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:
First, some situations arise that cry out for the granting of annulments. In affirming the indissolubility of marriage, extreme care must be made to remain sensitive to legitimate annulment claims, as well as the suffering of those who are caught in unhappy — but “real” — marriages.
Second, many divorced Catholics feel estranged or separated from the Church, and there is a tremendous need for a concerted pastoral effort to bring healing and reconciliation to these people. Without in any way watering down the compassion of this outreach, it must nonetheless be taken into account that this estrangement from the Church, if actual, is not the result of the Church’s imposition of “rules” that are harsh, oppressive, or out of date. Further, our passionate desire to reconcile fallen-away Catholics with the Church must not lead us to accept the popular mindset that spouses may decide — with the state’s approval — to no longer be married.
Third, the Church does allow for separation — for example, when one of the spouses is abusive — in order to safeguard the innocent spouse’s safety, property rights, and the like (Catechism, no. 1649). Attempted remarriage is what really causes the problem here.
Fourth, marriage must be examined from the perspective of God’s Word. Church law is entirely dependent upon and subservient to the Word of God when it comes to regulating marriages. The marriage covenant was created by God, and should be examined accordingly, and not through the lens of prevailing cultural conditions. Contemporary American society exerts considerable influence not only on married couples, but also on members of this country’s marriage tribunals and the Church in general. We must take to heart the fact that secularism — the denial or rejection of God’s grace and action in the world — is the most serious problem in the Church today. While accommodation in certain instances needs to be made because of peculiarities of culture, the widespread disregard of sexual morality today must not distort the Catholic response.
Fifth, a related issue is the “ungodly” legalism and apparent gamesmanship involved in the intensive examination of marriage ceremonies, which can seemingly strip the sacraments of their mystery. To a certain extent, this is a necessary evil, since annulment cases create the unique situation of examining a marriage (usually the marital consent) many years after the fact. Further, this inquiry is not conducted at the request of concerned parishioners who want to make sure the sacrament was indeed valid. Rather, the person who is seeking a declaration of nullity is claiming that the marriage, often contracted during the course of Mass before a priest and many relatives and friends, was not really a marriage. Evaluation of such a claim requires technical analysis of something that is not merely technical but rather covenantal and holy. A healthy disgust for such an enterprise is not unwarranted, and such disgust can only be redeemed by a constant search for Christ in the midst of the process.
Lastly, the most important principle is what I call the “real presence” of the marriage bond. The bond is a reality that comes into being when a Christian couple gets married. Holy people through the centuries have accepted martyrdom rather than apostatize, that is, deny their baptismal faith. Priests have risked death by continuing to exercise the Sacrament of Holy Orders in prisons and concentration camps. There are also accounts of those who have accepted martyrdom by literally throwing themselves on the Blessed Sacrament to prevent its desecration. An analogous defense of the marriage bond needs to be made. The ongoing presence of the bond following a valid, sacramental marriage is not dependent on the whim of the spouses, the fiat of civil government, or the mores of contemporary society. While annulments may be appropriate in certain situations, the mindset should be that the sacred bond is presumptively present, and one is well-advised to safeguard it with his very life.
The foregoing is adapted from Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God, which I co-edited with Scott Hahn.