Most Holy Father,
I became a Catholic at the Easter Vigil of 2013 during the same month you became pope. Because we each assumed new relationships with the Church at about the same time, I have felt a special connection to you and your papacy; therefore, I am emboldened to write this letter.
When friends and family ask me why I went through the process of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and converted to Catholicism—after over 50 years in the Lutheran church—I tell them that I believe that the Catholic Church has a rich spiritual and intellectual history and tradition, especially in the contemplative aspects of faith; I feel that the Catholic Church can provide a home that nurtures this very important part of my life. Also, for the past six years, I have been singing in a choir in our parish church in a western suburb of Minneapolis. This church and its congregation, especially my fellow choir members, have become my “church family,” and I want to feel that I am a full and welcome member of that family.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, I converted because the woman whom I love, and have been with since December of 2000, has deep and long family ties to the Catholic Church, and we want to share a spiritual community. We became engaged four months ago and I believe it is God’s plan for us to be married. (What I mean by that is that my heart/mind/body “knows,” at a profound and ineffable level, that it is right and good for us to be together.)
But the Catholic teachings on divorce/annulment/remarriage present a problem for me—and for millions of others.
I am divorced (since 1999), and the woman I love is also divorced (also since 1999). In fact, we met in a “divorce support group” jointly held by her Catholic church and my Lutheran church.
Today’s church policies do not allow us to get married in the Catholic Church unless we each go through the process of getting annulments of our first marriages. If we get married without the annulments, our remarriage will not be recognized, and current church policy is that we should not receive the Eucharist ever again.
I have researched the Catholic view on marriage, as well as the annulment process. I have spoken with several priests and with officials in my archdiocese’s marriage tribunal, and I feel that I understand the history and reasons for the church’s current policies— in an ideal, perfect, and sinless world, all first marriages would endure.
But we are human, and we do not live in such a world. Thankfully, the gospel and grace of Christ’s message is that we do not have to be perfect and sinless in order to receive God’s love.
It appears to me that the strong, clear theological message of God’s love and forgiveness is obscured by the complex layers of canonical law related to marriage/divorce/annulment that have been built up over the centuries.
As you wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (#47):
The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.
I could conclude my letter at this point, as this explanation of the role of the sacrament speaks directly to my concern. But I would like to press the point, and to offer a few more arguments:
First, as humans, we grow and transform throughout our lives—the church’s teaching that only the first marriage can be sacramental seems to deny this. I am a different person today, at age 58, than when I was first married at age 23. I am wiser and humbler. I am more capable of giving and receiving love—from another human and from God. Yet, the church’s teaching on marriage and annulment points back to that specific moment 35 years ago when I said my wedding vows—and the Church assumes that nothing that came after that point in time makes any difference. Just imagine if Saul/Paul had not been recognized as having grown and transformed during his mid-20s or early 30s. Just imagine if the final 35 years of his life were simply ignored by the Church. The history of Christianity would be profoundly different.
Second, the annulment process, carried out as it is by human beings, is flawed. The grounds on which the marriage tribunal can grant annulments are imprecise and somewhat arbitrary. Depending on how canonical law is interpreted by any particular member of any particular tribunal, different results can be obtained.
(In my own Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, the annulment process seems particularly flawed and dysfunctional. The integrity and timeliness of this Archdiocese’s annulment process—as well as its leadership on other issues—are serious problems. I recognize that the Church is populated by humans, and I am willing to give it a second chance. I only wish the Church operated with the same sensitivity toward my situation.)
Third, the Catholic Church’s interpretation of the letter of the gospel regarding marriage and divorce is not the same as those of most other Christian churches. Consider, for example, the policies of the Eastern Orthodox Church, where divorce and remarriage are allowed. Remarriage would not exclude me from receiving communion in my former Lutheran church, for example.
Fourth, the Catholic Church’s insistence that I—raised as a Lutheran and married for the first time in a Lutheran ceremony—must go through a Catholic annulment process seems puzzling to me, and it’s unconscionable to my first wife. In the Lutheran faith, marriage is not a sacrament; only baptism and communion are sacraments. How, then, could my marriage be considered to be “sacramental”?
I believe that churches should respect other religions’ history and traditions, and we should not start crossing boundaries and making demands. (As a side comment, I note that the Catholic Church itself is not happy when other faiths do this, e.g., the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its policy of baptism for the dead, including Catholic ancestors.)
Next, the church’s policy on remarriage and the Eucharist, although intended to be pro-marriage, is actually anti-marriage to many of us. We are asked to choose between two different loves—one human and one spiritual. If we would like to receive the Eucharist and experience God’s love, don’t get married. If we would like to get married and experience human love, don’t bother coming to Mass.
Millions of Catholics are torn by this same dilemma.
And finally, the annulment process, which is sometimes advertised as being a healing process, has re-opened wounds for me and my former wife that were healing reasonably well in the 15 years since our divorce. With the help of family, friends, therapists, meditation—and God—I have been healing. The notion that a tribunal process—carried out by strangers who don’t know me or my full life story—is going to be helpful with my healing is not convincing.
I am trying to live a good and loving life in the footsteps of Christ. I realize that any changes to church policy will not come quickly but I only hope that you can offer some small sign of hope, encouragement, and blessing.
Thank you for your time and attention.