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Renewed hope for acceptance; Vatican revisits divorce.

Byline: Michael Paulson

Mark Garren does not take Communion when he goes to church. Sometimes he walks up to the priest, crosses his arms over his chest and touches his shoulders to signal that he is seeking a blessing. More often, mindful of his divorce years ago, Garren, a 64-year-old Illinoisan, remains in his pew, watching with slight embarrassment as the rest of the row moves to the front of the church.

Pamela Crawford, 46, of Virginia, is having none of that. Twice divorced, she, too, feels judged by her church, but when she does go to Mass, she walks up with the rest of the congregation. "If God has a problem with me taking Communion, we'll sort it out,'' she said.

Facing millions of divorced Catholics around the world, many of whom express frustration over their status in the church, the Vatican has begun a remarkable re-examination of the church's treatment of worshippers whose marriages have broken apart.

Pope Francis, who plans to make his first trip to the United States in September to attend a conference on families, has acknowledged the concerns of divorced Catholics.

He has set in motion a high-level debate about whether and how the church could change its posture toward them without altering a doctrine that declares marriage to be permanent and indissoluble.

The battle lines are clear: Some high-level church officials, most notably the conference of German bishops, want the church to relax its rules so divorced Catholics can more fully return to church life, particularly by receiving Communion, even if they have remarried.

Traditionalists are pushing back fiercely, arguing that the indissolubility of marriage is ordained by God and therefore nonnegotiable.

In October, bishops from around the world argued about divorce, among other topics, at a synod on family issues; this October, a larger group of bishops will meet for a second Vatican synod at which they will decide whether to recommend changes. The decision of whether to act, then, will be up to Francis.

Watching closely are many of the Catholics whose marriages have fallen apart. An estimated 28 percent of U.S. Catholic adults who have ever been married have since divorced, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. That rate is lower than in the general public, but still constitutes 11 million people, the researchers said.

For many divorced Catholics, the church's approach raises an existential question, said Helen Alvare, a law professor at George Mason University: "What is my place in the church, and do I feel welcomed?''

Alvare, who is a former spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops, said the indissolubility of marriage is a Catholic essential, "a key to the entire Roman Catholic cosmology -- our understanding of the world, God, our relationship with him and our relationship to one another.'' But, she added, questions about the place of divorced worshippers in the church fit into a larger context of uncertainty for Catholics who do not fully live out the church's ideals.

"There's a lot of divorced Catholics out there, and have we let these sheep wander without reaching out to them?'' Alvare asked. "Jesus wants us to look after all the sheep, no matter what.''

The church does offer a solution for some divorced Catholics: Apply for an annulment, a declaration by the church that a marriage was never truly valid.

Local priests make these determinations based on church laws that allow annulments for a variety of reasons, from mental illness to a "grave defect of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and duties.'' In interviews with Catholics nationwide, some divorced Catholics praised the annulment process and said they felt the church treated them with compassion.

"They were very welcoming, letting me know I was welcome in the church regardless of what happened,'' said Jane Himmel, 50, of Denton, Texas, who had been twice divorced when she approached the church.

Katherine Metres, 42, a writer in Washington, D.C., said her annulment had been straightforward.

"I found it a very nice process,'' she said. "The priests said, 'We want to help you come to terms with your marriage.' '' (But now her fiance is having trouble getting an annulment of his previous marriage, and the couple is frustrated.)

Many Catholics said they found the annulment process intrusive, cumbersome and costly -- an annulment can cost hundreds of dollars in some dioceses. Only 15 percent of divorced Catholics seek to annul their marriages, according to the Georgetown researchers.

Last year, dioceses in Ohio and Indiana, acknowledging the cost concerns, announced they were eliminating fees for annulments. On Friday, Francis told a group of church judges in Rome, "I would like all marriage processes to be free of charge.''

And on Saturday, speaking to a conference on annulments, he rued how long the annulment process can take, saying the proceedings are "often perceived by spouses as long and wearisome.''

Many Catholics hesitate because they wonder themselves how to reconcile divorce with their own loyalty to Catholicism's teachings.

"The whole concept of marriage being a sacrament that is provided by God and cannot be undone by man is pretty fundamental, and I don't know how the church will resolve it,'' said Scott Frost, 60, of Glendale, California, who stopped practicing Catholicism after balking at the annulment process. Like many Catholics, he is hoping for a change.

Beyond the issues of church doctrine and procedure are complaints about how divorced Catholics are treated at the parish level. Many divorced Catholics sensed isolation, saying they felt judged or ostracized by priests and parishioners.

Women in particular expressed unhappiness at feeling interrogated by church tribunals during the annulment process about failed marriages, especially when abusive or adulterous husbands precipitated the breakup.

"You're dealing with an abusive husband who is male, and then you have to go to a male to get the annulment, and a bunch of males sit at a table and decide whether your decision was correct,'' said Denise Stookesberry, 58, of St. Louis. "It certainly alienated me as a woman.''

She responded by giving up on the annulment process rather than filling out documents that asked about her marital sex life.

She later lost her job at a Catholic high school when she remarried, and then left Catholicism -- for a time thinking that she was putting her soul in danger by doing so.

Many others have followed a similar path: When bishops survey parishes -- as they did last year at the behest of the Vatican -- they reach only a fraction of those affected because many divorced Catholics are no longer in the pews. A significant number have left for Protestant churches, where they feel more welcome. Others have abandoned institutional religion altogether.

Often, that is not their preference.

"Everyone can say, 'Go get another flavor of soda if you don't like this one,' but I don't want to be Methodist or Lutheran,'' said Andrea Webb, 47, of Palm Harbor, Florida, who stopped going to church after deciding she would be able to get an annulment only if she criticized her ex-husband in ways she did not believe were truthful.

When she remarried without an annulment, Webb added, a priest told her that her status was akin to that of an adulterer, so she could not receive Communion.

Then, she said, she was particularly aggrieved when a priest she knew was accused of abusing minors.

"I wasn't worthy to receive Communion, and the guy giving Communion was a molester,'' she said. "It seems terribly unjust.''

Many parishes now have outreach programs for the divorced, and some have liaisons to help those who are divorced get through the annulment process.

The efforts to change the annulment process seem to be paying off in some parishes.

"Despite the fact that going through an annulment certainly brings up painful memories, can take a long time and can sometimes seem unfair -- I would not want the church to lower the bar or standards for annulment,'' said Leah Campos, 42, of Arlington, Virginia, who is trying to annul her marriage. "I still respect the sacrament of matrimony and the church's desire to keep it sacred against the will of our coarsened culture.''

Still, for many, the church makes too many demands for re-entry to church life. It is often as if there are only two options, many Catholics said: Be dishonest or depart.

Some Catholics said they did not want to annul their marriages because of how it might look or feel for their children.

Others said their divorces had been so contentious that they did not want to take part in a process in which the church asked them to share information about their romantic or emotional lives or sought to contact their former spouses.

"I was married -- I entered into it with the right ideas, and to say different would be a lie,'' said Carol Trankle, 72, of Rapid City, South Dakota, who stopped going to church 40 years ago.

"I consider myself a Catholic to this day,'' she said. "I just can't participate.''
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Author:Paulson, Michael
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 25, 2015
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