Papal Proclamation Encourages Support For Divorced Families

Catholic Church endorses shared parentingBy William J. Phelan, IV
Cordell & Cordell

In his 2016 proclamation, Amoris Laetitia (or The Joy of Love), Pope Francis discusses the need for communities to be open, accepting, and comforting to families who are going through divorce.

In a refreshing manner, the Pope turns away from judgment or condemnation of divorce and, instead, continues the theme of mercy and love that has been prevalent throughout his papacy. Previously, the Pope has acknowledged the complexities of divorce and offered support for shared parenting

This document also offers suggestions for communities when it comes to supporting those going through divorces; and many of these suggestions can already be found in American law and the American legal system.

This letter is the culmination of a two-year process where the Roman Catholic Church conducted two councils (or synods) and considered feedback from thousands of parishes and clergy throughout the world. While the document is not, per se, ground-breaking as far as papal documents go,[1] it does denote a shift from the Vatican on how the faith community (and even, one could argue, communities-at-large) should treat those who are unfortunately going through a divorce.

A typical — and often incorrect — generalization that the public has in regards to how the Catholic Church treats those who are going through a divorce is that the divorcing parties are to be banished and looked down upon by their communities.

Pennsylvania divorce attorney William Phelan
Cordell & Cordell Pennsylvania divorce attorney William Phelan, IV

Instead, The Joy of Love, explicitly calls for understanding and avoiding “judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations.”[2] The Church recognizes that divorced individuals have unique situations that can cause them distress; and instead of viewing those people as being in “irregular” situations the community needs to be attentive to their background and provide unconditional charity and mercy.[3]

In order to provide such charity and mercy, the document asks local communities and pastors to “accompany these people with solicitude, particularly when children are involved or when they are in serious financial difficulty.”[4]

This call is a particularly astute one to make considering the large number of divorces that involve children and the significant financial resources that may be required to go through a divorce in the American legal system. Such solidarity also continues after the divorced is finalized — communities must not “abandon divorced parents who have entered a new union, but should include and support them in their efforts to bring up their children.”[5]

The Joy of Love demonstrates a shifting in not only how parties should be treated going into a divorce, but also in recognizing that there are practical realities that must be dealt with consequential or tangential to a divorce.

For example, people often remarry after a divorce, and these new relationships need to have positive consequences on the rest of the family.[6] Understanding these subsequent realities further demonstrates the document’s aim to provide comprehensive comfort and mercy for those going through such a troubling process.

There are also striking similarities between the themes found in The Joy of Love and sentiments and directives found in American domestic relations law.

For example, the letter states “[a]part from every other consideration, the good of children should be the primary concern …”[7] Custody laws in Pennsylvania[8] and the District of Columbia,[9] as examples, provide specific emphasis on having courts provide custody decisions that are in the “best interest of the child.” The Pope’s call to care for the best interest of the children is not only for the parents, but the communities who are there to support the family through their transition.[10]

When it comes to the care and custody of the child, the papal document says that “[i]t is irresponsible to disparage the other parent as a means of winning a child’s affection, or out of revenge or self-justification.”

As any good family law practitioner will advise, a parent should not disparage the other in front of the children, as it only breeds discord and may have an adverse effect on the other parent’s relationship with his or her children. Courts also echo this sentiment — in several Pennsylvania counties you can find stock appendices to custody orders drafted by the court that have non-disparagement language.

For efforts of prevention and amelioration, when couples are separated or nearing separation, the Church calls for counselling and mediation services.[11]Likewise, civil law requires a notice that counseling is available for certain types of divorce actions and can even require counseling if requested by a spouse.[12]

One of the main points to take away from The Joy of Love is recognition from a major religion that society and communities need to take people as they come and offer them and their families assistance and love, instead of judgment and denouncement. In shifting its focus in such a way, communities should be sure to also do what is best for any children who may be adversely affected by a divorce.

Thankfully, several of these sentiments are already found in American law and thus offer a comforting scenario where both the civil and the spiritual have a mutual goal of providing domestic harmony.

William Phelan is an attorney in Cordell & Cordell’s Philadelphia office. He is a graduate of The Catholic University of America where he received his degree in Classics with a minor in Religious Studies. He is also a graduate of The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law.


[1] See Amoris Laetitia,2016, at 300.

[2] Id., at 296

[3] See id., at 296, 297, 301.

[4] Id., at 242.

[5] Id., at 246.

[6] See id., at 300.

[7] Id., at 245.

[8] See 23 Pa.C.S. A. §§ 2731(1), 5323(a).

[9] See D.C. Code § 16-914(a)(1)(A).

[10] See Amoris Laetitia, at 246.

[11] See id., at 244.

[12] See 23 Pa.C.S.A § 3302.

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