Television evangelist Pat Robertson has made some controversial comments in the past, and he’s done it again with his recent discussion about the legitimacy of divorce when a spouse has Alzheimer’s disease.
The question came up in Robertson’s televised program, “The 700 Club,” during which a caller described a friend whose wife was suffering from severe dementia and no longer recognized him. In addressing the marital obligations of the husband, Robertson said, “I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things, because here’s the loved one – this woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years, and suddenly that person is gone . . . I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but to make sure she has custodial care, somebody looking after her.”
Robertson acknowledged that marriage vows refer to “until death do us part” but reasoned that Alzheimer’s is a “kind of death.”
Other evangelical leaders reacted quickly and strongly to Robertson’s surprising theory. “This is more than an embarrassment,” said Russell D. Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
A similar situation has been described by CBS news correspondent Barry Petersen in his book, “Jan’s Story.” There Petersen tells how Alzheimer’s afflicted his wife and affected his life until, finally, he placed her in an assisted living facility and then began a relationship with another woman.
He explains his agonizing decision this way: “It ripped at my soul. This woman I had wooed and won had gone away. People who knew us would use one word to describe us, ‘BarryandJan’ because we so loved being together. Now she was adrift somewhere else. And there was guilt. Who cannot weep when the one you love disappears? Who cannot feel the rage I felt, asking myself: Who had the right to take that away?”
Petersen explained that he struggled being by himself, all alone, “finding solitary friendship in ever more late-night alcohol.” He didn’t want to live alone. He couldn’t. “Is it still a marriage if only one person is mentally present?” He wondered.
Now, the personal dynamics and moral questions posed by these real-life situations are difficult to sort out. Certainly it’s important that we refrain from harsh personal judgments about those who feel imprisoned by this hopeless situation. Their choices are painful. But what about the objective morality of these situations? And what about those pesky marriage vows made freely before God and His Church?
On one hand, the situations described by Robertson’s caller and Barry Petersen present an enormously difficult human challenge. And unless you’ve been personally involved in the situation – and I haven’t – it’s hard to imagine the profound sadness, the debilitating anger and sense of hopelessness a care-giver faces every single day when trying to break through the fog that envelopes a loved one afflicted by this awful illness. Making the right decisions requires wisdom and courage.
Yet, in reflecting on this situation, I can’t help but hear the refrain of the traditional marriage vows: “I take you to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
“In sickness and in health, until death do us part.” I find no exception here for Alzheimer’s. And while Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease that burdens patients and care-givers alike, there are other illnesses and situations that test the strength of marriage vows as well.
What do we say to the husband whose wife suffers a stoke and is incapacitated, unable to move, unable to speak for many years, perhaps decades? And what options can we offer the wife whose husband is afflicted with mental illness causing repeated suffering and embarrassment for the whole family? Are these folks free to place their spouse in a facility, provide for their care and move on to other sexual relationships simply because their spouse had changed, and because like Barry Petersen they can’t stand to live alone?
There are no easy answers, are there?
The traditional “Exhortation before Marriage” used in Catholic ceremonies for many years explains what is required of spouses who enter into the marriage covenant. Consider these beautiful words, addressed to the bride and groom: “Whatever sacrifices you may hereafter be required to make to preserve this mutual life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete.”
At this time of the year we recognize and salute couples who are celebrating special wedding anniversaries – 25, 40, 50, 60 years or more. I don’t know, of course, what each of these couples has experienced in their lives. Perhaps they’ve avoided tragic, debilitating situations. God bless them for that.
But, I suspect that most couples have experienced their share of daily challenges and maybe even life-changing turmoil – the illness of a loved one, a death of a child, addictions to drugs, alcohol or gambling, financial insecurity, the betrayal of their children. These couples surely know what sacrifice is all about. On their anniversaries we celebrate the fact that they’ve survived the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” Shakespeare described. They’ve been true to their vows. They’ve had the courage to be faithful.