When Did the Church’s Moral Teaching Cease Being Relevant to You?

Sometimes an article is just so important you have to draw people’s attention to it.  That article is “Why Faithful Catholics Get Divorced” by Tom Hoopes, written fifteen years ago, but re-published recently on the Crisis website.  It is well worth reading.

The article addresses intelligently a disturbing situation I have noticed for some years.  Forgive me for my naïveté, but I am still always shocked when I hear that a “traditional” or “conservative” Catholic couple has divorced.  It’s not that I find these people more at fault or the break-up any more or less tragic; it just surprises me.

This sort of thing is less surprising when a person or a couple are “nominal, check-the-box” Catholics.  Not less tragic; just less surprising.  Since such people have rarely if ever considered the Church’s moral teaching binding in any meaningful sense, if they start having marital problems, it is not surprising when they choose the usual societal “fix.”

Someone moves out.  There’s a divorce.  And the two parties go in their separate directions, sometimes one or the other into a new marriage, while the other remains faithful to their vows.  There are few things more tragic than this sort of abandonment which, in effect, creates widows and orphans.

My question is: What happened?  Not “what happened” in the sense of personal problems; these are none of my business.  I don’t deny the problems, and I know that as fallen creatures we all make mistakes.  It’s not that I “judge” people for having problems; this is very human and I assume everyone has them.  The question I have is: “When did the Church’s moral teaching cease being relevant to you”?  When did you decide, “Yes, I know the Church says x is wrong, but I’ve decided to do the opposite”?

The “x” in that equation could be divorce, abortion, contraception, in-vitro fertilization, sterilization, euthanasia, or economic injustice and abuse of one’s employees. The strange thing is not that someone who disagrees with the Church does one of these things.  The strange thing is when someone who faithfully attends mass and is ostensibly in full agreement with the Church suddenly turns around when the trouble lands on their own doorstep and simply exempts themselves from the moral teachings they previously championed.

The “traditional’ Catholic husband who abandons his wife and children for a younger woman and then continues going to Mass with his new partner while he applies for an annulment.  The “traditional” Catholic parents who, when they discover their daughter is pregnant, take her for an abortion so they won’t have to suffer the embarrassment. Or the good “traditional” parents I know who convinced their son that he had no obligations to the girlfriend he had gotten pregnant or to their child. So he abandoned them both.


Why do “conservative” Catholic parents with a son who has abandoned his wife and child not tell him:  “She is still our daughter and still welcome in our house; you are not until you do justice to your wife”?  Why would “conservative” Catholics who want the Church to keep divorced couples from receiving Communion turn right around and accept their unfaithful son back at their table, while severing contact with the woman to whom he pledged his fidelity, and still wishing to see their grandchildren, although they no longer show the proper respect to the children’s mother?

How can “conservative” Catholic businessmen treat their workers with anything less than the respect Pope St. John Paul the Great taught was requisite in Laborem Exercens and Centesimus Annus?  You think you can be a “faithful” Catholic by attending Mass regularly and saying rosaries or going to Opus Dei retreats and then cheat your workers?  Do you think God doesn’t see that?  Do you imagine the judgment on such “ostensibly” faithful people would be any less severe rather than more severe?  To whom much has been given, much will be expected.

So, let me get this straight?  You think God requires you to show up to Mass in a coat and tie and take Communion at an altar rail. But you’re not quite clear on the fact that God prohibits you from divorcing your wife or underpaying and abusing your employees?

Can anyone honestly claim, “Why, I didn’t know the Church said it is wrong to enter into a faux marriage with a spouse, have children, and then abandon them for another, ostensibly real marriage” that “feels more right”?

No one expects perfection, but Catholics are commanded to work on these things.  They have a Church, populated not just with priests, but with laypeople who can help.  Having trouble in a marriage?  Get help!  Why are you resisting?

You think God should just give you magic powers to “get over it” or that He should just “fix” your spouse for you?  That’s pride.  And it’s the primordial sin that leads to every other sin.  Was everything supposed to “be different” because we’re Catholics?  Who promised that?  Did you miss the Cross at the front of the Church?

What has become clear to me from spending years teaching moral theology is that most of our current efforts at moral conversion are feckless – not because of bad intentions or even necessarily bad teaching, but because we have allowed ourselves to divorce Church teaching from: (a) a fuller understanding of human nature and the dignity of the human person, and (b) from training in the virtues.

We keep thinking that “doctrine” or “spirituality” will do what only habituation in the virtues can do.  You can extend a marriage prep program another two or three classes, but they will be no more effective than the marriage prep courses are now.  I have an entire semester with students – a little over thirty classes – and it’s not enough.  You either habituate people in the virtues or watch the culture habituate them in vices – and get used to failure.


*Image: The Divorce of the Empress Josephine (Le divorce de l’Impératrice Joséphine 15 Décembre 1809) by Henri Frédéric Schopin, c. 1830 [Wallace Collection, London]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.