Many Catholic families had hoped that the Synod on the Family would address the serious problem of the divorce epidemic and its long-term damage to youth, innocent spouses, the sacrament of marriage, the culture, and the Church. The divorce plague has inflicted severe pain upon Catholic families worldwide. Married couples need to be encouraged by the Church not to give up on their marriages during stressful, unhappy times, and to persevere in loyalty to their marital vows.
The conflicts leading to a decision to divorce are often not of a severe nature. For example, A Generation at Risk: Growing up in an Era of Family Upheaval, a major 15-year research study of marriages and children, revealed that fewer than one-third of divorces involve highly conflicted marriages.
Over the past forty years, I have never worked with a Catholic marriage in which both spouses wanted a divorce. In the majority of marriages under stress, one spouse remains happy with the marriage, believes the conflicts can be resolved and is loyal to the sacramental bond.
The spouses who are not happy and who want to pursue divorce and a decision of nullity most often refuse to address their own weaknesses. Instead, they portray themselves as victims of insensitive treatment or emotional abuse.
The psychological reality is that every spouse brings special gifts into marriage, but they also bring psychological weaknesses, which are most often deeply buried out of conscious awareness.
The weaknesses commonly brought into marriage are the result of a lack of a secure loving relationship with one parent, most often the father; selfishness, described by many popes as the major “enemy” of marital love; severe weaknesses in trusting; emotionally distant behaviors resulting in spousal loneliness; controlling, disrespectful behaviors from unresolved hurts with a parent; failure to master anger daily by growth in forgiveness; misdirected anger that is meant for a parent or others; weaknesses in confidence; excessive anxiety associated with irritability; family of origin sadness/loneliness that spousal love cannot resolve; modeling after a major parental weakness; adult child of alcoholism or divorce anger and mistrust and the failure to understand Catholic marriage and its support from the Lord’s love and grace.
The majority of spouses who pursue divorce – in our experience with several thousand couples – have never worked on these issues. This explains, in part, why the national survey of divorced men and women, conducted by the Office of Survey Research at the University of Texas at Austin, found the honest response that only one in three divorced spouses claimed that both they and their ex-spouses worked hard enough to try to save their marriage.
There is reason to be hopeful about the resolution of marital difficulties. In a major study from the University of Chicago among spouses who rated their marriages as very unhappy, 86 percent of those who persevered reported themselves as happily married five years later.
One grave danger to Catholic marriages and families from the changes made in canon law made by the Holy Father (without a careful study by a commission of experts) is that spouses will not be motivated to engage in the hard work of addressing personal psychological and spiritual weaknesses. Instead, they will pursue divorce and with a belief that they are entitled to a decision of nullity if they can meet the criteria cited, including the new one, “etcetera.”
With all due respect, the determination of nullity by only one priest or by a bishop after 30 to 45 days, is seriously flawed because they lack the proper mental health training to uncover and evaluate the numerous complex psychological conflicts that lead to a decision for divorce. This new process is a grave injustice and, therefore, a manifestation of a severe lack of mercy towards the sacrament of marriage, innocent spouses, children, and Catholic families.
In his closing talk at the Synod, the Holy Father criticized bishops and priests, whom he claimed hide behind rigid doctrines and ignore wounded families. In fact, his radical change in canon law in regard to annulments, made prior to the Synod, will weaken and harm Catholic marriages and families.
Let’s hope that the wisdom of St. John Paul II will be rediscovered as a way to strengthen Catholic marriages and families and lead to a revision in the present canon law. He wrote, “Whenever a couple is going through difficulties, the sympathy of Pastors, and of the other faithful must be combined with clarity and fortitude in remembering that conjugal love is the way to work out a positive solution to their crisis. Given that God has united them by means of an indissoluble bond, the husband and wife by utilizing all their human resources, together with good will, and by, above all, confiding in the assistance of divine grace, can and should emerge from their moments of crisis.”