One thing about being pope: You can call a spade a spade and not lose a wink over your popularity ratings. Thus, Pope John Paul II came right out and uttered the God's-awful truth: Divorce is a plague ripping apart modern society.
He made these remarks at a Vatican magistrates meeting, during which he also urged lawyers and judges to become conscientious objectors to divorce by refusing to participate in them. John Paul acknowledged that his recommendation would be tough to follow - judges can't really refuse to hear divorce cases - but popes are idea guys. It's up to someone else to sort out the details.
Not everyone cheered the pope's observations. Radicals chastised him for being a "fundamentalist," while others accused him of wanting to "turn back time." Alessandra Mussolini, a Parliament member and granddaughter of you-know-who, defended divorce as the often-best option for warring couples.
She's right, of course, if by "warring couples" she means somebody's getting a pizza pan upside the head. But John Paul is also right when he says that divorce "has devastating consequences that spread in the social body like a festering wound."
The pope's assault on divorce is practically stepping on the heels of a more popular recent assessment of divorce by psychologist Mavis Hetherington, who made national headlines of the "divorce-ain't-so-bad" variety, earning her the adoration of millions of guilt-ridden divorced parents. Hetherington found that three-quarters of children of divorce are "functioning in the normal range" two decades after their parents' divorce.
(Full Disclosure Paragraph: I myself am a recovering guilt-ridden, erstwhile divorced single mom, now-remarried stepmother as well as the daughter of five mothers, including four stepmothers, so I figure I'm sufficiently screwed up to qualify as an expert. My only agenda is to save others oh-da-troubles I've seen.)
First, I have a huge problem with phrases like "functioning in the normal range." On the "normal" continuum, there's a vast distance between Point A (converted to Islam, moved to a cave in Afghanistan and plotted mass murder) and Point B (is deliriously happy and grateful that his parents divorced when he was a small child).
According to Hetherington's study, "normal" means things like establishing careers and building intimate relationships, which, admittedly, is better than finding out that thousands of adult children of divorce are living in Dumpsters, just as the Vatican always predicted.
But functioning normally as an adult doesn't minimize the suffering children endure when, wholly dependent on the unconditional love of their parents, their lives are suddenly eviscerated.
Hetherington acknowledges as much. For the children in her research, she says, divorce was "usually brutally painful ... cataclysmic and inexplicable. How could a child feel safe in a world where adults had suddenly become untrustworthy?"
Excellent question. Do children get over these cataclysmic events?
Of course they do, just as children "get over" war, disease and famine. Yet no one ever suggests that functioning normally as adults diminishes the damaging, if not quantifiable, effects of such early childhood experiences. Likewise, the good news that divorced kids function normally as adults without regular electroshock therapy shouldn't be construed to mean that divorce is OK.
It's not OK. It may be necessary or unavoidable, but it's not OK. I'm a normally functioning adult, too, thanks to that padded room we installed in the basement. And while growing up with multiple mothers has its pluses - a new religion and new décor every few years - I'm guessing I could have avoided some history-repeating traps had my father pursued fewer personal-fulfillment paths.
And though it is true, as Hetherington points out, that divorce can be an opportunity for growth, healing and personal fulfillment, those are strictly adult talking points. Kids just want the same mother and father arguing at breakfast every morning. They're fundamentally not interested in whether Mom and Dad are happy 'n' fulfilled, but rather whether they, the children, are happy and fulfilled, i.e. fed, clothed, hugged, tucked in and - huge item here - 1,000 percent sure of not bumping into a stranger in the bathroom.
OK, here's the crumb you've been waiting for. No, not everyone should stay married. I'm with Dr. Laura on this one: Abuse, adultery and/or addiction are legitimate reasons to dump one's bad choice. But otherwise, marriage is a promise to your children that you'll behave like a grown-up and put their well-being first.
The pope has the right idea; it's up to us to sort out the details.