Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Pastoral Letter on Widowed, Separated and Divorced

by Bishop Joseph V. Sullivan

Descriptive Title

Widowed, Separated and Divorced


This is an excellent, inspiring pastoral letter written by the late Bishop Sullivan of Baton Rouge, LA. He deals with the subject with truth and charity.

Larger Work

Orthodoxy of the Catholic Doctrine



Publisher & Date

Fr. Milan Mikulich, OFM, STD, January - March 1981

The Church in our time must bear witness to the mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ and must profess it as a truth of faith and as essential for a life in harmony with faith. The Church must make God's mercy incarnate in the lives of her faithful and, as far as possible, in the lives of all people of good will. She evidences authenticity when she professes and proclaims mercy. On the thirtieth day of November, the First Sunday of Advent, 1980, our Holy Father issued his most recent encyclical letter, Dives in Misericordia, which is a "magna charta" on the mercy of God, and I recommend that the sons and daughters of this Local Church read it and meditate upon it.

The "mercy from generation to generation" in Mary's Magnificat reminds the living Church that it must always apply God's mercy to the sufferings of the human family, especially to those who suffer most, sinners. In our midst there are many within the Household of the Faith, members of the Catholic Church, who experience the pain of loneliness and at times the feeling of abandonment. I speak especially of the widowed, the separated, the "divorced and remarried." The ministry of Christ through His Church must be ever more and more efficaciously available to these wounded human beings. They reflect in a real way the image of the crucified Christ, and in ministering to each of them, we minister to Jesus Christ.

The thrust of such a ministry must have taken into consideration that the widowed, the separated, the "divorced," and the "divorced and remarried" constitute groups of persons in entirely different circumstances. Though persons in each of these groupings have needs in common with the others, in fact in common with all members of the Body of Christ, yet the spiritual status of all of these persons cannot be considered essentially the same. An effective ministry must be adapted to meet the healing needs of persons in each of these groupings, tailoring ministry specifically to the needs of each of these groups. To ignore these differences, which inevitably affect the life-style situations incumbent upon persons by reason of their marital status, is to hazard disaster resulting in confusion worse confounded.

Love and truth never collide. God is the infinite perfection of both. We humans may have difficulty from time to time reconciling justice and mercy, the death of a loved one, even the existence of Heaven and Hell, but in God this involves no contradiction or difficulty. With the certitude of our Catholic Faith, neither should it be a stumbling block to us, though we must remember, and with compassionate understanding, that for some the cross and Christ crucified are only signs of contradiction. In a positive way, witnessing the mercy of God in truth. His Church must offer healing ministry especially on the parish level to all these groups of persons of whom I speak. None should have just cause for feeling abandoned by God or His Church.

The Widowed

The parish community has the potential of healing, of relieving in a significant way the loneliness of the widowed within their midst. Though providing cultural and social opportunities of participation for the widowed can be very helpful. It is especially in the realm of the spiritual that meaningful aid can be rendered the widowed. Days of recollection, an annual spiritual retreat especially tailored to uplift and inspire the widowed to a new fullness of life in Christ are readily available means to change the outlook of the widowed where present difficulties will appear as possibilities of greater union with Christ.

In his encyclical letter, "Holy Virginity," Pope Pius XII observes concerning the widowed "…others after the death of their spouse, have consecrated to God their remaining years in the unmarried state . . . have chosen to lead a life of perfect chastity . . . for love of God to abstain for the rest of their lives from sexual pleasure, in order to devote themselves more freely to the meditation of divine things and better experience the elevations of the spiritual life."

Presuming the absence of any impediment, the widowed spouse is free to enter a second marriage. Pastoral counsel should always be sought and a charitable consideration should be given to attitudes of children and relatives. However, children and relatives and close friends and the parish community should be understanding of the rights and needs of the widowed and offer loving support and understanding cooperation. Without the anchor of their Catholic faith and the sure knowledge that they are loved as persons by the living church, in their loneliness, possible frustration and inability in some instances to accept the death of a spouse with perfect resignation to God's Holy Will, they can become easily victims of our secularist society with its neopagan ethics. The widowed are vulnerable to temptations such as dating "divorced" persons, which indiscretions can readily lead to an invalid second marriage. Pastors have the obligation but also the great opportunity to show concern for the widowed and their spiritual life, and to confirm them in their knowledge of Catholic truth and fidelity to moral doctrine.

Separated And Separated And "Divorced"

Both the separated and "divorced" Catholic understandably may experience feelings of embarrassment and partial guilt. Even a spouse who is unwillingly separated may often sense anxiety as to culpable omissions that may have contributed to marital failure and the loss of a Christian home. Separation is not a free moral option of one or even both of the spouses. The marital union with its grave obligations endures until the death of a spouse. It is only in situations involving the gravest of circumstances, i.e., the safety of spouse or children, etc., that a separation can be viewed as morally acceptable. Even an unfaithful spouse may not be abandoned for that reason alone. Catholics seriously contemplating separation should seek spiritual counsel and the advice of a confessor prior to the separation. Apostolates such as "Marriage Encounter" can prove to be a valuable aid in preventing marital breakup and in the restoration of Christian conjugal renewal.

It is not difficult to imagine as we reflect on all of these facets that might well trouble the conscience of a separated spouse, even when the separation is morally justified, to conclude that the separated spouse may be depressed and given to moments of despair. The parish community must never judge pejoratively the separated spouse. The separated spouse must be accepted in a spirit of charity and concern. The parish priest should discreetly ascertian the feasibility of reconciliation and, when possible, encourage the parties to a broken marriage to attempt marital reunion. Professional counseling may be advisable, but most important, spiritual renewal is necessary. Many separated couples are happily reunited, and the Christian home is restored in its beauty and service to the community. In the interim, the spouse and the children of the separated and "divorced" should be the recipients of pastoral ministry. The spouses and members of "broken families" should be encouraged to frequent the sacraments. Parish support groups under the spiritual direction of a priest can be very valuable in offering effective ministry to the separated and "divorced" Catholic. All those involved in this ministry of love and truth must be ever mindful that these persons are not free to enter a second "marriage" since in the eyes of God and of His Church, they are married. Especially if reconciliation is judged impossible they should be motivated positively to the practice of perfect chastity and to avoid the habit of "dating" and other occasions of sin. It is our first obligation in charity to help these persons attain eternal life with Christ. Support groups must never condescend to conforming their approach to the maxims of Western culture permissiveness.

The "Divorced And Remarried"

Some writers attempt to convince the faithful that even sacramental marriages can deteriorate to such an extent that the marriage itself ceases and the spouses are no longer obliged to keep their promise of lifelong fidelity. Some misguided and misguiding "theologians" urge the Church to acknowledge such dissolution and allow the parties to enter new unions. The Catholic Church rejects this view (Gaudium et spes, 48). The covenant between a man and a woman joined in Christian marriage is as indissoluble and irrevocable as God's love for His people and Christ's love for His Church. Young people and engaged couples must be taught the true meaning of Christian marriage. Married couples must experience the support and encouragement of the parish community in their efforts to honor their commitments. In the face of strong, contrary social pressures, the Church has a serious obligation to help married couples meet the challenge. In worship, in sacraments, in pastoral care, in education and counseling, the Local Church especially must effectively assist husbands and wives who are striving to realize their obligations to God, to themselves, to their family and to the community.

It is a tragic fact that with increasing frequency "broken marriages," sacramental, indissoluble unions, de facto terminate in a civil divorce court, and Catholic spouses attempt second "marriages" that are invalid before God and His Church. In this sensitive area a pastoral response of the Church is needed but especially difficult to formulate.

"Divorced" Catholics who have suffered this augmented marital tragedy of living in an invalid second union are in dire need of the salvific ministry of His Church. The most explicit and absolute prohibition of remarriage after "divorce" is recorded in the Gospel of St. Luke: "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. The man who marries a woman divorced from her husband likewise commits adultery" (Luke 16:28).

The United States Bishops' Pastoral on Moral Values, "To Live in Christ Jesus," reminds us, "We must seek ways by which the Church can mediate Christ's compassion to those who have suffered marital tragedy, but at the same time we may do nothing to undermine His teaching concerning the beauty and meaning of marriage and in particular His prophetic demands concerning the indissolubility of the unions of those who marry in the Lord. The Church must ever be faithful to the command to serve the truth in love."

Remembering the power of prayer, penance and sacrifice, the parish community should be encouraged to pray for these people, that with God's grace they may ultimately find their way to complete conversion and reconciliation with God and His Church, of which they are still members, although only imperfectly. Lumen Gentium 11 n. 6 citing Pius XII, Mediator Dei, states that God does not refuse His grace to those who beg for it through humble prayers in order to be torn away from sin. Such a prayer of request, when made during Mass, is a way of offering oneself up as victim with Christ obedient unto death. Persons living in invalid marriages can offer a similar request at Mass through the all-powerful hands of Mary, immaculate refuge of all sinners.

Parish priests prudently and pastorally must patiently reach out in ministry to these Catholics, assuring them of the suffrages of the Church, reminding them that they are welcome to attend all Church services and that they have the obligation of fulfilling the precepts of the Church. Though the virtue of prudence must rule the approach, parish priests and all catechists and those counseling in the name of the Church must know and present unequivocally the mind of the Church and the reasons behind her teaching to those sincerely seeking to know. Inquirers can always be referred to a competent priest. Parish support groups may involve such persons of good will in social apostolates and works of charity. The lifestyle of these people may evidence that they do not have a "right conscience," but this does not mean, at least in every instance, that they are living in a bad conscience, and this distinction does constitute a big difference. Therefore, we are never justified in judging pejoratively any person. Likewise, such persons are created in the image and likeness of God; Christ died for them also. We must love them and respect them as persons, and evidence this. Charity must prevail. Though support groups should evidence compassion and understanding, they may not witness, explicitly or implicitly, that the living Church condones the "marital" lifestyle of those living in an invalid marriage. To do so would be to betray them.

The Catholic Church is always the Church of martyrs. No one is worthy of Christ who is not ready to give his life, and, therefore, to sacrifice his sensual passions for the glory of God. The Church has recently reaffirmed the traditional discipline that persons living in invalid marriages may not receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, confirmed this teaching at the conclusion of the recent Roman Synod.

Despite all possible objections, we can say that the Church is not being cruel toward the "divorced and remarried." There is no question here of an ecclesiastical punishment, but of the application of the basic law, which excludes from communion those who persist in a serious sin.

Liturgical prayer witnesses the teaching of the Church. In the Latin rite, in the preparatory prayers for communion, the Church desires and asks, "Lord Jesus Christ, with faith in your love and mercy I eat your body and drink your blood. Let it not bring me condemnation," thus referring to St. Paul's teaching on unworthy communion (1 Cor. 11:27-29). In the same context, the Church places on our lips the Gospel prayer of those who are unworthy and who, with a firm purpose of amendment and contrition, ask God for the grace of worthiness, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed" (Matthew 8:8).

Sacred Scripture, the Latin and Greek Fathers of the Church, papal documents confirm the Ordinary Magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church, supporting its discipline of not admitting persons living in invalid marriages to Holy Communion. The will to persist in adultery or any serious vice is incompatible with the will to receive Holy Communion worthily. St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians reminds us, "Every time you eat this bread and drink of this cup, you announce the death of the Lord until he comes . . . " How could a Catholic living in an invalid marriage be announcing in his flesh the death of the Lord as he goes to communion, when, on the contrary, such a person is becoming guilty of this death not only by persisting in a habit of sin, but also by drinking unrepentantly of the chalice of His Blood? By "eating and drinking his own condemnation," he is not announcing that this death is redeeming, but rather such a person multiplies the announcement of condemnation.

Those in Heaven have no need of our prayers, but, in the beautiful doctrine of the Communion of Saints, we are encouraged to pray to them as saints and martyrs to intercede for us in accordance with God's Providence. Those in Hell are beyond our power to assist in any way. They have freely chosen to reject eternally God's mercy and forgiveness. Those in Purgatory are in need of our prayers, and, as Scripture exhorts us, "It is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead." The Church Militant on earth, composed of sinners like ourselves, striving with God's help to become saints, prays to receive and persevere in the great theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. Those living in serious sin may have hope of obtaining Charity and ultimate union with God. It is because of this hope due to God's "mercy from generation to generation" that this Pastoral Letter has been written.

Those living in an invalid marriage can attain real happiness in this life and Beatitude only by observing chastity. Purity is the answer, and all near occasions of sins of impurity must be avoided at whatever price and sacrifice may be necessary. Purity is not something negative; it is not something cold. Purity is not merely the absence of sensuality; it is selflessness born of the highest love of all. Chastity is not an impossible virtue. Even those who do not have it, may yet possess it. St. Augustine refers to Mary Magdalen as "the arch-virgin." She recovered purity. A short time later Sacred Scripture places her on Good Friday at the foot of the cross, and standing beside her is the Blessed Mother. That's a remarkable companionship. Mary loved Magdalen. She can love us. Because there was hope for Magdalen, there can be hope for those who presently persist in habits of sin. In the Litany of Loreto, Mary is called Mother Most Pure. Purity lost can be regained only through the intercession of Mary, Mother Most Pure. Only this way can those presently persisting in habits of sin hope for Charity and Beatitude. In fact, the third Beatitude reads, "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God." A false maxim of the world would tell us that, "love is blind." Our Lord says love is not blind. "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see . . . " even God. Pray that Mary, Mother Most Pure, will open our eyes.

Faithfully yours in Christ,

Joseph V. Sullivan

Most Reverend Joseph V. Sullivan, S.T.D.

Bishop of Baton Rouge

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