TEXAS FAITH: Is it ever right to divorce a spouse with Alzheimers?

SMU Political Science Professor Matthew Wilson and SMU Professor William Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology, talk about Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson's recent public comment that a married man dating another woman because his wife was suffering from Alzheimer's "should divorce and start all over."

By Wayne Slater

When Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson told a caller on his TV show that a married man dating another woman because his wife was suffering from Alzheimer's "should divorce and start all over," it caused a predictable reaction. Even his co-host reminded Robertson that couples vow to remain together "for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer." But Robertson did not back off. . . Our Texas Faith panel weighs in with some provocative, and often surprising, answers on a very difficult issue.

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

What I find most interesting about Pat Robertson's comments is that he appears to have found an issue on which his rigid attitudes toward moral issues will not work. The commitment in marriage to a relationship that will endure "for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health" seems now to be one that Mr. Robertson would cover under some kind of situational ethic. He has excoriated other Christians for taking such an approach. But he has found a situation that lies outside of the moral commitment in marriage. And that is a significant opening in his theological method. Therefore, I am pleased to welcome him to the forum of open conversation on complicated questions.

Here is the problem. Alzheimer's is a medical condition, a disease. Would he apply the same set of modifying criteria to other ailments? Should one be permitted to divorce a spouse who has fallen into a chronic vegetative state as the result of an auto accident, an assailant's attack, or a stroke? Should one be permitted to divorce a spouse who, with a severe bi-polar disorder, cannot function outside of a mental institution?

After engaging Mr. Robertson in those conversations, I would move to other topics that involve an important matter of choice. Should a rape victim be allowed access to safe and private medical care that includes the option to abort a pregnancy that results from the assault? Should a woman whose spouse or partner has been physically abusive be permitted to make the choice to terminate a pregnancy without having to endure the intrusions into her examination demanded by a state legislature?

The fact is that Mr. Robertson has now entered into a real world dialogue about highly conflicted and troublesome moral questions. I believe he is wrong about his views on divorcing a spouse who has been afflicted with Alzheimer's. But I am glad that he is open to discussing a range of moral issues.

MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

From a Catholic standpoint, this is not a hard question. The Church's teaching is unambiguous: marriage is the sacred union of one man and one woman for life. There is a reason that the marriage vows specify "for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health." There are many conditions that might make it such that the person one has married is effectively gone: mental illness, addiction, degenerative disease, etc. These are all tragic and very difficult situations, but they do not justify abandonment of a spouse and "moving on."

Robertson's remarks reflect an all-too-common modern perspective on marriage that sees it principally as a contingent arrangement of mutual convenience, rather than a sacred and eternal bond. In this view, marriage is valuable and binding as long as it is satisfying my "needs" (emotional, sexual, social, financial, etc.), but expendable once it is not. This view, that marriage is provisional and driven by human desires, has been incredibly destructive to the institution of the family, and certainly should not be fostered by purported leaders of the Christian community.

People who have a spouse with Alzheimer's face an incredibly difficult and painful road, and I wouldn't minimize that in the least. They are right to turn to others for emotional, spiritual, and practical support. Those relationships, however, have to be consistent with the marital bond that still exists with the ailing spouse. There is simply no other Christian answer to this question.

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