In my work against divorce, and in advocating for marriage permanence as Christ intended, I am regularly in contact with devastated men and women whose spouses have abandoned them. As we celebrate the feast day of St. Helena—empress, mother of Constantine, and patron of divorced women—I am struck by how differently Catholics treat abandoned spouses in our day from how we treated them in the past.
The husband of Empress Helena, a western Roman emperor, abandoned and divorced her and married another. Helena spent the rest of her days single, reminiscent of St. Paul’s instruction: “To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband)” (1 Cor. 7:10-11).
Because her wayward husband never provided an opportunity to be reconciled, Helena essentially lived her life as a “stander”—a person, in this case a wife, who stands for her marriage vows, despite the choices and actions of an abandoning spouse.
We don’t like to talk about standers in our own culture, as it makes us uncomfortable to think of our loved ones being alone and lonely for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the greater discomfort is the unspoken fear of the expectation that we ourselves be faithful till death—as we promised—if our spouse should leave. This leads to today’s widespread encouragement and even pressure to divorce, annul, and “move on” to the next romance.
But where do “standers” stand in the mind of the Church? The Church’s ancient wisdom remains as true today as at the time of Jesus’ and Paul’s admonition that spouses stay faithful to the end, even in separation. St. John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio (emphases mine):
The ecclesial community must support such people more than ever. It must give them much respect, solidarity, understanding and practical help, so that they can preserve their fidelity even in their difficult situation; and it must help them to cultivate the need to forgive which is inherent in Christian love, and to be ready perhaps to return to their former married life.
The situation is similar for people who have undergone divorce, but, being well aware that the valid marriage bond is indissoluble, refrain from becoming involved in a new union and devote themselves solely to carrying out their family duties and the responsibilities of Christian life. In such cases their example of fidelity and Christian consistency takes on particular value as a witness before the world and the Church (83).
Unfortunately, Helena, along with other holy women who kept their marriage vows, be it through abandonment or abuse, earn condescension (and even disdain) these days for their heroic witness. Take for example St. Monica and St. Rita, both patronesses of abused spouses and marital difficulties. Monica’s response to her pagan husband with an explosive temper was “great patience and constant prayers along with her examples of kindness.” Rita, likewise, “met [her husband’s] cruelty with kindness and patience” and years of prayer and trust in the Lord. Both women eventually won over their hard-hearted husbands, helping to save the men’s souls (and the souls of their wayward sons as well).
Those last two sentences would have been a balm to Catholic readers of any past era. However, these saints’ example chafes hard against our modern, increasingly secular sensibilities. Sadly, I’ve seen even Catholics pronouncing these saints irresponsible witnesses at best, dangerous at worst.
If we are offended by these holy women’s lives and choices, it seems that we have three options for a response: We must disdain them, excuse them, or rewrite the historical narrative.
Open disdain tends to be rare, though not unheard of. Some will excuse these women, insisting that Helena, Monica, and Rita would certainly not do the same in today’s enlightened times. The culture was backward, they say, and women were oppressed back then, and not good role models for women today, even though they were “personally holy.” Still others will rewrite the hagiography, from women who gracefully bore the heavy crosses in their state of life to a feminist profile: “She was a strong and feisty woman!”
Now, let us be clear on this point! The Church does not require that an abused spouse stay and be further abused. According to canon law, in cases of unrepentant adultery, “grave mental or physical danger,” or unlivable situations, physical separation of spouses is allowed with the bishop’s permission, but “in all cases, when the cause for the separation ceases, conjugal living must be restored” (canons 1151-1155). Nor is this permission to separate by any means just a modern-day understanding—see Leo XIII’s Arcanum Divinae from 1880 for one example. And even civil divorce may be “tolerated” in narrow circumstances, although the marriage bond remains very much intact (civil divorce does not make one “unmarried”), and the Church’s hope—Christ’s hope—is always for reconciliation.
But the sad fact is that the mind of the Church on this matter—that spouses must vigorously work toward reconciliation, even in seemingly impossible cases—has become repulsive in the modern age. We live in an environment where Catholics refer to women as being St. Monica’d or St. Rita’d when priests or friends encourage them to fight for their marriages or stay when it’s difficult. And many women who are motivated to save a contentious or volatile marriage face something that has been described as “stay-shaming”—that is, shaming a person into leaving a marriage she does not want to leave.
In her book Avoiding Bitterness in Suffering, Dr. Ronda Chervin goes with careful delicacy where few modern Catholics dare to tread:
Sometimes women who think the Holy Spirit is calling them to protest against abuse or bring charges against their husbands feel impelled to berate other unhappily married women who choose the . . . path of taking refuge in the love of Christ and offering their pain for their husbands, children, and other worthy intentions. Sometimes women who [choose to stay] will be frightened by the vehemence of assertive women (p. 158).
I applaud Chervin’s diplomacy in a topic fraught with emotion. No woman should be shamed for her choice to stay with her husband or be faithful to her vows. Such aggressive “stay-shaming” often looks a lot like bullying, and it has no place in Christian life.
My friend Dr. Hilary Towers once noted, “The Church seems to be genuinely struggling with whether it is still the loving position to require lifetime fidelity on the part of all married spouses, not just most.” She says moving on from heavy crosses in marriage “seems to make our loved ones feel happy again, so we encourage them” to do just that. Pastorally, she believes, the Church has turned away from working toward reconciliation (which is the traditional mind of the Church) and toward finding ways to exempt the couple from the obligations of their vows.
It comes down to the question about which many are unsure: Is it still okay to emulate and imitate St. Helena and the other female saints of old, whose lives and choices do not seem to jibe with the voices of our culture? Yes, it is! Our faith does not change. Virtue does not change. Christ never changes. It is still and always good to honor Helena, the patroness of divorced women, for remaining faithful after abandonment. And it is still and always good to honor Ss. Monica and Rita, patrons of abused spouses and marital difficulties, who, through their sanctity, loved their husbands the way Christ loves us.
We’re at a point where many Catholics no longer believe that living out the Church’s teaching on marriage, sex, and lifelong fidelity is possible. But it is. It can be done, it has been done, and it must be done if we want to avoid another generation marked by chaos and brokenness in families.