Synod needs to understand there are no simple solutions for today's family crisis

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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The first time I heard the word "annulment" was at the dinner table in the 1950s, when I was still in grammar school. My father was a lawyer very much involved in Catholic activities in Los Angeles, and the chancery asked him to do the civil divorce of a Catholic who was getting an annulment. In those days, church tribunals did very few annulments.

My father was conflicted because the groom, his client, was marrying a good Catholic woman who had never been married. My father did not think the marriage would last, and he feared the woman would then be blocked from marrying again in the future.

"Better to have them marry outside the church, and if it works, fix it up later" was his pragmatic approach. But he did his professional duty and processed the groom's divorce and left the rest to the church. I have no idea whether the marriage lasted.

My father did lots of divorce cases and eventually ended up acting as a judge in divorce court, so the dinner seminar on divorce continued through high school. This was before no-fault divorce. You had to have grounds, such as adultery or mental cruelty, to get a divorce.

In truth, what I learned at the dinner table was that divorce lawyers knew how to game the system. Often, "adultery" was staged by renting a motel room and hiring a private detective to testify that the spouse, usually the husband, was in the motel room with another person. No sex was necessary.

Uncontested allegations of mental cruelty was another approach. All of this, of course, had to be worked out by the couple's lawyers before they went to court. The judge presided over the charade and ratified the deal that the couple and their lawyers had worked out before coming into court.

To those who claimed that no-fault divorce was going to bring the end of civilization, my father responded, "We already have it. Let's stop kidding ourselves." Changing the law did not cause the problems; the problems were already there, and the law changed in response to them.

The truth is that once women had the economic independence to survive without husbands, millions of them bailed out of failed marriages that women in the past were forced to stay in. Those who think there was some idyllic period when all families were loving and perfect simply are blind to historical reality. True, there were successful, loving marriages, but many were held together by economic necessity. Wife-beating and male infidelity were all too common, and the wife had few options except to put up with it.

I am not naive enough to think that the woman is always right in a marital dispute, but in the past, it was only the man who could bail, usually by simply abandoning his family and leaving town. My last name is Reese and not Williams because my great-grandfather refused to carry the name of his father, who had abandoned him and his mother. He took his mother's maiden name.

In the past, most women could not walk out because they could not support themselves. We held families together by suppressing women's freedom. That won't work today. That day is long gone.

Today, when a couple comes to me wanting to get married, the first question I ask them is, "Why do you want to get married? Would you get on an airplane that had a 40 percent chance of crashing?" They laugh and get married anyway.

Divorce is a sad reality with multiple and varied causes. Often, the couple should never have gotten married in the first place. Financial problems are also a big cause of divorce. Making a marriage work is hard work. But too often, marriages don't work. Blaming the victims is no solution. No one gets married just so they can get a divorce.

What does all this mean for the synod on the family? I think it calls for humility in the face of complicated problems that have been around for centuries. There are no simple answers. Simply repeating church teaching won't make any difference. Allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to go to Communion is necessary and compassionate, but it will not cure what ails families.

Pope Francis is right. We have to respond pastorally to the facts on the ground and not try to impose an ideological solution based on some ideal that rarely exists in the real world.

We should not expect a solution to the family crisis from the synod, but we can hope that synod initiates a serious conversation in the church that should continue even beyond next year. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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