There’s no need to pile any more criticism on 700 Club televangelist Pat Robertson for his recent on-air remarks advising a husband to divorce his wife with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease and “start all over again” with another woman. Though Christians pledge “till death do us part,” Robertson acknowledged, the memory-killing disease could be viewed as “a kind of death.”
Fellow Protestants and even members of the medical community were outraged.
“This is more than an embarrassment,” wrote Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” He pointed out the absurdity of a Scriptural fundamentalist rejecting Christ’s unequivocal words on the unacceptability of divorce.
Eric J. Hall, founding president and chief executive officer of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, said Robertson’s comparison of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to death “fails to take into account that people with Alzheimer’s disease, although impaired, deserve optimal care and dignity. Love and compassion are the greatest gifts for every human being until their very last breath.”
Despite the heat, Robertson isn’t backing away from his remarks. In a Facebook post, the 700 Club said the televangelist had witnessed friends experience Alzheimer’s, and had seen the “devastating impact,” especially on the “caregiver whose quality of life also becomes completely debilitated by it.”
So why would a Catholic newspaper take interest in the words of a sidelined Christian leader whose views so obviously contradict the Catholic understanding of the permanence and indissolubility of marriage and the redemptive beauty of self-sacrificial love in spousal relationships?
Partly, because the incident serves as a warning to committed Christians to guard against impulses in themselves, as in Robertson, that are formed more by the prevailing culture than by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Under a barrage of social conditioning, it is all to easy to judge a person’s value on their usefulness rather than on their inherent dignity, especially when it is veiled under poverty, disability or disease.
Tragically, that can be especially true for a Christian tuned to pain in others. In this case, Robertson’s empathy for the suffering of a healthy spouse, enduring not just the difficulty of caring for an ill partner but also painfully seeing illness rob their marital relationship of its past, made him succumb to the culturally prevalent message that exalts satisfying personal desires and avoidance of suffering and sacrifice.
In doing so he disfigures the Christian understanding of marriage as a symbol of the enduring love of God for his Church. No matter how far we stray, God, like the faithful spouse, offers mercy, love and unshakable care. As Southern Baptist Moore writes, “Somewhere out there right now, a man is wiping the drool from an 85 year-old woman who flinches because she think he’s a stranger. No television cameras are around. No politicians are seeking a meeting with them. But the Gospel is there. Jesus is there.”
That message is especially powerful on this, Respect Life Sunday. Wherever Christians affirm the dignity and inherent worth of those around them — especially when to the unpracticed eye it seems most difficult — the Gospel is there. Jesus is there.
And as difficult as the central paradox of our faith is to accept, we know life and happiness are there, too, in abundance.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.