Mel and Robyn Gibson’s recently announced divorce proceedings set the gossip and entertainment pages abuzz. Many wondered how Mel Gibson, the producer of The Passion of the Christ and a professed Catholic (although the church he reportedly attends near Los Angeles is not recognized by the Catholic Church), would reconcile his divorce with his beliefs, which hold that divorce is wrong.
Divorce among Catholics is not new, and divorce among movie stars is de rigueur. What makes the Gibsons’ story striking is that they had been able to buck the divorce epidemic for the past 28 years and raise seven children together. Their large family, the length of their marriage, and their apparent determination to live by the teachings of the Catholic Church in the Hollywood stratosphere make them an anomaly. Indeed, even as people try to paint Mel as a hypocrite, many describe the Gibson marriage as extraordinary for its endurance; some even describe it as a success. But if Mel and Robyn truly have been trying to live by the teachings of the Catholic faith, a divorce cannot and never will mean success.
Catholic teachings on marriage are rooted in several things Jesus said, including:
‐“From the beginning of creation, ‘God made man male and female.’ For this reason a man may leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and two shall become one. So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” Mark 10:6–9
‐ “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” Luke 16:18
These unequivocal pronouncements stunned Jesus’ disciples. “The disciples said to Him, ‘If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.’ ” Matthew 19:10.
The early Church’s emphasis on Christian marriage echoed what Jesus taught and played a key role in the spread of Christianity, according to renowned religion sociologist (and agnostic) Rodney Stark. In his best-selling book, The Rise of Christianity, Stark argues that Christianity’s rapid expansion in the first few centuries A.D. had a lot to do with the countercultural mores of the early Christians regarding marriage, sexual ethics, and the value of human life.
Drawing on a variety of historical resources, Stark describes the Mediterranean world at the time of Christ as a society in which promiscuity, prostitution, bisexuality, homosexuality, birth control, infanticide, and abortion were widely practiced and sanctioned. Moreover, a preference for sons at that time led to female infanticide. Marital infidelity was common — when men would acquiesce to marry at all.
According to Stark, the early Church especially attracted female converts precisely because its teachings emphasized the importance of marriage, family, marital fidelity, and chastity, and forbade divorce, artificial birth control (already practiced then), abortion, and infanticide — all practices that objectified the women of those times, making them second-class citizens. Stark argues that early Christian women enjoyed tremendous status, respect, and an improved quality of life compared with their contemporaries. Not surprisingly, Christian families soon began to outpace their counterparts in terms of progeny, and thus proceeded to expand their presence (and values) demographically.
On a practical level, if the Gibsons do divorce, Robyn, as a single mother of the Gibson children, will have few financial concerns other than the difficulties of managing a few hundred million dollars. But their situation is not the norm. Many women and children — and sometimes men — are much more vulnerable to harsh economic consequences and a lower quality of life after divorce. Also, research has shown that children of divorce frequently encounter emotional and educational setbacks.
The Catholic Church teaches that spouses can — and sometimes should — separate in cases of physical and emotional abuse, but, in the eyes of God, the marriage itself remains indissoluble. Its meaning is rooted in God’s fidelity to his covenant, especially Christ’s permanent union with His Church. Only God can judge the hearts of those facing difficult marital situations, but if we take Him at His word, quitting is not really an option.
– Marie T. Oates is a communications consultant and the lead editor of the book Women of Opus Dei: In Their Own Words (Crossroad Publishing, April 2009)