- Posted by Mary's Advocates
- On February 9, 2007
This article originally appeared in The Anchor, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, MA. Page 14. HERE
by Gail Besse
Marie “Bai” Macfarlane knew that World Marriage Day and St. Valentine’s Day were coming up, but her heart was really pinned on those days when her boys, who lived with their dad, would be with her.
Divorce was not in her plans when she married in 1990. But the Catholic mother discovered how little protection no-fault divorce laws provide when one spouse wants out. Now she and a law professor are proposing that couples entering a religious marriage sign a simple contract designed to give safeguards that civil law no longer does.
“If you have a pain in your ankle, you don’t amputate your leg,” said Macfarlane, 43, in an interview from her Westlake, Ohio, home. “Anyone who’s been an innocent divorce defendant or a child in divorce court understands.”
She founded Mary’s Advocates (www.marysadvocates.org), a non-profit whose mission is to promote the sanctity of marriage. She’s also working on the True Marriage Project, set up by Professor Stephen Safranek, a co-founder of the Ave Maria School of Law.
They’re in touch with others in a growing national grassroots movement to reform no-fault divorce and rescue marriage from being “optional, disposable, and redefinable.”
The True Marriage Project of Safranak’s public interest law firm represents people who want their religious vows legally protected, according to its website www.truemarriage.net.
It offers a pre-nuptial contract – a Solemn Marriage Covenant Proclamation – that would ensure disputes be managed by the Church or by mediators who share the Church’s view of marriage. It is meant to give civil teeth to the life-time contract to which Catholic spouses commit themselves when they promise to take each other as man or wife “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health” and to “love you and honor you all the days of my life.”
Safranak appealed Macfarlane’s divorce case to the Ohio Supreme Court, asking that it recognize the religious nature of the marriage and its attendant rights and responsibilities.
Bai (pronounced Bay) claimed that she and her husband William “Bud” Macfarlane Jr. had bound themselves in a life-long sacramental covenant, that their pre-nuptial preparation constituted a verbal contract, and no civil judge could dissolve that. She said this was a violation of her religious freedom and asked that jurisdiction be transferred to an ecclesial court.
“The only reasons for licit separation according the terms of my marriage agreement would be if I was dangerous, committed adultery, or was making it impossible for my family to practice their faith,” Macfarlane said, referring to Church law. “Since I did none of those things, I can’t be forcibly separated from my family.”
But she was separated. In November the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear her case; the only remaining appeal would be to U.S. Supreme Court.
Bai, who has an engineering degree, and her husband co-founded the Mary Foundation, a Catholic media apostolate, in the 1990s. They had four sons whom she home-schooled as they grew. Bud left in 2003, then obtained a no-fault divorce and full child custody.
In essence, according to Bai, the court punished her by giving Bud primary child custody because she refused to stop home-schooling (one of Bud’s demands and a court ruling) and because she fought the divorce. She was called a “religious extremist.”
What is unique is Macfarlane’s response. She brought a canon law petition to the tribunals of the Diocese of Cleveland and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, asking them to investigate and if appropriate, to inform Bud that since their sacramental marriage hasn’t been annulled, he should uphold the terms of the marriage contract. When those tribunals declined to hear her petition, she appealed to the highest ecclesial court possible, the Roman Rota, where the petition is now pending.
“If my husband refuses to seek any relationship help, he is still obligated to uphold his part of the marriage promises, which include maintaining one household for our family, not two separate households with the children going back and forth,” she said.
The Solemn Marriage Convenant Proclamation would try to prevent other spouses from having to experience similar pain flowing from divorces granted by judges for “no fault” and no reason other than one party petitions to get out of a lifetime commitment.
The language of the proclamation states that the parties understand that holy matrimony is a solemn undertaking and adds, “Since the parties wish to come freely and establish and acknowledge their marriage before God and the Catholic Church, they also wish to have their Catholic marriage recognized by all legal jurisdictions, foreign and domestic. They understand and agree that they will submit to the Catholic Church’s teachings and Canon Law as the basis of their understanding of the legal duties and responsibilities in marriage.”
Louisiana, Arizona and Arkansas have all passed statutes allowing for more committed marriages and harder divorces. In 1997, Louisiana passed a law allowing couples to enter into a “covenant marriage,” which would bind the spouses legally and allow divorce only for “definite cause,” like adultery, a felony conviction and imprisonment, desertion for a year, or abuse of the spouse or a child. Those who voluntarily enter into covenantal marriages commit to take marriage preparation courses as well as marriage counseling should problems arise.
Troubled couples should definitely attempt reconciliation more, said Father Gregory Mathias, director of the Fall River Diocesan Office of Family Ministry. “The availability and apparent haste of the process is troubling,” he said. “I can’t speak to the law, but I could foresee mandatory mediation or counseling that forces a reflection on both parties.”
The Family Ministry Office has referred couples to Retrouvaille, a national group that holds retreats for those in troubled marriages, said Program Director Jerry Foley. “I know of case where the couple had been divorced for eight years when their teenage daughter asked them to make a Retrouvaille weekend. Ultimately they ‘remarried’ each other and were together for years until her death last year,” Foley said.
Gail Besse is a Massachusetts freelance writer.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.