Growing up, I knew only one kid from a “broken home,” my best friend in elementary school. There was a thing about it, a shame that went with it and a pity I felt for him. Everyone else I knew had parents firmly married. He was an aberration.
Graduating high school in the mid-1960s, and still knowing no one else from a divorced home, I recall my astonishment four years later, running into a now-divorced classmate. She had married another classmate, but there she was, divorced.
I married the same year Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock appeared. Toffler asserted that the rising numbers of failed marriages could not be explained as isolated instances of individuals suffering a moral lapse, not when it was happening to so many millions across the Western world. These numbers, rather, indicated a “massive adaptational breakdown.”
Toffler suggested short-term contractual marriages as a remedy, and a good many people have taken him up on it, living together with children and no marriage. If this was what a shocked future looked like, things tossed up and around with abandon, I didn’t want it. Divorce wasn’t going to happen to me. But it did.
By the time my first wife and I marked our tenth anniversary with two kids in tow, we—of all our friends from high school and college—were, it seemed, the last couple standing. At least it felt that way. Three more kids and a decade later, we divorced.
Divorce among active Protestants, those attending worship once a month or more, and even among “assenting” Catholics, those not “dissenting” from Catholic teaching, has every appearance of becoming casual. The figures for failed marriages among Christians are much the same as for anyone else, though they’re lower among those who attend church regularly.
I don’t think the Church catholic, in either its Roman or Protestant manifestations, does very well with divorced Christians. Christians, the saying goes, are the only people who abandon their wounded. I know for a fact it is very difficult when both sides in a divorce still attend the same worship service. One or the other or both may vent their frustrations to the pastor or to other members, seeking support for their side of the story. Pastors and congregations can live through that, with patience, but it hardly ever works. The subtle message to the divorced is it’s far easier on everyone if one or the other or both would simply shuffle off the membership list.
Among Protestant Christians, little is even said of divorce anymore. Where once the fact of divorce held consequences for one’s membership and access to the communion table, and even eligibility for ordination, that day is long, long gone. A bishop in a third marriage is not unknown to Lutherans nor, let me point it out, is a pastor in his second.
It isn’t that Protestants now accept divorce. Unlike “un-sinning” some other biblically-challenged sexual practices, no one has yet managed to repeal what Jesus said of marriage. Biblically, theologically, divorce is sin.
Dealing with sin requires ample doses of law, gospel, and absolution. In the Protestant equation all three are missing. Protestants don’t deal with divorce but they certainly tolerate it well. As a tolerable sin divorce no longer requires any further attention, pastorally or homiletically: “Nothing to see here, folks; move along, please.”
With at least one Catholic archdiocese having boasted it can do a six-month annulment turn-around, it looks as if even annulment has become just another word for “moving on” after divorce.
My former spouse became a Roman Catholic. With my consent, unnecessary though she asked, she initiated an annulment process. Together we were adjudged incapable of entering and sustaining a marriage sacramentally. We had failed “due diligence” in properly understanding what it was we intended to do. We lacked capacity. Whatever it was we planned, the annulment decree said, it wasn’t a marriage. This does not in any way account for what we went through.
The Roman annulment process I experienced was fenced up in Latin and obscured in legalese. One spouse was portrayed as “petitioner” and the other as “respondent.” We were invited to provide witnesses to our (or the other’s) spousal dysfunction.
As pastoral practice goes, this isn’t any better than the neglect of souls observed among Protestants. Yet both practices, as far as I can see, arise from that word “acceptance.”
These days, I think, the people most troubled by divorce are divorced Christians themselves. It becomes a biographical fact that sort of squats on a conscience. I don’t know of any reasonably sentient Christian, Catholic or Protestant, who does not regard their divorce as anything except their worst personal failure. It is something more than being victimized by the impersonal forces Toffler cited.
But what churches are offering to the divorced is indifference. The failure is pastoral, dismissing the attendant sense of deep regret and grief of failure without offering any remedy through the gospel. Divorce among Christians isn’t so much tolerated today as it is merely ignored.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
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