Divorce: A Widely Ignored Self-Inflicted Tragedy

In a recent interview about her latest book, Phyllis Schlafly said that there will be no solution to the problem of expansive out-of-control government without a restoration of the family. She is entirely correct, but I would go a step further: While a lot of cultural forces have severely damaged the family, it will not be rejuvenated until divorce is at least sharply restricted. To be sure, that involves a change in socio-cultural attitudes: not only are we currently confused even about the basic fact that only members of the opposite sex can marry each other, but our era witnesses a trivialization of the meaning of marriage in so many ways. It also requires, however, a sweeping redirection of law—this is something that even “traditional values” conservatives seldom mention.

It is well known that since the 1970s, American law has, by and large, embraced divorce on demand. People may unilaterally cancel their marriage vows for any and all reasons. This, of course, was an easy outgrowth of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and an expression of the ethos of individual autonomy that swept over Western culture. The prevalent rights thinking demanded that intimate decisions such as whether to stay married to someone—and, for that matter, whether to continue a pregnancy—not be “infringed upon” by the state. The “right” to divorce, in effect, was held to exist in a vacuum, just like the “right” to abortion. Little consideration was given to whether in their exercise the rights of others might be trampled on. In abortion it was the right to life of the unborn child, and in divorce it was both the rights of the discarded spouse and especially of the children.

The consequences of ignoring these other rights in divorce have become ever more apparent over time, even though they were readily foreseeable: the impoverishment of suddenly single mothers, emotional damage, and the range of adverse effects consistently experienced in the short and long-term by the children of divorce. The law’s efforts to compensate for the effects of its embracing of the personal autonomy ethic, such as various kinds of child custody arrangements and “get tough” policies for enforcing child support, have been as inadequate as they have been pathetic. As with so many things, the state has tried to use prophylactic measures to avoid getting at the root of a problem it largely created. It will not be dislodged from its position, despite the fact of massive social and economic consequences at a macro-level (e.g., the juvenile delinquency encouraged by family breakdown, the spiraling costs of government programs substituting for the missing breadwinner, and the social costs of teen sexual misconduct and pregnancy spawned indirectly by the absence of a father).

The Church has left no doubt about the need to be attentive to these neglected rights. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II singled out as among “the most important” of rights “the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality” (#47). This can only be understood as a not-so-veiled attack on civil divorce, which had become widespread. John Paul here indicates that civil divorce not only violates this right, but creates the momentum for family breakdown and a cheapening of the value of marriage. One only has to look back fifty years or so to recall a time when the Church in the U.S. routinely opposed legislative efforts to make civil divorce easier. This was a time before the post-Vatican II upheavals led to some American dioceses buying into “the spirit of the times” and loosening up on annulments.

Some might be inclined to say that at the current time, when there are many more crucial questions tearing at the country we shouldn’t be concerned with divorce. It may even seem a bit quaint to be thinking about divorce when we are facing a veritable attempt to redefine marriage and when the cohabitation revolution has made marriage seem obsolete for so many people. The point is that divorce stands behind so much of the current upheaval. We would not even be facing these other issues if the integrity of marriage had not been undermined by divorce and its fundamental purpose of begetting and nurturing the young by the acceptance of contraception.

Moreover, one wonders if the acceptance of civil divorce was not a significant factor in the expansion of state power in the U.S. After all, if by action of the state a marriage can be ended and a family torn asunder, what powers does the state not have? Of course, the prerequisite for this was probably the rise of civil marriage and of marriage license requirements. If the state’s approval is needed to make a union between husband and wife, what again can it not do? Given different cultural conditions—if secularism had not taken hold (and even infiltrated religious bodies)—the most preferable approach would be to remove the state from the marriage business entirely and treat marriage as strictly a religious matter. The best that the present situation permits us to do, from a legal and public policy standpoint, is to work to stimulate a national debate about the wisdom of our current no-fault divorce posture.

That would involve both an attempt to argue about why the very notion and possibility of divorce is anathema to the good of marriage and the family and working to persistently bring before governmental decision-makers and the broader public the voluminous social science evidence (e.g., the Wallerstein studies) about the destructive effects of divorce. It would also involve lobbying efforts around the country to return to a fault concept of divorce—if a breakthrough can be made on that, over time the grounds could be narrowed more and more—and to enact “covenant marriage” laws (wherein marrying couples commit themselves to undertake serious marriage preparation and legally agree to waive their “right” to no-fault divorce and promise to make reasonable efforts to persevere in their marriage and seek help should difficulties arise). These are quite imperfect solutions, but they are a beginning and, considering the teaching effect of law, could actually help to motivate more responsible marital decisions by couples. The ultimate aim—although, realistically, it would have to be preceded by a significant cultural and attitudinal shift—would be to eliminate divorce as a legal reality.

It goes without saying that while such political efforts are undertaken, others must make a concerted effort to try to change the social and cultural attitudes about marriage and the acceptability of divorce that are at the core of the problem.

Even if one could conceive of a time where the state would once more be out of the divorce—and, for that matter, marriage—business, it would of course still have interests respecting marriage and the family. It could intervene in the family, as Pope Leo XIII said in Rerum Novarum, to stop “grave violations of mutual rights” (#14)—that is, it must keep peace, protect family members from genuine harm from within, and make sure that human dignity is not undermined—and must be concerned about regulating property relations, which always are an issue when marriages are entered into or civilly dissolved, and the disbursing of public benefits with regard to families. If it were out of the marriage business, it could also still forbid behaviors, such as sodomy and polygamy, that are destructive to the public good and so effectively thwart versions of “marriages” sanctioned by certain religious bodies (e.g., the nineteenth century Mormons and the churches that permit same-sex “marriage” today). For those who would claim that divorce is necessary for the very purpose of protecting partners—especially wives—from harm, I would respond that no-fault divorce has hardly been successful at that. This is seen by the heightening problems of intra-marital violence in recent decades. In fact, no-fault divorce and the entire spirit of lessened marital commitment that it entails have almost certainly spawned more of this. Moreover, there are legal solutions short of divorce to address this, such as legal separation from bed-and-board.

How can one talk about changing the libertarian divorce laws—much less the divorce culture—in the Age of Obama, when the national administration and the ruling political party is pushing the most permissive sexual and family agenda in American history? There is no place to work from but the ground up, and we should always keep in mind that the bright future of new historical ages is often fashioned in the throes of a troubled and declining socio-cultural era.

Stephen M. Krason


Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He holds a J.D. and Ph.D. (political science) and an M.A. in theology/religious education and is admitted to a number of law bars, including the U.S. Supreme Court. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus. The views expressed here are, of course, his own.

  • John

    This is a fine article. I agree that divorce assaults one of the most important cultural, economic, and even political building blocks of our society. We have a definite interest in ensuring the rights of children to be loved and raised by both their mother and father (whenever possible, their biological parents). And while I agree that the prospects for healing our culture of divorce seem so daunting, perhaps there are some more options? First, obviously, comes from the Holy Spirit–through catechesis, prayer, and a renewed commitment from Catholic families, priests, and bishops to pray, live, and fearlessly teach the merits of the holy family. By our fruits (some amount of economic stability, happy and healthy moms and dads and kids, well-educated and articulate kids), we may be increasingly known, no? But perhaps it is time to begin the Childrens’ Rights Movement. So many other groups of adults have successfully seized their sexual autonomy in the past decade or two, but largely at the expense of children. Pro-life people are not afraid to speak for the weak or defenseless. Can we not also articulate a bill of rights for children that pushes back against the false “rights” to sexual contact-, fertilization-, divorce-, and co-habitation-on-demand that assault a child’s “rights” to be conceived, loved, and raised by his or her parents and whose rights to this care trump the parent’s rights to act autonomously? If, for example, any lone woman can claim her “right” to fertility autonomy sanctions her IVF, could not an newly-energized state counter that a child’s “right” to nurturing care of a mother and father forbids it? Perhaps we face an uphill battle, but by couching the debate in terms of competing “rights” (and I understand the problems with the word–but it’s the one “they” are using), we might begin to carve away at the state’s role in enabling the cancer of divorce (which I’ve heard described as “hell on earth”).

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  • Ford Oxaal

    Maybe the way to regain state support for marriage is through a plurality of marriage contract types. At the highest would be Catholic — no divorce, end of conversation. Next down would be some other flavor — divorce is allowed, but tough to get under the terms of the contract. Then, at the bottom rung, no-fault. Over time, the contract producing the best fruit would gain more and more favor in society.

    • Tout

      Divorce should not be allowed, Maybe separation, but without the right to marry some one else.

      • Ford Oxaal

        That would be option A, the Catholic contract. Protestants would go for option B, where you have some divorce. My point is that you can’t sell option A to all of society, so let’s at least get it as an option, and then compete.

      • Mariana T

        Tout read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It already says that.

        • Tout

          MARIANA I know that.

          • Mariana T

            I apologize if I came off curt….

    • Mariana T

      People don’t care about marital vows anymore. At this rate we are lucky if people still get married in 20 years. And many of those that are married aren’t even bothering to divorce. They are living together separately in their homes claiming they “can’t afford” to get divorced and they are giving each other the green light to date other people. People no longer care about the Sacrament or Institution of Marriage anymore! Marriage itself is headed off a cliff.

      • Ford Oxaal

        The state has made it too risky. It is a bad deal, especially for the guy.

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  • A couple of years ago a study (I don’t have the citation, sorry — if anyone does I would love to have it) concluded that 1/3 of people who divorce say they are happier afterward, 1/3 say they are unhappier, and 1/3 say they are exactly as unhappy as they were when married. Of the 1/3 that were happier, a good percentage were in very bad marriages with abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness etc. How many people who were not in such a situation would be eager to put themselves through the disruption, stress, and pain of divorce knowing those odds? Considerably less than 1/3 chance of being happier — but a lot higher chances of being poorer, sicker, and lonelier! This kind of simple, practical, and non-sectarian info needs to be communicated MUCH more.

  • A great article — and see, for confirmation and a different take on the harm done to the discarded spouse, who is more often than not the father (!), see Stephen Baskerville’s work. One quibble: If the civic order is not concerned in marriage, I don’t see what could possibly concern it at all.
    Another point: all the ancient authors assumed that you cannot have a healthy state without a virtuous people. And virtue is not niceness: it is difficult and demanding.

    • Latinmass

      I agree with you Tony and everyone should read and understand what Stephen Baskerville has to say.Remember what the Bolsheviks understood that in order to destroy the Church you must destroy the Family. The first and foremost step to destroy the family is to destroy the linchpin, the Father..Easy Divorce,Contraception,Abortion etc. are part of that destruction in which they dress up and convince people that these are ‘Freedoms”.

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  • Mariana T

    Presently, divorce is not the root of the problem. Divorce is a symptom of a much deeper problem. It is not news that most couples who marry today are not virgins. Many even have other partners before their marital partner. The more serious problem that currently exists is that couples partake in “conjugal unity” before they recite their marital vow, thus, the marital vow has become an after thought, or simply a document necessary for appearance sake so the couple may begin the child bearing process. And many couples copulate in the very early stages of their relationships before they really know each other or know what they’re getting into. Many young people today seek fulfillment in another person instead of truly finding out who they are personally. In other words, many do not even know themselves.

    Self-mastery, self-possession, and self-determination are essential qualities for man to be “the author of genuinely human activity,” as JP II says. One must first possess oneself before one is able to give oneself to another. In order to do so, one must first forge a relationship or partnership with God. Otherwise how can we form any authentic subsequent relationships? This is why divorce is such a problem today…not because couples are giving up, but because couples are not consulting God before they decide to bond. This is why there is a legitimate invalidity of marriage on a grand scale.

    The result is that man winds up dividing what God never joined together in the first place. What needs to be restored today is for man to seek a personal relationship with his Holy Father so he may prayerfully discern God’s will in his choice for a lifetime partner. Only then will we have less marriages ending in divorce. The problem today with marriage is not the church’s leniency on divorce, it is our lack of faith, period.

    • Ford Oxaal

      Well said. Virginity has been mocked on a massive scale in our culture. Even the parents don’t want virginity until marriage for their offspring. Nor do they want religious vocations for them. And for those who *do* want to live faithful lives, the graces provided by God make the marriage work, and it becomes a triune relationship between man, woman, and God — with less of a need for support from the secular government. But still, do you have suggestions about what the government’s role should be regarding marriage here in America? Or would you say that it is wholly a Church proposition? I mean, bottom line, it is a Church proposition — a sacrament — without which it is drained of meaning.

      • Mariana T

        Good question. And one that I am still struggling with. I believe we have a very long spiritual battle – I don’t like to call it that, we can say “struggle” – ahead of us in this country and it has to start in the parishes and the schools… even the secular schools. We have to regain control of the secular schools somehow and it may be a fifty year plan we are looking at. We have to reverse the damage done by the 60’s generation and it’s not going to happen overnight. I pray that teachers are replaced with Christian teachers that are not afraid to express and uphold Christian principles. Then perhaps it will have a rippling effect throughout the country and on our government.

        As you said, parents don’t believe in the benefits of remaining chaste until marriage. They erroneously see it as a risk and think the couple needs to ensure that they are “sexually compatable.” I know parents who send their sons off to college with a box of condoms. They laugh about it. Meanwhile, studies have shown that if at least one partner in a marriage was a virgin on their wedding day the odds are in favor of that couple remaining married for life. If your spouse is the only person in the world that you gave yourself to, it would be very difficult for you to walk away. The more partners you have the easier it gets to walk away.

        In terms of divorce & the government role, one possible idea would be to have sort of a reverse waiting period that would give a couple the opportunity to revolk or rescind their divorce within the first year. I believe that many couples who divorce quietly suffer remorse and would not even entertain the idea of revolking because it can be very daunting.

      • Tout

        Those who divorce should not have the right to remarry.

  • Mary Lee

    Finally the destructive effects of divorce on children are being discussed. I am a child of divorce back in the mid 30s. As I grew I hated the absence of my father intensely and made a vow that when I married it would be forever and I would never subject my children to absentee fatherhood or stepfathers. Fortunately, I married a man who made that promise easy to keep and my children grew up with a wonderful father. The unhappiness of my childhood stays with me, albeit as a memory now tucked behind the years of happiness.

    • Tout

      MARY LEE Thanks. I too felt the necessity to consider marriage a very serious act. We were married for 61 years. A good wife is more than a fortune. Every Sunday we were at the Mass with our children. Married in Belgium during the war(1942) we had difficult times. Later came to Canada. Slowly we made it. After 4 years I told my wife she could go and visit her parents. Thank God, we and the children never got serious troubles or sickness. My parents died, but when my father-in-law went on pension, we paid a trip for them to come and visit us here in Canada for some months. We were never ‘rich’. Young people, life and marriage are serious subjects.

  • Karl

    Sorry folks, but the Catholic Church is a major player in encouraging adultery, divorce, civil remarriages, annulments, the destruction of abandoned spouses and the destruction of children children. Its pastoral practices are horrendous. It is nearly totally deaf to the pleas of
    those of us its policies are destroying. I am tired of being told to pray, sacrifice and offer it up. Those who say this and fail to act as their positions allow, should shut up!

    If Catholics are not willing to accept this reality and force the Church to act to address it, with canonical sanctions, then the Church deserves to waste away.

    I have experienced these realities for more than two decades. I do not speak from a distance. I speak from reality.

    Why does the Pope not have the guts to seek advice from annulment respondents, as he moans over the “poor adulterers” who are not supposed to receive communion? He makes me puke! Why does he not shut down the annulment mills. His own, now retired, Dean of the Rota, Bishop Stankiewicz and numerous other canonists, called into question the application of Canon 1095, in a conference in Rome in April of this year. Where is the action from this gathering? Why are past American decisions, where much of the abuse has occurred, not being rexamined by independent investigators, like annulment respondents, who have some idea of what all this means? Certainly, the canonists who have supported and contributed to these terrible injustices should not be allowed any say in such a reexamination. But none will ever occur, systematically, because the corruption runs throughout the entire Church establishment.

    It is a living Hell for those of us being destroyed by our spouses, our government and the Catholic Church. I am revolted by the uncaring attitudes of priests, bishops and canonists,
    most of whom should be expelled from their offices if not the Catholic Church.

    Go ahead you losers, cut me to pieces, with your sophistry and excuses. You cannot hurt me more than my wife’s unending adultery and what the courts have already taken from me. Have at it!