How the Church can help (or hurt) women in abusive marriages

When she went looking for help from the church, she was still susceptible to the idea that everything was her fault. One priest said it was a shame she was suffering, but all she could do was offer it up. Another told her she had a demon in her.

But a third priest listened to her story . . .

Read the my latest for America Magazine.

This is one of the most important pieces I’ve ever written, and I’m very grateful to the courageous and honest women who shared their stories with me.

Photo by George Hodan (Creative Commons)

I just figured out why it was called “The Synod on the Family.”

Keep away the fire at the family hearth

 

I just figured out the entire Synod. Or at least, I figured out something about it! Maybe everyone else already knows this, and I’m just slow, but it kind of blew my mind.

My husband and I were talking about people in really rotten marital situations — say, a Catholic man in a valid marriage to a woman who reacted badly to the trials of life, and turned into a horrible person. When she began to abuse the kids, they got a civil divorce, and he found someone else, and they’re really in love, and she loves his kids, and they had more kids together . . . but they recently met with their priest, and it’s painfully obvious that there is no way he can get an annulment. The old marriage was a valid marriage, awful as it was. This new couple has only two choices: (a) to remain in what is truly an adulterous marriage, and to refrain from receiving Communion indefinitely, because they’re in a state of mortal sin, or (b) to live together as brother and sister and hope the old wife dies.

Either way: awful, awful, awful.

The upshot of the first documents leaking out of the Synod seem to be saying, among other things, that the Church is trying to encourage people who can’t get annulments to be part of the Church in some way — to get them back into the community somehow, without them being officially in communion with the Church.

I wondered why. I mean, why would someone want to be in the Church if they can’t receive the Eucharist?  There are many wonderful things about the Church, but without the Eucharist . . . what’s the point? Who wants to hang around a restaurant if you never get to sit and eat?

And then I realized. The children. People will bring their children to be fed. If they feel welcome, and if they feel like they’re not utterly rejected, even though they can’t receive Communion, they will bring their children to Mass, and will bring their children to catechism class, and will bring their children to the sacraments.  They will make sure their children stay involved in the life of the Church. Or at least they might! And there is hope for the next generation . . . and also for the cousins, who always keep up on the family news, and for the friends of the family, and for the lady in the grocery line who stop and chat about  marriage and want to know all about your personal life . . .

They can tell that lady, “Well, it’s complicated, but I’m still a Catholic.There is still a place for  me. It’s not what I’d wish, but it’s better than nothing. They still want me, and I still need Him.”

Whereas, if all they hear from the Church is, “Sorry. You’re out. Shame on you. Next!” then of course they will not bring their children, and their children won’t go to Mass, or catechism, or to the sacraments. Why would they? Why would anyone be a part of an organization that not only cannot give them the Bread of Life, but won’t even acknowledge that they are trying hard to be loving? And we’ll continue in this horrible cycle where people who are really trying to be decent are barred from the sacraments, but people who waltzed into marriage without thinking it through can get their marriage declared null, and it just seems so unfair, and who wants to be part of that kind of Church that punishes love and gives a do-over for foolishness? And every conversation about the Church will be about how unfair it is, and that’s why We Don’t Go There Anymore.

That’s what I mean when I say I figured out the Synod. It really wasn’t hidden! It’s all about the family. It’s always been about the family — and the family is about more than the one marriage and the one couple in question. That’s why they didn’t call it “The Synod About Gay People and Divorce” or “The Synod About Just How Popey the Pope Plans to Be, Anyway” or “The I-Don’t-Recall-Jesus-Talking-Much-About-Marriage,-Do-Youuu? Synod” Nope. Every single human being is, for better or worse, part of a family, and because of this, what we do affects lots of other people — and how we’re treated affects lots of other people, too.

It’s about future generations, and also it’s about how the faith of children can affect parents. That’s what the Church means by “mercy.” Not “anything goes, as long as we all feel good,” but “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” We cannot give medicine to the dead, but neither will we sign any death certificates prematurely.

It sounds like the Church intend to make it much harder for people to accidentally or frivolously go through with invalid marriages, and it sounds like they intend to offer support for valid marriages after the wedding, so that people get married for real, and stay married for good.  But what about the generations of people who are already caught in an impossible situation?  There have been, let’s face it, several decades of failure. People have grown up never hearing a word of doctrine from the pulpit, never learning a scrap of catechism in Catholic school, never knowing the first thing about what the Church believes about sex or marriage (or the Real Presence, or anything). They’re caught, and it’s not fair, and it stinks.

But it’s not going to help anyone to pretend that real marriages weren’t real, or that invalid marriages aren’t real. You can’t just change the rules when you feel sorry for people. That will just create more people for whom to feel sorry.

How to serve the people caught in the middle? Make a place for them, and make a place for their children. Make a place for their whole family.

***

Everybody knows the Church will change. (Everybody is wrong.)

Rom,_Vatikan,_Petersdom_-_Silhouette_bei_Sonnenuntergang_3

 

Many Catholics believe the Synod on the Family will drive home the final nail in the coffin of orthodoxy. They believe that, when the Synod is over, from that coffin will emerge some hideous new zombie Church, which progressive Pope Francis will envelop in one of his famous Marxist hugs. Together, Frankie and Zombie will personally cater all the gay weddings they can find, and couples who have three or more annulments under their belts can claim a discount on renting the Sistine Chapel for their next few weddings.

Many Catholics look at the Synod, and they know that the Church is going to change. They know it.

Are they right? Let’s step back a few decades, to the last time everybody knew what would happen in the Church.

In 1963, Pope John XXIII called a Pontifical Commission to examine the Church’s ban on artificial birth control. After he died, Pope Paul VI expanded the commission to include doctors, theologians, lay women, bishops and cardinals.

The members of this committee were chosen by the Pope, and everybody knew what that meant: the Church was obviously revving up for something big, something new. The commission members debated, studied, and solicited testimony for several years; and then in 1966, they came out with a report that concluded exactly what everyone was expecting: It said that the Church should do a 180 and allow artificial birth control. The official report said that birth control was not intrinsically evil, and that the Church’s ban on it should be lifted.

There was rejoicing in some quarters, wringing of hands in others, as everyone assumed that the Pope would agree. Everyone assumed that life as a married Catholic would be dramatically different from then on, in keeping with the times. Laymen thought so. Priests thought so. Everyone thought, “This is it. This is the big change we’ve all been [hoping for/dreading].”

And what happened?

Humanae Vitae happened. BOOM. Rather than assenting to the Commission’s recommendation, Paul VI issued the glorious encyclical which firmly and passionately reasserts the Church’s constant teaching on human sexuality, almost miraculously predicting the societal ills that would follow if the world embraced artificial contraception. The encyclical thrilled some, enraged others, and immediately began sowing the seeds for John Paul II’s flourishing Theology of the Body, which is only now beginning to take root in the hearts of many Catholics.

In 1968, everyone knew the Church was going to change.

Everyone was wrong.

I expect — no, I believe with all my heart — that the same will happen in the next few years regarding the issues of divorce and civil remarriage, and same sex marriage. The Pope has reaffirmed countless times that he is a “son of the Church” and will uphold and defend her doctrine, no matter what the rumors imply (and Cardinal Kasper — CARDINAL KASPER — says so, too).

Now, this is not to say that everything will be fine. Most Catholics, including those present when Humanae Vitae first came out, ignored and continue to blithely ignore the Church’s teaching on contraception. It’s likely that Catholics who are in favor of same sex marriage will continue to be in favor of same sex marriage, no matter what happens at the synod, and no matter what the Pope says, infallibly or otherwise.

But will the Church change her teachings on marriage? No, she will not. I would bet my life on it. Sometimes when everyone knows something, everyone is wrong.

So, listen to rumors if you like. Debate about the ins and outs of various meetings and interviews, and feel free to wince, as any normal human being would do, as we witness sausage being made. Above all, pray — pray for the pope, pray for the bishops, pray for a change of heart for those in dissent, and pray for courage for those who are faithful. Pray for the Church. Pray for all of us. Prayer is always the appropriate response. But as you pray, don’t panic.

Remember, everybody knew what was definitely going to happen in 1968.  Everybody was wrong.

***
***
***

Only a rightly-ordered heart feels grief

Fra_Angelico_053

 

 

e know some couples who don’t fight very much, but they don’t seem to really enjoy each other, either. They more or less leave each other alone, with a sort of low-level, courteous disdain for each other’s enthusiasms and flaws alike. They never experience the agony of rupture because they’ve carefully cordoned themselves off from any passionate unity. They are indifferent, because it’s easier. And this indifference is a tragic waste of marriage.

Read the rest at the Register. 

***

At the Register: Doctrine doesn’t change over the phone

Ring-ring.
Hello?
Hi, it’s the Pope, and guess what? It’s OPPOSITE DAY!
From Conversations that didn’t, won’t, and wouldn’t happen, vol. 836

Help for divorced, celibate Catholics?

While everyone’s twisting themselves into knots about how the Church should or should not respond to people who are divorced and remarried, there is another segment of the population who could use some attention:  people who are divorced and intend to remain celibate. I got this question from a female reader:

Are there ANY resources for divorced Catholics that are trying to remain celibate?? It seems like most are geared toward teenagers. Chastity and celibacy aren’t just manly issues either. Thank you!!!!
Rather than just start casting around on Google, I figured you guys would know. Any books, websites, message boards, groups, programs you can recommend?