The much anticipated Extraordinary Synod on the Family opened Sunday at the Vatican. In the opening mass for the Synod Pope Francis shared this with the assembled Bishops:
Assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent… They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.
The Popes comments reflect the urgency of the situation and the challenges facing the family. We do not have the luxury of a synod that merely debates “beautiful and clever ideas” that are disconnected from the real world experience of families in our contemporary society.
The issues central to Churches in the developing nations (where the majority of Catholics reside) will often differ from those in the Western world, where we find a preoccupation with possible changes on ministry to Divorced Catholics. There is a danger that in our focus on this contentious issue…we are missing the very large and very influential elephant in the family room.
Understanding the Impact of Abortion on Marriage and Family Life
With the continued pressure from Western nations to expand the access to abortion in African, Asia and Latin America, it is essential for the Synod to be aware of the relationship between the symptoms of complicated grief after abortion and marriage and family life, especially here in the United States. A failure to understand and learn more about this intimate connection between abortion and the challenges facing couples and families…would be a tragic missed opportunity for the Church and its leaders.
Since 1973 the United States has experienced an unprecedented historical event…a self-inflicted population reduction of over 55 million of its people through the availability of widespread legal abortion. What we have learned during this time is that abortion not only takes the life of an innocent child, it also has a powerfully toxic effect on relationships, marriage and family life.
Sharing the Heart of Christ
This should be no surprise. Sharing the Heart of Christ is an excellent resource for clergy, counselors and laity in ministry with those suffering after abortion. In this book we learn that abortion is very much a “relational wound”:
These symptoms of post-abortion loss do not occur in isolation and can significantly impact marriage and family life. Abortion creates a relational and spiritual wound. A healthy marital relationship is marked by a deep bonding between husband and wife with a foundational trust that leads to vibrant and satisfying emotional, spiritual, and physical intimacy. Abortion is a traumatic death experience that is closely associated to relational/sexual intimacy, creating a profound fracture of trust that strikes at the heart of a relationship. Because of the nature of this wound, secrets, [trust and anger issues] and extra marital affairs are not uncommon for persons with abortion in their history. – Sharing the Heart of Christ: Chapter Two Cultivating the Seeds of Trust
Later in that same Chapter you will find this following excerpt from an article originally published in the Fairfield County Catholic. As you read this brief account, consider how essential this information is to the Synod on the Family, where in the United States alone, there have been over 55 million abortion procedures:
Fairfield County Catholic (FCC):Why don’t you begin by explaining the circumstances that drove you to an abortion?
Mary: Joe and I were both in college, and had been dating a couple of years. The first time we had intercourse, I got pregnant. I came from a large family and my parents, who were devout Catholics, made a lot of sacrifices for my education. I was too ashamed to tell them I was pregnant. There was no one to reach out to.
FCC:Couldn’t you reach out to your boyfriend?
Mary: I told Joe I was pregnant, and that I would have to get an abortion. I was waiting desperately for him to say something, to tell me we’d manage somehow. It never happened.
Joe: I knew it was wrong, but I was silent. I never stood up for the baby. I prejudged her, and decided that her mind was made up. I was angry with her for choosing an abortion.
FCC:Most couples break up after an abortion because the guilt and pain are so great. Yet you stayed together and got married. You were clearly very much in love. How did the aftermath of the abortion affect your marriage?
Mary: We still loved each other, and we were committed to our marriage. My feeling of anger at Joe was pushed down for so many years that I didn’t even recognize it. But it was there all the time. I took my anger out on him without ever recognizing where it came from.
Joe: There was a lack of trust in our relationship. I blamed her for the loss of the baby. I did things that purposely hurt her. I drank a lot, I gambled, I did a lot of things to escape into a private world where I wouldn’t feel pain.
FCC:You are both practicing Catholics, raising your children in the faith. Didn’t you talk to a priest about what happened?
Mary: After years of this, it became apparent that it was something I had to deal with. I had confessed my abortion to three priests over the years. After the fourth priest, I began to accept that God could forgive me.
Joe: There were years and years of anger and heartache and being distant from God… I think men are so proud, they don’t see what they’ve buried. It was all kept inside and it was destroying me. I deliberately did things to keep my own self-esteem down. I considered suicide. At one point, I remember walking downstairs with a gun and a suitcase; Mary stopped me.
FCC:What happened when you went into the Rachel’s Vineyard retreat?
Mary: It felt confidential, safe, welcome. There was an overwhelming sense of peace knowing that so many people were praying for us. Everybody there, although each story was different, the pain was there. With them, we were able to let our guard down.
Joe: I didn’t want to go to Rachel’s Vineyard to begin with. I walked in there on a Friday evening thinking, “I’m going to re-live all this stuff I’ve been avoiding for so long.” I think men are reluctant to go to these things openly and be part of it.
FCC: Why was this retreat so effective, when you had both already been to Confession and received absolution years ago?
Mary: My big breakthrough came when I was able to express my anger at Joe. He had never realized that the abortion had any connection to our behavior. We were able to forgive each other, and to have our baby forgive us.
Joe: I sat there and literally cried during some of the sessions. I was able to express my anger of myself at my total lack of courage…I feel reborn. I’ve been accepted by God, by my wife, and, most of all, by myself…
FCC: Where do you go from here?
…Joe: I’d like us to be as close as we can possibly get. I’d like to re-kindle a courtship, to walk hand-in-hand, spend more time together – and more time together in prayer.
The Family Impact
In many of the testimonies of women and men after abortion loss, you will find similar themes; mistrust, displaced anger, resentment, difficulty with intimacy and sexual dysfunction. When a mother or father has an abortion in their past, and it is drawing upon so much negative emotional energy…does this impact parenting and family life?
It would be impossible that it would not have a significant impact. All of us know how challenging it is to maintain a healthy marriage and family life in today’s culture. It is all the more daunting when a mother and/or father are deeply compromised in their capacity for healthy communication, trust and intimacy because of an abortion loss. Keep in mind that nearly half of all abortions are repeat procedures. Also consider that many grandparents, siblings and extended family may have been involved in some way in the abortion decision/procedure of their family member and depending on their role in the child’s death can also suffer emotionally and spiritually.
As I read these words of the Pope from October 4th, I thought of the millions of couples with an abortion in their history:
May the wind of Pentecost blow on the Synodal works, on the Church, on the whole of humanity. May it loose the knots that impede persons from encountering one another, may it heal bleeding wounds, and rekindle hope. May it grant that creative charity that make us love as Jesus loved. Then our proclamation will rediscover the vivacity and dynamism of the first missionaries of the Gospel. – Pope Francis’ Discourse Saturday October 4th at the Vigil of Prayer for the Synod on the Family
Let all Catholics and Christians of every denomination join our Holy Father in this prayer. May the Holy Spirit inspires the leaders of the international Catholic Church, so that they may be convicted of the importance of healing the “bleeding wound” of abortion and so protect and strengthen our families, both in the West and in the developing world.