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Misconceptions about Church Teaching on Divorce, Sacraments

May 14, 2015

Lisa Duffy knows what it's like to find hope after divorce—from her own experience, as well as more than 20 years of ministering to those wounded by divorce.

Duffy is a columnist for and creator of the "Journey of Hope" divorce recovery program. Her first book, The Catholic Guide to Dating After Divorce, is the first written for the 11 divorced Catholics in the United States.

Ave Maria Press talked with her recently about the book.

Question: Lisa, early on in the book, you address the stigma of being divorced and how that impacts the decision to attend Mass and receive the sacraments. Can you talk about your own experience and what you’ve heard from others?

Lisa Duffy: In the weeks and months after my husband left, it took all my strength and resolve to attend Sunday Mass. I was very angry and disillusioned, which made it difficult to focus on the Mass, but I also felt a deep sense of shame, like I didn’t belong there with all the “good” Catholics. Seeing happy families and couples there also brought immense sadness. I would usually come late and leave early so I could avoid anyone who might want to chat.

My experience seems to be similar to many divorced Catholics, however a large percentage automatically suspect they are not welcome at Mass or parish functions because of their divorce. Some of them just stay away because they fear the judgment of others. Then there are those who show up for Mass or try to continue participating in the ministry they were involved in and are told by those who unfortunately have their facts wrong that they are no longer able to participate.

Q: It seems like there are some misconceptions regarding Church teaching about divorce and participation in the sacraments. What’s does the Church say? Do you think these misconceptions actually make it more difficult for divorced Catholics to heal?

Lisa: Yes, there are many misconceptions out there regarding divorce and participation in the sacraments and I welcome the opportunity to provide some clarity.

First, a civil divorce decree in-and-of-itself does not prohibit a Catholic from receiving the sacraments or participating in parish life as stated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage” (2386).

This also applies to the children of divorced couples, who often are denied receiving Baptism or their First Communion by lay parish teachers who are misinformed.

Second, divorced Catholics who have remarried without first receiving a decree of nullity are not allowed to receive Communion. This is a non-negotiable circumstance, contrary to the media’s coverage of the recent Synod held last October and it is not some human rights issue where the Church is treating divorced and civilly remarried Catholics as second-class citizens. This is the Church protecting her members from spiritual disaster. The Catechism plainly states:

“Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion” (1385).

The reason why a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic is considered to be in grave sin is simple: A decree of nullity (annulment) declares that the marriage in question—even though a real relationship that may have produced children existed—was never a valid marriage. It was never a spiritual, unbreakable covenant between the spouses and God. Therefore, the spouses are not bound to each other until death as a couple with a valid marriage would be. If they are not bound to each other, they are free to get married.

If a divorced Catholic does not go through the annulment process to find out whether or not he has a valid marriage, the Church considers that person validly married. Therefore, a second marriage would constitute adultery.

I definitely do believe these misconceptions prolong and aggravate the healing process. It’s so important for clergy and lay leaders in positions to give direction and advice to divorced Catholics to have an accurate and uniform understanding of what the Church teaches.

Q: Of the five “attraction factors” you write about in the book, is there any one that is most important or upon which the others depend?

Lisa: Yes, the first attraction factor, being “available” is really the one the rest hinge upon because if you aren’t technically able to date because you do not have a decree of nullity and your heart is not available to give away because it is locked in the past by anger and resentment, it makes taking those other steps almost a moot point. A person could work on the other attraction factors, but she would find herself constantly having to go back to this first one to master it if she wanted to make any real progress on any of the others.

Q: Late in the book you talk about creating a “life program.” What is it and how can it help someone healing from divorce and wanting to love again?

Lisa: A Life Program is an exceptional tool that anyone can use, but it is especially good for divorced Catholics because it helps to motivate them to move forward instead of remaining stuck in sadness and emotional ruts. It’s like drawing yourself a road map to help you get from where you are today to being the happy person you want to become. The three most important steps are to write a detailed description of what you want your life to look like when you are completely happy; second, to identify the five biggest obstacles that are preventing you from being that person; and third, to identify five ways you can overcome those obstacles and move yourself forward toward your goal. It’s very effective and is something good for anyone who wants to excel in life, especially spiritually.

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