In a religious community full of celibates even we can hardly ignore Our Lord’s teaching today on the Indissolubility of Marriage. Had I the opportunity to take further specialised studies as a young priest I would have focused on Canon Law, with a special emphasis on Marriage, because as a parish priest I devoted more time to couples with marriage problems than to almost anything else, except perhaps paying bills. For many years the Church has urged its priests and those who prepare couples for Marriage to give the most thorough instruction to men and women intending to marry, because the bond of marriage has been, and still is, the great icon of the union between God and his people.
One of the great puzzles in the Scriptures is why Our Lord gave such a demanding teaching on Marriage, nowhere is he more straightforward than this: ‘whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.’ And yet forbidding divorce flies in the face of human experience, especially today when divorce is so common, but it was also true two thousand years ago in the Roman Empire. The Emperor Augustus enacted laws, hoping to prevent the breakup of marriages. And he gave married couples pretty good financial incentives to stay together, but he had little success getting Roman citizens to focus on marriage and the family. And, even among Jews, divorce was common, so much so that Moses had to set up procedures for divorce. Our Lord went against a very common and widespread practice, and yet he point blank refused to recognise divorce. He says that to divorce your spouse and marry another is the same thing as committing adultery.
Pope Benedict XVI helped us to understand Our Lord’s teaching on Marriage. In his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) he writes that monogamous marriage corresponds to the image of a monotheistic God. And Monotheism, as we all know, means there is only one God. Christians, Jews and Muslims agree on that fundamental doctrine. The Bible teaches that the one God loves us with the passion of a bridegroom for his bride. In return he requires from us fidelity. Before him we can have no false gods. To go after a different god is adultery. He calls us to love Him totally and exclusively. Marriage is meant to be a sign, a sacrament of the love between God and his people. Over and over again the prophets preached this same message. And when the Son of God came, he announced that he was the Bridegroom in whose presence the disciples don’t fast, but celebrate.
In teaching the Indissolubility of Marriage, Our Lord was fully aware of human weakness. He knew he was giving us an extremely difficult teaching. And for two thousand years the Catholic Church has done its best to uphold that teaching. And yet, because this teaching is so hard to live, it has been the subject of much confusion. And so, perhaps this is a good opportunity to clear up three common misunderstandings.
First, and most important, the Catholic Church doesn’t have its own teaching on Marriage. The only teaching we have is the one Our Lord gave us: that Marriage is a lifelong, unbreakable union between a man and a woman.
Second, there is often confusion about what constitutes a valid (or real) marriage. For a Catholic to be validly married, the ceremony must take place in the presence of someone duly delegated by the bishop: usually a priest or a deacon. If a Catholic gets married ‘outside the Church’ it is not a true and valid marriage. Now, obviously two people who are not Catholic are not bound by that requirement. The Church only legislates for its own children. And for the sake of good order the Church recognises the marriages of all those who are not Catholics. God gave marriage to all human beings when he created us male and female: For that reason a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife and the two become one flesh.
This leads to the third common confusion: The Catholic Church has no power to grant a divorce. Sometimes you hear the word annulment bandied about, but the correct term is declaration of nullity. That means that after a due investigation, it is determined that no true marriage existed. Something was lacking which made the marriage null from the very beginning. For example: suppose one or both of the parties entered the relationship with the intention of practicing birth control and of never having children. That marriage is null. It never existed even though the couple were married in church with the pope himself blessing the marriage. Now that would be a fairly straightforward case; others are more complicated. I know that people sometimes like to judge the Church’s marriage tribunal process. All I can say is that more goes into a marriage case than you or I could know. The tribunal has its human side, like everything in the Church, but I know of no better process which upholds Our Lord’s teaching and at the same time tries to take into account human realities.
We all know of couples whose marriages have broken apart. This happens even after every effort to save their marriage has been made by one or both parties. As a priest I’ve heard many heroic testimonies to continuing fidelity in spite of the choices their spouse made. At the same time, there are others who enter into a second union outside the Church, and who do the best they can to worship God at Mass, even though they can’t receive Holy Communion. Our human reality is well and truly messy. It always has been and it always will be. But that doesn’t mean we can change one of the fundamental teachings of Christ. And it’s amazing how some of the protestant churches who take Our Lord’s word so literally have accommodated themselves to the reality of widespread marriage breakdowns and who happily remarry people, sometimes several times over, and even unite people of the same gender in a bizarre parody of a marital union.
One of the things I’ve noticed in my years as a priest is that very often the people who have had the roughest experiences of marriage are the first ones to recognise the beauty and the wisdom of Our Lord’s teaching. Ultimately, and as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical, that teaching is about more than our human relationships. It’s about the relationship of us to God and God to us: a passionate love which invites a total and exclusive response. In that relationship above all else, what God has joined, no human being must separate.
When all is said and done, the Catholic Church is not in the business of issuing condemnations or heavy judgements; our task is to show the world a better way. Our task is to show the Way that Christ teaches, and although this Way is difficult and challenging, it has very great rewards and it enhances our human dignity and our self-worth. It is a way of sacrifice, and for some it is the Way of the Cross, but it is also a Way to true happiness and self-fulfilment. It is the Way of Holiness.