As we approach the presidential election of 2012 there is a crisis in this country about which few are talking. It’s not about politics or economic trends. It has nothing to do with the price of oil or reformation of the tax code. This crisis receives no coverage in the press because it isn’t politically correct subject matter. And so far it has gone unacknowledged and unaddressed by the leadership of the Catholic Church, whose teachings and beliefs are directly implicated in its outcome.
Data from the National Survey of Children (NSC) indicate that approximately 80% of divorce cases in this country are forced divorces. In other words, the vast majority of divorces are situations in which one person puts an end to the marriage through legal coercion, even while the other is fighting to save it. In a time when “self above all others” serves as the motto for our system of family law and our culture, one would be hard pressed to find a more relevant and pressing issue for the Catholic Church, which upholds the sanctity of lifelong marriage and does not acknowledge divorce. And yet to date, we seem content with viewing spousal abandonment as a mental health issue for the person left behind, rather than the danger to the institution of marriage it is. We refer the abandoned to a “divorce coping group” and encourage them to carry their cross. This is not enough.
Which brings me to the observation that Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker and potential presidential candidate, was invited to give a speech at this year’s National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Newt is a convert to Catholicism. He also abandoned two wives before marrying his current wife, Callista. Gingrich left his second wife, Marianne, for Callista, with whom he had an affair while she was his staffer on Capitol Hill. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network last month Newt explained his double spousal abandonment this way:
“There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”
For a convert in the public eye – one who has now announced that he’s a presidential candidate – who has had ample time to reflect on his own behavior relative to the Church’s teachings on marriage, this explanation seems insincere and even reckless. As one writer for New York Magazine deadpanned, “Newt Gingrich cheated on his wives for America.” Catholics should expect more from “our own” – not because we demand perfection in our leaders or because we can’t forgive, but because the actions and words of the faithful in the public eye matter whether they occur before or after a professed conversion of heart.
The main subject of Gingrich’s speech at the breakfast was the vital role played by recently beatified Pope John Paul II in the demise of communism (he has produced a documentary on the subject). This is a topic worthy of discussion and praise. But Newt might also have seen this forum as an opportunity to address the issue of divorce reform, which is sorely in need of public advocates. This was, after all, the same pope who said the following on divorce:
“It could perhaps seem that divorce is so firmly rooted in certain social sectors that it is almost not worth continuing to combat it by spreading a mentality, a social custom and civil legislation in favor of the indissolubility of marriage. Yet it is indeed worth the effort! Actually, this good is at the root of all society, as a necessary condition for the existence of the family. Its absence, therefore, has devastating consequences that spread through the social body like a plague (emphasis mine) — to use the term of the Second Vatican Council to describe divorce (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 47) — and that have a negative influence on the new generations who view as tarnished the beauty of true marriage.”
Why shouldn’t part of Newt Gingrich’s platform as a Catholic social conservative include an effort to renew and restore faith in the sanctity of marriage? Among other things our seminaries need to train parish priests in educating the faithful on how to sustain marriages in this culture consumed with sexual freedom and personal autonomy. Such a campaign would be especially meaningful if encouraged by someone with Newt’s background, and could have a far-reaching impact.
Catholic couples in the pews need to hear instruction from their bishops and priests – not just occasionally, but repeatedly – on the difficulties marriages face today. They need to know that spousal abandonment is a real and serious threat to all marriages. They need clear and candid instruction on how to tackle this threat through the strengthening of virtues related to purity and fortitude. For instance: “Husbands, are you guarding your eyes and your hearts when you leave home every day? Is there someone of the opposite sex with whom you are spending an unusual amount of time at work? Maybe entertaining thoughts about her when she’s not around? Are you using pornography?”
Or “Wives – is the failure of communication in your marriage such that it may be time for you to seek marital counseling? Summon the humility to do this – even if the mere idea of it is repulsive to you! It could mean the difference between lifelong marriage and an unwanted divorce.”
These are the kinds of probing questions and insights our bishops and priests could offer in order to fortify married men and women in the Church against a culture where divorce means a “fresh start.”
At the very least we can be praying for an end to divorce, which always destroys a family. In an informal poll of my friends I found not one could recall a prayer for “an end to divorce” during the Intentions of the Mass. Most of my friends are lifelong Catholics! Why is this so? Do we revere the sacredness of the Marriage Sacrament as we do the Sacrament of the Eucharist? Do we feel the same sense of urgency and scandal about spouses leaving their families behind for a lover as we do about abortion? Or do we regard the former as a private matter – something about which we should remain silent lest we be guilty of “judging” others behaviors. In both cases lives are being destroyed.
And as the Holy Father noted, in the case of spousal abandonment there is a generational issue at play: fathers and mothers teaching their children how to abandon (and thereby destroy) their own families in the future. Does this bother us anymore? Or is abandoning one’s family now simply one “fault” among many with which the Catholic faithful are expected to struggle?
In an interview in Esquire magazine, Marianne Gingrich (Newt’s second wife) was asked about Newt’s conversion to Catholicism.
“It has no meaning,” she observed. “It’s hysterical. I got a notice that they wanted to nullify my marriage. They’re making jokes about it on local radio. The minute he got married, divorced, married, divorced — what does the Catholic Church say about this?”
Indeed. Let us show the world that we take seriously all the teachings of the Church – even, and perhaps especially, the hard ones.
Hilary Towers is a psychologist and mother of five. She lives in Manassas, Virginia.