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Pope ignores wisdom from lived reality


The one-column story about the pope urging lawyers and judges not to take divorce cases was on one page of my newspaper. Across the way was a six-column headline: “Abuse: Japan finally confronts the horror of marital violence.”

Certainly no one in his or her right mind actually favors divorce, just as, one hopes, no one actually favors war or abortion.

Simply stated those three -- divorce, war and abortion -- result, respectively, in wrecked families with bewildered, emotionally crushed kids; dead 20-year olds; and dead babies.

But does a church that can argue the case for military chaplains (who perforce must argue for the just war theory and thereby side with killing) not want the same Catholic compassion present as an element in these other tough, wrenching arenas in life?

My wife and I have been married for 40 years, but in our families the divorce patterns are pretty close to the average for Europe and the United States.

In those rare cases where a nearest and dearest had no option but to divorce, I’ve counseled get the best darn lawyer you can find. And if that lawyer is Catholic, great. For if divorce weren’t bad enough, there’s that extra element of anguish in suing for divorce that comes with the being-Catholic package. (From the worst-case scenarios I’ve heard, the annulment process is rarely a cleansing exit from an unworkable marriage.)

Pope John Paul II referred to divorce as a “festering wound” in the society.

True, some people do use divorce as an easy step in serial monogamy or to avoid commitments they’ve made, just as some women use abortion as a birth control device. And some nations use war as the easiest way to exert their power.

But the reasons for the divorce frequently are an even greater “festering wound” within the family relationship than that which divorce inflicts on society.

Might not a Catholic lawyer or judge with a keen conscience be just the person to find ways to keep the festering to a minimum -- by doing what is necessary to cauterize the wound and keep the parties talking in the interests of the children, once the drastic deed is done?

The pope’s address did nothing to advance the discussion, even while there’s every reason to praise Catholic teaching for holding up marriage as lifelong ideal.

But the overall teaching is so trapped in its self-created tangle of virginity and celibacy and sex-as-procreation fixations, it propagates distorted notions of what married and conjugal life are all about. Consequently, practically every fresh pronouncement, like this one to lawyers on divorce, moves the church further away from having any useful impact.

John Paul is an odd combination. A romantic and a do-it-my way university professor in the 19th-century mold, he is also a man with notions of family apparently based more on wishful thinking than personal experience.

He beatifies a married couple who stayed together without having sex as if that were a plus. (Have you ever seen a happy-looking statue of St. Joseph?) And these strange romantic illusions feed on themselves in that closed-off Vatican world. For if the pope wants to call in the experts, those who recruit them will recruit people who will tell the pope what he wants to hear. You can be sure it wasn’t a roundtable of happily married grandparents who’d all celebrated their golden weddings that selected the world’s best example of a couple worth beatifying.

Nor did the pope talk to people like them before he spoke on divorce.

Yet it is people who have walked together for 50 years who know why other people might have to walk away. Couples who’ve worked and still work at being companions, friends and partners -- emotionally, sexually, intellectually -- understand the good fortune that has visited them when it works out.

What they, and people at every level of the Catholic community are listening for in papal and Vatican utterances is some sense that the institutional church understands that it is the laypeople who are the ones with the lived reality.

No one is calling for Catholic teaching to take its cue from the culture. Neither do Catholics want the teaching to be out of touch with those who best represent its community in that culture. People such as the golden wedding elders who, on many life issues, are wiser than the teaching.

This particular case, the simultaneous newspaper stories of the pope on divorce and of women in Japan (it could have been America or Italy) fleeing abusive marriages, is offered just as a case in point.

Catholics -- lawyers and others -- will read the marital violence story and nod their heads. They know. And they’ll read the pope story and shake their heads and say he doesn’t know.

How sad.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002