Children of the divorce generation find hope in the church’s ‘hard teachings’ on marriage and Communion

Now that the Synod on the Family has concluded, Pope Francis is expected to issue a report, and perhaps an apostolic exhortation, based on the synod’s final recommendations. One of these recommendations is to discern what forms of “exclusion” experienced by divorced and civilly remarried couples can be overcome. Pope Francis has communicated that certain changes in pastoral practice are necessary with respect to how the church treats adults in these irregular marital situations.

As the church goes forward in a process of discernment, the church should be attentive to the voices of the numerous children affected by the divorce culture and the sexual revolution. By doing so, the church may better recover a truly pastoral approach that seeks conversion of heart, growth in Christ’s love and “accompaniment” of all souls. 

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Although no one should be indiscriminately marginalized from the life of the church, not inviting those who have divorced and remarried to Eucharistic Communion is the path most consistent with both justice and mercy, especially for the children living in and trying to cope with an irregular union of a parent.

In a general audience address on Aug. 5, Pope Francis made comments indicating that the church needs to adopt a different posture toward the divorced and remarried precisely out of its concern for children. On the situation of children he said:

If we then also look at these new bonds through the eyes of the young sons and daughters—and the little ones watch—through the eyes of the children, we are aware of a greater urgency to foster a true welcome for these families in our communities. For this reason it is important that the style of the community, its language, its attitudes, always be attentive to people, starting with the little ones. They are the ones who suffer the most in these situations.

Pope Francis rightly calls us to consider the needs and well being of children. Some of his comments, however, also seem to suggest that children are harmed by the current practice of excluding their divorced and remarried parents from receiving Communion. This notion is mistaken. A change in pastoral practice concerning the divorced and remarried will not only have the practical effect of diluting the church’s life-giving teachings on marriage and sexuality; it will also be unmerciful and unjust to the children of those who are in irregular unions, since it is those children who suffer the most from their parents’ choices. 

A Wounded Generation

We write as members of the so-called divorce generation: children who were born and grew up as divorce laws were liberalized, making divorce more socially acceptable. Each of us has been personally touched by divorce, with parents who themselves have divorced and/or are now living in irregular unions. We are part of a generation of walking wounded. While our experiences are different, we all continue to cope with family fragmentation and sexual brokenness playing out in our own lives or in the lives of family and friends.

An overly solicitous pastoral approach, rooted in an abstract conception of mercy, will deeply undermine the church’s evangelical credibility. It fails to appropriately accompany the children of those who have divorced and remarried.

Many of these children are angry and confused as to why their parents turned their lives upside down, even while they continue to put on a “brave” face due to fear of abandonment or letting their parents down. These children are carrying this baggage well into adulthood as they struggle to find stability, trust and love in their own relationships.

Contrary to what some comments by certain synod fathers and the Holy Father seem to imply, relationships fail and divorce happens in many cases primarily because of the willful choices of adults. Indeed, the failure of relationships is often due to the unwillingness of one of the spouses to love and sacrifice to the extent required by the vocation of marriage. 

Given this reality, proposals that the church should invite those in irregular marriages to receive Communion, even after some act of penance or discussion with a priest in the “internal forum,” would dismiss the needs of children in order to satisfy the desires of adults. It confuses the little souls that the church is responsible for forming. It communicates that divorce is not a big deal, which would have ripple effects in the church’s pastoral practices and in our homes. And it should come as no surprise when a child, watching as the church “sides with” the adults who are, often, the very ones who have caused such great hurt in his or her life, grows up skeptical of the moral authority and evangelical credibility of the church.

What children need is for the church to stand with them and to speak the truth about what their parent or parents have done. As Catholics, we understand that God’s judgment is a sign of his mercy and love, especially the judgment of those actions that have destructive consequences for the people we love. Lest we forget, encouraging repentance and reparation for our wrongs toward others is for the good of our souls and for the well being of those around us.

And this brings us to our main concern. We are not bitter young people who fear change or want to see parents in irregular unions punished. On the contrary, we love our parents and want them to go to heaven. As the church is the instrument of healing for broken and wounded souls, we pray that by being excluded from the Eucharist they will recognize the gravity of their sins and seek repentance.

We do not believe, however, the church can fulfill this responsibility by papering over sin under the guise of mercy. Mercy and love must be lived in truth. If they are not, they become merely patronizing sentiments and ultimately do not have the effect of bringing people closer to Christ. To be a true field hospital in battle, we must come with medicine, not just bandages.

Based on our own experience, as well as observing our peers of all stripes and backgrounds, we have found the clarity of the church’s witness on questions of marriage and sexuality, including the theology of the body, to be transformative, life giving and healing. From those with same-sex attraction to those caught up in the hook-up culture, the splendor of the truth—coupled with friendships and relationships that help people live this truth and explore paths of healing—can give new life.

Boldness Bears Fruit

We were initially discouraged by both the “instrumentum laboris,” or working document, and the proposal from Cardinal Walter Kasper to create a penitential path to Communion for the divorced and remarried without a decree of nullity. Neither seemed to have in mind or to be rooted in the experiences of the countless victims of divorce and the sexual revolution, including the many young men and women who have experienced hope and healing from the “hard sayings” of the church’s moral teaching.

Whether the “Kasper proposal” is still considered a viable option after the synod or whether it has been effectively dismissed, it remains critical for the church to listen to the voices of the divorce generation. Should Pope Francis and the synod fathers widen the discussion and the discernment process, they could consider research from family scholars who have identified the ways in which cohabitation after divorce and second marriages are often deeply harmful for children. (See articles here, here, here, here and here.)

Likewise, they might consult the many stories Jennifer Roback Morse is collecting from the victims of divorce and the sexual revolution. The stories are quite painful, and showing greater attention to them will perhaps shake us out of our current stupor of minimizing the harm and evil of divorce.

Today, the church needs more clarity, not less. Divorce is an act that breaks apart families, neglects children and harms the community. When compounded with adultery, it is an affront to the sacrament of marriage and to the plain words of Christ, and it merits exclusion from Eucharistic Communion. Either we believe that Christ and his teachings are the way, the truth and the life, or we do not. Greater fidelity and boldness, we believe, bears great fruit, while false compassion undermines the church’s evangelical credibility.

Pope Francis rightly wants us to go forth into the peripheries and share the joy of the Gospel, yet we are spending enormous amounts of time and energy fighting another intra-church battle over settled matters. This battle, in itself, indicates that there remains a critical need to clarify the proper mode of evangelical engagement. Going to the peripheries with love and mercy means willing the authentic good of others; but to will the authentic good means to first know what constitutes the good and to be willing to proclaim it. When we go to the margins of society, we must do so while remaining always in the truth of Christ.

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Bill Mazzella
1 year 11 months ago
I presume this article did not receive much comment because of the title. If it were titled: ' Four children of divorced and remarried Catholics say that it is just and merciful to refuse their parents communion.". there might have been more comments. I could be wrong but I wonder whether some of the clergy from that embattled Archdiocese put them up to it. The letter is very professionally written. Those clergymen who composed it might have spent more time taking care of the children they continually sent predators to abuse.
Anne Chapman
1 year 10 months ago
Your guess about who put these young adults "up to it" - writing this article - may very well be right, as it seems all four of them work for the Minnesota Catholic Conference. I wonder how they would judge the two bishops who were finally "led" to resign because of protecting sexual abusers in their diocese.
gloria hunt
1 year 11 months ago
This is a beautiful article. You illustrate how true compassion and mercy don't always look like the kind of compassion our world often preaches. You uphold the dignity of forgiveness and mercy without, as many of our generation do, forgetting the essential role of true repentance.
Bill Mazzella
1 year 11 months ago
Again, Gloria. What if the other spouse will not come around. We are not talking about loose morals. The problem is with those through no fault of their own were left without a spousel
Michael DePauw
1 year 9 months ago
Bill, to follow Christ, it is necessary to carry a cross. Some of us have heavier crosses than others and they deserve compassion. We must be willing to love Jesus more than anything else the world, even our own lives. Sometimes following Christ does require martyrdom. Martyrdom does not always mean the shedding of blood. Sometimes it simply means making a heroic sacrifice of something you want the most.
M Kenkel
1 year 11 months ago
This is a ridiculous article and I'm stunned it was ever published. First, the thoughts put forward here are akin to vigilante justice. Is that really the Catholic stance on justice? And then there's the idea that the punishment should fit the crime. We are talking divorce here. Not murder, not child abuse, not sexual abuse, not assault, nothing drug related, no fraud, no theft. It's Divorce for goodness sake. It happens. In fact, any of those other crimes are readily forgiven after a quick trip through the confessional. Even infidelity can be forgiven by priests. But not Divorce! How can that be??? How ludicrous is this argument? And how exactly do you figure that divorce causes child neglect? And harms the community? Where is this coming from? Neglect? Divorce is about the parents love for each other, not their children. Every divorced parent I know goes nuts taking care of their children. And the community? Seriously? So two people should stay in an unhappy marriage to satisfy their neighbors? I know Divorce is hard on the kids. And that's very sad. But lots of things can be hard on kids and you don't see any of them being eternally punished. And I can't imagine that being raised by two people who are unhappily married is easy either. And, does getting an annulment make that divorce any easier on the kids (and, of course the community because evidently they count in this decision too...)?
Anne Chapman
1 year 10 months ago
Thank you for your honest words. I too was surprised that an article such as this would be published by America. It reflects an immature understanding of the realities of marriage as well as of the pain of divorce for two hurting parents. It ignores the reality of most parents who are hurt by the failure of the marriage, and even more deeply hurt because they fear hurting their children. The article also reeks of vindictiveness. I say this as a child of divorced parents who would have done we children a favor if they had divorced far sooner than they did. Staying together resulted in a strained, sometimes silent, but still an anger-filled toxic enviroment, not a good environment for children to grow up in. Divorcing was not a sin.If sin was involved, it was staying together too long because of church teaching. Being young and not fully self-aware can lead good people into a bad marriage of incompatible personalities. That happens to many couples unfortunately. Lack of self-awareness and lack of psychological understanding of one's fiance before marriage is not a sin. That is what happened to my parents. They did not know themselves very well, nor understand that their personalities were not compatible for living together every day for 50+ years. Some demand "true" repentance. For what? For being young and naive and immature? Most of us are at some point. After more than 40 years of marriage, I sometimes think that we were just very lucky when we chose one another. Neither of us (in fact, almost nobody I know who is married) had any real understanding of the realities and challenges of marriage. Those of us who make it over the long haul cannot lord it over those who don't. We somehow lucked out in spite of youth and immaturity and lack of self-knowledge and awareness. Others were less fortunate. They are not to be condemned, but supported and encouraged as they try to rebuild their lives and maintain a relationship with a former spouse that provides loving support for their children as well. Help them, don't punish them. Condemning ALL who divorce to a lifetime alone is neither compassionate nor Christ-like. Treating them as unforgivable sinners if they remarry without a church annulment has great potential to be a highly sinful response. The annulment process can be very challenging on a number of levels, financially, but especially emotionally. It is a process that is supposedly intended to be healing, but often does much harm according to many testimonies I have read. Many refuse to participate in what they see as a hypocritical exercise intended to declare that the marriage was never valid. It was valid, but the love died and when the love dies, the sacramental bond also dies.
Michael DePauw
1 year 9 months ago
Forgive me Anne, but your comments here reflect an immature understanding of marriage and love. Love is a decision to desire and work for the good of another person. Emotion sometimes dies for a while, but love only dies when we choose to stop loving. No matter how bad it gets, you can still choose to love your spouse, to will their good. If the situation is dangerous and separation is needed, then accept the cross and walk in the footsteps of Christ. A marriage bond, validly contracted in a sacramental marriage, can never be broken until the death of one of the spouses. To ignore reality, abandon your true spouse, and live in sin with another is to take the cross off of your shoulders and place it on the backs of your children.
Peter Steele
1 year 10 months ago
Just a thought for those who have posted comments in opposition to this article. I affirm and agree with your motivating desire of care for the persons involved in 2nd marriages. I think my point of disagreement (and that of many of us who are opposed to communion to the remarried), is that I do not believe that leaving the person in their situation is the best thing for them; I don't think that this is an authentic understanding of mercy. I too want to help these persons, but I think that we have to begin from the starting point that sin is damaging to us and that the Good News of the gospel is not merely to accept sinners, but to call sinners to a higher life, free from the damaging effects of sin. Now I say this as a sinner! To me the goodness of the News is that there is a hope and power which can bring me to a fuller experience of life. This is I believe what we want to say to those in situations of 2nd marriage. The real problem as I see it in this situation (and I know it is a difficult one and I do not mean to belittle the challenge involved in this) is that one who is living a 2nd marriage is persisting in what we have to recognize as an adulterous situation. So yes to the idea of the first comment that we must be like Jesus towards the adulterous woman and seek to love her, but ALSO with Jesus we have to maintain the line, "go and sin no more". The Church is a Church of mercy which accompanies us in our struggle with sin, but we have to at least be struggling, meaning, trying to overcome our weaknesses. The trouble with the remarried person is if they have no intention of making a change how can we simply give an ok to a 2nd relationship while knowing that the 1st one body union is still a reality? I think the whole point of this article is not that we want to deny communion specifically to punish people in an act of vengeance, but rather that we do not want to put the beautiful standard of life long commitment and fidelity at risk. I recognize that situations which arise where separation may be necessary, but I think we should all hope that this is the exception, and also that this does not mean an abandonment of the sacramental marital vow made through the contraction of another civil marriage. I think the article wants to avoid the idea of in anyway affirming that remarriage after divorce can be permitted, and by so doing give it an opening to become even more easily standardized than it already is. The idea is to do all that we can to protect that lifelong fidelity in marriage which is so essential for children and society. The point being here that we all need and depend on the experience of true faithful love which we can depend upon. The harm of divorce is the weakening of this reality and love becoming conditional/temporal. Again, I sympathize with the real and difficult situations that people are in, and I wholly agree that we need to be walking with them in this struggle, but we have to be walking towards repentance and redemption and that higher life which the challenging teachings calling us towards.
Marlene Lang
1 year 10 months ago
The teaching that I am required to present at a Diocese Catholic high school is that divorced persons are excluded from receiving Eucharist because their actions put them outside of communion with the body of Christ. As a Ph.D. candidate in practical theology and a student of the Scriptures, I find no place where this exclusion is for punitive purposes. The body does not punish its own members, but rather desires reconciliation and healing. This wounded generation is not merely wounded by its parents' failed marriages; the problem is larger and more profound. To acknowledge that a generation of parents perhaps came to marriage wounded, is not to dismiss the needs of children. Making Eucharist a matter of justice for the harmed is a bizarre theological move: Should we not then, determine which parent exhibited "hardness of heart?" Is denial of the sacrament a one-size-fits-both punishment? The matter of healing the harm of divorce is a grave one, and urgent, but in attempting to do so, we must remember to love mercy and follow the example of Jesus in chapter 8 of John's gospel. A vindictive and punitive interpretation of sacrament can only harden our own hearts.
Michael DePauw
1 year 9 months ago
This article is right on the money. Too many have forgotten that to do nothing to prevent a person from remaining in sin or even supporting them in their sin out of a mistaken notion of compassion is not an act of love, but rather it is an act of hatred. Divorced and civilly remarried Catholics cannot receive communion because they are spiritually dead in the state of mortal sin. If we really love them, we will want to do all that we can to help them get out of sin. This may require some painful choices, but sometimes we have to make the decision between doing what is right and doing what is easy.

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