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Ecclesiastical judgment: Saints who left spouse or children for consecrated life?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 28, 2020

The ways of God in the formation of saints are indeed mysterious. This was impressed upon me again by an article on Rose Hawthorne by Patricia Snow in the January issue of First Things. Under the title Hawthorne’s Daughter, Snow explores what she calls the “shadow” hanging over Rose Hawthorne’s cause for canonization. That shadow is the set of circumstances under which she left her husband, George, who had converted to Catholicism with Rose in 1891. (Perhaps most readers already know that Rose was the daughter of the great American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne.)

In time, Rose felt a strong call to serve the poor who were suffering from cancer. Her only child had died at the age of five and, after a period of depression, Rose become convinced that both she and her husband were being called by God to this special service, which gave new meaning to her life. But her husband did not agree, and he did what he could to dissuade her. Rose never considered divorce, but she did receive a dispensation from the Church to separate from her husband and eventually to found a new order, the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer, now known as the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne.

According to Snow, the original hagiographical literature which grew up around the legacy of Rose Hawthorne was grossly inaccurate in portraying George as an abusive alcoholic. The latest research suggests that, if he became a heavy drinker, it was only after his wife left him, and that there is no evidence of spousal abuse. What appears to be the case, then, is that the Church gave her consent to Rose Hawthorne’s new way of life even though her husband did not consent to the separation for a higher end, and there were no other legitimate grounds for separation. This, of course, is not how it is supposed to work.

Other cases

I suppose it is fair to point out that none of this is cookie-cutter material. Men have long been permitted to absent themselves from their spouses and children almost as a matter of course for reasons of war, or even business, without the consent of their wives, though this is a different matter which does not involve the judgment and dispensation of the Church. It is also true that parents or single women can give up their children for good reason, without any dispensation from the Church. Whether this is a virtue or a sin is often left to God to determine.

I should also add that people are sometimes far more holy near the end of their vocation than they are at the beginning, so a certain course of action could begin badly. But there are other cases which involve ecclesiastical judgment and dispensation, meaning that the Church has in fact decided that a course of action which leads to spousal separation or consignment of children to others is permitted for some spiritual purpose, because it is a legitimate call from God. I am sure there are many such cases, but offhand I know of two famous ones involving children (in each of these cases the husband had died).

In the seventeenth century, St. Jane Frances de Chantal had to step over the tearful body of her fourteen year-old son to cross the threshold on her way out of the house, under the guidance of St. Francis de Sales, to found the Congregation of the Visitation. It is an appalling image, but we need not be hasty: (1) Jane was a baroness, and the nobility seldom raised their own children for very long; (2) St. Francis made her wait until she had provided adequately for her four children, including the education of her one son, who was left in the care of his grandfather and her brother, the Archbishop of Bourges; and, (3) Jane’s eldest daughter had recently married (St. Francis’ younger brother!), and Jane took the two younger daughters into the convent to finish raising them there.

A more recent example is that of Elizabeth Ann Seton in the early nineteenth century. The widowed Elizabeth, a convert like Rose Hawthorne, sustained herself by teaching, which she did in more than one school of her own making. At length she was invited to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where in 1809 she founded the first congregation of sisters in the United States. The purpose was to educate the children of the poor. It was a good situation since she could bring her five children with her. The congregation became the Daughters of Charity.

Providential mysteries

In Elizabeth Ann Seton’s case, it is easy to see her new calling as a perfectly acceptable way to finish raising her children. Under no convention whatsoever would she have been required to remarry if the opportunity presented itself. But we may reasonably sympathize with those who dislike the hagiographical license of praising St. Jane Frances de Chantal for the courage of stepping over the prostrate body of her weeping son. Whether this was courage or premature zeal, only God knows. Similarly, we may condemn the hagiographical motives which (so it seems) have led Rose Hawthorne’s biographers to condemn her husband, and we may question, at least, whether Rose’s initial desire to separate from George was willed by God.

The separation from her husband is indeed a cloud over Hawthorne’s cause for canonization, but approbation remains possible in all these cases for the simple and sufficient reason that all three of these women were permitted to take the steps they did by the authority of the Church. And this brings me to one of the deepest mysteries of God’s ineffable condescension, which may be summed up in one sentence from the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18; cf. Mt 16:19).

This is the same passage, by the way, that bears on cases for annulment. There is no guarantee that ecclesiastical officials will deliver marriage judgments that are correct in terms of all the evidence. They may judge a perfectly valid marriage to be null, or they may judge an invalid marriage to be valid. In the same way, there is no guarantee that ecclesiastical officials are always right, in terms of the evidence before them, in deciding who may marry, who may separate from a spouse, or who may dramatically alter the living arrangements of his or her children in order to found a religious community under the Church’s authority.

Nonetheless, Christ has given the authority to make these human decisions to His Church, decisions about marriage, decisions about religious life, and many other decisions as well, such as those affecting spiritual discipline and the form of the sacred liturgy. Therefore, the Church (meaning the Pope and the individual bishops in their respective spheres) has the authority of Christ to make them, and whatever she binds or looses on earth in such matters will be bound or loosed in heaven.

The Judgment of the Church

We are not to suppose that Christ’s promise in this respect is limited to things like definitions of faith or moral judgments, where infallibility can apply. In the former, the Church enjoys the protection of the Holy Spirit; in the latter, all are bound to adhere to the moral law (which can be known from nature) whether the Church has said anything about this or that point at all. We may make mistakes with a sincere heart; but we all live under a judgment, in accordance with what we have been given to understand, whether or not we know God and the Church.

No, the great value of the “judgment of the Church” is not that every decision is always the right decision, let alone the best possible decision, but that God accepts the Church’s decisions as the proper basis for our own judgments of the difficult personal cases in which we sometimes find ourselves involved. The axiom remains true that “a man is poor judge in his own case”. There is a fundamental humility involved in recognizing that the Church has a Divine warrant to render such decisions, over her sacraments and over the whole range of her religious observance: First, to recognize that the Church is far more likely to judge correctly than we are in our own case; second, to recognize that, in any case, the Church has Christ’s own warrant to render the judgment she sees fit to render.

We may commit ourselves to the renewal of the Church in many ways, including the renewal of her understanding of critical issues and of her mechanisms for rendering judgments. But no matter how odd or painful any particular judgment may seem, our salvation consists in our willingness to prefer the Church’s judgment to our own will. Thus, as onlookers, we may wonder about the motives which led this one or that one to seek a judgment, and we may wonder whether the grounds for the judgment were truly adequate. But we may not reject the judgment rendered, nor hold anything against those who accept and act on it. By Christ’s own word, the Church has taken a responsibility which God has promised to uphold, and so the case is closed.

St. Jane Frances de Chantal, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Servant of God Rose Hawthorne, and all saints who have first awaited and then accepted the judgment of the Church: Please, please pray that we may do the same.

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: wenner1687 - Jan. 31, 2020 4:52 PM ET USA

    I have read that one of the early options open to Queen Catherine of Aragon was to enter a convent and allow Henry VIII to remarry to get a male heir. However she discerned that her duty was to her marriage & her adopted country. So she suffered imprisonment, impoverishment, & white martyrdom for her faithfulness. (St John Fisher was her Confessor / Spiritual advisor). Queen Catherine was a martyr for the sanctity of marriage.

  • Posted by: wacondaseeds4507 - Jan. 29, 2020 4:40 PM ET USA

    [Jesus] said to them, "Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come." (Luke 18:29) I used to think this was giving up wife and children in advance and not ex post facto, but people who enter religious life do give up house, brothers and parents after the fact, so maybe wife and children as well. St. Peter?

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jan. 29, 2020 11:06 AM ET USA

    I thought that Mt 18:18 applied more towards the sacrament of reconciliation than to Church policy. Church policy governs how the revelation of Christ is applied to living situations. I don't understand how Church policy could be used to set aside part or parts of Christ's revelation. But in the end mercy triumphs over justice. May God have mercy on us all.

  • Posted by: not applicable - Jan. 29, 2020 6:58 AM ET USA

    Thank you. Mother Cornelia Connelly is a case you might like to consider. Her husband converted to Catholicism and insisted that they separate so that he could become a Catholic priest. Cornelia, a mother with several children, became a nun and founded the Holy Child nuns. When her husband,giving up his priesthood, decided he wanted her back, she refused, determined to be faithful to her vows. He took her to court in England, and eventually she won her case, but lost custody of the children.

  • Posted by: Sed contra - Jan. 28, 2020 8:26 PM ET USA

    You could also have mentioned St. Nicholas of Flüe, who left his wife and 10 children to live as a hermit — with the wife’s permission, it’s said.