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The Last Word - March 2016

Marriage and Jesus' Command

Jesus makes a lot of strong and challenging statements over the course of his ministry, but his prohibition of divorce and remarriage is of a different magnitude altogether.  “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12).

I doubt any other great religious teacher has made such a strong demand regarding marriage and divorce.  Not Mohammed, not Moses, certainly none of the religious teachers of ancient religions we often call pagan.  It is a hard statement, and over the years, the Church has had to work with it.  Saint Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, records Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and then immediately outlines a procedure for divorce and remarriage in very specific circumstances we know as the "Pauline Privilege."

What is Jesus saying here?  He is presenting a very high understanding of marriage.  He refers back to the creation when God made us male and female.  He says that man and woman were created for one another, with a complementarity of both body and soul, whereby one completes the other.  He is saying that marriage is an absolutely unique way to wholeness, such that no other human relationships, no matter how intimate and committed, are the equal to the marriage of one man and one woman.  The Church defines marriage as a communion of life and of love.  And this unique relationship, for this reason, is one which society has a unique interest in and concern for, an obligation to protect, foster and encourage.

But, we all know that not every marriage reaches this ideal.  Sometimes, it is because they married too hastily without really knowing themselves or knowing their prospective spouse.  Sometimes, it is because there are serious personality disorders present that make one or the other party unable to make this kind of commitment, a communion of equals in life and love.  Sometimes, it is a willful withholding of fidelity or of some other essential element of marriage.  For whatever reason, then, not everyone who goes through a wedding ceremony ends up with marriage in the sense in which Jesus means that word and in the sense that the Church means that word.  They are married in the eyes of the state, but the state does not set the bar as high as Jesus set it.  What the state calls marriage and what followers of Jesus call marriage is not the same thing; it is only the same word.

In those cases where there is no marriage (in Jesus’ sense of that word), however married the couple may have thought they were, wished they were, dreamed they were, and the state recognized they were, the Church has determined that it can allow another union, in place of the first, without violating Jesus’ command, in the hope that this new couple can reach the standard and the ideal that Jesus has established for us:  a wholeness and a fulfillment based on self-giving love.  To this end, the Church has established a procedure, annulment, for making this possible.

But, we have to be very careful here.  Self-deception is just too easy.  We cannot let an “escape clause,” the “loophole,” undermine Jesus’ original command.  The boldness of Jesus’ statement is breathtaking.  And we must continue to set bold standards and goals for ourselves.  The moment we allow ourselves to put our primary focus on the concessions and the exceptions, we lose the clarity of the vision Jesus set out for us: the sacredness of marriage.  We run the risk of treating as normal that which misses the mark of God’s plan for happiness and fulfillment.

Every divorce I have ever known – however necessary – is a painful and reluctant confession of human limitation and human imperfection.  Divorces I have encountered in the parishes I have served are not entered into lightly or without a true measure of grief.  That grief is the evidence that in our hearts we know that Jesus was right, even though we have not and sometimes could not achieve that high purpose in this instance.

With all our heart, we pray for the prudence, the wisdom, and the courage couples need for their vocation.

-Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal