The discussion preceding the synod of bishops on the family has ignored the most vulnerable party in divorces and remarriages: children. In so doing, it mirrors the discussion of sex and marriage in western culture more broadly, which focuses on the gratification of the desires of adultshowever legitimatewhile paying no attention to the needs of children.
For some children, no doubt, their parents’ divorce brings relief. For many, however, it leaves a wound that never fully heals. Children find themselves caught between two parties who each have a claim on them. They can frequently feel like pawns in a game, or like a piece of land fought over by conflicting nations. They have to grow up fast to take care of adults who, in their hurt, have begun to act like children.
Divorce ends the world that the child knows. It says that the foundation of her life, the structure that produced her and formed her is no more. This is captured well in the title of a book by a professor of youth ministry, Andrew Root: The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being. The title is not an exaggeration. Root describes his twenty-three-year-old fiancée (now wife) upon hearing the news that her parents were getting divorce:
Her more distressing questions were existential; they seemed to come from the core of her being. In the middle of many nights she would call me, awakened from a deep sleep in a state of terror. Kara felt as if the split in her parents’ marriage had become a split in her own being, ‘I have to start all over again. I mean seriously, who am I?’ she stated repeatedly.
A short time later, Root discovered the mutual adultery of his own parents. Though he had known that their marriage had not been solid, he was totally devasted:
[I felt] as if I were being sucked into a dark pit. In a real sense I started to wonder who I was, to question whether my very existence rested on anything solid at all. I couldn’t help but feel that their actions attacked me, the core of my person. After all, I was the product, quite literally, of their love and commitment. I came into being out of their union, their mutual desire that created a community called ‘parents’ to love and care for me. I existed because of their choice, and now they were choosing to destroy the very communion that made me. Their disunion threatened me nothing less than ontologically, which is to say that it shook my very being and existence.
A ten-year-old may not be capable of articulating that feeling with the same precision, but that does not diminish her feeling it. Many children of divorce experience feelings akin to these. In time, their parents and teachers will tell them to get over this lost sense of self. These things happen to many people, the story goes. It was all for the better, and you need to move on.
The teaching of Jesus compels bishops, priests, and lay ministers to do better. So does that pillar of Catholic social teaching, the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. In divorce and remarriage, the most vulnerable, the ones with the least voice and power, are children. They require special care and attention.
What does this look like practically?
First, pastors should devote as much care to pastoral plans for children of divorce as to plans for their parents. As they discuss streamlining annulments, bishops should consider the effect that those annulments will have on children. An annulment tells a child that what she thought was a marriage is not. She might think that the foundation of her family was, in fact, a lie. Pastors need to have answers for such children. They cannot hand out annulments with the impression that annulments bind all wounds. For some in the family, the annulment may mean the extinction of hope and beginning to accept a new, broken order of life.
Second, pastors need to listen to children whose families have fallen apart. Following the exhortation of St. Paul, they should mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). Others will not grieve with these children over the long term. Pastors should let them know that they will. What happened, even if it was necessary, was tragic and should be called tragic. The first step to healing is identifying wounds correctly as wounds.
Third, the Church should show children of divorce that healthy, whole families are possible. They are not a fairytale or a vestige from the past. All children need to know that the love between a man and a woman can be a real means of conveying the grace of God, a real image of Christ’s love for the Church, a real path to sanctity, and a gateway to new life. Children need to have virtuous married couples come to talk to their confirmation and religious education classes. Knowing too well how things can go wrong, children of divorce need clear models of how things can go right.
Fourth, the Church needs to show them how, through scripture and the sacraments, Jesus can turn the scars of sintheir own and that of othersinto trophies of his love. Children of divorce are wounded, but Jesus never lets wounds be the final word. They have experienced a kind of death, but Christ conquered death. In the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist, children can encounter their divine healer. In marriage, the priesthood, and religious life, they can receive an abundance of God’s divine love through keeping their vows.
In the Gospel of Matthew, immediately after Jesus teaches his disciples about marriage and celibacy, children are brought to him so that he can pray for them. The disciples rebuke them, but Jesus welcomes them, saying that of such is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:1315). It might seem understandable if today’s successors of the disciples misjudge or underestimate the needs of childrenthe original disciples were ready to do the same. But the example of Christ, to whom bishops are configured by their ordination, compels them to care for the little ones, while not neglecting to care for divorced parents. For of such is the kingdom of heaven.
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral student in theology at Boston College.