This Year marks the 40th Anniversary of No-Fault Divorce. With the signature of Governor Ronald Regan on Sept 5, 1969, the State of California became the first State to enact “No-Fault Divorce.” Other states quickly followed and within 15 years it was nationwide. In effect this law simplified divorce and streamlined it by allowing only one party to petition for divorce. By this act Marriage became the easiest contract in civil law to break.
Prior to 1969 the States processed divorce requests but the process was long and difficult. Shouldn’t it be? The breakup of marriages has potentially powerful implications for families and for society. It is especially children who suffer from unstable family situations. The State and the wider society has good reason to insist that couples remain faithful to vows they have made (to use Church language) and to “contractual obligations” binding on them (to use the language of civil law). With the introduction of “No-fault Divorce” the notion of obligations and duties toward Children and the wider society was set aside. Marriage became a whimsical arrangement subject to easy and rather sudden end – no questions asked. “Irreconcilable differences” is all that needs to be said.
Late in life, Reagan admitted his son, Michael that, signing the bill was one of the worst mistakes he ever made in public office.
How have we done since 1969? Well no one would say marriage is a healthier institution as a result. Divorce has skyrocketed. Now more than half the children of this country no longer enjoy a stable nuclear family but instead are sent back and forth between the households of divorced parents. Often they have to endure the confusion and turmoil of their parents’ second marriages, half brothers and sisters, moms and step moms, dads and stepdads and every other sort of relationship you can imagine. What sort of a toll has this taken on children in terms of things like drug use, suicide rates, premarital sex, SAT scores, etc.? Well, you know the answer. And how do we fare as a society, as a nation, as Church when our most basic pillar is on shaky ground? Here again, you know the answer, we have not fared well.
There was a time in this land when divorce was rare. When it occurred people were shocked and whispered about it. Really it was not so long ago. I who am only 48 remember those times from my early childhood. It is not as though every marriage was happy before 1965. Indeed, there were many “unhappy marriages.” But people had a different outlook which emphasized the importance of staying true to commitments that had been made and to sticking them “for the sake of the kids.” These attitudes were enshrined in law which made divorce difficult. Marriage was for the Children and children had needs for stability and for parents who stuck to their commitments. Today, the attitude is that marriage is for the adults and the needs of children are somewhat secondary.
Do you also see how this had led to the current trend to “redefine” marriage. If Marriage is essentially only about the relationship of the adults involved and children are only an optional accessory, who is to say that marriage should be stable or even heterosexual? Or so the thinking goes. But if, as the Church continues to teach, the procreation and rearing of children is an essential end of marriage then it makes sense that God would establish marriage as between one man and one woman till death do them part. As God puts it, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24) God goes on further to command them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28).
So here we are today, marriage, family, and children are all on the ropes. Our own strength as a civilization depends on us getting this right again. The first major and serious blow took place 40 years ago this month. God invites us to return.
To those who are divorced, I mean you no disrespect. Many are divorced today due to complicated reasons. Not all wanted the divorce they had. Others made decisions early in life that they now regret. Still others had unique situations too complicated to speculate about here. But I’ll bet most who are divorced would be the first to describe its pains and ramifications in the family. Easy divorce has not made life easy. “Amicable solutions” are seldom pain-free and they are seldom solutions at all. Rather they unleash a whole new set of problems. Somewhere in the midst of all this God is calling to us and he invites us all to rediscover his plan for marriage and the family.