- Posted by Mary's Advocates
- On November 16, 2017
- Scholarly Resource
Divorce is one of the greatest evils of our times. Everything possible must be done to stop its ravages upon the solidity of the family. This does not mean that divorced persons, whether guilty or innocent, must be spiritually neglected. They can and must still save their souls. To do so, this is the program they should follow.
PROGRAM FOR DIVORCED CATHOLICS
Donald F. Miller, C.SS.R.
There are a great many divorced Catholics in the United States today. Their position is a difficult one because of the wrong attitudes many other Catholics have toward them, because of the sinful pressures to which others often subject them, and, above all, because of the problems they themselves must face in trying to lead Christian lives and to save their immortal souls.
For these reasons divorced persons need a definite program or plan of living that will contain clear statements of what is wrong for them and positive recommendations of what will make their task of living up to God’s will for them as easy as possible. This is an effort to provide such a program or plan. At the same time it may help other Catholics form a right attitude and practice real charity toward divorced acquaintances and friends.
There are many kinds of divorced Catholics among both men and women. The only ones excluded from consideration here are those for whom there is no solid reason against their going back to living with their lawful spouse. A divorced Catholic who can, without undue harm to body or soul, resume married life with the partner he (or she) promised before God to accept as a spouse until death, and who would be reaccepted by that partner, is bound to take whatever steps are necessary for a reconciliation. …
This program will involve three things: 1) the right attitude and conduct toward God; 2) the right attitude toward themselves; 3) the right attitude toward other people.
I. The Right Attitude of Divorced Catholics Toward God
There are many clear and definite principles that represent God’s will for divorced Catholics who want to be and remain in His grace and friendship. The most important are these:
1. God wants the divorced person to return to His grace by a good confession if his or her sins led up to the divorce or is he or she sinned by getting a divorce.
It is a grave sin for a validly married Catholic to institute divorce proceedings against a partner without permission of the bishop of the diocese. [transcriber’s note (1983 Canon 1153)]. Therefore this sin has to be confessed. With it, of course, must be confessed any sins that contributed to the breakup of the marriage. Even a husband or wife who did not start divorce proceedings must confess any sins that contributed to the alienation of a partner.
For example, a wife who for some time had refused, without a serious reason, to live up to her contract of taking part in the marriage act, may not have sought a divorce, but she was guilty of grave sins that contributed to bringing about the divorce. Thus a husband who left his wife and children to starve by earning or giving nothing to their support, might say that he did not want a divorce, but his sins of neglect certainly made some defensive action necessary for the wife. Such sins should be confessed and God’s forgiveness sought through the absolution of the priest.
It should be noted clearly that divorced persons are not necessarily excluded from the sacraments and the full life of the Catholic Church. Certainly the so-called innocent person in a divorce, that is, the one who tried to fulfill the duties of marriage and who tried to prevent the divorce, should have no hesitation about going to confession and receiving Communion. Even a husband or wife who has done irreparable damage to their marriage by bad conduct and by the great sin of seeking a divorce without permission, can receive God’s forgiveness, if such a one is truly repentant, is ready to make reparation for the evil done and the scandal given, and is willing to take part in a reconciliation if that should become possible.
2. God’s law strictly forbids validly married but divorced Catholics to keep company as if they were free to marry again.
Steady company-keeping is lawful only as a possible preparation for marriage. When one is not free to marry, steady company-keeping becomes a serious and unnecessary occasion of sin, and, therefore, a grave sin in itself. [note from Bai. For information on friendship that is not ‘going steady’, see Spiritual Friendship by Ronda Chervin © 1992]
This holds for both the “innocent” and the “guilty” parties to a divorce. It is the former who must especially see it as a clear mandate of God’s will.
They are the ones, these innocent victims of divorce, who are most apt to argue against the will of God in this regard. They say: “I did my best to make my marriage a success. My partner turned out to be selfish and sinful and unwilling to bear the sacrifices of marriage. Since I was ‘innocent,’ I should have a right to another chance at happiness in marriage.”
The position of such persons is indeed unfortunate, deserving of great sympathy and charity, but, in arguing that they have a right to think of marriage again, they forget two things. The first is that they took their partner “for better or for worse” until death, which means that they solemnly promised never to think of another marriage while the partner of their first marriage was still alive. The second thing they forget is that the solidity of marriage and the security of the home demand that a second marriage after divorce never be permitted to Christian people, not even to those who can call themselves guiltless of any evil in their first marriage. If “innocence” were made a loophole for a second marriage after divorce, the number of aggrieved and “innocent” husbands and wives would grow into legions. That is why Christ was adamant and absolute on this point: attempted marriage after divorce from a valid, Christian, sacramental, consummated marriage is adultery.
And that is why steady company-keeping for a divorced person, whether “innocent” or “guilty” in the divorce proceedings is a mortal sin. It follows too that it is a mortal sin for a single person to keep company with a divorced Christian.
3. It is clearly God’s will that divorced persons should build up an especially fervent spiritual life to offset the dangers and temptations that will assail them.
No matter how young a divorced man or woman may be, no matter how bleak and difficult the long stretch of the future may seem under the strictures to which a divorced person is subject, God’s grace is ready in abundance to make virtuous living possible and even easy for such a one. However, this grace must be sought, and sought with a zeal proportionate to the soul’s need.
Therefore, divorced persons should get to confession at least every few weeks in order to keep making a check on whether they are carrying out God’s strict commands. They should receive Communion often, even every day if possible, knowing that this sacrament will be the means through which they can grow enough in the love of God to resist all temptations to sinful love. And they must adopt a firm schedule of daily prayer and spiritual reading so that they may develop a genuine interior life, that is, one in which they grow constantly in conscious union with God.
II. The Right Attitude of Divorced Persons Towards Themselves
There are three dangerous, if not fatal, mistakes that divorced persons can make in regard to their state. The right attitude toward themselves means a constant awareness of and defense against these mistakes.
1. The greatest danger that divorced people must fact is that they may succumb to self-pity.
Self-pity can become a habit and a fixed state of mind. It is that state in which a person is so constantly conscious of his misfortunes that he is a burden to himself, a bore to his family and friends, and in constant danger of rebellion and blasphemy against God.
Divorced persons, whether they admit to guilt in bringing about their divorce or maintain, rightly or wrongly, their complete innocence have suffered a great misfortune. But it was not the greatest or final misfortune of life. Nobody was created just to have a happy marriage. Men and women were created to win the happiness of heaven, and that goal remains attainable even after a divorce. Self-pity is one of the surest ways to endanger the real goal of one’s life.
Much of the self-pity in which divorced people are tempted to indulge is really inspired by the pagan and secularistic outlook on the world. Pagans run through three and four and five marriages, looking for one that will be perfectly happy. They make the divorced Catholic feel that he is cheated by his religion in not being allowed to try and try again for a happy marriage. He has been deceived by his neighbors into forgetting that his happiness has to be found in God, not in a human being. Until he realizes that truth, he will be a sorry victim of self-pity.
2. A second danger that divorced people must face is that of idleness.
Idleness, as the inspired Scriptures say, is a danger to anyone, but it is particularly such to divorced persons who must be on guard against the self-pity described above (always nourished by idleness), against falling among bad companions, and against steady company-keeping with anyone, good or bad.
By idleness is meant not only sitting around doing nothing but also going around doing useless things. … A divorced Catholic who wants to remain in God’s friendship will avoid idleness by concentrating on 1) a job, 2) an innocent hobby, 3) some kind of spiritual or religious activity.
The job may be that of raising their children. … A good hobby is a priceless friend.
The spiritual or religious activity may be teaching catechism …
3. A third danger for divorced Catholics is that of an exaggerated and unreasonable sense of guilt.
It is hardly possible for divorced persons not to feel a certain sense of failure and that whether they were the “innocent” or “guilty” person in bringing about the divorce. The marriage they promised and planned on making their lifetime career went to pieces. Whoever was most at fault, this was a failure for both.
Humbly accepting this fact of the failure of a plan is a far different thing from permitting oneself to be burdened constantly with an exaggerated sense of guilt. This latter is responsible for making some divorced Catholics feel that they are outcasts from the society of Catholics or the activities of their Church. …
All human beings have reason for a sense of guilt because all are sinners. But when one’s sins or failures are known to others, there is an inclination to let guilty feelings go too far. Guilt feelings concerning sins known or unknown to others should inspire a continuing sorrow for those sins and willingness to do penance for them until death. But Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance as a means of assuring the sinner of his forgiveness and thereby bringing peace to the soul. Once a divorced person has made a good confession, he or she should cling to the certainty of his forgiveness and then offer up the hardships of his lot as reparation for the evil he has done. …
III. The Right Attitude of Divorced Persons Towards Others.
Divorced persons should see in their state opportunities for doing much good to others no matter how much harm they may have done by the bad example of their past. Three things especially they should want to do in this regard.
1. Divorced persons should be eager to show to others the power of the grace of God for any emergency in life by their good example.
God wants all human beings to save their souls. His Providence seems to give some greater temptations, a more difficult lot in life, than others. The tempted, the discouraged, the despairing, are always helped by the good example of those who have a harder task than themselves. There is no doubt that divorced Catholics have special difficulties and temptations to face. If they remain faithful to God, their example will be of untold value to others.
This hold for all types of divorced persons, including those who have been most guilty and have the most atonement to make for having broken up their home. Once they have made a good confession and been forgiven, they should be inspired to perseverance by the fact the example of their conversion will certainly encourage many who are faltering in allegiance to God.
2. Divorced persons should defend the indissolubility of marriage by resisting all suggestions that they involve themselves in company-keeping and by rebuking Catholics who make such suggestions.
Instead of complaining that it is hard to resist company-keeping and thoughts of another marriage, divorced Catholics should consider it an obligation, now that they have failed to make their marriage the permanent thing God intended it to be, to prove to others that they still believe in the indissolubility of marriage and the sinfulness of attempted marriage after divorce. They will have many opportunities to do this.
There will be weak and unworthy Catholics who will suggest that they take up company-keeping and at times even try to provide companions for them. In no uncertain terms, they should tell such false friends that they cannot marry again validly while their divorced partner is alive and that, therefore, they may not take up company-keeping. They may add that any Catholic who suggests that they start keeping company is thereby guilty of a grave sin of scandal.
Moreover, they will meet individuals who will be attracted to them, and who, by word and action, will show an eagerness to begin steady dating with them. These too must be told at once that this is out of the question because it cannot be done without the loss of the grace of God.
Such a forthright line of conduct and action will repair any scandal that divorced persons may have given in bringing about the failure of their first marriage.
3. Divorced persons should use their unhappy experiences to advise and help others: young people preparing for marriage and the already married who are facing problems and temptations.
Wisdom is often acquired through mistakes and even sins. Divorced persons should use the wisdom that their mistakes or sins have brought them to warn others against the same mistakes and sins.
Perhaps their divorce was occasioned by a hasty and ill-considered marriage. Their advice can be very effective for young people who seem to be in danger of making the same mistake.
Or perhaps the first crack in the solidity of their own marriage appeared as the result of their drinking or uncontrolled anger or selfishness in any one of a hundred forms. They may be able to see the same cracks forming in the marriages of friends and be able to heal them by giving friendly warnings of what the terrible outcome of such beginnings can be. Thus divorced Catholics can do a great service to their fellow human beings and wipe out the evil that was done by their own bad example to the world.