It’s tempting for Catholics to feel far removed from the Bruce Jenner spectacle. That a man would freely choose to abandon his vocation as husband and father in such a dramatic, permanent, and physical way seems almost inconceivable. We wish Bruce knew the meaning and Source of his existence. We wish he were convinced, as we are, that authentic happiness comes not from feeding the narcissistic beast in each of us, but from striving for virtue; from bearing one’s physical and emotional burdens for the good of others, especially our families.
But perhaps Jenner’s case isn’t as much about gender as it is a multi-tiered failure of commitment and courage: his commitment to his wife and children (and theirs to him), the commitment of his extended family and friends to his true happiness and well-being, the commitment of our culture to the encouragement and support of his vocation, and the courage of all parties to follow through.
In this time between Synods, we might examine our own consciences: how do we show true compassion to those in our own lives who struggle with the promises they’ve made? Our Catholic understanding of life’s purpose, and the meaning of charity and happiness, is a gift. But it is meaningful only to the extent that it is linked with action. When we who are blessed with the fullness of the truth no longer apply our theological knowledge to the practical challenges of living a virtuous life, moral confusion reigns and suffering ensues.
Nowhere is the disconnect between the Church’s moral teachings and everyday life more apparent than with regard to marriage. Indeed, since the 2014 Synod there has begun a much-needed discussion about the nature of charity and its relationship to an authentic view of happiness, particularly in the context of sexuality and the marriage bond.
Disagreement seems to center around two core attributes of married life: permanence and fidelity. It’s remarkable how relatively short and straight the road has been from social acceptance of unilateral, or forced, divorce (by Catholics and non-Catholics alike) to the normalization of a whole array of deviations from what St. John Paul II described as the “personalistic norm.” People are not to be used as a means to an end; they are created to be loved.
The fallout from inconsistency on marriage among Catholic families is clear, as exemplified by an ongoing tragedy in my own suburban and largely Catholic community. I wish I could report that this situation is highly unusual. But the truth is that, because of the nature of my work – writing and speaking about spousal and community commitment to marriage – I am aware of many situations with the same broad outlines as this one.
In this instance, a widely respected Catholic husband of twenty-four years and father of five children abandoned his wife for a mother of two children who, in turn, abandoned her own husband. What this man left behind him was a family wrenched by confusion, despair, disbelief, rage, fear, and sheer hopelessness. Some of the younger children clung to their mother. Others, older, left the faith and show the repercussions of their father’s example in young adulthood.
As if betrayal and coerced divorce were not enough (a book could be written about the legal aspect of this nightmare: justice is elusive for families in “family courts”), this man impregnated his affair partner, and now lives in a home with her and their child (no annulment -yet) not far from the home he made with his wife, to whom he is still married.
He and his affair partner have opened up a new business in town. With the support of many, though not all, in the Catholic community (including a local Catholic school), predictions are that they will have great success.
But success for whom – and at what cost? Which friends and family of this man have shown him the true charity of compassionate confrontation – not once, but repeatedly, without compromise? Which man of strength and integrity put it all on the line with this Catholic husband and father during his transformation (not so unlike Jenner’s), providing the support and “positive pressure” needed to bring about the restoration of the marriage and family?
Likewise, which truly loving friend continues to challenge the affair partner to return to the teachings of her self-professed Catholic faith on marriage? In her current situation this would mean, as a first step, seeking forgiveness for the harm she has caused, and living in chastity.
True compassion in the context of averting, or helping to reverse, destructive behavior is rarely easy, but when pursued with patience and fortitude can profoundly impact the lives of those we love for the better. Our decision to intervene or to look away rests rather squarely, however, on our definition of authentic love. Is charity silent assent in the name of a false peace – a failed tactic of the past five decades that has caused measurable harm to countless Catholic spouses, children, and communities? Or is it a willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends?
There is yet another foundational virtue of our Catholic faith at stake in this discussion: hope. Like Jenner, in some respects it appears that the man who abandoned his marriage has already crossed over – fateful decisions have been made. The damage has been done.
But we Catholics are a hopeful people. We believe in the promise of repentance, restoration, and reconciliation (let these be the new buzz words at the 2015 Synod). It is never too late for the conversion of Bruce Jenner – the Bruce that God created and loves remains, no matter how hidden or broken.
And it is never too late for everyone who has abandoned a marriage to seek forgiveness, amend his or her life, and begin again. He makes all things new.