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Experts Discuss Devastating Breakdown of Marriage, but Believe Church Can Turn It Around

Bill to Protect State Definitions of Marriage Introduced Andy Morrell

Andy Morrell

Susan E. Wills - published on 10/06/14

Three marriage experts voice concerns and defend their proposed solutions

Last week 50 experts on marriage and family published their “Open Letter to Pope Francis and Members of the Synod,” outlining what they believe to be the most pressing concerns regarding marriage and family and offering pastoral suggestions that they believe could go a long way toward strengthening marriages and families.

At least one commentator thought that the signatories wrote to the wrong people, because most of the solutions they suggested would not be put into practice by the Holy Father or Synod members. They would take place in parishes and rely on lay volunteers to act as marriage mentors. It was also argued that reliance on couples in parishes to mentor the newly married and those who are struggling in their marriages is wholly impractical.

I recently interviewed three of the experts who signed the Open Letter, to delve more deeply into what they see as the most urgent issues facing the Synod and to invite them to respond to the critique that their parish-based proposals were unrealistic. They are 

Richard Fitzgibbons, MD, a psychiatrist, director of the Institute for Marital Healing (near Philadelphia) and co-author of “Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope,” “Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger” (2014) and the forthcoming book, “For a Better Marriage” (in press, 2015). Dr. Fitzgibbons has counseled several thousand couples in 38 years of medical practice.

Mary Rice Hasson is a graduate of the Notre Dame School of Law, co-author of the book “Catholic Education: Homeward Bound,” and more recently of the groundbreaking report, “What Catholic Women Think About Faith, Conscience, and Contraception” (2012). A Fellow of the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and mother of seven children, she has long been active in speaking and writing on marriage/family subjects, as well as being involved in pastoral ministry.

The Rev. Donald Paul Sullins, PhD is Associate Professor of Sociology at The Catholic University of America. Formerly an Anglican priest, Fr. Sullins was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 2002 under the “Pastoral Provision.” Married in 1985, he and his wife have three children and two grandchildren. Fr. Sullins has published two books and scores of articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Ms. Hasson described the genesis of the Open Letter as having been spearheaded by Tom Farr, a religious liberty expert at Georgetown University, "and Hilary Towers, a psychologist in Manassas, Virginia, who has been working in a parish-based setting to develop programs to support marriages – not marriage in the abstract, but the marriages of real people who need encouragement and support to persevere." Ms. Hasson added that “all of us who signed, like most Catholics, have witnessed the devastation that has followed in the wake of marriage’s decline. And we know the Church can help change that.” 

The experts identified “the greatest fallout from the decline in marriage” in terms of their expertise and experience. For example, Dr. Fitzgibbons stated:

Clearly we are witnessing a marked increased in psychiatric illnesses, particularly depression and anxiety, in youth and in adults. God’s first words about the human condition to Adam were “It is not good for man to be alone.”  

Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio  
that everyone is on a journey to find someone to whom they can entrust themselves. This journey is hampered by the culture of selfishness, divorce, cohabitation and lack of faith. Greater trust in God and faith could help turn this around, as well as more teaching in the Church on these “enemies” of marriage.

Ms. Hasson sees the greatest fallout primarily in terms of the harmful impact on children and, secondarily, on the ex-spouses:

Children suffer. In the early days of the divorce revolution, adults told themselves that ‘Children are resilient. They’ll be ok. And besides, they want me to be happy.’ Decades of divorce, and studies on its effects, have proven that the opposite is true. Children need stability and the dependable love of two parents, committed to their future, and not primarily to the pursuit of adult happiness. When that stability is shattered (or never occurs, as in the case of cohabiting relationships) children are more likely to suffer 
– for years – from emotional difficulties, declines in school performance and, later as adults, from troubles in their own romantic relationships. In general, the social landscape is littered with the fallout from cohabiting relationships that crumble without commitment and broken marriages that didn’t have to fail.

Men and women don’t emerge unscathed either. After divorce, they often find it difficult to trust that another person will truly give unconditional love, the kind of love that cares for the other no matter what, in the face of chronic, debilitating illness, like Alzheimer’s, or deep, personal struggles, like mental illness or unemployment. Those who divorce have experienced the pain of conditional “love” – which isn’t love at all – one that flies in the face of hardship or self-denial.

Fr. Sullins agreed that the negative impact on children from parental divorce or abandonment is a major concern. He pointed to “one study, [which] found that parental divorce increases the risk of a wide range of morbidity (health problems) into the children’s seventies. The decline in marriage reduces the well-being and lifelong happiness of the children involved.” He sees two other grave consequences of the decline in marriage:

Today more Americans live more of their lives alone than ever before. The decline in marriage contributes to our becoming a more isolated and fragmented society. In addition, religious participation is very much a matter of families, particularly families with children. The decline in marriage is both a consequence and a cause of a corresponding decline in faith and worship. As marriage goes, so goes the Church.

I then asked a follow-up question: “What topic area(s) in the Synod’s  Instrumentum laboris (working document) are most urgent for the Church to address?”

Dr. Fitzgibbons replied at length on the need for catechesis, evangelization and healing of broken marriages rather than resort to annulment or divorce:

First and foremost is a need for more teaching and preaching in the Church on sacrament of marriage, as stated in our letter.

The relationship between the contraceptive mentality and the divorce era is irrefutable. It must be addressed to protect the Catholic family. In the U.S. alone one million children per year are severely traumatized by the divorce of their parents, with severe life-long damage to their psychological and spiritual health. 

These children do not need an easing of the process of annulments. They need the Church to defend the sacrament of marriage by challenging spouses to work to resolve their emotional conflicts and to sacrifice themselves to prevent divorce. 

We need bishops and priests to preach more often in support of the Sacrament of Marriage and very clearly against the major enemy of marital love – selfishness.

Over the past 38 years, in working with several thousand couples, I am convinced that the use of contraceptives diminishes generosity in spouses and increases selfishness, thereby making these couples more vulnerable to numerous conflicts and, then, divorce.

The writings of Pope St. John Paul II on marriage and family should be available in the back of churches and should be the focus of conferences in dioceses and religious communities. These include the "The Letter to Families," "The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World," "Love and Responsibility" and the "Theology of the Body."

As Ms. Hasson explains – 

We’ve let the culture define what “marriage” means, so even Catholic couples see marriage as primarily a means to personal happiness; if the ‘soul mate’ falls short of expectations, or emotional love evaporates, there’s no reason to stay married and “be unhappy.” And the pressures to legitimize same-sex marriage have reduced our marriage teaching to the slogan that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. That’s the take-away for most people and it’s not enough – it doesn’t give people reasons to persevere. The Open Letter highlights Pope Francis’s point that marriage “transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple,” and, as Pope Benedict wrote, “marriage is an instrument of salvation” and crucial for human society. We need to proclaim the teaching, in homilies, catechesis, and personal conversations: marriage requires commitment – to the marriage itself and the resulting family, not just to the other spouse – and it requires each of us taking personal responsibility, not only for the health of our own marriages, but to support and “accompany,” as Pope Francis likes to say, our friends, family members, and fellow parishioners in their marriages, providing support and encouragement when things get tough. So, proclaiming the fullness of the teaching is crucial. 

Fr. Sullins finds the most urgent task to be strengthening the ideal of chastity both before and within marriage, and, secondarily to address the pastoral issues related to divorce and remarriage.

In terms of solutions they would recommend be implemented,  Ms. Hasson believes that it is urgent to take practical steps:

to create networks of committed couples who will mentor and take responsibility for others, by assisting, encouraging, and witnessing to the possibility of persevering through very difficult struggles. These communities of supportive couples can be intentional and parish-based 
– formal programs of mentorship and circles of encouragement – but they should also be organic – every couple that gets married is surrounded by family, friends, and members of the faith community on their wedding day. But those “witnesses” to the marriage are not “done” when they leave the Church. They must form an organic community – an extended family, you might say – assisting and encouraging the couple through “good times and bad.” We need to stop pretending that marriage “should” be easy (which implies that if the marriage hits rocky times, then it’s doomed and the couples should run for the exits). Too many couples suffer in silence, ashamed that they are encountering difficulties in their marriages. By the time friends and family discover how bad things are, the couple has already got their divorce lawyers. A realistic approach makes it safe for couples to acknowledge that they are struggling – every marriage has its problems, because we are all sinful and weak – and to find encouragement, solid spiritual and practical advice, and the grace to persevere.

Is it unrealistic to think that older priests, not as familiar with the recent papal teachings on marriage and family, can learn the new ways of communicating these inspiring teachings?  Ms. Hasson notes that –

“in most dioceses, the bishop requires priests to attend days of renewal and retreat. It’s quite reasonable to spend a few hours out of every renewal/retreat schedule “refreshing” the priests’ awareness of the teachings and offering updated data and approaches on “what works” to assist couples struggling with family planning issues, including infertility, pornography, and relationship problems. They can also learn from each other about how to involve the laity in providing practical solutions that can be implemented in the parishes. (See below). I worry that the bigger problem is lack of interest 
– and lack of faith – on the part of many priests who do not seem confident that the Church’s teachings really are the path to holiness and wholeness for married couples. If priests think NFP doesn’t work, or are totally unaware that Na-Pro technology, for instance, provides infertile couples with moral, effective treatments for infertility, then they will have nothing to offer struggling couples – and those couples will turn to the cultural “experts” offering immoral solutions.
Bishops need to ensure that their priests are aware of the range of NFP options, their success rates, and the local contact persons. They need to make sure priests have a list of good marriage counselors, Retrouvaille contacts, and mentor couples. I know of one priest who keeps a list of NFP contact sources with him in the confessional  and the providers get a steady stream of people as a result – people who really want the help but otherwise would not know there are “Catholic solutions” or where to go. Family Life Offices or parish personnel should consider such resource cards / lists a top priority. Creating networks that provide practical help actually will lighten the priest’s load – and make his counsel more effective because he will have a team behind him, ready to provide hands-on support. But if the priest is not himself convinced that the Church is right (which has long been the case with contraception), then his silence will speak volumes. And, effectively, he will be abandoning couples to the culture and making their path to holiness that much harder.

I asked Dr. Fitzgibbons about the availability of mental health professionals who counsel in accord with Catholic teaching.
He agreed that “it is most important that priests be aware of mental health professionals they can trust with assisting Catholic marriages. A good resource is and ."

Lastly, I asked if there a role for lay movements/associations in the efforts to strengthen marriages and support families.    Ms. Hasson replied: 

Absolutely. This is exactly where lay movements can play a strong role – because typically they excel at creating communities, are experienced at helping each other be accountable in how to live the faith, and bring apostolic zeal to their work for the Church. I hope that bishops will encourage pastors to invite lay movements and associations to collaborate in this work. 

But priests also need to encourage their own parishioners to step forward – many of them have strong practical experience and great love to share. Give them formation and empower them to be the hands of Christ, reaching out to help those in need, in this case, couples struggling in their marriages or singles seeking to learn a Christian view of relationships and sexuality, in order to build healthy marriages. 

Fr. Sullins explained that “the USCCB and a number of lay apostolates are already doing great work in these areas. It’s not a matter of fixing an effort that is broken, but of strengthening and augmenting the good work that already exists.” And, he added:

I think that Catholic schools are as or more important than Catholic parishes as places where the ideals and culture of marriage need to be effectively taught and inculcated.

Susan E. Wills is spirituality editor of Aleteia’s English-language edition.

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