For the greater part of its history our Western civilization managed without any system of divorce, and without laws and courts to facilitate revisions in the matrimonial arrangements of the people. This was partly because of the influence of the Christian church, which regarded marriage, at all events when it took the form of holy matrimony, as by nature indissoluble; and partly because most men had a deep reverence for family life and regarded the stability and binding character of our domestic institutions as one of the bedrock elements in our civilization.
How sacred is marriage?
There can be no doubt that under these circumstances there were a considerable number of unhappy marriages which were the cause of a great deal of human misery. It is also obviously true that a society which does not permit divorce tends to be somewhat tolerant of a certain amount of adultery— what we may call sub rosa deviations from the strict letter of the law. I do not mean that such societies approved of adultery, but they did tend to accept it as the price we must inevitably pay for a strong and stable matrimonial system in a fallen world. In general our forefathers would not have been prepared to do anything which would weaken the binding character of the marriage tie simply in order to reduce the amount of sexual irregularity in their civilization.
The nineteenth century witnessed a great change in the public mind which may be traced to three factors:
First, with the growth of secularism and religious scepticism people grew doubtful about the sacred character of the marriage tie— really, of course, because they had
become doubtful about the sacred character of anything at all—and they questioned more and more the value of institutions which obviously caused so much frustration and unhappiness.
Second, with the growth of individualism people were less prone to assume that the family is the true basis of the social order. They assumed that the individual, not the family, is the true unit of society. The individual became to them a kind of social atom of which society is composed, and social life seemed to be a series of contractual relationships, of which marriage is only one.
Once marriage was seen to be only a contract it was quickly realized that the contract could be legally voided under stated legal conditions. There was, of course, a difficulty here. It is easier to represent the tie between a husband and a wife as a contract than the tie between parents and their children. The judge of a divorce court could plausibly say to a man, “This woman is no longer your wife,” and to the woman. “This man is no longer your husband,” but he could not conceivably say to either of them, “These are no longer your children.” Thus many of our most complex problems arise out of the shared relationship of divorcees to their children. Nobody can say that any satisfactory basis for dealing with these problems has yet been discovered; we may even doubt whether such a basis is in fact discoverable. We may say that the problem of the relation of the divorced parents to their children is one of the unsolved problems of the divorcing society, and indeed the effect of divorce upon the children victimized by it is today a very serious problem indeed.
The third factor in the changing public attitude toward divorce was a religious continued on page 79
DR. CASSERLEY IS AN ANGLICAN SOCIOLOGIST, EDUCATOR, AUTHOR AND INTERNATIONAL AUTHORITY ON DOGMATIC THEOLOGY.
Continued from page 10
one connected with the growth and vogue of puritanism. Among Christians of a puritanical cast of mind adultery tends to be thought of as though it were the worst of all the sins. Indeed in many areas of our culture words like immorality and sin have primarily, or even exclusively. a sexual connotation. I remember being told about the sins of a brother clergyman which had led at last to his deposition from the ministry. It was one of those sad stories of a man with many gifts who had ruined his life because of an addiction to alcohol. Pursued on a large scale this is one of the most expensive of all the vices, and so he had finally sunk to the illicit conversion of parochial monies to his own alcoholic uses.
"But you know.” my informant told me, “he wasn't all bad. He was always a very moral man. You could leave your daughter alone with him at any time.”
It was obvious that for my informant the word immoral meant one thing and one thing alone. To him this deadly sin w’as so deadly that whenever he thought of it he forgot about all the other deadly sins.
Thus adultery became almost the unforgivable sin and it seemed wrong to expect of married people that they should be prepared to forgive or overlook it in their partners. At all events at the beginning most divorcing systems permitted divorce for adultery alone, as indeed some of them still do. It may be noted that from the point of view of Christianity this state of mind is one which can find no biblical support. In the New Testament adultery is indeed a terrible sin. but it is very far indeed from being regarded as the most terrible of all the sins. Indeed Jesus could say to the proud and complacent Pharisees that even the harlots would go into the kingdom of heaven before them.
But nowadays we can faintly discern the beginning of a change in the public mind. Of course, secularistic and irreligious outlooks and philosophies still prevail very widely in our civilization, but they are no longer so strong as they once were. We are now more willing to recognize that our secular life contains a great many sacred elements, and that it cannot be properly organized unless we recognize the degree to which our
a word game
BY CATHERINE JONES
¡I what is will soon be was what f| was is still what was what will ¡I be will be is when is is was because what is soon to be is now when now is then and then what || is then is then and will be what || is soon is now then then
ANSWER ON PAGE 81
social life must be shaped by a sense of binding moral obligation from which, under God, we are allowed no way of escape.
Again, the individualistic philosophy is no longer so strong as it once was. From the point of view of modern sociology the self-sufficient individual does not exist. We know that each one of us is in some sense an individual, but we also know that except through the collaboration of two other people no one of us would ever have got into the world at all! There is something about the reality of the family which defies the individualistic analysis. The relationship between parents and their children is certainly not a contract. It is not something we freely agree to, rather it is something which in its very nature is imposed upon us by a simple biological fact. In these days married people may choose to be parents, but once parenthood is a fact there is no way of voiding or escaping it.
Then, too, with the recovery of a more profoundly biblical and a more truly orthodox outlook in Christianity we are no longer so certain that adultery and sexual irregularity is the worst of all things that can possibly happen. Nowadays indeed the Christian marriage counselor finds that in helping people through their matrimonial differences one of the most important things is to make the wronged partner realize that the sin of the other party not only can be forgiven, but must be forgiven if the teachings of Christ are to be obeyed.
Divorce: cure and cause
The other thing that has happened after a century or so of increasingly frequent divorce is the growing public realization that divorce only remedies one kind of unhappiness in order to create another kind of unhappiness. It is even possible that it causes more unhappiness than it remedies, for it has brought such a degree of instability in our matrimonial institutions that nowadays no one can feel that his domestic life is the rock upon which all the rest of his life is based. And in addition to that, there can be no doubt that the comparative ease with which divorce is obtainable in many communities has greatly increased the number of foolish marriages, and fostered in many people a superficial and irresponsible attitude toward marriage ties which actually prevents them from discovering for themselves the great and deep happiness which marriage can bring.
The first architects of our various divorcing systems certainly supposed that divorce would make no difference to marriage at all. As they saw it the great majority of people would continue precisely as before, and the divorce machinery would only be resorted to by a small unhappy minority who found their marriages intolerable. In the main these people were lawyers, and their outlook was legalistic rather than sociological. What they failed to see is the way in which a new law, as people grow to accept it and make use of it, gradually creates a new social institution. The social institution which the divorce system has slowly created is the one which the great French sociologist Le Play described as “unstable marriage.” When Le Play talked about unstable marriage he meant not some particular marriage which happened incidentally to be unstable but a whole new system of marriage in which all marriages tend to be relatively insecure.
It is certainly true that the spectacle of frequent divorce — the divorces we read about in the newspapers or help-
lessly watch happening in the lives of our friends and neighbors—brings an element of anxiety and uncertainty even into those relatively successful marriages in which divorce is unlikely or out of the question. It is, so to speak, the skeleton in the family cupboard, the death’s head at the domestic feast. Even within that social institution which above all should make us feel secure, in the midst of an otherwise rather insecure life, people no longer find the basic guarantee of security which they so sorely need. Husbands and wives cannot be absolutely sure of each other; children cannot be absolutely sure of their parents. Nothing is certain; nothing is sacred. The fact is that the divorcing habit has altered for the worse the entire social climate in which marriage takes place.
In these circumstances the question more and more arises whether our civilization has not made a basic and tragic mistake. We have created legal machinery to remedy obvious unhappiness and it has turned out to be the cause of an even more widespread and insidious source of unhappiness than it has succeeded in abolishing. Obviously in this fallen world of ours we cannot conceivably abolish misery and unhappiness altogether, but we may rightly seek at least to minimize them.
In the report of the last British Commission on the Divorce Laws a small minority did, perhaps for the first time in documents of this kind, raise the question whether we should not do better to abolish our divorce laws, and accept all the sad consequences which such a step would inevitably entail, rather than allow the present tragic decay of what we may call matrimonial morale to continue indefinitely into the future. At the moment very few people are asking the
closely related to it. For the Christian the main thing is to obey the revealed will of God rather than to seek social and political advantages. Nevertheless the Christian always believes that to obey the revealed will of God is in the long run the best way of reaping true social and political advantages. Provided we seek first of all the Kingdom of God then indeed all the other things in the long run will be added to us. Conversely, if we seek first the kingdom of man the probability is that we shall end up without even that!
Now the significant development is the emergence of a new, purely sociological and secular argument against divorce. There were of course a few opponents of divorce in the nineteenth century who argued on purely secular grounds. Thus the French atheist and socialist, Proudhon, strongly opposed divorce on the ground that it is an aristocratic and middle-class corruption quite alien to the strong family spirit of the working classes. But such people were few and far between. Nowadays however, we glimpse the possibility of a strong secular and social argument against divorce which runs parallel to and is completely compatible with the theological argument but in no way depends upon it. The theologians will say that this means that divorce is contrary to the law of nature (i.e., that it overthrows the foundations of human earthly happiness) as well as contrary to the law of God. They will add that this does not surprise them because they have always been convinced that anything contrary to the law of God is also contrary to the law of nature.
As we see it the real question which will confront our society in the coming decades can be summed up quite clearly and succinctly. Is it better to have more adultery and sexual delinquency combined with a strong and stable matrimonial system, or rather less adultery and sexual delinquency and a weak, unstable matrimonial system which constantly increases the proportion of tragically unsuccessful to successful marriages.
At the moment most civilized Western communities have agreed to choose the latter alternative, but, it must be confessed. with increasingly disastrous results. It may well be, however, that in the next few generations our society will slowly drift back to the earlier view. It may see the consequences of divorce as even more terrible than the obviously unhappy consequences of no divorce. We must remember that our human choice is never the choice between the absolutely good and right and the absolutely wrong. Our task is to choose the lesser rather than the greater evil. Whichever way we choose there will be a certain amount of frustration, misery and sin. What we have to do is make the choice which minimizes these things. There is no choice open to us which will altogether abolish them.
My own conviction is that in the coming years we shall see the great debate about divorce renewed rather along the lines which I have tried to indicate. If I am right we shall be facing the situation much more realistically than in the past, and the possibility that we shall choose more wisely will be greatly increased. ★
IS YOUR SUBSCRIPTION" DUE?
Subscribers receiving notice of the approaching expiration of their subscriptions are reminded of the necessity of sending in their renewal orders promptly.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.