It’s been about seven years since my Mom sat me and my sister down and told us with tears that Dad was moving out and they were getting a divorce. A lot has happened between now and then, as you could imagine, but nevertheless we still occasionally find ourselves dealing with the aftermath of the divorce. That usually gets brought out in a real way around the holidays. While ritualized time with family provides rest and nourishment, this time of year also adds a certain amount of stress to many people’s lives, especially for people with divorced parents.
Spending Thanksgiving and Christmas in two places is hard if you don’t have the gift of bilocation. It means Dad doesn’t wake up with his kids on Christmas morning and Mom is left at home alone when we drive to our second Christmas celebration.
So I read with a large sense of empathy an article that America recently published by four children of divorce who feel that refusing the Eucharist to Catholics who have divorced and remarried gives the proper justice owed to the children of divorce. But if I’m honest, I was also unsettled by what I read.
It led me to reflect on some of the lessons I learned while learning to grieve and forgive my own parents—and God—for their divorce.
The church needs to do way more than talk about admitting those who remarried to Communion.
While much of the discussion at and around the Synod on the Family centered on the issue of Communion for divorced Catholics, the commentary certainly fell short. More could have been said about other family issues, but also about the issue of divorce itself.
The annulment process, involving tribunals and testimonies, is an important but legalistic process with pastoral implications. Even if the process is expedited and free of cost, where are the structures in place to accompany those dealing with divorce on a spiritual and pastoral level?
The church should take every opportunity to strengthen and support marriages. And we should give thanks for when it does. But too many of its members are walking around wounded in the shadow of confidentiality and gossip that divorce brings. And to focus all or most pastoral efforts on those currently married or preparing for marriage is to abandon a generation of people who are still reeling from the effects of their divorce.
The church cannot turn a blind eye, applying a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ approach to divorce—leaving it up to the courts to decide. The first interaction between the Body of Christ and the divorcee should not be at a request for an annulment or a second marriage.
Divorce hurts everyone involved—but children are especially vulnerable.
Children in divorce are faced with a slew of difficult questions. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, divorce deals a heavy blow to a child’s sense of security and can lead to a number of both physical and mental illnesses.
But there are also deep spiritual scars left. Pope Francis, in a Wednesday audience this summer, reflected on the wounds divorce inflicts on the souls of children:
Despite our seemingly evolved sensitivity, and all our refined psychological analyses, I ask myself if we are not just anaesthetizing ourselves to the wounds in children’s souls.... We talk a lot about behavioral problems, mental health, the well-being of the child, about the anxiety of parents and their children.... But do we even know what a spiritual wound is? Do we feel the weight of the mountain that crushes the soul of a child in those families where members mistreat and hurt one another to the point of breaking the bonds of marital fidelity?... And these wounds leave a mark that lasts their whole lives.
I would only add that nothing can unravel all the church’s work to build up the sanctity of marriage like a child witnessing the collapse of their parents’ union.
These are questions and issues that priests, youth ministers and religious education teachers need to be equipped to respond to. This—rather than excluding their parents from the sacraments with no path of penitence—is what true pastoral and theological accompaniment should look like.
But—God’s justice isn’t like ours.
It almost goes without argument that children are crushed by divorce. It’s a near universal that crimes against children are those that merit the highest level of scrutiny. So what would be the justice owed to a child of divorce?
We can learn a lesson from the crucifixion. As theologian Mark Heim writes,
Jesus’ death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours. God used our own sin to save us (emphasis mine).
Jesus did not need to die to fulfill a cosmic order of justice. It was our need for punishment, retribution and scapegoating that led to his death. This should teach us something about the huge chasm between what we humans believe about justice and what God does.
And so, does admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, or providing them with a penitential path, deny the justice owed to a child? As Jesus says to Peter, and to us, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matt. 16:23).
That answer might frustrate us. It frustrated the brother of the Prodigal Son, too.
Something I look forward to during the holidays is being able to go to Mass with my family. This year I will stand next to my mother (who has not remarried, for the record) and proclaim, with the rest of those who have come to worship the living God, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Because, after all, who really is worthy?
That word from God is both abundantly clear and confounding to the human heart: “You are. I love you. Yes.”
Zac Davis is an editorial assistant at America.