ROCKY RIVER, Ohio — “We have four children.”
Such is the fairly normal way Bai Macfarlane describes her family. Except, in the eyes of the secular courts, there is no we: Macfarlane and her husband have been divorced since 2004.
But as far as the Church is concerned, she and her husband are still married. So Macfarlane is remaining faithful to their vows, in spite of the separation, civil divorce and a separated spouse who does not share her commitment to the indissolubility of marriage.
“The culture says: Once you’re separated and divorced, your marriage is over. Your marriage is ended; you’re single again,” Macfarlane said. “That’s not true.”
Macfarlane did everything in her power to stop the divorce, fighting it all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which did not accept her appeal. Even as she was fighting her own battles, she founded an apostolate, Mary’s Advocates, to help others like her. The apostolate aids those defending their marriages against accusations of nullity and provides spiritual succor to those seeking to remain faithful in a separation. (The name is inspired by her devotion to Mary.)
“We support people who know in their heart of hearts that their marriage isn’t over or ended. Yes, they’re separated and divorced, but that’s just a civil matter. That has nothing to do with truth,” Macfarlane said.
Such commitment mirrors Christ’s love for the Church. “We look to Jesus. And what does Jesus do for people who betray him? He doesn’t turn around and say, ‘Oh, they’re not my people anymore.’ He hangs in there. So we hang in their, being faithful to our marriages,” Macfarlane said.
Anticipating the Synod
In a way, her decade-old ministry anticipated the call issued by the recent synod on the family to show “appreciation and support” for the “witness of those who, even in difficult conditions, do not undertake a new union, remaining faithful to the sacramental link.” (See Paragraph 83 in the final report.)
Mary’s Advocates fills a gap in marriage counseling, according to George Robinson, one of its volunteers. On one end of the spectrum are counseling, spiritual retreats and programs for marriages in which both parties want it to work. On the other end are marriages in which both parties don’t want the marriage to be saved. But what about those in the middle — marriages in which one spouse is committed to the marriage but the other wants to move on?
That’s where Mary’s Advocates comes in.
Robinson should know: He has been there before. “It’s so hard to find somebody else who has the same view: being ‘My spouse left me, but I’m still married,’” Robinson explained.
For faithfully separated spouses like Robinson, monthly conference calls run by Mary’s Advocates have become a true godsend. “It’s a time to be able to speak to people who get it, and that’s very special to us,” Robinson said.
The calls usually feature prayer and discussion of a chapter of The Gift of Self: A Spiritual Companion for Separated and Divorced Faithful to the Sacrament of Marriage; it is followed by informal conversation, according to Robinson, who organizes the meetings. The conversation continues through an ongoing Yahoo discussion group.
The numbers of those who participate is small — Robinson once used the term “remnant” — but Mary’s Advocates has a broader reach through Gift of Self, for which it is the publisher, along with the many educational and spiritual resources available on its two websites, MarysAdvocates.org and SeparatedFaithful.org.
One California man credits The Gift of Self with helping him to reconcile with his estranged wife after about seven years of separation. Craig Walterscheid married his wife, Beatriz, in November 2002. But three years later, they separated amid growing tensions and arguments about everything from cleanliness to money management.
Walterscheid said Beatriz took their daughter to live with her parents in Mexico.
The plan was for Craig to join them later. “But as it turned out, we grew apart because of being away from each other,” he said.
After a failed attempt to visit in 2007, Walterscheid lost communication with his wife. “I kind of threw in the towel,” he said.
The turning point was when he came across a copy of Gift of Self, which prompted him to find forgiveness for his wife and in-laws. He also started praying for Beatriz.
In January 2014, with renewed hope, he traveled to Mexico. He remembers Beatriz’s smile as she greeted him at her parents’ house. “Seven years I hadn’t seen her felt like seven months; though all this time had passed, that was like water under the bridge,” Walterscheid said, describing the power of forgiveness. The couple was reconciled immediately.
Not all of the stories coming out of Mary’s Advocates have such happy endings.
Mark Feliz, of Colorado Springs, Colo., says Mary’s Advocates proved invaluable in helping him to draft a response letter to his separated wife’s formal charge that their marriage was invalid. Feliz successfully defended his marriage. Now, he must remain faithful to those vows even as his “divorced spouse” — as he calls her — is disinterested in any form of reconciliation.
“I have to ask myself, ‘Why do I remain faithful to a disinterested spouse?’” Feliz said. His answer: his desire to continue to receive the Eucharist in good conscience.
Fighting the No-Fault Divorce Mentality
Beyond providing support for those like Feliz and Robinson, Mary’s Advocates has also made it its mission to urge the Church in the United States to be more proactive in intervening in troubling marriages and staving off no-fault civil divorce. Though the Church in its official teaching remains resolute in its insistence on the indissolubility of marriage, Macfarlane says the no-fault divorce mentality has seeped into the way U.S. Catholics think about marriage.
She points to her own case as an example. “I was frankly disappointed at the hands-off attitude that I got from a pastor where my husband was going to church and from chancery officials whom I sought help from. The advice from an unnamed chancery official was that it was time for me to hire a good divorce lawyer,” Macfarlane recalled.
She likens that to going to Planned Parenthood for pregnancy guidance. “No-fault divorce courts know as little about marital rights, obligations, natural law, canon law and divine law as Planned Parenthood knows about the right to life,” she said.
All she says she is asking the Church to do is enforce what it already teaches about marriage, separation and divorce in the Catechism and various canon laws — many of which seem neglected or forgotten in this country’s no-fault divorce climate. For example, there’s Canon Law 1151, which permits separation only for a “legitimate cause.”
Then there’s Canon Law 1059, which states that only the “civil effects” of marriage should be handled by civil authorities.
For Macfarlane, that means the Church should be more involved in cases of separation. “I ask that two Catholics get a separation plan that is in accord with divine law, instead of any plan that is orchestrated by the no-fault divorce lawyers and judges,” she said.
Greater Understanding Needed
Donald Asci, a Franciscan University of Steubenville theologian who specializes in marriage and the family, agrees with Macfarlane’s calls for reform.
“I think the work of Mary’s Advocates is drawing much needed attention to a serious but often neglected problem in the life of the Church. Far too many Catholics are confused about the immorality of divorce and Catholic teaching on spousal abandonment, and the situation has led to many injustices that are glossed over by individual Catholics seeking to divorce their spouses and by the Church representatives who are providing these people with pastoral care. In the process, we have lost a clear sense of the evil done by the one who divorces his or her spouse and of the evil suffered by the one who is abandoned in this way,” Asci said.
Asci says “most dioceses” need to reform both teaching and pastoral practice to better help Catholics in troubled marriages. That means involvement in arranging “acceptable separations” when extreme difficulties justify them, condemning spousal abandonment and caring for its victims.
Said Asci, “I think across the board we need a greater understanding of and confidence in the bond of marriage and the sacramental grace of marriage.”
Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.