Pope Francis has spoken often about the problem of family breakdown. “The family is the fundamental cell of society,”the Holy Father told bishops, clergy, and laypersons during the first year of his tenure. “Marriage and the family are in crisis,” he said shortly after bishops gathered in Rome last fall for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.
No-fault divorce has done more to fuel this crisis than any other factor. Although divorce rates initially skyrocketed after adoption of no-fault in the United States, they remain high. Meanwhile, single motherhood and cohabitation continue to rise, while marriage rates nosedive. And Pope Francis has acknowledged the link between marriage breakdown and society’s ills, including increased poverty, noting that it is children who usually bear the brunt.
In a letter to the Pope and Synod, nearly fifty international scholars and religious leaders called on the Catholic Church to address the scourge of no-fault divorce and defend those who seek to remain faithful to their marriage vows (often called “standers”), noting that these spouses are being divorced against their will and often “at an extreme disadvantage when facing the family law bureaucracy.” Certain U.S. Bishops have also criticized no-fault divorce.
I, too, have been the victim of unwanted divorce. So I fought my husband’s divorce lawsuit and was cleared of any wrongdoing. To me, his broken vows did not absolve me of mine. Although I’m not Catholic, I believe marriage is generally for life. At the time New York hadn’t adopted no-fault; otherwise, I would have been unable to defend myself. What I didn’t realize until later, however, is that in practice New York condoned no-fault, and my husband and I were eventually divorced. A year later, New York passed legislation making it the fiftieth state to officially adopt no-fault divorce. For years the New York State Catholic Conference had effectively held off no-fault divorce in New York.
I subsequently co-founded a volunteer organization dedicated to educating the public about the devastation of divorce and advocating for divorce reform. Since then, victims of unwanted divorce, both men and women, including Catholics, have contacted me regularly about their suffering, urging my continued advocacy on their behalf. And we are not alone. At least two studies suggest that approximately 80 percent of divorce lawsuits are filed unilaterally.
Thus far, however, the Pope has not responded to the Catholic scholars and leaders who have brought these pleas for help to his attention. Instead, Church discussion has focused on lowering the cost and administrative burden of annulments and participation by remarried Catholics in the Eucharist. Pope Francis has implored all believers to demonstrate compassion and mercy in all situations. This of course must include those who have not been faithful to their marriage vows or to the Church’s teachings concerning marriage.
Is a loosening of Church policies concerning annulments and remarriage really what should be under consideration? Cheaper and easier annulments facilitate increased divorce and remarriage, where divorce rates eclipse those of first marriages. Participation in communion by remarried Catholics would align the Church with the “actions don’t have consequences” policy fundamental to no-fault divorce and its attendant escalation. A discussion of no-fault divorce might be added to the agenda of the World Meeting of Families being held in Philadelphia this September, the preliminary agenda of which includes a talk on blended families and another by an opponent of divorce reform, Stephanie Coontz, who has criticized legislative proposals to extend divorce waiting periods and require parents to attend classes providing information about conflict resolution and the effects of divorce on children.
Pope Francis has made it clear that the core teachings of the Catholic Church—including the permanency of marriage—will remain unchanged. But retaining the Church’s mandate that marriage is permanent while declining to support the faithful in their efforts to remain true would be a hollow act, tantamount to a double abandonment—first by spouses and then by the Church itself. And it does change things. Pope Francis said this about the relationship between the Church and the poor: “We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them.”
And may the Catholic Church and Pope Francis not abandon the standers, or mince words when it comes to protecting them.