Does Alzheimer’s Justify Divorce?

Recently, Pat Robertson, chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, told his "700 Club" viewers that divorcing a wife with Alzheimer’s disease is justifiable (click here). His statement came in response to a viewer’s question, and one would hope that it constituted a shoot-from-the-hip response that Robertson now knows was badly misfired.

According to the news story on the incident, Robertson’s apparent rationale was that one only vows to remain married until "death do us part," and a late-stage Alzheimer’s spouse is effectively dead since the afflicted one cannot recognize her mate nor communicate effectively with him. As Robertson bluntly put it: "I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again but make sure she has custodial care and somebody to look after her."

Cruel may be exactly the right word for the spousal response advocated by Robertson. And it is also unbiblical.

The Scriptures make absolutely clear that the Triune God views Christian marriage as inviolable. Christ speaks pointedly on the subject, saying that when a man and a woman have been joined together by God Almighty, no mere man should put this union "asunder." Those very phrases are found in most marriage ceremonies regardless of denomination. The message is unmistakable: Marriage is an estate that is to be a permanent arrangement.

Christ himself does allow for one instance where a husband may divorce his wife or vice versa. That is in the case of adultery. Sexual infidelity is so destructive to the mutual respect, confidence, and love between spouses that Christ allows for this to be recognized as a ground for divorce, but it seems to be a reluctantly given exception.

Now let us come back to Pat Robertson and the case of the wife with Alzheimer’s.

A case like this may put the competent spouse to a real test of his vows. That can be granted.

But a husband giving his care and attention to his suffering wife, regardless of her cognitive abilities, is precisely what real marriage is about. He must love her and care for her as she slips into the unhappy world of Alzheimer’s. He must hold fast to her even though she is unresponsive. He cannot insist upon her appreciating his lasting care for her. To consign her to custodial care and make a new life for himself as if she did not exist is a stony-hearted repudiation of his marital pledge. She is not dead, even though she is in many ways lost to him. It is his duty to love her until the Lord takes her home.

To do otherwise is (ironically) to follow the self-centered tug of modern and postmodern culture. Reverend Robertson should certainly know better than to counsel Christians in that direction.

— Dr. John A. Sparks is dean of the A. J. Calderwood School of Arts & Letters at Grove City College (Grove City, PA) where he teaches business law and constitutional law and is a fellow for The Center for Vision & Values. A graduate of Grove City College and the University of Michigan Law School, Dr. Sparks is a member of the State Bar of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at [email protected]. |