America’s Catholic bishops have taken on a cause that can win broad public support - fighting to support marriage, as Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah put it at the annual fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November. Public debate at the moment is focused on whether homosexual unions should be considered marriage. Bishop Boland said in a press conference, "Marriage is in crisis, and its value will be eroded unless we are willing to point out that same-sex unions are not equivalent to marriage."
But the crisis of marriage is not so much the impact that gay marriage might have; it is the destruction of heterosexual marriage by divorce.
At the press conference, I asked Bishop Boland: "While you define marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman, the fact is there have been 38 million divorces since 1970 affecting almost as many kids. What is your position on reforming no-fault divorce laws, which make it possible for one person unilaterally to divorce another? Shouldn’t a marriage that was entered into by two people, be exited only with the mutual consent of both people, unless there is a grievous fault such as adultery or physical abuse? Do you think no-fault divorce laws should be changed to require the mutual consent of husband and wife if there are no major faults involved, especially if children are involved?"
Bishop Boland gamely replied: "We should look into it. We should do everything we can to support stable marriages. Marriage is in a very real crisis situation in our nation." After the press conference, he added: "I agree there must be change of civil law. The states make it easy to divorce, which is a tragedy, creating conflict for the children and a whole quagmire of fights by the couple over property and custody."
Bishop Boland is right. A child of divorce is 3 times more likely than a child from an intact home to be expelled from school or to conceive a child out of wedlock as a teenager, 6 times as likely to live in poverty, 12 times as apt to be incarcerated and 14 times more likely to be physically abused, according to the Heritage Foundation.
Furthermore, the greatest impact on children of divorce is not while they are childrenbut when they became adults. Judith S. Wallerstein tracked 100 children of 60 divorces for 25 years and wrote a landmark book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (2000). The unexpected legacy hits when children enter adulthood. Two-thirds are unable to form lasting bonds with someone of the opposite sex. Of 100 adult children of divorce, only 60 married, of whom 24 have already divorced.
This is not a legacy parents, the church or the state should bequeath to innocent children. That is one reason why the Catholic Church has taken a consistent moral position against divorce. Another is the impact of divorce on adults. In his book, The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness (1977), James J. Lynch reveals that divorced men are twice as likely to die in any given year from heart disease, stroke, hypertension and cancer as married men. And death for the divorced is four times more likely to occur by auto accidents and suicide; seven times higher by cirrhosis of the liver and pneumonia. Similarly, divorced women are two to three times as likely to die of cancer as married women. This provides evidence that Jesus was right when he said, What God has joined together, let man not separate.
Why should two people be bound together if they no longer want to be bonded? So often it is just one of the two who is tempted to quit, while the other wants to work at making a success of the marriage, writes Russell Shaw in Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine. Unfortunately, no-fault divorce law allows one person to declare in court that the marriage is irreconcilable. If a spouse counters that the marriage is reconcilable, that is no defense; the judge simply forces the divorce on an unwilling partner. Before the first no-fault divorce provision was adopted in California in 1969, a partner had to agree to the divorce. He or she had leverage to press for genuine reconciliation or, failing that, to demand alimony as well as child support or possession of the house. The price was high enough that some warring partners reconciled their differences. In other cases, at least a more equitable settlement was possible. Unfortunately, virtually every state now allows no-fault divorce. In her book, Stolen Vows, Judy Parejko writes, Courts have stolen peoples’ ability to make promises to each other.
Three states have passed a modest reform of no-fault divorce: the Covenant Marriage Law first adopted in 1997 by Louisiana under the leadership of then-Representative Tony Perkins, who is currently president of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. Couples are given a choice to enter either a standard marriage or a fortified covenant marriage in which the couple solemnly declares that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman who agree to live together as husband and wife for as long as both may live. We have received premarital counseling on the nature, purposes and responsibilities of marriage. We have read the Covenant Marriage Act, and we understand that a covenant marriage is for life. If we experience marital difficulties, we commit ourselves to take all reasonable efforts to preserve our marriage, including marital counseling. In effect, the law permitted couples to waive their rights to no-fault divorce and to choose a marriage license written in permanent ink, not one with disappearing ink. Divorce is possible, but only after counseling and for such serious faults as adultery, abandonment, physical or sexual abuse, habitual intemperance or living apart for two years. Similar laws passed in Arizona and Arkansas.
Covenant Marriage Laws held great promise in prompting couples to work harder at saving their marriages for two reasons. First, Catholic leaders of Retrouvaille, a weekend retreat for troubled marriages, report that they can save four out of five deeply troubled marriages. Each weekend is led by Catholic couples whose own marriages had once nearly failed and by a Catholic priest (see www.retrouvaille.org). Second, a study at the University of Chicago by Linda Waite found that 86 percent of unhappily married people, if they stick to their vows for five yearsreport having a happy marriage five years later.
But what have been the results of covenant marriage laws? Only two percent of those marrying in Louisiana have signed up for this more secure marriage. In Arkansas, in 2002 and through May 20, 2003, there were 48,979 marriages but only 100 covenant marriages. Why so few? Clergy marry 86 percent of all couples. Perhaps pastors did not encourage couples to sign up for the Covenant Marriage. Why not? The population of Louisiana is 53 percent Catholic. Surely Catholic priests know that the Covenant Marriage Law comes closer to traditional Catholic opposition to divorce than the standard marriage, which dissolves as soon as one person is unhappy.
Clearly a more substantial reform is needed. Allen M. Parkman, a lawyer and an economist at the University of New Mexico, suggests a major reform in his book, Good Intentions Gone Awry: No-Fault Divorce and the American Family (2000). He proposes permitting no-fault divorce early in marriage, before the birth of children, when the damage of marital failure is lower. But if the couple makes the decision to have children, he would require mutual consent for any divorce. Parkman argues that would encourage spouses to make sacrifices that benefit the marriage, such as one partner giving up a career to care for children. There would be fewer divorces for trivial reasons. And divorce by mutual consent would be more equitable. A marriage entered into by two people willingly should not end without mutual consent, unless there is grievous fault.
If America’s Catholic bishops called for a well-designed reform of no-fault divorce, they could put the issue on the agenda of every state legislature in 2004. It could become an election year issue on which candidates would have to take a position. Some states would pass the reform that would be a model for other states, what Jesus called a city on a hill.
At their meeting, the Catholic bishops of the United States took an important first step to revitalize marriage. But they must move from simply opposing gay marriage to fighting for the reform of heterosexual marriage, which affects millions of families.
Most Catholics and Protestants would warmly applaud such an initiative.