Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with a fabulously talented writer and speaker who was in town to give a lecture on motherhood. Since the event was in the evening, she had some time to kill and I figured what more relaxing thing could I offer her than brunch at my favorite restaurant surrounded by 3 mewling, jam-covered children? What mother of 8 who, having flown across the country to escape her own brood, wouldn’t relish the opportunity?
Anyway, that’s how I ended up eating eggs benedict with Lisa Lickona, who was gracious and funny and entertaining and didn’t bat an eyelash when I stripped Evie from the waist down on the patio lawn in plain view of all the other diners because I didn’t feel like heading to the restroom for the 15th time for something as simple as a diaper change.
We circled around all kinds of fascinating topics, but there was one thing she shared in particular that really stuck with me. Her own parents, she explained, divorced when she was in grad school, sending shock waves through her universe.
Throughout the tumult and pain of the years following, she recounted that it was her mother’s difficulty with the Church’s teachings on divorce and remarriage that kept her in relationship with Christ through it all.
Her mom, she explained, was so mad that she couldn’t receive Communion. She was so hurt that her new “marriage” wasn’t recognized by the Church as such. And she wanted her children to take sides. Hers, particularly, not the Church’s.
Then she told me something wild. She said that in a very real way, the Church’s response to her parent’s divorce provided a tremendous source of comfort to her and her siblings.
You read that right. She was comforted by the Catholic response to divorce and remarriage, which says, essentially, not ideal to the former and not possible of the latter.
In other words, divorce is never the solution, and remarriage is actually not possible.
There is a common misunderstanding that instead of divorces, we Catholics have annulments which are basically just religious divorces. Or something.
But that’s not the case. The Catholic Church teaches – has always taught – that what God has joined, no man must separate. And in fact the Church does not have the power to dissolve a licitly contracted marriage. Plain English: if two people contract a valid, sacramental marriage…there’s no getting out. Well, there’s one way, and it’s through the morgue.
Catholics cannot get divorced because marriage is a lifelong covenant. As long as both spouses are living, the marriage is, too.
Annulment, which I’ll cover in greater detail another day, is the process by which the Church determines the validity of the marriage itself, in other words, was a marriage actually contracted? Was something missing from the get-go (free consent, openness to life, exclusivity, to name a few…) that prevented a sacramental marriage in the first place?
When Lisa’s parents called it quits on their marriage, they weren’t just walking away from their covenant with each other; they were also walking away from the covenant they’d made with God. And God doesn’t walk out on covenants.
What was incredibly painful for her mother was actually immensely comforting to the children left in the ruins, because the Church recognized, as they did, that something had gone wrong.
That there was a real wound, a real suffering, and a real loss when mom and dad walked away from one another. And that it would be fair to no one to permit things to continue on, business as usual, when in fact their family had suffered a terrible rupture.
That’s why remarriage isn’t an option for Catholics. Because as long as both spouses are alive, they’re still married…to each other. Even in the most unimaginably difficult circumstances. Even if one, or both, get “remarried” to somebody else.
Do you see the complications that ensue?
But more importantly, do you see where the greatest suffering lies?
It’s in the lives of their children.
Children are the real victims of divorce, and they’re the reason that marriages must be preserved at all cost. Sometimes at unimaginably great costs.
But what’s the alternative?
Look around. Look at our society, so full of insecure and wounded people whose parents thought first of themselves and only later of the innocent little lives torn apart by adult decisions. Look at all the young people unwilling or unable to commit to relationships of their own, so scarred and gun-shy from the experiences of their youth.
We spend a lot of time talking about the need to support and minister to divorced couples, but very little time addressing the needs of their children, for whom the fabric of the very universe has just ruptured.
The Church’s firm and loving response to divorced and “remarried” Catholics is actually the most sane, compassionate, and logical response possible: “you have made a mistake, come, let us try to make it right, and let us not further your destruction by refusing to acknowledge the mistake.”
And, perhaps most importantly, she says to the children, your suffering is real, and you have lost something irreplaceable. We cannot look the other way and pretend otherwise.
It’s a small comfort in a crisis of epidemic proportions, but it’s something.