What Catholics should know about divorce: it doesn’t define you

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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?

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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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bai Macfarlane
5 months 2 weeks ago

I pray for the day when Catholics stop making the statement in this article: "A civil divorce decree means the government has terminated your marriage contract, which applies purely on a legal basis." In fact, civil divorce means that the government has arranged a separation plan controlling the children's lives which arguably is contrary to divine law in all cases. The parent who did nothing grave to justify separation of spouses is forcibly taken out of everyday interactions with children. Most divorces are filed against Dads who want to keep the family together. This is immoral and contrary to natural law and canon law. Civil divorce means the government has purportedly relieved an abandoner or an adulterer of his/her obligations to maintain the common conjugal life and contribute one's full share "toward the good of the spouses" and mutual help. These obligations are part of the Catholic marriage contract. There is only one "marriage contract" and it is the Catholic one. The state only licenses marriage, and divorce is arguably an unconstitutional impairment of obligations of parties in a contract. See more at "Mary's Advocates" working to reduce unilateral no-fault divorce and support those who are unjustly abandoned.

Bai Macfarlane
5 months 2 weeks ago

The article states, "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." The petition submitted to a tribunal in not supposed to be answers to a questionnaire. The petition is required to state, in a general way, the facts and proofs upon which the party is basing that assertion that one's marriage is invalid for the grounds selected by the petitioner. A lengthly questionnaire might be helpful for a psychologist. In the canon law Dignitas Connubii it specifies that it is illegal to collect testimony from either party until after the petition for invalidity is accepted. In Pope Francis' new rules, it is only allowable for the party who is questioning the invalidity of his or her marriage PRIOR TO an the judicial process to correspond with a canon lawyer. Perhaps one could fill in a questionnaire there, but that is not part of a nullity case; it is part of the pastoral care occurring prior to a possible nullity case.

Stacie Ferry
5 months 2 weeks ago

Who gave the state the right to dissolve a Catholic covenant? What gives the state the right to allow one spouse to abandon another for 'happiness'? Why are the children deprived of a home with both parents and why does the state promote that? Why in 'no fault' cases can a party to the proceedings not discuss grievances? My friend was abandoned with four children in a 'no-fault' case where her spouse was the adulterer - sorry that can't be mentioned nor evidence proving it presented - and she still wanted him to be in the home to help raise those children. Decades now of a mess because he wanted out. Sorry, that's just wrong.

Dolores Pap
5 months 1 week ago

Because we have a separation of Church and State! Do you want to live in a theocracy?? I don't..

Tim Donovan
5 months 2 weeks ago

Thank you for this article regarding a difficult matter for many people, whether Catholic, members of another faith, and undoubtedly people who follow no faith as well. I greatly sympathize with Lisa Duffy, and I'm very sorry that she was essentially abandoned by her former husband. In a possibly related sense (,or ,perhaps not) I can understand ,her statement that "Divorce can make you feel like you're nothing...like you're worth nothing." I'm gay, and had a great sense of being " ,worth nothing" because I always wanted to be married and have children. I made the mistake of having sex with men many years ago. However, I recognized my error, and received forgiveness and consolation from a compassionate priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Rather than seeing marriage as my vocation, I chose to become a Special Education teacher educating children with brain damage and physical disabilities and/or behavior disorders. I also try my best to be a loving uncle to my (,now adult) nieces and nephew. Although I was aware of this fact, I commend the author for making it clear that children of a divorce.are never "illegitimate." I also am glad that the author recognizes the permanancy of marriage as taught by Jesus. However , as difficult as an annulment can be (I have indirect knowledge of the process because my loving brother-in-law is divorced and received an annulment) I'm also glad that Ms. Duffy stated that an annulment means that the supposed marriage was not a covenantal bond between God and the person and his or her spouse. Finally, I commend Ms. Duffy for clearing up the false misconception that divorced Catholics shouldn't attend Mass. All sincere Catholics should and indeed must attend Mass on all Sundays and holidays unless he or she has a just cause not to do so. (I must admit that many years ago I didn't attend Mass for some time, but I did go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and confessed my son and received forgiveness). Attending Mass is both a precept of the Church as well as (I'm my view as an imperfect Catholic) as well as following God's commandment to "Keep holy the sabbath." Also, it's perfectly valid and in fact is to be encouraged that anyone who is in a state of grace and not guilty of a mortal sin to receive Jesus in the Eucharist . God bless Ms. Duffy as she raises her family and continues her ministry to divorced Catholics.

John Farrell
5 months 2 weeks ago

"I like to put it plainly: What prohibits anyone from receiving the sacraments is being in mortal sin." Lisa Duffy, the person who divorces w/o bishop's permission incurs grave sin. This interview sounds more like covering over your personal guilt (specious annulment) than getting to the truth of things.

Sean Salai
5 months 2 weeks ago

Thank you all for reading. Let's continue to pray for healing in families and marriages. -Fr. Sean

John Farrell
5 months 2 weeks ago

Fr. Sean, do you accept all that Lisa Duffy said in the interview as Catholic?

KATHERIN MARSH
5 months 2 weeks ago

My husband divorced me in 2005. He told me that he talked to a priest and a Catholic psychologist, and they told him "Divorce is okay. You just cannot remarry."
Although I understand what the author is trying to get at with the following: "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 above quote is a mess. I think it toys with people in a toxic way.

It muddies the issue of Marriage because a decree of annulment says a marriage never existed. It is that simple. Saying a marriage relationship is not a marriage is confusing, double speak. If there is no Covenant, there is not ever, never has been and never will be a marriage, a marriage relationship, a valid marriage, or a husband and wife in the eyes of God.

Rosemari Zagarri Prof
5 months 2 weeks ago

Thank you for this thoughtful, well-informed, and compassionate article. Based on many of the comments on the article, it seems as if the subject of marriage/divorce/annulment unleashes the most legalistic, judgmental, and punitive sensibilities among certain self-appointed experts on Catholic marriage. We are the body of Christ. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. Compassion is what is most needed and desired from those who suffer the pain of divorce--and what is most likely to keep those who divorce within the Church's embrace. I pray for the day when all of us ask for the gift of compassion.

Bai Macfarlane
5 months 2 weeks ago

I sense you find me wrongfully legalistic and judgmental. Where is the compassion in overlooking the injustice inflicted on children and innocent spouses by no-fault divorce? Marriage does define people, so being wrongfully separated by an immoral divorce, inexplicably interferes with one's vocation. People don't "suffer the pain of divorce." People either break their marriage promises or keep them. The party that breaks them is inflicting pain on the other and the children. For Catholics that have an invalid marriage, the CHURCH, not the STATE, has competence to determine the parties moral and civil obligations toward each other and their children. For Catholics that have valid marriages, the CHURCH not the STATE has competence to determine the parties obligations after an ecclesiastic separation trial. For more, see "Please Stop saying 'Those who Experience Divorce'." http://marysadvocates.org/please-stop-saying-those-who-experience-divor…

Carol Vaclavicek
5 months 2 weeks ago

Compassion always takes a person's soul and their eternity into account, as Jesus so graphically pointed out in Luke 16:18-31. Since this was the second time He was warning that to die in the ongoing state of being "married" to someone else's God-joined spouse was mortal sin (first time was Matt. 5:27-32), we should heed Paul's twice repeated advice: "Do not be deceived, No [unrepented] adulterer has any inheritance in the kingdom of God." Contrary to your concept of "compassion", the RCC should be returning to policies that promote repentance from biblically- immoral relationships, not stoking the demand for them! Jesus said "enter by the narrow gate, for narrow is the path that leads to everlasting life, but broad is the gate and wide is the path that leads to destruction." Take heed.

deborah nuzzo
5 months 2 weeks ago

There is no compassion without Truth. Regarding annulments, since the affirmative rate in all US tribunals is near 100%, it does not sound very truthful or compassionate. Our good Pope St. John Paul II for years tried hard to curb the false compassion so prevalent in the local tribunals. And of course the "compassion" was always given to one wanting out of the marriage.

Philip Wagner
5 months 2 weeks ago

Rosemari, you pray for the day when all of us ask for the gift of compassion? Compassion for who, may I ask? Compassion for the children of divorce? Where is there help for children post divorce? Where can a child go for help dealing with the pain of separation? This article clearly avoids that. Compassion for the father who dearly wishes to spare the child that pain that comes with divorce? So much compassion for the spouse that does the divorcing but none for the spouse who wishes to keep the marriage intact.

John Farrell
5 months 2 weeks ago

Rosemari Zagarri Prof, - law, penalties and judgements cannot be avoided when divorce occurs. The point is that these are misapplied today in Catholic USA. Jesus says the best way to keep those "within the Church's embrace" who willfully persevere in "break[ing] the contract" (ccc 2384) is to To "deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Dan Acosta
5 months 2 weeks ago

Divorce has a devastating effect on the children. I strongly recommend that couples considering divorce read Leila MIller's Primal Loss. This book deals with the decades long pain suffered by the children of divorce.

Carol Vaclavicek
5 months 2 weeks ago

Absolutely!

Carolyn Schuster
5 months 2 weeks ago

The entire topic about swallowing the bile of the forcible rejecting of a sacrament that is the cornerstone of preserving the integrity and future of humanity and the Church, is heartbreaking and infuriating. There is no making ruin and destruction palatable or any less poisonous. As a revert who fought against overwhelming odds to preserve the sacrament of marriage in a protestant world where I was seen as stupid and pathetically committed, I ran back to the Catholic Church for refuge and support. Catholics do not seem to understand the Church is the last holdout against the destruction knocking at the door of souls and civilization. EVERY trust in the power of God's love and Life to overcome the world as Jesus assured, is perverted and undermined in divorce. FIGHT for every facet of the marriage sacrament to be honored and held up for preservation like the precious pearl of great price it is. There are heroes of the Faith even now laying down their lives on behalf of this great Sacrament and they deserve our gratitude and our comradeship, not a tail-tucked rationalizing and acceptance of generational ruin. We are at war with the enemy of love and life and he wins every time a home is broken and a child's trust destroyed. He wins every time a Catholic capitulates to the temporal trials of this age and cedes territory to him, vainly rationalizing that God will somehow bail them and their broken children out. That is not how it works when we live out our Faith in obedience

John Farrell
5 months 2 weeks ago

I could be wrong, but I suspect Lisa Duffy got a c. 1095 annulment and wants that decision to stick in her mind because if not there is guilt and a husband waiting for her. Pile on the cement and cheerlead for American annulments is the decision. Same with Rose Sweet.

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5 months 2 weeks ago

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Stanley Kopacz
5 months 2 weeks ago

Would you get on a plane that has a 50% chance of crashing? Don't get married. Best way to prevent the horror of divorce. You're also avoiding the occasion of sin.

Rosemari Zagarri Prof
5 months 2 weeks ago

Most of these commentators ignore the author's clearly stated views. She obviously did not initiate the divorce. She was obviously devastated by the divorce and supports marriage as a sacrament. And she emphatically encourages--and even validates--the annulment process. But instead of praising the author for her courageous journey, many of these commentators--who claim to be Catholics-- can't wait to cast the first stone. You cannot possibly fathom the immense range of private, complicated, and often painful reasons why marriages fail and people get divorced. Children, moreover, often fare better outside of a failed marriage than within the bounds of a loveless marriage. Talk about devastation. What a twisted, bitter, and distorted interpretation of the article--and of Christ's message.

KATHERIN MARSH
5 months 1 week ago

Whoa. Who initiated the annulment?

Dolores Pap
5 months 1 week ago

Agreed! My parents divorced when I was just a small child, now I am 70- I've had a very happy life, with a loving husband and wonderful children; I can say that divorce didn't damage me in any way. In fact, I was so happy that the drunken rages stopped..

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