Abandoned Catholic spouses seek redress in canon law

 

The Heritage Foundation recently released a study concluding that marriage is better for children. The Catholic Church has canon laws to protect marriage. But, in Los Angeles,  Elizabeth observes that the local Church leadership appears to support the breakup of marriage and ignores its own law. In an interview, Elizabeth, Catholic wife and mother, requested to be identified only by her middle name.  
 
The report titled, “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty” was released on September 15. It opens with what Elizabeth says is obvious: 
 
     “Child poverty is an ongoing national concern, but few are aware that its principal cause is the absence of married fathers in the home. Marriage remains America’s      strongest anti-poverty weapon, yet it continues to decline. As husbands disappear from the home, poverty and welfare dependence will increase, and children and parents will suffer as a result.”
 
Elizabeth and her children’s serious financial problems began when her husband chose to abandon their marital home in September of 2009. “He’s been spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to live a lavish lifestyle and now our finances are ruined. I am making less than half of what my husband makes and I was just notified that the state of California is garnishing $3,590 from my paycheck for back taxes never paid after he left. We owe $27,000 to the IRS.” 
 
Elizabeth and Gerald were married in 1990 at St. Philip the Apostle parish in Los Angeles She says, “Neither of us would have agreed to marry unless we married for life as the Catholic Church understands marriage.”
 
 In accord with the Rite of Marriage, which includes the marital promises that every Catholic married couple must make, Elizabeth and Gerald vowed to take each other as husband and wife, “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” As required in Catholic marriage, they agreed to “accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church.” Gerald is obligated to live with Elizabeth and their children in a unified household unless a lawful reason excuses him (Code of Canon Law, c. 1151). If Elizabeth was committing adultery, or was gravely abusive, Gerald would have a morally legitimate reason to separate, but according to Elizabeth, “He left because he didn’t have romantic feelings and thinks we are incompatible. But, I love Gerald and I know feelings come and go, and romantic feelings can return.”
 
 Elizabeth hopes the Catholic Church would challenge her husband to return home by applying its canon law to protect marriages.
 
      “Canon 1153 … With invocation of the concept of malicious abandonment, there is an attempt to declare guilty the spouse who has maliciously been absent and to obtain the legal declaration of separation for the one who has been abandoned.” […] “with the intent of specifically protecting compliance with every conjugal and family duty, and penalizing their omission” (Exegetical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, University of Navarra).
 
 Because Gerald abandoned his marriage, he appears to be violating the Catholic guidelines for marital behavior. He’s financially/materially devastating the family by having a separate place.
 
       ‘Canon 1151, Right-duty to commonality of life
  ‘… Spouses must live together. This is the duty of physical cohabitation, namely a shared table, bed, and dwelling.
  ‘… Spouses must tend to their mutual material or corporal perfection. This rule implies that spouses must help each other in the maintenance and improvement of the material aspects of their personal life. It also refers to the fact that matrimonial life must not involve a detriment to the corporal or material good of the other spouse’ (ibid).
 
From the Vatican, the international leadership of the Catholic Church is emphasizing that Catholic canon law should be used to bring justice and order amongst the faithful. When canon law is not followed, chaos results, says Cardinal Raymond Burke, director of the  Catholic top appeal court in the world: Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.  In his address, “Canon Law at the Service of Justice and Freedom in the Church as the People of God,” given on August 28, he teaches how canon law is relevant to strengthening the culture at large.
 
      “It must be clear that the remaking of ‘the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community,’ which is necessary for the ‘mending of the Christian fabric of society,’ will have as a fundamental element a new knowledge of and respect for the canonical discipline of the Church.”
 
Elizabeth is concerned that too many priests and diocesan staff people implicitly condone her husband’s marital abandonment. “If he had been clearly instructed that no decent Catholic man leaves a marriage like ours, and marital abandonment is a serious sin, Gerald might have chosen to work on our relationship rather than quit. The Heritage Foundation knows that splitting our family puts our children at risk, but my husband evidently has other priorities. Gerald says that several priests told him it is OK to do what he’s doing. My husband thinks that so long as he’s ‘nice’ to people, he’s confident that God will be happy with him. From what I know, he’s still receiving Holy Communion.”
 
In the Catholic Code of Canon Law, a spouse does not have the right, nor does a priest have the authority to give anyone permission to permanently separate. Only the Bishop has that authority (canon 1153).
 
Before Gerald abandoned the marital home, he and Elizabeth met with a priest from Pasadena. Later, this priest told her about a conversation with her husband. “The priest informed me that sometimes people make a mistake when they get married. He told my husband he could get an annulment based on Gerald’s claim that he had doubts before getting married. My husband got his own place shortly after that conversation with the priest.”
 
An annulment is the official decree that a Catholic tribunal court can give a petitioner declaring that the Catholic marriage never occurred. In the United States, a popular reason used for granting annulments is canon 1095 for defective consent. Elizabeth says, “I’m upset that the priest gave my husband the impression that we weren’t really even married and that Gerald can have our marriage declared null. If the priest is saying that my husband’s doubts before marriage made his marital consent defective because he suffered from a ‘grave lack of discretion,’ I think the priest is wrong. My husband would have to claim he had some mental illness before that reason for annulment could apply to our marriage.”
 
Cardinal Burke, in his August 28 address, cautions about misusing canon 1095 to grant annulments based on defective consent, and he instructs that those in grave manifest sin should be denied Communion: 
 
       “Knowledge of and respect for canonical discipline is indispensable to the Church’s response to the call to a new evangelization.” […] “Key to the form of the new evangelization through canonical discipline is the study of the sources of canonical institutes in the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition. The discipline regarding the refusal of Holy Communion to persons who persist in grave and public sin, for example, must be seen in its consistent development from the time of Saint Paul. Likewise, the ground of nullity of marriage, lack of sufficient discretion of judgment, must be seen in the long canonical tradition regarding the influence of the lack of psychological capacity or the loss of it through mental illness on the capacity to give marriage consent.”
 
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Marriage and Family Life Offices offers Elizabeth no help in trying to find someone to instruct her husband that, as a Catholic, he should not separate from his wife.  They appear to offer no support for Elizabeth to remain faithful to marriage when she is separated from her husband. 
 
The “Recovery Ministry to Separated and Divorced Catholics” is available in Los Angeles.  Its 13-page brochure mentions nowhere that separating from one’s spouse in any circumstance is wrong.  Separation is described as “the end of a relationship” with no distinction between morally legitimate reasons for separation (like grave abuse and adultery) and the immoral reasons for separation, like boredom, selfishness, or loss of that loving feeling.  The brochure says, “Separated/Divorced Catholics who have not remarried outside of the Church may receive the Sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation and participate fully in parish life.” It never mentions that marital abandonment might be a grave sin, or the possibility that abandoners should be denied Holy Communion. One full page of the diocesan brochure is dedicated to annulment information.  “The Beginning Experience” retreat weekends are offered for the separated “to help grieving single-again persons move from the darkness of their grief into the light of a new beginning and move into the future with renewed hope.”
 
While Elizabeth is willing to look to the future with hope, she is not “single-again.” She is married, yet separated. 
 
She is concerned about the Archdiocese of Los Angeles: it does not follow the canon law on separation of spouses; the priest contradicts the director of the Vatican’s highest tribunal court about reasons for annulment based on defective consent; and diocesan staff people are silent bystanders while her husband breaks his marital promises that he made in the Catholic Church.  Elizabeth says, “The Heritage Foundation recognizes what the Archdiocese of Los Angeles seems to miss: a husband should not leave his marriage.”
 
Bai Macfarlane is the editor of Mary's Advocates.
 
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.
Filed under religion, catholic, vatican, us, marriage, canon law, Religion

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