By Bishop David A. Zubik
Let’s clear up one thing right away: a civil divorce does not prevent a Catholic from full participation in the life of the church, including celebrating Mass and receiving Communion. If someone has told you different, happily, they are very wrong!
It’s possible that readers of Sunday’s Post-Gazette might not understand this. A story picked up from The New York Times (“As Vatican Revisits Divorce, Faithful Long for Acceptance”) left that simple truth unclear.
The average reader could have been left with the impression that divorced Catholics are shunned outcasts forced out of the church. It just isn’t so.
The Catholic Church teaches that the marital bond is sacred and permanent, a teaching that we believe comes directly from Jesus (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9). For that reason, the church understanding is that Catholics who civilly remarry without having that first marriage annulled cannot receive Communion.
Again: It’s not divorce alone that prevents Catholics from receiving Communion. It is only if they marry again. And then only if the first marriage was not declared null and void so that it never existed under church law. And even in those cases, divorced Catholics should be welcomed and encouraged to be active in the life of the church. They are not tossed out.
In the past many have been uncertain about all of this. Through flawed catechesis and bad practices, some thought civil divorce automatically cast you from the church, though this was not church teaching, no matter what your neighbor said. And whatever that neighbor told you, an annulment does not make your children illegitimate.
The church now is trying to make this clearly understood in how we teach about the sacredness of marriage, how we reach out to those whose marriages have failed, how we help people through the annulment process and, most important, how we make sure those with broken marriages are welcomed, comforted and supported during a difficult time in their lives.
We haven’t always been good at this. An unfortunate truth in the PG story is that some divorced — and divorced and remarried — Catholics have felt alienated from the church, have suffered from unchristian behavior or have found themselves lost in the annulment process.
This is what Pope Francis wants us to address. Without in any way compromising our belief in the sacredness and indissolubility of marriage, he has called for a new look at our pastoral response, particularly to those who have divorced and remarried without an annulment. He wants the divorced and remarried to know and understand that they are welcome in our parishes and that we have ministries to support them no matter their circumstances.
We have been trying to do so in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. In each region of the diocese there are parishes that offer support groups for the divorced. Get in touch with our diocesan Office for Faith Formation for details (firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-456-3160). Many parishes also have parish advocates to walk people through the annulment process.
We also offer “Beginning Experience” weekends locally throughout the year for those who have suffered the loss of a spouse through separation, divorce or death. They are particularly geared toward those who may feel left out by their church. For information, go to www.BeginningExperience.org.
Most important of all, if you are a divorced and remarried Catholic without an annulment of a previous marriage, don’t stay away. Join us. Talk to your neighborhood pastor. Whatever your story might be, whatever someone might have said to you in the past, whatever your circumstances are now, come and see us.
We are in the business of bringing together, not dividing; welcoming, not condemning.
David A. Zubik is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.