Breaking Vows: When Faithful Catholics Divorce

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” That’s how divorce starts for the Catholic couples I talked to: hard-core, confession-going, Humanae Vitae-believing Catholic couples. Couples who know exactly what marriage is supposed to be.

One man I spoke with, now divorced, took Scott Hahn’s Christian marriage class with his theology-major fiancée. Another couple, now divorced, made the twin sacrifices of building a large family and allowing the wife to stay home — because, in the ex-husband’s words, “Simpleminded me, I looked at every sacrament as precious and worthy.” Two others, now divorced, helped at their parish and were sacrificing to send their kids to Catholic schools.

Another woman told me that, until recently, she and her husband published pamphlets on how to live a Catholic marriage better.

Nearly every married couple at one point or another faces deep disappointment. But unless there is abuse, Catholic couples have very few options when things get really tough. They can either struggle to get their love back or struggle to live without it. What they can’t do is divorce.

“Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law,” according to the Catechism (2384). “Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign.”

The grave sin of divorce infects everybody around it. It wrecks families and convinces society that Catholic teaching about marriage just isn’t practical. So why are so many committed Catholic couples doing it?

The D-Word
For most assenting Catholics — Catholics who reject the idea of legitimate doctrinal dissent — the mystique of Catholic marriage keeps them together. They refuse even to consider divorce an option.

So, for an assenting Catholic, the topic of divorce is usually accompanied by a question: What if our marriage isn’t even valid to start with?

Or, as Alicia stated it: “I’m too good to be divorced. Therefore this was not a valid marriage.” “As soon as you even talk about divorce as if it’s an option, you’ve taken your first step,” Patricia, an abandoned mother of five, told me.

When one spouse has dropped the D-word, a black cloud enters a home and hangs there, affecting everything. Close friends are consulted. One or both spouses will speak to a priest.

Still, the black cloud can be dispelled even at this stage, and often is, if the couple looks into the horrible consequences of divorce and decides they just won’t go there. There’s always hope. Until someone calls a lawyer.

“All it takes is one confused spouse who thinks that divorce will solve their unhappiness,” said Michelle Gauthier, founder of Defending Holy Matrimony. “When that one spouse visits a lawyer, they place the entire family in the hands of a hostile court system. Children become wards of the state, and all marital assets are controlled by the courts. It is truly a tragedy.”

Judy Parejko, Gauthier’s colleague and author of Stolen Vows, says it’s “the coercive system we have called no-fault divorce that pushes people in only one direction.”

One abandoned mother called me after getting a particularly offensive note from a court representative. “I get the feeling that there is this perverse patronizing that’s going on here,” she said. “They’re actually pleased to rip my family apart because they think I’m this mistaken ancient restrictive weirdo because I’m a loyal Roman Catholic.”

For a woman in her position, the feeling of betrayal is overwhelming. “It’s like the Church has let us go into the hands of a monster that is tearing our family apart, and the Church won’t intervene,” she said. “They just stand back and watch it happen. When I made my vows, I signed up for something different.”

The Size of the Problem
Some distinctions are in order.

The divorce rate among Catholics is reputedly the same as that among the general public, where about 35 percent of people who have been married have also been divorced. The couples I spoke with were very aware of the high Catholic divorce rate. The abandoning spouse in each took comfort in the thought that he was just part of a crowd.

But as with most polls that identify trends in the Catholic population, there’s less in that number than meets the eye.

The Barna Research Group estimates that 25 percent of Catholics who have been married have been divorced — that’s lower than the general population, but high nonetheless. But the group’s research also says that only 49 percent of those Catholics go to Mass on any given week.

So, what percentage of these divorcing Catholics are lapsed Catholics, and what percentage are committed Catholics? Barna doesn’t say.

In fact, no one knows exactly what the assenting-Catholic divorce rate is. Catholics sometimes cite the statistic that only 2 percent of married couples who use natural family planning (NFP) end in divorce, but investigate that and you’ll soon find that no one knows where the 2 percent figure came from.

Parejko said she’s skeptical about claims that assenting Catholics have a lower divorce rate. “I’ve seen that the problem is just as bad for Catholics, and even what I call devout Catholics, as the rest of the country,” she said. “I don’t see any protected category.”

Dominican Rev. Juan-Diego Brunetta offered one measure of how bad it is. He is a judge and defender of the bond at the marriage tribunal at the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, where he’s involved in hundreds of Petitions for Declarations of Invalidity of Marriage (the technical name for an annulment).

“My response can only be anecdotal,” he told me. “But in the cases I’ve handled, I would estimate that in somewhere between 5 and 10 percent, at least one member of the couple made an effort to know, study, or follow the Church’s teachings,” he said.

The president of a Catholic college known for its fidelity guessed that about 5 percent of the marriages of its alums end in divorce. Whatever the number is, it looks awfully high to Catholics who see their friends splitting up. And for each of the marriages that ends in divorce, there are plenty that walk right up to the edge.

“Catholics are falling apart left and right, orthodox Catholics,” said Dr. Phillip Mango, a psychoanalyst at the St. Michael’s Institute in Manhattan. “When I saw the Catholic marriages in this country that are hurting, I wasn’t shocked — I was saddened. Who is dealing with this? Who is dealing with this in a real way? Bible study is just not doing it.”

Pride and Individualism
Why is the problem of divorce rearing its head among Catholics right now? For the same reasons it’s plaguing everyone else.

Catholics can sometimes convince themselves that they aren’t part of the same culture as the rest of the world. But we’re all part of the culture of immediate gratification that doesn’t consider long-term consequences. We’re all individualistic rather than communal. Most of us have easily dropped relationships, even family ones, to pursue careers and comforts.

On top of that, younger Catholics, products of the 1970s and 1980s, are likely to come from broken homes, or homes bent almost to the breaking point. The crisis of fidelity affects us, too.

“We live in a culture in which everything is disposable,” said Gauthier, “including unborn children and spouses. This culture affects even the most faithful.”

But what about the Faith? Shouldn’t faith steel the assenting Catholic against the culture? In fact, it’s the other way around. Faith needs a culture to stay strong. Worse, a self-righteous faith can lull Catholics into a false sense of security, a new Phariseeism convinced that intellectual assent to the right doctrines — not our humility and God’s mercy — is what saves us.

“They think they know everything there is to know about marriage,” said Father Brunetta, “and when they get there and discover it’s not what they expected, they don’t know what to do. If we think the answer to the real day-to-day problems of our marriage is going to be found in a paragraph of Familiaris Consortio, we’ve missed the point of the document.”

Doug and Andie can relate. They met on the campus of a faithful-to-the-Magisterium Catholic school in 1989 when “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” was a hit song on the radio and Field of Dreams was in theaters.

Andie was a theology major, but it was Doug’s communications major that led him to full-time Catholic work later in life. They dated, got engaged their senior year, and took three kinds of marriage preparation, including NFP classes. They married a month after their 1992 graduation.

Doug had a full-time job in the apologetics movement. “I was surrounded by theology 24 hours a day,” he said. But while he and his wife overloaded on “Catholic stuff,” they neglected to develop an authentic spirituality.

“We went to Mass together on a weekly basis,” he said. “We did some spiritual things together that were part of the family life, not as often as she would have liked.”

Doug — who’s now an abandoned father of two — said that the troubles that tore his marriage apart came down to pride.

“Both of us became guilty of self-righteousness,” he said. “We both thought it was more important to be right than to be happy. And that’s a killer for a marriage.”

In retrospect, Doug says that marriage preparation gave him all the doctrinal answers but left him unprepared for the life that he would face. “I have learned a lot since then through individual counseling. Too many times, I will read something in a book only to look up to God and ask, ‘Why didn’t I read this five years ago?'”

Father Brunetta said that for many couples, “an overly intellectual approach diminishes the mystery that marriage is supposed to be. Before I got ordained I had a certain sense of what it was to be a priest. I thought I knew what it would be like, but I had no idea. A lot of it is experiential. It’s learned in the very living of it. If we’ve got it all figured out ahead of time, we might end up fighting against what our married life is teaching us.”

Patricia, abandoned mother of five, can relate. She and her husband made a deal that they would never share their marital problems with others.

It didn’t seem like such a bad plan. “You don’t want to be one of those people who gossips about their spouse and just complains,” she said.

But then it became something else. “You have an image that you portray to other people that you’re a good Catholic,” she said. “But to seek out and recognize how bad marriage problems really are, you need to talk about them.”

Patricia explained the phenomenon to me. Catholic couples “think that if you’re punching your time clock, doing your duties to your faith, God promises to take care of your marriage. But your marriage has a life of its own, and if you don’t do something about it, it’s going to fester and it’s going to explode.”

Whether you like it or not, she said, cultural forces will exert an influence over you, no matter how faithful you are doctrinally.

“Nobody can escape the fact that you only know what you grew up with — even if you have Catholic faith. So unless both people came from a really beautiful marriage, they’re going to come in with broken ideas.”

Doug said the same thing. He and his wife had a great opportunity to grow together, to balance each other out, in the complementarity of marriage. But that’s not what happened.

“I did not provide as much emotional support and encouragement as she needed because I was an introvert,” he said. “She did not trust me enough with major decisions and relied on her family’s input to chart our course.”

Instead of working for a marriage that helps balance their temperaments and better them, they’ve gone their separate ways. Now their two children are from a broken home.

The Abandonment Diagnosis
Ironically enough, faithful Catholics’ emphasis on doctrinal study can actually leave them vulnerable to high-minded doubts about their marriages.

“You see the same phenomenon with medical students,” said Father Brunetta. “As they study medicine, they begin to self-diagnose. Each new ache and pain is imagined to be an indication of the most virulent disease they know. Of course, precious few of them actually have spinal meningitis or pancreatic cancer. Normal aches and pains indicate life, not death.”

In the same way, he said, “There are tensions and struggles and difficulties that are normal in the marriage — these are signs of health, not invalidity.”

But the spouse who wants to jump ship won’t think so. He or she will search through the reasons some marriages are declared invalid. He’ll discover that for a Catholic who knew Church teaching on marriage, there simply aren’t any intellectual grounds for annulment.

“The bar is very low for what one needs to know to get married validly,” said Father Brunetta. “The Church law requires very little for a valid marriage. People playing all these head games about why their marriages are invalid don’t understand the Church’s teachings.”

The assenting, divorcing Catholic will eliminate them, one by one: Their marriage was heterosexual, neither one expected to have a partner on the side, they knew it was “until death do us part,” each expected marriage to involve sexual intercourse, and they knew that the procreation and education of children was one of the primary ends of marriage.

What about problems of the will? “A person needs to positively set his will against some aspect of marriage in order to invalidate the marital consent,” said Father Brunetta. “There would need to be an intention against children or fidelity or permanence, an intention against the good of the spouse or the sacramental nature of the marriage.”

To find a ground for annulment, the assenting Catholic will usually end up claiming that he was psychologically incapable of making a commitment to marry.

“Some people are not capable of marriage, because of some defect that is beyond their intellect and will,” said Father Brunetta, who works with petitions for invalidity all the time. People who can hardly take care of themselves. People who are hopelessly addicted to drugs or alcohol. But these are real mental conditions.

“Personally,” said Father Brunetta, “I think that somebody who enters into a marriage having studied and appreciated the teachings might suffer from something else when they find themselves knocking at the tribunal door. They expected marriage to be exalted, like the Book of Revelation, like the wedding feast of the Lamb. And when they find out that theirs is not like they imagined, and they are not prepared to grow together and work through normal difficulties in their marriage, they start looking for a way out. And they say, ‘Oh, I had a defect.’ But, you know what? If you have the wherewithal to figure out that you were so gravely incapacitated as to invalidate your marriage, chances are you’re not incapacitated.”

But the reality is that when a spouse is trying to prove his marriage is invalid, he can easily exploit the process.

Alicia, an abandoned mother of three, told me that her husband set out a simple test for whether his theory about their marriage was correct or not.

“His test of whether or not the divorce was ‘of the Lord’ was whether or not the annulment was granted. There are books out there to tell you what to write. He got one of those and filled out his annulment papers.

“To me, when the Holy Father came out in 1998 and reprimanded the tribunal boards for granting too many annulments, this is exactly what he had in mind,” she said. “This is what he had in mind with his January speech to the Roman Rota when he said we are supposed to assume that the marriage is valid until proven wrong.”

Divorce Support
Unfortunately, when couples turn to their parish priest for guidance, they don’t necessarily get the answers the pope is giving. They aren’t getting them from their families either.

Doug remembers how moving to Andie’s hometown brought him to the brink of divorce. “Once we got to Omaha, Andie started talking to her family more and more. Within a few months, all of them were discussing divorce and looking for the loopholes,” he said. “They were saying I can still receive the sacraments if I divorce my family. They were focusing on the Church’s teachings of what is allowed. The Catechism itself says divorce is tolerated — not permitted, ‘tolerated’ — but only under certain circumstances. Beatings, not caring for the kids, etc. You can’t just say, ‘This didn’t work out.’ But the Church doesn’t enforce this.”

The parish didn’t help Doug. “What really put a knock on my faith was that I kept turning to the Church saying, ‘Please help us! Please help us!’ But the focus seems to be on the acceptance of individuals in the Church after divorce. It almost seems as if priests do not want to address this issue because they are afraid of offending,” he said.

Frank, an abandoned father of four, had a similar experience when he was faced with divorce. “The different priests I talked to seemed very disinterested, which I found appalling. It was like talking to a wall when my wife and I talked to one priest. All he could say is, ‘I can’t tell who the victim is here.’ Another who was a more senior priest, he just talked about civil and legal matters as being completely segregated from matrimonial unions blessed by the Church,” said Frank. “The priests — it didn’t look like they had a clue what to do. They were so out of touch with the need to problem-solve.”

Do priests know how awful divorce is? Or is it that they just feel helpless?

“I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess about the motivation of particular priests in particular occasions,” Father Brunetta told me. “However, there is a perceived tension in pastoral work that is not always easily negotiated. It’s the false dichotomy that’s created between what is pastoral and what is doctrinal.”

He said that priests fall into the trap in one of two ways. “On one extreme there’s a sort of hyper-pastoralism, which becomes a constant placating of persons in distress. Here the priest will avoid doing anything that will make him the bad guy. Even, perhaps, at the expense of the Church’s authentic teaching on marriage,” he said. “On the other extreme is a doctrinaire spirit that can seem to be unaware of the real pain people experience in their day-to-day struggles with sin and failure and the fallen state of humanity.”

The battle in the Church doesn’t help, said Mango. Dissenting Catholics often won’t teach the doctrines that protect and guide marriage. Assenting Catholics, on the other hand, often won’t address the real pitfalls and messiness of marriage because they detract from the doctrines that are under such attack.

The Church needs to “get real,” Mango said. “As real as the enemies of the Church are getting. I have yet to hear a homily from anyone who says, ‘The world has infected the Church, so there in the back of the church are some pamphlets that direct you to where you can get help. There’s one on verbal and spousal abuse. There’s one on post-abortion healing. There’s one on homosexuality. There’s one there for Sexaholics Anonymous. They’re all free. Go and get them. I’ll be in the confessional.’ Not once. Instead, I hear, ‘Good morning. How are you? I think it’s time that we should perhaps love one another.'”

Sons of Adam
I must confess, I was surprised by the story assignment when I was asked to investigate reports that a surprising number of young, on-fire, faithful Catholics were divorcing.

But the more I looked into it, the more I realized that my surprise was part of the problem. After all, from the beginning, marriage has always been the center of a great battle. No one should blithely expect that he’s in a special class that is somehow spiritually protected.

A marriage was Satan’s first target in the Garden of Eden, and it was one of his preferred fields of battle through the Old Testament. The British schism in the Protestant Reformation began when a committed Catholic, Henry VIII, wanted to divorce his wife. And today, the battle over marriage rages on.

“There’s a demon out there that’s trying to claw and tear people up, and when he gets a divorce, he’s got a victory,” one abandoned wife told me. “It wrecks kids. It convinces the culture that these Catholics don’t know what they’re talking about. The devil’s way of destroying the culture from the very beginning was to put a wedge between the husband and the wife.”

How to fight back? The obvious answer is better marriage preparation.

“The Vatican is begging for eight sessions” of preparation, said Mango. He runs an eight-session marriage preparation program that includes family-of-origin issues, the differences between men and women, in-depth communication instruction, a look at the resentment a male-centered sexual life causes, and what a real spiritual life looks like.

Father Brunetta put in his vote for a future improvement to marriage preparation. “Canonists belong at the beginning of the process,” he said, “working with couples to understand what the Church teaches and what Church law requires for marriage. We need more canonists in marriage prep work for the health of marriages in the United States.”

But Parejko said that the Church also needs to change the way it approaches marriage at the back end, in the marriage tribunals.

“My hope has gotten bigger over time,” she said. “Now it’s that the tribunals will be transformed from annulment processing places to reconciliation havens.”

At any rate, something has to be done.

I asked one man what the worst effect of divorce has been in his life.

“My eleven-year-old son has taken a knock in terms of what he believes about God,” he told me. “We’ve taught him the Faith, but he thinks that sometimes God won’t answer prayers, because he prayed and prayed that we’d get back together again. And that didn’t happen.”

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Crisis Magazine.

Tom Hoopes

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Tom Hoopes is writer-in-residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Previously, he served as editor of the National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine. He is the author, most recently, of What Pope Francis Really Said (Servant, 2016).

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