In the recent months, Pope Francis has stated repeatedly that one should have more mercy with those Catholics who are divorced and remarried civilly. In the context of the current discussion within the Church about Divorce, and how to deal with those Catholics who are remarried outside of the Catholic Church, what strikes me is how little explicit attention is given to the Little Ones, to the children, who most vulnerably suffer under a divorce. When we ask for mercy and compassion for the man and the woman who have failed in their reciprocal marriage vows before God and to God; and who have then abandoned their vows, who speaks of the mercy due to the little ones who were left in a lurch by the breach of their parents?
I would like to make an argument in favor of a stricter dealing with this matter, rather than a more lenient one, especially for the sake of the children who cannot defend themselves and who are affected by their parent’s decision throughout their whole lifetime, yes, even until their death. How many of these children may ask at some point in their lives: “Why did my parents not love me enough to stay together and thereby to stay with me?”
In many ways I speak here from personal experience. For, divorce itself has come into my own life manifoldly, and not only through my own family and in my own life as a child, but also through other family members and through the comparable misfortunes of close friends.
First, let me speak as someone who experienced the divorce of my parents while I was a child. Divorce is terrible for children. Divorce destroys trust in the human bond in the young soul that is just beginning to grow and to establish bonds with other persons. It destroys the idea that there is something on earth that is trustworthily enduring. A home breaks apart, and with it a togetherness and nourishing identity. It is as if a fledgling has been pushed too early out of the nest. There will never be a unity that once was there. A child wants to be with the mother and the father. Yet, that is then, after a divorce, not any more possible. Who is my family, a child then asks? Where is the place to which I now can always return, to a warmth and a hearth, in sickness and misfortune? Even as an adult, there is a psychological wound that will stay forever.
In most cases, divorce means that the mother has to start making her own living, leaving little time for a closer attentiveness to the children. In most cases, at least in what I see, the father is cut out of the family, his presence and even his memory. That means that the one half of a child’s identity and personality suddenly finds itself rejected and demeaned. Very often those marked characteristics of the excluded father, which can also sometimes be found in some of the children, are ridiculed and criticized. (“That is just what your Father always did!”) Yet, this is usually not how a wholesome family deals with some of the parents’ weaknesses or faults.
A family usually plays down the weaknesses and eccentricities of family members. Differences are not exaggerated, but, rather, attenuated. (“You know that he does not mean it that way.” Or: “You have to understand her, she is right now under much pressure. She will be better soon again.”) The family is the place where love smoothes things out and lets problems not overgrow the happiness of being together. It implies an effort to work together unto a greater good of the family and, finally, in Christian terms, unto Eternal Happiness. This attitude here described will be also the right guideline for the children who are not allowed to get a wedge between their parents and to play one parent against the other. On the other hand, when spouses apply the negative attitude toward the other spouse in front of the children, the children will too often be thereby enticed to participate in this parental struggle actively and to try to benefit from it. The professional academic world calls this phenomenon “Parental Alienation Syndrome.” In this context, children are often encouraged to criticize one of their parents, which undermines the Fourth Commandment that tells children to honor and respect their father and their mother. The children of divorced parents often thus get accustomed, even from a very young age, to rebuke and criticize the absent parent, which is not their duty to do and for which they do not have the maturity.
Every child loves both parents, be they good or somewhat deficient parents. Both parents, are, at least for a long time, the most important persons in young life, with whom the child has spent all of her childhood, or his. So, when a divorce comes, the child usually has to follow one of the parents and agree to his or her attitude toward the other parent. To start rejecting the one parent means to betray one’s own love, one’s own affection, gratitude, and memory.
One of the possible consequences is also that the children also wind up being additionally raised by a step-mother or a step-father. In both cases, many problems can be involved. I just have read the very painful story of a German author who was raised by her mother and by her step-father whom she hated, because she always loved her own father and considered this other man to be an usurper and an oppressor. Her whole childhood was tainted by this fact, and “psychological fact.” In our current times, a very grave concern is also the impure sensual abuses of step-daughters which are committed by their step-fathers, a crime that happens much less often if the father and the daughter, or mother and son, are truly related.
Another side-effect of divorce is the constant struggle which can go on for years and years between the two spouses (often actively involving their children): to include financial problems, fights over household goods, house and car. It is a bitter war on a small scale, which leaves everyone exhausted and preoccupied with acrimonious relationships that would otherwise normally sustain one’s life, rather than destroy or diminish it. I cannot imagine how many hours of human life and how many material resources (to include legal costs) have been spent during these last decades of a permissiveness toward divorce — in strife, struggle and mental and material devastation: The Devastation of Divorce.
By way of contrast, I have seen so many good Catholic families who can sustainingly achieve so many things — in addition to raising their own children in good manners, faith and learning. For example, various works of mercy: pro-life work, resisting the open and subtle evils in Church and society, helping the neighbors, visiting the sick, adorning the Church, contributing to local fairs and musical and dance recitals, and much more. They can do so much good, also in fighting against evil, because they are loyal to each other. Because the spouses are loyal to their promises and to their once-chosen state-in-life, their minds are at peace and their energy can be turned toward larger things. The children in these families can grow up calmly and peacefully. These united families can reach out to others because they have roots and a warming love.
The recently expressed idea of Cardinal Walter Kasper to introduce some more laxity, now with respect to marriage, could be compared with the decision of a State to loosen the laws against certain crimes even more so when — and because — the crime rate is actually going up. (Instead, the Church, rather, should fulfill her role as the teacher of mankind, even emphatically starting with the nature and linchpin-effect of the Vow and Holy Matrimony in society!)
The Church knows that the Faith is mainly transmitted in and through the family, both by the parent’s lived life of the Faith and by their intimate guidance to each other and to their children. How important this transmission of the Faith is, is recalled by Christ’s own words: “Let the Little Ones come to Me.” (We also may remember, frightfully, “Woe to those who scandalize the Little Ones”!) The Church knows that so many have lost or negligently discarded the Faith, or were never taught it, because their parents divorced. Faith and Family are closely dependent upon each other. And a good State with good statecraft and virtuous leaders is dependent upon both.
The teaching and living of the Faith needs patience, a calm and rooted way of living which gives space for questions and meditations, and peace. When I am jangled, nervous and uprooted in my life, how can I pass on all the different details of our rich Faith that flow out of the awareness of Christ’s Life and Death for us? Therefore, one could say that the Marital Bond and its preservation is another linchpin for the fostering and defense of the Faith. That is why the Church has declared as the main purpose of marriage the procreation of children and their upbringing in the Faith, unto Vita Aeterna.
This higher mission, which is contrary to any egoistical understanding of marriage as a mere means to “fulfill” one another, helps the spouses, rather, to discipline themselves and to look out together upon their children and their welfare, spiritual and physical.
Inasmuch as it is the main duty and role of the Church to preserve the Faith and pass it on intact to the faithful for the salvation of their souls, she has to make all efforts to protect marriage and with it the parvuli, the Little Ones of Christ. With it, she would show mercy to the ones who cannot fight for themselves. And she would remind the adults that they have a great duty and responsibility toward each other and toward their offspring.
And, as we close, may we recall the French novelist George Bernanos’ poignant Ninth Beatitude, as described in the moving novel The Diary of a Country Priest (1937): “Blessed be he who has saved a child’s heart from despair.”