Let me start with a disclaimer. I have virtually no personal experience with divorce. Also, I don’t have access to Handbook 1, so I don’t know for sure what it currently says on this topic. But I know that in recent history, the Handbook provided that bishops were not allowed to counsel couples to divorce. See for instance this 2007 GC talk by Elder Oaks, which includes the matter of fact line “Bishops do not counsel members to divorce.” Whether that is the current standard is on-topic for this post. But whatever the current standard, I’m interested in what you think the standard should be. Are there ever circumstances where it would/should be appropriate for a bishop to counsel divorce?
On the one hand, I can see some cogent reasons for what appears to be the Church’s policy. The following come to mind:
- Bishops don’t have any training as counselors to be dishing out such potentially life-altering advice. An insurance salesman probably shouldn’t be weighing in (based on little more than a gut reaction or a common sense take) on whether a couple should split or not.
- Too many members would be willing to do whatever a bishop said, where in reality they need to be the ones to make the final call on ending their marriage. The great authority members are willing to cede to bishops can be problematic in this regard.
- I’ve heard of stories where bishops counseled (apparently against Church policy) one spouse to divorce the other because he or she had left the Church. A blanket policy against counseling divorce would (if followed, at least) put a stop to such a simplistic approach to what may well be a very complicated situation.
- In theory, at least, such a policy (if it indeed were absolute) would prevent a bishop from advising a man or a woman in a homosexual marriage from divorcing, even where the only possible grounds for the divorce were the fact of it being a same-sex marriage. That it seems to me would be a good thing.
On the other hand, I can see some reasons why bishops should be allowed to counsel divorce. To wit:
- Mainstream media advice columnists seem to follow a standard similar to the Church’s, where they will not under any circumstances advise a letter writer to divorce. And I’ve gotta admit, that drives me nuts sometimes. To me there are some pretty obvious cases where divorce is a necessary thing, and if you take that out of your toolkit entirely, what good are you doing in such cases?
- Specifically in the LDS context, what about situations where there is on-going abuse in the marriage? Sometimes the desire to continue the marriage and refusal to countenance divorce seems to be grounded in preserving the husband’s status as a contributing priesthood holder, negative consequences on the wife be damned. Similarly to the advice columnist setting, if we’re going to take divorce out of the bishop’s toolkit entirely, are we not doing the person being abused a grave disservice?
- What about a spouse in a mixed-orientation marriage (a “MOM”) at his or her wit’s end and desperate for a resolution to his or her situation? Since the couple almost certainly entered the MOM in an effort to live the way the Church teaches, shouldn’t we bear some responsibility to smooth the way for the termination of such a marriage?
- In our religious culture, the bishop is entitled to inspiration/revelation for his flock. I’m not sure how much stock I put in that personally, but if we believe that he has access to revelatory insight beyond mere intuition, shouldn’t we allow him to communicate that to a married person seeking his counsel?
It should be clear from the above that I’m conflicted on what the best policy in this area should be. Which is why I’m calling for your insights: Should bishops be able to counsel divorce? And if so, under what circumstances or subject to what constraints?