Divorce: Challenges to Marriage: What is Marriage?: Part III

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles to explore the American Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” Read Part I here, Part II here, Part IV here, and Part V here.

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh, so they are no longer two, but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

We continue our mediation on “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” In the first and second part we laid out some foundational definitions about what marriage is and what it entails. Here we will look at some of the challenges to married life, and indeed to the concept of marriage itself in the contemporary world.

Christ handed down many hard teachings in His life on earth, as for example when nearly all abandoned Him after the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. After describing how His followers would eat his flesh and drink his blood, many departed and walked no longer with Him. Christ turned to Peter, and asked whether he would go as well. Peter stayed, saying “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

It did not always make sense, but faithful Peter still followed Christ. So too do Peter’s successors, through history and down to the present day, defend the hard sayings of Christ when it is not only unpopular, but sometimes downright dangerous to do so.

This is very true especially regarding marriage. Christ revolutionized the doctrine of marriage. In reality He was simply going back to the beginning. But society had so corrupted the concept of marriage that it sounded like a thunderclap to His hearers. Bishop Fulton Sheen put it very well in his Life of Christ:

Christ affirmed that when a man married a woman, he marries both her body and her soul; he married the whole person. If he got tired of the body, he might not thrust the body away for another, since he was still responsible for her soul. So He thundered, ‘You have heard.’ In that expression He summarized the jargon of every decaying civilization. “You have heard, ‘Get a divorce, God does not expect you to live without happiness’”: then came the BUT. But I tell you that the man who puts away his wife makes an adulteress out of her, and whoever marries her after she has been put away commits adultery” (Mt 5:32).

This perhaps was what most shocked Christ’s contemporaries.

Moses had permitted divorce, because of the “hardness of men’s hearts” but Christ has come to renew marriage. The ideal and the purpose of marriage is of a lifelong union. Once a couple enters into a valid marriage, it cannot be broken by any power on earth. Divorce in the Old Testament was a derogation from the ideal. And Christ came to change it forever.

Ever since that day the Church has thundered against divorce, it inveighed against the Romans who permitted it for the purpose of gratifying men’s lust, it denounced powerful kings whose flimsy political excuses were merely a cover for their whims, and it stood against the modern state and excessive individualism which demanded the slippery concept of “personal fulfillment” instead of labor and effort to follow ones vows for the good of others. In the middle ages, Church courts even ordered errant husbands back to their true wives’ bed and board. Note that in all this the Church was defending the dignity of women, to prevent them from being treated as cast-off property, and to remind men of their vows.

Our Lord cannot be any clearer.

For the Christian there is to be no divorce. What God has joined together, no one can break. Not the couple, not the State, not the Church, no one.

Father Romano Guardini, an important 20th century theologian, once said “Man can separate only what he has joined; what God has joined is beyond man’s reach. Man is free to marry according to his own will; that much lies within his power. But once he enters the state of matrimony, he binds himself to God by a bond he no longer controls.”

In some tragic and serious situations it sometimes becomes necessary to separate from one’s legitimate spouse, for instance in cases of abuse and for the safety of the children. This is not a divorce. Neither party is free to marry anyone else.

The Church offers support to all those who are subjects of these unfortunate situations. If however one of the parties decides to marry again while the other spouse lives, then one must remember what Christ Himself said as quoted by Bishop Sheen above. This is nothing other than adultery, and because of it one cannot receive the sacraments unless a person has sincerely stopped sinning and repented.

Another point needs to be made here. This is the distinction between annulment and divorce. Divorce dissolves a marriage that had previously existed. For valid marriages in the Catholic Church, this is impossible.

An annulment is the declaration by a competent authority (a court of the Church) that no marriage ever existed because of some defect in form, consent, or other reason. Later, we will look at some of the reasons that might occasion a canonical declaration of annulment, but for now, keep in mind the distinction.

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There are several reasons that divorce became a more and more socially acceptable option. The first is the Protestant Reformation, which stated that marriage was not an effective sign of interior grace, that is, they stated it was no real sacrament. Related to this was Henry VIII’s effective schism, solely for the purpose of annulling his own marriage to Catherine of Aragon, resulting in the Anglican Church (rifts which are just now, after 500 years, beginning to heal thanks to the foresight of recent Pontiffs).

Further speeding the process was the enlightenment, whose political and social theories dissolved the idea of the common good (whose root is the family) and began to assert that societies were not built on families, but on collections of autonomous individuals rooted in free consent.

This transition from family as the root of society to individuals as the roots of society cannot be overemphasized, for it lies at the root of nearly every attack on family and on life today. It is also the reason that so many people talk past each other in the contemporary public square, it is because they are basing their socio-political visions on radically different premises.

In part IV of this series, we will take up another challenge to marriage: contraception.

Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Associate Professor of Theology and Church History at Christendom. His specialty is Saints and Sainthood in the Christian Tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (+1252) (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).
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