Bottom line: Jesus gives a demanding teaching on marriage because it is the great icon of the union between God and his people.
Many people have wondered why Jesus gave such a demanding teaching on marriage. The words sound harsh, even insensitive: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery." Forbidding divorce flies in the face of human experience. This is obvious today when divorce is so common, but it was true also back in Jesus’ day. The emperor Augustus enacted laws, hoping to prevent the breakup of marriage. He gave pretty good incentives, but had little success getting Roman citizens to focus on marriage and family. And, even among Jews, divorce was common enough. As we heard in the Gospel, Moses had to set up procedures for divorce. Jesus went against a widespread practice. He refused to recognize divorce. He says that to divorce your spouse and marry another is the same thing as committing adultery.
Pope Benedict gives a key for interpreting Jesus teaching on marriage. In his encyclical, God is Love, he writes that monogamous marriage corresponds to the image of a monotheistic God.* Monotheism means there is only one God. Christians, Jews and Moslems agree on that fundamental doctrine. The Bible teaches that the one God loves us with the passion of a groom for his young bride. In turn 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 man. Over and over the prophets give this message: God is the groom and Israel his bride; therefore do not go after other gods. And when Jesus came, he announced that he was the Bridegroom in whose presence the disciples do not fast, but celebrate.
In teaching the indissolubility of marriage, Jesus was aware of human weakness. He knew he was giving an extremely difficult teaching. The Catholic Church, in spite of the sinfulness of its members, has done its best to uphold that teaching.** Still, because this teaching is so hard to live, it has been the subject of much confusion. I would like to clear up three common misunderstandings.
First - and most important - the Catholic Church does not have its own teaching on marriage. The only teaching we have is the one Jesus gave us: that marriage is a lifelong, unbreakable union between a man and a woman. Because of that firm teaching, the Catholic Church has always considered marriage as the great icon of the union between God and his people.
Second, there is much 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 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. God gave marriage to all human beings when he created us male and female - as the today’s Old Testament reading clearly states: 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" but the correct phrase 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 beginning. For example: suppose one or both of the parties entered the relationship with the intention of practicing birth control and never having children. That marriage is null. It didn’t existed. 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 that you or I could know. It has its human side like everything in the Church, but I know no better process which upholds Jesus’ teaching and at the same time tries to take into account human realities.
Just to summarize the three main points: First, Jesus taught that marriage is a lifelong and exclusive union between a man and a woman. Second, to have a valid marriage a Catholic must marry "in the Church." This norm for Catholics of course does not apply to non-Catholics. We presume the validity of their marriages. Third, the Church has no power to grant a divorce, although it does have a process to determine if a true marriage existed.
Now besides those three main points, I want to say a pastoral word about people whose marriages have broken apart. It often happened against their own will. They have made every efforts to save their marriage. Sometimes these people will give an heroic testimony by continuing their own fidelity, in spite of the choice their spouse made. This is hard, but very admirable. At the same time, there are others who enter into a second union - and who do the best they can to worship God at Mass, even though they cannot come forward for Communion. Our human reality is messy. Always has been; always will be. But that does not mean we can change the teaching of Jesus. One of the things that I have noticed in my years as a priest, is that sometimes the people of who have had the roughest experiences of marriage are the first ones to recognize the beauty of Jesus’ teaching. Ultimately, as Pope Benedict wrote, that teaching is about more than our human relationships. It is 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: What God has joined, no human being must separate.
*Here is a fuller quote from the Pope Benedict's remarkable encyclical:
The biblical account thus concludes with a prophecy about Adam: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). Two aspects of this are important. First, eros is somehow rooted in man's very nature; Adam is a seeker, who “abandons his mother and father” in order to find woman; only together do the two represent complete humanity and become “one flesh”. The second aspect is equally important. From the standpoint of creation, eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose. Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God's way of loving becomes the measure of human love. This close connection between eros and marriage in the Bible has practically no equivalent in extra-biblical literature.
**The apparent exception in Mt 19:9 only allows divorce in the sense of separation, but not as a green light for the offended party to marry another. An early Christian document called The Shepherd of Hermas testifies to this understanding:
I said to him, "Sir, permit me to ask you a few questions." "Say on," said he. And I said to him, "Sir, if any one has a wife who trusts in the Lord, and if he detect her in adultery, does the man sin if he continue to live with her?" And he said to me, "As long as he remains ignorant of her sin, the husband commits no transgression in living with her. But if the husband know that his wife has gone astray, and if the woman does not repent, but persists in her fornication, and yet the husband continues to live with her, he also is guilty of her crime, and a sharer in her adultery." And I said to him, "What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her vicious practices?" And he said, "The husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery." And I said to him, "What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: shall she not be taken back by her husband?" And he said to me, "Assuredly. If the husband do not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented. But not frequently. For there is but one repentance to the servants of God. In case, therefore, that the divorced wife may repent, the husband ought not to marry another, when his wife has been put away. In this matter man and woman are to be treated exactly in the same way. Moreover, adultery is committed not only by those who pollute their flesh, but by those who imitate the heathen in their actions."
From Archives (27th Ordinary Sunday - Year B):
Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
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Fr. Brad's Homilies
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Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
Rite of Christian Initiation: 2012-2013 Schedule for St. Mary of the Valley, Monroe
Letter to Parishioners on Marriage by Fr. Patrick Freitag (Pastor of St. Monica, Mercer Island, WA)
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Bulletin (School Cross, Project Rachel Presentation, Ms. Magazine, Day Without Yesterday)