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Catholic lawyers should handle divorce cases, especially for Catholic clients. I believe this is consistent with what Pope John Paul II actually said on Jan. 28 to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, which is the Vatican tribunal that handles appeals of Catholic Church marriage annulment decisions. It was widely reported that the pope said that “lawyers, as independent professionals, must always decline to use their profession to an end contrary to justice, such as divorce.” He also said, with reference to divorce, that “lawyers should only collaborate in such an activity when it, in the client’s intent, is not aimed at the breaking of the marriage, but to other legitimate effects.” If you are a Catholic lawyer who handles primarily family law cases, your first reaction may have been relief over the inclusion of the “other legitimate effects” loophole. That was my reaction. And since the Catholic Church will not consider granting an annulment until after there has been a divorce, how can the pope tell me not to handle divorce cases? Upon reflection, the pope was not telling me that I shouldn’t handle divorce cases; he was telling me how to handle divorce cases. The pope also told his audience of lawyers that “one must not surrender to the divorcing mentality,” and “the value of indissolubility cannot be thought to be the object of a simple private choice: it concerns one of the cornerstones of the whole of society.” The Texas Family Code requires a finding that the legitimate ends of the marriage relationship have been destroyed and that there is no reasonable expectation of reconciliation before what is commonly called a “no fault” divorce can be granted. So I don’t see a conflict between what the pope said and the Family Code — I think the pope is giving good advice. WHAT’S WRONG? What I do see is a problem with Catholics who have been led to believe that it is “wrong” for them to get a divorce. For whatever reason, they think “I can’t get a divorce because I’m Catholic,” “Divorce is a mortal sin” or “I will be excommunicated.” Hopefully a sensitive priest will disabuse them of these notions before they visit a lawyer. In my experience, most parish priests handle these situations with sensitivity and understanding, and help their parishioners analyze whether their intent is aimed at the ending of the marriage or to some other legitimate effect. Unfortunately, it is very common for a Catholic to be too embarrassed to talk to his or her priest about divorce, or to still feel guilty even after counseling from a priest. In an instance such as this, it is particularly important that this person have an attorney who is sensitive to his particular needs. Who is better equipped than a Catholic lawyer who has worked through these issues for himself or herself? What these clients need is an attorney who is not only able to explain to them that they are not going to be excommunicated for getting a divorce, but who also respects and understands their concerns as to their standing with their church. These clients need an attorney who can help them get a divorce without “surrendering to the divorcing mentality.” NOT UNIQUE Handling a divorce without surrendering to the divorcing mentality means first of all discerning whether, as the Family Code says, the legitimate ends of the marriage relationship have been destroyed, and whether there is a reasonable expectation of reconciliation. It also means recognizing that the dissolution of a marriage is fundamentally different from the dissolution of a business, even if opposing counsel disagrees. Not surrendering to the divorcing mentality means directing a potential client to a counselor, religious or otherwise, who can help her determine if the marriage is salvageable. It means encouraging reconciliation whenever reconciliation is possible. By recognizing that, as the pope said, marriage is a cornerstone of society, the lawyer recognizes the trauma that the client is going through and accepts the responsibility to serve the client’s broader interests. Whether we like it or not, our clients look to us for more than legal advice. When they call us with a problem that objectively should be presented to a therapist, it is because they see us as attorneys and counselors. If they have additional issues because of the religion they practice, we must be responsive to those concerns, which are frequently a greater source of angst for them than are issues such as division of assets or even financial support of children. The client’s emotional, spiritual and religious concerns must be taken as seriously by their lawyer as are their “legal” concerns. We should encourage religious counseling for our clients who are religious. We should recognize that our clients frequently have needs above and beyond what we perceive to be encompassed in the legal issues of what we call a case, and that we have a calling to help our clients with what they actually want us to help them with. Is any of this unique to lawyers or divorcing couples who happen to be Catholic? Not really. This is simply what lawyers should do to help clients who are going through a divorce. George R. Bienfang practices with McShane & Davis in Dallas. He is board certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in family law and is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.

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