Not everything is fixable (God have mercy on us all)

Not everything is fixable (God have mercy on us all) October 28, 2015


A caller once asked radio host Dr. Laura for advice about an impossible situation. I forget the details — something about lots of children and lots of fathers, various addictions, various betrayals, and a family tree that was twisted and ingrown and diseased. Dr. Laura could not offer much hope to the caller, other than to point out that her story shows why it’s so important not to have kids out of wedlock.

“But–” the caller protested.  “What if I can get my boyfriend to go to therapy?” Dr. Laura laughed — cruelly, I thought.
“Therapy?” she said incredulously. “Therapy isn’t magic. It can’t fix everything. Honey, not everything can be fixed.”

I’ve since stopped listening to Dr. Laura. She has some good ideas, but she has a lot of bad ones, too, and she has very little concept of mercy. But boy, she was right about this thing: not everything can be fixed.

Oh, in the long run it can, of course. Despite the anguished mental contortions of Ivan Karamazov, the second coming of Christ will bring about a thorough reconciliation of all things, unimaginable to our limited consciences. But in this world, there are some situations which have become so twisted and ingrown and diseased that they cannot be fixed.

These situations are what we’re seeing as we work through various solutions to “irregular marital situations.” Darwin Catholic points out that some people are speaking as if there are only two ways of describing marriage: either adulterous, and therefore bad, or loving, and therefore good.  He says:

The fact is, there are a lot of people in our current society who are living in relationships which are not what the Church would view as valid marriages (they were married before and their prior marriage has not been ruled invalid, they are living together without having gone through a marriage ceremony, they are Catholics who got married in a non-Catholic ceremony without a dispensation, etc.) and yet who seem to all appearances to care about each other, to be raising children together, to be happy because of the relationship which the Church labels as sinful.

He uses the example of Johnny Cash and June Carter, who began their relationship in adultery — and yet they stayed together for decades, clearly loving and supporting and cherishing each other. Darwin says:

Was that an adulterous relationship or a loving relationship? Who’s to say it wasn’t both?

When we live in sin, with sin, around sin, it becomes entangled with a lot of the good in our lives. That’s one of the reasons we should try so hard not to get into these situations in the first place, because after going far down that path there will be good as well as evil that will be disrupted if we try to end our sin.

Very true. We want to see the world as black and white, good guy vs. bad guy, love vs. H8, so that it’s easy to choose sides — and once you make our stand, we can relax.

Well, we can’t relax. Every day is a struggle to discern the right thing to do in individual situations, which may have changed drastically since yesterday. But also,  every day is a struggle to discern how to treat people who are in a bad situation that they can’t get out of — that they can’t therapize away. How to be loving toward people who are in situations that can’t be fixed?

The other day, I suggested that the best we can do, in some unfixable marital situations, is to treat these couples as part of a larger family — to be welcoming of people living in sin if only for the sake of their children and all the other people their lives affect. This welcome doesn’t really help the couple involved, of course, unless their rightfully-married spouse dies, or unless they receive the grace to muster the heroic resolve to make their adulterous (albeit loving) relationship into a chaste one. One can make a spiritual act of communion and worship God no matter what, but remaining in a state of mortal sin is not a long term plan anyone should be comfortable with.

It would also be a wonderful thing to offer beefed-up  marriage preparation and support after marriage, so that fewer couples find themselves in invalid or impossibly difficult marriages.

I wish, though, that we could move past just repeating, “Not everything can be fixed.”  Okay, not everything can be fixed . . . but this is not a free pass to treat unfixable people like rotten meat, good for nothing, unsalvageable, useful only as a horrible example for the next generation.

I’m so tired, like Darwin, of hearing from people who should know better that the world is black and white. It’s not.

Some Catholics would like to say, “Lower the boom! The Eucharist isn’t for people in mortal sin, and adultery is a mortal sin. Jesus doesn’t care about your stupid feeeeeelings, so hit the road, adulterers, and take your bastard kids with you, if you even bothered to have any, ptui.” And others would like to say, “We’re all sinners, and God is love, so why are we even bothering to talk about  – ptui – sin? Let’s be on the side of love. Here’s a Host for you, and a Host for you, and a Host for you . . . . ”

But that’s not how things really work. Not all couples living in marital sin are honest, virtuous, loving sorts who simply got dealt a bad spousal hand, and now the mean old Church just won’t let them have Jesus because of spite; but neither are all couples living in sin just squalid hedonists who followed their genitals into mortal sin and disastrous home lives. Not all couples in valid marriages are upright, devout cornerstones of society who are holding the Church together with the sheer awesomeness of their sacramental devotion; but neither are all couples in valid marriages are just lucky ducks who happened to stumble across a ready-made, shiny, happy, stable homelife.

Some of us worked hard and still lost; some of us got lucky and skated into something great. Most of us are some combination of lucky and unlucky, hard-working and stupid. What do we all have in common? We all need mercy — from God, and from each other.

Unfixable. Some situations are unfixable. We can work on prevention and we can work on damage control, but not everything can be fixed. But that doesn’t mean that we have a free pass to treat unfixable people like rotten meat, good for nothing, unsalvageable, useful only as a horrible example for the next generation. We can’t say, “Not everything is fixable, so get away from me.” We should say, “Not everything is fixable. I’m so sorry. God have mercy on us all.”


image via Pexels from skitterphoto

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  • LM

    Of course, and no doubt of it, there are attractive and appealing things about sin, otherwise no one would become ensnared in it. If there was nothing good in sinning, we would have no desire to do wrong and then justify the entire situation as being right. Johnny Cash and June Carter are a good example, indeed, and there are many more. They loved each other for decades which is good, to be loving. But the circumstances of that loving had a sinful root, so it did not make their relationship ultimately good (if one is devoted to adhering to Christ’s commands, which the Catholic Church, founded by Christ, teaches). Any good aspects in a sinful relationship do not make the situation in its entirety, good. Any good aspects of sin will not eradicate sin; they will drive us further enmeshed in the sin. True goodness irequires, and will be, the result of complete faithfulness to Christ’s teachings on marriage. It is in allowing oneself to do otherwise with a toxic focus on feelings, that twisted, ingrown, diseased situations infect people.

    • anna lisa

      I can’t think of a more toxic “love” story than the one of David and Bathsheba. They reaped what they sowed, but God ended up blessing their union with children, and a pretty noteworthy great, great, great, great (etc.) grandson. God does seem to be able to de-toxify. untwist, and purge what appears to be an impossibly bad relationship.

      • Amaryllis

        No, they reaped what he sowed.

        And I’m not sure that the possibility of a “pretty noteworthy great, great, great, great (etc.) grandson” would have consoled Bathsheba for a relationship which began in what can only be called rape or for the death of her first husband (not that we’re told how she felt about him, but then her feelings don’t matter at all in this story). Still less for the death of her child.

        • Evelyn

          Thank you for this. It drives me bonkers that people think Bathsheba had any choice in the matter, when David spied on her required ritual bath and then sent men to fetch her.

        • anna lisa

          I don’t think we really know how their relationship ended up. Doesn’t it say that he stopped sleeping with a bunch of wives and concubines just to be with her?

          He wrote some pretty nice poetry about being a repentant, former, sexaholic jerk.

          Maybe he played that harp for her and fed her honey cakes in bed every weekend.

          I once heard a priest on EWTN go on a tirade about how Bathsheba knew *exactly* what she was doing when she got into that bath at that hour when David liked to stroll on the palace terrace. He was a little too emotionally invested in his theory though. That made me suspicious. I wonder if we get to know the true story ever–I also wonder if her original name was just Sheba.

          My point is that things can really suck, but God can draw good from suckiness.

          ( I’ve always wondered if her son Solomon repented at the end –he really took sex addiction to new depths, eh?)

          I bet Bathsheba *is* really pleased about her great, great, great, great, great, grandson.

          • Sara McD

            I bet she’s glad about being in that line too. I always get a little misty about people like Bathsheba and Rahab and Ruth and Boaz. Naomi too. Family’s important.

          • anna lisa

            See, that’s the thing, God loves people with serious drawbacks on their resume, and even lets them play pivotal roles in salvation history, thus inspiring *generations* of (trying to be) reformed deadbeats!

      • LM

        A common error of misunderstanding is the difference between the
        Old and New Testsments. What God did in his covenant with the Jewish people was separate and distinct from what followed in the time of Christ and thereafter. God blessed David and Bathsheba’s union with children for His own reasons, incomprehensible to us. God’s ways are not our ways.
        But as you pointed out about the many times over noteworthy great-grandson, we can conjecture about those reasons. God’s ways are not our ways.

        • anna lisa

          As a people, we are not the same. God is the same. Thankfully He is just as patient as He always has been. The OT says He is wrathful, and vengeful, and eager to repay with fire and brimstone, but it also calls Him a mother –One who nurtures unto death and forgives. In the OT, they didn’t have it all wrong. It’s just that they sometimes got the message garbled because they couldn’t comprehend such mercy.

  • Gail Finke

    A professor during my long-ago undergrad days explained that the Catholic Church worked like this: Rules that it never stopped proclaiming, but forgiveness because people in real life often cannot or will not follow the rules. Protestants, he said, proclaimed rules and, if people wouldn’t keep them, changed the rules. I have always thought of the Church that way ever since.
    In the novel “Diary of a Country Priest,” the beleagured priest has an old friend who is dying of consumption and living with a prostitute. The prostitute takes care of him because she loves him. She knows he is dying and that he can’t accept it, and she pities him. She forgives his nastiness toward her because it comes from his pain, and the book implies that God forgives her because she “loves much.” A story can often help us understand abstract concepts like this — the priest, and the author, never say it’s not wrong for her to be a prostitute, or for the dying man to treat her badly. It never says that they should be EXCUSED for these things and treated as if they are not committing sins. It just shows the mixed-upness of things, the way your piece so nicely explains it. Because it also shows the love and grace in their messed-up relationship. The Church understands all this, but the people in the Church don’t always…

    • Anna

      Yes! That’s why I like “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene too.

    • Rosina

      The girlfriend isn’t a prostitute (she works as a cleaner), but the friend is a priest who has abandoned his priesthood. She didn’t want to marry him in the first place in case he wanted to return to the priesthood; later, realizing he was dying, she stayed to look after him. Sorry to nitpick, thanks for bringing up this great book.

      • Gail Finke

        Thanks! I remember her as a prostitute, maybe the translation I had didn’t make it clear.

  • Johnny_Layabout

    I am unclear why this situation is “unfixable”, as the Church provides a “fix”: the annulment process. Are these couples being denied annulments, or is the process merely too inconvenient, and they just can’t be bothered?

    • Dan F.

      There is a third category of people who were validly married but later one or both partners changed, turned abusive, committed adultery, etc; then civilly divorced and remarried. If the original marriage was valid (regardless of what it turned into over time) those people are stuck.

    • Anna

      That’s not a fix for some of the kids having to spend holidays with a different dad while other kids get to stay home. Or for the lawyers and judges having to get involved for every decision about schooling, or church attendance, or vacations, or “kid is in fave ratty shirt she wore last time so clearly you’re an unfit parent” revenge battles. Or for parents who want to present a united front but always have to take the exes into account. Or for the running around on every holiday to include however many sets of grandparents. An annulment isn’t a rewind button.

  • Ken Palmer

    “…but she has a lot of bad ones, too.” Like what? That men should always be expected to pay for dates/sex? I agree that’s a bad idea.

    Her show is primarily about making the audience aware. She often helps callers, too, but sometimes the callers can’t be helped, in which case they are nothing more than examples to the audience. I do perceive that she has grown increasingly blunt and curt. It must be draining getting call after call from people who VOLUNTARILY screw up the lives of their own children. I mean really, it’s not that complicated to save cohabitation and childbearing for marriage, pick a good spouse (or don’t marry), treat that spouse kindly, and keep the marriage (unless their is actual abuse) together until the youngest child is 18.

    A lot of people bash her based on what someone else claims she said, or what they THOUGHT they heard. Meanwhile, she has helped millions of people lead better lives.

    Don’t forget that callers are people who VOLUNTARILY called her or e-mailed her asking for a call. She is not hunting people down to berate them. She has a very limited amount of time to cut through all of the extraneous stuff and get to the real problem, and often has to shock people out of their delusional or very flawed thinking.

    • wineinthewater

      “I mean really, it’s not that complicated to save cohabitation and childbearing for marriage, pick a good spouse (or don’t marry), treat that spouse kindly, and keep the marriage (unless their is actual abuse) together until the youngest child is 18.”

      I’m sorry, but statements like that are a huge part of the problem. You know what? Sometimes it *is* hard. It’s hard for people who were never taught the right values to begin with. It’s hard for the weak willed faced with a tsunami of media undermining all the truths they need to get right. It’s hard when so many people are so desperate for love that they will take whatever they can get.

      And it’s sometimes even hard for the people with the right foundation. It’s hard when tragedy comes and twists a person making it hard for them to love or be loved. Or when tragedy strikes and lays down a back-breaking burden. It’s hard when the burden of life becomes more than you expected and your strength less than you needed.

      Your statement can only come from a tremendously blessed place, for it is only easy when you are free from so many of the consequences of a fallen world. But our world *is* a fallen one and some bear the consequences of that more than other. And so your statement also comes from a surprisingly merciless place considering all the Grace it has enjoyed.

  • MagsLaine

    I just wish people who were born on third base would stop acting like they hit a triple. My mom survived an abusive childhood that would have put a weaker person in a mental hospital. Consequently, she did not have the skills to even know what healthy love was or even how to go about obtaining it. So yes, when a man offered her the comfort of sexual intimacy, she took it. Each marriage, (three in all), were more abusive than the next. After the third marriage she had reached the end of herself and got into really good therapy. I’m so proud of my mom today. She has overcome so much!

    I’m a catholic convert. And what can only be explained as the grace of God, I married a wonderful, caring man. Statistically, I should not be where I am today. Those people who say, “Well, I had it rough too, and didn’t screw up”, need to realize that they were blessed with mercy, mercy and more mercy. We may never know this side of heaven why some people seem to have more and some have less, but I think it would do us all a bit of good to error on the side of mercy and love.

    • Those who say, “I had it rough too, and didn’t screw up” are also usually being dishonest. The truth is we didn’t screw up in big, visible fashion. At the very least, when we make such statements, we make ourselves the arbiter of what it means to be broken. We’re not. We only know as much of our story as we have the grace to remember.

  • “This welcome doesn’t really help the couple involved, of course, unless
    their rightfully-married spouse dies, or unless they receive the grace
    to muster the heroic resolve to make their adulterous (albeit loving)
    relationship into a chaste one.”

    I am convinced that we can be the instruments God uses to bring grace to couples in irregular relationships. Those God brings into our lives are a relatives we love even when we disagree. That love is immensely powerful and God will use it. We must simply love and trust Him even when we don’t see our love as efficacious.