By Dan Doyle
St. Anthony Parish, Missoula
Domestic Violence: The Problem
In her interviews with nearly 400 Western Montana women who had experienced abuse at the hands of a spouse or partner, University of Montana Psychology Professor Christine Fiore found that almost 40 percent of victims sought help from their faith communities. Most of the time, they found love and support. Unfortunately, other times they did not. Members of our parishes are experiencing domestic violence. Justice requires that we respond. Although domestic violence includes a variety of forms
of abuse, the focus of this article is spousal abuse.
Domestic violence is characterized by one family member exerting control over another through fear and intimidation. The abuser may use any of various techniques: physical or sexual assault, verbal threats, name calling, cutting off contact with others to isolate the victim, threatening suicide, threatening or actually harming pets, destroying the victim’s property, or engaging in other manipulative acts.
Domestic violence often follows a cyclical pattern: 1) tensions in the abuser rise over time; 2) there is an explosive outburst of verbal abuse and/or violence; 3) the abuser calms downs and expresses great remorse, often giving gifts and promising never to do it again; 4) things seem better for a time until tensions rise again and the cycle begins anew. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for the level of violence to escalate with each new cycle.
A Scriptural Perspective on Domestic Violence
Domestic violence is contrary to the scriptures and contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, some try to use biblical passages taken out of context to excuse or even justify domestic violence. For example, St. Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:22 that “wives should be submissive to their husbands” has been misinterpreted to mean that women should submit to abuse from their husbands. Even if we set aside the fact that St. Paul is making use of traditional language that supports a social order of the distant past, it is clear that such an interpretation is a gross distortion of the underlying meaning. If we read Ephesians 5:21-33 in its entirety, Paul describes an image of married life characterized by mutual love and respect. Further, Paul compares the love between husband and wife to the love between Christ and His Church. How could we even conceive of the notion that Christ would abuse his Church?
The Catholic Perspective on Domestic Violence
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has made explicit the Church’s unequivocal opposition to all forms of domestic violence in a statement titled “When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence against Women,” released in 1992 and updated in 2002. In this statement, the bishops condemn domestic violence as both criminal and sinful and suggest ways that Catholics and the Church should be combating this evil.
A Catholic Response to Domestic Violence
What are some of the things that we as Catholic Christians can do to respond to the sin of domestic violence? Below are just a few suggestions.
We can educate ourselves as to the nature of the problem, its seriousness, and its spiritual dimensions. There are a host of resources available. The U.S. Bishops’ statement and associated slide presentations can be downloaded from the USCCB website at www.usccb.org/laity/help.shtml. Or call 800-235-8722 to order printed copies. This statement includes lots of information and practical suggestions.
The Faith Trust Institute (www.faithtrustinstitute.org/; phone: 206-634-1903) is an interdenominational ministry that makes available materials that specifically address the spiritual aspects of domestic violence and offers training for both clergy and lay persons.
We can educate others in the Church and community. Priests and lay ministers can speak out against domestic violence from the pulpit and in other forums.
We should integrate discussion of domestic violence into marriage preparation and religious education classes.
Educating teens is especially important since many of those in abusive marital relationships were earlier in abusive dating relationships.
The Missoula Family Violence Council (www.mfvc.org) has a free booklet on what faith communities can do to combat dating violence. Parishes can contact Shantelle Gaynor (firstname.lastname@example.org) to request a copy or to get information about free domestic violence training for rural parishes.
Parishes can include information about domestic violence in church bulletins and newsletters and sponsor special events designed to raise awareness and promote healing. We can include prayers for those involved in domestic violence in the “Prayers of the Faithful.”
We can work with existing organizations and learn how to access local resources. There are domestic violence shelters in many of the larger cities in Montana and counselors available by phone anywhere in the state 24 hours a day. For information and/or a referral to local assistance, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.
The Montana Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence (www.mcadsv.com) lists local organizations. Donating our time and treasure to such organizations helps them do this important work.
Dan Doyle is a professor of sociology at the University of Montana, a member of the Diocesan Pastoral Council, and a member of the Missoula Family Violence Council Outreach to the Faith Community Committee.
Justice Voices articles are coordinated by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development committee of the Diocese of Helena.
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 24, No. 12, December 19, 2008.