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Marriage is the most difficult area of pastoral work /© Matt Madd. Flickr
Marriage is the most difficult area of pastoral work /© Matt Madd. Flickr

Dr. Kania: A State of Disunion

Part I

Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22, tells the tale of a United States Air Force bombardier in World War II, John Yossarian, who defines as his enemy anyone who is attempting to kill him. Armed with this definition of the enemy – Yossarian is at war not only with the Germans who are trying to shoot him out of the sky – but also the United States government – who have helped put him in the predicament of being up in the air in the first place; being used, as he sees it, as target practice for the Germans. Throughout the course of the novel Yossarian devises a number of ways in which to avoid flying missions – his ruse most often being, to feign a liver complaint and thus see himself declared medically unfit for duty.

No insane person would ever ask themselves to be declared insane, as they would not know themselves to be insane – so any candidate who presents themselves to be discharged on grounds of insanity must in fact be sane

The title of Heller’s novel relates to the Twenty-Second guideline that the surgeons of the United States military were using in order to ‘catch out’ soldiers who were seeking to have themselves declared insane. The conundrum or ‘catch’ can be explained as follows: no insane person would ever ask themselves to be declared insane, as they would not know themselves to be insane – so any candidate who presents themselves to be discharged on grounds of insanity must in fact be sane. So the soldier who was truly insane would still be out in the field or in the air; but as they would never present themselves, they would never be declared to be unfit for duty. As such, no soldier can ever be declared insane. However as Yossarian clearly reasoned any sane man can tell you that it is insane for a sane man to wish to fly dangerous missions – but in this self-same recognition of the insanity of the act – lies the key to the individual’s sanity.

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The issue that Heller’s classic novel does not discuss is whether war makes a man insane, or whether one is insane by choosing to go to war in the first place. Please keep this in mind as we now discuss the core topic of this piece – marriage.

47% of all marriages will end in divorce

During a recent wedding ceremony the celebrant, a Catholic priest with many year’s experience –  chose for his homily to speak predominately, and candidly about the various causes of divorce. A long-standing friend of the brides’s family, the priest wished to address the fact that the groom came not only from a broken home, but from a personal background in which his mother and father were not even on speaking terms. Conversely the bride’s parents and their relations, seated on the other side of the nave, were families of long and happy marital unions. The bride’s family were also committed Catholics – the groom’s family claimed no religious affiliation. Nervous coughs and raised eyebrows ensued during the twenty minute homily. Some attendees glanced up – some glanced down, but no one seemed to wish to make eye contact with the guests on the other side of the aisle. All this took place while standing in the sanctuary a very beautiful bride and a handsome groom held hands – both seemingly oblivious to what the priest was saying. The statistic – “47% of all marriages will end in divorce”, was repeated at least a dozen times during the course of the homily. At the conclusion of the Liturgy the bridal party exited, smiles and handshakes all round – the drama fading out, as it so often does, to the music of Felix Mendelsohn.

Both Catholic and non-Catholic alike are aware that the Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a Sacrament and that civil divorce is not recognized by the Church, as a means to dissolve a Church union

Both Catholic and non-Catholic alike are aware that the Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a Sacrament and that civil divorce is not recognized by the Church, as a means to dissolve a Church union. Yet I wish to unpack one important aspect of a ‘valid consent’, that of psychological maturity. Canon 1095, 2º, of the Roman Rite, explicitly states that those who have “grave defect of discretion of judgement concerning the essential matrimonial rights and obligations to be mutually given and accepted” are incapable of contracting a valid marriage. Canon 818 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches mirrors closely the quoted sister canon of the West. Moreover it is custom that the Church (as with the State) accepts the attainment of a certain age to be an indication of the prerequisite maturity of the individuals seeking matrimonial union. But should this be the case? Is the acceptance of age a ‘valid’ enough benchmark for a Sacramental promise?

In a 2007 Rutgers University Research Paper entitled: The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America, 2007. The Future of Marriage in America, researchers at Rutgers University identified a number of specific areas of concern for the modern family unit. Among these the author of the Rutger’s study, David Popenoe, claimed that within the United States there are now in fact two nations currently under construction: “Today, more children are born out-of-wedlock (now almost four out of ten), and more are living in stepfamilies, with cohabiting but unmarried adults, or with a single parent. This means that more children each year are not living in families that include their own married, biological parents, which by all available empirical evidence is the gold standard for ensuring optimal outcomes in a child’s development.”

More children each year are not living in families that include their own married, biological parents, which by all available empirical evidence is the gold standard for ensuring optimal outcomes in a child’s development.

A further study on the breakdown of the family unit, Elizabeth Marquardt’s, Between Two Worlds, (2006), also revealed a number of devastating conclusions: (i) children of divorce come to feel like divided selves, living a certain code of values with one parent, and then a different set of values with the other parent; (ii) ‘secrets’ are endemic in divorced families – one parent not knowing what is being said when the child is with the other parent, and the child not knowing how their parent is living when they are away from them; (iii) children of divorce prematurely age, in that they must deal with confronting emotional issues, which by the very nature of a divorce cannot be sheltered from them. In many cases the child becomes the confidante of a grieving spouse, sitting with a crying parent, listening to highly charged emotional issues; (iv) children of divorce must try and attempt to rationalize the opposing moral views of their parents within their minds, for the conversation between both parents no longer takes place in front of them, nor is there any resolution; (v) children who have experienced divorce in the family, are also typified by a loss of trust in authority and relationships, that combined, undermine a belief in God. Children from such families are far less likely to have religious adherence. There are however a small number of children whose faith in God is however strengthened after the divorce experience.

Children from such families are far less likely to have religious adherence

In addition to these findings, in a previous study, “The Top Ten Myths of Divorce” (April 2001), Rutger’s University researchers also concluded that: “Marriages of the children of divorce actually have a much higher rate of divorce than the marriages of children from intact families.  A major reason for this, according to a recent study, is that children learn about marital commitment or permanence by observing their parents. In the children of divorce, the sense of commitment to a lifelong marriage has been undermined”. This research was further substantiated in a paper, entitled, the Legacy of Marital Discord for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology written by Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth, both at Pennsylvania State University. The authors concluded: “The two most viable hypotheses are that marital quality is transmitted across generations either through direct observation of parental behavior or through disruptions in parent-child relationships.”  (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, Vol. 81, No. 4, p. 637). The much acclaimed work of Professor Judith Wallerstein, (2001), The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, also concurs with these findings, in that even as long as twenty five years after the divorce occurred, the children of divorce are still shattered by the separation of their parents – to the point that their emotional torment is self-destructing potentially good marital relationships.

So what do these findings mean for the Catholic Church? Should not the process of declaring a marriage null be made easier and speedier today then it was in the past, for we are now living within a societal paradigm where the probability of individuals being reared in a ‘dysfunctional’ background is as near as likely as those being brought up in a traditional, stable, marital union. If this is the case then it is potentially quite possible, on grounds of psychological immaturity – for declarations of nullity to be far more prevalent in the future Church; for we are dealing with a widespread problem both in terms of an inadequate lack of Faith education as well as traumatized emotional formation. Arbitrary age requirements do not allow for such a great shift in demography and psychology.

Marriage is the most difficult area of pastoral work

In light of what has been written, the following comments made by Pope Francis in 2016 should now be understood not merely as off-the-cuff remarks, but as an insight based on significant pastoral experience and deep reflection. The Pope is quoted as saying:”“I heard a bishop say some months ago that he met a boy that had finished his university studies, and said ‘I want to become a priest, but only for 10 years.’ It’s the culture of the provisional. And this happens everywhere, also in priestly life, in religious life.” In addition Pope Francis added: “It’s provisional, and because of this the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null. Because they say ‘yes, for the rest of my life!’ but they don’t know what they are saying. Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know.” (cf. www.radiovaticana.va, 16,06,2016). The Pope concluded his remarks by saying that: “Marriage is the most difficult area of pastoral work.”  He also added that he did not have the answer as to what at its base is a problem of a lack of Sacramental understanding morphed by societal and cultural norms that are in conflict with Church teachings, such as: cohabitation prior to marriage, superstition, and liberal family values and expectations.

Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, December 2018

This post is also available in: English

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