I was still in my teens when I realized Roman Catholicism could be more cruel than merciful, no matter what the gospel says. That was when a woman I’d grown up with, like an aunt to me, was abandoned by her husband. He left her for her best friend. She never saw it coming.
She was a Portuguese immigrant and a devout Catholic who did not dare question her parish priest or the church’s edict: divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment cannot receive Communion. In her mind, that meant her romantic life was over. She was still in her 30s.
What was her sin, exactly?
I mention this today because the Synod of Bishops on the Family has begun. Pope Francis has urged bishops to show more mercy toward the divorced and remarried who are barred from receiving Communion. And there is hope this time around for change.
It is much needed.
I am a Catholic, like so many others, who has separated my faith and prayer life from the politics of a morally challenged Church hierarchy. One upside of the sex abuse crisis: it freed many from taking bishops’ prejudices and hypocrisies seriously.
Yet in the days leading up to the synod, it’s become clear how many divorced and remarried Catholics still obey the hierarchy and are devastated by the Communion ban — including a devout remarried mother who wrote to Crux about sitting in the pew while her teen-aged daughters receive Communion without her.
Also clear is how many Catholics want reform, including those who’ve fought the entire annulment process. Nearly 20 years ago, Jan Leary of Natick, Massachusetts began the group “Save Our Sacrament” to help Catholics prevent their marriage from being nullified by annulment. Leary, a Catholic who ultimately prevented her own annulment, insists the process can be as “humiliating and demeaning” today as it was in the 1990s.
One way around annulment is for the Roman Church to follow the Greek Orthodox example. The Orthodox “ecclesiastical divorce” neither dissolves a marriage nor renders it invalid. Instead, it recognizes a failed marriage and allows for a second one after a period of penance.
Pope Francis, in one of his famous back-of-the-plane press chats in 2013, actually referred to the Orthodox practice when telling reporters the Church needs a more pastoral and less punitive approach to the divorced. Could this be that approach?
Many of the divorced, after all, have committed no sin, broken no vow. Some are blameless. Their spouse was abusive, an addict, an adulterer who abandoned them. And yet if they remarry and obey the hierarchy, they are banned, forever, from the central sacrament of the church: the Eucharist. Their character, good works, faith life — none of it matters.
Here’s what the “aunt” I grew up with did wrong. She married a handsome young man when she was young and handsome herself. Then she contracted crippling arthritis. I remember how it gnarled her hands and feet. She struggled to drive and open doors and eventually even to walk. She was handsome no more.
The husband she adored walked out the door. Then the Church she worshipped punished her for his betrayal.