I had a wonderful marriage for the first 21 years. Now, my wife filed for divorce and I am being forced, by threat of law, to cooperate with it.
The Catechism calls divorce a “grave sin”. Does that mean every person who files for a divorce is living in mortal sin? I realize that is a general question and there are many “what if” scenarios–but what about the majority?
If that is true, I need to pray even harder for my wife’s soul!
Divorce is a terrible thing. Jesus spoke about divorce on a couple of occasions, notably Matthew 19: 1-12, wherein he says that divorce was permitted under the Mosaic Law because of the hardness of the human heart, but He indicated that to divorce and marry another was to commit adultery. He then praises the life of celibacy, but says that not everyone is called to celibacy.
The next incident in the Gospel is Jesus with the children – “let the children come to me.” I think there’s a logic to the progression of stories here, since few are more deeply affected by divorce than the children of a marriage.
The Church accepts and proclaims Jesus’ teaching about the permanence of marriage, the evil of divorce, and the need to care for children.
Nevertheless, as horrible as divorce is, there are worse things.
Someone who is living in an abusive marriage, for example, has every right to protect himself or herself (and the children!) and seek a separation. Someone whose spouse has been unfaithful has the right to seek a separation (can. 1152).
Canon law has a procedure called “separation while the bond remains“. Canons
1151-1155 outline the reasons and the logic behind the process. Canons
1692-1696 outline the process.
The basic principle is that when Catholic spouses marry, their promises are not only made to each other, but to the whole Church. Part of the promise made is the promise to live together. If a Catholic wants to break that promise – even if he has a good reason for doing so – he should seek permission from the bishop. The bishop (through his tribunal or some duly appointed canonical judge) hears the story, attempts to broker some sort of reconciliation if that is possible, and if not, permits the separation and may permit the parties to seek a civil divorce (can. 1692, 2).
This process is not well-known, and is little used for a number of reasons.
Some attribute the lack of use of this procedure to ill-will on the part of bishops. There are even organizations that rail against their bishops for their failure to promote and provide for this process.
The reality is more complex.
In the 1970’s, when states began promoting laws permitting no-fault divorce, the Church was blindsided. The Church should have stood up strongly in opposition to this. Our failure to resist this major civil redefinition of marriage weakened the Church’s voice when it’s come to current attempts to redefine marriage.
The flood of divorces, including Catholic divorces, that happened in the 70’s overwhelmed the Catholic diocesan tribunal system, which was also grappling with a new Code of Canon Law, issued in 1983. From handling a few dozen cases a year in the 60’s, some tribunals were faced with hundreds of petitions a year. Some say that this led to a “rubber stamp” approach as tribunals tried to clear the cases quickly, without attending to the demands of the law and justice.
The reality is, again, more complex.
In any event, the procedure for canonical separation has been infrequently used in recent years. Many Catholics – many parish priests! – don’t even know about it.
Within the law itself, there is a provision (can. 1153) permitting a spouse who feels he or the children are in “grave danger of soul or body” to separate on his own authority, “if there is danger in delay.” There are no parameters established for deciding what would be considered “grave danger of soul or body,” or “danger in delay” – it entirely rests on the conscience of the spouse seeking to separate.
Since few Catholics are even aware of their ability to seek the assistance of the Church in determining whether they should separate or not. I am informed that there are instances of Catholics attempting to follow the process who have been, sadly, rebuffed by their pastor or even by their diocesan tribunal. You can hardly fault a Catholic who separates on his own authority if he doesn’t know that he really should seek permission from the bishop first.
Circling back, is divorce “grave matter”? Without question. Are all those who seek a divorce committing mortal sin? No. There could be a good reason for doing so, even doing so without first seeking ecclesiastical permission.
Remember another point: one of your chief obligations as a married person is to help your spouse get to heaven. Even where there is a divorce, one should maintain one’s obligation to pray for one’s spouse even when the spouse abandoned the common life. Moreover, it can be spiritually dangerous to speculate about whether one’s former spouse has committed sin or not. Ultimately, that’s in his or her conscience. Obsessing about it can be a sin of the dangerous sin of pride. Such speculation can inhibit one’s ability to do the painful, but necessary work of one’s own examination of conscience.
Pray for your spouse, certainly, but make the prayer brief, simply entrusting her to the Lord. Don’t try and figure out if she’s committed sin or not. That’s not your job.
If you have children, even if those children are adults, put your focus on them. They are surely the most wounded by the whole situation. DON’T put them in a position where they have to choose between mom or dad. Tell them you love them, encourage them to seek pastoral help (or even psychological help if that’s needed, and it often is), don’t say negative things about your spouse to them.
I will keep the combox open, but I switched on the moderation queue.