Religion Softens on Divorce

In most religions marriage is sacred. But with the nation's high divorce rate, American clergy face a moral dilemma: keeping up with the times or sticking to tradition?

Rev. Margaret Cunningham, who runs a divorce support group at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., remembers a time when many religious congregations shunned divorcees.

"They have been refused communion and they have been made to feel unwelcome and sinful," Rev. Cunningham says.

Rev. Casey Treat, a non-denominational minister, has similar memories.

"I became a Christian at a church where if you'd been divorced you could not be a church member," Rev. Treat says. "I think that's wrong."

Rev. Treat is now the pastor of Seattle's Christian Faith Center, which offers counseling to divorcees.

"I think there has been a shift where churches are trying to be more relevant and recognize you can't just brush off a great percentage of the population because of pain and problems that they've been through," Treat says.

In addition to counseling, some mainstream churches have adopted special prayers for divorcing couples. A small, but growing number of clergy perform "divorce ceremonies."

Rev. Joan McCabe, a non-denominational minister from Vashon Island, Wash., says such ceremonies offer comfort during a difficult transition, much like a funeral.

"In a sense, a divorce is a funeral for a wedding," Rev. McCabe says. "Churches, temples and synagogues all have to accept that divorce is a part of life."

Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi from Mercer Island, Wash., disagrees.

"A funeral is okay. So is a birthday and so is a wedding because, ultimately, we hope everybody has one," Rabbi Lapin says. "We do not hope everybody has a divorce."

Rabbi Lapin, who heads "Toward Tradition," a group advocating traditional faith-based values, says today's religious leaders have become too timid when it comes to preaching against divorce.

"Come out and say what you really believe," Rabbi Lapin advises his colleagues. "Say what your faith really says about divorce, which ranges from non-doable in traditional Catholicism all the way to highly discouraged and unhappy in Orthodox Judaism."

Jeff Kemp, executive director of the family advocacy group "Families Northwest" says troubled couples need counseling to strengthen their marriages, not celebrations to ease their demise.

"It is not compassionate," Kemp says. "It will not help our society move back toward being a marriage culture rather than a divorce culture."

Recent statistics suggest the divorce rate is dropping. Still, experts estimate 40 percent of marriages today will fail.

That leaves clergy members with some difficult questions. Should religion adapt to social change? Or should it attempt to change society?

Kemp says he prefers the latter. "The churches represent encouragement toward the ideal."