Why do so many people feel excluded by the Church–especially those who are divorced and remarried–and what can we do about it?

Missing the Mission
It appears to me that a lot of the anger and pain experienced by people is caused by confusion about what Church is and what it’s meant to do. In order to appropriately address people’s hurt I think we, as Church, need to do a better job of communicating our mission.

What does that mean?

The Church as Hospital
Pope Francis has noted that the Church is a hospital. That sounds very affirming and it is. But what people forget is that you only need to go to the hospital if you’re sick. At the point when you think you’re healthy, you either don’t need the hospital or you have to leave it.
The problem–in our metaphor of Church as hospital–is that, these days, a lot of people come to the hospital because they think it is a nice building with a lot of interesting equipment in it and they want to explore the various rooms. Eventually, they bump into a doctor. Mistaking them for a patient, he asks what’s wrong with them. They become offended and exclaim, “How dare you say there is something wrong with me!” The doctor stares at the erstwhile patient and, in all innocence, says, “Well then, if you aren’t sick, then what are you doing here? You’re not just trespassing are you?” And the person screams, “How dare you try to exclude me!”

What’s Your Diagnosis?

The Church is far from perfect, but too often people who assert that they are alienated from the Church feel that way primarily because the Church necessarily insists that to be a member you have to be willing to admit that you (1) are spiritually sick, (2) that you need a diagnosis (i.e., sinner”), and (3) that you are willing to participate in the treatment. If you aren’t willing to do those things, you really have no business taking beds and food away from the patients who are lining up in the hall waiting to be admitted.
It isn’t that people’s anger at the Church isn’t real and doesn’t deserve to be respected, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Church is really only for people who are willing to see it as the place where they get diagnosed and treated for the spiritual diseases that are preventing them from receiving the gift of eternal life.

Marriage: Here’s Your Sign…

It is a profoundly sad and painful reality that Catholics who have remarried after divorce feel excluded from the Church. But to understand why these couples are not admitted to communion, you need to understand that the Church thinks of marriage differently than the world does. While the Church certainly values the earthly benefits of marriage, it primarily values marriage because of what it points toward. Sacramental marriage is meant to be an icon to the world; a physical sign of the kind of unconditional, committed love God wants to share with each of us (Eph 5:31-32). The fact that God wants this kind of relationship with us is hard to get our heads around. We need some kind of experience–some physical sign– that shows us this sort of love is even possible. This is where marriage comes in.

A Broken Sign

When the Church says that there is something wrong with remarriage after divorce (without the benefit of an annulment) it isn’t saying that the couple can’t somehow manage to be happy together or that there is anything (necessarily) wrong with that couple’s relationship from a worldly point of view. It is, however, saying that that the couples’ ‘sign’ is broken. They cannot adequately represent to the world the faithful love that Bridegroom Christ has for his Bride, the Church. That really isn’t a judgment against the couple. It is a spiritual diagnosis. The Church is eager to do whatever is possible to facilitate that healing and so she welcomes the divorced and remarried person just like she welcomes any other patient to the hospital, not with judgment, but with a diagnosis and a treatment plan.

A Painful Course of Treatment

Because it cuts right through the heart of the primary image God uses to reveal his love for the Church, remarriage after divorce (without the benefit of an annulment) is a particularly serious spiritual disorder. Currently, there are only two treatment options; either the couple can embrace the penance of living as brother and sister unless or until they can receive a declaration of nullity for the original and still valid marriage, or the couple can embrace the penance of being that broken sign and refrain from communion. These are painful treatments, but as any cancer patient can tell you, treatments for serious illnesses are often quite painful. Again, the treatment is not a judgment on the couple. It is a recognition of the seriousness of the spiritual disorder.

Asking Important Questions

Frankly, the Church has done a horrible job communicating these truths and this is one thing the Church is attempting to address. One important question the Pope and bishops are asking is, “Is there a way that we can continue to do our job of diagnosing and providing treatment for spiritual disorders–such as remarriage after divorce–without making people feel judged by our diagnoses?” Another question is, “Are there treatments for this disorder (of remarriage after divorce) that could work as well but be less painful?”
These are important but challenging questions, and there aren’t any easy answers to either of them. But one thing the Church cannot do is say that a spiritual sickness is actually a sign of health, and a broken sign is, actually, not broken.

About the author
Dr Gregory Popcak is a therapist, radio host and author of many books. The director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, he and his staff provide Catholic counselling by telephone to clients around the world. He is a devoted husband to Lisa and father of three.