So what all is disturbing about this?
Pat Robertson advised a viewer of yesterday’s 700 Club to avoid putting a “guilt trip” on those who want to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer’s. During the show’s advice segment, a viewer asked Robertson how she should address a friend who was dating another woman “because his wife as he knows her is gone.” Robertson said he would not fault anyone for doing this. He then went further by saying it would be understandable to divorce a spouse with the disease.
“That is a terribly hard thing,” Robertson said. “I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things because here is a loved one—this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years. And suddenly that person is gone. They’re gone. They are gone. So, what he says basically is correct. But 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 and somebody looking after her.”
Co-host Terry Meeuwsen asked Pat, “But isn’t that the vow that we take when we marry someone? That it’s For better or for worse. For richer or poorer?”
Robertson said that the viewer’s friend could obey this vow of “death till you part” because the disease was a “kind of death.” Robertson said he would understand if someone started another relationship out of a need for companionship.
Robertson gave the example of a friend who faithfully visited his wife every day even though she could not remember his visits to illustrate the difficulty of caring for someone with the disease.
“It’s really hurtful because they say crazy things,” Robertson said. “Nevertheless, it is a terribly difficult thing for somebody. I can’t fault him for wanting some kind of companionship. And if he says in a sense she is gone, he’s right. It’s like a walking death. Get some ethicist besides me to give you an answer because I recognize the dilemma and the last thing I’d do is condemn you for taking that kind of action.”
The tragedy of Alzheimer’s is very real, but the fragmentation of the self that the inability to remember precipitates does not entail, as Robertson put it, that a “person is gone” or that Alzheimer’s is a “walking death.” While the debate over what constitutes a “person” is (and will be!) ongoing, as people who believe in an incarnate God, we should be wary of separating the person from the body in the way Robertson does. We are something more than minds that are floating free in the ethereal and insubstantial regions of space.
The point has significant ramifications for our marriages, for the union we enjoy is of two persons and for their mutual well-being. “With my body I thee worship,” reads the old version of the wedding service in the Book of Common Prayer (a prayer book that guides the liturgy of Anglican worshippers), a line that is as lovely as any in the English language. My wife didn’t let us say it in our wedding service for fear that it would confuse people, and I understand why. But it highlights the totality of the sacrifice that marriage requires, and points toward the body as the sign and symbol of my love.
Yet the sacrifice of my body is consummated in my affection and care for my wife’s. The love we have in marriage may not be exhausted by our concern for our spouse’s body, but it certainly includes their bodies—and not just their brains, either. The body is “the place of our personal presence in the world,” as Gilbert Meilander puts it, and the delight we have for the other’s presence is necessarily a delight of its manifestation in the body. The erosion of memory that Alzheimer’s causes makes this sense of presence less stable, but to suggest it can accomplish the final dissolution of the person is to ascribe to it a power that not even death has. For there is, within the Kingdom, a love that is even stronger than death.
HT: Joe Carter