Meningitis can be bad. Suppose that a given city suddenly had a surge of cases. Its health officials immediately would alert physicians and warn people to watch for symptoms and, if any appear, to see a doctor. Just as quickly, authorities would ask why has this sudden increase occurred? What might have caused it? What must be done to avoid any future outbreak?
Divorce is bad. In all my years as a priest, I have never seen a divorce that has been joyful. Resigned? Yes. Relieved? Yes. Satisfied? Yes. But joyful, in the true sense of the word? Never. This includes the separating partners as well as the children. God bless the children. One truly heartbreaking experience of my priesthood has been the sight of children traumatized by their parents’ divorce.
American Catholics divorce at a lower rate than others in the society but often enough. At this moment, these divorces are coming when, throughout the culture, regard for institutional religion is declining. Fewer divorced Catholics in this country are taking cases to Church tribunals. Many drift away, certainly if they remarry.
Go back to the hypothetical meningitis epidemic. The Church must care for its divorced members. It cannot forsake, however, what Jesus taught about marriage. Marriage is lifelong, ending only in a spouse’s death. No human authority can break it apart.
Also critical is the Church’s teaching that every person has the right to marry, if he or she is eligible for marriage. (Obviously basic in this teaching is the eons-old standard that marriage is between one man and one woman.) The Church must enable a member who is eligible for marriage and wishes to marry — in the Church.
Diocesan tribunals, while empowered by Church law to resolve many conflicts, acting under a tried-and-true philosophy of justice, are available to Catholics who suspect that they never were validly married and wish to remarry. The data of the number of Catholics now turning to tribunals after divorce is striking. So many Catholics do not go to tribunals, true, but this is one side of the coin. The number of cases is swamping some American tribunals. The number of declarations of nullity (annulment actually is an incorrect, misleading term) is huge. The Vatican, incidentally, it is said, finds both these figures not just intriguing but appalling. For this reason, it oversees tribunals carefully and is emphatic about standards, beginning with fairness.
To divert for a moment, Time magazine several years ago did an interesting study of Catholics in this country who are divorced and tribunals. Picking up the old spin that knowing somebody and contributing something speeds the way and guarantees a favorable judgment, Time wryly observed that an awful lot of Catholics must have an awful lot of control over an awful lot of Church authorities, and an awful lot of Catholics must give an awful lot of money to the Church. Why? Time thought that tribunals seemed to grant so many positive decisions.
Why do marriages fail so often in America? It was not always the case. Go to the front of the process. How well prepared, and with what attitudes, are Catholics approaching marriage today? This implies a Church priority — and each Catholic’s concern.
Blessed Karl I, Austria’s last emperor and Hungary’s last king, and his fiancee, Princess Zita, made separate spiritual retreats before their wedding in 1911 to think deeply about how to bring God into their marriage and how to assist the other in growing spiritually.
Charming, old-fashioned, mildly funny, slightly too much, people nowadays react when hearing this story. Their reaction reveals a big, big problem.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.