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Tuesday, 29 January, 2002, 03:39 GMT
Pope upholds traditional beliefs
John Paul II
John Paul II regards divorce as "a plague"
By BBC News Online's Peter Gould

From the day he became Pope, John Paul II has been an uncompromising defender of traditional church beliefs.

His conservative views on such contentious issues such as divorce, contraception and abortion helped to secure his election in 1978. At the time, he was little known outside his native Poland.


Lawyers, who work freely, should always decline to use their professions for an end that is contrary to justice, like divorce

John Paul II

He has now been Pope for 23 years, the spiritual leader of one billion Catholics around the world. His pronouncements on social issues have a direct bearing on the lives of the faithful.

His attitude towards family life is well documented. He has repeatedly spoken out in defence of marriage, and is now warning about the "spreading plague" of divorce. Catholics are in no doubt about the views of their Pope.

Divine law

So why is he taking the unprecedented step of urging Catholic lawyers to refuse to act for couples, either Catholic or non-Catholic, who are in the process of splitting up?

He has noted the figures showing how the divorce rate has been steadily rising, particularly in Western societies.

Church interior
Will a tough line on divorce drive people away from church?
Some Vatican observers believe he sees the Church as a kind of "counter culture", in which divine law takes precedence over civil laws passed by governments.

But his call to Catholic lawyers to boycott divorce cases on moral grounds has startled church members.

"I am astonished," said one British lay Catholic, who asked not to be named.

"As far as the church is concerned, the real problem has not been civil divorce but re-marriage. That is the point at which you can no longer receive communion.

"So when someone re-marries, they tend to take their whole family out of the church with them, and it has led to a diminution of Catholic congregations.

"It is a huge pastoral problem, and this will only make it worse."

Dysfunctional

The church's position is that a marriage lasts until the husband or wife dies. For those who wish to re-marry, the only alternative is the lengthy process of annulment, which means trying to convince a church tribunal that it was not a proper marriage in the first place.


Catholic lawyers will be scratching their heads and wondering where the Pope is coming from

American priest

But the catechism of the church says that separated couples are permitted to obtain a civil divorce if it is "the only way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance".

So would a Catholic lawyer be able to take a divorce case for the same reasons?

At the end of last year, John Paul II gave an indication of his growing concern over what he sees as threats to traditional family life.

He told a conference at the Vatican that societies should end laws that allow divorce, abortion and homosexual unions, or create rights for unmarried couples.

He said such laws were "a violent attack on the institution of the family", and warned that children were the innocent victims of the dysfunctional family.

Amazement

The Pope's latest comments are expected to cause dismay among some Catholics in "progressive" countries like Germany and the United States, where many bishops take a sympathetic view of divorced members of their flock planning a second marriage.

Bible & candle
Divine law: The Pope says marriage is for life
"This statement by the Pope is amazing," said one member of the clergy in the US, who also requested anonymity.

"Catholic lawyers will be scratching their heads and wondering where the Pope is coming from. I don't see how this is going to hold.

"There are a lot of members of the Catholic community who have divorced and re-married, and parishes deal with it in different ways.

"Some priests will not give communion to those who have re-married, but others turn a blind eye, even though it is not something they can preach from the pulpit.

"If Catholics cannot receive communion at one church, they vote with their feet and go to another parish."

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 ON THIS STORY
Peter Duckworth, Lawyer's Christian Fellowship
"We believe in lifelong marriage"
See also:

24 Jan 02 | Europe
Pope lights beacon of hope
29 Mar 01 | World
Pope reaches out to Islam
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