Pope appeals to lawyers, judges: avoid divorce cases
By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
For some attorneys, the message from Pope John Paul II was a bit unsettling.
In a speech at the Vatican on Monday, the pope said lawyers and judges should not participate in divorce cases, that doing so would enable evil.
Practically speaking, said one family law attorney in Tampa, if Catholic divorce lawyers worked harder to reconcile clients and their mates, the clients would probably look elsewhere for a lawyer.
"What would happen is one or two guys would have a lot of business," said A. Richard Castro, a lawyer who is Roman Catholic.
The pope's speech, made during an address to the Vatican court that handles annulments, has met with snickers from those who think the pope is out of touch and acclaim from those who believe even the religious have forgotten the sanctity of marriage.
The tenuous division between church and state has long been blurred on the issue of marriage and divorce.
Yet the goals of the church and the government have grown more similar in recent years, as states have encouraged premarital counseling or mandating marriage skills classes in high school.
Florida has done both recently. The state's divorce rate has declined 27.4 percent since 1980, but it is 20 percent higher than the nationwide figure, the Florida Department of Health says.
Other states have taken the more bold step of allowing "covenant marriages," which are harder to dissolve. Men and women can voluntarily enter such a marriage, in which they agree not to seek a divorce unless something extreme occurs, such as adultery, abuse or a spouse's imprisonment.
"I think that many states are enacting cooling-off periods in divorce cases so that the goal of family mediation is to keep the marriage together," said the Rev. Robert Schneider, pastor at St. Petersburg's Holy Family Catholic Church.
"What the pope is doing," he said, "is trying to encourage lawyers and judges to have that as a goal in whatever they do. However, there are cases where legal divorce can be justified."
On Monday, the pope said divorce has had "devastating consequences that spread in the social body like a festering wound" and infected a new generation. The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize divorce, only annulments.
Roman Catholic judges and lawyers contacted Monday said they are reluctant to allow their beliefs to influence their legal duties.
"I've served in the family law division, and we don't encourage, nor do we discourage, matrimonial dissolution," said Circuit Judge Gregory P. Holder, who is Catholic. "We grant dissolution of marriage when the legal prerequisites are met."
Castro said he does not think the pope's remarks will have much influence on the divorce rate.
"They can say whatever they want, but the law in Florida is what governs," he said. "The pope is speaking, I guess, to all good Catholics."
William Penrose, a family law attorney in St. Petersburg, says when it comes to divorce, his philosophy is: "No kids, no problem."
"Whenever there are children involved, I want the people to do whatever is within reason to try to maintain the family unit," said Penrose, whose wife, Anthea, is public relations manager at the Times. "That same philosophy does not pertain, however, when there are not children involved. To me, that's really the almost moral equivalent of breaking up in high school. I've always thought that and conducted my business in that way."
The pope acknowledged it would be hard for judges to refuse to hear divorce cases because there is no "conscientious objector status."
But taking part in such cases amounted to collaborating with an evil, he said.
"I've had many lawyers tell me they do not like family law because of the difficulties there with child support and visitation rights," Schneider said. "But I think the pope would be saying those working in family law should be working to preserve marriage."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire