Helen Gordon still feels pained when she recalls how other Catholics ostracized her parents after their divorce in the late 1960s. She also remembers being “shredded” by a priest during confession when she was about 11 because she had missed Mass as her father was dying. She went to confession only once more.
Yet Gordon, 53, of Bethesda, kept close to her Catholicism. She sent her two children to Sunday school and goes to Mass every month or so. She takes communion, even though as someone whose two marriages were never recognized or nullified she is technically not eligible to participate in a ritual reserved for Catholics “in union” with a church that doesn’t permit divorce.
A priest once told her that she could still receive this most important of Catholic sacraments, and she agrees.
“If the church hierarchy wants to set parameters for when a person may be allowed to receive Communion, that decision, to me, is ultimately a political one, and for me has no connection to my relationship with God, and will not impact my decision to receive Communion,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I believe that God is a loving God and wants us to remain close to him, regardless of the challenges and decisions we have faced in this life that might run astray from the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine.”
While church leaders have spoken often about Catholics who leave the faith — 1 in 10 Americans is a former Catholic — Gordon represents perhaps a larger and more complicated constituency: Catholics who stay yet have spiritual beliefs and practices that are not always compatible with the Vatican.
This dissonance between church doctrine and the attitudes and behaviors of many Catholics worldwide has prompted Pope Francis to convene a two-week summit at the Vatican beginning Sunday that some are comparing in potential importance with the historic Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.
Annulment — a required process that invalidates an earlier marriage — and the rules governing communion for divorced Catholics are among the topics to be discussed with unusual candor by 191 leading clergy. Also on the list: same-sex marriage and living together before marriage.
The mere possibility that some concrete change in teaching or practice — however small — could result from the meeting has already set off furious debate among top cardinals.
“This synod will be very important. All of the issues regarding the family, the ones that trouble people the most [about the church] will be on the table. All the neuralgic issues — the ones that cause you pain,” said Monsignor Fred Easton, who led the Indianapolis Archdiocese’s tribunal for 31 years. “And it’s not just rehashing for rehashing’s sake. It’s: When we put them all together, do we need to make any sort of course correction?”
This type of high-level meeting, called “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” is rare — the most recent one was nearly 35 years ago. Regardless, nothing concrete will change this month. The meeting is meant to open a dialogue about what’s working and what isn’t. Next fall, the bishops are to return to propose a pastoral plan, and experts have predicted that one area most likely to see change is the practice around divorce and remarriage.
The church no longer excommunicates those who divorce, but Catholicism still recognizes only weddings approved by the church (either officiated by a priest in a Catholic church or approved by a person’s priest) and it sees marriage as ending only in death. So when a Catholic has a civil divorce and wants to remarry in the church, he or she may pursue an annulment, which is a Catholically legal way — complete with a tribunal, judge and “defender of the bond” who always argues to keep the marriage together — of saying the marriage wasn’t ever valid. Grounds include: being psychologically or spiritually unprepared for marriage, being unwilling to have children or having not been baptized. The process can take many months and cost hundreds of dollars or more, which is perhaps why only 15 percent of divorced Catholics seek annulments.
Catholics’ divorce rates don’t appear to be dramatically different from those of other Americans, but the stigma remains high, some divorced people say. Several people interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity because they didn’t want to get their priests in trouble for allowing them to take communion.
How closely priests — or other parishioners — police who comes for communion varies widely. After all, disqualifiers include a lot of things that are invisible and common, including “obstinate denial of a truth of the faith” or not going to confession since the last time you gossiped or skipped Mass.
Priests usually give communion to whoever seeks it, but in cases in which a public violation of teaching is apparent — such as a same-sex married couple or a couple known to have been married outside the church — only the most liberal won’t flinch.
If she decides to remarry, Maria Olsen is not inclined to follow Catholic rules to get an annulment in order to continue taking communion. The subject triggers unhappy memories for her.
Olsen was 6 and her brother 5 when their parents divorced, which in the 1960s meant excommunication from the church. She remembers their father driving the two small children each Sunday to their Kensington church and dropping them off to attend alone. It was an ostracizing, lonely routine that Olsen says scarred her. Years later, when her father wanted to remarry and sought an annulment, Olsen was terrified she’d become an illegitimate child.
Even so, Olsen has put the Catholic church at the center of her life, sending her two children to Catholic schools, reciting Catholic prayers each day and going regularly to communion, where she powerfully feels God’s renewing presence. “Prayer is my go-to action,” said the 51-year-old, who now lives in Fairhaven, Md.
Olsen went through a painful divorce this year. The idea of an annulment is so traumatizing for her that she says that if she gets remarried, she’ll just attend communion without one.
“I find comfort in the rituals of the church’s sacraments, and I also believe I can successfully take what feeds me and discard what I consider to be man-made mistakes,” she said this past week. “We are not to judge. . . . It’s between me and God.”
Many clergy members agree that Catholic rules for marriage and divorce are alienating even people such as Olsen and Gordon who want to be part of the church.
One Ohio grandmother who spoke on the condition of anonymity described marrying too young and then, 20 years ago, leaving her husband after a “raging wind” of exploration pulled her away from the traditional Catholicism in which she was raised. The divorce caused a crisis in her family and in herself, and even though she remained extremely religious, she stayed away from churches for a while.
Eventually her “hunger” for communion “grew stronger than my shame,” she wrote in an e-mail, and she returned to Catholic parishes about 15 years ago. She remarried around that time but is opposed to getting an annulment.
“It tries to make everyone’s story fit into a framework that’s a lie — that I didn’t enter the first marriage with a sense of faith, or that [the marriage failed] because I didn’t keep up my faith. I couldn’t say that. It’s in part my fault that it failed, in part some of the culture I came from. The divorce caused a lot of suffering for my children, and the last thing I was going to say was: This wasn’t valid. That doesn’t relieve pain, it just causes it,” she said. “I respect the church’s tradition, but I’m not owned by it.”
Because so many people reject the concept of annulment as inconvenient, expensive or phony, church leaders are doing a bit of rebranding, emphasizing the process as therapeutic, as a way to move on from a failed relationship or simply as a way to come closer to the church.
“It’s a disconnect between what we are teaching officially about marriage and what people are doing. That’s the rub,” said Easton, the monsignor. “We have to put it on the table and look at it. I hope we either change something or at least we can better explain ourselves to the world.”