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Stopping Violence Against Women: A Catholic Perspective

During this month dedicated to “Stop the Abuse of Women”, I was asked to offer a Catholic perspective on the troubling reality of the abuse of women within marriage.

I sometimes still meet people who believe that the Catholic Church expects a woman to remain within an abusive marriage.  This understanding may be based on the strong Catholic teaching about the indissolubility of marriage or rooted in the misconception that the humility and forgiveness about which Jesus teaches requires a woman to stay in an abusive relationship.  Some priests may have contributed to this harmful perception through a lack of understanding of the serious harm of verbal, physical and sexual abuse within marriage.

The foundation of Catholic teaching about marriage is first and foremost, that marriage is a relationship where the dignity of both the wife and husband, as persons created in the image of God, is honoured.  Anything that destroys human dignity, such as verbal, physical and/or sexual abuse is understood as opposed to God’s desire for humanity.  To be clear, a woman who experiences physical, sexual and emotional abuse with marriage is not expected to remain in that relationship.

Leaving an abusive marriage can be very difficult in some circumstances.  Some abusive husbands use fear, intimidation and threats to the safety or economic well-being of the wife or children in the relationship.  Conditioned by harmful abuse and continually hoping for a stable relationship, some women may also find it difficult to leave or feel that they have nowhere to go.  Women in this situation must be supported in putting their own health and safety, and that of their children, first.  As caring members of the Oakville community, we must also ask ourselves how we can raise awareness and support women who are or have experienced abuse or contribute to organizations who are meeting urgent needs for safe housing for women and families.

Healthy Christian marriage is understood as a promise or covenant of self-giving love between two psychologically mature persons who are faithful to God and committed to one another.  Marriages also benefit from the support of others in the community (family, friends, faith community) who can help couples and families with the challenges that life presents.  There needs to be support for couples entering into marriage in terms of good opportunities for preparation.  Also, assistance needs to be available to couples struggling with reconcilable marriage difficulties.  Intimidation, domination, control and acts of violence against a partner (often fuelled by substance abuse, mental illness and past experiences of abuse) have no place in a healthy marriage.  When this occurs, the person needs to leave that situation and faith communities and society need to continually find ways to provide support and protection.