Unrealistic and unmerciful: a longer response to Austen Ivereigh
“The doctor knows, you see. And it is serious. But he will not treat you. He will let the illness grow. And he will smile at you, and talk about symptoms, and discuss your personal growth and give you something for the pain. And tell you it is not really illness at all”.
Austen Ivereigh’s latest Crux article, asks for a response to a concrete situation. Taking the example in his article and making some reasonable assumptions, we are left with the following:
- A Catholic man and a woman are married in the Church. The marriage has no impediment and is consummated.
- Accordingly, the marriage is valid and cannot be dissolved by any power. Only the death of one spouse can do that.
- Subsequently, children are conceived and born to the couple.
- The husband is then abusive (it is unclear if physically or in some other way).
- The husband then leaves and contracts a civil marriage.
- The wife then contracts a civil marriage to provide for her children, and engages in an on-going sexual relationship.
- Subsequently, the wife wishes to be admitted to the sacraments of Reconciliation and to Holy Communion.
If I understand correctly, Ivereigh proposes that this may be possible, conditional upon the wife engaging in an approved discernment process by a pastor, but without giving up the sexual nature of the new relationship.
This sounds pastoral and merciful. Sadly, it is not. At the heart of this proposal is a refusal to face reality. It does not look at the specific case. It does not address the consequences that flow from the proposal. Instead, it repeats a mantra rather dealing with the situation. To be clear: it makes the situation of the wife worse, the situation of the husband worse, the situation of their new partners worse, the situation of the children worse. It has serious societal and religious consequences. It is as if the doctor, who was alluded to in the introduction above, refused to treat us, and simply let our sickness overtake us.
Let us turn to the diagnosis.
1. Character of marriage impugned
Sacramental marriage is a covenant, a total gift of self. It is also something absolutely concrete, like a diamond, a cathedral or a city. It simply exists - there is “one flesh” – and it cannot be undone, save by death. In other words, it is a little like a good version of the One Ring from Lord of the Rings. It is only in the fire of death, in the Mount Doom of our lives, that it can be unmade.
In the proposal, marriage is not a covenant, but a contract. A contract can be terminated if one party breaches it, but marriage cannot. Here, we still have a valid first marriage, but it emptied of significance, meaning and duty. It exists, but does not matter. There is nothing left there but wrapping. The second union is the important one, the second partner the beloved. The original love is left, bereft. Where has that love gone? Where the fidelity? Where the sacrifice? Where are the words that were said? “I will never leave you, my love, I will never depart from you, my dearest”.
It should break your heart to read these words.
2. Heroism spurned
The affirmation of the second relationship, especially with an admission of the wife to Holy Communion, effectively closes the door to the reconciliation of the original marriage. How can the wife return, if they both have new partners? Habit and time will creep up on them.
I have in mind a relative of mine, who was a similar situation at the beginning of the 20th century. Her husband left and ran away from Europe to the United States. The wife was left holding their baby girl. In those times, that journey was to the end of the world. But the wife, believing in her marriage, was not dismayed. She left her entire life and followed her husband, with no GPS, no internet, past New York and into the Mid-West. Somehow, she found him. Somehow, they reconciled.
3. Non-spousal sex
What is the character of the sex between the wife and her new partner? Is it a sin? Clearly, if indissolubility is preserved, the wife is having sex with someone who is not her husband. Austen clearly has an allergy to the word “adultery”, but what is the nature of this sex? Is it not, at the very least, fornication?
And if sex between the civilly married is not a sin, why not between other couples?
4. The effect on souls
If the new relationships are sinful, the proposal sanitises them. But sin is as objective, and as real, as marriage is. If we pretend it is not there, this does not dispel it. Christ, when he healed the paralytic, first forgave him his sin – because sin is more serious than total physical incapacity. It is better to have your hand cut off rather than sin. It is better to have your eyes gouged out rather than sin. That said, is it pastoral to leave people in their sin? What did the Good Shepherd do?
4. The serial relationship
In the proposal above, if the wife leaves the second partner, can she go through a discernment process again? How many times?
5. Societal effect
The lived examples of husband and wife have a powerful societal effect, primarily on their children but also on their friends and family. By cementing the new relationships, we are saying the original marriage did not matter. Rather than coming together, people take sides. Parties are formed, and division grows.
I have seen the effects first hand, in cases where marriages have failed. The entire circle of friends is thrown into doubt. Did we participate in a wedding? What we felt, was it a lie? Were the spoken vows just words, just air? The doubt infects their own relationships and their certainty in marriage.
How are we to teach the children, in this concrete case? It is a given that better and earlier marriage preparation should be given. Does not this lived example undercut it to the core? Does it not undermine the education?
These are serious, concrete issues. They should be faced boldly and addressed without delay.