Millstones and Missing the Point: Divorce, Remarriage, and Children



“Woe to you that call evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for light, and light for darkness…”

Isaias 5:20

“He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, both are abominable before God.”

Proverbs 7:15

Why is it that every time some self-styled “reformer” sets out to do away with the ancient, commonsensical, and unchangeable teaching of the Church on the question of divorce and remarriage, they immediately trot out children like human shields for their agenda? Divorce and remarriage, one of the most anti-child programs ever dreamt up in the pit of hell, must be allowed, celebrated, destigmatized, promoted, or excused — why? — because we must think of the children!

This is a damned lie.

It is a lie, however, that Pope Francis — based on those whom he has invited to play key roles at the Synod — appears to be entertaining. Cardinal Kasper and the Gang have embraced it. And why should they not? The Old World septuagenarians gleefully hacking away at the sacrament of Holy Matrimony haven’t experienced its horrors themselves. They were raised in largely traditional families before the culture went completely to hell. They don’t have children or grandchildren who’ve suffered through it. And they haven’t been around Catholics who were experiencing it and also had the moral vocabulary to explain to them properly just what it had done to them, most likely because those poor souls had been deprived by these same shepherds of the catechesis that would have equipped them to do so.

I wish I could impress upon the Holy Father just how critical it is that these men not get their way. I have both the practical experience and the moral vocabulary to explain what is being proposed. My parents divorced when I was in college. I wasn’t a small child, and I wasn’t living in the home most of the time. My three younger siblings were, however, and I’ve had a front row seat to see that emotional trauma play out in their lives, and, to an extent, experienced it in my own. What happened in my own family informs my bias, but it’s one that comes directly from experiential knowledge – knowledge that is evidently lacking in the halls of Casa Santa Marta.

Let’s be clear about something from the start: divorce, unless one spouse is truly abusing the other, or presents a clear danger to the children, is an undeniably selfish act and a mortal sin. “Remarriage” after divorce is compounding that selfishness with even more selfishness, and that mortal sin with more mortal sin. And who suffers? The children, always. They suffer first, they suffer longest, and, I would argue, they suffer the most deeply.

In his August 5th general audience, Pope Francis expressed a concern that people not make fun of children for being illegitimate, or having divorced or remarried parents. He indicated that we need to accept these harmful and sinful situations in order to help children:

“I would like to focus our attention on another reality: how to take care of those that, following the irreversible failure of their marital bond, have undertaken a new union…If, then, we look at these new bonds with the eyes of little ones – and the little ones are looking – with the eyes of children, we see even more the urgency to develop in our communities a real acceptance of persons that live such situations.”

This acceptance, however, cannot heal what has been broken. It will not fool the little ones into thinking that all has been made right. To help these children, we should be doing all that we can to prevent them from experiencing the breakdown of the family in the first place. We should be decrying easy divorce and guilt-free remarriage. We should be stigmatizing it and shouting our disapproval of divorce from the rooftops until nobody — save those in real and desperate need — dared do a thing like it again. That this never seems to occur to those charged with leading our Church highlights the depth of the misunderstanding swirling around this issue like a black hole, pulling all of us into the growing morass.

Let me again be clear: what the kids on the playground or the old ladies in the neighborhood say is the least of a child’s concerns when their parents split up. A child is the physical embodiment of the love of his parents. Because of this, a truly existential crisis ensues when a child realizes his parents no longer love each other. Love, remember, is an act of the will, not a fluffy feeling. Love requires work. Effort. Selflessness. There are few greater violations of love than when parents can’t even bring themselves to make the effort to work through their problems, stay together, honor the covenant they made with God, and the fulfill the duties they owe to their children.

If the home is the domestic church, then divorce is a Great Schism.

To Pope Francis, I say: Holy Father, if you spent half the time and energy on fixing these schisms in our domestic churches, perhaps your efforts to fix the one with the East would find success. Do you not espouse an “Ecumenism of Return” in the family sphere, either? Do you not recognize that the only dialogue that bears fruit is the kind that restores unity?

Societally, culturally, this entire mess has been created because adults want to be the children. Pope Francis seems convinced that any luxury in the developed world exists because it has somehow been stolen from the developing world. Is it so hard to believe, then, that a mother or a father who wants to “follow their bliss” or trade their spouse in for a newer model, or just “see other people” is living a juvenile existence, an existence that comes at the cost of the happy infancies and healthy adolescences of their own children? A parent cannot act like a child without stealing that childhood from those who most need them to be grown ups.

“Kids are resilient,” we hear the divorce enablers say. “What’s good for you is going to be good for the kids, too.” Or how about, “You deserve to be happy”? Lies all, and flimsy rationalizations. Let’s tear them down, one by one.

All human beings are “resilient.” People have survived unbelievable accidents and misfortune. Our bodies are quite adept at maintaining homeostasis, and regaining it when it is lost. This does not mean that our arms grow back if we chop them off. Similarly, children are resilient insofar as they do not have static preferences, expectations, or routines. They can survive drastic changes in living situations and home environments. That does not mean that they are thriving, or healthy, or happy. Children whose parents are divorced have higher than average rates of divorce themselves. They have a higher likelihood of psychological problems, criminality, and academic failure. How much of this is because they are still bearing deep and painful scars from their dysfunctional childhoods?

Can’t this be avoided by letting the divorced remarry? Won’t those new, “stable” homes with loving and emotionally healthy second (or third, or fourth) husbands and wives be much better for the children? After all, what’s good for the parent is good for the child, right? Following that same logic, it must be OK to hand booze-filled sippy cups to stressed out kids. No? Well it also doesn’t wash when you use this excuse to justify getting a love mulligan. Aside from the grave moral problems with “remarriage” after divorce, there are a litany of practical ones. As we have seen, divorce is hugely harmful to children, and the divorce rate in second and subsequent marriages is astronomical. Furthermore, “remarriage” cruelly solidifies the divorce that precedes it, further convincing the child that he was a mistake of some sort, the result of relationship that was never meant to be.

Perhaps the worst excuse is the most common: “I deserve to be happy,” or, “I deserve a chance at love,” or whatever other variation upon that theme the Devil is seductively whispering into the straying spouse’s ear. This is an insult to the dignity of the children who will have their happiness stripped away by the breakdown of their family, and to the intelligence of the person to whom the lie is uttered as though it means anything other than, “I’m simply too selfish to care about anyone else but me, and too lazy to even try.” I don’t care what your novels or your therapist or your friends at book club have said to you, human persons do not have a right to romantic love. Romantic, self-giving, physical, and emotional love and intimacy are gifts that one human gives to another. A gift is not something a person is owed by right. In refusing to allow people to have an extramarital freebie, the Church is not depriving anyone of anything that they need, deserve, or are owed, period.

Let us remember what the purpose of marriage is: the sanctification of spouses and the rearing of children. Which children, exactly, are being raised to fruitful adulthood by elective dysfunction? When people get married, their selfish desires must take a back seat, especially when children come along. If you are thinking to yourself, “I need to be happy/sexually fulfilled/self-actualized. The kids will get over it eventually”, then your priorities are the exact opposite of what they ought to be.

Why, then, are our bishops — and yes, even the pope! — getting soft on this? Are they afraid that if they tell people the rules, they’ll all leave? This is ridiculous. Sacramental marriages, being nowadays one choice among many in a pluralistic society, are things that people enter into out of either concern for their souls or concern for what other people think of them. For this reason, people can certainly find it within themselves to stay in them and make them work, and could be helped to stay in them if the Church would only exert some legitimate moral and social pressure. The vast majority of people drift out of marriages through weakness, aimlessness, and selfishness. These are traits that look for the easy path, not the arduous one, so why hand it to them on a silver platter?

It’s past time somebody forced the weak, the aimless, and the selfish to be accountable for their choices. This should be the focus of the theologians, priests, bishops, cardinals –and the successor to St. Peter himself — at the upcoming Synod on the Family. We need means by which to shore the family up, not easier ways to tear it down.

When it comes to safeguarding marriage, we really do need to do it for the children. If the Catholic Church won’t stand for them, who will?


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