Husband, Wife, and Other Woman: With whom will you stand?
Imagine the following:
Two young, beaming, practicing Catholics dressed in their nuptial finery get married in a traditional Church wedding before their large and jubilant extended Catholic families. Husband and Wife go on to have children, and for close to twenty years, they experience all the many (and normal) joys, milestones, challenges, and set-backs of marriage.
Then, after temptations on the internet and the approach of middle age, Husband dumps Wife, but not before getting the “okay” from Parish Priest, who says Husband can leave because he deserves to be “happy,” and he and Wife are “incompatible.” Husband is jubilant, because he is able to exit the marriage with Parish Priest’s blessing. Wife, completely devastated, goes to Parish Priest for support and hears the same thing: Husband can go, because Husband and Wife are (two decades in) “incompatible.” And, as Husband says, he never “really loved” Wife. The whole marriage was just a big mistake—whoops!
Wife goes to second Parish Priest (in a different parish) and hears the same thing. Everyone will be happier, you see. God doesn’t want people to be unhappy! Meanwhile, Husband has taken up with Other Woman, a fun-loving hardbody with whom Husband is “compatible.” Everyone can see how happy Husband is now, with his mistress. (This type of open adultery is what “rigid” Catholics understand as scandal.)
Eventually, Husband initiates civil divorce. He is still living with Other Woman while continuing to attend Mass and even participating in parish ministry. Meanwhile, Wife becomes poorer, lives alone, and works full-time to make ends meet. Children have turned 18 in the years since Husband left, and they’ve left the Faith and the moral law altogether.
Husband’s Catholic family members and friends stay close to and support their son, brother, friend. They include and embrace Other Woman, vacationing and spending holidays together, as if Other Woman is Wife. Husband’s cast-off Wife, thanks to social media and shared contacts and relatives, is unable to avoid seeing the shiny new life of Husband and Other Woman and the joyful acceptance of the adulterous couple by family and friends. All the while, Wife hopes and prays for Husband’s repentance and return to his family and rightful place—not only for temporal comfort and the restoration of the family and home God established at their marriage, but in fear for Husband’s soul, which is now in grave jeopardy.
Throughout the longstanding public scandal, no agent of the Church comes to Wife’s aid; no clergy or diocesan official admonishes Husband for his open, cheerful, shameless sin. Wife is alone and lonely, having been forced to sell the family home, now living in a small house with only her beloved dog for company.
With husbandly protection and Church support non-existent, only the well-meaning but grossly misguided advice of Catholic friends remains: “Move on” is the only remedy offered, even though that would mean Wife violating her wedding vows as Husband did, vows which were and are binding. Promising to be true to Husband—for worse, in sickness, in bad times, and until death—was her sacred oath before God and all the witnesses, an oath that Wife meant at the time and still means today. Husband and all the witnesses might now have amnesia, but Wife and God do not.
Because there is no recourse for an innocent, abandoned spouse in a nation of no-fault divorce, Wife is forced through the horrific and dehumanizing process of civil divorce court and must accept that cheating Husband wins the case and gets what he wants. Wife has no say as the state declares her marriage legally ended. The courts automatically side with the spouse who wants out; no-fault divorce is the one and only court case that is adjudicated 100% of the time for the party who wants to break the contract. This foregone conclusion—may we call it a kangaroo court, or say that the fix is in?—is an upending of the tenets of justice, and just one more injustice for Wife to endure.
Of course, Husband and Wife’s Catholic marriage, an unbreakable sacrament, is in no way affected by the civil court’s decree (God’s law is never abrogated by man’s law that contradicts it). However, by getting a civil divorce, now Husband has in hand what is required by the Catholic Church in America to pursue his ecclesiastical case for nullity. The Church’s requirement for secular, civil divorce now satisfied (at great financial, emotional, physical, and spiritual cost), Husband files papers to get the ball rolling with the diocesan tribunal.
Still-devastated Wife soon receives the initial annulment papers in the mail, and…what? The Church officials address her by her maiden name in the documents, a name she has not used since her Church wedding decades earlier. The tribunal staff approaches Wife as if she were an unmarried woman. Another kick in the gut for the one standing for Christian marriage.
The civil divorce decree, still signifying nothing in God’s eyes, also paves the way for Husband and Other Woman to plan a civil “marriage.” No Church wedding can be had until the annulment goes through (and Husband’s large diocese has a 100% affirmative rate for granting annulments), but the fun and playful civil ceremony will come first. This immoral event will not take either party (Husband or Other Woman) out of deadly sin, but Husband’s Catholic family and friends excitedly prepare for the big day.
Recall that these same loved ones had attended—with joy and reverence and prayer and ceremony—Husband’s Catholic wedding, years earlier, to the woman who is still very much his wife. All were happy, willing witnesses to those first, sacred vows. All danced, ate, laughed, and celebrated at the reception after. The same people will soon gather to celebrate—with merriment, dancing, laughter and gifts, like before—this civil “marriage” of Husband to Other Woman, the one with whom he has been committing adultery for years, and with whom he will still be committing adultery after the merriment.
Wife watches it all unfold feeling betrayed and abandoned all over again.
No one in Husband’s family, it seems, has the courage to say to Husband, “I love you, my friend, my brother, my son—but I will not attend this event that sears the heart of your wife and that offends God so deeply. I love your soul more than I love your temporal happiness, and I love God before I even love you. I stand with your wife, whom you have abandoned, and I stand with Christ. Go home to your wife.”
No friend, no family, no priest has publicly denounced this very public sin and scandal.
And though abandoned Wife will now try with all her might to stand for the marriage that she knows is sacramental, she understands that she is facing a tribunal where every marriage judged is declared null. There are a precious few tribunals in America where Wife would have a fighting chance, though still as an underdog. But not in this one. It is a dark, terrifying, and helpless feeling.
Through it all, through all these years, the Catholics celebrating Husband and Other Woman continue to receive Jesus in Holy Communion at Mass. The priests who have watched the whole thing through the years not only say nothing, but are waiting to celebrate a Nuptial Mass for the cheating couple just as soon as the annulment is granted.
Imagine the pain. Imagine the devastation. Imagine the betrayal and the hypocrisy perpetuated by so many fellow Catholics, again and again. And imagine the heartache of Our Lord as those who bear the mark of baptism make a mockery of His law and His love and His design for marriage.
There is no fear of the Lord. No reverence for the Sacraments. No concern of offending God with the sin of adultery. And there is no one who loves Christ and all parties enough to say, gently but firmly, “No… I will not go along with any of this. I will risk shaming and shunning and ridicule by staying home. I will not celebrate adultery and sin. This is another woman’s husband. I will not pretend this is all okay. Go home to your wife.”
Can you imagine all of it? Sadly, many don’t have to imagine it, because it’s happened to them. In fact, it’s happening to a dear friend of mine as we speak. It has happened to other friends of mine, as well—both men and women—and it’s happening to many American Catholics as you read this.
And, although it pains me, I must ask: Where is the Church in America standing by these abandoned spouses, who are dutifully, painfully, faithfully, living their vows to the end? Where is even the appearance of encouraging them to stand strong? St. John Paul II said that we are to support those living out such heroic virtue (emphasis mine):
Loneliness and other difficulties are often the lot of separated spouses, especially when they are the innocent parties. The ecclesial community must support such people more than ever. It must give them much respect, solidarity, understanding and practical help, so that they can preserve their fidelity even in their difficult situation; and it must help them to cultivate the need to forgive which is inherent in Christian love, and to be ready perhaps to return to their former married life.
The situation is similar for people who have undergone divorce, but, being well aware that the valid marriage bond is indissoluble, refrain from becoming involved in a new union and devote themselves solely to carrying out their family duties and the responsibilities of Christian life. In such cases their example of fidelity and Christian consistency takes on particular value as a witness before the world and the Church. Here it is even more necessary for the Church to offer continual love and assistance, without there being any obstacle to admission to the sacraments. (Familiaris Consortio #83)
I don’t see this being proclaimed, anywhere. In all my years as a Catholic, I have never seen that a spouse wanting to stand for his or her marriage—and not “move on”—is heralded as a witness to all the world and the Church. Do you see it happening? If so, I’d love to hear about it. My sense is that if it is happening, it’s an outlier case—and I am not alone in that belief.
One more thought. The priests and the wedding guests in this story? These are the same “tolerant, loving” Catholics (and we all know them) who incessantly preach “mercy” and “accompaniment” and “inclusion” to the yucky, mean, rigid Catholics—and yet they themselves neither accompany nor show mercy to Wife, who is left alone and abandoned. They do not, in actuality, love and protect the marginalized and the outcast. The only One still by Wife’s side is Christ on the Cross. By their cowardice and celebration of sin, the “loving” Catholics have abandoned Him, too.
This is nothing new, as Jesus is the ultimate abandoned Spouse.
Which brings me to….Who are you standing with in your family and community? Will you dress up, wrap a gift, and go to the party, dancing till dawn with the faithless adulterers? Or will you stand with the faithful-unto-death Spouse, scourged, mocked, abandoned, and hanging on the Cross?
We all face these excruciating choices in our own families and communities, and choosing to stand with the abandoned spouse will almost always lead to social shaming in almost every circle. People want to feel happy, and no one wants to leave the revelers and stand with the crucified, humiliated, agonizing soul, who is “like one from whom men hide their face…” (Isaiah 53:3)
God’s law is simple, but never easy. May God make us strong, may He give us courage, may He help us to choose good over evil, with no excuses or compromises. May we stand with the abandoned. May we stand for Matrimony. Our souls and the souls of those watching us depend on it.
“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” — Luke 16:18
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” — Matthew 10:34-39