How to divorce in church?

Divorced? The Church does not abandon you, does not exclude you, but it listens and accompanies you. This is the message of a small flyer available since February in the parishes of the Catholic Church in Geneva. A demanding but thoughtful promise that aims to dispel misunderstandings and misconceptions of people who after a divorce self-excommunicate or feel placed on the index finger by the Church. “The Pope invites us to welcome each particular situation in its specificity,” explains the Episcopal Vicar, Father Pascal Desthieux. He has made the reception of divorced persons a pastoral orientation for our Church.

The Church and Divorce

A thorny question, if any, and a divide, if not divorce, between the institution and the faithful: the national results of the global consultation of bishops on the family (2014 and 2015 at the Vatican), conducted in preparation for the two Synods, indicated a great misunderstanding among Swiss Catholics of the official doctrine not to allow divorced and remarried to receive the sacraments. The same analysis underlined how the teaching of the Church appears to many faithful as a set of prohibitions, including divorce.

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How to respond to these inquiries?

After the publication of Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation on love in the family, the Episcopal Vicar for the Canton of Geneva, Father Pascal Desthieux, asked the Family Pastoral Care (PFG) to deepen the issue of divorced persons in response to the Pope’s invitation to “accompany, discern and integrate.” Too often we hear say ‘now that I am divorced’ or ‘now that I have remarried, I can’t go to the Church’. It is wrong and it hurts us. “On the contrary, divorce is an ordeal, often painful, with wounds, and our mission is to be present in these moments of fragility,” says the Episcopal Vicar.

To translate this will into a concrete project, a working group set up by the PFG proposed an approach on two axes : clearly communicating the message of non-exclusion by the Church of divorced persons on the one hand, and developing appropriate accompanying tools and discernment on the other. These proposals were validated by the Vicar Episcopal who made them an orientation for the Cantonal Church, presented in January during a morning of training for the priests of the canton.

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An accompanying approach

The approach is today summarized and communicated in a small four-page flyer that you may have seen in your ward or discovered on the RCT website. Heading “Divorced? The Church welcomes you”, the insert starts from the observation that divorce exists and proposes an approach to accompany the people concerned: with the creation of a port of entry, a “telephone counter” for divorced people that allows to establish a first contact, and with the creation of a network of professionals. Depending on their request, the persons concerned will thus be referred to a priest, a theologian, a canonist or a psychologist. Together they form the new RCT “Platform” for divorced persons. “The work is carried out in network and in connection with various services, among which the officiality of the Diocese in Fribourg and the Association Couple and Family and its service of mediation,” explains Isabelle Nielsen, Assistant to the Vicar Episcopal, who has been involved in the PFG for many years and who participated in the working group.

The main challenge is to change the perception of a Church that judges, condemns and prohibits . The publication of the flyer is in line with this objective. It is aimed first of all to people, many, who have no or more connection with a parish or a priest and do not know what door to knock, point out Abbé Desthieux and Mrs Nielsen.

The demands of the faithful can be very different: looking for an answer to practical questions, for example ‘if I am divorced, can I have my child baptized? “The platform is also at the service of priests and pastoral agents to feel supported and helped in situations where they do not know how to respond to solicitations,” says Nielsen.

But what can people knocking on this door expect?

In most situations, there is no preconceived and ready-to-use response and it is a path of analysis and discernment that will be considered. While it is true that for the Catholic Church the sacrament of marriage is an indissoluble commitment made before God, “it must also be said and repeated that there is no excommunication, that people are not banned from the Church following divorce, separation or new union,” summarizes Abbé Desthieux.

Life paths that deviate with the years, betrayal, abandonment are difficult wounds to overcome… But the journey of a Christian life must not stop for people who pass through the “divorce” box. “Based on Amoris Laetitia and the documents of the Swiss bishops, we can say that among the divorced there are plethora of different situations. The openness we wish to make visible is that of taking into account this plurality of situations. It allows us to see behind the term divorced, not a closed status, but a new stage of life to discern. What we propose is a readiness for an accompaniment for a review of what has happened, to lead to a ripening and awareness. Life continues and the process of life matters,” says Isabelle Nielsen.

A civil act

For the Church, divorce is a civil act and is therefore not recognized from a theological point of view. But the Church does not say that this does not exist: she recognizes that divorce can lead to psychological and spiritual repercussions, tearing and she has the care of children, when there are. And people who have divorced always have the right to communion.

It is otherwise when a new love is born, in case of remarriage. For Christians respectful of what the Church says, this is a difficult step. Depending on situations and requests, it is possible to move towards the recognition of the sacramental nullity of marriage, to determine whether at the time of its celebration the conditions of a union were met or not, explains the Vicar Episcopal. But even when the nullity of the first marriage cannot be recognized, the Church does not excommunicate remarried divorced.

The question of access to the sacraments, in particular the Eucharist, is on the other hand “subject to a delicate debate”, explains Abbé Desthieux. Especially since the exhortation Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis’ call not to catalogue or lock these people in “too rigid statements without leaving room for proper personal and pastoral discernment.”

What does family pastoral care think?

The Family Pastoral Focus Group chose not to focus on the issue of remarried divorces: “We cannot deny that in these situations there is a break from a commitment. But it seems to us that Pope Francis’ message of mercy helps us say that if there is the law, every law has to be understood in an individual and specific context, as Christ did,” said Isabelle Nielsen. And continue: “Discernment allows us to explore the concrete situation. It is very demanding and it requires real availability compared to a legalistic posture.”

Together with the Vicar Episcopal, she hopes that the opening message for the divorced will help to better understand people’s expectations and situations who will call upon the Church. “This availability will allow us to get back to work if necessary. Life constantly invites us to work our theology”. Since the launch, the phone of the “wicket” has already rang several times.

(Pastoral Courier April 2018)

1 Conference of Swiss Bishops — Press Release- 04.02.2014

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