The Divorce Referendum - two perspectives

As we approach Friday’s election, which includes a referendum on the “Regulation of Divorce” VOX magazine brings you two differing perspectives on the proposals to reduce the waiting time for a divorce and to recognise foreign divorces. NB VOX magazine is committed to bringing different Christian perspectives on tough issues in order to enable individuals to come to their own conclusions.

This week, Nick Park from Evangelical Alliance Ireland issued a statement calling for Christians to consider the issues carefully in the light of moves to “redefine marriage” (see below for the full text of his statement). Blogger Karen Huber presents a different view.

Supporting the Divorce Referendum (from a Child of Divorce’s Perspective)

By Karen Huber

Divorce is ugly and hard. Reducing the waiting period won’t make it easy, but it should make it easier on those who have to go through it.

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It seemed obvious to me. For the first time, maybe, in a blessedly long time, I knew early on exactly which box I would tick. After all, we’re not talking about legislating morality or changing definitions on anything. We’re talking about timing—a waiting period to be exact. It’s merely perfunctory, really. Or so I thought. 

On Friday, among the names and parties of those running for local and European elections, we’ll also be asked to consider divorce. More specifically, we will choose to remove from the Constitution the current mandatory 4-year waiting period before a divorce in Ireland may be finalized. We will also consider the recognition of divorces granted abroad.

I’ve been recognising divorce for a while. I knew what divorce was before I knew joined up writing or my postcode. It is an inescapable part of my story here on earth. 

From the time I was 7, I’ve been explaining to people my complicated family origin. My parents’ divorce was finalised in three months flat, a devastating whirlwind. Within a year, I’d find myself straddling two families. Within two, a new brother. Within ten years (the year divorce became legal in Ireland), I’d see them together, for the first time, on the same property for my secondary school graduation.

Thirty years on, there is an eventual normalcy, a vocabulary that bridges the gap of what once was and what is now. My children know no other definition of family; this is theirs. They have three doting grandmothers, and when we’re back in the US, they enjoy double the birthdays, Christmases and holidays. 

Consequences still linger, of course. Divorce is anything but "easy", no matter the time frame. It is devastating and exhausting and all consuming. The current 4-year waiting period may be meant to be prohibitive, but it’s also costly, painful and unrelenting. For families with children, it’s an extended limbo of insecurity, fear and doubt. It’s the already/not yet between loss and moving on with life. 

Perhaps some families mend with time but I don’t think mine would have. I can picture those four years in my head: an already fragmented family crumbling further, the hope of reconciliation delaying the inevitable break. Month after month of uncertainty with no end in sight.

Some Christian leaders say that this proposed legality – a removal of the waiting period and the eventual legislation of a new, shorter timeframe – is further proof of a redefinition of marriage. In a statement from the Evangelical Alliance Ireland, director Nick Park urges Christians to vote their consciences, but says that “the proposed change to the Constitution removing any time-frame by which a marriage might be deemed as having irretrievably broken down is designed to further weaken the concept of marriage as a lifelong commitment.”

Bishop Denis Nulty concurs, writing in The Irish Times: “My fear is that this proposal, if successful, will militate against the common good by weakening the bond of marriage.”

In the Christian faith, marriage is a sacred vow—perhaps the most sacred behind a life of dedicated service to God. And with that sacredness, many fear an encroaching secular culture will demean and defy it. 

Some might point to the 1995 compromise on divorce in Ireland as the first step towards “redefining marriage.” And they may be right.

But then they’d be ignoring the spouses who abandoned families only to start new ones, leaving the remaining spouse with no legal recourse. They’d be remiss not to acknowledge the children without parental support, financial or otherwise. They’d be ignoring the women sent to homes, and the men who were allowed – anonymously – to go on with their lives while young mothers gave up theirs and their babies. Sexuality, marriage and the family was so holy an institution that the Church and the government conspired to hide, bury and destroy what did not suit its definition.

Maybe redefining isn’t so bad. Maybe definition isn’t so great a word for marriage and families, at all. 

Still, that’s not what this vote is. Marriage is a religious and civil matter. Divorce is legal. And to see some evangelical leaders use the 2019 referendum to deny a compassionate resolution to those who find themselves facing a divorce feels cruel and unnecessary. After all, they’re not arguing for a 4-year waiting period to get married.

Like everything in life, a divorce takes as long as it takes. Removing the 4-year waiting period doesn’t mean you’ll get divorced tomorrow, next week, or even next year. It may or may not make divorce less common. But it will make it less demonstrably cruel, emotionally and financially costly, and better to live within the Bible’s ethics on sexual and marital relationships.

Those who face a divorce already encounter stigma. The stories we tell about our complicated families are awkard, painful and fraught. Doing away with the waiting period won’t make it easy, but it should make it easier on those who have to go through it. 

Marriage matters, indeed. But the people in them matter more.

Statement about the Referendum on Divorce

By Nick Park, Executive Director, Evangelical Alliance Ireland

On Friday 24 May, Ireland votes in a Referendum on Divorce. At present, a couple can get divorced if their marriage has irretrievably broken down, and the Constitutional criteria for recognising this is that a couple must have lived apart for at least four of the past five years. The referendum proposes to remove this four-year clause from the Constitution. The government has announced an intention to legislate a lesser time frame, but that will not be in the Constitution so will not form part of the Referendum question. Of course, any legislated time-frame can be amended or removed altogether by future governments.

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Most Evangelical Christians, while seeing marriage as a lifelong commitment, recognise that occasionally marriages do break down irretrievably. Jesus Himself, in teaching against divorce, made an exception where adultery had occurred (Matt 5:32 & Matt 19:9). Also, no victim of domestic abuse should be expected to remain married to their abuser.

However, this is not to normalise or trivialise divorce. Jesus said that divorce existed because of the hardness in men’s hearts (Matt 19:8). So, even where provision for divorce exists, Christians should still see divorce as an abnormal collapse of something that should last for a lifetime. It takes hard work to make marriage a success, and divorce should never become an easy option for giving up and trying again. Entering into another lifelong covenant after divorce is a serious matter indeed, and should never be something that is entered into lightly or quickly.

Evangelical Christians have historically understood marriage to be a lifelong commitment and covenant where one man and one woman become one flesh in the sight of one God for the duration of one lifetime. Although civil marriage ignores the part about marriage being ‘in the sight of God’, Christians have generally understood that civil marriage is close enough to the Christian concept of marriage for us to assume that when society and churches speak about ‘marriage’ that we are talking about the same institution. So, for example, most churches readily accept a new couple into fellowship and treat them as married where their marriage was civil rather than religious.

Today we are in a process where authorities in many parts of the world, including the Irish government, are determined to redefine marriage into something very different from the Christian understanding. We understand that, in a secular society, civil marriage makes no reference to God. But now ‘marriage’ is deemed to be between any two individuals, regardless of gender.

The proposed change to the Constitution removing any time-frame by which a marriage might be deemed as having irretrievably broken down is designed to further weaken the concept of marriage as a lifelong commitment. As a result, the only similarity between civil marriage in Ireland, and marriage as understood by most Christians, will be that (for now, at least) they are both ceremonies that involve two people.

It is particularly worrying that some of the debate around the proposed changes to the Constitution concerning divorce have included calls for legislation to permit prenuptial agreements. Such agreements, where a bride and groom have already decided who gets what when they get divorced, make a mockery of the ideal of marriage as a lifelong commitment,

In effect, the Irish government appears determined to reduce and redefine marriage to the status of a civil partnership. This poses serious questions for the future as to how churches act as agents of the State in solemnising marriages, and whether churches should continue to view civil marriage as ‘marriage’ in any meaningful sense of the word. Those are necessary discussions, but not ones that can be conducted in the short time frame before this imminent Referendum.

We should not deceive ourselves. Evangelical Christians have neither the numbers or influence to sway this Referendum one way or the other. So this should not be interpreted as a call to campaign against or to defeat the Referendum proposals. But we should all vote with our consciences in this Referendum, and in a way that supports the idea that marriage is wonderful, special, and much more than a legal contract or a civil partnership.