Catholics Are Not Immune to Domestic Violence


Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), The Translation of St. Rita of Cascia; St. Rita is the patroness of abused spouses.
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), The Translation of St. Rita of Cascia; St. Rita is the patroness of abused spouses. (photo: Public domain)

The big threat was always: “You’re not making me happy. If you don’t make me happy, I’ll go find someone who will.” And when you’re married with quite a few children, a stay-at-home mom with no income of your own, you do anything to protect your children. So that threat was pretty powerful.

I can see now that, from the very beginning, he used emotional manipulation to keep me thinking that I was incapable of caring for myself and the children and that, you know, we needed him, so I had to keep him happy. It was kind of like, if I wanted us to be safe, then I had to keep him happy. And yet, within me, I knew we weren’t really safe. But I couldn’t see any other options.


With these words, Christie (not her real name) tried to explain in an interview with the Register why she stayed with her husband for so long, despite the years — and multiple kinds — of abuse he inflicted.

From the outside, Christie’s family appeared to be a normal, devout Catholic family — from their practice and knowledge of the faith to the fact that they were having lots of kids. No one would have guessed what was going on behind closed doors. Christie and the children had to be incessantly careful not to upset the father of the family, or they’d suffer emotional, verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Not even the children realized, however, how much worse it was for their mother, whose physical abuse was more intense and who also endured psychological, spiritual and sexual abuse for decades.

“People who have never been in this type of domestic-violence situation often cannot understand why the victim stays in the abusive situation,” Timothy Lock, a clinical psychologist, told the Register in an email interview. “However, as you learn more about the current situation, more about the victim’s past, and more about the paralysis the victim experiences, it is a miracle that anyone ever leaves these cycles of abuse.”

For Christie, the sexual abuse began when the couple had four small children and decided they should abstain from relations during fertile times to postpone another pregnancy. One night when her husband wanted to be intimate, Christie reminded him that she was very fertile; he agreed that they should wait. Later that night, however, she was awoken by “incredible pain” to find her husband reneging on their agreement to abstain — without consulting her or getting her consent. She naturally objected and tried to stop him; he told her to be quiet, forcing himself upon her. Some weeks later, when she told him that she was indeed pregnant, he blamed her: “You should have tried harder to stop me.”

Despite this injustice, Christie did try harder when it happened again, but her husband overpowered her. This pattern repeated itself again and again. The more she resisted, the more violent he became, sometimes nearly smothering her with a pillow to keep her quiet.


Hidden Hurt

Unfortunately, such abuse is not uncommon. Most of us don’t realize the extent of the problem. For instance,

  • The “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence” survey (NIPSV) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that 30% of U.S. women suffer domestic violence in their lifetime.
  • The CDC reports on its “Preventing Teen Dating Violence” webpage that 26% of women experience domestic violence before the age of 18.
  • The NIPSV survey also reports that 1 in 5 U.S. women have experienced rape or attempted rape sometime in their lifetime.
  • While more males die from homicide than females in the U.S. (4 to 1), women are still three times more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than men are, according to the CDC.


The magnitude of marital rape is even less recognized — neither the numbers nor the extent of the harm it causes.

“In fact,” says Cleveland State University law professor Patricia Falk in a report on rape within marriage, “compelling evidence supports the conclusion that marital rape is more harmful than rape outside of marriage.”

“Research indicates that wife rape victims are more likely to be raped multiple times compared with stranger and acquaintance rape victims,” she says in the same report. “In research with wife rape victims … at least 1/3 of the women [report] being raped more than 20 times over the course of their relationship. ...”

Falk also quotes Michelle Anderson, a leading rape law expert and president of Brooklyn College: “‘[C]ontrary to popular belief, wife rape tends to be more violent and psychologically damaging than stranger rape.’ The sense of betrayal suffered by marital partners is considerable.”

If that weren’t bad enough, studies also show a connection between marital rape and homicide: “Every day, three women in the U.S. are murdered by their current or former husbands or boyfriends, and a leading indicator of their deaths is sexual assault,” writes Erin Rhodes in an article quoted by Falk. “David Adams, in his book Why Do They Kill? found that three-quarters of women he interviewed who survived nearly fatal attacks said their abusive partner had raped them.”


Christians and Domestic Violence

Similar to the Church’s response to the current clerical sexual-abuse scandal, the Catholic response to domestic abuse and its victims has too often been distressingly inadequate.

In May, the Institute for Family Studies, a nonpartisan, nonsectarian and not-for-profit organization aimed at improving marriage and family life, released its annual report. While “The Ties That Bind: Is Faith a Global Force for Good or Ill in The Family?” is mostly encouraging, it also includes some disturbing findings.

“The Ties That Bind” report looks at “the relationship between religion and four important [family] outcomes — relationship quality, fertility, domestic violence and infidelity — in 11 countries in the Americas, Europe and Oceania, … drawing on data from the World Values Survey and the Global Family and Gender Survey.”

Having faith, the report concludes, was found to give no advantage when it comes to domestic violence: “Measures of intimate partner violence (IPV) — which includes physical abuse, as well as sexual abuse, emotional abuse and controlling behaviors — do not differ in a statistically significant way by religiosity. Our results suggest, then, that religion is not protective against domestic violence for this sample of couples. However, religion is not an increased risk factor for domestic violence in these countries, either.”

This is not only sad but also strange, considering that religious faith does positively impact all the other outcomes studied. “In many respects, this report indicates that faith is a force for good in contemporary family life,” the report states. “Men and women who share an active religious life, for instance, enjoy higher levels of relationship quality and sexual satisfaction compared to their peers … have more children and are more likely to marry.”

While the report found there were no differences between adherents of different faiths, levels of faith did make a difference: “It seems that nominal religiosity may present the most risk, with both the nonreligious and the religiously devout being less likely to perpetrate IPV than are those who attend religious services infrequently.”

Perhaps most striking to a Christian audience is the finding of sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox quoted in this report: “Conservative Protestant men in the U.S. who are active in a religious community are among the least likely to physically hurt their spouses,” Wilcox said, “while conservative Protestant men who are not active in a religious community are the most likely to be abusive.”

Another troubling aspect of the intersection of faith and family violence is the common tactic of spiritual exploitation. Christie’s husband would often say, “Your body is not your own,” “Wives are to be submissive to their husbands,” and “You have to forgive me, no matter how many times I do it.”

She was surprised to discover in the U.S. bishops’ 2002 document “When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence against Women” that manipulation of those very texts is typical:

“Abusive men often … take [a] biblical text and distort it to support their right to batter. … As bishops, we condemn the use of the Bible to support abusive behavior in any form. A correct reading of Scripture leads people to an understanding of the equal dignity of men and women and to relationships based on mutuality and love.”

Spiritual abuse of the wife also has long-lasting effects on the children. Multiple studies have shown how influential a father’s religious practice is on his children — positively or negatively. “A lot of my kids right now won’t go to church because they see the hypocrisy,” Christie told the Register. “And that’s going to be part of their healing journey: reconciling who God the Father is to them, now that they’ve learned who their [earthly] father really is.”


The Church’s Response

Sadly, most people don’t know how to respond to accounts of abuse.

A young Catholic woman we’ll call Belle recounted in an email interview with the Register that, after leaving an abusive marriage, her and the abuser’s circle of friends and broader spiritual community were skeptical of her story:

“No one believes one of their tribe intentionally does these terrible things.

“And I learned that when it comes to domestic abuse, people — nice and lovely and well-meaning people — say they aren’t comfortable advocating for the victim because they ‘didn’t personally witness’ the abuse, or instead of responding with empathy and patience, they offer glassy-eyed platitudes and move along or talk about forgiveness instead of safety. So victims speak out less and less, and abusers are free to exploit.”

The U.S. bishops acknowledged in their “When I Call for Help” document that the problem exists with those in ministry too: “Clergy may hesitate to preach about domestic violence because they are unsure what to do if an abused woman approaches them for help.” Thus the bishops called on “priests, deacons and lay ministers … to see themselves as ‘first responders’ who listen to and believe the victim’s story, help her to assess the danger to herself and her children, and refer her to counseling and other specialized services. ...” 

They also urged Church ministers “to hold [abusers] accountable for their behavior” even as they “support the abusive person as he seeks specialized counseling to change his abusive behavior.” At the same time, they wisely warn, “Couple counseling is not appropriate and can endanger the victim’s safety.”

The bishops in their document also reassure victims in various ways and reiterate that Church teaching on the permanence of marriage does not require abused spouses to remain in contact with their abusers.

Similarly, Pope Francis pointed out in 2017, “Domestic violence and various forms of enslavement, … rather than a show of masculine power, are craven acts of cowardice. The verbal, physical and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union.”

Dominican Father Chuck Dahm, the director of Chicago’s archdiocesan domestic-violence outreach, in an email interview with the Register explained: “Victims of domestic violence often suffer excruciating pain; the abuse opens wounds that fester for years and maybe a lifetime.”

Father Dahm’s outreach program offers victims a space to experience how “Jesus wants to heal those wounds and to lift up the downtrodden, so they can feel better about themselves and experience God’s love.”

Lock said he believes that education in the Catholic understanding of the profound dignity of the human person can be part of the healing for the victims.

Besides the Chicago archdiocesan outreach, another group offering support on the ground is Catholics for Family Peace, which has been offering resources, shareable graphics for social media and educational programs since 2011. Its mission is to share “the Church’s teachings on the promotion of family peace and the prevention of family abuse through education, research, practice and policy.”


The Rest of Christie’s Story

Christie’s husband followed the usual abuse cycle: Sometimes he would apologize and give her expensive gifts. But soon the abuse would start again. Wanting to be a faithful Catholic wife, she kept trying harder to make him happy and never considered divorce.

This went on for nearly three decades.

Eventually, she became deeply depressed, to the point of needing hospitalization. This, too, played into his hand. He’d tell her that no one would believe her word over his: “You’re the crazy one.” And the medications she took induced deep sleep, which just made it easier for him to rape her.

“Domestic violence makes the victims feel crazy,” psychologist Lock explained. “The emotional and spiritual abuse play serious mind tricks while the physical pain seems to support the abuser’s brainwashing.”

The clinical psychologist continued, “Lies from childhood seem to be reinforced by the abuser, and the victim often believes that she deserves the abuse. It is very confusing, and when there are children involved, the abused spouse just wants to have a peaceful home — and goes through extensive attempts to somehow placate the abuser, calm the children and salvage the marriage. But it is an intense battle for the perpetual optimist (the victim) to accept the harsh reality that the situation cannot be fixed.”

Christie and her husband met with multiple priests and pastoral counselors, but her husband simply lied and blamed everything on her. Christie was too afraid to contradict him; she wouldn’t say anything but would simply cry. No one asked her, “Do you want to come see me alone?”

Nothing improved. In fact, it was getting worse.

Finally, Christie decided to leave. She didn’t want a divorce, but she felt it was the only option.

“We’re called to authentic love in our marriages,” Christie told the Register, “and that means always wanting the good for the other. Abused women striving to be Godly, faithful wives need to be asking for discernment too, to figure out, ‘What, really, is the good for my husband?’ Because sometimes what they’re telling us is good for them isn’t necessarily what God would say is good for them.

“I realized that as spouses we are called to help each other obtain the ultimate good, and the ultimate good is heaven. We saw therapists, priests, but he wasn’t stopping. He didn’t want to stop. And I couldn’t let him keep us all in the darkness. So, as painful as divorce is, I had to choose the ultimate good — not just for myself, but for the father of my children and my children. Being in the darkness wasn’t going to get us to heaven.”

When asked why she was willing to share her story now, Christie replied, “I think people — especially in the Church — need to learn how to help women discern, ‘Are the problems in my marriage really because I’m not being selfless enough? Or is it because I’m being abused? No matter how selfless I am, this man cannot be contented.’”

For Christie, the hope of helping others and offering other families hope for healing was a motivation to speak out, and she says it is already bearing fruit. “The healing is happening — for me and the children. We’re already able to help others — just by the witness of the changes in our lives; people can see it.”

Jeanette Flood is a freelance writer living in Ohio with her husband and their six children. Her book, Eight Ways of Loving God Revealed by Love Himself, was recently published by Ignatius Press.