Marriage, in the Beginning

Of all the moral teachings that our Lord gave us during His time on earth, He was never more specific in His instruction than when He discussed marriage. The Pharisees tested Jesus on this particular teaching by referencing the law that permitted divorce which had been given to them through Moses. In order to fulfill the law, our blessed Lord both explains the rationale behind the concession that Moses made in regards to divorce and elevates our understanding of marriage by returning us to an original interpretation of marriage as it is described in the Book of Genesis.

By returning to an understanding of marriage through the lens of Genesis, our blessed Lord asserts that by its very nature, marriage is indissoluble. He says that what God has joined, man must not separate. Thus, our Lord implies that not only is divorce not desirable (it was only permitted by Moses due to the hardness of the hearts of the Jews) — divorce is not possible.

Not possible? How are we to understand that divorce is not possible when the majority of marriages end in divorce? While we must concede that divorce is a legal reality in the temporal sphere, it is not possible in the spiritual realm. This is the reason why the Church does not recognize a civil divorce as the termination of a sacramental bond rendered in a marriage recognized by the Church. This lies at the heart of the annulment process. While a civil divorce states that a civil contract called “marriage” once existed and now no longer exists, a decree of nullity states that a sacramental bond between the couple never existed at all. The couple may have had children (who are all considered legitimate, since annulments pertain to spiritual and not civil matters) and a common life, but on the day of the wedding, a sacrament was never conferred.

The pastoral care of the divorce and remarried is an area of great concern to many Catholics. With a high divorce rate that is no different for Catholic couples who disregard Church teaching on family planning, the number of civilly divorced Catholics who have remarried invalidly outside the Church is alarming. While a civil divorce per se does not disqualify a Catholic from the sacraments, a remarriage outside the Church, without first having attained an annulment, does disqualify a Catholic from reception of holy Communion and the sacrament of penance.

A divorce and subsequent marriage outside the Church amounts to adultery, since the sacramental bond remains from the first marriage, for at least the Catholic party. A Catholic who is divorced and remarried cannot even fulfill the sacrament of penance. The Catholic may have sins to confess and sorrow for those sins, but he or she cannot make a firm purpose of amendment not to sin again if the Catholic does not intend to live as “brother and sister” with his or her current partner until the first marriage is declared null (assuming it can be) and the current marriage is validated in the Church.

In any case, such Catholics are encouraged to attend Mass, refrain from reception of the sacraments, seek an annulment and get the Church's validation of their current civil bond. Such persons are not excommunicated, as many are led to believe. They remain part of the mystical body of Christ, but must also work to regularize their marriage situation.

The Church takes the indissolubility of marriage seriously because Christ does. By returning to the Book of Genesis as His starting point for understanding the sacrament of marriage, our Lord reminds us that man must not separate what God has joined together. God created marriage to be indissoluble — as indissoluble as Christ’s love for His bride, the Church.

Fr. Magat is parochial vicar at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Colonial Beach, Virginia and St. Anthony of Padua Mission in King George, Virginia.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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