A Review of the USCCB’s Response to Domestic Violence
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month—Which is the Perfect Time to Review Catholic Teaching on This Crucial Epidemic
October is the month of the Holy Rosary and Respect Life month — and it’s also Domestic Violence Awareness month. Now is the perfect time to take a look at what the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops teaches about violence within Catholic families.
The facts are shocking — one out of every three women are being or will be abused within their own homes. This statistic is unyielding across demographics, including religion.
What this means for Catholics is that one out of every three women sitting in our parish are being victimized within what should be the safety of their own homes.
Obviously men can also be victims, but domestic violence “tends to harm women and children more,” as the USCCB points out. 85% of domestic violence targets are female victims of male partners. This is the reason for the focus on women in this review.
In 1992 — updated in 2002 — the USCCB issued a crucial document regarding the Catholic Church’s stance on domestic abuse. However, “When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women” hasn’t received the attention it deserves. It unfortunately remains unknown by too many clergy and victims alike.
I’d like to help change that.
Many Catholic women suffering in abusive marriages assume they have to tolerate the maltreatment. Their union is a sacrament, and the Church teaches that marriage is indissoluble (CCC 1664-1645). That means they’re stuck, right?
Actually, no. Not at all.
When the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that marriages are indissoluble, it’s referring to valid marriages that are a “partnership … ordered toward the good of the spouses” (CCC 1601). A sacramental marriage should be one of loving, mutually self-giving and equal unity.
An abusive marriage is none of those things. Instead, it’s a relationship of power-over, control, and manipulation.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
(1 Cor 13:4-7)
In “When I Call for Help,” the U.S. bishops state:
As pastors of the Catholic Church in the United States, we state as clearly and strongly as we can that violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified.
Violence in any form—physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal—is sinful; often, it is a crime as well. We have called for a moral revolution to replace a culture of violence.
A sacramental marriage is a call to grace, to help one’s partner become holy, to nurture a loving, faith-filled family, and to be mutually self-giving to one another—which is the authentic meaning of Ephesians 5.
Although this chapter of the Bible is often misused by abusive individuals as a way to excuse their behavior, nothing could be further from the true interpretation. As the USCCB points out:
As bishops, we condemn the use of the Bible to support abusive behavior in any form. A correct reading of Scripture leads people to an understanding of the equal dignity of men and women and to relationships based on mutuality and love.
Beginning with Genesis, Scripture teaches that women and men are created in God's image. Jesus himself always respected the human dignity of women. Pope John Paul II reminds us that “Christ's way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women.”
Men who abuse often use Ephesians 5:22, taken out of context, to justify their behavior, but the passage (v. 21-33) refers to the mutual submission of husband and wife out of love for Christ. Husbands should love their wives as they love their own body, as Christ loves the Church.
Using any form of manipulation against another person “fails to treat that person as someone worthy of love.” This is Church teaching, as the U.S. bishops point out; it’s not a matter of debate.
This description of domestic violence is crucial to keep in mind, because it directly leads to the bishops’ next point.
No person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage.
Some abused women believe that church teaching on the permanence of marriage requires them to stay in an abusive relationship. They may hesitate to seek a separation or divorce. They may fear that they cannot re-marry in the Church. Violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage.
We encourage abused persons who have divorced to investigate the possibility of seeking an annulment. An annulment, which determines that the marriage bond is not valid, can frequently open the door to healing.
Domestic abuse is a valid reason for seeking help and, if you feel it’s safe and the right thing to do, it’s a valid reason to leave a toxic relationship.
However, please keep in mind that violent, possessively jealous partners can be physically dangerous, even if they’ve never before shown signs of physical abuse. If you feel you’re in danger, seek help.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides crisis intervention and referrals to local service providers. Call 800-799-SAFE (7233) or 800-787-3224 (TTY). For more information, go to https://www.thehotline.org. Hotline Advocates are available to chat online, Monday to Friday, 9 AM - 7 PM CST.
“When I Call for Help” provides assistance not only for victims of domestic abuse, but for the abuser and support people as well. To help men who use abusive tactics in their relationships to heal and change, a bulleted list of pointers includes such crucial elements as:
Admit that the abuse is your problem, not your partner's, and have the manly courage to seek help. Begin to believe that you can change your behavior if you choose to do so.
Be willing to reach out for help. Talk to someone you trust who can help you evaluate the situation. Contact Catholic Charities or other church or community agencies for the name of a program for abusers.
Find alternative ways to act when you become frustrated or angry. Talk to other men who have overcome abusive behavior. Find out what they did and how they did it.
However, if an abuser decides to contact his priest for help, it’s crucial to keep in mind that clergy and lay ministers are often undereducated regarding domestic abuse. It’s very damaging to turn to a professional — whether priest or therapist — who is well-meaning but has no idea about the intricacies and attitudes of domestic violence. Such people tend to coddle or sympathize with an abuser, which makes the situation far worse.
Since this does more harm than good, it’s necessary to ask questions of anyone you contact.
What is their experience with domestic violence?
What sort of training have they engaged in?
Do they know the red flags of abuse, the covert methods that are used to gaslight and confuse not only the victim, but others around them?
Are they aware of healing methods and are they in touch with local partner abuse intervention programs and domestic violence shelters?
To the USCCB’s list, I would add two other necessary components:
An abuser must join a trustworthy partner abuse intervention program and remain in the program — with dedicated participation — for the duration of the course. Determining if a group program is solid takes discernment, because not all are created equal. It would require another article to discuss all of this, so if you want to know more, just contact me.
Eucharistic Adoration. Yes, I put that in bold for a reason. Without God, there is no true healing.
For priests and lay ministers who may encounter individuals seeking advice and assistance, the USCCB provides practical suggestions. These suggestions aid in increasing awareness, being proactive in prevention, and offering practical ways to help victims. Primary in this endeavor is educating clergy and laity.
As I said, these well-intentioned ministers are often undereducated or completely untrained in issues surrounding domestic violence. Ignorance of the issue creates poor and inadequate responses, albeit well-meaning within the scope of their knowledge. Poor responses often re-traumatize victims, causing them to further self-isolate and draw away from the refuge of the Church. This must be avoided at all costs.
Education and awareness are the keys to preventing such grave spiritual tragedy from happening.
The first step in education is to make people aware that documents such as “When I Call for Help” exist. The second is to institute solid educational seminars.
A program of thorough training for seminarians, clergy, and lay ministers can be found on the Pax in Familia website, through Dr. Christauria Welland’s excellent course, “Violence and Abuse in Catholic & Christian Families: Preparing an Effective and Compassionate Pastoral Response.”
Let’s keep talking about this — and not just in October, during Domestic Violence Awareness month.
Domestic violence happens every day, in millions of homes. It’s time we’re all more aware of this horrendous epidemic. The more we talk, the more we can help increase awareness and encourage positive change.