Are the Church’s Teachings on Sexuality Still ‘Good News’ for the Divorced?

COMMENTARY: Humanae Vitae’s 50th anniversary presaged a major casualty of the sexual revolution: children of divorce.

(photo: Main, Unsplash; book cover)

As the casualties of the sexual revolution continue to mount, it is providential that Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), published 50 years ago July 25, is back in the spotlight.

Western culture’s view of the meaning and purpose of human sexuality and marriage continues to morph; greater numbers of men and women — and, not infrequently, their children — in various “irregular circumstances” will struggle with how to sustain marital and sexual integrity in a culture preoccupied with sexual identity.

“Children are really the supreme gift of marriage,” states Humanae Vitae (8), “and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.”

Sadly, in the two-plus generations since Humanae Vitae’s publication, divorce has become commonplace, and the children of divorce who have borne the brunt of the emotional and spiritual fallout are now grown.

Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak, a collection of harrowing essays by 70 children of divorce, testifies to that sad legacy.

“There were multiple divorces and remarriages among my parents and stepparents,” one respondent writes. “A flowchart would be helpful.”

The voices of these long-silenced and mostly ignored men and women entreat us to begin a serious conversation about what is to be done for the current children of divorce in our families, churches and communities.

Their narratives also provide Christians with a distinct opportunity for evangelization on matters of marriage and sexual integrity.

Contrary to the claims of some, it is precisely the human experience of these people — the fallout of our collective retreat from Church teachings on sexuality and marriage — that point to the value of our “absolute sexual norms” and of Humanae Vitae itself.   

Individuals with same-sex attraction (SSA) constitute one such group. Men and women who have undergone unwanted divorces and their children constitute another. We have focused in our work on the latter two sub-groups.

While certainly there are important distinctions to be made between people with SSA and the divorced, the pathway to flourishing, proposed by the Church in true charity, can be the same for both — if we embrace and encourage it with full confidence in its value.  

In the face of unexpected and unwanted experiences (whether inborn or learned) and traumatic life events, like divorce, the committed pursuit of sexual integrity is more necessary today than it has ever been before.

It is unfortunate, then, that in recent times the universal Church has wavered in support of its own core teachings and vital mission.

Same-sex attracted, celibate pastor Sam Allsberry expressed a sentiment shared by many Catholics in his address to the Church of England’s General Synod last year (the Anglican bishops were reviewing, as have some within the Catholic hierarchy, the merits of the long-standing Christian view of marriage):

My question to the bishops is not, ‘Will you preserve this doctrine?’ it’s ‘Do you really believe in it? Is it good news for the world?’ ... Many of us have found it to be life-giving, as the message and teaching of Jesus always is.”

The need for family, community and Church support for lifelong, faithful marriage between one man and woman is equally pressing among Christians who are divorced against their will.  

Based on our direct and indirect knowledge of such individuals, we have reason to believe a substantial minority of them are persevering in their marriage vows in the face of incredible odds.

Much of their motivation lies in modeling for their children the value of marital fidelity and permanence with the goal of breaking the powerful, generational legacy of divorce. An essay for the Institute for Family Studies lays out the struggles such men and women heroically endure.

Years before Primal Loss, I personally attempted to steer a few suffering friends through the “moving-on funnel”: a resignation to civil divorce, followed by annulment as a means of “moving on” to the promise of a new romance, a better subsequent marriage, and thus a happy life.

After all, these spouses were often the victims, not the perpetrators, of marital harms like infidelity. Wouldn’t both parents and their children be happier if everyone moved on to new circumstances from what is seen as an obviously flawed and mistaken arrangement?

Discerning this script, followed again and again by Catholic families, friends, clergy and counselors, in theory is usually well-meaning, but in practice it can be misguided. It frequently lacks serious reflection on the disproportionate harm done when both spouses move on after divorce.   

Contrary to the popular “resiliency” narrative surrounding divorce, the adult respondents in Primal Loss are still reeling from the pain of parental divorce experienced decades ago. Their stories, while distinct, are characterized by a common theme: a feeling of being forgotten, “replaced” by a parent’s new girlfriend or boyfriend, a stepparent, stepsiblings or new half-siblings.

Often those new faces are living full time with the child’s parent and even in the child’s old home, while the child herself packs and moves weekly from house to house, from “new family” to “new family,” where each of the “new families” is whole, but the child’s family is gone.

The endless complications, emotional trauma and fallout from the parents’ “moving on” to new romance can turn the first dismal situation (parental divorce) into an outright existential crisis for the child.

Their experiences beckon us to carefully discern our role in the decision-making of an abandoned spouse.

One adult child of divorce writes:

The most damaging pain to a child is watching your parents find love with another mate other than your parent.”

Another observes:

“The happiness of the current romantic couple always trumps the happiness of the child. Always.”  

Protestants have a term for those spouses who remain true to a wayward spouse even in the wake of what may be a necessary separation and/or civil divorce: “standers.” Absent clear and enthusiastic support for this approach (both from within the Church and without), it simply does not occur to many faithful U.S. Catholics that “standing” might be the most compassionate option for the abandoned spouse and his or her children.  

Civil divorce and separation are sometimes necessary to ensure physical safety and legal protections, but the question of remaining faithful is a separate matter that can have vast emotional, spiritual and even physical implications for children of divorce.

Once a divorced parent enters the dating scene, children are often left behind, physically and emotionally — even when the adults don’t realize or intend it. One child of divorce recalls:

“I do remember seeing another woman in my father’s car shortly after their separation. I bawled myself to sleep. Not even my grandmother could make up stories for me to believe it was just a friend. She could give me no comfort. I was in a pain that was indescribable. Divorced parents … No dating!”

For an abandoned spouse, the loneliness, fear and stress experienced in the wake of betrayal by the one who promised to honor and protect can be overwhelming. The temptation to remove a wedding band and reorient toward dating and remarriage after an unwanted divorce is very strong.

Family, friends and clergy may, in turn, be tempted to view “moving on” as necessary for the renewed happiness of a divorced loved one. But the well-established generational nature of divorce points to our collective obligation to take the long view when a spouse we love is abandoned.

Pope Paul VI signaled the value of this approach to unwanted divorce implicitly in Humanae Vitae:

“Though this fidelity of husband and wife sometimes presents difficulties, no one has the right to assert that it is impossible; it is, on the contrary, always honorable and meritorious.” 

Sexual continence after divorce, and celibacy in the context of SSA or other struggles with sexual identity, are not signs of mental imbalance or oddity. Neither are they unrealistic for the average man or woman of goodwill, if they are given enthusiastic support by their families and their Church.

The question for Christians remains: Do we really believe God’s plan for marriage and sexuality is good news for the world?

Hilary Towers, a non-resident scholar at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, is a psychologist and author.

Leila Miller is an author and the editor of Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak.

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