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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 15:51 GMT
Viewpoint: Divorce and the Catholic church
Pope makes his address
The Pope addresses members of the Vatican Court
Pope John Paul II has urged Catholic lawyers to refuse to act for couples in the process of splitting up. Here, John Duddington, a Catholic and editor of the Christian Law Review, gives a personal view of the ruling.

My immediate reaction was one of astonishment and shock. I then asked two questions:

What did the Pope actually say? Where did he say it?

If to 'collaborate' means that a lawyer should turn away a client, then that is wrong

To take the second question first, the Pope was speaking to an audience of Church lawyers [who handle annulments] rather than to practising lawyers who deal with the general public. His words have been translated from Italian. As a result, some of the sense may have been lost.

The context of his speech was the importance of marriage and the fact that, in the eyes of the Church, marriage is for life. Towards the end the Pope said that lawyers must avoid 'collaborating' with divorce.

If to 'collaborate' means that a lawyer should turn away a client who may wish to have a divorce, then that is wrong. A Christian lawyer must always bear in mind the command to love one's neighbour and must not, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, pass by on the other side.

Words of the catechism

The difficulty is that the Pope then seemed to distinguish between actually helping someone to obtain a divorce and dealing with side issues, presumably arrangements for the children and property matters.

As a Catholic, I admire the Pope's resolve to uphold the institution of marriage

In reality these cannot be separated from the divorce petition itself. He also commended efforts by lawyers to achieve reconciliation, although those parts of the Family Law Act 1997 which emphasised the importance of mediation were considered unworkable by many and never brought into force.

It is interesting that the Pope refers to the catechism of the Catholic Church when he says that lawyers can become involved in dealing with the 'legitimate' effects of a divorce.

The catechism goes further than this. It states that if civil divorce is the only way of ensuring certain rights such as the care of children then it is not wrong to seek one.

Could the Pope's call put off those seeking help?
Furthermore, it also states that there is a considerable difference between the spouse who has tried to save the marriage and is abandoned by the other and the spouse who has 'wilfully destroyed' the marriage.

The first spouse is the innocent victim and, although the catechism does not say this, could presumably seek a divorce. After all, the Association of Separated and Divorced Catholics is officially recognised by the church.

'Issues seldom stark'

Surely the catechism is right. Should a Catholic lawyer decline to act for the spouse who abandons their family but agree to act for the one who has tried to save the marriage?

It would be tragic if anyone reading the report was deterred from seeking help

The problem is that issues seldom arise in so stark a form but certainly a Catholic lawyer should try, if possible, to save the marriage and, if that is not possible, help the parties to arrive at a just and reasonable solution.

As a Catholic I admire the Pope's resolve to uphold the institution of marriage and his emphasis on the need to regard marriage as indissoluble. But as a Christian and a lawyer I know that it is wrong to turn away those who need help and it is wrong to make judgements on the conduct of others when we may scarcely know them.

It would be tragic if anyone reading the report was as a result deterred from seeking help, or, as a lawyer, felt that they could not help.

I suspect that the Pope would agree and that he is actually saying nothing very new and simply restating Christian, and not just Catholic, teaching. I hope so.

John Duddington is a barrister, the Head of Worcester Law School and the editor of law and justice at the Christian Law Review. He is also a practising Catholic.

See also:

29 Jan 02 | Europe
Pope's boycott call in full
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