October 1, 2014
Dear His Holiness, Pope Francis; His Eminence, Walter Cardinal Kasper; The Synod of Bishops, and the Catholic Church at Large,
I am a divorced Catholic. In fact, I have been divorced twice. I have also been annulled and remarried twice in the Church. I am in a sacramental marriage to Monica, a wonderful, devout Catholic woman. Together, we have seven beautiful children, all of them gifts from God.
I have spent the last ten years ministering to divorced or separated Catholics. During this time, I have started a ministry for divorced Catholics in my parish, co-authored a book (Divorced. Catholic. Now What?), host a website (www.divorcedcatholic.org), developed divorce recovery programs (Journey of Hope), host a blog (vincefrese.com), write Daily Inspirations read by thousands worldwide, presented at conferences, have appeared on EWTN television, and have been a guest on Catholic radio programs. Never would I have ever imagined myself being so involved with ministering to divorced Catholics. Yet, it is a total blessing how God has turned my suffering and pain into an opportunity to help others recover from divorce, rebuild their lives, and claim the abundant life He created each of us to live.
I am writing this letter in response to the comments (revealed by the press) made by Cardinal Kasper during his address at the Extraordinary Consistory on the Family on February 20, 2014. I am so encouraged that the needs of divorced Catholics, remarried outside the Church (referred to in this letter simply as “divorced and remarried Catholics”) is an area that you are challenging the Church to address. For too long, all divorced Catholics, remarried or not, have had to suffer because of the lack of support from the Church, a church that many divorced Catholics dearly love and have committed their lives to serving. I applaud your leadership in prioritizing an issue that has been woefully underserved by the Church. I wish to help you in this effort.
Based on my personal experience, both having been part of the annulment and (sacramental) remarriage process, and one who has ministered to so many hurting divorced Catholics, I wish to offer a potential solution to the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics not being able to fully participate in the life of the Church and her sacraments.
The plight of divorced and remarried Catholics has been well publicized recently. Their being unable to fully participate in the sacramental life of the Church, particularly not being able to participate in the Sacraments of Reconciliation or the Eucharist, is an ache felt by the entire Body of Christ. I have many emails from divorced and remarried Catholics that are filled with pain, anger, and despair over what they perceive as being abandoned by their Church. Here are a few representative excerpts:
“Annulment?…what for….I’ve done nothing wrong and I certainly don’t have $500 to pay for an annulment when that money is better spent on contributions to the church.” – Brad
“My wife and I were both previously Catholic, and both remarried. Communion is an important part of our lives, but we cannot receive communion at a Catholic church so we are regularly attending a Methodist church where communion is open to everyone. We feel that ancient traditions in the church drive so many people just like us away. What other choice do we have? The Mass is for participating in communion not for watching everyone else participate. We’d love to come back to Mass and take an active part, but the Catholic church in its wisdom prevents us.” – Willi
“I am well aware of the fact that as a divorced and remarried Catholic that I am not able to receive Holy Communion…. what I was not aware of is that we are not even able to receive a blessing…come on now!“ – Maureen
“I was remarried 12 years ago and have never felt that close to God since. Not because of my divorce and remarriage but because I could no longer partake in the sacraments. No matter how hard I tried to feel connected I just couldn’t. When I was able to attend Mass I would feel lonely and empty…The Church has created a group of people with no hope of ever being forgiven and let back into the fold. For me going to Church is not enough. Without the sacraments it is just too painful. I remember the story of Jesus saying if you lose one sheep you leave the others to find it. I guess that only applies to those not remarried.” – Terri
Your leading the Church to focus on Christ’s core teachings of charity and mercy is refreshing, timely, and so needed in our world today. Your call to Catholics to not condemn, but walk with, divorced Catholics is a wonderful example of this. Thank you so much for your efforts.
Many of the responses that I have read in the press by clergy to Cardinal Kasper’s comments seem to focus on the doctrinal issues underpinning the Church’s position preventing divorced Catholics from receiving the sacraments. I am not a theologian. While I consider myself to be very well-formed and catechized, my insights and recommendations are as a lay-Catholic. I don’t feel particularly well qualified to enter a doctrinal debate. I do, however, have a very thorough understanding of the Church’s teaching on the Sacrament of Marriage. I also have direct experience being in non-sacramental marriages. My knowledge and experience tells me that the Church is very clearly teaching the Truth regarding the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage. I am confident that the Holy Spirit will lead all those in Church leadership involved in this discussion to reaffirm the Truth regarding the sacrament of marriage. Therefore, I will not make that issue the focus of my letter. Instead, I wish to outline what I believe are the causes of the problem and provide very concrete recommendations for a solution.
In order to understand the plight of the divorced Catholic, it is necessary to understand some of the direct causes that led them to their present circumstances. It is easy—though not Christian—to take the approach that divorced Catholics are “just getting what they deserve.” Certainly, everyone has free will and must ultimately take responsibility for their decisions. However, the Church must understand the factors and forces that have influenced the divorced Catholic to marry outside the Church—factors and forces the Church has either directly contributed to, or is culpable for, because of its inaction.
In my experience, here are the key reasons why many divorced Catholics remarry outside the Church:
- Woefully inadequate support by the Church for a Catholic experiencing divorce. When a Catholic is grieving from the end of their marriage, the first place they typically turn for help, support, and answers, is the Church. While it has certainly improved from when I went through my last divorce in 2000, the availability of divorce support ministries at the parish level is still woefully inadequate. It is not uncommon in the United States and Canada for less than ten percent of parishes in a diocese to have any type of divorce support programs or ministry. If a divorced Catholic can’t find help and healing in their Church, they will keep seeking until they find relief. This opens the door wide for them to leave the Church. It also leaves them vulnerable to seeking their healing in other relationships. Often, these relationships lead to marriage outside the Church.
- Poor training by priests, deacons, and laity on the Church’s teaching regarding divorce. Divorce is a relatively new phenomenon, surging over the last thirty years. Priests and deacons trained prior to the 1980’s may have had little, or no, training on how to apply the Church’s teaching on divorce. Worst still, they spread wrong information to divorced Catholics. The most common, and most damaging, is that merely experiencing a divorce will prevent a Catholic from participating in their faith and receiving the sacraments. So much damage has been done to the faithful by the spread of this one falsehood. This misinformation, and its associated misconceptions by the faithful, has driven many Catholics away from the faith at the very time when they needed their faith the most–especially the sacraments!
- Protestant churches do a much better job ministering to divorced Catholics. As mentioned above, when divorced Catholics are in pain, they will seek relief. If they knock on the door of their parish and no one can help them, or if they feel unwelcome or judged, they will go elsewhere. The Protestant churches, as a whole, have done a much better job in ministering to divorced Catholics. While they don’t have the fullness of the faith, especially the sacraments, they do deliver Christ’s message of charity and mercy in a consistent and potent way through organized and wide-spread ministries to divorced people. In the United States, it is not uncommon to drive by a Protestant church and see a banner promoting their particular divorce ministry or support group. This makes all divorced people feel welcomed, including disillusioned Catholics. Lured by the experience of Christ’s love embodied in these ministries, many Catholics end up leaving their faith for a church that is meeting their needs. This sets the stage for the Catholic to eventually remarry outside the Church. It is only later, usually because of a yearning for the sacraments they can’t receive in a Protestant church, does the Catholic desire to return to the Church. It is then, that the wounds from their previous experience with the Catholic faith are reopened when they find they are now excluded from the one thing they hunger for the most: the Eucharist. This is a hunger that only the Catholic Church can fill. When they find they can’t participate, they are reminded all too vividly of the stain of divorce, and the resulting discrimination. This pain is amplified all the more when they perceive this coming from the one place they trusted the most—the Catholic Church.
- The annulment process is much too complex, confusing, and intimidating, acting as a significant impediment to divorced Catholics. It is common that the person initiating the annulment process (petitioner) fought hard to save their marriage, and despite their best efforts the marriage ended in divorce. When they approach the Church for an annulment, all too often the people involved in administering the process have never been through it themselves. This can create a less than compassionate atmosphere, making the process seem very cold and legalistic. As a result, the process can seem very judgmental, even punitive, to the petitioner. At a time when the person seeking the annulment needs an abundance of mercy and compassion, the annulment process delivers just the opposite, driving Catholics away or causing them to abandon the process.
- The annulment process often takes way too long to complete, discouraging divorced Catholics from going through the process. It is my experience that the processes in place at many tribunals for administering the annulment process are antiquated and were never designed to handle the volume of cases filed in the present day. This, combined with understaffing at many tribunals, makes it rare that annulments can be completed in less than twelve months. Eighteen to twenty-four months seems to be the norm, and in some tribunals, sadly, even longer. Often times, the bureaucracy inside the tribunals, due to its legalistic nature, adds to the delay. While certainly not condoned by the Church, the truth is that a significant number of petitioners are seeking an annulment because they are in a new relationship and wish to get married again. Their desire is to marry in the Church. However, when they approach the Church and are confronted with the complexity of the process, and the long processing time, they become frustrated and disillusioned. Anxious to move on with their lives, and past the stigma of divorce, the inefficiency of the annulment process is actually driving them to get married outside the Church. In essence, it is having the exact opposite effect from which it was intended.
- Woefully inadequate catechesis during the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s has greatly contributed to the problem. Many Catholics going through a divorce over the last thirty years were poorly catechized in their youth. This, combined with a trend toward streamlining pre-Cana preparation (in many dioceses down to a single 7-8 hour class), has resulted in a very poor understanding of the permanent nature of sacramental marriage. I would estimate that the majority of Catholics, and non-Catholics marrying a Catholic, do not understand the beauty, spiritual depth, permanence, and responsibility the Sacrament of Marriage is to the Church and to society in general. I am not sure I am saying anything new here, however, what must be understood is that these very same Catholics are getting remarried ignorant of this truth. Later, when they yearn to return to their Catholic faith, they feel blindsided by the annulment process, a process that seeks to reaffirm the sacramental truth that the petitioner never fully understood. It is not uncommon for divorced Catholics to believe a civil divorce is recognized by the Church as ending their marriage. This misunderstanding is a significant cause of the anger and resentment that occurs when the divorced Catholic is confronted with the Truth of the faith when seeking to return to the Church.
Cardinal Kasper’s motivation is right; his approach is not. He is trying to be a compassionate and merciful servant to the faithful by offering potential solutions to the current alienation divorced and remarried Catholics experience when approaching the Church.
The solution to the challenge of how to give divorced and remarried Catholics a compassionate and merciful pathway back to full communion with the Church lies in a pastoral approach, not in doctrinal reinterpretation or manipulation. I am very confident that this challenge can be met in a relatively short timeframe, with great positive impact, while fully supporting and reinforcing the doctrine of the Sacrament of Marriage.
I believe the most compassionate thing one can do is to help others live the Truth. That certainly is the role of the Church. Unfortunately, the approach taken by the Church to-date in helping divorced Catholics live the Truth of our faith has resulted in a less than compassionate experience for them.
I propose the following changes will allow the Church to provide a more merciful and compassionate pathway back for divorced and remarried Catholics so they may fully participate in the life of the Church:
- Proactively minster to Catholics experiencing divorce so they don’t leave.
- Revamp the annulment process to make it faster and more compassionate.
- Create a new process for divorced Catholics to come back into full communion that celebrates their return to the Church.
Here is each change in detail:
1. Proactively minster to Catholics experiencing divorce so they don’t leave.
a) Make a divorce recovery ministry a standard offering at the parish level. This ministry would do the following:
- Embrace Catholics from the earliest stages of divorce, and throughout the following recovery, rebuilding, and renewal phases, where they can experience the compassionate and merciful love of Christ in the context of the sacraments and the Catholic faith. The more welcome divorcing Catholics feel from the very first time they approach the Church, and throughout their entire divorce experience, the less likely they will ever leave. Plus, the more engaged they are with the Church, the greater the opportunity to minister to them and help them stay close to the sacraments—the very thing that will bring them the greatest healing. (If you have to go through a divorce, thank God you are Catholic!)
- Provide a place where they are made to feel welcome in the Church and are encouraged to participate in church life, especially the Mass and the sacraments.
- Provide spiritual guidance, by a priest or other qualified person, to resolve any issues specific to their circumstances that might inhibit their receiving the sacraments.
- Assist with providing counseling, or referral to a qualified Catholic counselor. Sadly, it is far too common that Catholics experiencing separation or divorce are referred to non-Catholic counselors, who, while certainly trying to do good, don’t support the Catholic beliefs regarding the permanence of marriage. As a result, in an indirect way, the Church is contributing to Catholics leaving the faith.
- Be a resource to teach the divorced Catholic about the annulment process and answer any questions they might have to eliminate confusion and mitigate any potential feelings of rejection.
- Provide long-term support to divorced Catholics. Divorce recovery takes time—often a long time. The Church needs to accompany divorced Catholics on this uncertain and painful journey so they can experience full recovery. Further, this is another opportunity to form and catechize Catholics in their faith. Recovering from divorce is typically a time of reassessment of life’s meaning and purpose. Being reintroduced to the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith offers the divorcee the opportunity to realign their life around this faith. This will create more vibrant, committed, and joyful apostles, elevating the entire Body of Christ.
- Provide similar levels of support and outreach to single parents as the Church does for unwed mothers. Divorce is devastating financially. This affects single parents in particular as they often face significant financial hardship raising children with greatly reduced income. This is further compounded if child support payments are delayed or stopped. This financial pressure often causes single parents to seek out remarriage as a means to alleviate this pressure and provide security for their children. This motivation is a cause for marriage outside the Church. It is not uncommon for Catholics that have pursued this route, to want to return to the Church once the initial financial uncertainty has passed. Providing support and outreach from the start of a single-parenting situation will make the Church a place of refuge, instead of a relationship outside the Church. Further, marriages established with these types of unhealthy motivations have a high failure rate and perpetuate the cycle of divorce.
- Provide support for kids experiencing divorce. Parents will often seek help for their children to cope with divorce before seeking help for themselves. If the level of divorce support in Catholic churches is poor for adults, it is even worse for children. This forces Catholics to seek help outside the church, typically from Protestant churches. As mentioned above, Protestant churches wealth of programs draws divorced Catholics away from the Church. Offering vital divorce support programs for adults and children will keep them close to the faith.
(NOTE: In areas where there is not enough critical mass at the parish level, the diocese must be willing to step in and provide programs and resources. If not, the Catholic goes elsewhere.)
b) Train priests, deacons and lay ministers how to effectively minister to Catholics experiencing separation and divorce.
- For many Catholics, their divorce is a pivotal moment in their faith when they turn refuge, compassion, and support. Since divorce is a relatively recent phenomena within society and the Church, many priests and deacons have not received formal training on the best ways to minister to a Catholic experiencing divorce. As a result, priests and deacons fallback on their doctrinal training, causing them to focus on the “laws” of our Faith. This is often received as cold and disconnected by the divorcing Catholic. As a result, divorcing Catholics often complain of a lack of understanding and compassion for their situation.
- The Church needs to update its training for priests, deacons, and any lay person who deals with divorced or separated Catholics to make sure they know how to minister to them in a merciful way. Christ taught the doctrines of our faith with love and mercy. This helped people see the redeeming value in living these doctrines, even if it was difficult. It gave them hope, in spite of their suffering. He often criticized the Pharisees for focusing only on the law and detaching it from love. So often, the divorced Catholic turns to the Church at a time when they are in great pain and extremely vulnerable. The Church must do everything possible to make sure they are received with compassion and love. Deacons can play a vital role here.
c) Raise public awareness among Catholics regarding what the Church teaches about divorce and how to best help someone they know that is experiencing divorce. The Internet is an ideal means to provide this information.
2. Revamp the annulment process to make it faster and more compassionate.
a) Implement the parish-level divorce ministry (mentioned above) so that by the time a divorced Catholic can file for an annulment, they are not blindsided by the Church’s position on marriage and have had time to learn about the process.
- Often times, the annulment process is presented to the divorced Catholic as a formality of the Church—simply some forms to complete. This ignores the tremendous healing that can occur by honestly reviewing a marriage and understanding the reasons for its failure. Plus, by disconnecting the annulment process from its pastoral benefits perpetuates the perception that an annulment is just a “Catholic divorce” and a means for the Church to make money. Having a ministry whose focus is to serve divorced Catholics will help the annulment process be presented in the proper light. It will also provide the opportunity to better educate potential petitioners, helping to reduce confusion and animosity.
b) Increase education regarding the annulment process so the divorced Catholics will better understand it, particularly the grounds, so they can better assess their personal situation and have a degree of hopefulness in the process. This will prevent them from leaving the Church out of disillusionment.
c) Consider a separate process in the Tribunal for divorced and remarried Catholics.
- Most tribunals lump all petitioners together and process them the same way. For a divorced and remarried Catholic who is trying to return to the fullness of the faith, this can result in a wait of 1-2 years. For someone who has mustered the courage to return to the faith, who is typically anxious and excited to take the steps necessary to return, and who has been without the sacraments for a long period of time, this can be very discouraging. As it is, the divorced and remarried Catholic typically experiences the annulment process as a cold, heartless barrier to their being able to return fully to their Catholic faith. The extremely long time to complete the process magnifies their sense of disconnection and increases their frustration. The result is that many give up on their annulment petitions.
- Creating a separate process within tribunals to handle petitions from divorced and remarried Catholic will allow the process to be tailored to their specific needs and allow a level of sensitivity to be maintained. Further, by creating a separate process in the tribunal allows resources to be allocated to this more time sensitive group and allows their annulment to be processed more quickly.
d) Dramatically streamline the annulment process to be done in less than 6 months.
- The processing time for an annulment is an impediment for divorced and remarried Catholics returning to the Church. Annulments must be completed in six months or less. Creating a separate process as mentioned in Item #3 above, is the first step in achieving this goal. It will allow an annulment process to be tuned to the unique needs of the divorced and remarried Catholics, and it will also allow resources to be allocated as needed to ensure the timely completion of annulments.
- Not only should a separate process be created for divorced Catholics within the tribunal, but a streamlined process should be implemented as well. Some suggestions for streamlining the annulment process for divorced Catholics include:
- Identifying the grounds at the beginning of the process (with the help of a the sponsor/case manager).
- Allowing affidavits from witnesses that speak specifically to the identified grounds to be submitted with the petition.
- Allowing an affidavit from the former spouse if they do not wish to proceed in the process to be submitted with the petition.
All the above will greatly reduce the waiting time during the annulment process associated with waiting for witnesses and former spouses to respond.
e) Do not charge for annulments; make them free.
- For some, the fee charged by the tribunal is a financial hardship. For many, it is an emotional hardship. While tribunals have very sound reasons for charging a fee, it creates suspicion and angst for many. When a divorced and remarried Catholic works up the courage to approach the Church for full communion, the fee comes across as punitive. They receive it as they have to “pay” to return. This sends a message very contrary to the merciful love that is at the heart of Christ and His Church. In the Gospel story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the father did not make his son pay when he returned, just the opposite. The father spent money to celebrate his son’s return. The Church should be willing to do the same for divorced Catholics seeking an annulment.
- There is an appropriate time to recoup some of the costs associated with a divorced Catholic returning to the Church; it is during the convalidation process. This is after the annulment has been granted, and the fees charged are aligned with the marriage preparation process, not with the annulment process. Since the fee is aligned with the restoration of full communion and not the dissolution of marriage, it would be better received. More suggestions follow on how to improve the convalidation process so that it properly celebrates the returning divorced Catholic to the faith.
3. Create a new process for divorced Catholics to come back into full communion that celebrates their return to the Church.
Just as the prodigal son was celebrated by his father upon his return, the Church should celebrate the return of divorced and remarried Catholics. Here is what I propose:
a) Create a separate process similar in concept to the RCIA process that works directly with divorced and remarried Catholics to guide them in the return to full communion.
- For the sake of this letter, I will call this new program: Embrace. Like the RCIA program, the Embrace program would work very closely with divorced Catholics during the annulment process (if one has not already been obtained), catechize them on their faith, particularly on the Sacrament of Marriage, in preparation for their convalidation, work and catechize with their spouse, and conclude with a celebration at their convalidation. As importantly, this process can minister to those divorced Catholics who are not granted an annulment. Unlike most convalidations, which are handled privately, it is suggested that the couple be given the opportunity to share their convalidation with the parish community so that they can be properly welcomed and congratulated. This is a time of great joy for the couple and the Church and should be treated as such. The Embrace process would do just that. A lost sheep has been found and should be received with great joy! (Luke 15:1-7)
b) Make a concerted effort to reach out to divorced Catholics and invite them back into this new and more compassionate process.
- Fortunately, with the advent of the Internet and social media, reaching people is easier and more cost-effective than ever. I suggest mounting a social media campaign with the purpose of finding divorced and remarried Catholics and inviting them to return to the church. Facebook, dating websites, and Catholic websites are just some of the readily available means to effectively reach out to divorced and remarried Catholics and invite them back into the merciful love of the Church. Other, more traditional means of reaching these Catholics, such as, church bulletins and diocesan newspapers should be utilized as well. The focus of these promotions is to target divorced and remarried Catholics and invite them to investigate returning to their faith. This new process will make it more attractive and easier than ever for them to return. The Church has an apostolic duty to go searching for these lost sheep.
c) The Embrace process would be a powerful way to keep divorced Catholics from leaving the Church.
- One of the initial tasks of the process would be to assess the grounds for an annulment and if it is deemed there are sufficient grounds, allow the divorced Catholic to continue on with the convalidation preparation while the annulment is being processed. If deemed there are not sufficient grounds, the Embrace participant would be put on a different track that would minister to them and help them adjust to life in the Church without the sacraments.
One of the consequences of having grossly inadequate support for divorced or separated Catholics is the widespread dilemma of divorced Catholics remarrying outside the Church. This creates an ache in the hearts of these Catholics as they long to return only to find difficult obstacles in their way. It creates an ache in the heart of the Body of Christ as it longs for all its sheep to return to the fold.
The good news is that a real solution is available and, with coordinated effort, can be implemented in a relatively short timeframe. The combination of providing proactive, on-going support for separated and divorced Catholics at the parish-level so they stay close to their Catholic faith, along with streamlining the annulment process in conjunction with celebrating the return of divorced and remarried Catholics, will keep more Catholics from leaving and help provide a loving pathway back for those who have left.
Thank you so much for taking the initiative to address the challenges of helping divorced and remarried Catholics return to full communion with the Church. This is a difficult issue and I look forward with joyful anticipation to how the Holy Spirit is going to guide all those involved with finding a solution. I stand at your service to help.
Your Faithful Servant,
Vincent Frese, II