Divorce’s Many Victims


(photo: Register Files)

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn — the archbishop of Vienna, the chief editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a Church leader who was considered a papabile during the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis — just celebrated his 70th birthday.

But despite his long and storied personal history, he still points to the childhood trauma of his parents’ divorce as a critical turning point in his emotional and spiritual life.

“It is so obvious that the first victims of divorce are always the children,” notes the cardinal in his page-one interview. When the father and mother separate, “something is always broken in the life of the child.”

Referencing the ongoing discussion within the Church about pastoral outreach to divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics, which will be a major issue at the October synod, he added: “I fully agree we have to speak about mercy and be merciful to the divorced and remarried, who often experience many sufferings and troubles. But before speaking about the suffering of the parents, we must speak about the suffering of the children.”

Cultural tolerance of divorce and self-justifying behavior that puts adult desires first are nothing new. Indeed, Jesus diagnosed our tendency to condone the need for divorce and whitewash its human toll in strikingly harsh terms: “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8).

The Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage marked the redemptive power of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross for the salvation of the world, and his Church offered the body of Christ the abundant graces that fused the bond between spouses joined through the sacrament of holy matrimony. The Church has never denied the brutal reality that some marriages cannot endure without inflicting greater harm on the entire household. Pope Francis acknowledged that truth in his June 24 catechesis on the family. The separation of the parents may be needed, he said, “when it comes to saving the weaker spouse or young children from more serious injuries caused by intimidation and violence, by humiliation and exploitation, by lack of involvement and indifference.”

But for most families, a commitment to permanence and fidelity also secures emotional, spiritual and financial stability. In tough times — sickness, joblessness and the frailty of old age — husband and wife know they will be side by side. Fifty years ago, our culture began to challenge the value of bearing with a spouse in a difficult marriage. The sexual revolution, the women’s movement and the rise of no-fault divorce all played a role. Within decades, however, the same turmoil that roiled the life of the young Christoph Schönborn forced many Americans to reassess the option of divorce.

“Research shows that two-thirds of divorces now end low-conflict marriages, where there is no abuse, violence or serious fighting. After those marriages end, the children suddenly struggle with a range of symptoms — anxiety, depression, problems in school — that they did not previously have,” Elizabeth Marquardt explained in a 2005 Washington Post column that summarized the study’s findings. Further, she learned that the children’s early struggles with their parents’ divorce would later shape their adult expectations: Many feared their own marriages would break apart and delayed making permanent commitments. While researchers like Marquardt have focused on the emotional toll that lingers long after a child’s parents have separated, other specialists have documented the economic and social impact of divorce. In his important study, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” Charles Murray showed how divorce shapes children’s future prospects. A rising divorce rate and a declining marriage culture among working-class white people over the past half century have handicapped the next generation’s chances of moving into the middle class.

Murray noted in his report that the rate of divorce among high-income whites with college degrees also increased in the wake of the ’60s. But afterward, as cultural elites experienced the toll of family breakups, divorce rates began a steady decline among the top 20%.

Now, more than ever, the Church must make sure its catechesis on marriage is effectively presented in Catholic schools and in CCD and marriage-preparation programs. Those efforts should feature practical information about the many unintended consequences of filing for divorce.

And Pope Francis is calling us to do something equally challenging. Since the beginning of his papacy, he has wanted the Church to function as a “field hospital” for all the broken families that have already experienced the hardship of divorce. So parishes should provide solid pastoral programs designed for divorced Catholics, but each Catholic should take personal responsibility for guiding these families into the center of parish life.

When the moment is propitious, that invitation includes parents who have divorced and civilly remarried. They will not be able to receive Communion, but the Pope has emphasized that they are “not excommunicated” (see story on page nine and related column in “Culture of Life”), and he wants their children to see that the entire family is welcome.

“If we also look at these new unions through the eyes of young children — and the young are watching — we see even more the urgency to develop a real welcome in our communities towards people who are living in such situations,” said Francis. “This is why it’s important that the style of the community, its language, its attitudes are always attentive to people, beginning with the smallest. They are the ones who suffer the most in these situations.”

The Holy Father presents us with a challenge that will not be easy to meet. Pastors, catechists and parents are asked to deepen the faithful’s commitment to marriage. Yet we must find a way to touch the lives of those who most need the healing power of God’s love and forgiveness.

This task requires a new attentiveness from the parish community, but also from the relatives of families that have been shattered by divorce.

The young Christoph Schönborn received love and support from an extended family and what he described as an already “intense, personal religious life.” With the knowledge that the children of divorce may be most in need of the grace of the sacraments, the warmth of a vibrant parish and the care of loving relatives, let us work together to construct a field hospital for broken families who yearn for healing and hope.