Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

 You are in: Talking Point
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Monday, 4 February, 2002, 17:55 GMT
Should Catholic lawyers refuse divorce cases?
Pope John Paul has urged Roman Catholic lawyers to refuse handling divorce cases.

In an unprecedented move the Pontiff said divorce was "spreading like a plague" through society, and lawyers should refuse to be part of the "evil".

Speaking at an annual meeting with Vatican magistrates, he said that Catholic lawyers should not even try to help non-Catholics obtain a divorce.

The indissolubility of marriage was not a "simple private choice", but one of the fundamentals of all society, he added.

What is your reaction to the Pope's comments? Should Catholic lawyers refuse to litigate in divorce cases in accordance with their religion's teachings? Is the church right to get involved in the legal process?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

What people tend to forget is that marriage for life isn't just some sort of random middle-class social norm - it was a radical change instituted by Christ and as hard a teaching in the first century as it is today - just look at the ancient Romans. The love and respect any group or society needs to maintain for marriage for life to be the norm is like a beautiful piece of architecture - you need generations of toil to build it up but it can be destroyed almost instantaneously. This is why the Pope is right to encourage the Catholic faithful to nurture it even among their non-Christian neighbours.
Richard, Germany

For 15 years I visited a Catholic church and on the notice board was an invitation to attend the local club for 'divorced and separated Catholics'. Apparently this was a thriving social event which had the blessing of the priest. Those who blindly adhere themselves to the Pope's every word should get a large dose of reality.
Steve Cahill, England

Religion can only survive if it continues to promote debate on social and moral issues.

Jack Burge, UK
To simply liken divorce to an illness, only serves to deflect attention from the real reasons why more marriages end prematurely these days than they used to. Much is said, and written, about how individuals are more selfish these days, and how people don't seem to want to work at relationships any more etc. etc., but the rising divorce rate is partly a symptom of some quite positive aspects of modern society as well as the obvious negative ones. For example, people travel more than they used to, and are generally more independent as individuals. Women are no longer seen as the 'property' of their husbands, and are not prepared to accept abuse within marriage. The social stigma of illegitimacy has disappeared, and single parent families are considered part of the norm. There is also more parity between the sexes, in terms of wages, again leading to increased individual independence. All these, together with the fact that people generally live much longer than they did when the rules were established, lead inevitably to 'less permanent' marriages. Dogma will always appear to be archaic, as it never makes allowances for individual cases, or rapid changes in social attitudes. However, I do applaud Pope John-Paul in his continuing to represent the ideals which he believes in so strongly, because religion can only survive in an increasingly secular world if it continues to promote debate on social and moral issues. As a happily married atheist, I don¿t feel bound to any doctrine, but I do welcome an opposing point of view, which can only be healthy for society as a whole.
Jack Burge, UK.

Nothing lasts forever and for people to be trapped inside a loveless marriage because of guilt imposed on them by a religious dictatorship is wrong, whichever way you try to paint it
David, UK

The plague of divorce has reached even these Asian shores - another import from a decadent west that has failed again to understand that human relationships - especially the relationship between a man and a woman in marriage - are the foundation of a moral, just society. Divorce too easily granted makes for a dangerously unstable society potentially ruled by individuals who do not know the value of fidelity and unstinting love. That is what the Pope is talking about - and is as contemporary and cogent to the building of a modern, just society as any other opinion, probably more so.
Laurence Finn, South Korea

Accepting the authority of the Pope is what it means to be Catholic, so there's not much point in complaining on that score. But some people seem to have missed the point: the Pope has said that Catholic lawyers should not help non-Catholics to obtain divorces. Catholics obviously shouldn't even consider asking for one, from any lawyer!
Steve, UK

To practising Catholics marriage is not only a contract, but also a sacrament.

Molly, UK
The Pope is not only entitled, but obliged to provide moral leadership to Catholics worldwide. To practising Catholics marriage is not only a contract, but also a sacrament, and the Pope's pronouncement must be understood in this context. If people choose freely to marry within the Catholic tradition (and they do, - it's not compulsory)then they are freely agreeing to be bound by its rules. If they want to retain the option of divorce, there are plenty of other options open to them. But the rest of us are entitled to moral guidance from the leaders of the faiths to which we choose to belong.
molly, UK

Christians of all denominations should support the position of the Pope on this issue of marriage.
Booker Whittaker, United States

To Mr. Whittaker: just for your information, the Orthodox Church allows divorce. Hence not all Christians should be even morally inclined to support the Pope's initiative.
Andrej, Russia

I don't understand why people think that the Pope is forcing them to anything. He just made a statement. It seems that some people are aggravated by it because deep inside they agree with him, but they don't want to rethink the matter. Anyway, I love the Pope for his outlook on marriage.
Julia, USA

So many people say that it's too easy to get divorced. However, surely the fact that so many people feel the need to shows that it's actually too easy to get married.
Rob Platz, England

Good on him for speaking out against divorce. No one's saying divorce is entirely to blame for today's ills, but surely anything that leads to the erosion of the family is to be discouraged. The only thing people seem to be bothered with in today's day and age is individual rights and not individual responsibilities.
Maura, UK

One of the scary things about this statement is that, yet again, the Pope is seeking to force absolutism into moral teaching. Divorce is not a good thing in and of itself - but then again not all marriages are good things either. To forbid Catholic Lawyers from participating in this line of work flies in the face of reason and reality. Even the Scriptures give cases where divorce is permissible. We must remember that before a Catholic seeks to have his/her marriage annulled the Catholic church REQUIRES that person to first have a divorce. This position makes no sense whatsoever!
Paul Fraser, U.S.A.

Divorce is not desirable, but for some it is utterly unavoidable

Keith, UK
Yet again the Roman Catholic church seeks to influence the world through its own narrow view of life based on prejudice and its favourite weapon - guilt. Of course divorce is not desirable, but for some it is utterly unavoidable. For the Pope to make such a pathetic statement only affirms in my mind that the RC Church has very little if anything to say on the affairs of the modern world.
Keith, UK

Although I am no catholic I agree that divorce is a blight on society and should be resisted by all. The greater the difficulty to get a divorce the less likely they would occur.
Daniel Mielke, USA

This argument is a total non event. If you're Catholic and practising you neither condone nor participate in divorce. It's a tenet of faith. Consequently, for Catholic Lawyer this isn't even an issue. I'm sure couples can find plenty of non-Catholic lawyers to carry out the work.
Jez, England

The Pope should stay out of civil law. The principle of separation of church and state is a solid one. The church does not represent every person's rights and beliefs. Let the church lead by persuasion, not coercion.
Frank Goodman Sr, USA

Yet again the "established church" seeks to disrupt the personal lives of millions of people with inane rules and regulations which have no legal force.
Mike Bird, UK

Although I wholeheartedly agree with divorce being available for all, I believe that the head of an organisation has the right to state that its members should not aid the process of divorce - after all Catholic belief does not support divorce. If people disagree with it, they should be brave enough to leave the Catholic Church and join a grouping that more suits there views/beliefs.
Alan De Brun, UK

Yet another example of how completely detached from real life the Catholic Church is. Does anybody still bother to listen to someone who's been locked away in a Ivory Tower with blindfolds on for the last thousand years?
Federica Massagrande, UK

We are letting our families fall apart because so many of us believe that there is no higher authority than ourselves

Mona Young, USA
I am not a religious person. However I am amazed by the levels of selfishness that our over valuation of individual rights has taken us to. Is it so wrong to support the attempts to understand higher truths? Why can we not value families as much as each individual's freedom of choice. Have we become so demanding that the world revolves around us, not understanding what our parents (our actual parents and our ancestors) worked so hard to achieve, but instead demanding more and more with less and less effort? We are letting our families, and ultimately, our societies fall apart because so many of us believe that there is no higher authority than ourselves and our own opinions.
Mona Young, USA

I am a child from a broken family and I still think that Pope is crazy to suggest such a thing. What authority does a single bachelor have when it comes to marriage, family, sex or having children? He has no wife or child so what dose he know? It is very easy to make rules that you never have to obey. If all people followed Catholic Church doctrine we would still live in the dark ages believing that the earth was flat.
Ziggy, US/Poland

As a Catholic, I am a bit appalled that this is all he is worried about. People are killing each other all over the Middle East and this is what he's worrying about? Divorce is something that happens, it's a part of life. The church has no right interfering in how a person makes their living. Remember what President Kennedy once said: "I don't speak for the church and the church does not speak for me."
Marie, USA

A few comments: First, to Marie, this is not "all" that the Pope is worried about. He makes statements on a broad range of topics, including conflict in the Middle East, and these statements are publicized. Second, the principle of separation of church and state does not exist in every country. When it does exist, it applies to the government of that country, and not to religious bodies. People who cry "separation of church and state" in response to papal statements are simply demonstrating their own ignorance of the subject. Third, this is just something the pope would like to see happen, not an infallible statement. It is no different than his preference that all faculty at Catholic universities be practicing Catholics.

As to the question of whether or not Catholic lawyers should work on divorce cases...well, that sounds like question of conscience to me. It would be interesting to hear from lawyers--surely there are defined ethics regarding when you can turn down a case because it conflicts with your own principles.
Kate, USA

I am divorced and I would not wish anyone to go through the trauma my sons and I experienced, but refusing to deal with a problem does not make it go away. The Pope is completely out of touch with the practicalities of modern living, as already evidenced by his views on contraception.
Linda, UK

Being a recovering Catholic, and hearing this makes me better understand why I left the church in the first place. The one part of the Pope's statement that I don't understand is if the church does not recognise non-Catholic marriage, why does it care if non-Catholics divorce? Just another example of the Catholic Church still thinking that anybody listens to it.
Todd Fischer, California, USA

The church does not realise that its role in secular affairs is over

Josh, Hawaii, USA
I'm afraid that the church does not realise that its role in secular affairs is over and has been since the end of the Papal States. Lawyers should stick to the kind of law they practice and the oath they uphold. The church should meanwhile stick to spiritual matters.
Josh, Hawaii, USA

I think the Pope is right. A conscientious Catholic should not affiliate himself to the divorce industry. In cases where there is spousal or child abuse, divorce might be the only practicable civil law remedy. In that case one would have to use the remedy to protect innocent parties. Otherwise it should be eschewed. Divorce is an evil that has a terrible effect upon children.
Don Martin, USA

Attorneys have the choice to practice whatever type of law they care to practice. So, if they are truly true to their faith, they can choose to not be divorce attorneys. Just as Catholic doctors can choose not to perform abortions.
Susie Morgan, USA

Presumably the Pope will get out his chequebook and reimburse Roman Catholic lawyers for their imminent loss of trade. Having already banned contraception and abortion, it seems rather odd that the Vatican is about to hand the consequences and profits thereof to the non-Catholic legal fraternity. To be fair to his holiness, whatever world he is communicating to over such issues, it definitely isn't the modern world.
Chris B, England

Catholics adhere to a faith whose founder clearly stated that divorce is only permissible in cases of unchastity. This cannot be interpreted to tailor to modern attitudes. God bless his holiness.
Lee Armstrong, England

And they wonder why folks desert the church. The Pope's opinion on anything is pretty much irrelevant to this former seminarian turned atheist 35 years ago.
Alain, Canada

Our easy-divorce system is having a highly corrosive effect on society

Iain Bainbridge, Newcastle, UK
While as an evangelical I do not accept the authority of the Pope I admire his courage in speaking out so clearly against divorce. Our easy-divorce system is having a highly corrosive effect on society and is leading to millions of children being brought up without a mother and father. It is also leading to adult misery. Lifetime commitments should be for life.
Iain Bainbridge, Newcastle, UK

Few people wed with the anticipation that the marriage won't last. People fall out of love, people change, people make mistakes. Yes, even Christians. The fact that a celibate bachelor thinks people should be trapped in loveless marriages only illustrates how redundant religion has become. Fortunately, most people are choosing to think for themselves.
Andrew Smith, US/UK

Catholic lawyers should at least refuse any payment for divorce cases.
Reinhard Selinger, Austria

None of us seek divorce from the outset

Mark Dowe, Scotland
To a large degree I accept the sacraments of the church but the issues of adultery and desertion will always be grounds for divorce. The highest court in the land would be literally unable to do anything in these circumstances. None of us seek divorce from the outset. My understanding of marriage is more of contract with each other. Love and companionship are also important but we are also in Gods sight wherever we are. The differences on divorce within various churches and within the judiciary, whether catholic or not, are likely to be as wide as anything else when making interpretation from a religious point of view.
Mark Dowe, Scotland

If correctly reported, this view is truly bizarre. Before an annulment petition can be proceeded with through the Catholic Church's own canon law system of setting marriages that both parties and witnesses should not have been entered into,a divorce has to have been finalised - because the Church's policy is not to go against the temporal law. So if Catholics are denied the right to consult a Catholic lawyer they will have to go to a non-Catholic lawyer or do it themselves (as I did) before dealing with the Tribunal canon lawyers (mostly priests). Is this a modern equivalent of having to knock three times at the monastery door?
Mark, UK

The Pope is 100 per cent right. One's faith should be shown in deeds, and therefore, Catholic lawyers should demonstrate their faith because basically they need to act according to what their faith teaches. The Society of today needs to re-discover the meaning of marriage and not to be taken by modernity.
Degratias Mushi, Tanzania

The Pope's advice is not practical, but he's right to warn us of the terrible cost of family instability.
Tony Pellegrini, Italy

Many of us are very grateful to John Paul for speaking the truth, even if it hurts

Glenn Siebert, USA
No one is more relevant today than Jesus Christ. You can always ask yourself what Jesus would say about a current issue. I think that more often than not, what Jesus would say is pretty close to what Pope John Paul II says. Many of us are very grateful to John Paul for speaking the truth, even if it hurts. Keep it up!
Glenn Siebert, USA

Believe it or not, there are many people including lawyers and judges who care what the pope has to say about marriage rather than what pop culture has to say about this issue. People who believe marriage is merely "a piece of paper" without a lifetime commitment tend to get divorced more often than not. Also, the pope is clearly not forcing lawyers and judges not to take divorce cases in absolute terms. He is simply suggesting that Catholic lawyers should abstain from taking such cases in general since divorce has been proven to be a destabilizing factor in our society. The only exception should be in cases where there is a physically abusive or adulterous spouse.
Jose Bague, Puerto Rico, USA

The Pope is encouraging Catholic lawyers to be true to their faith in action as well as in belief. This is similar to previous requests to doctors and nurses not to assist with abortions or euthanasia. In the medical profession, there is an established "opt-out" from assisting abortions if you disagree ethically; the same could apply here.
Therese Coffey, UK

The Catholic Church has never objected (in my lifetime)to separation where the relationship breaks down. Within this context, a civil divorce can resolve many legal issues. Clearly, however, a civil divorce does not relieve anyone of the responsibilities arising from solemn vows taken before God during the religious wedding service - but that is a different issue
Joan (Divorced Catholic), UK

I think the Pope has the right ideas, in that Marriage as an institution has been eroded

Michelle, UK
People should not get married if they are not sure, have problems and doubts or can imagine getting a divorce. Too many people these days get into a marriage without thinking and without a true commitment, and even have children, then get divorced causing problems for all concerned. I think the Pope has the right ideas, in that Marriage as an institution has been eroded and ridiculously lowered to the standards of nothing more than a romantic fad. This is surely wrong!
Michelle, UK

If lawyers had to take into account the religious ramifications of any case before accepting it, the only lawyers we would have would be atheists!
Mark Renshaw, UK

Whilst I am firmly of the opinion that couples hit the "divorce button" much too readily these days, I think the Pope has shown how out of touch with reality the Catholic Church must be with his comments. Apart from anything else all that would happen if people followed his advice would be a loss of business for Catholic lawyers as people would simply go elsewhere.
Shaun, Teignmouth UK

I agree that people should only enter into a commitment like marriage if they are 100% clear about what it entails. Marriage is not about just the day of the wedding it is for life, this means compromise, good times and bad, but what about people who are abused by their husband/wife or people who commit adultery? I think that by just saying Roman Catholics should not be able to divorce is ludicrous, although it is a very easy "get out clause". I know of people who live together and are fine, but the minute they marry it all goes wrong. But the pope is generalising. Every case is different. It should be harder to get a divorce - for people who just got bored or grew apart - but not ruled out all together.
Rose, UK

The Pope does not have the right to impose Catholic doctrine on non-Catholic people in the same manner that no one has the right to tell someone how to think and what to believe in.
Adam, USA

All decent intelligent folks should simply ignore him

BJ Abolt, USA
Indifference to human suffering has been a special quality of this pope. Divorced Catholics are lawfully refused the Eucharist. Homosexuals are simply ignored as the disordered and most assuredly are the predestined to hell. Women in danger of contacting AIDS are to surrender to their fate rather then demand usage of condoms from unfaithful husbands. The poorest of the poor are to accept their lot and produce as many babies as nature will permit. Women must accept their natural submissive role in life and marriage and endure whatever men compel them to endure. And women may never under any circumstances be ordained ministers. And on and on it goes. This pope is a profoundly morally and ethically obtuse man, and all decent intelligent folks should simply ignore him.
BJ Abolt, USA

The Catholic Church does not approve of divorce. If Catholics in the legal profession choose to follow the teachings of the church and the pontiff then it is their choice and one they have made for religious reasons. If a lawyer refuses to deal with a divorce case on religious grounds then people should respect & tolerate their decision, no matter how much they disagree with it.
F Molloy, Ireland

It is the Popes responsibility to lead Catholics in their moral choices. The church has always been against divorce and always will be. It is stated quite clearly in the gospels and no change of pope will make any difference there. I fully support what the Pope has said and I hope that more people have the courage of their convictions to do the same.
Sean, UK

Truth be known, I think the people of the world are more interested handling their own problems on their own terms than listen to what some old guy in a far removed sanctuary has to say about how life should be according to his interpretation of the bible. Really, the stubborn commitment to large prolific families as prescribed in the Catholic faith just isn't reasonable in this modern day and age. People these days would rather get on with their lives than struggle through a pointless, loveless marriage for the sake of appeasing the church. I feel that people should be in control of their own lives, laws, and relationships, not the church.
John, USA

Lawyers should be free to follow their own consciences, provided only that legal assistance is available for people who really need it. If a lawyer who follows the Catholic religion, or any other religion, is called upon to act in a divorce case (or any other case he or she considers unjust) then the lawyer is perfectly entitled to refuse. There is nothing unclear about that. The question whether the Pope's blanket ban on divorce is wise, or justified, or sufficiently grounded in religion is an entirely distinct one.
Peter, Netherlands

Our litigators do not always have the courage of their religious convictions

Di Stewart, USA
The church will always be involved in the legal process as long as there is a debate about abortion and euthanasia, and even divorce. Unfortunately our litigators do not always have the courage of their religious convictions and may tend lean towards hypocrisy rather than face controversy.
Di Stewart, USA

The Pope is certainly right about the widespread incidence of divorce. In the US, if attorneys listened to the advice of the Pontiff, it might lead ultimately to fewer attorneys, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Realistically, the Pope may be a bit out of touch, since Catholics, as much as any other group, seem to be getting divorced. Marriage seems no longer to be treated as a serious commitment, so I don't think the Pope's comments will have much effect.
Marten King, USA

The sheer ridiculousness of the Pope's comments amply demonstrates why the office of Pope should go when he does.
Shaun, England

I don't understand why anyone cares what the Pope thinks any more.
Carlos Stelmach, US

It's good that someone is speaking out on behalf of marriage as the government is keen to appease all people by saying it's okay (or even cool) for children to be raised with the exclusion of their father. However in saying that, if the Pope requests Catholic lawyers to avoid cases that offend the Catholic sensibilities, then surely there won't be any work for Catholic lawyers to take.
Martina, UK

It is time that Catholics looked to someone with straight forward common sense

Dave, Kent, UK
Only the Roman Catholic church could come out with such a ridiculous statement. It is bad enough that it is only too pleased to promote the over population of the world by condemning means of contraception but to stop couples divorcing proves the Pope to be out of touch and overbearing. I'm sure there will be people out there who will follow his every word but I think it is time that Catholics looked to someone with straight forward common sense - something that the Vatican, with all its money, has not seen fit to purchase yet.
Dave, Kent, UK

If God is opposed to divorce or anything else why doesn't he just write it in letters one mile high in the sky? That would make it pretty unequivocal. The fact he doesn't shows that marriage (and everything else) is a secular issue and religion is nothing more than an irrelevance and annoyance to most freethinking modern societies.
D Nesbitt, UK

He isn't married, so what does he know?
Peter McLean, UK

Lawyers should be free to choose who they take on as their clients, just like any other profession. But what is the moral justification for keeping a marriage going that has clearly failed? I doubt that people who suffer domestic abuse would appreciate being refused the chance to get out of that situation, and I don't think the Pope truly understands the reasons some people have for divorce.
Patrick, UK

See also:

24 Jan 02 | Europe
Pope lights beacon of hope
23 Jan 02 | World
Worried Pope prays for peace
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Talking Point stories