divorce

Serving the 'sad sisterhood' of those who have lost unborn children

Serving the 'sad sisterhood' of those who have lost unborn children

Priests who scan their flocks on Mother's Day will see lots of women smiling during the many blessings, hugs and kind words.

 But if they look closer, they will also see women who are trying not to cry. Some may be embracing their children, while struggling with memories of loss.

"We have not prepared our priests to handle the complex emotions that come with losing an unborn child," said Kara Palladino, founder of A Mom's Peace, a support network located in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington (Va.). "This is something we need to talk about. Many priests have no idea the magnitude of this loss and the challenges that come with it."

Seminaries prepare pastors to deal with many kinds of grief. Often, clergy can focus on memories of life together, even after an accident or illness that takes a child.

"A miscarriage is something different. We are dealing with the loss of something unknown. … This can lead to a silent pain that many mothers try to keep to themselves. When a woman loses an unborn child she becomes part of what we call 'the sad sisterhood,' " said Palladino. 

A Mom's Peace is rooted in Catholic teachings, but its all-volunteer team helps people of all faiths. Palladino and the group's other leaders call this a "lay apostolate" -- as opposed to a church-based ministry -- since so much of their work occurs in the secular world of hospitals, mortuaries, cemeteries and other institutions linked to death and dying.

It's impossible for clergy to avoid this issue. After all, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriages, according to Mayo Clinic statistics. Deaths that take place 20 weeks or more after conception are less common, but affect about 1 percent of pregnancies.

Palladino walked this path after losing her seventh child, Francis, who died in utero and she has lost three additional unborn children. She was stunned by how complicated, and expensive, it was to seek dignified burials for unborn children.

Media storm about domestic violence stirs up old issues for Southern Baptists

Media storm about domestic violence stirs up old issues for Southern Baptists

It's a fact of life for clergy: They never know when ordinary conversations will turn into potentially tense encounters that some believers consider "counseling."

Many pastors have been trained, to some degree, in "pastoral counseling." Some may even have professional credentials. All of them face the challenge of handling tricky, dangerous moments when discussions of sin, repentance, forgiveness, prayer and healing turn into issues of safety and law.

Domestic violence is, of course, a bright red line. That often means there are complex faith issues linked to divorce looming in the background.

"Things have greatly improved in the past five to 10 years," said Denny Burk, leader of the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College, on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus in Louisville, Ken. "Evangelical awareness has increased when it comes to mandatory reporting of domestic violence cases. I'm not sure many people were talking about that 20 years ago.

"We're not where we need to be, by any means. Lots of people in our pews, and even some leaders, still don't understand how important this is. ... At a seminary, we talk about these issues all the time."

There are cries for more change, as waves of #MeToo news have led to #ChurchToo debates. Then an anonymous source gave the Washington Post an audiotape from 2000 in which a revered Southern Baptist leader claimed that Christians must do everything they can to stop divorce, even if that means strategic silence about domestic violence. This recording had already caused debates in the past.

"It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree," said the Rev. Paige Patterson, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention's conservative revolution in the 1980s. He is currently president of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

"I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce, and that's always wrong counsel," he said.

Pope Francis and the shipwreck that is marriage in the modern world

Imagine that there is an active Catholic layman named "Bob" and that his complicated life has included a divorce or two.

But there is no one person named "Bob." Instead, there are legions of Catholics whose lives resemble this case study described by Father Dwight Longenecker in an online essay responding to "Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family)," a 60,000-word apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis.

The fictional Bob is a 1960s survivor and he has "lived that way." His first wedding was on a beach, after he and his lover got high and also got pregnant. Years later Bob married a rich older woman. Years after that he became a Christian in an evangelical flock, where he met Susan -- a lapsed Catholic.

This is where things get complicated.

Bob and Susan "married outside the church, but then Susan rediscovered her Catholic faith and she and Bob started going to Mass," wrote Longenecker. Then Bob converted to Catholicism in a liberal parish "where the priest waved a hand and said he didn't need to worry about 'all that annulment stuff.'

"So Bob became a Catholic and now 20 years later, he and Susan have six kids, a great marriage and are active members in the parish." After a chat with a new priest they discovered that, under church law, they were living in "an irregular relationship. Bob's second wife -- the elderly widow -- was dead, but he reckoned his first wife (the hippie who was married to him for less than a year) was still living somewhere, but Bob has no idea where she might be."

What's a priest supposed to do?

There's nowhere to turn? When hurting people believe they have to flee the pews

In the not so distant Baptist past, all Sunday services ended with altar calls in which people came forward to make public professions of Christian faith or to become part of a local congregation.

But it was also common, during the "invitation hymn," for church members to come forward and huddle with the minister for a few quiet, discreet minutes. The pastor would announce that they had come forward to "rededicate their life to Christ" and then ask those assembled to offer them hugs and prayers.

"That's something that we've lost, somewhere along the way. We need to regain that confessional part of the faith," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources at the Southern Baptist Convention's headquarters in Nashville.

"It used to be common for people to go forward, rededicate their lives and get right with the Lord. … It was a chance to tell the pastor you needed help. It was important that our people knew they could do that."

The alternative is much worse, he stressed, in a telephone interview. If believers don't know how to reach out for help, or if they think they will be harshly judged if they do, they usually remain silent before using the exit door, for keeps.

The bottom line is shocking, said Rainer. If most churches could regain just the members who fled over the span of a decade -- for personal or private reasons, as opposed to dying or moving out of town -- worship attendance would triple.

'Conscience' became a key fighting word at Vatican synod on family

Want to start a fight? Just ask this question: How many Protestant denominations are there in the world?

Estimates start as high as 40,000 and most sources put the number above 20,000, citing the United Nations, the World Christian Encyclopedia or some other authority. The key is that various Protestant groups have their own concepts of biblical authority and the role played by the conscience of each believer. Fights often cause splits and new flocks.

Meanwhile, the Church of Rome has the Throne of St. Peter and the Catechism. This is why eyebrows were raised when progressive theologian Daniel Maguire of Marquette, amid tense debates about marriage, divorce and gay rights, wrote to The New York Times to argue that Catholicism is "going the way of its parent, Judaism" and dividing into three streams.

"In Judaism there are Reform as well as Conservative and Orthodox communities. This arrangement is not yet formalized in Catholicism, but the outlines of a similar broadening are in place," said Maguire. While the Vatican may tweak some procedures, such as streamlining the annulment process, "reform Catholics don't need it. Theirconsciences are their Vatican."

The tricky word "conscience" crept into news about the 2015 Synod of Bishops in Rome -- focusing on marriage and family life -- when the leader of the giant Archdiocese of Chicago told reporters that he thought many Catholics who under current teachings cannot take Holy Communion should be able to do so, if guided by their consciences.

When did Baptists stop making news?

The Southern Baptist Convention has passed scores of blunt resolutions in recent decades urging America's leaders to reject the sexual revolution and defend marriage as the sacred union of one man and one woman. But something different happened during this summer's convention. In a jolting statement on the divorce crisis, leaders from America's largest non-Catholic flock looked in the mirror and decided that their own sins were just as bad as everyone else's sins.

"Studies have indicated that conservative Protestants ... are divorcing at the same rate, if not at higher rates, than the general population," stated the resolution, which passed unanimously. Other studies indicate that areas in which "Southern Baptist churches predominate in number often have higher divorce rates than areas we would define as 'unchurched.' "

In other words, Southern Baptists have "been prophetic in confronting assaults in the outside culture on God's design for marriage while rarely speaking with the same alarm and force to a scandal that has become all too commonplace in our own churches."

The convention urged its churches to walk their conservative talk by offering improved premarital counseling, by uniting in marriage "only those who are biblically qualified to be married" and by intensifying efforts to heal broken unions.

Press coverage of this text was next to nonexistent. Media coverage was light of a strong SBC statement on corporate sin and the environment, in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The convention also approved, after some emotional debates, a sweeping program to change key elements of its national structure and finances.

This is the stuff of national news, noted religion-beat veteran Jeffrey Weiss, writing for Politics Daily. The question is why this SBC gathering received so little attention, while gatherings in the 1980s and '90s created waves of ink.

Back then, he noted, the "pressroom would be packed by wire service reporters, writers from large and not-so-large newspapers from across the South, and from most of the top 10 largest papers not in the South. This time, I can find evidence of exactly five representatives of the secular media in attendance. ...

"Which leads to this question: Did the SBC get too much attention back in the day, or is it getting too little attention now? My answer to both: Probably so."

Of course, the troubled state of the news business played a role. There are fewer journalists on the religion beat and there are fewer travel dollars to invest in covering subjects other than those most editors consider holy, such as politics and sports.

At the same time, the era of intense coverage of Southern Baptist life coincided with what journalists perceived as a major change in American politics -- the growth of the religious right. Journalists took note when the nation's largest Protestant body spoke out on abortion, gay rights, the ordination of women, Hollywood's influence on families and the need for evangelism around the world, including among Jewish believers.

Hot buttons were being pushed, year after year.

"Atop those reader-friendly news hooks, we had the 25-year internal battle between what we always called 'conservatives' and 'moderates.' That fight ended with the conservatives in firm control of the denominational leadership and the moderates purged at about the same time the Republican Party was becoming increasingly defined by a publicly political conservative Christian base," noted Weiss.

In other words, more politics.

These days, the SBC is primarily wrestling with issues of theology and polity, especially the culture's slide into a post-denominational age in which people are increasingly moving into congregations that strive to avoid putting a brand name -- think "Southern Baptist" -- on their signs. People are drifting back and forth across hazy doctrinal lines that used to be clearly defined.

This is a giant story and, in part, is what that reorganization plan is about -- granting more independence to churches, clergy and donors in an attempt to pull the old Southern Baptist tent a bit closer to contemporary megachurch realities.

Consider, noted Weiss, the news value of this dramatic plan to restructure "its organization and the way it funds missionaries -- which was the main reason the SBC was formed in the first place. How dramatic? Imagine if your city decided it would let people send some of their tax money to those programs they particularly liked."

Imagine that. That's would be news, wouldn't it?

Mama says, 'Go to church'

Here's a rather predictable news flash: American mothers want the fathers of their children to stick around, help with the kids and go to church. There's something else that united the participants in "Mama Says," a recent survey from the National Fatherhood Initiative -- 93 percent of them believe America is suffering from what researchers called a "father absence crisis." An earlier survey by the non-partisan group found that 91 percent of American fathers affirm that stark judgment.

The survey didn't include many religious questions, but the role of faith in American homes and marriages kept rising to the surface.

"What the religious questions revealed to us is that the mothers who were the most religious were consistently the mothers who were the most satisfied with the jobs that their men were doing as fathers," said Vincent DiCaro of the National Fatherhood Initiative, which is based in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. "If you look at the whole survey, it's clear that mothers think that strong religious values help dads be better dads."

If there was a surprise in the survey, he said, it was the high value that American mothers in general placed on "churches and other communities of faith" when it came time to name resources that could help fathers improve their parenting skills.

As expected, "very religious" mothers were strongly pro-church. However, the value of fathers seeking parenting help from religious institutions also received a "very important" nod from 72 percent of the mothers who said they were "not very religious" and from 58 percent of those who called themselves "not at all religious."

The "very religious" mothers in this survey were different in other ways, too.

They were more likely -- 69 percent compared to 51 percent for others -- to believe that mass media consistently portray fathers in a negative light.

The "very religious" mothers also seemed to value what the researchers called "communitarian" values, while less religious respondents offered more "individualistic" views on parenting issues. This was consistent with the views of "very religious" fathers in an earlier study.

Finally, added DiCaro, the mothers who identified themselves as "very religious" were the ones "who continue to believe that the role that fathers play in the home is irreplaceable. ... The really religious mothers are the only group that still feels that way, which is certainly a comment about how many people view fathers in America, today."

Since the survey focused on the beliefs and perceptions of mothers, it didn't provide new information about the actual role that religious faith plays in the faithfulness and effectiveness of the fathers themselves, both in their roles as parents and husbands. It did not attempt to show cause and effect.

"Still, it is of some interest that the higher the religiosity of the mother, the higher, on average, was her evaluation of the parenting of the father," noted sociologist Norval Glenn of the University of Texas, one of the authors of the final report. "I think it is reasonable to assume that the reason for that is that the more religious mothers generally were, or had been, married to men who were also high in religiosity.

"This relationship held even when the parents were no longer living together, and this suggests that religiosity helps men be better fathers even when they don't live with their children or the mothers of their children."

Woven through the entire study was the painful reality that, for many American mothers, brokenness has become the new reality in their homes.

For example, 84 percent of married mothers said they were "very or somewhat satisfied" with the parenting of the fathers they were evaluating. However, that number sank to 23 percent when the mothers and fathers were not living together. This is, the researchers concluded, the reason why the rate of satisfaction that African-American mothers expressed when evaluating fathers was only half that of white mothers.

It is easy to find the bottom line in this survey, said DiCaro.

"It is undeniable that the most satisfied mothers were those who had fathers who were living with them, under the same roof with their children," he said. "Once again, marriage is the great equalizer, and that's true for blacks, whites, Latinos and everybody. It certainly equalizes how fathers do as fathers, at least in the eyes of the mothers."

Sex, sin and surveys

It's becoming more and more dangerous for preachers to use the words "sex" and "sin" in the same sentence.

Consider this question: Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Say "yes" and millions of believers who are sitting in pews will say "amen." But that same affirmation of centuries of doctrine will offend just as many believers and nonbelievers, giving them an easy excuse to avoid congregations they believe are old fashioned and intolerant.

"We have to recognize that our historic positions on sexual issues are becoming incredibly distasteful to more people in this culture and especially to our media and popular culture," said Ed Stetzer, director of the Southern Baptist Convention's LifeWay Research team.

"The whole 'Hate the sin, love the sinner' thing -- people are not getting that anymore. People do not believe that we mean that."

Right now, the gay-marriage issue is making headlines. But for millions of traditional believers in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and many other faiths, this issue is linked to a question rooted in religious doctrine, not modern politics. In a spring LifeWay survey, researchers asked: "Do you believe homosexual behavior is a sin?"

The results showed a culture torn in half, with 48 percent of American adults saying that homosexual acts are sinful and 45 percent disagreeing. Considering the margin for error, this is a virtual tie.

The numbers were radically different in different pews, with only 39 percent of Roman Catholics believing that homosexual acts are sinful, as opposed to 61 percent of Protestants and 79 percent of those who identified as evangelical, "born again" or fundamentalist Christians.

A similar pattern emerged from a hot-button question in the latest results reported from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Researchers in this massive effort asked participants which of the following statements "comes closer to your own views -- even if neither is exactly right. 1 -- Homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society, OR 2 -- Homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged by society."

The question was not stated in strictly political or religious terms. However, with that powerful, more official word "discouraged" in the question, 50 percent of the adults surveyed said that "homosexuality" in general, as opposed to homosexual behavior, should be accepted by society.

Once again, there were sharp differences in various religious groups, with 79 percent of American Jews, 58 percent of Catholics and 56 percent of mainline Protestants calling for acceptance of homosexuality. Meanwhile, only 39 percent of the members of historically black churches, 27 percent of Muslims and 26 percent of the evangelical Protestants affirmed the public acceptance of homosexuality.

These numbers are evidence of great change in the religious and moral views of many Americans, yet they also point toward familiar tensions between traditionalists and progressives. The Pew Forum survey, for example, again demonstrated a reality seen in recent elections. Americans who frequently attend worship services and say that religion is very important in their lives continue to take more conservative stands on hot moral issues in public life.

What about people outside the pews? That is where another set of statistics will prove especially distressing to clergy who sincerely want to defend what Stetzer called the ancient "one man, one woman, one lifetime" doctrine of marriage.

In the LifeWay survey, 32 percent of American adults said that their decision to visit or join a congregation would be "negatively affected" if it taught that homosexual behavior is sin. That number rose to 49 percent among the "unchurched," people who rarely or never attend worship.

The issue of homosexuality does not, of course, stand alone, said Stetzer. It's getting harder for religious leaders to maintain consistent teachings about other acts and conditions that traditional forms of religion have, for centuries, considered sin. This affects preaching on premarital sex, divorce, cohabitation and adultery.

"Ultimately, the modern church has failed to proclaim and explain a biblical ethic of sexuality," he said. "We also need to admit that the church has failed to live out the ethic that it's claiming to be advocating. If we are going to say that we stand for the sanctity of marriage, then we -- in our churches and in our homes -- are going to have to live out the sanctity of marriage."

Thou shalt not say 'adultery'

Journalist Pamela Druckerman didn't think it would be hard to discuss sex issues with Alain Giami of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research.

After all, he was one of the top sex researchers in a nation known for its freewheeling, laissez faire attitudes about matters of the heart. However, Giami silenced her when she used a dangerous word.

"What do you call 'infidelity'? I don't know what 'infidelity' is," he said, in what the former Wall Street Journal correspondent later described as a "rant."

"I don't share this view of things, so I would not use this word," he added, and then delivered the coup de grace. "It implies religious values."

Thank goodness Druckerman didn't say "adultery." For most researchers, this term has become a judgmental curse that cannot be used without implying the existence of the words "Thou shalt not commit." This issue came up over and over as she traveled the world doing interviews for her book "Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee."

"If I asked someone, 'Have you ever committed adultery?', it was like God entered the room at that moment," said Druckerman, reached at her home in Paris. "That really is the religious word, 'adultery.' I had to start saying 'infidelity' or use a more careful combination of words."

While she didn't set out to write a book about sex and religion, Druckerman found that in large parts of the world -- from Bible Belt cities to Orthodox Jewish enclaves, from Islamic nations to post-Soviet Russia -- it's hard to talk about infidelity without talking about sin, guilt, confession, healing and a flock of other religious topics.

However, she also reached a conclusion that many clergy will find disturbing. When push comes to shove, cheaters are going to do what they're going to do -- whether God is watching or not.

What does faith have to do with it? Not much. That's the bad news. The good news is that there is evidence that adultery is nowhere near as common as most religious people think it is.

Take, for example, the numbers that many consider "gospel" on this issue -- the claims by sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in the mid-20th Century that half of American men and a quarter of women have cheated on their spouses. While some writers keep using these statistics, Druckerman said they are "extremely problematic."

Recent studies offer a vivid contrast. In the early 1990s, she noted, 21 percent of American men and 10 percent of women said they had cheated while married. In 2004, 21 percent of men and 12 percent of women said they had strayed at least once.

Meanwhile, 3.8 percent of married French men and 2 percent of married French women say they've had an affair during the past year -- in one of the world's most secular nations. And in highly religious America? The parallel figures are 3.9 percent of the married men and 3.1 percent of the women.

While Americans remain obsessed with adultery, this now seems to be rooted in this culture's commitment to an "ubermonogamy" built on the all-powerful doctrines of modern romance, argued Druckerman. Lacking shared religious convictions -- while living in the era of no-fault divorce -- millions of Americans have decided that having a happy, fulfilling, faithful marriage is an entitlement, a kind of sacrament in and of itself.

If a marriage crashes, both religious and non-religious Americans usually place their faith in another substitute for the old structures of faith and family. They turn to professional counselors linked to what Druckerman calls the "marriage industrial complex," where, for a price, repentance and restoration can take place in public or in private. Ask Bill Clinton about that.

All of this represents the reality of America's "sexual culture," which, while it may have Puritanism in its DNA, has also been shaped by the modern sexual revolution.

"Even when I talked to religious people about adultery, they weren't really worried about God, about God striking them down for their sins," concluded Druckerman. "Americans just don't think that way now. Even the religious people were more worried about what their families, or perhaps the people in their religious communities, would think of them. ...

"When it comes to matters of infidelity, Christian Americans act more like Americans than they do like Christians."