IMPULSES: ‘For better, for worse’ on the divorce bill

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By Herman M. Lagon

In a world where religious doctrines and social conventions frequently collide, it is admirable and refreshing to see a well-known institution take a brave stance on a divisive topic. That is precisely what the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) Theology Department did by announcing a solid statement favoring the Absolute Divorce Bill. The position, entitled “For Better, For Worse On the Divorce Bill in Congress” and posted on their Facebook page on June 6, 2024, highlights that the divorce bill “is a public policy issue, not a religious one.” This bold, progressive approach underscores the institution’s dedication to confronting practical issues with empathy and common sense.

Distinguishing between religious doctrine and state policy is crucial. The Absolute Divorce Bill seeks to give irreparable marriages legal recourse. For those who consider marriage a lifetime commitment, its existence does not diminish its sanctity. Instead, it provides a compassionate remedy for individuals caught in unsalvageable circumstances. The law only gives those in extreme need the option to file for divorce; Catholics in happy marriages are not compelled to do so. This distinction emphasizes the importance of considering the bill from a public policy perspective rather than religious dogma.

The statement from the Theology Department correctly recognizes the daily challenges married couples face. Abstract teachings on the sacramentality of marriage frequently ignore people’s lived realities. It is essential to view marriage’s indissolubility as a blessing rather than a burden. The declaration, referencing “Amoris Laetitia 62,” highlights how God’s “agape” love follows us on our journey through life. Many couples’ lived experiences align deeply with this compassionate approach.

Not every marriage works out; some are rife with cruelty, deceit, or structural problems. The church must recognize that abuse within marriage is not sacramental, as failing to do so could be seen as condoning or enabling such harmful behavior. Divorce becomes necessary when people find themselves in relationships that are detrimental to their well-being. Giving people in trouble a way to legally file for divorce acknowledges the flaws in human relationships and provides support.

The statement also highlights a serious weakness in the church’s support programs for married couples. Many parishes, congregations, or fellowships need more programs for premarital education and continuous assistance, leaving couples to manage their marriage commitment on their own. Citing “Amoris Laetitia 242,” the statement urges the proactive development of projects that uphold married life, thereby preventing numerous problems that result in marriage dissolution.

Any institution—including the church—needs to be able to look inward and evaluate itself regularly to grow in the spirit of self-reflection. The church may consider creating extensive programs that assist couples and preach on the sanctity of marriage. The proclamation, which quotes “Amoris Laetitia 36” and “Amoris Laetitia 37,” urges the church to offer pastoral care and compassion toward those in need. This proactive strategy aligns with the church’s goal of helping people find salvation in a genuinely pastoral way.

Although it should be the last option, divorce must be made available to those who genuinely need it. The church forms consciences, not takes over them. Underlining this point, the statement supports the notion that divorce should be an option for people in unworkable, untenable, or dysfunctional relationships. This well-rounded viewpoint ensures that the church will always be relevant and compassionate when tackling today’s problems.

As someone who taught for more than 20 years at a Jesuit institution, I am proud of the ADMU Theology Department’s brave position, though I am not surprised by it. The Jesuits, to whom the Department anchors its spirituality, are known for challenging structural doctrines, scrutinizing authority figures, and posing difficult questions. Because of this, among other reasons, the same religious order faced suppression from 1773 to 1814 but overcame it and continued to fight for human rights, social justice, inclusive education, and socio-cultural dialogue. No wonder Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope in the Catholic Church’s two-millennia history, occasionally creates significant ‘tectonic’ shifts within the Vatican.

Thus, I salute the bold stand of the Theology Department for its courageous apostolic approach to spirituality, even in the face of possible criticism. In today’s context, the Theology Department’s support for the Absolute Divorce Bill aligns with their mission to address society’s palpable needs. By promoting intense spirituality among the laity and encouraging full participation in the liturgy, the Jesuits, although they have not made any official position as a “province” on divorce yet, have always pushed for a deeper, inclusive, universal, and more meaningful engagement with faith.

Releasing a position letter supporting divorce, despite potential backlash from other clergy members and parishioners, exemplifies the courage and integrity of the ADMU Theology Department. This bold move reflects their dedication to addressing pressing societal issues with compassion and practicality. It is a testament to the strength of their convictions and commitment to social justice.

The statement’s emphasis on addressing abusive marriages is particularly noteworthy to reiterate. Recognizing that not all marriages are sacramental and that some are inherently harmful is a crucial step toward providing necessary legal recourse. This compassionate approach—a concrete expression of empathy—ensures that the church supports individuals in distress rather than forcing them to endure suffering.

Many women, some men, and children in abusive marriages find themselves financially, mentally, and socially vulnerable, with limited legal support. The ADMU Theology Department’s statement highlights the need for the church to listen to their stories and provide empathetic support. By doing so, the church can offer a lifeline to those who feel trapped and powerless.

The call for developing comprehensive support programs for married couples is practical and necessary. By providing better preparation and ongoing support, the church may focus more on helping couples navigate the challenges of married life. This proactive approach can prevent many issues that lead to marriage breakdowns.

In essence, the ADMU Theology Department’s stance on the Absolute Divorce Bill suggests a balanced approach of practicality and empathy in addressing the complexities of contemporary relationships. Their bold declaration is a call to action for the church to develop comprehensive support initiatives and offer sympathetic assistance to those in need. By doing so, the church can remain relevant and compassionate in addressing the real challenges married couples face today.

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