The Forgotten Spouse

For the Church to speak of the legitimacy of putting away a covenanted spouse to take another is quite literally blasphemy

As certain bishops within the Church continue their push to allow communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, I can’t help but think about the forgotten spouse: the one left behind in the divorce. The mother of three children, I knew, whose husband decided to “run off with” another, younger woman across town.

But then again, he didn’t actually “run off.” As so often happens in such cases, the man simply took up residence with his new wife just a few blocks away, so that the old, disposed-of spouse, the one who had put her own career on hold for him as he finished school and began his new career, was forced to hear about their goings-on from the friends they used to have in common. And then, until she changed parishes, she would see him and his new wife weekly together at mass, in the very church where he had promised before God to love, honor, and obey his first wife until death.

There is no shame among such men, no sense they shouldn’t be out and about showing off the new model proudly as if she were a fancy new car; no awareness that parading about with one’s new spouse will do deep damage to one’s former wife and children. How does the former wife explain this situation to her children? Daddy has a new wife, but no, you don’t have a new mommy.

Then there was the man whose “Eat, Pray, Love” wife just walked out one day. “I’m just not feeling it anymore,” she announced on her way out the door. As so often happens with such women, she seemed to feel as though a husband was something she could discard like an old handbag that didn’t suit her personality anymore. It’s as though she went for one of those “total make-overs,” and one thing that got thrown out as she shed the distinguishing marks of her old, encumbered, dis-empowered self to clear the way for her new, free, and empowered “self’ was the old, worn-out husband. Forcing her to look at him was like forcing her to look at pictures of herself from back in college and to stare at the frumpy, unattractive, un-alive her she desperately wanted to put behind her and forget.

As with the men, rarely if ever do such spouses seem ashamed, or even slightly sheepish, for reneging on a vow they took before God and all their friends and family. Everything is negotiable these days. The culture affirms such choices. And God wouldn’t want them to be “unhappy,” after all.

So I ask: What happens to the forgotten spouse, the one who gets left behind, the one who wanted to save the marriage and who did everything he or she could to preserve the vows the couple made together before God in God’s own church, the one now left feeling abandoned, not only by his or her spouse, but by the society that empowers and defends such choices, that scolds them to “go along and get along” and exhorts them (and perhaps this is the cruelest cut of all) even to rejoice in the newfound happiness of their partner? Often such victims of abandonment are left feeling alone, depressed, unsure of which friends will still be friends, and unsure of whether perhaps even God has abandoned them.

In these trying times, what words would these bishops speak to these abandoned spouses to succor them in their loneliness and assuage their sense of abandonment? Only this: “Although we cannot praise your spouse for what he or she did, we cannot find fault either. We receive them back into full communion with the Church community. Let’s let bygones be bygones” — as though what were at stake was nothing more than a little personality dispute over a borrowed lawnmower from a neighbor or a minor misunderstanding over who paid for dinner.

It’s unspeakable. Indeed, for Catholics, it is quite literally unthinkable. Why? Not merely because of the pain the Church would cause to the partners who are often enough totally innocent of wrong-doing and who entered a covenantal relationship in good faith with someone who lied through their teeth and broke their trust as they have broken their hearts, and not merely because such abandoned spouses are among the world’s “weak,” “alienated” and “discarded people” which the Church is commanded especially to care for. These are valid and important reasons, but they don’t yet get to the heart of the matter.

The Church cannot countenance divorce because the Church is Herself a spouse. And the Church knows in faith — it is, indeed, a fundamental condition of Her very existence — that Her Spouse will never break or be unfaithful to the marriage covenant He has made with her.

Indeed, for the Church to speak of the legitimacy of putting away a covenanted spouse to take another is quite literally blasphemy. It would be to accept the possibility of putting aside our divine Spouse and taking another as our god. And this simply cannot be. The Church would not be the Church if she were not the spouse of Christ.

To worship the secular culture more than we worship Christ and to seek the loving approval of the secular media more than we seek the approval of Christ is fundamentally adulterous. To allow divorce in the way that the members of the “shadow council” implore us to do would be to disavow the clear teachings of Christ recounted in the Scriptures, to set aside centuries of unbroken tradition, and to negate numerous magisterial teachings set forth with the utmost binding authority. It would be, in essence, to forget our divine Spouse and to seek the embrace of another.

The German, Swiss, and Belgium bishops pushing this proposal seem to have missed the fact that they no longer set the theological agenda in the Church as they once did, that Christians in the southern hemisphere outnumber them many times over, and that the concerns and pastoral wisdom of these southern hemisphere bishops from places like Africa and Asia will increasingly set the agenda for the Church in the coming millennium.

The constant teaching of the Church from the earliest apostolic fathers and ecumenical councils up to and including the Second Vatican Council has repeatedly clarified that we are married, both to God and to one another within the Church. I fear, however, that one set of bishops within the Church is contemplating a divorce. The encumbrances with which they feel themselves burdened are not merely the teachings of Christ but the communion with their fellow bishops. Is that entirely surprising?

A bishop who will disregard his vow to remain faithful to Christ will not scruple for a moment to break his vows to remain faithful to his brother bishops and the worldwide Catholic communion. Such a man will dispose of one as easily as he disposed of the other in a foolish pursuit of the self-gratifying approval and loving embraces of his new paramour.


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 25 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-2012 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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