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Needed: speed-bumps on the road to divorce

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 06, 2014

The “empty-nest divorce” threatens to become a familiar rite of passage in American life. During the first few years after graduation from college we are regularly invited to the weddings of our classmates and friends. A few more years pass, and we hear about the birth of their children. Another decade or two, and we may receive invitations to those children’s weddings. Then, sadly, we hear that the couples, our old friends, are breaking up.

Every divorce is a tragedy. Lawyers and legislators may speak glibly of “no-fault” divorce, but in practice there is plenty of fault on both sides. Except in the most unusual circumstances—those rare cases when a civil divorce is the proper response to legal problems—a divorce is a public proclamation that two people have failed at the most important business in their lives. Divorce, as Peter Kreeft has observed, is the suicide of a family. But in this case the suicide may claim innocent victims: the children, if there are any; the unwilling partner, if only one spouse wants to end the life of the marriage.

Yet as sad as divorce always is, it is even more heartbreaking to watch the disintegration of a marriage that has endured for 20 or 30 years, and produced a handful of children. How is it possible that a couple could live together for decades, appearing to all the world like the happy heads of a healthy family, and then suddenly abandon the project they had been working on together?

It happens even among Catholic couples, even among active church-goers and model parishioners. Something goes terribly wrong, the couple cannot fix the problem, and a family is destroyed. Ordinarily, I fear, the pastor does not know about the problem until the lawyers have already drawn up the divorce documents.

As the world’s Catholic bishops gather for their Synod meeting in October on the family, the hottest topic in public discussions has been pastoral care for Catholics who are divorced and remarried. No doubt that is a valid concern, but another question should take precedence: What can the Church do to prevent the tragedy of divorce?

Yes, yes, I know that there are times when a civil divorce is the best solution to an intractable problem. I know that divorce, taken by itself, is not necessarily sinful. But surely we should not presume, in each case, that divorce is a wise choice, that the parties are blameless. Catholics, who see the marital bond as a reflection of Christ’s love for his Church, should do everything possible to preserve that bond.

When a marriage breaks down, someone (in all likelihood both spouses) has done something (probably some things, plural) seriously wrong. Pastors should remind married couples frequently that they have a solemn obligation, incurred by their vows, to preserve and strengthen their relationship. The failure to work on a marriage, to act with love toward one’s spouse, may be a gravely sinful matter. Regular homilies about marriage, including some practical advice, might help keep couples together.

Of course the best opportunity for dispensing advice comes before the wedding, and the Church can certainly show greater diligence in preparing couples for Christian marriage. Church tribunals now routinely find that young people married in the Catholic Church did not adequately understand the commitment they were undertaking. Those findings should be understood as a scathing indictment of our marriage-prep courses.

Or else, perhaps, those findings are an indictment of the tribunals themselves. Is it really likely that more than 90% of the American Catholics who apply for annulments were never validly married? Have diocesan officials become infected with the thoroughly un-Christian belief that ordinary people are not capable of lifelong commitments? Still more puzzling, to me, is the willingness of tribunals to annul marriages that have lasted for years and produced multiple children. If someone was too immature to form a lasting bond in his 20s, and never acquired the necessary maturity through his 30s and 40s, he should not need an annulment in his 50s, since he is unlikely ever to be mature enough for marriage!

Should the Church be demanding, in questioning couples who want a Catholic wedding? If they show no sign of understanding what Christian marriage entails, no interest in doing more than going through the motions, should they be advised against marriage? That sort of rigorous approach would be effective only if all pastors adopted it. Too often, when a couple is discouraged by one conscientious pastor, they find another priest, in another parish, who will officiate as long as all the forms are properly filled out.

And before we leave the subject of preparation for marriage, it is vitally important to stress that young couples should be presented with the full, uncensored teaching of the Church regarding the integrity of marital love. A love that is open to life is the best insurance against marital breakdown; among married couples who do not use artificial contraceptives, the rate of divorce is statistically insignificant. The Catholic Church has the antidote to a disease that is plaguing our society; it is not charitable—it is certainly not pastoral-- to keep that remedy secret.

Priests might be better equipped to help save marriages—to intervene before problems became irreversible—if they heard more about marital difficulties in the confessional. Regrettably, many Catholics rarely or never approach the sacrament of reconciliation. By encouraging more frequent confession, and probing carefully for signs of domestic friction, priests might find new ways to encourage couples to help each other.

The willingness to ask forgiveness and the readiness to start anew are keys to overcoming marital difficulties. They are also, not coincidentally, virtues that are nourished by sacramental confession. Moreover, someone who has recently been absolved of his own sins should be more disposed to forgive his spouse’s offenses.

”The family that prays together stays together,” runs the old adage. A household founded on faith has a better chance of absorbing shocks, an insurance policy that protects against the inevitable setbacks that mark family life. Pastors should encourage families to pray together in their homes: to pray for each other’s needs, to pray as a family, for the family.

In a society in which half of all marriages end in divorce, the enduring love of a married couple is a powerful form of evangelization. The Church should do everything possible to highlight the witness of faithful married couples—and to ensure that there are more of them.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: virgy5944 - Aug. 09, 2014 5:33 PM ET USA

    I have been in contact with cohabitating couples with children and I have seen some very young men and women purchasing the "morning after" pill. They come from Christian homes but they have formed their own belief. Fewer people visit the inside of a Church even though they proclaim themselves Christians.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jun. 09, 2014 3:39 PM ET USA

    Excellent points all around! Building marriages also alleviates poverty. Along with a vibrant Catholic school in the inner city, there is no better antidote to poverty than solid Catholic marriages and authentic Catholic education. Of course, each of these forces make a solid contribution to the building up of the intellectual and moral virtues and also contribute to improvement in mental health, all around.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jun. 09, 2014 12:54 PM ET USA

    The Church does a poor job of instilling a sense of the spiritual onto many people and the young in particular. Marriage, if properly understood, is a spiritual union of two mortals. The third element in a marriage is God that is why it is a spiritual union. I would wager that few young people even understand that they are making their pledge of fidelity with God as witness. If the Bishops can address how to spiritualize marriage and apply their findings then divorce will go into decline.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jun. 09, 2014 10:59 AM ET USA

    When young people approach marriage they may have a different agenda in mind. They want approval for their sexual license. Being poorly catechized they assume that having sex is what married people do together. Little emphasis is placed on other activities like praying, going to Mass or talking about eternity that awaits us all. Instead they focus on work, having money is a validation, and sex. This places having children in the crosshairs of birth control in order to continue to work.

  • Posted by: phil L - Jun. 09, 2014 9:47 AM ET USA

    For a reference on the low divorce rate among NFP users, see Janet Smith's "Conctraception: Why Not?" http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/sexuality/se0002.html

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jun. 09, 2014 1:27 AM ET USA

    Phil, what is the source for your statement "among married couples who do not use artificial contraceptives, the rate of divorce is statistically insignificant."

  • Posted by: vboast4348 - Jun. 07, 2014 4:01 AM ET USA

    Makes perfect sense. Marriages are everyone's business in the community; as far as the behaviour of supporting and encouraging the couple is concerned. We emigrated after 18 months of marriage and with first son (8months old); I found the Catholic communities in our churches (in 4 interstate moves) invaluable in helping us keep perspective through very challenging situations. Probably some of those people were unaware of their value. We need to befriend others, after Mass, when possible.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 06, 2014 11:15 PM ET USA

    How much do we hear today about the inevitability of change and the need to embrace change as fundamental to reality? How often do we hear that we need to be true to ourselves, to move on when relationships wear out and to explore the exciting possibilities to follow? How much of life is focused on our subjective experiences in place of appreciating objective reality, recognizing truth or prayerfully building virtue? The mindset is omnipresent; it weakens that which might otherwise endure.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Jun. 06, 2014 8:23 PM ET USA

    "What can the Church do to prevent the tragedy of divorce?" What can the Church do to prevent personality disorders?

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