The necessary manifestations of love, to include self-sacrifice and self-giving, and an ongoing readiness to forgive, could only continue to be present in a marriage fueled by God’s graces.
By the basic principles of neurology, we know that when a nerve ending is stimulated overtly and repeatedly, and the same with the human nervous system in general, such high levels of sensation cannot be sustained indefinitely, and before too long similar subsequent stimulations fail to produce the desired effects of shock, pain, or terror. As clergy have thus been acutely aware of, and involved with, the nuclear level assaults on marriage and family in recent decades, a lamentable indifference towards these institutions is likely to be inevitable in the hearts of many of them as a result. That is why the Pontifical Council on the Family, many years ago, taught that, “In many countries, divorce has become a true social ‘plague.’” 1
Nevertheless, that has been a half-century ago, and there’s been much “water over the dam” since then.
One specific phenomenon in this area is what a seminary theology priest-professor referred to as “serial polygamy.” Even though western Judeo-Christian sensibilities would largely be repulsed by the foreign institution of polygamy, this instructor’s shoulder-shrugging reaction to such revilement was one of “So what? We’ve got polygamy, too—it’s just that the multiple spouses are taken, not simultaneously, but in serial fashion!” Hence, the hypocrisy of condemnations of Mormons, and Arabic cultures, by those of our society at large over this practice: given divorce and remarriage, with the latter following the former, especially in the U.S., with nearly the same regularity and predictability as the day following the night. This ubiquitous practice has thus typically worn down even the most zealous and tenacious cleric, seeing the runaway recourse to annulments as the “only solution” following a divorce.
Although such occasions would include inherent joy, one might find the infrequent celebrations in parishes of a 50th wedding anniversary to have a subtle note of sadness, as the event would usually be initially met with incredulity by other parishioners, as if to ask, “Is this even possible?” rather than such a wonderful accomplishment being the norm. Such a scenario would become just another casualty of our divorce and remarriage-crazed world.
While serving a jail sentence for the reprehensible practice of saving babies (in the course of the 1990’s Operation Rescue pro-life activist movement), this author sat in on a Protestant prison chaplain’s interesting lecture on “Marital Reconciliation.” His talk has not left me, as this courageous spiritual leader actually had the “tilting at windmills” drive to coax divorced couples to reconsider their decision, and consider reunion. He was fully aware of how most divorces leave each participant going their separate ways, and never looking back. What a refreshing, bold initiative, nevertheless, contrasting sharply with the usual aforementioned parish priest’s corresponding practice of resignedly, but reflexively, reaching for the file cabinet to draw out yet another annulment form, to facilitate the initiation of yet another serial polygamous life journey. Given life’s harsh realities, one can see how marital reconciliation is really nowhere on the proverbial radar screen following a typical Catholic divorce. But, nevertheless, we must remain ever hopeful, never wanting to cynically and definitively reject this Protestant minister’s noble efforts and goals. As a reason for hope, not too long ago, an event took place which bordered on the miraculous, and would’ve left our Protestant pastor friend doing cartwheels of joy.
Charles and Janet had been seen, even in their day, to have been possibly a “little too young” for the life-long commitment they were determined to forge. However, it was the era in which many “Baby Boomer” procreating families were begun, and their youthful love and passion was not about to be thwarted. Hence, St. Aloysius Church in Columbus, Ohio, on April 16, 1956, saw the sacramental union of this couple, who firmly intended to remain in close proximity to one another all of their earthly lives, taking seriously the vow of “‘til death do thee part.” Charles was a convert, and Janet a cradle Catholic, and their generosity and firm faith convictions were evident in the eventual reception of nine children into their familial fold. Charles was always bordering on “workaholic” status, as multiple jobs typically occupied his seemingly limitless energy and spirit of fatherly and spousal commitment. However, maybe it was due to a certain weariness creeping in as their 25th wedding anniversary loomed large, and/or at least partially attributable to the “culture shock” of the Yankee father of a large Catholic family taking a new position with a company in then, still traditionally southern “Bible Belt” Georgia. But whatever the cause(s), Charles announced one day that he was leaving Janet and the family. He had a girlfriend, and wanted to start a new life with her.
The shock of his action reverberated back to friends and acquaintances even in Ohio, leaving all bewildered as to how a man could abandon a wife with so many children. Well-intending fellow parishioners of Janet at their Georgia parish offered to “fix her up” with a worthy replacement for her missing husband, but Janet would hear of no such thing. She explained the sacredness and lifelong permanence of the sacrament of matrimony, and effectively said that if man had tried to break what God had joined, that this divine union would remain intact nonetheless. Such convictions fell on many deaf ears, of those who feared her inability to cope as “single parent” of such a sizeable brood of children. However, Our Lord was to smile on this saintly woman’s passionate faith, and provided adequate employment for her, such that this fatherless family carried on unscathed.
Life continued on accordingly for Janet and her sons and daughters, with all of the usual trials and tribulations. As he tends to do with those whom he loves, Our Lord did lay another heavy cross on her broad shoulders, by taking a daughter in her early 20s, due to a cruel illness. One by one, the other children married, and Janet soon became grandmother to one new child after another. This holy woman’s faith was brought to its knees when a then, middle-aged son died under most tragic circumstances, yet her grace-laden faith was still to continue sustaining her.
Meanwhile, life was to continue for her estranged husband as well. However, as his “mid-life crisis” driven decision gave way to ever deeper reflections on the implications of his rash act, and the realization that the Supreme Being would one day review that act with him, he was finally moved to pursue what most in this world would see as also a “rash” act. Imploring the cooperation of a deacon in their old southern parish, he asked if his wild dream was even possible. Could his divinely willed original marital vocation ever be resumed? This compassionate and understanding deacon was only too willing to intervene and help.
One can only imagine the tension Charles felt, a turmoil that had to have exceeded that which he’d experienced when he’d proposed to Janet for the first time. Yet, as brutally difficult as that ancient mandate of Christianity can be, as dictated by our Lord himself, when he enjoined us that one must “forgive his brother from his heart” (Mt 18:35), Janet fully realized that she was being given the opportunity to live out the Gospel at this time in her own life, and she did so, as only a saint-in-the-making could do.
Her consequent, supernaturally generous concurrence with Charles’ dream set in motion a series of events necessary for its formal realization, not the least of which was to announce this literal miracle to the extended family, many of which had become hardened by worldly temptations of cynicism and resentment towards this prodigal husband and father. Additionally, following another of our Savior’s injunctions, namely, to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mt 22:21), on the morning of the 53rd anniversary of their first “Yes,” they met with the representative of man’s law to reestablish their marriage. As a possible divinely orchestrated affirmation of the undoing of man’s (inferior) law, the magistrate officiating at this resumption of a marriage was none other than the very same one who’d implemented its interruption a quarter-century before. His amazement over the circumstances involved was evidenced by the civil ceremony being punctuated with his chuckles of incredulity. Their eldest daughter, known for her exceptional competence and zeal in the organization of many flamboyant familial celebrations, took to arranging this joyful event with particular energy. Announcements were made, a program drawn up, and a reception held at their parish, following the renewal of their marriage vows that evening. Old friends and relatives came from near and far to revel in this marvelous reunion. Charles and Janet were together again—‘til death do they part.
Probably few truly realize the extent that the “new normal” of the marriage-divorce-“remarriage” cycle is entrenched in our society and in our subconscious. In the (American) Catholic Church, typical diocesan marriage tribunals are ponderous entities, and their sheer size bespeaks of the ubiquitous status of what has been crudely referred to as “Catholic divorce” in the western Church today. A sad and troubling capitulation of the Catholic Church to the divorce craze is evident in the typical diocesan tribunal’s requirement of an officially granted civil divorce as a prerequisite to initiating a given annulment (!)
Linguistics not infrequently underscore societal phenomena, with words giving implicit affirmation to whatever given questionable practice of the day. The insidious description of someone as “single again” is one such example. The definitive absolution by high priests of civil law, given through their near sacrament of divorce, gives rise to such terminology, helping to assuage any lingering traces of guilt in a citizen’s mind, by thus inferring his resumption of an alleged unmarried state.
Typically, those of a more mature age benefit through wisdom, and hence are more resistant to fall for the popular fallacies permeating a given age. Thus, the particular lament of a mid-western diocesan bishop, as he related the overhearing of a question casually posed by even an elderly parishioner to a bride-to-be, as she awaited the start of her wedding Mass in the church vestibule: “My dear, is this your first?” Sadly, rampant no-fault divorce would seem to presage such a question to be part of popular parlance, even among those who should know better.
Nevertheless, are Catholics to capitulate to this “culture of divorce,” with subsequent attempts to contract marriage again seen as inevitable in nearly every case? Did not St. Paul advise us to “not conform yourselves to this age?” (Rom 12:2). Would or should the scenario of Charles and Janet’s reunion seem to be bordering on the impossible, especially in the eyes of the Church? Is it even humanly possible to follow Janet’s saintly example of forgiveness?
A pastor of a large parish lamented that so often he would learn of a seriously troubled marriage only after the couple had filed for divorce—no meeting with the parish’s priests would have been attempted beforehand. The Pontifical Council for the Family would urge such couples that: “It should not be forgotten that marital difficulties can frequently degenerate into tragedy if the couple does not have the desire or possibility to confide in someone (a priest or a competent lay person) as soon as possible in order to be helped to overcome these problems.” 2
Hence, post-divorce considerations aside, sincere and persevering attempts at reconciliation before a divorce could frequently salvage a threatened union. Of course, this would be the preferred scenario, but maintaining such a union, and avoiding the traumatic rupture of divorce, would be truly impossible if a given couple’s love wasn’t bolstered by grace from above.
A treasure of papal counsels directed towards married couples and their families is to be found in the Apostolic Exhortation of the prolific pontiff Blessed John Paul II, specifically in Familiaris Consortio. Towards the end of the document, addressing pastoral care of difficult marital situations, he urges: “Obviously, separation must be considered as a last resort, after all other reasonable attempts at reconciliation have proved vain.” 3 The Pontifical Council for the Family echoes the late Holy Father’s words, in saying, “In any case, everything possible should be done to bring about a reconciliation.” 4
Although likely to be seen as “a tall order” pastorally speaking, this former pontiff still maintains hope in post-separation/divorce reconciliations. A little later in the Exhortation, he stresses that it is necessary to “help them to cultivate the need to forgive which is inherent in Christian love, and to be ready perhaps to return to their former married life.” 5
Our faithful friend Janet was fully in accord with Church teachings during the lonely years prior to her reconciliation, and fully followed the counsels that this Holy Father reminds us of. She was among the faithful who:
being well aware that the valid marriage bond is indissoluble, refrain from becoming involved in a new union and devote themselves solely to carrying out their family duties and the responsibilities of Christian life. In such cases their example of fidelity and Christian consistency takes on particular value as a witness before the world and the Church. 6
Separated or formally divorced couples (before attempts to contract a second union would be made) who would feel drawn to consider reunion, would find such a goal to be futile if motivated solely by sentiment. A reuniting of two people sacramentally joined in God’s eyes, but leaving him out of the reunion, would be doomed to eventual separation once again.
As an initial breakup of a marriage is far more likely the less the couple avails themselves of God’s graces through a prayerful and sacramental life, a merely emotionally driven reunion could not be sustained, if once again attempted, without ongoing divine assistance. The answer to Question §459 of the Baltimore Catechism underscores the indispensability of the presence of authentic love in a marriage: “Love should be permanent or it is not true love. It is not a feeling which comes and goes, but a power to give which should be there even when feeling dies out.” 7 The necessary manifestations of love, to include self-sacrifice and self-giving, and an ongoing readiness to forgive, could only continue to be present in a marriage fueled by God’s graces.
Earlier in Familiaris Consortio, Blessed John Paul II emphasized the mutual sanctification of the two members of a given couple through the sacrament of marriage, as well as the need to continue this process of sanctification throughout the life of the union:
The Christian family’s sanctifying role … has its highest expression in the Eucharist, to which Christian marriage is intimately connected. … The Eucharist is the very source of Christian marriage … In this sacrifice of the New and Eternal Covenant, Christian spouses encounter the source from which their own marriage covenant flows, is interiorly structured and continuously renewed … the Eucharist is a fountain of charity. 8
Intimately tied to the sacramental gift of Christ himself is the other sacrament by which we maintain our worthiness, although forever unworthy, to continue our Eucharistic encounters. Familiaris Consortio further reminds us:
Repentance and mutual pardon within the bosom of the Christian family, so much a part of daily life, receive their specific sacramental expression in Christian Penance. In the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, Paul VI wrote of married couples: ‘And if sin should still keep its hold over them, let them not be discouraged, but rather have recourse with humble perseverance to the mercy of God, which is abundantly poured forth in the sacrament of Penance’. 9
A popular bumper sticker and saying among the “flower children” of the 1960s hopefully queried, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a war was declared, and nobody came?” Widespread and lingering effects of the sexual revolution aside, and sustained by ridiculously audacious hope, wouldn’t it be wonderful if a diocese established a marriage tribunal—and nobody (or only few) came?
- Pontifical Council for the Family, “The Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried” (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1997), 11. ↩
- Ibid, 15. ↩
- Blessed Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1981), 124. ↩
- Pontifical Council for the Family, op. cit., 15. ↩
- Bl. Pope John Paul II, op. cit., 124-125. ↩
- Bl. Pope John Paul II, op. cit., 125. ↩
- Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, The New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism, No. 2, (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1969), 217. ↩
- Bl. Pope John Paul II, op. cit., 86. ↩
- Bl. Pope John Paul II, op. cit., 87. ↩