16 May 2014, The Tablet

How might the Church 'make space' for marriages that break down?

by Pippa Bonner

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

What do you think?


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User comments (6)

Comment by: Joestan
Posted: 27/05/2014 11:52:03

I believe that theologians need to pursue the further study of some questions as regards the sacrament of matrimony.
First, there are two sacraments in which the matter of the sacraments is a human act - reconciliation, where the matter is the human act of sorrow and repentance (not the form of words, but as virtue) and marriage in which the human act is love - covenental love. (This in contrast to the matter oof the other sacraments such as bread and wine in the eucharist, oil in confirmation etc.). What makes it a sacrament or form is the human words.
The two have to come together for the sacrament to be fruitful.
Second, who can tell whether the matter is valid when a human act is involved. Only the one or ones who place that act. (Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est has clearly argued that eros (lust) and agape (decisive) love fluctuate. That means that even an act once placed in all good faith and validly, can as it continues deteriorate into something that cannot be the matter of the sacrament, especially in a sacrament that endures over the long haul.
3. Thirdly, therefore, if this line of thinking is created, there is also created space for situations where it needs to be admitted that what now remains in a marriage is purely eros certainly not agape. This situation needs to be determined on a case by case basis. In this context the study of the use of oikonomia (principle of economy - God's merciful love reaching every situation) used in the Eastern Churches

Comment by: Bob Hayes
Posted: 23/05/2014 23:53:33

fjacks: 'I suggest they commission a group of devout and well educated lay Catholics, married and single, to review all teachings and disciplines of the church having to do with sexuality and to offer comments and suggestions for revision.'

Are you also suggesting that Our Lord's teaching on marriage and adultery should be subject to 'review'?

Comment by: Teresa
Posted: 23/05/2014 16:09:24

Thank you Pippa. It is time that the Church became more inclusive and forgiving. We need to support those having problems with their Marriage, not isolate them

Comment by: Michael
Posted: 23/05/2014 12:59:38

This is a nice confirmation that ways to assist people in troubled marriages already exist. Much as good NFP training exists and is within reach - but is rarely promoted or even mentioned by anyone, including the Catholic media.

The subtext is a little hard to understand though, for example:

"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..."

So. No bishops have come from families that suffered divorce, for example? None of them has ever had to counsel such families? Is that a proven fact?

The question is a little bit deeper, one feels.

Comment by: jenny
Posted: 23/05/2014 07:19:08

excellent !!!

Comment by: AlanWhelan
Posted: 19/05/2014 17:51:30

Pippa, thank you so much for sharing.

When I started my teaching career over forty years ago I had children in my class who were able to explain annulment to me. Their families had experienced the wisdom of good pastors, who pointed them in the right direction. In many years of Catholic school headship I met many more such families. It was often very clear where good pastoral experience existed and sadly where the opposite was evident.

We now have time to look at all possible ways of being inclusive. We need more faithful people to study, reflect and speak out in the Name of Our ever loving Lord.

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