What does Jesus really mean when He says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery” (Mk 10:11)? This may seem straightforward enough, but in our culture of “hook-ups,” “no-fault” divorce, and “gay marriage,” we tend to lose sight of God’s plan for marriage and occasionally need some reminders.
First, what is adultery? It means a married person having relations with someone who is not his or her spouse. We may reason that if a marriage “ends” in divorce, then the slate is clean — the person is free to marry a second spouse without committing adultery. Is that true?
This reasoning would be legitimate if a divorce really could end a marriage, if a state or the individuals themselves — or even the Church — were to possess the authority to do so. But Jesus courageously proclaims that marriage is within God’s sole jurisdiction: “What God has joined together, man must not separate” (Mt 19:6) we hear in today’s Gospel.
In a valid Christian marriage, the two become one in a permanent, mutual bond that exists even when the spouses and the state consent to the legal fiction of a divorce. Therefore the Church has constantly and emphatically taught that a consummated Christian marriage cannot be dissolved. In an analogous way, we understand that Christ the Bridegroom has become one with His Bride, the Church, and will never part company with her (cf. Mt. 28:20; Eph. 5:25-32).
In upholding the indissolubility of marriage, the Church has carefully distinguished divorces from annulments. An annulment, or a “decree of nullity,” is a finding by the Church that a genuine marriage never existed. The principal bases for annulments are lack of form (it was not really a Christian marriage ceremony), incapacity (e.g., the person is under age or already married), or a failure of consent (e.g., the person lacks the emotional or psychological maturity to consent to marriage).
But if a real Christian marriage exists and has been consummated by the couple’s engaging in the marital act, the Church teaches — in fidelity to Christ — that no human being or institution has the power to dissolve it.
Given this clear teaching, the alarming rise in annulments of consummated Christian “marriages” in recent decades can be a source of scandal, particularly here in the U.S., where the annual number of annulments has risen dramatically since the 1960s. Both to those who love the Church and to those who ridicule her, the seemingly routine granting of annulments on such a large scale appears to be a development that threatens the Church’s pivotal teaching on the permanence (“indissolubility”) of marriage.
This threat is not explicit, since an annulment is not a divorce in principle. However, if the teaching — embodied by canon law — is easily avoided, its credibility is compromised. To our shame, a skeptic of the Church’s claims regarding marriage can point to the annulment process as a convoluted system of “Catholic divorce.” How do we respond to this challenge? I’d like to offer six points for our readers’ consideration: Continue reading