Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Divorce: Christian America's golden calf

When I wrote my post yesterday about donor-conceived children and a child's basic right to know his or her parents, I alluded to the evil of divorce, and the way in which divorce shatters the natural family and causes some children to be raised at a distance (physical, emotional, spiritual or all three) from one or the other of their natural parents.

I also wrote that we act as though so long as a child has a couple of parents around, it doesn't really matter whether or not these are his actual parents or step-parents or whatever. The truth, I believe, is that it does matter very much to the child.

But when I wrote that, I knew that some readers would ignore the subject of IVF and donor-conceived children to focus on the divorce issue, and to assure me (in comments if not elsewhere) that in their own situations or that of their parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles or family friends etc., divorce was the only sane, reasonable, responsible, child-friendly decision imaginable. I knew this would happen, because every time I ever used to get involved in conversations about divorce at places like Rod Dreher's old blog, people would fill the comments sections with pro-divorce statements. I was often left with the impression that in America today, most people don't think of marriage as even a theoretically permanent committment; that most people expect most marriages to fail, and that most people stand at the altar making promises of permanence and fidelity with their fingers crossed behind their backs--because, you know, people change, and relationships falter, and why should human beings with eighty-year lifespans be stuck with one person (of whom they have long since grown tired) all those weary years?

In a nation that still likes to pretend to itself on convenient occasions that it adheres to the Christian principles on which it was founded, it's absolutely amazing to consider how cynical most Americans--even most Christian Americans--are about marriage. In the years since America's founding divorce has gone from a social liability to a necessary evil to a mere rite-of-passage for so many; remarriage after divorce has become so widely acceptable that only a handful of people are ever so churlish as to refuse to attend a second wedding or to join the new bride-to-be or husband-to-be in the new pre-wedding pastime known as "bashing the ex."

How different is this cavalier attitude toward divorce from the Church's position? The Catechism discusses divorce in this way:

2384 Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery:

If a husband, separated from his wife, approaches another woman, he is an adulterer because he makes that woman commit adultery, and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has drawn another's husband to herself.178

2385 Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.

2386 It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage.179

When I speak of divorce as Christian America's golden calf, I do not by any means exclude those of my fellow Catholics who accept divorce, or who think of decrees of nullity as merely the Catholic version of divorce. It is, alas, a scandal that so many decrees of nullity--that is, statements that a marriage was invalid from the outset and never really took place at all--are issued in America; whether it is a scandal that owes its existence to the deplorable lack of proper catechesis regarding marriage in the Church in America today, or whether it is a scandal shaped by America's cultural acceptance, reliance on, and even celebration of divorce and remarriage is hard to say.

But those Catholics referred to in CCC 2386 are the ones who really suffer from our culture's easy acceptance of divorce. They, the innocent parties to a divorce, remain faithful to a husband or wife who has not only abandoned them, but, in many cases, contracted an adulterous second marriage--all while insisting on fully sharing custody of any children and other privileges which, frankly, their evil conduct ought to make impossible. Note that, of course, I am referring to marriages (as the CCC is) which are canonically valid; a Catholic spouse who willfully and knowingly seeks a civil divorce from a valid marriage commits a grave sin, and compounds that sin with adultery should he or she attempt a second and invalid marriage outside of the Church.

Is the Church right to insist so strongly on the sanctity of marriage, on its necessary character as ordered toward permanence and fidelity as well as the creation of new life? In a word, yes. The evils of divorce are apparent in our culture to anyone with eyes to see; children raised in shattered homes and broken families are known to have worse outcomes than children raised in intact families, and women who have been abandoned by divorce struggle to escape from poverty. Men, too, suffer the impact of divorce when they are the innocent party--as happens more often than is politically correct to say. And even the adult children of divorce must deal every day with the pain of betrayal and anger and sorrow, the bitter legacy divorce leaves to all its children.

Yet Christian America dances and makes false sacrifices in front of the idol of divorce. Denouncing all the other evils produced by the sexual revolution, such as abortion, casual attitudes about sex, and similar social ills, many Christians unquestioningly accept divorce as a kind of "insurance policy" that protects them against unhappy or unsatisfactory marriages. Although this really means, in the truest sense, that many Christians stand up at the altar and promise to love and honor each other--until they get bored or tired or meet someone else, certainly not until death parts them--few Christians understand the implied insult in a so-called promise or vow made in those terms.

If we Christians really want to reform our diseased culture, we will start by unhesitatingly rejecting the evil of divorce--an evil which hurts men and women, damages children, and tears away at the fabric of society.


Dr. Sanders said...

It seems to me that a good strong marriage is the best witness we can give to the culture of life. A permanent marriage says "I believe that this relationship is sacred," and becomes the springboard for showing that we really do believe that sex is sacred (and life-giving), and by extension that life is sacred. Are we willing to make some sacrifices for the culture of life? Or will we sacrifice to the culture of death instead?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Mennonites also insist that marriage is for life -- even to the extent that a divorced spouse will refuse to remarry while the spouse who divorced them is still living.

As with many such subjects, I favor a balanced common sense approach. There are abusive marriages. The law should not be a prison that allows an abusive spouse (a few are women) to keep an abused spouse in their clutches.

The problem with American culture is the attitude "It's legal, so I can have one anytime I want one." That's the problem with abortion, and it is the looming downside of decriminalizing recreational drug use.

First, divorce should be legally available. Second, it should be used sparingly, and marriage should not be entered into with a casual glance at the availability of divorce. Marriage is, barring extreme circumstances, for life. I'm having a bad week, or you're getting on my nerves, is not the moral equivalent of "my husband ties me up and beats me with an iron rod and laughs about it," or "my husband is sexually molesting our daughters and our son." Short of such abominations, marriage is a commitment to work through the inevitable tensions, confident in the mutual commitment to do so.

The balance we need is, it is legal, combined with the moral fiber to recognize that it is a last resort. That requires some individual virtue. It cannot be cultivated by simply denying all divorce, across the board, as a matter of law.

Rebecca in CA said...

Red, you said:

"a Catholic spouse who willfully and knowingly seeks a civil divorce from a valid marriage commits a grave sin, and compounds that sin with adultery should he or she attempt a second and invalid marriage outside of the Church."

I agree with the second part of the statement, but the first part needs to be qualified: It is sometimes just and necessary to seek a civil divorce, in a case where there is valid reason for separation, in order for a spouse to protect himself/herself. One can seek a civil divorce in a case of sacramental marriage without any intention of attempting to contract another marriage. I know you are speaking in general but I thought that should be made clear, for those who are not aware of the Catholic moral teaching on this point.

Siarlys, there are often good reasons for separation, which are ennumerated in canon law, but the good reasons do not invalidate the permanent bond between a man and woman which was created on the day of their wedding.

Hector_St_Clare said...

Rebecca in CA,

I don't think that Siarlys is saying that Catholics should get divorced: he's saying that the Catholic view of divorce should not be imposed, by law, on those people (other Christian churches, people of other faiths, or of no faith at all) who don't share their view of divorce.

I'm not unsympathetic to your church's view of divorce and remarriage (personally I lean more to the Orthodox view on this one) but it shouldn't be imposed by law on those of us who are not Roman Catholic. As the famous poet and senator Yeats said, in his famous speech in favour of divorce (which he knew would be unsuccessful) on the floor of the Irish senate.

Erin Manning said...

Thanks for the clarification, Rebecca. I was meaning to differentiate between those who attack the marriage and seek its "end" and the innocent spouse. It is true that in some circumstances a civil divorce is necessary to protect the innocent--yet the Church usually advises legal separation in cases where that's not necessary, if I recall correctly.

rdcobb said...

Nothing did more to hurt marriage than when Ronald Reagan signed off on "No-Fault" divorce in opened the floodgates for other states. But again you can trace part of the crisis back to contraception. When a couple doesn't have any children or only one or two children it is much easier to walk away from your marriage if you're "just not happy". The contraceptive mentality that encourages premarital sex usually leads to two people getting married with lots of sexual/relationship baggage which doesn't make marriage any easier.

Jessica said...

In "Bad Catholics guide to the seven deadly sins", John Zmirak writes about Catherine of Aragon being a model of chastity - I would say especially for those innocent spouses of divorce.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem in these discussions is that they tend to be engaged in by people who have good marriages, or haven't been married yet.

There's nothing more irritating than being lectured by someone about the sanctity of marriage and how evil divorce is, who has never experienced a horrific marriage. I say this with deep sympathy, because a close family member of mine was married to someone who was abusive. This person also hid from my family member pertinent information regarding sexual orientation. There were children involved, scandal and lots of heart ache. Divorce exists because of human sin. There are situations where it is unmerciful and uncharitable to keep someone in a marriage when there is no marriage. And this happens to people who were married in the Catholic Church and did everything "right".

I don't know any serious Catholic who enters into divorce lightly. I don't know anyone who doesn't anguish over the decision to leave a spouse. But sometimes it has to be done.

Charlotte said...

I believe the Church's stance on divorce is overly-restrictive.....but only because its modern era behavior and lack of catechesis as concerns getting married generally contradicts it's official, hardcore stance on divorce (in practice).

When the trads scream about how all the modern day annulments and divorces are bogus, I can't understand why at the same time they don't scream about how all the modern day marriages are also suspect because people don't really know/understand what they're getting into.

Most (not all) of the pre-cana classes out there are a joke. They emphasize all the normal/worldly stuff like finances, sex, and communication (all important subjects, to be sure), but give no clear instruction and teaching about marriage as an institution and sacrament - and if they do, it's given 5 minutes of lip service.

Furthermore, children are rarely discussed in these classes/seminars, other than to recommend that "both parents be on the same page about discipline." Rather, they should be explaining why marriage exists to protect and nurture children, etc. Children are instead addressed as a peripheral issue.

Also, most priests don't require couples who are living together to live apart before the marriage - because they want them to feel welcomed at the parish in the hope that they might actually come back to their Catholic faith - they don't want these couples to have overtly negative feelings about Catholicism at a time in their lives when they are requesting a sacrament. I have had priests explain to me very, very convincing arguments for this practice of allowing couples to remain living together, but on the otherhand, there is something to be said for trying to get an engaged couple to stop having sex for a period before the wedding so as to help them see the big picture with more clarity.

I'm sure other people here can add to this list of problems.

Thus, if the vast majority of Catholics are entering into marriage clueless (from an orthodox Catholic perspective), I don't believe we can hold them to an ultra-restrictive standard that makes them stay in marriages that might have been ill-advised or poorly conceived in the first place. In saying this, I recognize that the buck has to stop somewhere, but even today in 2011, it's just as bad as it's ever been.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Hector is partly right: I am not saying that Catholics, or Mennonites, or orthodox Jews, should get divorced. Every individual is free to fully embrace the discipline of any church they recognize as valid. It's called the free exercise of religion.

However, I am saying a little more than, Catholic teaching should not be imposed via the civil law. Erin didn't really say that it should. I was saying what I consider a healthy approach to marriage. Not everyone will agree, or even feel free to agree.

Marriage should be entered into with the intent that it is for life. Individuals who enter into marriage should recognize that being that close will leave a bond, even if the marriage does break up. Marriage is a commitment to work through tensions, not to walk away anytime it seems convenient.

But, there are valid reasons for divorce, and I have no problem with someone who is fully divorced from a truly abusive marriage finding a real marriage they can stay with. Incidentally, sometimes divorce is best for the children too -- although not often.

c matt said...

I don't know anyone who doesn't anguish over the decision to leave a spouse.

YMMV. I have seen both those who anguish, and, more than I care to witness, those who treat marriage as little more than going steady.

The Sicilian Woman said...

I gave my marriage more than its fair chance. I made vows and wanted to keep them. However, after a while of living with an alcoholic who showed no signs of getting help (I tried, I begged, I gave far too many chances), an alcoholic who drank and drove regularly (I was terrified that he'd hurt or kill someone) and sometimes did not come home at night, a man who was a pathological liar and con artist (found out some disturbing stuff looking through his personal records while he was out for the night on a drinking binge) and a man who I was truly afraid would snap (his kids told me he'd hit his former wife), it was time to get a divorce. From my perspective, I say thank God for no-fault divorce. It allowed me to rid myself of a monster a little more easily than traditional divorce would have.

Also, in talking to one of his children after they made attempts to reconcile with him - attempts he blew - one of his daughters said that their mother saved their lives by getting them away from him. Sadly, I understood this too well by that point.

Anonymous said...

I doubt there will be significant lessening of
divorce, so it seems useless to hope for it.

I am one of those abandoned spouses who choses
to live in respect of the vows we spoke. It is a dangerous, painful, frustrating struggle.

It is a complex problem, which I, very personally, do not believe, those in authority in the Church want to address and they have fallen back on the
"passive-aggressive" nature of not enforcing marital faithfulness while teaching it. I see this as sheer madness and evil.

Until this "push me, pull you" dichotomy is overcome, with a complimentary mixture of justice and mercy, THAT IS ENFORCED VIA CANON LAW, only the choice of individuals , en masse, will drive this issue for Catholics in relation to the
Church and change will not occur rapidly. With the
precipitous secularization of Catholics I hold little
hope for a return to a marriage mentality.

Because of my deep dissatisfation with how all of this is played out in the Church, I am trying to content myself with the remaining years of my life being a Catholic who is at arms length apart from
the Church but still as observant as possible.

I left her(the Church) once over this but not again.
The monsters in Roman collars, with Miters and he with Peter's Ring will not drive me from what is
my baptismal right, again.....regardless of their lack of serious pastoral concern for abandoned spouses.

As our spouses and their lovers, with the full cooperation of the state and the misguided, pastoral, malfeasance of Catholic clergy and lay "ministers", destroy our lives( in countless ways) in concert, we struggle to live and to pursue the perilously precarious faith we cling to.