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“Ask a Priest: How Should I Behave Toward My Divorced-and-Remarried Sister?”
Q: My sister married as a Catholic but along the way she divorced, left the Catholic faith and married again. I have not cultivated any relationship with her new husband, and we never invite them as a couple to our family reunions because we believe that doing so would send a message indicating that we agree with their new status, i.e., that the divorce was OK and her new marriage is valid. We know that charity needs to prevail above all, but we don’t want to compromise our Catholic faith doing something that sends a wrong message. Can you elaborate more on how we need to behave toward my sister and her new husband as a couple? -E.C.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: You touch on an all-too-common challenge today: how to show charity toward a loved one without appearing to endorse a morally problematic situation. The goal here is thus twofold: helping your sister to resolve her situation while at the same time avoiding further scandal.
The situation might seem bleak right now, but people can change. Over time they might rethink the wisdom and long-term effects of their decisions.
You will have a better chance to influence your sister if you cultivate your relationship with her, even if this means excluding her from certain family events. Try to be pro-active with her year-round, not just at the holidays. Regular e-mails and phone calls can help. Familiarity can breed content. Let her know that you love her and pray for her. Encourage her to pray and to read Scripture, if she isn’t willing to return to Mass.
She might still be carrying wounds from her first marriage, and these wounds in turn might have influenced her decision to abandon her Catholic faith. Along the way she might have been exposed to myths and misconceptions about the annulment process and what the Church teaches about marriage. Anything you can do to educate her on these points could be helpful. (Many dioceses have a Q&A feature on annulments; Boston’s, for instance, is available here.
Above all, your sister needs to know that God and the Church still love her and only want the best for her. How you transmit that message could be crucial for her coming back to the faith.
It is admirable that you are concerned about not giving the impression that you support her living arrangement. But recall that even Jesus ate with public sinners — and scandalized other people for doing so (see Mark 2:13-17). Still, the context of an encounter is important. If there are young or impressionable children in the family who might get the wrong impression about your sister’s relationship, then it might be better to meet your sister (and possibly her partner) on more neutral ground, such as a restaurant. Or perhaps private meetings with your sister, either at her home or yours, could be fruitful as well as discreet. In any case, pray and then follow your conscience as to decide on any particular visit. You might find helpful insights in a recent article by the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, here.
If, despite your efforts at discretion and charity, your sister is offended and rejects you, then you can only commend her to Our Lord’s mercy. His grace can still win her over, even if the process seems slow. Continue to pray for her and be available for emergencies. And never give up hope that she rediscovers the beauty of what God is trying to give her through his Church. Count on my own prayers for you and your sister.