There’s been much discussion within the Church on the plight of those divorcing and/or remarrying as Catholics. These conversations and points-of-view seem to be trying to clarify or redefine what the Church has consistently taught. Whatever your stance on this topic, I would like to add an important aspect to this dialogue. I ask that we step back and address a group of people who are intimately tied to the remarriage process, but seem to remain invisible. Who are these forgotten souls? The children. Whether the adult couple is in an ‘irregular’ union or annulled and free to remarry, their children remain a forgotten minority. They are powerless to be heard or to participate in an impending marriage that will profoundly affect their lives. How is it that we are still talking about an adult’s desire for the Eucharist, as long as they are not required to abstain from sex, while countless children are being reassigned parents? These children are tossed about from home to home; step-parent to parent as if they are nothing more than accessories. The Church needs to update its policies to account for the ever increasing number of remarriages with children, by involving the children in the process. Remarriage (in the Church after annulment) with children should be seen as a ‘special’ circumstance that requires extra steps. For the emotional, spiritual, and psychological health of these children, as well as increasing the chance for success of this new union, children must be involved in the process of their parent’s remarriage and the reforming of their family.
In a world dominated by over-sentimentality and romantic comedies, it is easy to forget that the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is a public sacrament and affects more than the happy couple, especially when one or both of the engaged have a child(ren). The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes the importance of openness to children, and those children, with the parents, create the Ecclesia domestica, or domestic church. CCC: 1652, “Children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in an address on March 9, 2012 said: “Defending the institution of marriage as a social reality is ultimately a question of justice, since it entails safeguarding the good of the entire human community and the rights of parents and children alike.” Here he uses the word, “rights.” Children have rights and these rights are to be protected by their parents first and when not secured by the parents, these rights need to be defended by the Church. What are their rights? They have the right to be a priority in the family; the right to feel safe in their own home and a right to be heard especially on life changing decisions in the home. I have seen families go through this process and I have witnessed, first hand, the heartbreaking frustration as a son and daughter grapple with the reality that their father remarried and not only did the Church ignore them, but the parent never even discussed this impending marriage with them. How is that possible? In the name of justice and love we should at least hear them.
It is important to remember that when the original family fell apart, and mother and father divided their home, there was nothing the children could do but standby and watch as their family and consequently their lives, imploded. Their powerlessness seems impossible to comprehend. Despite what they wanted, their family was destroyed and they did not have a voice in the matter. They were dragged along in their parents’ war, often trying to love both sides, confused as to what they should do while feeling lost and unsafe. These children have already been through the gauntlet of hurt and insecurity. Occasionally, these remarriages take place before the children have had a chance to process the loss of their parents’ union or worse, parents marry the adulterous lover, the very person who helped destroy the family in the first place. The crosses carried by the children of divorce are laden with anguish. We should remember that Our Lord explicitly forbade the harming of children: Matthew 18:5-6: “Anyone who welcomes one little child like this in my name welcomes me. 6 But anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck.” Christ is not subtle here. It is time for pastors and bishops to understand the growing trend of remarriage with children and to see that, without including, hearing and validating them, the Church is ignoring and possibly aiding in the downfall of these little ones.
Another aspect to consider is the physical safety of these children. Findings by the American Medical Association, Council on Scientific Affairs indicate a significant difference in risk depending on whether the child’s mother is married to the biological father or to a stepfather. Children with stepparents are at higher risk for both physical and sexual abuse. Quite often the children in the home are the ones to see the red-flags or behavior issues that the “in-love” parent does not. The child may feel unsafe or nervous around the boyfriend or girlfriend. It is so important then to speak to the children and offer them an opportunity to advocate for themselves and their family in a way that the parent will not or cannot do. Additionally, the child will have a chance to get help if any abuse has already occurred. Imagine the resentment an abused child will have for the Church if She blesses the union of their parent to an abuser without showing any interest in the child’s point of view. There is a significant increase in the amount of step-families being created since the 1980’s and likewise there has been a frightening increase in the number of children who suffer abuse.
Normally, a parent would not repaint their teenager’s bedroom without conferring with them on color, but that same parent may move a new stepparent into the child’s home, without involving the child in anyway. This is an example of twisted priorities. Children are not cattle, to be moved field to field. This is their life and the home is their safety. They must be allowed a voice if a new ‘parent’ is planning on moving into that safe place, or it will no longer be theirs. Furthermore, no one likes that which is forced upon them, and therefore it would behoove the parent to ensure that the children are collaborating in the process in order to establish a happy, successful home-life. The recreation of the family is an emotional and delicate proposition, and this new construction should only be attempted if it will truly benefit all the members involved.
I have witnessed many families ‘blending’, only to see them slowly fall apart or lose their Faith. For instance, I know of a large Catholic family whose mother began dating a controlling man after the annulment was granted. This man took disciplinary liberties that he had not yet earned. The mother’s children strongly expressed their disapproval for this union. The marriage went through without the priest hearing the protests of the children. Since then, many of the children have moved out to live with their non-Catholic father and are no longer practicing the Faith. Another example is a daughter trying to let family know that she found the soon-to-be stepfather “creepy” and that he made her uncomfortable. The marriage went through and this daughter no longer feels safe in her home.
I am certain that there is no magic pill, but there are three immediate changes that could be made to the Pre-Cana process for those remarrying who already have children:
1) In order to emphasize the special circumstances, that is, the involvement of children, the wait period from engagement to wedding should be lengthened from six months to at least nine months, if not twelve months. With such a delicate amalgamation being attempted, there is no reason to rush.
2) Sadly, the trend of cohabitation before marriage is showing no signs of stopping, even in Catholic circles, and though for single, non-parents it may not be an impediment to marriage, it is surely still problematic and sinful. The problem increases greatly if there are children being exposed to the scandal of cohabitation. No longer is the couple only engaging in extramarital sex, but now they are directly causing grave scandal to their children. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: # 2284, “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death.” Clearly cohabitation (without continence) teaches the witnessing children that sex before marriage is acceptable, which is contrary to the teachings of Christ. Furthermore, the Catechism states: #2285, “Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others.” It is therefore extremely important to stress and re-stress that the remarrying couple abstain from sexual relations and cohabitation. If living separately is deemed impossible, then the couple must clearly live as brother and sister until after the wedding. Catholic homes and Catholic couples seeking a sacrament must demonstrate their commitment to raising their children in the Faith, but that is impossible if they are actively scandalizing their existing children through cohabitation and the sharing of a bedroom. We cannot raise our children successfully if we use the “do what I say, not what I do” method.
3) This third adjustment I believe to be the most important: there must be a mandatory interview between the children and the priest in charge of the marriage preparation. There are many meetings involved in the pre-cana process; one more does not seem like an undue strain. especially such an important meeting that will demonstrate to the children and parents that this is a public sacrament which profoundly affects more than the couple themselves. It is also a beautiful example of the Church reaching out to the children and honoring their value in this family’s new construction.
This interview serves many purposes:
* The act of inviting the children to speak to the priest as part of the preparation is alone a very powerful message to the children that their opinion matters, that they are a valid and important member of this family and that the Church wants to hear them. How wonderful for our children to see how loved and important they are!
*The meeting will give the children an opportunity to share their fears with the priest and then likewise will give the priest an opportunity to protect the child from possible danger.
*The conversation could bring to light serious impediments to the marriage that would not have otherwise come to light. Remember, children see everything. If all is well, then the child will leave knowing that their participation and cooperation was essential for this new union, which should greatly help its success.
My hope is that Catholics, especially Church leaders, will see that we have been ignoring the needs of our children for the last few decades and the effect of this neglect is increasing. There is a rise of self-mutilation or cutting among teenagers, continued increased drug use, eating disorders, etc…None of this is surprising when we look at their lives, even in the Catholic communities. Divorce is already a tremendous cross for our children to bear, let us not toss them around while their parents seek romantic fulfillment. Henry James wrote an insightful book called, What Maisie Knew. In this novel, little Maisie’s parents divorce and remarry. What follows is a view of Maisie’s new world: “She therefore recognized the hour that in troubled glimpses she had long foreseen, the hour when –the phrase for it came back to her from Mrs. Beale – with two fathers, two mothers and two homes, six protections in all, she shouldn’t know “wherever” to go.” All those adults and still utterly alone.
The only truth and hope any of us have is in Holy Mother the Church. How appropriate is it then for the Church to “check in” with its children during such an adjustment as their parents marrying another? It makes perfect sense and if we are firm with the implementation of just a few changes, the cost to our priests and the marriage preparation schedules is small, especially if not making these changes allows even one more child to believe themselves abandoned by the Church.