This past Sunday, the New York Times ran a front page story about how the Vatican may be revising its stance on divorce. As with many topics, Pope Francis is taking a fresh look at how Roman Catholics live their modern lives of faith in light of their fairly theologically conservative beliefs. I, for one, applaud this. I have long suspected what the New York Times article confirms - that excluding divorced people from communion who have remarried outside the church or without receiving an annulment has caused much harm and even caused some faithful people to leave the church altogether. I understand this, because I was raised Roman Catholic, my family is Roman Catholic, and so is my husband's family. In fact, both my husbands have come from a Roman Catholic background.
I have written here before about my own divorce, and my struggle with sacrament, sin, and the end of my first marriage. Of course I am not a Roman Catholic anymore. I am an Episcopalian, and a priest. In some ways, it has been easier and gentler to be a divorced person in the Episcopal Church, and in some ways, it has not. Because while I believe in some instances we can become too focused on the rules of religious life and not focused enough on the abundant love of God, in some ways we can also forget that God's love comes with promises, and breaking them have consequences. And so I will say that while my experience of the Roman Catholic Church's current view of divorce focuses on sin without forgiveness, my experience in the Episcopal Church is that we often focus on forgiveness without sin.
And this is the paradox of faith. Try as we might, we can never reduce religion to a set of rules. In fact, as Christians, we understand we are saved by faith and not by the Law. As Augustine famously said (maybe), 'Love first. Then do anything you please'. And yet, I think it is easier for us to hear the second part of that statement than the first. Love first. This is the crux of everything we believe, and if we are honest, we fail at it every day.
And so it is not wrong to say that when we fail at loving the person we committed our lives to, we can't just walk away. There is a process of coming to terms with this that involves admitting our own faults, and seeking reconciliation with our former spouse, our friends and family, and our larger community that supports us. Sin, confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation is the well-established path that Christians follow every time we are lost and seeking to return to right relationship with God and others.
There is an element in the Roman Catholic concept of divorce, annulment, and re-marriage that feels to me like trying to boil the messiness of our lives with God down to a set of rules alone. That it is set against the 'do anything you please' mindset and insists on only focusing on our failure to love. This has demonstrably caused undue pain and even alienation to many faithful people. It seems to focus on the sin and confession and be light on forgiveness and reconciliation.
And yet, more liberal theological churches, my own among them, can grasp onto 'do anything you please' without the grounding of 'love first', and make it seem like it is not terribly important that when we divorce, we are breaking a sacramental vow we made with God and another and the whole church. We can veer away from how important recognizing and confessing our sin is to re-establishing the kind of love that sees us through the painful times in our lives and brings us to new life.
So often when the church is dealing with divorce, it seems to be either/or: either you're stuck in a bad marriage because divorce is a sin, or you reject the very tradition that grounds your faith if you leave. Either you annul a marriage, which says that it never happened, you never meant it, or you blame its failure on the other person because you have no other way to process the pain of a marriage falling apart. In all of this, it is hard to find God's love.
The way I see it, like so many ways we live out our Christian beliefs in real time, it is actually both/and. Divorce is a sin and those of us who divorce are forgiven; marriage is a life-long union and divorce is as old as time; God loves us no matter what we do and God calls us to live our lives to the highest standard we can bear. It is the good news that never lets us go, and is always calling us back into true communion.
And if Pope Francis wants any advice about how to sort this out, from someone who has lived it, he knows where to find me. He does follow me on Twitter, after all...