In our system of family law, the legal presumption is that the marriage is over the moment one spouse decides it is. It does not matter who has engaged in adultery. It does not matter how long the couple has been married, whether they have minor children, or whether they were married in the Catholic Church, which doesn’t acknowledge divorce.
Our divorce courts violate the civil rights of countless men and women every day. Most victims do not have the ability to fight the injustice. Most suffer in silence and their stories remain untold.
In the face of this crisis, which is causing untold suffering and injustice, what is our obligation as Catholics who uphold the sanctity of lifelong marriage?
We must fight our tendency to look the other way in the name of discretion or a false sense of charity. This instinct is rooted in a cultural ethos that values privacy and personal (meaning, sexual) autonomy above all other rights.
As Catholics, we have moral obligations when we know someone who has abandoned his or her family in order to seek a divorce. We have a duty to stand in solidarity with the spouse who has been left behind, and with any children who might be involved.
We should not assume that the marriage must have been deeply troubled to have reached this point. And we should not accept the assertion that the one left behind was “just too difficult to live with.” Such claims are usually made to deflect attention from the real issue —spousal abandonment and the immoral conduct that almost always accompanies it.
Sometimes, when we are friends with the couple involved, we might be tempted to conclude, “There must be something we don’t know. This must be more complicated than we think.” All too often, the complicating factor is in fact quite simple — an adulterous affair.
It might be useful when we consider “logical explanations” for abandonment for us to contemplate our own marital struggles. How would we fare should the survival of our own marriages hinge on our spouse’s view of us at a particular moment in time?
The Church teaches that marriages are comprised of two flawed individuals whose job is to love one another unconditionally: “Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Cor. 13: 5-7).
What does it mean to stand in solidarity with an abandoned family?
It means not being afraid to use the term “abandonment” instead of divorce when speaking about these situations.
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For pastors and priests it means being willing to address the issue directly with their congregations.
For family members, clergy, and close friends of the couple, it means speaking to the abandoning spouse in charity, but with clarity.
The message to the abandoner must be this: “What you have done is contrary to God’s plan for you and your family. We are praying you will return home and seek the counseling needed to heal your marriage. Once you decide to return to your family, you will have our full support. Until then, please do not expect us to condone your action by pretending it hasn’t happened.”
These encounters serve two purposes.
First, they assure abandoned spouses that they are not alone. They tell the spouses that the Church community supports their desire to save their marriage and uphold the marriage vow.
Second, by summoning the moral courage to speak candidly about the devastation that spousal abandonment causes, we remind the world that eternal Truth remains.
Sadly, men and women who abandon their spouses will often have family and friends around who support their decision to “start over.” It may benefit one who has left home more than we will ever know to hear the truth from us, who have their eternal souls in mind.