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The First Blow to Marriage: No-Fault Divorce

September 9, 2009

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.

Comments (10)

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  1. Michael says:

    I like this post a lot. It’s refreshing to hear from a priest, in my opinion, because it puts the marriage crisis in a larger context than “gay marriage is going to ruin everything!” Indeed, you point out that a conservative icon was responsible for legislation that may have contributed to what you see as the problem, as well as the important fact that heterosexual marriage has had plenty of problems of its own to deal with for quite some time. It balances out some of the impressions I sense from some folks that everything was fine before gays and liberals came onto the scene.

    It is indeed very sad what the institution of marriage has become as far as the statistics. And it’s indeed very complicated. Like all of us are if we were opened up and analyzed.

    At times on each side of these issues, I see a desire for some kind of formula that will make things not be so darn complicated: a husband and wife, Roman Catholicism, no abortion in the world, and a Latin mass = perfect world, no problems, no pain. It’s the same with liberals too: tolerance, same sex marriage, separation of Church and state, progressive values, guitars in Church = perfect world, no problems, no pain. From my experience with conservative families and liberal families, neither formula is without complications, problems, and pain. This is not to say that nothing matters because life is complicated, but that we shouldn’t put too much stock or raise our expectations so high for external circumstances to take away the sinfulness and brokenness and struggles we all face as human beings.

  2. Yes, there is a pretty long legacy of heterosexual misbehavior regarding marriage that has gotten us here. Plenty of blame to share for the current difficulties. I blogged along similar line a month or so ago here: http://blog.adw.org/2009/05/same-sex-marriage-how-have-we-gotten-here/

  3. Anony mouse says:

    The Catholic clergy have -bleep- over divorce/annulments. You do not fit in the Church Monsignor, leave it as I did, after defending our marriage and watching the Catholic clergy, now for twenty years, support open adultery.

    You are wasting your breath!.

    • Not exactly sure how to interpret your remarks, which I had to edit 🙂 Any way I love the Church. I think our teachings are intact though sometimes our pastoral practice needs correction and purification. The number of annulments is alarming and troubling, particularly here in America. I think we’ve been through a period of difficulty and chaos but clarity is reasserting. It is slow, I admit. One sign of hope is the fine quality of the younger priests currently being ordained. I am impressed with their orthodoxy, love for the Church, zeal for the truth. Little by little I see clarity coming back. But it is slow, I admit.

  4. Anony mouse says:

    Too late for me, Monsignor. Although I have defected from the Catholic Church, it remains Christ’s Church, however, and I do wish it recovery. It will have to recover without me, however, unless one who loves it is acceptable to Christ, at the final judgment, formally separated from His Church and can remain with Him for eternity.

    I will have to hear that answer from God, at that time. It is my ONLY hope. My family and I have been too wronged
    for me to return to such an uncaring Church.

    • Evan says:

      “My family and I have been too wronged for me to return to such an uncaring Church.”

      You are unable to forgive?

  5. Evan says:

    I believe you are mistaken. The first blow to marriage was the Fall.

    And even in our more modern times, the interference of the state into marriage was a far more serious blow than no-fault divorce, one which precipitated this very state of affairs.

  6. Yossarian says:

    Padre,

    Sacrimental Marriage in the church is a thing entirely different (except in name, of course) from the State sanctioned, and licensed, legal covenant you discuss herein. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution assures all the right to worship, or not, as they please; as Catholics we likely view marriage much differently than, say, atheists who may feel compelled to marry for the purpose of establishing legal standing regarding issues such as inheritance, disposition of property, etc. Regardless of our theological conceptions of marriage, and conviction of the validity of these beliefs, we have no more right to impose our viewpoints on non-Catholics than do Wiccans, or any other group adhering to a particular dogma. It’s important to separate Church Sacraments from the State’s legal constructs, regardless of whether or not they share a name.

    Although I agree with your belief that divorce does considerable harm to all involved, attempting to legislate our agenda, in a secular, democratic state, is not, and never has been, a workable, long-term solution.

  7. Linero says:

    Actually, the first state to institute “no-fault” divorce was Oklahoma in 1953. Do the research.