In today’s gospel (Mk 10:1-12), Jesus answers a pointed question from the Pharisees regarding the permanency of marriage and the possibility of divorce. The answer he gives was as countercultural then as it is now.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
25 May 2018
In today’s gospel (Mk 10:1-12), Jesus answers a pointed question from the Pharisees regarding the permanency of marriage and the possibility of divorce. The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The answer Jesus gives was as countercultural then as it is now, and presents a significant challenge for contemporary Christians within the context of America’s divorce and remarriage culture.
Jesus came into the district of Judea and across the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
In answering the Pharisees’ question, Jesus simply insists that man and wife become one flesh, joined together in holy matrimony by God and thus cannot be separated by any human power. Thinking it through further, we can note that the conjugal act of sexual union is integral to the one-flesh union of matrimony, as Christ said, reflecting back on Genesis, “man … shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Through the conjugal union, along with their consent to marry, the spouses are joined spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and physically. This is, then, a complete bodily self-gift of one spouse to the other—a gift of one person in his or her totality to the other. All of this happens under God’s authority and according to his intended will for marriage. It is by the Creator’s loving design for the good of man and society. Man, human institutions, civil governments or judicial decrees cannot separate what God has merged into one—they are powerless in any attempt to do so. Marriage, then, is a permanent and indissoluble covenant bond that is an image of God’s everlasting covenant bond of love with his people.
Further, St. Paul notes that Christian marriage images Christ’s complete and permanent self-gift to his Church (cf. Ephesians 5:31-32). As Christ is one with his Church, so too husband and wife are permanently joined together as a Chrisitan couple during earthly life. That fact has always been central to the Church’s understanding of matrimony. It is a lifelong union that images the relationship between Jesus and his Holy Bride. Although marriage does not extend into eternal life (see Mt 22:30), it constitutes an unbreakable bond between the spouses in temporal life. As we frequently state regarding the expression of permanency during the consent given in marriage, “Until death do us part.”
Jesus emphasizes marriage’s permanency and, with it, the impossibility of remarriage when he gives an additional explanation to his disciples: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” These same principles of divine teaching appear in the other two synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke) as well.
The bottom line is that once a Catholic or other Christian (or any man and woman are validly married. All non-Catholic marriages are presumed valid and permanent by the Church until proven otherwise) is validly and sacramentally married, remarriage is not possible until one of the spouses dies. The Church acknowledges that, unfortunately, sometimes civil divorce (physical separation) is necessary for various reasons:
Yet there are some situations in which living together becomes practically impossible for a variety of reasons. In such cases the Church permits the physical separation of the couple and their living apart. The spouses do not cease to be husband and wife before God and so are not free to contract a new union. In this difficult situation, the best solution would be, if possible, reconciliation. The Christian community is called to help these persons live out their situation in a Christian manner and in fidelity to their marriage bond which remains indissoluble. (CCC 1649)
Spouses who have civilly divorced remain married in actuality and therefore must continue to maintain fidelity to the indissoluble covenant bond of marriage. If reconciliation is not possible, spouses must remain single. St. Paul emphasizes that principle in 1st Corinthians:
To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. (10-11)
When Catholics and other Christians who are validly married divorce, attempt to contract a new union (which is invalid and therefore not a marriage) and live as husband and wife engaging in sexual union, they commit the objectively mortal sin of adultery. In reality, they are living together outside of marriage, although they give the appearance of marriage. Consequently, Catholics cannot receive the Eucharist or be absolved of the sin of adultery until such time as repentance has occurred and they have rectified the situation. One avenue is that couples may live as brother and sister in complete continence.
The truth about divorce and remarriage as the sin of adultery, of course, is not some rule the Church pulled from thin air. It originates from the very lips of Christ. It is God’s final word on the reality of what marriage is. The Catechism explains:
Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ – “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence. (CCC 1650)
The reality of the permanency of marriage is for the good of individuals and society collectively. For example, think of the terrible chaos, psychological damage, broken families and severe detrimental effects caused by the wreckage of divorce and remarriage. It is itself a process of marital, familial, and social destruction. Unfortunately, children often suffer the worst of it all.
Due to the divinely constituted permanency of marriage, the Church will not marry people who have been previously married while their spouses remain alive unless a decree of nullity is obtained. A decree of nullity is in effect an authoritative statement by the Church, given after careful and detailed investigation by a tribunal of experts, which declares that a marriage never existed. Although the couple may have attempted to form their union with good intentions, some impediment existed at the time of consent that prevented the marriage from happening. In other words, although the couple tried to marry, there was in reality no marriage. Obviously, this means the couple is free to marry in the present because they were never married in the past.
The chief good of maintaining one’s fidelity to the marital covenant is eternal life. As tragic as divorce is, it happens. Separation happens. At times, it cannot be avoided because one of the spouses refuses to reconcile or perhaps children are endangered in some way. When the spouses continue to honor their marital covenant after civil divorce and remain single, they look forward in hope to the promise of everlasting life. The life of heaven is an abstract good that is overlooked in today’s divorce and remarriage culture, exchanged for the immediate, evanescent pleasures of a new partner and immoral sexual union. Eternal life, which is of everlasting and infinite value, is traded away for the apparent good of sexual union with a new partner that is in reality the sin of adultery.
Why is adultery so serious? When completed with full knowledge and consent, it is a mortal sin, and mortal sin destroys one’s relationship with God. It extinguishes sanctifying grace in the soul. Without this grace, which is the life and power of the Holy Spirit infused into the soul, a person cannot inherit eternal life in heaven. If a person dies devoid of sanctifying grace, there is no life within them. This means that if one dies in unrepentant mortal sin, hell is the destination, which is a definitive state of self-exclusion from the kingdom of God.
The effects of America’s divorce culture goes beyond destroying marriages, families, and society. It is a destroyer of souls and, in some cases, results in permanent separation from God in whom all good things and our happiness reside.
In her teaching on the permanency of marriage, the Church is upholding Christ’s own teaching that is given for the authentic and true good of all. She is not simply enforcing rules with a cold, iron hand, but rather is in authentic love guiding God’s people to their predestined end of permanent happiness. The Church is, then, fulfilling her role as a caring mother who desires above all that her children attain eternal life in everlasting communion with the Tripersonal God, the very highest possible end.
The Church upholds the reality of marriage and its love for the sake of life lived in and through and with divine Love.
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Photo credit: Hisu Lee, unspash.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.