While beginning this article, I am reminded of a moment in C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain where he was greatly worried about sounding callous to the suffering of others. “How can I saw with sufficient tenderness what needs to be said here?” When talking about divorce, the pain experienced is widespread throughout our world and profoundly deep.
I am a child of a divorced couple. I am, however, unusually blessed in that my parents maintained a very amicable relationship for the sake of their children and I had both my mother and my father as a daily part of my life. I realize that this is not the case for everyone, but even in this scenario, there are things that you miss out on as a child.
I remember when I was in sixth grade, I had forgotten to do all of my homework for all of my classes. Finally, my teacher pulled me aside into the teacher’s lounge, which I thought meant that I was in REAL trouble. Instead of punishing me, she asked me what was wrong, if there was anything bad going on at home. I needed to think of a lie on the spot. I remembered that my older sister had hinted that my dad and the woman he was currently dating (his first girlfriend after the divorce) were talking about getting married. I found out later that this wasn’t true because she was some cultish moon worshipper. But I didn’t know that. So I figured I had a good excuse to get me out of trouble with my teacher, so I said, “My dad is getting remarried.”
But before I could finish the sentence, I started sobbing genuine, overflowing tears. It was as if saying the words out loud made the situation real. And the horror of that, the concrete reality of my parents never getting back together hit me for the first time. I cried for what seemed like an hour, as my teacher told me everything was going to be okay.
And that is an important thing to remember for all children of divorce. One of the things that is drilled into divorced parents is to tell their children that it isn’t their fault. But it is also important to let them know that everything is going to be okay.
For a child, when a family gets divorced, it’s like the ship that had carried him through every kind of rough sea has suddenly shattered and he is now clinging to the makeshift raft of the debris of what once was. The child has no idea how they will handle what will come next. Above all, the unconditional love for the child should always be repeated.
This is especially difficult when a new person enters the relationship. Children compete for affection among their siblings, but they tend not to feel that competition between their parents. But when a divorced parent begins to date someone new, that person can be looked at as someone “stealing” a parent’s love away from the child. This is not always the case, but the child always needs to be reassured that they are the priority. The child will test the parent on this several ways. Herein lies the byzantine business of blending families.
For parents of divorce, the grace of God is paramount. They are called to be Christ on the cross in a new and profound way. This is especially difficult because many divorced Catholics feel separated from the Church.
The Catholic Church cannot recognize divorce because we are forbidden by Christ. Matt 19:6 makes clear that that what God has joined, no one can separate. The reason is that marriage is a vow.
There are two vowed states in Catholic life: marriage and religious orders. A parish priest does not make any profession of vows. Take, for instance, celibacy. The parish priest makes a promise, not a vow, to be a celibate for the Kingdom. He makes this promise to the Church. But the pope could release him from this promise at any time it chooses.
Vows are different. A vow is an unbreakable pledge before God. You cannot be released from a vow, which is why the marriage vow can never be broken. That is why one must enter into this state in life with the utmost seriousness and commitment. This is also why many divorced Catholics feel separated from their Church. But there are few things to keep in mind.
Divorce is not a sin. As New Evangelizers writer Mark Lindner so astutely noted, being divorced is not, in itself, a sin. Being a divorced state does not preclude you from full participation in the Church. As the U.S. Catechism for Adults says:
“The Church’s fidelity to Christ’ teaching on marriage and against divorce does not imply insensitivity to the pain of the persons facing these unhappy situations. When divorce is the only possible recourse, the Church offers her support to those involved and encourages them to remain close to the Lord through frequent reception of the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist.” (p. 287)
It is important to understand that an annulment is not a Catholic divorce. The Church does not have the power to break the marriage vow. An annulment is the declaration that the vow never came into being. The process can be uncomfortable. But it is an important part of determining if the couple is free of any obligations.
The investigation searches for something lacking in one or both parties that would prevent them from making a free and full vowed commitment. For example, if one or both of the people were intoxicated, that is grounds for an annulment. But that is an extreme example. More common issues stem from an inability to grasp the magnitude of the commitment and thus were unable to make the leap with full knowledge. Getting married too young, with too much social pressure, without a commitment to raising children, with unaddressed addiction, infidelity, or with major secrets withheld from the spouse can all be grounds for annulment. This above list is not exhaustive, but demonstrates the different avenues one can take in being free of marriage obligations.
When a marriage is annulled, the determination is that the marriage never came into being. Even though they were never married in the eyes of God, the couple who received the annulment incurs no sin for the times they engaged in marital relations. This is because they acted under the assumption that they were joined in sacramental marriage. It is also important that children of annulled parents are reassured of their love.
Annulments do not relegate the children to illegitimate status or anything like that. They are just as special and as loved in the eyes of God. When my parents received their annulment, they went out of their way to remind us that nothing changed for us as God’s children.
Divorce hurts. It hurts the couple. It hurts the children. It hurts the Church. It hurts the world. And it makes sense that it would hurt because marriage is so important that it causes pain when it is broken. Married couples should do all that they can to save their marriage when it hits rough seas, and more often than not they will find their relationship all the stronger for it. But sometimes through no fault of their own, the heartbreak of divorce enters their lives. And the pain of it ripples out to everyone affected.
But our God is a God of healing. All of the pain and sorrow that comes from divorce, our Lord can use as a stepping stone up from Calvary to Paradise. I’ve lived through it as a child, and it has made me more committed to my own marriage.
But for all us, we need God’s grace to live as He wills.
Copyright © 2013, W.L. Grayson