Why I Left My Pastorate and Was Drawn to the Catholic Faith

by Steve Wood

Twenty-four years ago, on July 1, 1990, my family entered the Catholic Church at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice, FL. There were at least a dozen significant reasons for my leaving Protestantism and becoming a Catholic, but one reason stands far above all the others. It was a life-changing encounter with Section 84 of St. John Paul II’s, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World.

I may be the world’s only convert to Catholicism because of Section 84, the portion of the apostolic exhortation dealing with the question of communion and the divorced and civilly remarried. I need to relate a portion of my pilgrimage to Catholicism in order to explain why this document had such an impact on me.

I developed a keen interest in the after-effects of Christian divorce and remarriage after observing the damaging impact marital breakdown had on teens in my Protestant youth group. For a dozen years following my youth ministry, I studied marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the Church Fathers, in the Greek New Testament, and in books by a wide range of Christian authors. A brief summary of my research is contained in Christian Fatherhood, Appendix Two: “What Scripture Teaches About Divorce and Remarriage.”

What became unmistakably clear was that the early church taught that a true Christian marriage was indissoluble. The early church was faithfully echoing the teaching of Jesus:

“Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18).

I agonized for a couple of long years about what to do with my beliefs about the indissolubility of marriage. Even though I knew that I was in the mainstream of historic Christianity in my beliefs about indissolubility, I also knew that I was in a distinct minority among my fellow Protestant clergy. Then one Sunday morning I found myself walking away from my pastorate after preaching a sermon on marriage. Here is how I described those five minutes in Chapter Two in Christian Fatherhood:

I had five minutes to decide whether or not to follow Christ.

I had just delivered a sermon on the indissolubility (lifelong permanence) of marriage from the Old Testament book of Hosea. As I sat down during the offertory to prepare my thoughts for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, I realized that I had just preached myself out of the Protestant pastorate. Twenty years of study, preparation, and effort had been undone by a 30-minute sermon on the covenant of marriage. I had just told my congregation that valid marriages are indissoluble. How could I administer the Lord’s Supper to those who had been unlawfully divorced and remarried?

Although my palms began to sweat, my heart was filled with conviction. I realized that as pastor I couldn’t continue administering the Lord’s Supper to those who were in unlawful marriages. Giving communion to people unfaithful to their marriage covenants would be profaning the divine covenant. Receiving the sacrament of oneness between God and his people while being unfaithful to the oneness of the marriage covenant is a sacrilegious contradiction. By giving the Lord’s Supper to people in illicit marriages, I would be participating in that sacrilege.

The Holy Spirit was prompting me in the strongest possible manner to stop administering the Lord’s Supper immediately. I thought, “Well, I can take some time over the next few weeks to consider this.” Yet I feared that God was passing by in a special way, and he was saying, “Come now or never.”

The implications of obeying raced through my mind. “I have a wife and five children to support. If I do this I will not only be unemployed, but unemployable as a Protestant minister. This is my job, my career, my calling. I have invested over two decades of my life to do this. How can I walk away from my ministry? I must talk to my wife Karen first.” But God didn’t let up. His call was very direct: “Do it now.”

I stood up and walked to the communion table. I apologized to my congregation and said that I was unprepared to administer the Lord’s Supper. They reacted with shocked silence and confused looks. Everyone was wondering why their pastor was “unprepared” to serve them communion. I pronounced a benediction and walked out of the sanctuary.

After explaining my reasons to the church elders for not administering communion they kindly but firmly informed me that my time was over at that congregation. Even more, I knew that it was permanently over for me as a Protestant pastor.

The week following my sermon on marriage was one of the loneliest in my Christian life. Here I was a pastor, but I didn’t sense belonging to any church. I felt as though I was a clergyman in an ecclesiastical no man’s land. In a sense of desperation for someone who shared my beliefs in indissolubility, I pulled from my bookshelf an unread copy of St. John Paul II’s, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World. Again from Christian Fatherhood, here is my reaction after reading it:

I was astounded. He expressed such tender care for divorced persons who have remarried, and yet insisted that they refrain from Eucharistic Communion while their state of life contradicts the covenant union between Christ and the Church.

Reading this document, I was struck by its wisdom, its fidelity to Christ’s teaching, and its pastoral graciousness. Finally, I had found the solid foundation for the survival of the modern family. I was instantly hooked on the Catholic vision of family life. It was so good that I wondered what else the Catholic Church had to say. I was now open for an honest investigation of Catholic teaching.

It was Section 84 of The Role of the Christian Family which convinced me that the Catholic Church had preserved intact the teaching of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage. St. John Paul II clearly explained why those divorced and remarried outside of the Church cannot receive communion. Yet while faithfully upholding marital indissolubility, St. John Paul tenderly, compassionately, and charitably reached out to the divorced and remarried. I had read widely on subjects related to marriage, divorce, and remarriage, but nothing approached the level of faithfulness to Christ coupled with the balance of Christian charity that I found in The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, especially Section 84. I am profoundly grateful for these three pages to which I owe my Catholic life.

In recent months, I was disheartened to hear that a German Catholic cardinal proposed that the Church modify its stance on giving communion to the divorced and civilly remarried. Doing so would effectively undermine the entire basis of Catholic moral teaching on marriage and sexuality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, describing a civil remarriage states, “the married spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery” (Section 2384).

St. Paul similarly says in his epistle to the Romans, “A married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives … Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive” (7:2-3). The Greek verb for “she will be called” means “to bear the name, or title of.” The verb tense indicates an ongoing sense in bearing the title of adulteress.

The German cardinal suggested that if a divorced and civilly remarried couple undertakes a period of repentance, then they should be allowed to partake of communion without a change of lifestyle. This suggestion overlooks the fact that being civilly remarried is thereby living in an ongoing state of adultery. A period of repentance can’t change the objective fact of a continuing grave sin.

If the Church gave communion to the divorced and civilly remarried, it would be giving communion to persons living in a situation of breaking the sixth commandment. Opening communion to those living in adultery would logically lead to giving communion to those living in fornication and those committing sodomy since these acts are also sins related to the sixth commandment.

A relevant question is, “Why would anyone suggest changing the relevant, wise, charitable, and balanced practices put forth by St. John Paul II in 1981?” Some suggest that his exhortation is out-of-date given the dramatic rise in the rates of divorce and remarriage. This claim is erroneous for two reasons.

First, the teaching in The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World is timeless. Doesn’t it seem offensive even to suggest that an apostolic exhortation by a saint who brought historic Catholic marital teaching to the modern world just thirty-three years ago is out of date?

Second, the claim that divorce and remarriage has gotten significantly worse since St. John Paul II wrote his apostolic exhortation is false.

Take for example the United States, currently number 12 among the 20 countries with the highest divorce rates. America, about in the middle of the list of the most divorce-prone countries, is a good indicator of modern divorce rates.

During the 19th century, divorce was relatively rare in America. The divorce rate stayed under three per thousand until the 1960s during which no-fault divorce legislation was legalized and the pill widely accepted. The damaging effects from both fell upon marriages. The divorce rate in America soared during the 1970s finally peaking at 5.3 divorces per 1000 in 1981 – the very year St. John Paul II wrote his apostolic exhortation. Divorce rates have been declining ever since. As of 2011 the divorce rate is 3.6 per 1000.

St. John Paul’s apostolic exhortation, blessed with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, promised to the successors of Peter, was issued at the very peak of the modern divorce and remarriage crisis. Rather than calling his exhortation out-of-date, it would be more accurate to call it prophetic and timely.

For the above reasons and also for the truth on marriage which illumined my path to Catholicism, it is my earnest hope that the cardinals gathered in Rome next fall for the Synod on the Family will reaffirm Section 84 of St. John Paul II’s, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World.”

“To bear witness to the inestimable value of the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage is one of the most precious and most urgent tasks of Christian couples in our time.”

St. John Paul II – The Role of the Christian Family, Section 20

This article appeared in the Dads.org E-newsletter, July 2014.