As a practising Catholic who divorced, obtained an annulment and some years later, remarried, I read with interest that Cardinal Nichols said he was struck by a comment that the Church needed to "uphold marriage but create space for where it fails."
I married for life but found after some years I was married to a secretive alcoholic. We had with three children to care for and were about to lose our home because of my husband’s debts of which I was unaware. I had thought it was right to try to hang on for the children’s sake, until I saw that they were also finding the situation intolerable. I tried prayer, and speaking to my parish priest and, with my husband, going to Marriage Care. But the marriage got worse.
The Tablet’s report quotes a spokesman for the bishops asking, "How can the Church pastorally care for those people who have fallen short?” I would suggest, if I might, that attitudes have to change. "Fallen short" is judgement. Pastorally accompanying me with that attitude would have compounded my powerlessness and distress. I am an educated professional who had married someone who became gripped by an addiction that changed his personality. I did not have power to predict the future before I married him. I needed understanding and support, not teaching.
Similarly, using words like "failed" to describe marriages that break down implies we have done wrong, and most of us have tried very hard to make relationships work. We have experienced pain, isolation and lack of understanding from many – but not all – priests and fellow parishioners. I did not find many teachers in my local secondary Catholic school very helpful when one teenage son struggled. He and my other children are now happy, caring adults in healthy relationships and good jobs.
I divorced and painfully obtained an annulment because I needed my Church to understand and support me. Some years later I met my current husband. I then went through the Internal Forum, because he was divorced too. The Internal Forum really helped, but it is the one of the best-kept secrets in the Church and was discouraged by the last Pope. It is a simple, pastorally sensitive, prayerful way of helping Catholics out of an impossibly binding situation. It allowed me to go on receiving the Sacraments. That enabled me to stay in the Church. (My husband has since become a Catholic, but a priest told him he had to go through an annulment before he did. Bless him, he persevered.) We are happily married but doubt we would go through these hoops again.
Another support I found helpful was the Beginnings Experience, a Catholic initiative for people who are divorced or widowed. It was an opportunity to reflect with people who had gone through similar experiences.
Bishops are celibate, unmarried and haven't experienced the pain of a marriage that doesn't work despite effort. Hierarchical structures and a lack of women in senior roles in the Church mean there’s a risk that senior clergy see this issue through a celibate, male lens. This can lead to disconnection from everyday family life.
Our new Pope is a pastoral Pope. To the bishops of England and Wales I’d say, he needs you to be collegial and listen to your dioceses. Dialogue with your lay people, support your priests and lay women and men who are in parishes.
I am an active Catholic attending Mass most days, but that was because – when I needed it the most – there were several Catholics, including priests, who walked alongside me. Jesus walked alongside people. Please do the same.
Pippa Bonner is a Eucharist minister and retired social worker in the diocese of Leeds