Power of prayer can evoke change
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Two weeks ago, I wrote to you quite strongly about the dignity of marriage and its profound rejection by our worldly, pleasure-seeking culture. I reminded you of the clear teachings of our Lord about adultery and lust. I pointed out how great is God’s mercy; while we, for our part, must try to cooperate with his grace by rejecting our sins, because when we still intend to commit sins, we are in fact rejecting his mercy. I urged you to pray for the upcoming extraordinary synod which begins in Rome this Sunday, and to pray for families. And I urged you to recommit to living your vocation with fidelity and joy, because it is through our daily witness and sacrifice that we proclaim God’s mercy.
There is another aspect of the crisis of marriage in our culture to which the light of the Gospel should be brought, namely, domestic violence. Because of the attention that has been paid to domestic violence over the last several weeks in the cases of certain professional athletes, and because of its relevance to the issues facing the church in its current Synod on the Family, I want to take the opportunity to state again the church’s teaching on this issue. The more we know what our Lord teaches us in the Gospel and what he expects of us as his disciples, the better we can witness truth to the world.
Domestic violence is any behavior, whether physical, verbal, emotional, psychological, or even economic, which attempts to isolate and control an intimate partner, by degrees of threat, fear, and intimidation. Nine times in ten, it is committed by men against women. It happens between married couples and between dating and cohabiting couples. It is often unreported, especially when physical abuse is not committed; but from what is reported, it seems that the prevalence of domestic violence increases among younger women, those with younger children, and those cohabitating. Violence against mothers of children also frequently coincides with violence against their children; and children who are victims of violence are much more likely to become violent in the same ways.
In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord teaches that anger in the heart and verbal abuse are just another kind of murder (Mt 5:22). Domestic violence, even when physical harm is not committed, is a form of this spiritual killing. It clearly harms and violates the dignity of the victim, attacking their conscience and freedom, their heart and soul.
The church therefore teaches that every form of domestic violence is sinful. Such abuse is never justified, and it is often criminal (“When I Call for Help,” 2002 USCCB statement on domestic violence). Those who commit domestic violence, especially within a Christian marriage, fail badly in their duties as spouse and parent. St. Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians points out the mutual submission of husband and wife in marriage. This mutual submission imitates the obedience of Christ on the Cross. It cannot be forced or coerced, it can only be gained by constant acts of love, trust, and fidelity. If a husband believes his wife is not submissive, he must examine his own behavior for a lack of submission to her, and he must regain her love with a renewal of his love for her. Even outside of marriage, these promises are implied by the very nature of sexual union, the most profound form of self-gift that is possible between two people.
In the pastoral care of the church in situations of domestic violence, we have three clear goals (see “When I Call for Help”). First and most important is the safety of the victims. Usually, this means removing the victim from the situation, which again (especially because of the way she has been made a victim already) cannot be coerced. This also means that she, and often she and her children, must have a safe place to go, and supporters who will help protect her from further abuse.
Second, we must hold the abuser accountable. This could mean some combination of intervention, legal action, or counseling. Some people who commit domestic violence can be helped and perhaps healed in these ways. Where the desire to change is real, spiritual and sacramental healing will also be pursued.
Third, to the extent that it is possible, we desire to heal and preserve marriages. The sacramental bond is important, and should not be allowed to fail without effort and hope. Nevertheless, in cases where, for example, abusive behavior isn’t likely to change, or the degree of lingering fear is simply too great to heal, the church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage does not require that a victim remain with her abuser. In such cases, a civil divorce may be the best outcome. I stress that it is not the divorce that has ended the marriage, but the abuse. Of course, just as in every other case, civil divorce does not end the moral obligations of marriage, and the divorced are not free to marry again without a grant of nullity from the church.
May Christ always give us the courage to accept our vocations faithfully and joyfully, and to reach out to those most in need of his grace and mercy. Thank you for your prayers for me and all our priests, deacons and seminarians. May the Lord give you peace.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
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