Recently the host of a popular television talk show stated that marriage began somewhere in the Middle Ages for economic reasons. Moreover, the main motivation to marry was the dowry, and since dowries don’t figure very much in our present economy, what is the need for marriage? No one questioned the accuracy of the host’s claim. Of course, anyone with a smattering of historical knowledge knows the assertions are ridiculous. Ridiculous assertions regarding marriage are not uncommon these days. The traditional understanding of marriage as the indissoluble union between one woman and one man is challenged on a daily basis in the media, in the courts, and in everyday social situations. The range of viewpoints is dizzying concerning what a marriage is and is not, who can get married, how many times, and to how many people—simultaneously or successively. How are faithful Catholics to explain that what we believe about marriage is not the product of narrow-minded self-righteousness? How do we explain why it is not possible to alter marriage and why these new “proposals” of marriage can’t possibly live up to the name?
Marriage Is Made in Heaven
The Catholic Church—along with other faiths that profess belief in the one God—assert that marriage is God’s idea. It originated with him. “God himself is the author of marriage” (Gaudium et Spes 48). It is for him, then, to teach us what it is. And he begins our lesson from the onset of creation. “The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1603). Man and woman are literally made for each other. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). This was the beginning of marriage.
After sin entered the world, the original design for marriage suffered some setbacks, and God began a process of re-educating and reforming his people. For a time there was polygamy. Moses conceded to divorce among his followers because of their “hardness of heart,” but Jesus clearly declares that “from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). He refers to Genesis 2 as he restores marriage to its original dignity: one man, one woman, becoming “one” (Matt. 19:4–5). He leaves no doubt that this union of husband and wife is exclusive and indissoluble: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).
This unity is not just physical but is a bond at the deepest level of their personhood. ” They become one.” Not merely “their bodies become one.” Paul compares this marital union to the union of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5). It is holy; it is made by God, and, as such, cannot be “undone” by man.
Perhaps we think the phrase ” let not man put asunder” means that it is possible for man to put this union “asunder” but that he ought not to do so. Both common sense and Scripture contradict this interpretation. What man honestly thinks he can break a bond made by the Almighty? As if to emphasize the point, Jesus goes on to warn that if one divorces his spouse and marries another, he would be committing adultery (Matt. 19:9). Why? Because the original marriage bond is still intact. No human authority is able to destroy it.
This is why the Catholic Church persists in its teaching of no divorce, not because it is unfeeling or stubbornly clings to the old ways. Assuming that a marriage has been consummated, the divorce of two baptized and validly married people is not possible. A civil divorce may release husband and wife from civil obligations to one another, but not even the Church has the power to destroy the reality of the union of man and woman that takes place in a Christian marriage (CCC 1640).
One clarification: Jesus appears to be making an exception when he implies that divorce and remarriage could be permissible when the cause of the divorce is “unchastity” (Matt. 19:9). However, the word used for “unchastity” is the Greek word porneia, which can be accurately translated as “unlawful lust,” such as “incest” (Spiros Zodhiates, The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, AMG Publishers, 1984). In such cases, the original marriage would not have been valid and the bond never effected, so no adultery would occur with a second marriage. Here we see the scriptural roots for annulment, which does not end a marriage but discerns that a valid marriage, for specific reasons, never took place.
Without God It’s Impossible
The Church’s practice of investigating the validity of marriages is an exercise of the Lord’s wisdom, truth, and mercy. Sadly, in today’s spiritual fog, it is perhaps more likely than in years past for couples to enter marriage lacking one of the necessary ingredients. For example, the full consent of one or the other may be impaired if they marry with divorce in mind as a ready option in case of difficulty.
The teaching of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage may be considered by some to be a “hard saying,” echoing the disciples’ first response: “If such is the case with a man and his wife, it is not expedient to marry” (Matt. 19:10). Feeling unable to live up to Christ’s teaching, they lower their view of marriage to what seems “doable” for them. The problem is that we can lower our idea of marriage, but we can’t lower the.aspirations of the human heart. People are stifled, wounded, and broken by love that is conditional, temporary, and unfaithful. God knows we flourish in the atmosphere of committed authentic love. The truth about marriage matches the truth about the human heart. To try to change either is futile and leads only to suffering.
But still, isn’t it too hard? Without God it’s impossible. But marriage was never meant to be lived without God. In exchange for our hard hearts, which demand divorce, the Lord has promised us a new heart, a heart formed by his spirit. “I will put my spirit within you” (Ezk. 36:27). The love necessary to maintain a healthy marriage comes from Christ. He is the Source. Through baptism and the other sacraments, including marriage, the personal love of the Holy Trinity comes to live within us, elevating our human love to share in divine, unconditional, unending love and making “till death to us part” not only possible but joyful.
And that leads to the next reason why marriage can’t be ended or altered by human decree.
An Encounter with the Living Christ
Marriage can’t be anything we choose it to be because marriage is sacred, meaning it is something set apart for God. Marriage comes from God, and it is meant to lead us closer to him.
By his teaching on marriage, by the blessing of marriage with his presence at the wedding feast of Cana, and through the Church he founded, Jesus elevated marriage to a sacrament. What does that mean?
Every sacrament is a transforming encounter with the living Christ and a means of receiving grace, the very life of God. In the sacrament of marriage, husband and wife have an ongoing source of grace open to them by which they can each grow in holiness and find the strength, wisdom, and love necessary to live out their vows. Their human communion is “confirmed, purified, and completed by communion in Jesus” (CCC 1644).
Marriage is also a vocation, a call from God to seek holiness in a particular way, in a particular state of life, and with a particular person. This truth has been largely lost today. Although a vast majority of Americans profess belief in God, many do not consider God’s will when entering marriage but see it simply as a personal choice, one that can be changed “if things don’t work out.” But human marriage, because it is an image of the marriage of Christ and his Church, is meant to be faithful, lasting, and fruitful. As regards fruitfulness, while not all couples are able to have children, all are called to be open to life and to be spiritually fruitful.
When husband and wife come together in holy matrimony, they establish what has been called “the domestic Church,” for in and through their union the Holy Spirit operates as he does in the wider Church: forming souls in holiness, teaching and spreading the gospel, setting up a school of prayer and of true love.
Love Leads to God
These days almost any emotional relationship can be tagged with the term love. But consider this: “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Real love, then, must lead us closer to God, or it is not real love. And love desires the best for the beloved. Sin, which separates a person from God to one extent or another, is not love. Fornication is not love. Adultery is not love. It is selfishness, for it puts personal gratification before the good of the other.
When we see that marriage as designed by Christ is a holy state of life leading each spouse closer to God, it becomes evident why it is not possible to equate other types of relationships, which establish their participants in sinful lifestyles, with marriage. It is a contradiction in terms, a contradiction of life. Courts can claim to redefine marriage, couples can call their live-in partners “husband” or “wife,” but no human declaration can change the objective nature of what marriage is and is not.
Some people bristle at the very mention of the word sin. But St. John tells us that if we deny the reality of sin, we are calling God a liar (1 John 1). And if we acknowledge the existence of sin—or at least that some things are right and some are wrong—but want to decide for ourselves what is or is not sinful, we have fallen for the original temptation of Satan. We are presuming to exceed “the insurmountable limits that man, being a creature, must freely recognize and respect with trust” (CCC 396).
Satan tempted Adam and Eve to distrust God, to think that the Lord’s limits were keeping them from happiness, and to reject God’s judgment of what was good and what was evil substituting their own. They thought they would find freedom by going their own way, but instead they found suffering. They wanted God but didn’t want to listen to him. Often we’re the same. But if we say we believe in God, even if we have questions and doubts regarding marriage, we have an obligation to seek the truth and not let our uncertainties become an excuse to disregard the Church. Christ entrusted his Church to guard the truth about marriage.
Not even a king can take the Church’s place nor change the nature of marriage. Henry VIII tried and seemed to succeed. He got his way outwardly, but he could not alter reality. For all his manipulation of words and laws, he could not turn adultery into marriage. So troubled was Henry’s conscience that he killed St. Thomas More to try to quiet it.
But isn’t marriage also a civil institution? Yes, and the Church acknowledges the civil.aspects of marriage. But some who see it as strictly civil, having nothing to do with God, question what right the Church has to speak about their situations.
We Have No King but Caesar
The Church affirms the right of civil governments to make laws concerning marriage, for marriage is something that concerns the good of all citizens. But those laws may not countermand the laws of God. The Church’s position might best be stated by quoting the Lord: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).
Some, though, would prefer to say, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15) and leave God entirely out of the picture. But to delete God from marriage, we would have to go back in time and rewrite the origins of marriage, ousting its Author (replacing him, of course, with ourselves). Next, we would have to erase the natural law, which is written by the hand of the Creator in every human heart and gives interior witness to the law of God (Rom. 2:15). This natural law together with reason enables us to know that there is a God and that we should honor and obey him. If we do not, Scripture accuses us of suppressing the truth (Rom 1:18).
So, then, even what the Church calls “natural marriages” (those marriages that take place between two non-Christians or between a Christian and an non-Christian), while they cannot bestow sanctifying grace nor reach the union intended by Christ for marriage, do share in the basic goodness of marriage and the call to marital fidelity. Therefore, they should be protected and valued, even though it is possible in some cases for the bond in a natural marriage to be dissolved, since it is not a sacramental union made in Christ.
John the Baptist was a dramatic witness to God’s right to rule over natural marriages. It takes courage to speak the truth to power. John told Herod it was wrong for him to take his brother’s wife. John thought standing up for the morality of marriage—even a marriage made without thought of God—was worth losing his head.
Catholics, then, who follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist or Thomas More in defending the beauty, sanctity, and truth of marriage as conveyed by the Church, do so not because it is their personal opinion or to be a nuisance to others but because it is the teaching of Jesus, whose mission was to “bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). To those who disagree, we can only say, “Your argument is with God.” And let’s pray that we can all keep our heads.
By Mary Beth Kremski