Pope Francis’ “Joy of Love,” a massive document released April 8 that wraps unchanged doctrine on marriage, divorce, and LGBT life in gentle terms, is getting a mixed reaction from U.S. Catholics.
There are many reasons for divorces and one of them is domestic violence. It’s true that there are women and men who experience domestic violence and never leave the marriage; they only want to cleave while others leave for their dear life. Domestic violence can be viewed as family violence but there are family members from whom we may rarely hear in these situations, namely children. Most certainly, domestic violence impacts the perpetrator and victim yet if there are children in the same space, they, too, will be affected. They, too, may even be beaten, battered, and bruised. This is the blues-inflected struggle of life.
The book of Mark focuses a lot on the suffering of Jesus. Pain seems to have some privilege in the way Mark preaches the gospel. He keeps it real. Mark is a truth-teller because even today many travel a trail of tears. The level of pain and the type of pain vary. But the honest truth is that life is not a bouquet of sweet-smelling roses. There are thorns and fractures. There is brokenness — broken bodies and relationships — so it is of no surprise per se when we see Jesus and the Pharisees engage in a conversation about marriage and divorce, topics that may heighten our awareness of human brokenness in our society. It’s no secret that many marriages fail and end in divorce, whether they are people of faith or not.
I practiced family law in California for many years. I know the anguish of the breakup of a marriage. Often one spouse would come to me to try to untangle the legal mess of a marital relationship. What I noticed was how much ambivalence went into the process. So many wished that they could salvage the marriage but for a myriad of reasons it was not possible. Sometimes there were situations of domestic violence, impossible economic pressures and a host of other impossible hurdles. And more often than not, my clients felt judged and ostracized from their church and circle of friends. It was a lonely road to try to find a way beyond the harsh judgments.
The Mark 10 text is a challenging gospel in our society that has a high divorce rate. But I have a hunch that there is a deeper truth that Jesus was trying to get at. First the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus so Jesus responds by tweaking the Pharisees. The Pharisees were playing a game of “gotcha” where they could claim the high ground and discredit this revered teacher. Jesus says in that context that marriage is about love and unity, commitment and engagement. The Pharisees want Jesus to draw the clear bright line that all can easily judge. But life is not so simple.
The streamlined marriage annulment procedures unveiled by the Vatican are aimed at simplifying what is often a tedious gauntlet of red tape. But it’s not clear how much effect the reforms ordered by Pope Francis will have in the U.S., where about half of all annulments are granted even though American Catholics are just 6 percent of the global church.
That’s largely because in recent decades American dioceses have taken a number of steps to make the process less cumbersome and time-consuming, some of which were reflected in the new procedures announced Sept. 8 in Rome.
The new rules, the most sweeping reform in centuries, eliminate an automatic review of any “decree of nullity” by a second panel of church judges, and they provide for what is being called a fast-track option that allows for an annulment to be granted by the local bishop within 45 days if both spouses request an annulment or don’t oppose it.
It’s an issue that potentially affects millions of people: in the U.S., 25 percent of Catholics have been divorced; 26 percent of them say they sought annulment, according to Pew Research.
A LifeWay Research survey released last week on the morality of divorce found that for most Americans, the reason an individual initiates divorce doesn’t matter in terms of how they morally evaluate the rightness or wrongness of that divorce. Pastors, though, still tend to draw moral distinctions between reasons for divorce.
Based on years of research on Christian tradition as it pertains to marriage and divorce, I can tell you what this finding means. The answer is not especially pretty: Routine divorce is now inevitable in American culture, including among religious people — with one possible exception.
Let’s take this problem apart.
While there are no reliable figures, some church followers think the number of congregations using “church discipline” is growing among conservative congregations. As more cases come to light, they raise questions about the biblical basis and legal implications of such practices. Are these church shepherds just doing their best to care for their flocks, or are they crossing a line by shaming and shunning their so-called sinners?
In the United States, United Methodists are fighting about whether to allow clergy to marry gay couples. In Liberia, divorce is on the line.
The United Methodist Church in Liberia recently voted to uphold a long-standing provision barring divorced clergy from running for the office of the bishop.
The church’s leaders say the ban brings moral credibility to the office and guides the conduct of those who want to be bishop.
Pardon the yawn.
The 1.8 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) on March 17 voted to officially approve of same-sex marriage, an announcement that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed the mainline Protestant denomination’s trajectory. Perhaps a more substantial but less widely reported story was the decision by City Church, San Francisco’s largest evangelical congregation, to affirm LGBT couples.
Evangelicals are among the most stalwart opponents to LGBT marriage, but a number of evangelical congregations have publicly shifted their stance in the last year. Among them are Seattle’s Eastlake Community Church, Nashville’s GracePointe Church, Portland’s Christ Church, and New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, Calif. Other prominent evangelical pastors tell me off the record that they are in the midst of similar conversations.
Churches aren’t the only evangelical factions inching left on matters of sexuality.
Prominent U.S. evangelicals Russell Moore and Rick Warren blasted the sexual revolution at a Vatican conference Nov. 18 and said it is destroying the institution of marriage.
Moore, the public face of the Southern Baptist Convention, said sexual liberation had created “a culture obsessed with sex” that had simply led to a “boredom of sex shorn of mystery.”
“Western culture now celebrates casual sexuality, cohabitation, no-fault divorce, family redefinition and abortion right as part of a sexual revolution that can tear down old patriarchal systems,” Moore told a global gathering of leaders from Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths as part of the “Complementarity of Man and Woman” conference convened by Pope Francis.
The Southern Baptist ethicist said the sexual revolution appeared to have imposed a new patriarchy that enabled men to “pursue a Darwinian fantasy of the predatory alpha male” for the pursuit of “power, prestige, and personal pleasure.”
“Does anyone really believe these things will empower women and children?” he asked. “We see the wreckage of sexuality as self-expression all around us, and we will see more yet.”
Pope Francis raised the prospect of no-cost marriage annulments on Nov. 5 after revealing he had dismissed a church official for selling annulments for thousands of dollars, which he called a “public scandal.”
The pontiff made the shocking disclosure as he was addressing canon lawyers at the Vatican for a course on marriage dissolution conducted by the Roman Rota, the church’s highest court.
“We have to be careful that the procedure does not become some kind of business,” the pope said. “There have been public scandals.”
“I had to dismiss a person from a tribunal some time ago who said: ‘Give me $10,000 and I’ll take care of both the civil and ecclesiastical procedures.’ Please, not this!”
Francis did not provide any more details about where or when the sacking occurred. He stressed the need for the church’s annulment procedures to be easier, faster and cheaper. He even suggested fees could be waived.
“When you attach economic interests to spiritual interests, it is not about God,” he said.