Last July 6 the Vatican once again reaffirmed the church’s rule that prohibits divorced Catholics from receiving Communion if they have remarried while bound by a valid previous marriage. The declaration no doubt disappointed divorced Catholics who hope to remarry one day. With half of American Catholics’ marriages ending in divorce and half of the divorced eventually remarrying, 10 million Catholics could be affected by this discipline in the next decade. To this 10 million should be added any non-divorced Catholics who want to marry one of these divorced persons. Ministering to divorced and remarried Catholics is already a serious pastoral issue. Trends in the American family will only intensify it.
New research, based on the General Social Survey, indicates that remarriage is a turning point that can threaten the loyalty of lifelong Catholics. Between 17 and 20 percent of Catholics who have divorced and subsequently remarried leave the church in connection with their remarriage. Although some of them leave organized religion altogether, most of them join Protestant congregations and become active and contributing parishioners.
Among the 51 million Catholic adults in the United States today, 16 percent are currently divorced or separated. Another 9 percent of Catholics have been divorced in the past but are now remarried. In addition, there are 4 million former Catholics who have been divorced. That amounts to 17 million Catholics and former Catholics who have experienced divorce. These numbers are higher than the totals for the 1980’s, when 13 percent of Catholics were divorced and 7 percent were remarried.
One-half of Catholic marriages (defined as a marriage in which either one or both spouses are Catholic) eventually end in divorce. High as that risk is, Catholics are about 15 percent less likely to see their marriages end in divorce than are Protestants or people with no religious affiliation. Divorce rates among Jews are about the same as among Catholics. At the 20th anniversary of a first marriage, 48 percent of Catholics are divorced from their first spouses; the percentages are 49 for Jews, 56 for Protestants and 59 for persons with no religion.
Considering the Catholic Church’s unequivocal opposition to divorce, it seems reasonable to expect divorce to disrupt peoples’ attachment to Catholicism. Yet currently divorced Catholics are no less likely than Catholics in stable marriages to identify themselves as Catholic77 percent of the divorced and 80 percent of the still-married are still Catholic (or Catholic again). Divorced Catholics also attend church at rates comparable to the rates for married people their age.
Remarriage turns out to be the break point. Only 60 percent of remarried Catholics are still Catholic, compared to 80 percent of still-married Catholics. This result implies that the current stance of the church on remarriage induces 20 percent of remarried Catholics to leave the church. (The number is 17 percent when remarried Catholics are compared to divorced Catholics. Remarriage is widespread; almost half of the Catholics who divorce subsequently remarry. Ten years after their first marriage, nearly 10 percent of Catholics are divorced and remarried; after 20 years nearly 18 percent are. Although many of the marriages that ended in a civil divorce have also been annulled by the church, remarriage is more widespread than annulment. Just over 1 million marriages have been annulled in the United States since 1975, according to a count compiled by Melissa Wilde (soon to be published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion), and some of these are for non-Catholic Christians. But there are 4.5 million remarried Catholics and another 1 million remarried ex-Catholics, which means millions of Catholics remarry without an annulment.
With ever easier access to annulments, with internal forum solutions and with priests who say follow your conscience and receive the sacraments, attrition on this scale (20 percent) must come as a surprise. The wedding itself can cause friction if the couple wants to have it in a church, but that cannot be the whole story. The evidence in hand suggests that the pastoral response to couples who have remarried or are thinking of it may be unnecessarily harsh. In a church where almost everyone goes to Communion, those singled out for exclusion may become alienated and leave.
Religious and Family Life
Remarried converts from Catholicism to Protestant denominations are very active in their new congregations. Two-thirds attend church services more than once a month. Converts are significantly more likely to attend church services than are their remarried counterparts who are still Catholic (53 percent of whom attend more than once a month). Half of the remarried former Catholics also belong to church organizations in their new denomination, and they give 80 percent more money to their new church than their Catholic counterparts give to their parishes. In short, they are active, desirable members of their new communities, and their absence is likely to be felt in the Catholic parishes they left behind.
The families of remarried Catholics and ex-Catholics closely resemble those of Catholics who are still married to their first spouse. The remarried are older and have slightly larger families, although some of their children may not live with themat least not all the time. One-fifth of the remarried and one-fifth of those still in their first marriage expect to have more children. Although the children of the remarried are slightly older (fewer of remarried couples have preschoolers at home), the key point is that the remarried current and former Catholics have families that continuously married Catholics would recognize.
Remarried persons (both Catholics and former Catholics) are substantially different from continuously married persons (both Catholics and former Catholics) in two ways. The remarried are twice as likely as those in their first marriage to have lived with their present spouse prior to the marriage. And the spouses of the remarried are themselves five times more likely to have been divorced in the past than are the spouses of Catholics in first marriages. Even so, half of remarried Catholics have partners who themselves are married for the first time.
Remarried Catholics are nearly indistinguishable from Catholics in their first marriages when it comes to other aspects of their lifestyle. Their family incomes are nearly identical; they are equally likely to be homeowners (73 percent in the 1990’s), equally likely to live in the suburbs (33 percent) and equally likely to say that their marriage is very happy (60 percent).
Divorced Catholic women who have not remarried are at a serious disadvantage, however. Their incomes are less than half the family incomes of remarried women, they are much less likely to own their home, and fewer than half of them say that they are very happy. In short, divorced women pay a high price for their obedience. They have no life companion, no helpmate and no second income.
Divorced and remarried Catholics who have not left the church show signs of being more alienated than other Catholics. For example, they express significantly less confidence in church leaders than do married, widowed and single Catholics; 19 percent of divorced and 20 percent of remarried Catholics express a great deal of confidence in church leaders, compared to 23 percent of single, 28 percent of still-married and 43 percent of widowed Catholics. These differences are statistically significant. Women have significantly less confidence in the church than men do, but the gender gap in confidence is only 3 percentage points (compared to an 8 point gap between still-married and remarried Catholics).
The data presented here show the scale of the Catholic Church’s problem with remarriage. The remarried are becoming more numerous within the church even though many leave the church in conjunction with a remarriage. One remarried Catholic in five considers himself or herself to be an ex-Catholic. The ones who stay Catholic are far more angry and alienated than either single or still-married people. Most of those who leave become active contributors to Protestant congregations and probably would have been active parishioners if they had stayed.
This evidence suggests that there is a lot more at stake for the personal lives of remarried Catholics and the vitality of their communities than present church discipline takes into account. Not all men in the hierarchy share the harsh views expressed in the Vatican’s reaffirmation of the current discipline. Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, speaking at the European Synod of Bishops in fall 1999, hinted at the need for flexibility on whether Catholics who divorce and then remarry without obtaining an annulment can receive the sacraments (The National Catholic Reporter, 10/29/99). At least for now, however, the refusal mentality has prevailed. The problem will grow in coming years. As it does, priests and other ministers who are dealing with couples in the process of remarrying need to have a much broader mandate to act as pastors and not disciplinarians. An emphasis on creating an understanding and respect for the church’s discipline is a far cry from the guidance, consolation, support and encouragement that people are seeking and the church should be committed to providing.