By Manya Brachear, Chicago Tribune
‘Til Alzheimer’s do us part?
Televangelist Pat Robertson ignited yet another firestorm this week when he suggested on his program that divorce is an acceptable solution for a husband debating whether to stay with a wife who has Alzheimer’s disease because the disease “is kind of like a death.”
Robertson made the comments in response to a caller who said his friend had started seeing another woman after his wife began suffering from Alzheimer’s. But Robertson also suggested consulting an ethicist for a second opinion.
So we did.
The Rev. David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and author of the book “Getting Marriage Right,” said Robertson’s remarks spotlight the void in conservative Christian thinking about divorce. Jesus made it clear that adultery is the only reason to leave a marriage, Gushee said.
But the culture shift in the 1960s and 70s, when divorce suddenly went from rare to ubiquitous in Christian congregations, paralyzed pastors, according to Gushee. When they didn’t know what to say, they said nothing, he said. So it comes as no surprise that Robertson, an icon of the Christian Right, might be at a loss for words.
But Gushee said Robertson didn’t need to look further than the Gospels. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus emphasizes the permanence of marriage ó so much so that the disciples questioned whether they were capable of making such a commitment. Adultery, abandonment and abuse are the only legitimate reasons to end a marriage, Gushee said.
Because marriage vows apply “in sickness and in health,” Gushee said a more pastoral response would be to connect that spouse with caretakers and other resources to help him carry those vows to the end.
“That would be a meaningful Christian witness to other people,” Gushee said. “It’s the kind of thing God blesses. There is a certain sublime beauty that can come out of those situations.”
Indeed, Michael Verde, president of Memory Bridge, a non-profit that connects Alzheimer’s patients with communities, said staying connected to a spouse with Alzheimer’s can be an opportunity for the relationship to deepen and grow.
He cautions that dementia is too often tied to neurological factors. But a person’s interpersonal relationships play a key role, Verde said.
“They’re human beings experiencing profound loneliness,” he said. “We underestimate how much (damage) can be done by disappearing.”
Verde suggests that Robertson is way off base.
“Ask Pat Robertson: Is there ever a condition in which God would rightfully divorce us?” Verde said. “The answer is no.”
Tribune reporter Ron Grossman contributed to this report.
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