Suffer the Little Children: the Church on Divorce

[I first posted this essay in April of 2019.  I re-post it now, slightly edited, at a readers request.]

In Mark 10, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees (“to test him”) whether divorce was lawful.  As he responded, the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 24 and elsewhere) permitted divorce under some conditions.  But Jesus argues more broadly, basing his words on the second chapter of Genesis, “the two will become one flesh.” Therefore, Jesus says, “what God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

The Mosaic Law on divorce is complex (to say the least; for one thing, it permitted polygamy), but the overriding sense is that it is at best a necessary evil caused by unnecessary (and worse) evils.  Adultery and abuse were the commonly accepted justifications.  Remarriage of divorced persons was permitted in some cases and prohibited in others.

Throughout the Pentateuch (indeed, the entire Bible), many aspects of divorce are addressed, but one omission is glaring: there is not a word about child custody.  The impact on the children receives no more consideration than it does in a modern American courtroom.

In biblical times, the concept of family meant a father, a mother, and their children.  The idea of an intentionally childless married couple did not exist; at least I have not seen any indication of one. Effective contraception did not exist.  Children were valued as workers in support of the family.   Children were valued as caretakers in parental old age. Many other reasons probably factored into what was in all likelihood not a conscious decision (to procreate) at all.

St. Thomas Aquinas comes at the divorce issue from an interesting tack:  the natural law.  The natural law is our fundamental understanding of right and wrong (sometimes called the First Grace, followed by the Mosaic Law and finally Jesus’ Law of Love.) It is the law that Paul ascribes to all, even the gentiles, as innate in our humanity. Here is Thomas:

“By the intention of nature, marriage is directed to the rearing of offspring, not merely for a time, but throughout its whole life…  Therefore since the offspring is the common good of husband and wife, the dictate of the natural law requires the latter [husband and wife] to live together forever inseparably; and so the indissolubility of marriage is of natural law.” (“I answer that”,Q67. Art. 1 Suppl)(emphasis added)

In response to the (very modern-sounding) objection that some couples are infertile, and therefore marriage cannot be directed primarily to offspring, Thomas patiently explains:

“Marriage is chiefly directed to the common good in respect of its principal end, which is the good of the offspring; although in respect of its secondary end it is directed to the good of the parties…Hence marriage laws consider what is expedient for all rather than what may be suitable for one.” (Reply to Obj. 4)

It is worth noting that this is from his Summa Theologiae, which is based on both revelation and reason. He could have based the indissolubility of marriage first and foremost on biblical grounds: Genesis and Matthew/Mark. But instead, he bases his answer on natural law.

One would expect this non-theological approach in his Summa Contra Gentiles, in which he argues from reason and nature, without divine revelation, to attain truth; and one is not disappointed:

“Hence, as law is instituted for the common good, the function of procreation ought to be regulated by laws divine and human. Now the laws laid down ought to proceed on the basis of the dictate of nature…Since then there is in the human species a natural exigency for the union of male and female to be one and indivisible, such unity and indissolubility must needs be ordained by human law. To that ordinance the divine law adds a supernatural reason, derived from the significancy of marriage as a type of the inseparable union of Christ with His Church…” (Chapter CXXIII)

His reasoning is consistent: marriage is a matter of natural law directed at the welfare of children, creating the future and thereby benefiting society. Jesus adds a secondary reason based on scripture (Genesis).

The Catechism (para 1614) makes it clear that the Catholic Church bases its position on scripture alone (sola scriptura?). 

The Catechism does not mention children as the principal purpose of marriage (at least I cannot find such mention.) It does so tangentially in its discussion of contraception and openness to fertility, but not in its discussion of divorce.

In other words, the Catechism, like the reality of our present courts and culture, treats divorce as a matter involving two adults and the covenant or contract into which they have entered and from which they now seek to exit.

And the children? Collateral damage. Property to be divided.

[NOTE: By ignoring the natural-law basis of marriage, the Church inadvertently finds itself aligned with the secularist mindset of the court majorities in Obergefell, Windsor, and Perry.  These judges ignored natural law arguments, and concluded that laws like California’s 2010 Proposition 8, the 2013 US Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and centuries of common law could only have been motivated by hateful homophobia.  And the Church seems to say (by omission) that the only reason for traditional marriage is found in Genesis.  (In an amazing display of chutzpah, the Windsor majority actually argued that the fundamental right to gay marriage “safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education“.)]

Perhaps Thomas, were he writing today, might find that contraception has divided marriages into two kinds (or “species”, to use one of his favorite words): families with children and those (contentedly or intentionally) without. Procreative families and non-procreative ones. His reasoning cited above about infertile couples might have to take into account the very large number of intentionally childless marriages.

The divorce of two childless adults can be many things, from tragic to trivial.  But divorce involving children is another thing: the innocent children are victims: always hurt, traumatized, brutalized. What they experience is the destruction of their family and their world; a destruction inflicted upon them by those same adults who brought them into existence and have the duty to protect them.

We trivialize the suffering of these children by using the same term for both species of divorce. Separation of childless adults is properly called divorce; but divorce with children should be described as it is: family destruction and child abandonment. It is today the one form of child abuse that is not only tolerable but even respectable.(Transgenderist chemical and surgical mutilation of children is a new and growing area, but that is for another conversation.)

The importance of this issue cannot be exaggerated. The social pathologies that plague western society today may be traced to many causes, but one of the most obvious is the weakening of families.  Poverty in America is traceable almost exclusively to single-parent households. Violent crime is traceable almost exclusively to boys raised in fatherless households.  The enactment of “No-Fault Divorce” laws has been one of the accelerants of societal breakdown.  It has given men (and increasingly women) a free pass to abandon those most dependent on them, without stigma or rebuke.

We come now to the current turmoil involving divorced/remarried Catholics. With the present papal incumbent moving to downgrade the seriousness, even the sinfulness, of divorce/remarriage, divorce appears to be viewed everywhere as less of a problem.

In Amoris Laetitia, he devotes much ink to the problem of what to do with remarried divorcees, but very little that I could find on the victimized children.  If the Church moves forward with “normalization” of divorce, it will only be making matters worse.

It goes without saying that there are legitimate reasons for divorce, abuse being the most obvious. The Church to its credit has used the annulment process to deal with marriages so fatally flawed. The Gospel of Matthew also defends divorce for adultery.  Both Mark and Matthew have Jesus basing his words on Genesis.

What seems to be lacking is the natural law, which a return to St. Thomas Aquinas could correct.  The Church might want to consider instead, in light of natural law, the difference between simple divorces and divorces with children.  The Church could lead the way in this, given the extent to which our secular society has decided to act as if the children of divorce are invisible.

The Church should try to address the problem with St. Thomas Aquinas, rather than exacerbate it with Amoris Laetitia

Parish Priests, An Addendum

In my recent post on Parish Priests the Saints Among Us, I relied on Fr. Walter Gumbley’s 1947 book (Parish Priests Among the Saints) listing 31 parish-priest-saints.  I also noted in passing that “There are probably additional relevant canonizations since 1947.”  Unfortunately, I have been unable to find such an update.

But I have noted a relevant source on this matter.  Robert Royal’s 2000 book The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century is a remarkable collection of data and stories detailing a grim reality: the 20th century saw a worse slaughter of believing Christians, especially Catholics, than any comparable era in history.

He analyzes these mass martyrdoms in country after country.  Some are not unexpected: Communist China, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Turkish Armenia.  But the most striking are the Catholic countries in which “the appearance of virulent anti-Christian ideologies and brutally repressive regimes seeking to impose them…led directly to the widespread suffering and slaughter of religious believers,” including parish priests. 

The Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s is widely remembered as a heroic struggle against fascism.  In fact, it began with brutal attacks by communists, socialists, and anarchists against the Catholic Church.  In the first six months of the war (1936), 6,382 priests, monks, and nuns were massacred by the “Loyalist” forces.  Royal says “perhaps the greatest fury fell upon diocesan clergy” (parish priests). In cities controlled by the left, hundreds of priests were murdered: in Madrid alone, 1118.  Unarmed, unresisting priests murdered for doing their duty to their parishioners, their Church, and God.  Martyrs.

The Church has since recognized many new martyrs and saints from this cruel persecution.  I do not know how many were parish priests.  But I suspect that they were all too well represented in the ranks of the sainted martyrs.

As I said before, “there probably ought to be a lot more recognized parish priest saints.  There probably ARE a lot more than we will ever recognize, until we meet them in heaven.

Until then, consider your parish priest.  If he seems to be genuinely Catholic (not a “progressive” modernizer), and he is as hard working as mine are, he is probably a saint-in-the-making.  Remember to give thanks to God for him in your daily prayers.”

And thank your priest, too.

Parish Priests, the Saints Among Us

St. John Vianney, the Cure d’Ars, the patron saint of parish priests, apparently believed that no parish priests ever became saints.   Fr. Walter Gumbley, O.P. wrote a little book, Parish Priests Among the Saints, (1947) in correction.

From Gumbley’s introduction, “It has sometimes been stated that, with the single exception of St. John Vianney, no parish priest has become a saint.  Henri Gheon, in his The Secret of the Cure d’Ars, relates that the holy man was ‘terrified to learn that in the long roll of the ages not a single parish priest had been raised to the Church’s altars as a saint.  Popes had been canonized, cardinals, bishops, religious and laymen; but of parish priests not one; not the shadow of one.’”

Gumbley goes on to demonstrate that this is erroneous, listing 31 cases (pre-Vianney) in refutation.  (There are probably additional relevant canonizations since 1947.) But none of his cases are particularly well known, and only a few were canonized for their display of holiness explicitly in the exercise of their regular parish duties. (Most clearly on point was St. Peter Fourier, who died in 1644, and was canonized by Leo XIII in 1897.  But since Vianney died in 1859, he would not have known of his distinguished predecessor.)  Gumbley also points to St. Ivo Hellory, who died in1303 and was canonized in 1347. Ivo was a canon lawyer and ecclesiastical judge, but gave up his law practice to serve as a parish priest (which by itself seems sufficient ground for canonization.)

So the Cure d’Ars was wrong, but not by much.   Parish priests are, to say the least, underrepresented in the lists of saints.  One might wonder why.

In the middle ages, parish priests were the proletarians of the clergy: lowly regarded, criticized as ill trained, lax, or corrupt.  Reform movements usually arose from monastic orders.

But with the rise of structured seminary education, parish priests are now well trained and dedicated, and work longer hours than any labor law would permit.   The expectations of modern parish priests are far higher than any other church’s pastoral duties.

So, maybe the shortage of saints among parish priests is simply because the basic job expectations are so high.  Exceeding those expectations really takes some doing.  (Underachieving, however, appears to be all too easy.)

There probably ought to be a lot more recognized parish priest saints.  There probably ARE a lot more than we will ever recognize, until we meet them in heaven. 

Until then, consider your parish priest.  If he seems to be genuinely Catholic (not a “progressive” modernizer), and he is as hard working as mine, he is probably a saint-in-the-making.  Remember to give thanks to God for him in your daily prayers. 

Efficacy of Prayer?

I am fully convinced of the necessity of prayer (after all, everyone prays), and of the benefit I receive from praying. My prayers change me, internally, in my soul.  St. Thomas Aquinas calls it spiritual refreshment of the mind, and I can truly feel it.

But does it do anything else?  Does it actually benefit or help those I pray for?  If so, why?

Note: I do not ask how; if God wants to grant my prayers, it is certainly within His power.

But why?  Do I have some special “pull” with God?  If I ask Him to heal my sick brother, will He do it because I asked?  Why not heal all who are sick?  Does He then withhold healing from those who have no brother to pray for them? That doesn’t sound like Him.

Aquinas vigorously defends the efficacy of prayer, citing ”impetration”.

“The effect of prayer is threefold. The first is an effect which is common to all acts quickened by charity, and this is merit. The second effect of prayer is proper thereto, and consists in impetration...the original intention, to which God looks chiefly, suffices to attain this effect…The third effect of prayer is that which it produces at once; this is the spiritual refreshment of the mind.”  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II Q. 83 Art. 13)

Impetration being an unfamiliar term, I had to look it up.  The online Catholic Dictionary (1910) says:

(Latin: impetrare, to ask and obtain a request)

(1) The begging of favors.

(2) Theologically, one of the fruits of good works and especially of the Mass and prayer; one of the four ends of the Mass, which regards man. Impetration accompanied by right dispositions and certain conditions will infallibly gain us every gift and avert every evil.

This seems to state that my prayers for my brother’s healing will be granted if I pray with the right dispositions and conditions.  So it depends on me.  But what if I fail to pray for my brother?   Shall he suffer for my sin?  What of those with no one to pray for them?  Suffering for the sins of others is the role of Christ; for the rest of us, Jeremiah’s “sour grapes” injunction (31:29) holds: “Everyone will die for his own sins.”

I know that the Gospels repeatedly and forcefully tell us that God will grant our prayers, if we pray in Jesus’ name.

So my questions all have the same answer.  Yes, prayer (properly prayed) is effective, because Jesus said so.  It is revealed.

Revelation is given to us for those things we cannot ascertain by reason alone.  But revelation should not violate reason; it is to go beyond reason, not to contradict reason.  That is the thrust of Fides Et Ratio, as well as Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture.  On the most basic level of non-self-contradiction, Christianity MUST MAKE SENSE.

I’d really appreciate it If someone can help me make sense of this. 

In the meantime, I’ll just keep on praying.

“Lord, I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

Retirement And Its Uses

What is Retirement?  In one sense, it is a wholly negative term, defined by what it is not.  As darkness is the absence of light, retirement is the absence of work (at least paid work).  A void in time, created for both positive and negative reasons.  The upside is that retirement, if properly prepared for, allows one to live without earning a paycheck.  Savings, Social Security, and pensions can combine to make paid work unnecessary. The negative is that the aging process can reduce or destroy the worker’s ability to continue working.

So retirement is the non-existence of the need to work for pay.   Some continue working in “retirement”, or past the “usual retirement age” defined by Social Security eligibility, for various reasons: poverty (lack of savings), avarice (desire to accumulate wealth beyond need), or because they enjoy their work, or boredom (“what else would I do all day?”).

The “what-else-would-I do-all-day?” folks make an interesting point.  What do retirees do with their time?

They seem busy, but if you ask them what they are busy doing, you get confused answers; they’re not sure why they are so busy, they just are. (Spare me your senility jokes.)

(An enterprising sociology professor should get a big government/NGO grant to study this. An army of clipboard-armed grad students following old people around all day, noting their every move, would certainly liven things up in Phoenix or Broward County.)

All joking aside, the use of time is an issue for everyone; but circumstances push it to the forefront for retirees.

Some clever person has observed that “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Time is a difficult thing to wrap one’s hands around.  In old age we have lots of time on our hands but very little time left on earth.  How does one deal with that?  We are told that time is relative, and anyone who has watched the last two minutes of an NFL or NBA game knows that to be true.

Some treat retirement as an extended vacation.  Others maximize social activities or hobbies.  The new-old (younger and healthier) retirees can turn it into a re-lived or re-imagined high school; their idols are restored classic cars from the 50’s and 60’s.  Retirement communities like The Villages in central Florida cater to all these themes.

So retirement can be like an extended vacation, an endless life of socializing after golf, or an eternal summer before their senior year.

Is there another way of looking at it?

Jewish theologian Abraham J. Heschel touched on an aspect of all this in his essay “The Sabbath: Holiness In Time”.  He posits a contrast between time and space.

“Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time.

Every one of us occupies a portion of space…Yet no one possesses time.  We share time, we own space.

Indeed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time… We suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look in its face… ”

For Heschel, the Sabbath is the focal point of the Jewish sense of holiness in time.  And while retirement is generally defined in negative terms (non-work), the Sabbath reverses this.

“The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.  It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.  Three acts of God denoted the Seventh Day: He rested, He blessed, and He hallowed the Seventh Day (Genesis 2:2-3).”

(This may appear similar to the conception of our modern week-end.  As an old song* had it, “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” But that image of the weekend is closer to the high school model than to the Sabbath. Still…)

If the workweek is for the Sabbath, could that mean that the working life is for the retirement?

Prior to the last century, and even now outside the prosperous industrial world, it was and is certainly not the case.  Retirement, if it happened at all, occurred when the worker was no longer of any use in gainful employment, becoming an economic  burden on his family (at best).

But here and now, retirement has expanded (even exploded) as a highly desirable, wealthy, and sustainable demographic.  Social Security in all developed countries provides an income floor.  Savings (often tax-sheltered) and private pensions add to the comfort level. The elderly are now, on average, among the most prosperous sectors of our society (there is, of course, a cohort of the elderly poor: but they do not predominate).  One has only to visit retirement communities in Florida, Arizona, or anywhere else warm, to see this.  Golf cart-accessible “villages”, boomer classic car gatherings (high school redux!), and second homes (for those who find Arizona too hot or Florida too muggy in summer) abound.

What’s wrong with that, one may ask? Nothing; but it is not the Sabbath.  It is not holy.

(Of course, modern retirement often resembles the customary modern secular sabbath, devoted to socializing and spectator sports.)

But can retirement be a time for awareness of and participation in the holiness of time?  If not “instead”, then at least “in addition”?  What would that look like?

Daily mass?  Morning and evening prayer?  Time with family?  Volunteering at the hospital, school, or food bank, to help those in need?

In fact, this describes the regular life of many good Catholics, even during their working years.  How much more so could retirement be?

Holiness in time: maybe  it isn’t just for Sundays anymore.

 

____________________

*1981 song by Canadian band Loverboy, containing the following:

Everybody’s working for the weekend

Everybody wants a little romance

Everybody’s goin’ off the deep end

Everybody needs a second chance,

The album was titled “Get Lucky”.

Moleman on…

My friend Mister Moleman just posted a new mini-essay, and it is worth a look.

Titled “Civilizations Can Die, Too“.  It is about…I can hardly say what.

Hope is the Hardest

I often think (and write) about Hope.  “The Little Girl Hope” was inspired by a French poet and a little neighbor of mine. “Hope Without Faith” was an early attempt to figure it out.

St. Paul recognized its place as one of the three theological virtues: “So Faith, Hope, and Love abide, these three.”  He then clarified that “the greatest of these is Love.

This is from the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, his justly famous ode to love.  “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love…”  You know the rest.

He is of course correct.  Faith that does not result in love is nothing, because an unloving faith is a false faith.  Faith is what produces love, and love is faith in action.  Faith is input, love is output.  Hope works the same way.  Hope is another output of faith.

The greatest of these is love.” But the hardest of these is hope. For me, anyway, these days.

Of course, there is no hope without faith. That is why we so eagerly grab for easy false faiths.  But hope built on false faiths is false hope. Continue reading

When We (George Weigel and I) Consider Thy Heavens

I am glad to see the valuable and insightful Mr. George Weigel calling attention (on the insightful, valuable First Things.com) to the powerful (if inadvertent) ministry of the NASA folks at APOD. If only all our taxpayer dollars were spent this wisely.

Weigel’s post is entitled “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God.” If that sounds familiar, it is from the often-quoted Psalm 19.

As my faithful readers know, I have been following APOD for years.

As I have said, every new image I see paints a wider, deeper, and more wonderful picture of the universe our Lord has created. And the incomprehensible distance grows between this universe and its beginning in an infinitesimally small seed in the palm of God’s hand barely 14 billion years ago.

Every APOD is a proclamation of the greater glory of God. “When I consider Thy Heavens, the work of Thy hands…” (Psalm 8:3)

Here are some of my favorites (most recent first): Continue reading

God’s Will? Really?

In a recent scriptural reading from First Peter, I was struck by this: “It is better to suffer for doing good, if this should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:17) I wondered, as I often have: is it God’s will that some must suffer from the evil deeds of others?

I have always taken comfort from the inherent realism of Catholic doctrine. Evil exists because we have free will (or free choice), and we sometimes choose to do evil. It is really as simple as that. We cannot blame God for the evil that men choose to do, no matter how they hurt us in the process. This is the fundamentally difficult truth underlying the Holocaust.   Even though God could choose to intervene to prevent evil acts or their consequences, he does not do so because that would rob our freedom of all meaning. If we were free only to do good, then we would not be free, or human. Evil would not exist, and so neither would good.  I know that Christian theology declares that evil is only a negative, the absence of good; but without the possibility of evil, good also has no meaning in strictly human terms.  So for us, evil does indeed exist.

But does God will evil? Does he want person A to do evil deeds that hurt person B? I realize this is a central problem in the Bible. When Jesus prays in the Garden, he sets up an inherent dichotomy: “If it is possible, may this cup of suffering be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” This dual prayer reflects his dual nature, but in its ambiguity it raises the same question: Lord, do you really want me to suffer?

This could also be called the Judas problem. Does God really want Judas to betray His son?

In the Lord’s prayer, we ask (in a somewhat confusing subjunctive phrase) that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are asking that God help us to conform our will to his, so that we may want (and do) what he wants us to do. But what if He wants me to hurt another?  Is that possible?

This also drags me unwillingly into a confusion I have over the expression “God’s permissive will.” It was offered as a quick walk-back explanation for Pope Francis’ incomprehensible announcement that the existence of many religions in addition to the true Catholic Church must be God’s will. Early in 2019, in a joint statement with an Islamic leader, he stated “Plurality and diversity of religions…are an expression of the wise and divine will by which he created human beings.” Can heresy be God’s will, I ask? Religions espousing hate and encouraging murder are God’s will?

Relax, we are told, it only means God’s permissive will: not what He wants, but what He allows. Which presumably includes the Holocaust, communism, Rwandan genocide, and every other waking nightmare in human history? Thanks for the explanation, but…

It doesn’t help.  I’m still confused.

Can someone help me out with this?

Per Capita Reality and the “COVID” Plague

My friend Mister Hans Moleman has just posted an interesting perspective on the current plague, informed by some statistics showing that this crisis has less to do with US politics than we sometimes think. And on a per capita basis, the US is better off than some other advanced countries.  He writes:

[I wrote the following message to a good friend of mine, who is so depressed about the current crisis, and so obsessed with our president, that he says he will emigrate to some other country as soon as a vaccine is developed.]

I am glad to hear you will not be emigrating any time soon.  I hope you reconsider when this present crisis passes (as it will).

It is all too easy to see this as a failure of our political system, especially if one particularly dislikes our present leader.  The “Orange Man” is certainly dislikable; but that doesn’t lay this at his door.  To the extent that this is a political crisis, it is a widespread one, being felt throughout the western world (and perhaps far beyond.)

My wife has found us a good source of reliable statistics on the Covid-19/Coronavirus mess, at Worldometers.info.  It is revealing.  For instance:

Inadequate as our testing seems to have been, the US has done more testing than Sweden, France, the UK, or the Netherlands (per capita). Yet we have had way fewer deaths than those countries (per capita). And we have had fewer deaths than Italy, Spain, Belgium or Switzerland, even though those countries have done a lot more testing than we have.

Asia (except China, and who can trust their reports?), Africa and South America seem to have escaped the worst of it, for reasons that are unclear and probably varied; but some of them may simply be late starters.

As for the US, we must consider that right now we have a very lopsided epidemic: New York on one hand, the rest of the country on the other.  NY state is 6% of the US population but 45% of Covid deaths.

And Iceland, the nation that has done the most testing (12% of their population), has had more cases and more deaths than Montana. IC is one third the population of MT, but has 4 times the cases and almost 3 times the death rate.

So, whatever is driving the dimensions of this crisis, it doesn’t seem to be politics. And the solution will not be political either.  It will probably be scientific (treatment and vaccines) and behavioral (social distancing and hygiene, like learning to wash hands and cough/sneeze carefully). Mundane stuff.

And on the non-mundane level, I also think prayer will help.

Meanwhile, our task is not only staying healthy but also staying sane.  In that regard I recommend avoiding people that infuriate you, especially on TV (you know who I mean).  And keeping a sense of perspective.

I look forward to seeing you guys once the all-clear is sounded.

Continue reading