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The divorced Catholic’s guide to parenting

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 13, 2020

Divorce is a horrific experience for everyone involved, and it is most horrific of all for those who are completely innocent: The children of a broken marriage. But I deliberately begin this commentary with strong negative statements only in order to become more effectively positive in the end.

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In our age of easy divorce, then, I think it must be acknowledged that the majority of divorces are morally wrong, and when it comes to marriages with children, the vast majority are morally wrong for at least this reason: The damage done to the children cannot be justified by an unnecessary refusal of mother and father to remain together. At the same time, not only are some divorces unfortunately justified, but one party to a marriage may be not “divorcing” but “divorced”, for it is not uncommon for divorce to be effectively unilateral.

Good Catholics should certainly think immediately of the difference between a divorce and an annulment, for that difference is not unimportant, even to the children. Nonetheless, annulments cannot resolve the inherent familial trauma of divorce. In the first place (and possibly to avoid the charge of breaking up perfectly good marriages), the Church requires couples to be divorced for an extended period of time before even hearing a petition of nullity. The sad but pragmatic presumption is that the fact of divorce must drive the annulment process, rather than the other way around. This already involves a derogation of Catholic principles.

In the second place, while a decree of nullity may mean a great deal to both the spiritual state and the future happiness of either spouse, it does not address the trauma of the children—which is why the Church allows invalidly married couples with children to live as brother and sister in order to keep their families intact. In other words, though we can grant the signal importance of the annulment process in assessing whether a marital bond exists, even the nullity of the marriage bond does not by itself justify the violation of the child’s natural right to be raised together by both parents.

But again, men and women often find themselves divorced today, with or without clear culpability, and either way they must limit and even strive to overcome the damage to their children as well as they can. And so we arrive at The Divorced Catholic’s Guide to Parenting by Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski.

The Challenge

Precisely because a divorce does not eliminate the reality of the parent-child relationship, parents who find themselves in this situation—a situation in which they themselves are generally deeply wounded—are morally and spiritually bound to retain a strong relationship with their children if at all possible. They must also avoid loading their own conflicts and suffering onto their children. And they must be sensitive to the often unstated (or imperfectly stated) trauma of their children as this manifests itself at different stages of their development.

We live in the age of the counselor, of course, but another thing that is fair to say is that there are few better reasons for seeking the help of a well-formed and competently trained Catholic counselor than for every member of the family to get help in navigating the spiritual, intellectual and emotional turmoil that inescapably follows upon divorce. At the same time it is absolutely critical for all affected to maintain a strong and prayerful sacramental life. Broken homes are broken defenses against not only human passions but the devil himself, and this must never for a moment be forgotten.

That is why I was very glad to learn of The Divorced Catholic’s Guide to Parenting. Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski is a strong Catholic woman who has not only overcome the trials she faced as a result of the divorce of her own parents but has become a licensed clinical counselor and a pastoral counselor whose work has been recognized by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, the Knights of Columbus, and various individual dioceses. As far as I can tell (as this is not my field), her clinical knowledge is very strong. So is her Catholicism, and that fact is recognized by such discerning communications entities as EWTN and Relevant Radio.

The Guide

Even though it is far outside my own wheelhouse, I decided to examine closely The Divorced Catholic’s Guide to Parenting. I read about half of it very carefully to make sure I was making a sound assessment, and then skimmed over the rest. Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver has endorsed the book. I’ll bet I am a tougher audience, but I too was impressed. In fourteen concise chapters, Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski covers these important topics:

  1. Helping your child adjust to a new sense of family
  2. Understanding your child’s grief journey and how to respond to it
  3. Explaining the divorce or separation to your child and why it matters
  4. Understanding divorce problems that may arise and your child’s reaction to them
  5. Your role in the solution and how to take constructive action
  6. How being put in the middle harms children psychologically and how to avoid it
  7. The effect your anger has on your child and what to do about it
  8. Helping your child bring God into the solution
  9. When your child does not want to forgive
  10. Helping your child when the other parent is absent
  11. When your child is not ready for you to date or remarry
  12. Using the divorce as a teaching opportunity regarding the sacrament of marriage
  13. Making amends and reestablishing contact after an absence
  14. Enlisting the help of outside resources

Now please do not misunderstand me. You are not going to get through post-divorce problems by reading a 200-page book. But under each heading, Lynn orients the reader to the various dimensions of the problem, offers clear suggestions on what to do and (often even more important) what not to do in helping your children, and explains the ways in which the teachings of the Catholic Church bear directly on our understanding of these complex issues, enabling you to address them faithfully, taking full advantage of God’s ever-present grace. Such guidance can help you understand the parameters of the situation more fully, set you off in the right direction, and enable you to enlist the kind of professional and spiritual support that can truly help.

Conclusion

I said some strong things about divorce at the beginning of this commentary, words that some in difficult situations may find disheartening. I want to emphasize two other points just as strongly by way of encouragement. First, no matter how horrific divorce is, nobody outside the marital situation (and I mean nobody) can know the inside story of any relationship or reliably assess personal blame. This applies to you if you are in this situation, and exploration of the problem of culpability is between you and your confessor, in the light of Christ. Second, we are all works in progress in God’s hands. Difficulties and even trauma now for yourself and your children need not, with God’s grace and love, translate into difficulties and trauma forever after. There is nothing you or your children suffer that cannot be healed; there are no tears of hurt or frustration or grief that cannot be turned into tears of joy.

Christ the Lamb has conquered, and we have only to strive to see ourselves as does the One who gave Himself up for us when we were still sinners (Rom 5:8). We have only to repent of the sins we recognize and become by each small step ever more faithful to Him. Then we may banish discouragement and fear. For we must always remember the most important part of the final declaration of God in Sacred Scripture (Rev 21:5): “Behold, I make all things new!”


Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski, The Divorced Catholic’s Guide to Parenting: Our Sunday Visitor, 2020. Paper, 200pp. $17.95

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: maryebaranski5728 - Jul. 28, 2020 9:02 AM ET USA

    As having been previously divorced twice and also am familiar with many divorced middle class families - there is NO such thing as an EASY divorce! There is however, a painful lack of Catechetical Formation of the Formative years in the Family and when as an adult, after they have really been catechized by their secular surroundings, marriage partners are poorly chosen. I wish the Church spent more time on it's highest priority Proper Catechesis and Evangelization than all other secondary matter

  • Posted by: shrink - Jul. 14, 2020 12:40 PM ET USA

    A kid who sees his parents divorce is like a kid who gets his foot blown off—he can be trained to walk on the stump with a prosthetic device, and no doubt, some will manage rather well. But, just to be clear, the foot never grows back. Divorce remains the most common form of child abuse in our society. Many kids never recover, and even for those that do rather well, their parents' divorce follows them in their own marriages.