The Invisible Child

I have been thinking lately about marriage and annulments, and our Lord’s command that we should go forth to seek the one lost sheep that has wandered in the desert, far from the ninety-nine. I believe in that command with all my heart, because I’ve been that lost sheep.

But what happens if it is through our own negligence or disobedience that the sheep is lost? Does the hireling go after the one lost sheep, because that is easier than to shore up the pen-fold that he has allowed to fall into disrepair? Does he go a-singing through the countryside, while the wolf comes prowling? And when he returns with that one bleating and blockheaded sheep, does he bother to count the sheep remaining? Does he even notice the blood and the entrails smeared on the broken post?

There was a child who had a mother and a father. They had promised to love one another and be true to one another until death alone should part them. They were not feeble minded; they knew what the words of the promise meant. And the boy was happy.

Then came the Father of Nuances, whispering to the husband that words were words and not things, and that words were open to interpretation, and that a word uttered with complete confidence in one context need not mean the same thing when the context had changed. And changed it had: for the wife was older now, and the pretty womanish habits that once fascinated the husband were now constant pinpricks and pinches. So he began to cast his eye elsewhere, and his heart grew hard.

“Wife,” he said, “I am going to take my half of the estate, which belongs to me.” And she could do nothing about it, because of the lawlessness of the land where they lived. So he sold their home, even the home the boy loved, and took half of the estate, and traveled into a far country. But he did not travel alone. He brought another woman with him.

And the boy loved his father, because he was his father, and he hated him, because he had abandoned them. Nor could he find comfort from anyone. His teachers went so far as to tell him that he was fortunate, because now he would have two mothers instead of one, and two homes. Soon enough he had two fathers also, because his mother lost heart.

She went to a priest, and said, “See, my husband has left us bleeding in the ditch.” But the priest said he could do nothing for her, urged her to forgive her husband, and suggested that she join a group for single adults. She went to a scribe, expert in the law, and said, “See, my husband has broken our vow, and we are bleeding,” but the scribe smiled, and said that she should be satisfied with her settlement, which was generous enough.

“Divorce” by William Holbrook Beard, c. 1880
“Divorce” by William Holbrook Beard, c. 1880

That is why she lost heart. And one day when she and her son were in the Temple, gathered with others for prayer, they heard the words of the One who said, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

Then the priest said that words were words and not things, and that words were open to interpretation, and that a word uttered in one context need not mean the same thing when the context had changed. And changed it had: for the priest urged the people to open their minds and accept the fornicators in their midst, and the sodomites, and the adulterers. And the boy heard it, and he came to believe that the whole thing was a lie.

He was supposed to say that he enjoyed visiting his father and the woman who helped to ruin his boyhood, and that was a lie. He was supposed to say that he believed in the words of Jesus, but evidently nobody believed them, but instead they lied continually.           His mother took up with another man, not bothering to marry, because nobody believed that marriage and the marital act were connected, but instead they all lay in their sins as a matter of course, continually. He was supposed to love that other man, and he did, in a way, but he had also to pretend that it had all worked out for the best, which was also a lie.

When his body was ready for fornication, so was he. He grew practiced in the art of saying, with his body, “I am yours forever,” when “forever” meant “until I am weary of you,” which sometimes was soon enough, sometimes even in the act itself. But the girls were liars too, so one needn’t feel too sorry for them.

Then one day his father returned with his stepmother, and all the people were instructed to celebrate, because he had returned. He had not returned to his wife, and he did not seek to make up for his son’s sadness and abandonment and loss of faith. He did not say, “Treat me as one of your hired servants, because I have sinned against God and against you.”  He said, “Come and feast with me, because I have returned!”

And the fatted bishop said to the son, “It is right that you should feast with your father, because he has returned.”

So the boy went in to the feast and got drunk. He put out of his memory the many times he wept at night, because his father was gone. He put out of his memory that first terrible day when it occurred to him that no one ever told the truth. He put out of his imagination that Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me.”

He hung a millstone round his heart. He did not forgive, because everyone was telling him that there was nothing to forgive. So he got drunk.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • wordonfire1

    This is devastating! I pray it does not reflect your view of our church under Pope Francis. Certainly I get where you are coming from. I have felt the same way about my faith during dark times in my life, I cannot allow myself that luxury now because my children are young adults and I must pray for their salvation.

    • Rev. Fr. Donald

      It reflects the Church over the past several decades. Nowhere was Pope Francis mentioned. This situation existed from the time of Pope Paul VI until now. It is nothing new, the pot has been boiling for almost three generations now.

  • Tom Williams

    Your story captures the true and ugly side of divorce. I have gone through the process and the children from my first marriage are now in their 50’s and pretty messed up.
    I did go through a valid annulment process initiated by my spouse and the conclusion was the marriage was invalid.
    I eventually remarried and have a happy life today as the result of surrendering my life to God through practicing my catholic faith which I converted to as an adult. Jesus came alive in my life as the result of the divorce, He was the only one I could relate to in the pain of the divorce. I felt unjustly judged and and cried out “my God my God why hast thou forsaken me,” it was then that Jesus became real for me.
    I am now a senior with 3 adopted special needs children in their teens whom we fostered from infancy.
    I still feel sadness for my birth children who want nothing to do with me. I pray for them every day. They no longer practice the faith.
    That the Synod is now addressing the issue of divorce and remarriage outside the Church as being acceptable defies belief …such matters are not up for discussion regardless of who’s feeling may be hurt. This is insanity.

  • wordonfire1

    Please do not give into despair! I have been struggling for a long time myself, but is this a helpful response? Please read George Weigel’s column on National Review about the Pope’s visit. According to Austin Ruse the Pope also met with Kim Davis in Washington, D.C.! Remember that Francis is an old Fashioned Jesuit – he is not a progressive despite what the Main Streamers tell you. Trust in the Lord and His Holy Spirit!

    • Louise

      It is not despair to point out that there is a Big Problem which is NOT being addressed.

  • Robbie J

    Everything you’ve written is true. Sad, but true. And this (awful) process is repeated thousands upon thousands of times all across the globe. I simply cannot imagine the utter heartbreak of those whose parents have chosen to go their separate ways – since my own parents stayed faithful till the end. But I have seen its effects; and it’s nothing short of devastating. Why, oh why, can’t we recognize that divorce is one of the most insidious and cruel forms of child abuse? To willingly tear out the heart of a child and pretend it doesn’t matter is an act of absolute lunacy. Because this child will grow up believing that nothing really matters any more: not God, nor truth, nor beauty. We (moderns) constantly talk about ‘saving the earth’ or ‘saving the whales’ or some other platitude. Well, what about starting by saving our very own children first?

    • Sharon

      Robbie, this is it exactly. Exactly. I am divorced, and my children exhibit almost all of the consequences of divorce. Divorce truly is abusive to children. It is the death of their family. This focus on making annulments easier and faster is incredible to me. It says that we don’t want the *adults* to have to suffer from divorce. Really? Can no one, not even the Church, have compassion on the children?

  • givelifeachance2

    Brilliant. Do another one about Heather and her two mommies (and no daddies), joining the fold.

    Can annulment not be fast tracked for priests as well?

  • Manfred

    Thank you Tony. Your tale needs a little updating. Today, the young man would have two fathers and no mother as he is the product of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) in a sodomite “marriage” made legal in Obergefell v. Hodges. Some of us are familiar with the term “animal husbandry”. We are now in the world of human husbandry where people become mere commodities.. He lives in a society and a Church which are cursed. 800,000 Catholics have written to Pope Francis asking him to define marriage at the Synod on the Family which begins this Sunday and runs through October..
    It is reliably reported that the real point of this Synod is to legitimize same-sex unions (marriages?).
    Both Cardinals Burke and Mueller have warned of the real possibility of schism as a result of this
    We are living through a societal collapse caused by “diabolical disorientation” and there will be many casualties. This is the result of the West living as if God did not exist.

  • Ben

    I loved the story only on this but for me it was my wife who divorced me for no real reason except due to irreconcilable differences. I did not understand the reasons because she is a non-Catholic Japanese/Korean woman born in Seoul and I am a daily mass Catholic born in Pennsylvania and after being flown to DC for a position at XM radio it seemed my life was looking up with three sons raised Catholic and I received a better position and was flown to DC for a job at XM in 2001. My wife was getting weary (I don’t know why) and she took 50% of my 401k from XM in 2008 and parted with a civil divorce. She did not realize the Church does not recognize civil divorce but I did seek counseling however my wife never showed up so I did the next best thing..I sought out an annulment and received it knowing that I did not want to marry again. I am now divorced, annulled and without a position at XM for the first time in my life….At the age of 59 I am lost but I will return with something new but now I was diagnosed with MS. I guess it doesn’t matter because I am still happy with Christ in my life!! I love Christ!

    • StatusQrow

      You are being prayed for…

  • xabi kiano

    Engaging piece, Anthony, sad but true. Emblematic of the experiences many of my friends have lived though, past and present. One hopes those of us in sound sacramental marriages are sufficiently “equipped” to evangelize our culture, all while raising our families and performing in the workplace.

  • Isidore

    In a different narrative, the boy attended the TLM weekly and heard consistent orthodox sermons on marriage. Then, his father left anyway and applied for an annulment. The priest counseled that all must respect canon law. After the tribunal gave its decision, the bishop (now slimmed down to fit into his new embroidered silk vestments) told the boy, “your father received a valid annulment, so his marriage to your mother really didn’t exist. Don’t worry, though, you are not illegitimate and you can even celebrate at his ‘real’ new marriage with a clean conscience.” The boy attended the reception with mixed emotions. He didn’t get drunk. He did skip Mass the next morning, though.

    • WSquared

      He did skip Mass the next morning, though.

      …and then he got drunk. And high, too.

      We have a culture where we all may as well be drunk and high– alcohol and drugs needn’t enter into it.

    • TCA

      The boy is wrong to skip Mass. I’m a Catholic because I believe Catholicism is true, not because I think priests are good men.

      • Louise

        He was wrong to miss Mass, obviously. The marriage may indeed have been null (though I DOUBT it). But where is the empathy for the poor boy? People are heartless towards the children of divorce. They need so much love and healing. Would it HURT to say “I’m so sorry that happened to your family”?

  • ThirstforTruth

    This could be the story of my family! All this happened over 50 years ago but I still weep and
    wonder about that the Pope’s answer to this problem seems to be in making annulments easier and faster to obtain. My question is why not why there are so many, many annulments but rather why are there so many, many invalid marriages. No one else seems to be asking that question so I will probably never find the answer to the question that still breaks my heart.

    • Sheila

      You are so right! I am still waiting for my pastor or deacon to give a good homily on the pain and suffering of abortion and how it affects EVERYONE. And on sin. We teachers of faith formation do so with our high school students, but their parents are not hearing the message. I can only assume that is why the families do not always come to Mass on Sundays and the children are not in class. So sad..

  • mamagiglio

    This is how it is for so many of us whose parents divorced. Unfortunately even now, as a nearly 40 year old woman whose parents have been separated for more than 30 years, I cannot share it on social media where my parents are. It would wound them too much. They’re still in denial about how their divorce hurt me and my brothers.

    • present

      Sometimes the “truth” hurts, but also “sets you free”. You may be giving them the opportunity of “the light” and to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. It is never too late.

    • Louise

      Pray for the restoration of their marriage! I am doing that for my parents. God bless!

  • The Truth Will Set You Free


    • StatusQrow


      “The Truth will set you free—-but only after it’s finished with you.”

  • luceroct

    This is the harsh reality

  • CadaveraVeroInnumero

    Tears, tears, tears, Mr. Esolen.

  • StatusQrow

    “the fatted bishop…” Perfect.

    Does he become the next Pope?

    Along with “Who Stands Up For these Marginalized?” with which it seems intended to dovetail—absolutely brilliant writing!

    With a few more essays like them, maybe a book is in the making: “Hook, Line and Millstone”?

  • There are those that are still fighting for marriages. If you would like to “rediscover your marriage”check out Retrouvaille.

  • Kathy

    Thank you so much, Anthony, for this brilliant piece. Many of us in our society today are so concerned about our own wants and needs that our children do seem invisible. We are many times oblivious to the effects of a destroyed marriage on their hearts and minds. I know that there are times when divorce is the only option as some of my fellow readers have described. But I also believe that there are many times that marriage needs to be repaired and not destroyed. I am reminded of two things when reading your article: the first and most important is a quote from Dietrich Bonhoefer in a letter he wrote to a family member on her wedding day “Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love, you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at the post of responsibility toward the world and mankind. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but the marriage that sustains your love.” Marriage is not just a fluffy ceremony, but is a covenant and God holds us together through the good and the not so good. The second thing I am reminded of is a plaque that I saw in a catalog recently that read: “In marriage we should not so much seek the right person as we should seek to BE the right person.”

    • ThirstforTruth

      Are you able to give the reference for the Bonhoefer quote? Thanks and God bless!

      • Kathy

        Just google Dietrich Bonhoefer and scroll down to Letters and Papers from Prison. Thanks and God bless you too!

    • Thomas J. Hennigan

      Bonhoefer, being a Lutheran, didn’t have the notion of marriage as a sacrament, nor for this reason I would suspect that he could not grasp the full meaning of what St. Paul has to say about this sacrament in Ephesians 5,22’32.

  • WSquared

    Wow. Poignant in the way that we need: thanks for reminding us that there are no innocents, and there are no private sins.

    Again: wow.

  • davidocmiller

    This is the story of my family as well. Looking back years later, I realized that after it happened – after my home was broken – I decided, not that everyone lied, but that any promise can be broken. I suppose it amounts to the same thing. So I loved everyone, but I never depended on anybody’s promises.

    On Good Friday two years ago, it came to me that our Father does not break His promises: a major event in my ongoing conversion.

    Actually my parents broke up because my father wouldn’t allow my mother to raise the children in the faith; according to both of them there was no infidelity. Still awful though.

  • Bai_Macfarlane

    Dear Anthony,

    Your words are horrid and perfect. There is a way an abandoned mother can petitioned the bishop to stop a break-up early on, by invoking canon law. Mary’s Advocates just published a 3-fold flyer that anyone can download.

    “The Petition to Bishop to Pursue Reconciliation, Separation, Penal Process, Denial of Holy Communion” shows any abandoned spouse how to officially ask the Church to intervene to facilitate reconciliation.

    -*- Ask bishop to use pastoral means and conciliation to keep the family together (c. 1695)

    -*- Ask for Church mediation (c. 1446 §2)

    -*- If other refuses to reconcile, get ecclesiastical decree of separation based on ground of malicious abandonment

    -*- Ask for decree to initiate the process to declare a penalty

    -*- Ask that sacrilege and scandal be stopped by denying Holy Communion to a party who forced divorce with no morally legitimate reason, which is immoral and a grave offense against nature

    -*- Ask bishop to instruct abandoner about the parameters of a separation plan that would be in accord with divine law.

    • Sharon

      I cannot stand to read anything from Catholicity because of your story, Bai. If your divorce is a scandal to me, I can’t imagine the scandal it is to your children. It makes everything at that website so hollow. Actually, I can imagine the scandal it is to your children, because my children are suffering the same thing. It is awful to witness.

    • MotherGinger

      You have been in my prayers for many years, Bai, although you have never met me. I completely abandoned my support for Catholicity after you were abandoned and betrayed, and after my queries regarding the situation were completely rebuffed. I pray for you and your children still.

  • Monica Jane Harris

    A common story of betrayal, on so many levels. But, God will never abandon us, this He has promised.

  • Rick

    Your hammer just hit the nail square on the head. Excellent!

    Many initiators of a divorce think if they wait for the children to become adults (usually after high school) the effect will be minimal, after all, people get divorced all the time…kids are resilient…right?

  • Tom Frederick

    Divorce is when you lay down your cross and your children pick it up.

    • Beth

      I would say that you lay it down directly on the backs of your children. No child I know would willingly pick up that cross.

      • StatusQrow

        Sounds like a double-cross.

    • Louise


  • Bro_Ed

    You may be right in the segment of annulments you describe, but – not all annulments are for such reasons. There may be cruelty involved, an addiction, desertion, etc. Don’t use too broad a brush.

    • Sheila

      Thank you!

    • Louise

      Cruelty is not a reason for an annulment. Neither are desertion or “addiction.”

      • Biff Spiff

        But they can certainly be signs that the purported marriage was never a sacramental one.

        • Louise

          No, I think not, in most cases.

        • Louise

          And let’s see if we can keep our focus on the children, rather than the adults.

  • BXVI

    This is so great. Thank you. I wish I could send my daughter (who wants to be an English major and could use some good instruction in Western Civilization) to Providence to learn from you but, alas, it is too expensive and on the other side of the country.

  • wbkrebs

    I thank you Mr. Esolen for a well-written piece. However, I do have one question.

    In the United States, at least 7 out of 10 divorces are initiated by the wife. This statistic has been relatively stable for at least half a century. The case you describe in your fable is somewhat atypical.

    How would your fable proceed if you started it from the premise that the wife had asked her husband to move out?

    • Tony

      Yes, I know. It’s worse and worse. But these days we still have to pretend that the sexual revolution has “benefited” men. It has benefited irresponsible men and ambitious women. It has hurt good women, and it has undoubtedly hurt good men even more.

      • TheWhiteLilyBlog


    • rivers

      Well, why don’t you substitute father for mother and mother for father in the story; I think you would have your answer.

    • lra

      That’s funny you think that way. In my Faithful Spouses support group, it’s 99% women and all the men who left had affairs….

      • ExJ

        Men aren’t known for joining support groups.

    • JohnCalla

      I must confess that I stopped reading the article for that very reason. It’s like nobody in the West wants to acknowledge the reality of the imbalance of the legal system, re: divorce, marriage, etc., because it is politically incorrect to do so.

    • Paul

      Being a man myself, I’m certainly no male basher. However, though the stat you cite is correct, I don’t think it tells the whole story. Based on other statistics I’ve seen (I can dig them up if you want) men are twice as likely to have extramarital affairs as women. Indeed, stories on the recent hack of Ashley Madison show that the vast majority of real users of the site were men. I also believe it’s true (though I haven’t seen the stats) that men are more likely than women to be perpetrators of domestic violence. Men do tend to be more violent than women – see homicide statistics, etc. So it may be true that even though women file for divorce more often, men are more likely to commit grave crimes against the marital union which may necessitate such filings.

    • Kaitlan

      It would have been the same, because it’s a fable, so it’s something told to make a point. If the wife left, the son staying with the husband who eventually moved on and didn’t even bother to get married do you think his outcome would have been improved? I don’t think so.
      No matter what parent is missing, if the remaining one doesn’t live the truth of marriage even in their absence, all the child sees is everyone lying to themselves all the time. Doesn’t matter who. They lose faith in everything and everybody. But it’s much easier to miss the point and cry sexism than to show empathy for the real victim: the son.

  • Tony

    With one of the most terrible lines of finality in all of literature:

    And never lifted up a single stone.

  • Jim L

    Excellent article! There is a tyrannical myth being pushed with vigor that children of divorce will bounce back and be better than ever. It is one of the chief lies that divorcing adults tell themselves (and anyone who will listen). The therapists affirm the lie and tell kids how exciting the new beginnings will be. The children are charged with sucking it up and making it work for the benefit of the deserting parents. The children are required to remember whose house to be at on Wednesday evening and what weekend is shadowed by which home. And make sure you have all your supplies in the right place at the right time. The children are called to organize the disorganized debris left by their parents. All, usually, in the service of their parent’s need for the hedonistic pursuit of their own pleasures. This is what contraception has ushered in.

    • Tony

      Yes indeed. Children are required to be parents so that parents can be children.

    • Robbie J

      +1 Jim L. I agree completely. This is precisely how we abuse our children albeit within the ambit of the law. And the (widespread) use of contraception has definitely played a part in all this madness.

  • Novice

    My parents had a miserable marriage( in my opinion). As a teen and young adult I wished they would separate or divorce but they did not. They stayed together for 45 years until my father died. When he became ill I remember him saying to me ” I’m worried about what will happen to your mother”. I was surprised because I didn’t think he cared enough about her to worry about her. At his deathbed, for the first time in my life, I saw her hold his hand and heard her say ” I love you”. I was shocked and amazed! I thought she despised him. I myself am happily married to a man whose parents divorced when he was a teen. He never discusses their marriage or the divorce. I suppose it’s too painful for him despite the fact that it occurred over 40 years ago. My parents’ rocky marriage has definitely left me with some scars and emotional wounds. However, I myself can at least talk and even laugh about memories of my parents’ ‘bad’marriage. My husband seems so scarred by his parents’ divorce and his broken family that he cannot even talk about it. I’m so grateful that my parents stuck it out until death made them stop fighting.:)

    • Tony

      Thank you, thank you a thousand times for this witness. My wife’s parents too had an extremely difficult marriage. I won’t get into the details. They stuck it out, for her sake. Their considerable reward on this side of the grave was to be together to be a part of our marriage, and to be together for the grandchildren. Courage does not always come before the barrel of a gun.

    • MSDOTT

      Very similar to my parents’ marriage – it was a difficult one, yet a very Catholic one. As my father lay dying ( after 41 years of marriage), my mother was holding his hand, and praying visibly and vocally, to Our Lord to have mercy on his soul.

      • Louise

        This. Is. The Faith!

    • VSimmons

      I, too, appreciate your witness. My parents were married 27 years–he Catholic, she Protestant– agreeing that we 7 children would be brought up Catholic which we were. I always thought my parents were crazy in love until 28 years later he ran off with another woman. My parents were unevenly yoked and it made it difficult to have a harmonious marriage even though I know my mom tried. The divorce split our family up. We have never been the same . He is dead now and we are still feeling the repercussions of that. Even our children feel it. I remember when they told me, I was 19, living at home with one younger sibling and we felt as if the world had cracked in two. I cried for days and never got over it. My life was pre divorce and post divorce. He came back begging my mother to take him back but he was remarried. She told him she did not date married men. I don’t blame her. She was unbelievably wounded. Divorce is too easy, too common, too convenient. I am married and we have had some terrible times, but I made a covenant not only with my husband but with God. I pray daily for the courage to keep it.

    • Sheila

      My parents had a wonderful and catholic marriage. My father was so good to my mother, he treated her like a queen. She was so sweet and kind to everyone, without words. She was quiet and happy. So this is what I went into marriage thinking it was. I was young and naïve and made a bad choice. But for me marriage was not like my parent’s at all, the way I thought it should be, it became violent. Think about this. As a child, what would have done if you saw your father hit your mother? What would you have done if you came home from school and saw your mother’s bloody face and you knew it was caused by your father? Would you not want your mother to be safe? My children were terribly hurt by their father’s violence to me. I had counselling from a priest during the later years of my marriage – my spouse would not. After 20 years of a life-threatening marriage – I left. And forgave. And annulled and stayed single. My annulment was legitimate, not because of the violence (very sad to say), but because my husband lied during our marriage vows which resulted in the failing of the marriage even in the first couple of years. We surely did not have a legitimate catholic marriage. My husband almost killed me several times, yet that would not have been enough to get an annulment. There is something terribly wrong with this and there needs to be some kind of change for abused spouses. That is my ONLY concern with annulments. A quickie annulment is not the answer. The annulment process actually helped bring closure and healing to me and my children. I love and follow the Church with all my heart, but unless a person has lived this nightmare, one has no clue and actually no right to point fingers at those who are divorced who are following Church teachings, no matter what. You just don’t know.

      • MSDOTT

        Sheila, your comment really touched my heart – in many ways. To my knowledge – and I am a Cradle Catholic – the Church has never advocated that one stay in danger – such as the danger you were in. Mother Church sees separation as necessary in those cases. I’m so very sorry that your children had to see physical violence toward their mother. It does do damage to them- though it may not be physical damage. I hope you pray for their healing, even if your children are now adults. Our Lord is Lord over the dimension of time, and he can heal your children and you too, even if the hurts occurred long ago.

        Now for divorce. Let’s say you married a wonderful, wonderful man. He treated you the way your father treated your mother. But unfortunately, something happened. Let’s say his brain was damaged in an accident, and as a result, he turned violent – something he couldn’t help, but still the violence was real, due to the brain damage. I think (though I am no theologian), Mother Church would still want you and your children to be out of danger – a separation would be warranted. However, would you say a divorce was warranted here? A separation for sure..and maybe even a civil divorce- if that were the means to safeguard you and your children. (Remarriage after a divorce, however, would be a problem). I don’t honestly think that any of the commenters here are pointing fingers in a situation such as yours.

        The Church (as revealed by God) teaches that God intended marriage to be indissoluble. (Divine Law) The Church automatically assumes a marriage is valid. Now, I’m going to literally quote Cardinal Burke from his essay in the book “Remaining in the Truth of Christ” regarding a declaration of nullity.
        “Apart from the situation of a party who was simply not free to marry, or who was patently incapable of consenting to marriage, most petitions of declaration of nullity of marriage involve complex acts of the intellect and will, which must be studied with requisite objectivity lest a true marriage be falsely declared null. While it is true that the judicial process for the declaration of nullity of marriage is not itself of divine law, it is also true that it has developed in response to divine law, which demands an effective and appropriate means of arriving at a just judgment regarding a claim of nullity. ….the development of the process…should be of study in light of the continuous effort of the Church to teach the truth of holy matrimony and to safeguard that same truth by means of her canonical discipline”.
        So, given the above context, you may be able to see why your marriage was annulled because of your husband’s lie, and not because of his violence.(By the way, I found it interesting when I first read this essay, that ‘feelings of love’ were not mentioned and certainly not at the forefront – only intellect and will). I think that it’s so important to understand the nature of marriage as God intended, – and why marriage should be undertaken with all seriousness by both partners. It is indeed until death do us part.
        God bless you.

        • Sheila

          Yes I am aware of the main reason for my annulment – my husband lied during our marriage vows which makes the vows void. That lie caused and led to a lot of pain and suffering throughout the years of the marriage. I have always felt that the priest did not really speak hard Truths to us during our marriage preparation classes. We both needed that. His family did not go to church and mine did. Just as priests need to speak hard Truths to their congregations so they can teach their families and avoid mortally wounding their souls. That doesn’t seem to be the case today. I know Truth is hard to hear when we are caught up in “love” (during pre marital counselling) or during active family life (day in and day out working and living) but it still needs to be spoken and lived. Before a couple gets to the altar, the Truth needs to have been passed on within each of their families. The home church. Fathers and mothers are responsible to teach (by living out and speaking) Truths to each other and to their children. And by praying together. What a difference that would make. Pray for Families.

  • Tarzan

    Catholic sexual morality seems pretty wise to me in the face of the evidence. It seems consistent with real love.

    • Louise

      So it is.

  • C.Caruana

    We are living through a gigantic and diabolical parody of God’s Fatherhood and his Mercy that is deceiving many and leading to a heart breaking loss of souls. What makes this epochal deception even more tragic is that it has deeply infiltrated a considerable part of the Church hierarchy, all the way up.

  • lwhite

    No one dare bring up the correlation to the outrageous number of annulments to the rewriting of and thus, rejection of the perennial Church teachings on marriage at the Second Vatican Council.

    Prior to Vatican II, the Church taught that, as Sacred Scripture teaches, that marriage is a hierarchical structure. St. Paul explicitly taught that the partners in marriage should be subject to one another, in the fear of Christ. He further taught ‘Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is head of the Church…as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let wives be to their husbands in all things.”

    This principle is repeated in innumerable places in both the Old and New Testaments; it is concurred by St. Peter who says “in like manner also let wives be subject to their husbands.” (1 Pet. 3:1).

    Until Vatican II, this principle had been repeatedly confirmed by all of the popes.

    The Church considered the submission of women to man as a fundamental law of the family, established and fixed by God.

    Vatican II rejected this principle. In its document “Gaudium et Spes”, “just as of old God encountered his people with a covenant of love and fidelity, so our savior, the spouse of the Church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of Marriage. He abides with them in order that by their mutual self-giving, spouses will love each other with enduring fidelity, as he loved the Church and delivered himself for it.”

    Here, the teaching of Christ has been decisively abridged. Only what is agreeable has been taken from it, namely “love”. The subordination of women and, correlatively, that of the Church to her Head, is simply disregarded. Now, the husband and wife are seen merely as partners, and the “allotment of roles between husband and wife, which was strongly patriarchal in character, has been corrected” (statement from the Synod of Wurzburg).

    The rejection of the teaching of Sacred Scripture and of the Church prior to Vatican II was reinforced by John Paul II. In his Apostolic Lettter “Familiaris Consortio” issued in 1981, he teaches that it is “love” that creates “equality”. He teaches that “above all it is important to underline the equal dignity and responsibility of women and men…in creating the human race ‘male and female’, God gives man and woman an equal personal dignity, endowing them with the inalienable rights and responsibilities proper to the human person.” This excludes the man from being the head of the family and clearly codifies the radical feminist’s hatred of a patriarchal form of marriage. He is claiming that the dignity of man as created in the image and likeness of God makes men and women equal in all things, particularly marriage-which directly contradicts the perennial teaching of the Church on marriage.

    Worse, John Paul II goes further and claims that St. Paul’s teachings only applied to the thinking and customs at the time of his writing. In a statement published in “L’ Osservatiore Romano”,(German addition, 8/27/82) he states: “the author (Paul) does not hesitate to accept those ideas which were proper to the contemporary mentality and to its forms of expression…Our sentiments are certainly different today, different also are our mentality and customs, and finally, different is a woman’s social position vis-à-vis a man.” This is a purely Modernist (heretical) idea where
    the truth can be true at one point in history but false in the future. This heresy is rampant throughout the documents of Vatican II and the writings of all those after it.

    Further, the teaching of the Church prior to Vatican II, was “the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of offspring, while its secondary purposes are mutual help and as a remedy for concupiscence. The latter are entirely subordinate to the former.” (This is a de fide teaching, or one all Catholics must believe.)

    However, Vatican II rejected this de fide teaching by placing the primary end of marriage (procreation and education) on the same level as its secondary purposes (mutual help and as a remedy of concupiscence) and further, lists the secondary purposes prior to the primary purpose.

    This placing of the ends of marriage as equal has led to the divorces, the annulments, and the breakup of untold numbers of families because the couple is erroneously taught that the man and woman are on equal footing and if their “love” subsides, that is reason enough to end the marriage.

    • Philosophizer4Life

      We must also remember that, in the west, no fault divorces swept through.. VatII didn’t permit such, though the culture did influence greatly such abuses. There were (& are) areas in which annulments are not easily granted, after VatII.. Culture does affect or shepherds, & we, their flock, must always remember to pray for, & offer up sacrifices & the Mass for, our Shepherds.

    • cynic728

      No, the failure of the church and families to keep the faith and to teach it to the next generation is the cause for so many divorces. That and the secularism that has crept into Catholic homes and our church. Study the bible and see what the result was when only one generation did not do their job in passing on the faith. It was lost many times over in only one generation and the result was disastrous.

      • lwhite

        I believe my post points out “the failure of the church” to keep the faith which in turn, destroys the faith of the people.
        I believe the “reform” of the Sacrament of Marriage (Vatican II), deleted the reference from St. Paul in Scripture which teaches the hierarchical structure of marriage, which completely destroys one of the most important teachings of the Church and thus, the couple is taught by the Church, that “love” is the primary purpose of marriage. Thus, it is the Church itself that is responsible for the destruction of marriage and the family.

  • Nancy Janzen

    I wish I had the bad marriages some of you grew up in. My father decided he wasn’t ready for the responsibility of fatherhood. He walked out on his fiance after getting her pregnant and denied I was his child. In the late forties no DNA and a man with O negative blood it couldn’t be proved. I only saw him once and didn’t know it until the next day when I asked my grandmother about my father and she said he was the man on the elevator next to you yesterday. I hadn’t really looked at him. A child in those circumstances thinks they weren’t worthy that there was something wrong with them. Sister Raphael was my salvation from that feeling of invisibility.

    • Louise

      God bless you, Nancy.

    • TheWhiteLilyBlog

      I had a similar experience. My father was killed in WWII before I was born, and my mother took up with other men. I longed to know about my father, but there wasn’t even a picture. My aunt and grandmother often chatted about family members and friends, including a person named ‘Blackie’ but it wasn’t until I was an adult that someone mentioned that was the nickname of my father. I had not listened to those kitchen table conversations, not knowing they were discussing him. Similar to your standing next to him in the elevator and not looking, not knowing. How thoughtless people can be. Or they simply to not understand the whole universe of longing deep inside a fatherless or motherless child. Like you, my teachers in grade and high school, Notre Dame and Sisters of the Most Precious Blood, saved my life. I cannot bear now to hear nuns berated for being too strict, or too something. They were wonderful to me, and it cannot have been easy, as I must have come to school in soiled clothing very often, and a friend mentioned to me as an adult that the feature she remembers best of me is that my teeth were green.

  • On the day my son got married my future daughter-in-law asked me if I had any advice and I said “stay married.” I still believe that is what is best for any couple and that’s what God desires. But life happens and just as we are weak and we fail and are sinners marriage will also fail. I sense from Anthony’s article and many of the comments there is a desire to blame somebody for what happens to us. Certainly as children we are not to blame for the failings of our parents. But as adults do we really want to go on blaming our parents or the church or our priests or society? We are all capable of recovering and forgiving and God will guide us and comfort us. It’s not healthy to live in the past and to harbor resentments but we are called to live a life of love and compassion for those who have hurt us.
    I think it is imperative that those who have lived a long and happy married life share their stories with children and grandchildren and maybe even be granted to speak in their parishes so that people contemplating marriage will be filled with hope.

    • StatusQrow

      Agree and disagree. I agree that there is a desire—I believe a legitimate desire—to blame someone. Yet reading the comments on this page I find no venal desire to blame individuals. I sense an inchoate, unarticulated accusation leveled at the culture.

      Life doesn’t just happen in a void; we’re weak, we fail and marriages fail in good part as a result of the general and tacitly understood ethos—“the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community”—subliminally transmitted by a culture. When our culture has such low expectations of its members, it’s all too easy to live down to those expectations.

      As I read Anthony Esolen’s meditations, I sense he is largely lamenting the fact that, in large part, the Church has chosen to be guided by the Zeitgeist, rather than to guide it. In that, there is much to blame and much to mourn.

    • Philosophizer4Life

      Marriage is forever. This is from Jesus. Thus, if we claim to follow & believe in Christ, & all He taught & commanded, yet, give up on a valid marriage because it is hard, or he/ she annoys me, doesn’t treat me like I should be treated (barring physical abuse, which is one possibility for a non-valid marriage)… Well, there seems to be a lot of me’s & I’s these days, & very little you’s & us. We have become very self-centered, not sacrificing. Christ showed us Love, perfectly. Taught us what Love is. His Love wasn’t based on what we will do first, or if we deserve it. His Love was the definition of Love. I will sacrifice all for you. I will be humiliated, beat, ridiculed, spat on & mocked, I will forgive you always, if you ask, I will always wait for you, & never give up till your last breath, & even if you reject me, My love for you will still be. I will Die for you, will you for Me.?.

      God humbled Himself greater than any of us ever could, and became Man. Yet, pride & ego so often destroy marriages. Placing conditions upon our spouse- you show me you love me like I feel I deserve, rather than being accountable for ones own actions, & showing love even when we feel little love from our spouse.

      We don’t fight for our marriage, we give up. Pride, ego, inability to forgive, holding on to something the other may not even recall. Demanding, rather than giving..

    • Maggie

      Marriage can be a cross and it is also a road to sanctification. I know, I live it.

  • Louise

    Well said!

    This is what is wrong with the divorce culture and the slack attitude of Catholics towards it and annulments. Annulments are too easily granted. They are a severe sentence, declaring that a putative marriage was only concubinage.

    The Institution of marriage is for the children, above all. Even naturally infertile couples, who are married need to remain strong in their marriage, for the sake of their immortal souls and for the sake of the institution of marriage and for the sake of the Sacrament of holy Matrimony.

    Get It Right, Catholics!

  • Louise


  • hopeful

    I cried after reading this. I am a female but I understand the boy completely. My parents divorced when I was nine. They argued frequently. Mainly because my dad was angry, I think, at his rejection by my mom. She found fault with everything he did and said. He was treated as a complete bumbling idiot. To the point that my brother and I didn’t see him as a father at all. At this point in my life I see what a terrible person my mother was then. She decided she wanted to work outside the home and basically get away from me and my brother in my opinion. She would leave me and my brother overnight with aunts and my grandparents sometimes while she worked a double shift or was God knows where. While at our grandparents I was molested by my mother’s younger brother. One night while my brother had a sleepover at a cousin’s, my mother told me she was going outside to talk to a neighbor and that I was to stay in my room with the door locked. I didn’t of course and instead went to the front and back door looking for her. I remember saying “Mom, where are you “. She never answered of course and I went back to my room and cried myself to sleep. I realized that she must have went somewhere with her boyfriend that she committed adultery with while married to my dad. That’s why she told me to lock myself in my room. A nine year old. Don’t get me wrong my dad was no saint. He had left my mom early in their marriage and came back. Of course she never loved him anyway. She has said so. I learned that I could trust no one. I existed. I wasn’t alive. I knew that no one cared about me. I even believed that God didn’t. I still have great difficulty believing that God cares for me specifically.

    Thank you Mr.Esolen for expressing the devastation when married people are selfish.

  • DallasBeaufort

    My father has never left me nor I he after his passing.

  • Micha Elyi

    More knee-jerk Catholic unchristian blame-the-man unreality.
    Sigh. Obstacle, get behind me!

    • Maggie

      In my experience with family and close friends, it is almost always the man who had the affair during the marriage and then left the wife and children for the new ‘lust’.

      • Lynne

        Many times, in my circle of acquaintances, it was the woman who suddenly woke up one morning and realized that she wasn’t “in love” with her husband anymore.

    • Tony

      Micha — I know that in the US and Canada, 70 percent or more of divorces are initiated by the women, and most of the time for causes having nothing to do with infidelity or abuse. I cast my characters as I did because I was thinking about two women in my personal acquaintance who fit this situation. The son of one of those women is dead.
      I think I’ve done as much as anyone out there to defend men and boys against feminist slander and neglect and malice.

    • Kaitlan

      Who cares whose fault it is? We could point fingers all day long: sometimes wives leave, sometimes husbands. Does it matter? If the husband leaves, it is okay? The wife? No, it’s not okay. It’s wrong. It hurts the abandoned spouse, it hurts the children. It hurts society. It hurts our Lord. Why are you shooting the messenger here?

  • Laura

    This is one of the saddest fables you have ever written, Tony. My heart hurts for that boy. I pray the synod fathers listen to the Holy Spirit and re-affirm marriage as God intended. The Church must stand in the breach to defend the children who society insists need not a married father and a mother.

    • MotherGinger

      This fable could easily be written by a boy who was never allowed to have knowledge of a father at all because his “two mothers” were “enough.” In fact, such a boy just testifed before our Supreme Court, and they cared not.

  • thetimman


  • Darielle Pasquito

    I am a huge fan of Anthony Esolen and this piece really spoke to me. I consider myself a devout Catholic with very conservative and orthodox principals. I share the concerns that many find divorce all too easy. However, I did not always feel this way because I did not “know”. As a former Protestant who had an abortion at 17 years, which led to an undesired marriage at 21 years and the next 9 years of agony, which included an eating disorder, admission of sexual abuse after many silent years of shame and silence, a divorce, remarriage, and yet another divorce, I question how easy it really is to get an annulment? Do not mistake my words. I am concerned about the future of the annulment process – it should not be “easy”. Completing the paperwork after RCIA and studying what a sacrament really meant was the best thing I ever did in my spiritual walk and I am not exaggerating. But my marriage is still not annulled and this has been a 2 year process. I am re-married to a cradle Catholic, have two children who we are raising Catholic that we send to a classical Catholic school because the Diocesan schools were not “Catholic enough”. My Catholic faith is central to my home, my marriage, and my children. Yet, I cannot participate in the Eucharist and I cannot go to Confession. The only thing Monsignor (who will ultimately decide my case) has asked me was if my ex-husband and I discussed sharing in the household chores. For the 45 minutes that we met, I spent 30 minutes watching him type. As you can see from above, I thought there were many other things we might have discussed. I think my point is that I unfortunately, am a common example of this empty secular culture that we have created. We (I guess “you” is more appropriate since I am not considered fully Catholic) are rightly concerned about the divorce culture. However, we, including laity and the Church, should have been more concerned about marriage a long time ago and we might not be in this divorce culture today. Today, many cradle Catholics and Protestants suffer from the pain of a failed marriage and divorce. Are we really building the Church and families by refusing them the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the beauty of Confession because they failed and were failed by their parents and the Church to truly understand the Sacrament of Marriage? I hope that as we defend the integrity of canon law, that we do not forget the importance of pastoral and spiritual considerations.

    • Joyfully

      Dear Sister, consider your witness to the Glory and Truth of who is in the Blessed Sacrament. Your children and those who are familiar with the reasons that you do not receive Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament are gaining profound understanding by your holy restraint. Remember this and speak it allowed, “I cannot receive now, but I can look forward to being with you and Him fully at the Banquet Feast in heaven.”

      Christ knows your suffering he was thirsting up to the very end himself. He accepts your suffering and is allowing it to help you grow in understanding of him and how to love here and now: you are sacrificing receiving now so that your children will understand the profound gift of Eucharist but you will be fully rewarded in Heaven. Thank you for your witness and God Bless you.

    • MotherGinger

      It is not about defending the integrity of canon law. It is about defending Who is the Eucharist. It is Christ Himself, and He Himself told us we cannot receive Him while in the state of mortal sin. If you were truly married before, tragically, you are not truly married now and are living in adultery. It sounds as though it is very unlikely you were truly married before, and so it is very possible you are free to marry this man with whom you now live – but the Church must first find out which is the case. I am praying that God enlightens those in charge of your case and that they will do the compassionate and just thing and finish your case STAT – because, as the Holy Father is telling us, it’s wrong to drag it out unnecessarily.

      God bless you, strengthen you, comfort you, and bring peace to your soul today and always.

  • Maggie

    The children do not seem to enter into the equation as things are bandied about. Indeed many fattened and comfortable prelates are all about changing ‘practice’ but, oh, leave the words alone for in the end they mean nothing. Leave people comfortable in their sins too. After all, can’t we have a reasonable hope that not only that no one goes to hell but there is not hell. How could a loving God who loves us just as we are send any of us to hell? Didn’t Jesus pay the price for all of us? I guess there is no such thing as an offense against God.
    How many older people–already–have few or no grandchildren? Because marriage has been a joke in society and ever more so in the Church, or so it would seem. Oh, yeah, marriage is ‘indissoluble’ except when it was ‘invalid’ from the beginning and it could be that most were anyway. And we should not ‘breed like rabbits’ when three is a good number…so said the big shepherd.

  • Biff Spiff

    Tony, your piece is touching and speaks to the reasons why we must tread lightly with annulments. My own situation is very different. To my ex-wife, “forever” meant about thirteen months. She left the first time after just a few weeks, and for good after 13 months, to pursue adultery. Since then, she’s been “married” and divorced four times. For my own part, after receiving nothing in the way of good counsel, I left the Church for almost 20 years. During that time, I married a wonderful Protestant lady whose church had no problem “forgiving” me the divorce and marrying us. We have three kids now. After many years of Bible study, and even being “ordained” in her church, I came to the inescapable conclusion that there is but one true Church. I have attended Mass for over a year now, and out of respect for the Body of our Lord, I do not approach for communion. But I am seeking an annulment because I truly believe that my only real marriage has been to the mother of my children, and I would love for the Church to recognize this and bless our union. I also long to receive our Lord in the Eucharist. Perhaps I will one day be able to lead my family into the Church.

    • Skyler von Enn

      Praying for you. My mother had a difficult time having her married state normalized, and I recognized some of her suffering. I pray God brings your situation to a swift conclusion.

  • teomatteo

    Is it my poor level of observation but are most of these mass shooters young men with no fathers?

  • Steve

    That is sad.

  • Seamrog


  • Michael John Peele


    This is a great piece and well-written. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that while often both parties are at fault in a divorce, 80% of all divorces are filed by women. 80%. As men, we feel like we need to write stories like the one you wrote, where it is the father/husband who leaves and takes up with another woman and takes half of the family fortune, when in reality, in 4 out of 5 cases, it is the woman who is “unhappy” with the marriage and leaves, and when she goes, she takes the children AND more than half of the money, in the form of both alimony AND child support.

    As Catholics, we must stand up and say that divorce is wrong. But as Catholics we must also acknowledge the reality that most of those who file for divorce are women, and recognize that modern society aids and abets this through the current state of no-fault divorce and family law which grants custody of the children to the mother over 90% of the time, even though they are the ones who broke up the marriage in 4 out of every 5 cases. No winners in this story, but it’s important for readers to understand the truth of what we as a Church are up against.


    • Rocky Torres

      No one wins without reaching at least the 3rd level of intimacy in a relationship – sharing feelings for positive change or stay.

    • GinaRD

      With all due respect, you guys who go spreading these “statistics” around the Internet really ought to get your story straight. Just a couple weeks ago, one of you informed me in a comment section of my own that it was 70 percent,

    • cynic728

      Actually, MJP, most accounts that I have read do state that the woman files for the divorce, but only when she has reached the end of her rope in attempting to salvage the marriage. This comes after she receives no or feigned cooperation from her partner who will not do his part in staying faithful, abstaining from alcohol/drugs/gambling/porn, refraining from verbal abuse (and sometimes physical abuse), participating in therapy as a couple and individually, etc. While life may become more difficult in many ways and sadder too, the peace and calm re-established in the home makes it more bearable.

  • Mary Ann Armstrong

    This article made me, a fairly hardened adult, cry. I am the child of a father who left the family, and over the years, I have seen many families going through similar situations. I have never seen anyone describe the point of view of the Catholic child so well. AE gets it bang on and you do grow up knowing everyone lies and no one believes the words they say. The world functions to tell you everything is good and nothing really bad is happening because nothing is that serious anyway and no one really means what they say. And now the Church, to my immense sorrow and anger, seems set to join the Big Lie.

  • Thank you, Dr. Esolen. You have put the thoughts and sentiments of so many of us into beautiful prose full of Biblical imagery.

    Adultery is not a victimless crime. And a prodigal annulment system is not mercy, either.

    God bless you.

  • Doug Smith

    Dear Dr. Esolen,

    Thank you for your article. I know that marriage is sacred. However I really do struggle with the following situation:
    One spouse is continually abusive against the other.
    Do you as the abused spouse have to stay in this relationship forever?
    What is the less evil?
    Having no father / mother or having a abuse controlled puppet as father / mother?
    Thanks for your answer.

  • M.

    The older I get, the happier I am that I never married. The best advice for young fellows is to fast, mortify your flesh and pray assiduously for the grace of being freed from the jaws of the beast. Most “love” so-called is nothing but fleeting infatuation anyway. When they are older and see what has become of the greater part of their acquaintances who married, they will be truly grateful that, with the help of Our Lord’s grace, they were able to break the line and get away so to speak.

  • Skyler von Enn

    While it is canonically legal to separate from an abusive spouse, abuse is not grounds for an annulment, because it doesn’t assume some reason why the marriage was not valid in the first place.

    • jehanne

      I would be prone to think most annulments granted cannot assume there was something implicitly wrong at the time of the marriage. I believe in
      most cases a wayward mind or soul grew more self-absorbed and
      dispassionate. From there, infidelity, abandonment or mental or physical abuse followed.

      So what I am trying to say is that even in the Church’s best efforts their judgments are just that, judgments. If they are wrong one way or the other it will (in my guess) not create that much different ramifications
      with the ultimate judge and merciful arbiter, God. There are so many factors that place us all where we are and compel us all to think and so as we do. As much as I like to consider myself a very orthodox Catholic, getting that paper that says your original marriage is annulled or not I honestly do not think is going to have this enormous effect on the state of that soul one or another. God judges the heart. Still, I am a strong adherent to Catholic teaching and the pope.