Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Till Death Do Us Part

I've been consistently impressed with Msgr. Charles Pope's contributions over at the Archdiocese of Washington blog. He's one of those priest bloggers who brings a strongly pastoral sensibility to his writing without ever compromising the necessity of presenting the truth as it is.

His post yesterday, responding to a Washington Post human interest story about a woman who supposedly "learns the true meaning of 'in sickness and in health'" by divorcing her now-disabled husband in order to remarry (while promising to continue to care for the disabled husband), is a great example of this.
Playing on the heart-strings does not always (or even usually) produce a good or proper melody. Such is the case of a recently published Washington Post Article entitled: A Family Learns the True Meaning of the Vow: ‘In Sickness and in Health.’ Actually, they do not. In fact they demonstrate the exact antithesis of what that vow means.

I want to be careful here, since this is a story about real human beings who have lived through a tragic situation. And while they have made decisions that I think are wrong from a biblical and faith perspective, I do not lack sympathy for them. There’s is a human struggle here and not all of us hold up perfectly in such struggles.

Yet, they themselves have decided to go public, in a national newspaper about their decision and, as a pastor of many, I am thus compelled to speak in a public way as well, lest others be misguided as to what a true Catholic and biblical response to this tragedy is.

The article and story is a very lengthy one. The full article is available above by click there in the title. I have also produced a summary here: A Story of Misguided Marital Vows. But the basic facts are these:

  1. Robert and Page Melton were married in 1995 and had two children.
  2. In 2003 Robert had a severe heart attack that left him with brain injuries. His motor skills were unimpaired but his memory was devastated. He remembered nothing of his wife and children and almost nothing of his earlier life.
  3. His behavior was also child-like and erratic which meant he needed to live in a nursing care facility.
  4. His wife visited him several times weekly and they developed a new sort of relationship. Though he came to know that he was her husband and the father of their daughters, he was not able to resume this role in any sort of substantial way.
  5. His wife Page was resigned to this, and still loved and cared for him as best as she was able.
  6. But then Page met an old friend, Allan who was divorced, and they fell in love.
  7. Allan also befriended Robert even as he was romancing Robert’s wife.
  8. Allan proposed marriage to Page.
  9. Page felt guilty, but wanted this new life. So she asked Robert.
  10. Robert said she should marry Allan, but wondered what would happen to himself.
  11. Page promised to continuing caring for Robert, but divorced him and married Allan.
  12. Robert continues today in her care and she is his legal guardian, but no longer his wife.
  13. The Post article assures us that everyone is blissfully happy, and will live happily ever after.
OK, a heart-wrencher to be sure. And the article is surely written to obtain our heartfelt consent by tugging at our heart-strings.
But be careful here, emotionally based reasoning is usually very blurry, and often quite wrong. And this is no exception. Lets look at some of the issues....
The rest is here.


Anonymous said...

Fact #10 is the clincher. They - all three - did the right thing.


Darwin said...

From a mainstream American point of view in which marriage vows are essentially, "In sickness and in health, until we don't feel like it anymore": yes, all people involved clearly did the right thing.

If one takes actually takes the vow as written seriously, then divorcing him and marrying someone else (even with his "consent") is pretty clearly a violation of it.

Jenny said...

Fact #10--What else was he supposed to say? Agree to the marriage and hope he is taken care of or object and face the possibility of being abandoned. It is like a mild version of Stockholm syndrome.

Brandon said...

And to add to what Jenny said, it's worth pointing out that the proposal was made and accepted before any consent was given; who knows what would have happened if he hadn't given it. And this, of course, doesn't even get us into the question of whether the man's cognitive condition problematized his consent or not. It's the fundamental problem with basing things on consent -- it's inherently slippery and unstable, with endless ambiguities, which is why so many feminist philosophers and jurists, for instance, are highly critical of rape laws that treat consent as the fundamental issue. Unless it's buttressed and put in shape by a rather massive body of law, like contract law, basing evaluation on consent virtually always favors the more powerful party in a transaction (and sometimes even if you have the law).

Matthew Lickona said...

Consent is inherently slippery and unstable - yeah, that I'll buy. But isn't consent what makes a marriage happen in the first place? "I do" and all that?

Anonymous said...

Darwin: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Jenny: Maybe Stockholm Syndrome, or maybe just that he loves her and wants her to be happy.

Brandon: If you don't base things on consent, then what is there?


Dorian Speed said...

If Robert was truly able to give consent, why did he need to have a proxy sign for him to finalize the divorce?

This really is such a sad situation, and I can't say I wouldn't be tempted to do what Page has done, but Msgr. Pope is right.

Darwin said...

Darwin: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

More applicably, Jesus said:
“Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?”

He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so."

Look, if one wants to see marriage as a nice contract to have for a while so long as all are agreeable, then this is clearly the right thing to do. Modernity is all about maximizing "happiness". But if one believes that a vow is... a vow, then what else is "in sickness or in health" going to mean other than a situation than this? I'm not thinking that a vow is necessary to mean, "if he gets a runny nose for a few weeks, you can't walk out on him."

This is exactly the same sort of "I'll be there for you unless I don't feel like it" bilge that Pat Robertson was spewing when he claimed that it's just fine to divorce your spouse if she comes down with Alzheimer's because "Alzheimer's is a kind of death".

On the consent issue (speaking to this situation in particular, not to consent as a more general principle for moral action) I think it's a crock. Considering that the guy has been ruled sufficiently mentally incompetent that he has been assigned an adult guardian (first the wife, than his brother for the divorce, then the wife again) it's clear that his consent isn't considered to have legal weight and I don't see why we should thus consider it to bear moral weight either. But really, it's a side issue since I don't see consent as voiding the vows anyway.

If he'd been perfectly healthy and she'd run into an old flame and so they'd both decided they didn't want to be married anyway in a consenting and amicable fashion, I would not see that as voiding the vows either. "Till death do us part" means, quite simply that: till death.

Matthew Lickona said...

To which I would add, the Sabbath was made for man, but marriage, at least, Christian marriage, is a sign of the union of Christ and His Church. It may not be made for Christ, but it points to Him, no? Isn't that at least part of the reason for its indissolubility?

Matthew Lickona said...

Oh ye bastards all together. Look at me getting into a combox pile-on. Apologies to both Joel and Darwin. Carry on. I will bow out here.

MrsDarwin said...

Matthew: yes, consent matters in contracting a marriage, which is why so many annulments are granted on the basis of less-than-full consent on the part of one or both partners. The importance of that consent is why there is the requirement for the witness at the wedding, and why the necessity of a ceremony. Consent given after the six-month waiting period, in front of a church full of witnesses, is different from consent given in bed in the heat of the moment, a difference the point Brandon makes about rape laws reflects.

I don't doubt the emotional pull and attachment of the relationship of the former Mrs. Melton and her paramour, but I do question how firm a foundation a marriage contracted over the sickbed of her husband will be. One would think her new husband would start to wonder what happens if he himself should become incapacitated. Does she split her time between the two men? Who takes precedence? Would she divorce him and take a new spouse for support? These are more than hypothetical questions; the precedent has already been set for spousal desertion.

Brandon said...


If you are talking about the marriage point, the same things we use elsewhere when not basing right on consent: common good, reasonable expectations of friendship, honorable deference to the weak, rational assessment of due, respect for rights and dignity, and whatever else is relevant. (And in marriage there's a whole lot that's relevant, because a marriage includes pretty much a whole moral life.)

If you are talking about rape, certain rights and reasonable expectations regardless of questions of consent. The standing problem in consent-based rape law is that, if the law is to be kept simple and not become the hugely elaborate law we get in other forms of consent-based law (like property law), pretty much anything consent-like ends up being taken as if it were consent, end of story; thus the acidic observation (I forget who made it) that in order to guarantee that a court will recognize that she did not consent, all a woman has to do is make sure her rapist puts her in intensive care. If we really want to make consent the all-important distinguishing line between rape and non-rape in sex, we need formalized contract conventions, because that's the only thing that protects people who need protecting, at least with any consistency. That is, you need a sexual version of contract law. You can, however, have approaches that take consent to be an element without taking it to be all-important; and this is where rape law reform usually focuses.

Brandon said...


Consent to marriage is important, yes; which is why there is a whole large complicated set of laws, legal mechanisms, and precedents to give it public stability, as MrsD notes. But more than that, marriage is contractual but not merely a contract. Without the pact of it, there is no marriage -- and thus the need for public consent according to recognized forms. But even in Catholic marriage, I don't think marriage as such is constituted by the consent unless we mean simply that that's where it begins; in its substance it is constituted by the common good of the society (of two, and then perhaps more) that is created by the consent -- and by the obligations that common good creates, both in itself and with respect to larger common goods (the community, the Church). As a contract it is more like a social contract, the constitution of a state, or a treaty of federation among nations than like the ordinary kinds of formalized consent that we usually think of. But this gets into high matters and complicated issues.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

What a very sad story. Yet, in a way, not surprising.

When my husband contracted cancer in 1998, I joined an email list for patients with mantle cell lymphoma and/or their caregivers. I was dismayed to discover that some of the patients on the list had been divorced by their spouses upon diagnosis.

Thank you for the link to Msgr. Pope's post. It was a strong and sensitive proclamation of truth. The video at the end of his post was such an inspiring contrast to the Washington Post article and the experiences of the abandoned patients I "met" on the email list.

Darwin said...

Ah, come, Matthew. All dogs are welcome in the pile. (And though I'll admit I haven't always been sure what keeps Joel coming back, since he usually only shows up to disagree, he's become a fixture. And keeps me honest, in that when I'm formulating a post the "what would Joel say" side of my mind tries to call me on strawmen before I hit "publish".)


I think what stirred me to write about this article (and doubtless what stirred Msgr. Pope as well) is the framing of the article as A Family Learns the True Meaning of the Vow: ‘In Sickness and in Health.’

In our modern America, an awful lot of people break their marriage vows, even under less trying circumstances. And with our obsession with self justification a lot of people try to explain how this is all to the best because they're all happier this way.

But framing up this stark betrayal of vows as somehow being the fulfillment of vows is too much self justification to take silently.

bearing said...

I haven't always been sure what keeps Joel coming back, since he usually only shows up to disagree, he's become a fixture. And keeps me honest, in that when I'm formulating a post the "what would Joel say" side of my mind tries to call me on strawmen before I hit "publish".

That's the best kind of disagreeing commenter.

This is a very good post -- thank you for linking to it. I'm impressed by the Msgr.'s writing.

Anonymous said...

Heh. What keeps me coming back? I've wondered that myself. As a left-leaning agnostic I don't have any natural affinity for many of the things that you (Mr. & Mrs. Darwin) post here, nor most of the commenters. I just refuse to stay in a cocoon and don't mind occasionally being the guy at the bottom of a dogpile. You two are thoughtful and intelligent and unfailingly considerate to your ideological opponents, so I figure this is a much better place than average for engaging with the other side. I'm glad to see the benefit is mutual.


MrsDarwin said...

Joel, believe it or not, we miss you if you don't show up for a while. "I haven't seen Joel around," one of us will say. "I wonder what he's up to?"

JMB said...

But who needs "consent" for a divorce nowadays? My sister was served divorce papers by her spouse of 18 years. She would have stayed married to him but he wanted out. There was nothing that she could have done. I think if we err, we have to err on the side of charity, and not judge these people. That's God's job, not ours.