The sacrament of Holy Matrimony is essential for building up the Church, which is the Body of Christ. This claim may sound strange to moderns, especially because so many couples choose not to get married, or if they do, their marriages may result in divorce. Indeed, there are many unfortunate situations of divorced couples, even within the Catholic Church.
This widespread “divorce culture” was not part of God’s original plan for marriage, especially when these couples divorce and remarry, resulting in adulterous unions. If we understand the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” within the beautiful plan for marriage established by Christ, then we can truly understand why divorce is not part of the vocation of marriage as ordained by God from the beginning of creation.
In order to understand how God gave the sixth commandment out of love, it is necessary to return to the beginning—indeed, the beginning of creation, when God created man and woman. The Lord originally places the man, Adam, in the Garden of Eden “to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15, RSV). God sees that it is not good for Adam to be alone, so he creates the animals, all of which the man names. Even still, “for the man there was not found a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:20). It is then that the Lord places Adam under a deep sleep, and taking one of his ribs, he creates woman, and at the sight of her, Adam exclaims, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23). In the woman, who is eventually named Eve, Adam finds the companion and helper he could not find among the animals, for she is also created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1701 and 2331). We then read the following in the Scriptures: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The man and the woman are created for each other; they are meant to enter into union with one another and “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28; CCC 2335). Indeed, from the beginning, man and woman are meant for indissoluble union with each other.
This was God’s plan from the beginning for Adam and Eve, but after the fall, man and woman were separated from God and his divine plan. Now, they must struggle against concupiscence and sin to follow God’s laws and ordinances. While this does not alter God’s established order from the beginning, it does mean that God’s people may have more difficulty fulfilling his laws. For this reason, Moses allows for divorce among the Israelite people (Deuteronomy 24), God’s chosen race, who will carry out his divine plan of salvation (Exodus 4:22). Moses allows for divorce because the people of Israel are too weak to fulfill the demands of God’s law, even though these laws were “not good” (Ezekiel 20:25).
But, divorce was not God’s plan from the beginning, as will be revealed in the New Covenant. Christ’s coming—the Word made flesh (John 1:14)—ushered in the New Covenant, in which the hearts of the people would be circumcised (Jeremiah 31:31-34). God’s laws will now be written on the hearts of men, rather than on stone. This is the background behind Christ’s answer to the Pharisees in Matthew 19. Here, they attempt to test Christ, asking whether divorce is lawful. Christ gives the following surprising answer:
Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder…For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so (Matthew 19:4-6, 8).
Christ returns to the law of God established in the beginning: man and woman were created for each other, and they were created such that their union would be indissoluble (CCC 2336). The Israelites were only allowed divorce because of their “hardness of hearts,” but now that Christ has come to write his law on the hearts of men, he is calling us to a higher law, namely, following what God established from the very beginning.
It is for this reason that Christ says, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). Here we see the application of the sixth commandment. In the Decalogue, God commanded the people not to commit adultery, and now Christ is firmly establishing that divorcing and marrying another is adultery. This law is not meant to be unmerciful; Christ recognizes the difficulties of human situations, but nevertheless, calls us to something higher. This law against adultery acknowledges the fact that marriage is meant to be indissoluble. As the Catechism explains,
Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter—appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility (1643).
The reason that Christ speaks so firmly against adultery is because marriage is meant for a complete and total union of the spouses; the good of marriage is the safeguarding of the union. If marriage could be dissoluble, then there could be no entrustment of the spouses to each other, but from the beginning, God created man and woman to be faithful to one another.
Moreover, this faithfulness in indissoluble union is not just for the good of the spouse, but also for the children, who are the “supreme gift of marriage” (Gaudium et Spes 50; Casti Connubii, no. 11; CCC 2366). Again, in the Garden, God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (CCC 2367). This means that children should come forth from the marital union in the natural order of things, although some couples are unable to have children due to infertility (CCC 2378-2379). This begetting of children extends into education: the couple is supposed to raise children for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The reason, therefore, that marriage is indissoluble also extends to the good of the children. The children deserve to have a mother and father to raise them. As Pope Pius XI explains in Casti Connubii, “In matrimony provision has been made in the best possible way for this education of children that is so necessary, for, since the parents are bound together by an indissoluble bond, the care and mutual help of each is always at hand” (no. 16). The spouses together are meant to raise and educate the children together, and this explains why the bond of marriage is to be indissoluble.
A popular issue today is whether couples who have divorced and civilly remarried can receive the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. What does this subject have to do with the indissoluble bond of marriage? It should be clear by now that marriage is meant to be indissoluble, as ordained by Christ in the New Covenant of love. Thus, those couples who have been validly married, divorced, and then remarried civilly are living in the state of adultery, because they are still married to their first spouse. By divorcing and remarrying, they are not fulfilling the new command given by Christ, which is in accord with God’s beautiful and loving plan for man from the beginning. And, because they are in the state of serious and public sin (CCC 2384), they are unable to receive the Holy Eucharist. Furthermore, it is important to keep the following from Pope Benedict XVI in mind: “The Eucharist inexhaustibly strengthens the indissoluble unity and love of every Christian marriage” (Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 27).
In other words, the Eucharist strengthens the indissoluble bond of marriage; it is the special sacrament for married couples. Therefore, if the marriage bond has been broken by divorce and civil remarriage, then the Eucharist will be a hindrance, rather than a help, because the couple is receiving the Body and Blood of Christ living in active sin (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
In the final analysis, God created man and woman for each other in his divine plan of love. Because we are living in the New Covenant, when Christ gives us his grace to fulfill the commandments of the Decalogue, we are called to a higher standard than the Israelites. In other words, we are called to live the truth established by God from the beginning, namely, that marriage is indissoluble except by the death of one of the partners. Therefore, through the grace of Christ and the sacrament of the Eucharist, couples are able to live the fullness of the command, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”