeper at the College of Notre Dame in Montreal. Despite this, he was known as a great healer and healed thousands of people. He became powerful in his littleness, his nothingness. Divorce can make you feel like you’re nothing. Like you’ve lost everything, like you’re worth nothing. Brother André is a great example of love and perseverance in the face of adversity.
What kinds of prayers might be helpful for Catholics going through divorce and annulment?
For divorced Catholics who are able to commit to prayer—because it can become difficult and dry in times of distress—I recommend the rosary. What amazing graces come from saying the rosary! But, if someone is having a tough time with praying, I would encourage him to just talk to God throughout the day. When you feel frustrated, angry, sad or afraid, talk to him about it. Tell him your feelings and ask for his help. This is prayer. When praying was difficult for me during my divorce, I found a lot of consolation in doing this. Eucharistic adoration is also wonderful.
How does Catholicism influence your own perspective on divorce and remarriage?
I believe in the permanency of marriage, exactly as Christ taught. I despise divorce. I never wanted to go through it, myself. I don’t want divorce to be made more acceptable. But, as long as the no-fault divorce laws are in place, people will get divorced. Therefore, I’m committed to taking Pope Francis’s words seriously and being one who accompanies those who are suffering; one who helps bring the wounded back to the field hospital, the church.
Although the Mosaic Law allowed divorce for various reasons of human weakness, Jesus was famously tough on it in the Gospels, disallowing it entirely. In the face of these stern teachings, what does Catholicism offer divorced Catholics to help them grieve and heal?
The sacraments are instruments of healing par excellence, of course. It is critical for divorced Catholics to understand whether or not they can receive [Communion]. I like to put it plainly: What prohibits anyone from receiving the sacraments is being in mortal sin, and your confessor can help you determine this if you are unsure. As a divorced person, if you are in a state of grace, you are welcome and encouraged to attend Mass and receive the sacraments as often as possible.