(OSV News) -- For divorced Catholics, the trauma of separation can often be twofold: In addition to a collapsed marriage, which stress-measuring "life change index scales" rate as second only to the death of a spouse or child, they may find themselves feeling abandoned by their own church, with little more initial guidance or accompaniment than an annulment petition form. For those civilly remarried outside the church, the exclusion can seem even more intense.
In an apparent recognition of the need to pastorally attend to these situations, the forthcoming 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops -- otherwise known as the Synod on Synodality, which Pope Francis convenes in Rome this October -- will examine ways to accompany divorced and remarried Catholics.
The synod's working document -- or "Instrumentum Laboris" as it's called in Latin -- was released June 20 by the Holy See to guide the synod's upcoming discussion in Rome across a spectrum of issues.
The working document notes that the fact that issues such as "the acceptance of remarried divorcees," which was addressed in Pope Francis' 2016 teaching "Amoris Laetitia," continue to emerge "should not be hastily dismissed." Instead, it said the synod is "a privileged forum" for discerning "the obstacles, real or perceived" that have prevented the implementation of teaching documents and how they can be resolved.
Several Catholics involved in ministry to the divorced told OSV News the synod needs to grapple with how the church's significant gaps in this area are affecting Catholic adults and their families.
"The church is vastly underserving divorced Catholics," said Vince Frese, author and creator of the Recovering from Divorce program and www.divorcedcatholic.com. "We didn't do a good job at all ministering to those Catholics when they went through a divorce. We don't provide, in any kind of consistent or broad way throughout the church, ministry to divorced Catholics," he said. "It's very much parish by parish -- and roughly less than 15% of parishes have any kind of ministry to divorced Catholics."
In 2015, Pew Research Center found 25% of Catholic adults have been divorced, compared to 31% of the general population. Just over a third of these divorced adults remarried, and only a quarter said they or their former spouse sought a declaration of nullity, what is commonly known as an "annulment".
A declaration of nullity is the church's morally certain conclusion, after a thorough investigation into the truth of the marriage, that the sacrament of matrimony did not take place, either due to factors affecting the man or woman's intentions or free consent, or the failure to get married in the presence of an authorized Catholic priest or deacon. The church's finding of whether or not a sacramental marriage took place does not affect the legal status of the marriage or children under civil law, or parental obligations.
In a bid to avoid future marriage failure by laying a stronger foundation, the Vatican's Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life released in June 2022 "Catechumenal Pathways for Married Life" -- with an introduction by Pope Francis, which proposes a style of marriage preparation, similar to the baptismal catechumenate for new Catholics, lasting approximately a year, with ongoing formation and support in the first years of marriage.
But the document also acknowledges the church's struggles with respect to marriages in crisis and that end in separation, noting in particular that "few parishes" offer pastoral care to abandoned spouses that have not civilly remarried out of faithfulness to their matrimonial vows. At the same time, "Catechumenal Pathways" affirmed "the ability of separated faithful to offer pastoral care, since they can play meaningful roles in their communities by coming to the aid of others."
The presence of pastoral care in a parish for separated, divorced or civilly remarried Catholics can make a profound difference in their spiritual journey and relationship to the church.
"When they come to church and hear there's a ministry serving the needs of divorced Catholics, and that it's having this educational program, this social program, this spiritual program that's really tuned and geared to their needs, they feel welcome; they feel understood; they feel connected to their faith," Frese said.
Rose Sweet, author of the "The Catholic’s Divorce Survival Guide," agreed with Frese, and said there is an opportunity for dioceses and parishes to work together to implement these ministries.
"We need to have one skilled, trained and compassionate contact person in every diocese," Sweet said, "so every parish could reach out to and make contact with that person regarding helping the divorced, the separated and the remarried."
Sweet said to imagine the following scenario: "I've been divorced and remarried for 20 years -- I knew it was wrong, but didn't really understand why; I just did it anyway. Now I'm feeling called more deeply into my faith."
At this point, Sweet said, illustrating the not-so-imaginary situation, a person goes down to the parish where "they don't know how to deal with it." And that can include the priests, where "Father is harsh and says, 'You can't sleep with that person anymore; you have to move out,' or another priest goes, 'It's OK; you love each other -- just come back to Communion.'"
"This is not a new problem," Sweet said. "I've been in the trenches -- and those bleeding people come to me. ... This is deep and systemic -- in almost every Catholic family. It is not a fringe issue."
Not tending these injuries has a ripple effect of consequences on not only divorced individuals, but also their families.
"They leave the church -- and that trickles down to their children," said Sweet. "This is a generational, pass-down thing."
Bethany Meola, who with her husband, Daniel Meola, founded Life-Giving Wounds, a Catholic ministry dedicated to adult children of divorce or separation, echoed Sweet's assertion.
"There's clearly connections in the research between coming from a home where your parents have split up, that those children are less likely to be active in their faith," Meola noted.
"They're less likely to consider themselves as belonging to a church community; they're more likely to get divorced themselves if they do marry; and they're less likely to marry," she said.
Still, Meola is optimistic that "those statistics are never destiny -- there's always hope."
Elsewhere, the synod's working document asks how the church can "make credible the promise that 'love and truth will meet' (Ps 85:11)." It also noted the "desire to offer genuine welcome is a sentiment expressed by synod participants across diverse contexts," and the synod's final documents from the continental phase often mentioned concern for "those who do not feel accepted in the Church, such as the divorced and remarried."
The working document also asks how the Catholic Church can create space where "those who feel hurt by the Church and unwelcomed by the community feel recognized, received, free to ask questions and not judged." It also asks the global synod's participants to consider concrete steps to "welcome those who feel excluded from the Church because of their status or sexuality" including "remarried divorcees."
Discussing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics' exclusion from receiving the Eucharist, Stephen Tartaglia -- president of the national Catholic Divorce Ministry and family life director for the Diocese of Ogdensburg, New York, said, "A lot of them will say, 'Well, why should I go (to Mass)?'"
Tartaglia explained, "When you're trying to get people together for things -- particularly people who are in irregular marital situations -- they're less likely to attend Mass. But they're much more likely to attend a rosary meeting, or a Stations of the Cross or Ash Wednesday -- something where the reception of Communion isn't going to be so evident," he added. "You can bring them into these prayer services much more easily than you can to a Mass."
Tartaglia suggested this approach can provide a path for pastoral engagement and eventual marital status in conformity with church teaching.
"I think that might be a way the church could look at, to start creating those spaces it talks about (in the synod's working document) -- create the space to welcome people in a way that's going to be less likely they're going to be judged, and in a way they're going to be accepted and able to participate more fully, more freely without any hindrances," Tartaglia said. "I think those are ways that the church might want to explore."