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Mercy for the Little Ones:
Amid the Devastation of Divorce

Dr. Maike Hickson

 

In the recent months, Pope Francis has stated repeatedly that one should have more mercy with those Catholics who are divorced and remarried civilly. In the context of the current discussion within the Church about divorce, and how to deal with those Catholics who are remarried outside of the Catholic Church, what strikes my husband, Dr. Robert Hickson, and me is how little explicit attention is given to the Little Ones, to the children, who most vulnerably suffer under a divorce. When we ask for mercy and compassion for the man and the woman who have failed in their reciprocal marriage vows before God and to God, and who have then abandoned their vows, who speaks of the mercy due to the little ones who were left in a lurch by the breach of their parents?

In this essay, I would like to make an argument in favour of a stricter dealing with this matter, rather than a more lenient one, especially for the sake of the children who cannot defend themselves and who are affected by their parents' decision throughout their whole lifetime: yes, even until their death. How many of these children may ask at some point in their lives: “Why did my parents not love me enough to stay together and thereby to stay with me?”

God's loving and protective laws

From the outset in dealing with this very important topic, we might also remind ourselves that, first of all, the defence of marriage is an affirmation. It is not about some restraining rule that disallows us to live out our passions, but it is a means to help us to lead a better and happier life here on earth and to prepare ourselves and our children for the life hereafter. The laws of God are acts of love. They are good for us. There is nothing more touching, certainly for those of us whose parents have divorced, than to see an old couple celebrating their fiftieth anniversary or so. They stand for the loyalty and trust and constancy that touch the human heart. It always brings tears to my eyes. The children of such couples, we hope, are grateful, too, to their parents and for their loyalty, not only to each other, but also to their children.

Some spouses sometimes need to be reminded of the fact that one only reaps good fruit after a long period of perseverance and disciplined and cultivated work. They even might need a nudge to remember that they ought not easily run away from their own words and promises. A laxity in this matter of a vow – an irreversible promise – does not help.

Many conservative authors in the United States have argued that the leniency toward criminals, and especially murderers (often referring to their unhappy childhoods and unpleasant conditions of life) has caused an increase of cases of murder, implying that when one is too tolerant of the criminal deed, it will be repeated even quicker and more often. To put this fact in a more specific and analogous way: when I do not punish my child for having done an unmistakably bad thing, is it not more probable that the child will repeat it again? In the same way, when we have a too tolerant law toward bankruptcy, without touching the defaulter's own personal property (as was the case under a Carter bankruptcy law for a while), it will increase the number of declared bankruptcies, affecting many dependent small businesses who are not paid for their earlier work and products by those larger firms which had evasively declared bankruptcy. In all of these cases, a more tolerant attitude toward the sin or the negligent irresponsible failure leads to an increase of the damages for those “lower levels” which are dependent and inculpable, and even entirely innocent.

Therefore, one should ask whether the mercy that is shown to the person who fails to fulfill his responsibility as a person, as a citizen, and, most importantly, as a Christian, is not overlooking the duty of showing mercy toward the victim (in light of God's eternal moral laws, or “Manufacturer's Instructions”!). And in the case of divorce, I repeat, the children are the ones who especially suffer, and innocently. “Blessed be he who has saved a child's heart from despair” (Georges Bernanos).

Wholly destructive force

In many ways I speak here from personal experience. For, divorce itself has come into my own life manifoldly, and not only through my own family and in my own life as a child, but also through other family members and through the comparable misfortunes of close friends.

First, let me speak as someone who experienced the divorce of my parents while I was a child. Here I speak in mere natural (not Christian) terms, inasmuch as I was then not yet Catholic, and also so that it may be more immediately applied to everyone.

Divorce is terrible for children. Divorce destroys trust in the human bond in the young soul that is just beginning to grow and to establish bonds with other persons. It destroys the idea that there is something on earth that is trustworthily enduring. A home breaks apart, and with it a togetherness and nourishing identity. It is as if a fledgling has been pushed too early out of the nest. There will never be a unity that once was there. A child wants to be with the mother and the father. Yet, that is then, after a divorce, no longer possible. Who is my family, a child then asks? Where is the place to which I now can always return, to a warmth and a hearth, in sickness and misfortune? Even as an adult, there is a psychological wound that will stay forever.

In most cases, divorce means that the mother has to start making her own living, leaving little time for a closer attentiveness to the children. In most cases, at least in what I see, the father is cut out of the family, his presence and even his memory. That means that the one half of a child's identity and personality suddenly finds itself rejected and demeaned. Very often – but this does not apply to my own mother – those marked characteristics of the excluded father, which can also sometimes be found in some of the children, are ridiculed and criticised. (“That is just what your Father always did!”) Yet, this is usually not how a wholesome family deals with some of the parents' weaknesses or faults.

A family usually plays down the weaknesses and eccentricities of family members. Differences are not exaggerated, but, rather, attenuated. (“You know that he does not mean it that way.” Or: “You have to understand her, she is right now under much pressure. She will soon be better again.”) The family is the place where love smooths things out and lets problems not overgrow the happiness of being together. It implies an effort to work together unto a greater good of the family and, finally, in Christian terms, unto Eternal Happiness. (Certainly there comes also a point where the parents, and even the children, help each other, by playful ironies and their chastening criticisms, to be better, but that is kept within bounds, namely in the right order and in proportion.) This attitude here described will be also the right guideline for the children who are not allowed to get a wedge between their parents and to play one parent against the other. On the other hand, when spouses apply the negative attitude toward the other spouse in front of the children, the children will too often thereby be enticed to participate in this parental struggle actively and to try to benefit from it. The professional academic world calls this phenomenon “Parental Alienation Syndrome.” In this context, children are often encouraged to criticize one of their parents, which undermines heavily the Fourth Commandment that tells children to honour and respect their father and their mother. (Notice that, in the Old Testament, it is the only Commandment which has attached to it a special blessing by God, namely, “that thy days may be long.”)

The children of divorced parents often thus get accustomed, even from a very young age, to rebuke and criticise the absent parent, which is not their duty to do and for which they do not have the maturity.

Why do I dwell on this prominent unfitting aspect of divorce: the strident or subtle demeaning of one of the parents by the other parent? Because it is, in my eyes, one of the most crucial parts and destructive consequence of divorce, in natural terms. The damaging effect of the demeaning of one of the parents is enormous. Authority is cracked or destroyed, a person once loved is virtually discarded. What will this mean for the future of a young person's life? Likely the same “jump” or evasion, and searing conclusion. True fidelity does not exist, as it were, and when life gets difficult, one leaves. “I'm out of here!”

Most of all, every child loves both parents, be they  good or somewhat deficient parents. Both parents, are, at least for a long time, the most important persons in young life, with whom the child has spent all of her childhood, or his. So, when a divorce comes, the child usually has to follow one of the parents and agree to his or her attitude toward the other parent. To start rejecting the one parent means to betray one's own love, one's own affection, gratitude, and memory. I have seen it repeatedly: that the memory of children can be or become so distorted, that they no longer find anything good in their father or their mother, whichever is the effectively rejected parent. Suddenly, everything looks black that once was more variously colourful, with many shades.

Crippling side-effects

Another of the possible consequences is that the children also wind up being raised by a step-mother or a step-father. In both cases, this can involve many problems. I have just read the very painful story of a German author who was raised by her mother and by her step-father whom she hated, because she always loved her own father and considered this other man to be an usurper and an oppressor. Her whole childhood was tainted by this fact, and “psychological fact.” (We all also know the invented, but truth-telling story of Cinderella who was so gravely mistreated and humiliated by her step-mother and step-sisters.)

In our current times, a very grave concern is also the impure sensual abuses of step-daughters which are committed by their step-fathers, a crime that happens much less often if the father and the daughter, or mother and son, are truly related.

Another side-effect of divorce is the constant struggle which can go on for years and years between the two spouses (often actively involving their children): to include financial problems, fights over household goods, house and car. It is a bitter war on a small scale, which leaves everyone exhausted and preoccupied with acrimonious relationships that would otherwise normally sustain one's life, rather than destroy or diminish it. I cannot imagine how many hours of human life and how many material resources (to include legal costs) have been spent during these last decades of a permissiveness toward divorce – in strife, struggle and mental and material devastation.

Chesterton might well have written, given all of his other courageous and far-sighted writings about this important topic, another book and added the trenchant title: “The Devastation of Divorce.” Yet, he perhaps lacked the further knowledge and distasteful experience of its promiscuous vastness, as we do now certainly have. Nonetheless, he was right when he said in his own book about “the Vow” and “Sacrifice,” entitled The Superstition of Divorce (1920), that, in most cases of divorce, only one of the spouses truly wants to break apart; and the other one is, still keeping her promises of loyalty and fidelity, isolated and left behind. In all of my life experience, I have likewise seen this claim to be true.

Indeed, next to the destructive effects of the sophistic Mass Media and other technologies which now occupy so much of the energy of the human mind, I would say that divorce and the subsequent effects are the major reason for people's inability to concern themselves with the larger common good and to fight the modern onslaught against civilization, more actively and perseveringly.

The intact family: powerful counter-force

By way of contrast, I have seen so many good families who can sustainingly achieve so many things – in addition to raising their own children in good manners, faith and learning. For example, various works of mercy: pro-life work, resisting the open and subtle evils in Church and society, helping the neighbours, visiting the sick, adorning the Church, contributing to local fairs and musical and dance recitals, and much more. They can trustfully work as a team, because they hold together with their good morale as a team. They can do so much good, also in fighting against evil, because they are loyal to each other. Because the spouses are loyal to their promises and to their once-chosen state-in-life, their minds are at peace and their energy can be turned toward larger things, instead of constantly re-assessing their own purported vocation, which can be so very uprooting and discouraging. These united families can reach out to others because they have a post to which they always can securely return. They have roots and a warming love.

Love expresses itself most often in sacrifice, suffering and enduring loyalty. How else can I prove my love if not by being loyal? This is exactly what Jesus Christ Himself taught us with His Way of the Cross. He died for love of us. Love that only loves when it is “fun” and gives prompt joy, is a shallow joy, indeed. In the same time, and paradoxically so, true joy will only flow out of an enduring and loyal love that masters and thus honourably endures the bad times, too. And love also requires discipline and culture. We ought not to indulge our passions as we wish, giving way to struggle and strife with our spouses, and, worst of all, in front of the children. Only such work, which starts with ourselves, bears good fruit and can help build a beautiful civilisation.

What does our world look like today, now that nearly everybody is busy repairing broken relationships with children, keeping the relationships between former spouse and new spouse on a moderate level of politeness, and avoiding jealousy and envy? That is to say, now that many fathers, for example, are busy paying life support for two different children who have different mothers; or now that many mothers are, for example, also juggling household-duties, two jobs, and the care of two or three children who are also in daycare (or “day-orphanage”?), and often in different schools? Truly a Devastation. A Devastation of Love.

Conviction and discipline: keeping the vow

From what I have seen in my lifetime, on the natural level, it is so important to have the right conviction and attitude toward marriage to be able to sustain it. As Father John Hardon, S.J., used to say to my husband: “We are only as courageous as we are convinced.” He meant it, partly, in the context of the survival of the Faith, but he applied it also to marriage. For, it means that only if one is convinced that the marriage should and will last until the end of life, one will resourcefully make it work. Or, if one keeps the “option of divorce” in one's mind, one might more easily thus wind up in a divorce. If one is convinced that the marriage will last, and should last, one will work unto that end.

This is how it worked for millions of people for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Exceptions do not negate the general rule which is a good culture and flourishing discipline for most. As Father Hardon also profoundly said: “Love is the willingness to suffer with the beloved, for the beloved, and – most painfully – from the beloved.” God often wants us to sanctify us in challenging situations, not in comfortable and lukewarm lives. He has shown us the way. And through our own sacrifice and enduring love, we may help our spouse and children, too, unto their salvation. This would be the way for all of us, whatever our state-in-life.

Yet, if one spouse already has a wavering attitude toward marriage, when one then also listens to the allurements and the seductions of the world (you could have more fun, less stress, you have more rights, you can have self-realisation and all that), then that spouse will not likely be able to weather the storms that will come in a marriage, be it financial trouble, disagreements, different temperaments, different friends and loyalties, one-sided recriminations, and mutual verbal criticisms. That is where the aspect of laxity may also enter in. When the spouses have little self-discipline (and therewith also a superficial culture) and a weakened attitude toward the promise, the vow, to stay together until death, then they will likely fail, and fail their children. Yet, at the moment of their failed marriage, do they really foresee all the long-enduring and painful effects of their decision to part? Especially upon the children – immediately, protractedly, cumulatively.

Increasing laxity

That is why the Church and society at large have a duty to set strict enforceable standards so that the little children are allowed to grow up reliably with a father and a mother, and in a family home. For example, a spouse who breaks a marriage, should not be put in Catholic institutions of learning, because the danger would be that that person becomes a role model for the young who might start imitating him or her in her conduct towards the marriage vow. There are many means that a strong Catholic Church can use to discourage and even stop this wrong conduct. (The same applies to crimes: the society has a duty to set strict punishments for crimes so that the little ones can walk the streets unharmed, as once was the case. How far we have “progressed” from that!) We should regain a good and wholesome sense of shame and honour in some of these matters, and not slowly slide into accepting unacceptable conditions and unacceptable actions, even if they are repeated a thousandfold.

The recently expressed idea of the Modernist Cardinal Walter Kasper to introduce some more laxity, now with respect to marriage, could be compared with the decision of a State to loosen the laws against certain crimes even more so when – and because – the crime rate is actually going up. (Instead, the Church, rather, should fulfill her role as the teacher of mankind, even emphatically starting with the nature and linchpin-effect of the Vow and Holy Matrimony in society! G.K. Chesterton could teach us here much, especially in his Chapter 3 of The Superstition of Divorce, which is entitled “The Story of the Vow.”)

Now, it is clear that  we have already started to consider this matter of divorce in the context of the Church, indeed a “reforming” or more “progressive” Catholic Church, as it appears, and we have thus left the realm of an argumentation on the mere basis of reason and nature, apart from the Faith.

It is a common phenomenon that the Church has largely abandoned her role in defending marriage in specific cases. It might be that there still are documents produced and good homilies given that point out the beauty of this sacrament and the truths concerning the injustice and long-range implications of divorce, yet when it comes down to the specific wife or husband who decides to walk away unilaterally from her or his spouse, there is generally no moral consequence nor other sanction applied to them.

For example, a disgruntled wife talks to her pastor, who advises her to preserve her marriage, yet, when she decides to leave her spouse, this same priest just says: “Oh, I saw that she was heading into a divorce!” He does not apply any trenchant moral force to try to stop her, nor try to convince her to change her mind. Yet, he could self-protectedly say: “At least I told her!”

Let us apply this kind of clerical avoidance and slothful moral laxity to another case. A robber comes into my home and wants to steal my child. I tell him: “No, you should not do that, that is a crime (or even a violation of God's laws).” He then comes in and takes my child. I look on and say: “I knew he had made up his mind to steal my child, but at least I told him not to!”

The matter at stake, in both cases, is very serious, inasmuch as in both cases, it deals with our vulnerable children whom to protect should be our innermost desire and duty. Yet, when we deal with a treasure, we also have to fight for it, and not only by muttering mere platitudes without life or conviction attached to them.

Faith and Family

The Church knows that the Faith is mainly transmitted in and through the family, both by the parent's lived life of the Faith and by their intimate guidance to each other and to their children. The importance of this transmission of the Faith is recalled by Christ's own words: “Let the Little Ones come to Me.” (We also may remember, frightfully, “Woe to those who scandalize the Little Ones”!) The Church knows that so many have lost or negligently discarded the Faith, or were never taught it, because their parents divorced. Faith and Family are closely dependent upon each other. And a good State with good statecraft and virtuous leaders is dependent upon both. And then there is the indispensability of Grace.

The teaching and living of the Faith needs patience, a calm and rooted way of living which gives space for questions and meditations, and peace. When I am jangled, nervous and uprooted in my life, how can I pass on all the different details of our rich Faith that flow out of the awareness of Christ's Life and Death for us? Therefore, one could say that the Marital Bond and its preservation is another linchpin for the fostering and defense of the Faith. That is why the Church has declared as the main purpose of marriage the procreation of children and their upbringing in the Faith, unto Vita Aeterna. The Church also declared that the Marriage Vow before God contains the irreversible promise to keep loyalty, fidelity, and to be open to the children God sends them.

This higher mission, which is contrary to any egoistical understanding of marriage as a mere means to “fulfill” one another, helps the spouses, rather, to discipline themselves and to look out together upon their children and their welfare, spiritual and physical.

Inasmuch as it is the main duty and role of the Church to preserve the Faith and pass it on intact to the faithful for the salvation of their souls, she has to make all efforts to protect marriage and with it the parvuli, the Little Ones of Christ. With it, she would show mercy to the ones who cannot fight for themselves. And she would remind the adults that they have a great duty and responsibility toward each other and toward their offspring. As is the case with a criminal – to take another example from the moral realm – a tolerant attitude toward the sin will only leave the sinner longer in his wrong behaviour and disordered inner conviction. And indeed, marriage has much to do with conviction.

When I have made up my mind that I will preserve my marriage vow and my loyalty toward my spouse, I will, please God, do my utmost to do so. That is how generations of generations were able, under Grace, to sustain their marriages through the good and the bad times. Those had a fallen human nature with vulnerabilities and sinful propensities, too, just as we do today. They were better formed to know what marriage meant, and that it was meant to last for the lifetime of the spouses. They acted accordingly. They acknowledged the standard, even when they sinfully lapsed. This was not the anomie we see today – where no objective standard is even acknowledged to exist, much less to be affirmed.

Return to firmness and strength

Therefore, the Church, as our mother, needs to teach us firmly and strongly (and not in the indulgent tones of “You are a good person, God loves you,” as one can hear nowadays too often, even in the confessional) about the holiness of the Sacrament of Marriage which should be treated accordingly. And then she should not stop there, but insist upon it in the specific cases in her care. She should admonish the spouses and show them the possible consequences, not only for their own lives of grace (meaning that they cut themselves off from many graces they would otherwise receive, and not only in the case of re-married couples) and in their own practical lives, but also, and most importantly, given their married state in life, for their own children. The Church should condemn with the same vehemence a violation of the Sacrament of Marriage as one would likewise insist that a robber should leave one's house and not abduct or otherwise harm one's child, to return to our earlier-mentioned example.

In former times, the Church acted with force and conviction. A spouse who decided to leave her marriage (“separation of bed and board,” as it was called), had to go before the Bishop and explain the situation. It was the bishop who had to decide about the specific situation and to take upon his own shoulders the responsibility for the care of all those souls involved, to include the Little Ones. He had very clear categories as to whether there were grounds for such a separation from bed and board, and he would set clear conditions under which such a measure was to be allowed, and for how long. At times, separation was allowed only temporarily, with a full reconciliation in mind. Some of the major, strict reasons for the separation were: adultery, drunkenness, apostasy, habitual cruelty of conduct unto the physical or spiritual endangerment of the wife or the children.

The priest as solicitous father

Let us consider an example: a man has a conversation with a priest whom he meets for the first time, and he tells him that his wife has left him, and has almost completely separated him from his three children. The priest happens to be a traditional priest who at once acutely asks him: “Are you a wife-beater? Are you an alcoholic? Are you an adulterer?” When the man answers “no” to all three questions, the priest replies: “Then, your wife deserted you.” Instead of receiving a sigh of helplessness from a priest, here the man at least receives moral support and encouragement, in justice. (And if the priest were in the position to do so, he should talk with the wife accordingly, and with conviction and strength.) The priest in this example shows a clear set of principles with which a priest can discern a troubled marriage. We have become too emotional and sentimental nowadays, as it seems.

Too often, the priests do not want to get more deeply involved, perhaps because it is a very painful thing to get into a marriage struggle. Yet, how can a priest work unto the salvation of the souls of two spouses – and of their children! – who are all in a struggle when he does not even know who, essentially and proportionately so, is at fault (in most cases, both spouses will have their share in the culpability)? As one can argue, or reverently discuss, in such matters with individual priests: Please act like fathers toward their children; listen to both sides, get a sense of what happened and who is at fault, and then fittingly admonish the sinner.

When I as a mother am confronted with claims of one of our children against the other, I have to ask both what happened, and talk with them together. It usually does not take too long to see what happened and then to make a just judgment and to draw consequences (for example to tell the one child to apologize to the other – or to tell it both of them!). If I as a mother, or the priests as the spiritual fathers of the faithful, were to abstain from such discernment and judging conduct, we would likely make ourselves guilty of a sin of omission, certainly so by our moral indifference and our indifference toward those entrusted to us who need guidance and light.

Priests have also to keep in mind that, when they get involved, they should not to take sides too easily. It often seems that priests rapidly take sides in a marriage struggle without once even talking with the abandoned spouse, at least so as to check whether the claims of the other spouse were true and just, and thereby basing their judgement merely on the witness of the one spouse.

This is, before God, not acceptable. To support a divorce without having a full and just picture of the situation loads sins upon the soul of a priest, to include the sins of imprudence. He makes a judgment and gives a recommendation based upon it to a soul in need (or more, if children are involved) whose salvation is endangered by the very actions that the priest supports or tolerates. Priests have to restrain themselves and form themselves toward an impartiality and only try to look through the eyes of God, as it were, upon the matter. That is why a higher instance, such as a bishop, has a high importance in such a matter. A partial priest who does not look to hear the other's side and does not follow the principle of auditur altera pars will also put the spouse who has not received a fair hearing in the matter in a possible occasion of sin, because he sees and feels the injustice, and especially the effects upon their own children who are thereby led to believe that only the one spouse was at fault.

Therefore, it is the responsibility of the pastors to help to heal the weakened bonds of marriage, also for the sake of the children, before it is too late, and to do this with engagement and the full force of defending God's Laws and, finally, also the salvation of the souls of the struggling spouses and their children.

Dangers of sin

In the Church before the Second Vatican Council, where the themes of salvation, judgment, sin, heaven and hell were still prevalent in thoughts and prayers, the representatives of Christ on earth had in mind and accented the gravity and the risks involved in our life here on earth. The eternal consequences of human action and omissions were kept in front of their eyes, and they acted accordingly. (And that was a time where we still had a more common civilisation and a moral culture. Something that we today, in our “moral pluralism,” almost altogether lack. Lasting marriages are the fruits and the foundation of a morally sound culture and an otherwise flourishing civilisation.)

Traditionally, the dangers of sin – or the increased occasions of sin – for both separated spouses have always been kept in mind by the Church. Once the separation took place, the danger that one of the spouses would re-marry or even just enter a new, if not impure, bond was (is) very probable. The Church wisely knew that. That is why she had to be so strict in the first place. “Danger of incontinence” was the term once used.

In this context, marriage was considered so holy that one spouse who separated without the approval of the Church was considered, objectively, to be and to be living in the state of sin. It was the local bishop who had to be involved to make an appropriate decision about the specific case. The bishop still has, under Canon Law, a role similar to the older canonical rule (except that nobody, as it seems, abides by it anymore!). A bishop should, in my eyes, make it clear to all pastors that each case of separation of the faithful has to be brought to his own office and judgment. That would help all involved parties to be forced to explain in objective terms their grave reasons for desiring a just separation, and in light of the Faith. Such a dispassionate requirement and mediation would take away the pressure of the emotions and would foster a more objective handling of the very sensitive matter of troubled marriages. (I know of several cases where women and men, after much life experience and after looking back at their broken marriages, came to the conclusion that they should have stayed together and not have separated – especially given the cumulative damage to the children – and that the reasons for their separation looked now, at a distance, to be far less serious than they considered it at the time, and under the inordinate influence of their emotions.)

The Church therewith would help to guard the holy marriages of their faithful and also help prevent their faithful, to include the children, from falling into grave sin. (We remember that Our Lord told the woman at the well that she indeed was still married to her first husband. He did not argue that one should adapt to the changed situation and have her be happy with her fifth husband.)

Objection to papal drift

Therefore, out of Love for Our Lord and the Little Ones and all the Souls involved, we express with all respect to his office our strong opposition to the informal opinion of Pope Francis (with Cardinal Walter Kasper) in this matter. All clergymen should collaborate with inmost earnestness and manly insistence so as better to preserve, insofar as they generously can, this precious sacramental gift from God, the earthly sacramental unity of man and woman, that no man should put asunder. And, as we close, may we recall once more George Bernanos' poignant Ninth Beatitude, as described in the moving novel The Diary of a Country Priest (1937): “Blessed be he who has saved a child's heart from despair.”

 

This essay is dedicated to “C.”
May she reconsider her own apparent decision.

 

 

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