This article first appeared at: stpaulcenter.com.
Our civilization is crumbling from within, and one of the reasons is no-fault divorce. Many celebrities seem to mock marriage, with multiple extravagant weddings, tabloid-reported affairs and public court battles for custody of children. Perhaps their struggle is greater than the average person’s, as they try to balance fame, demanding careers and their private lives. Nevertheless, what started in Hollywood forty years ago is the norm today in many communities.
Even churchgoing people, including Catholics, now have as high a rate of divorce as non-Christians. Who is setting the example for whom? Rather than setting the standard for marriage the way God intended it, Christians are allowing the culture to influence how they make and break marriages.
Some people approach marriage the way they would a dress rehearsal—the lights, costumes and makeup for the production, including all lines memorized and delivered—rather than the finished star performance. “Starter marriage,” a phrase made popular by Pamela Paul, refers to a childless union between people under thirty-five lasting less than five years. Young couples, with an idealized view of marriage and a minimized view of divorce, “try” marriage.
Instead of catching a vision of the rights, responsibilities and risks of committing their lives to each other and seeing the act of marriage as the expression of that love in a new person, these couples focus exclusively on each other.
Separating the marriage act from marriage leads people to make poor choices for their spouses. Bioethicist Janet Smith comments, “When they do marry, they are often simply marrying a sexual partner that they have become used to. Sexual attraction and sexual compatibility become the chief foundation for relationships.” They do not want to fail, but they place such a premium on happiness that pain, difficulty, stress and challenge become excuses to cut their losses and move on.
If these people understood marriage as lifelong, would their choices be different?
From its beginning, Christianity, unlike other world religions, has required monogamy, yet many branches of Christianity accept divorce as a fact of life, allowing a kind of serial polygamy: more than one spouse but just one at a time. Various branches of the Orthodox Church allow reception of Communion after as many as three divorces and marriage to a fourth wife. Most of the twenty-six thousand Protestant denominations accept the state’s authority to break a marriage, and most do not restrict communion. Though divorce is never encouraged, remarriage is allowed.
Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage was not challenged until Erasmus presented a different view in the sixteenth century. In the years immediately following the Reformation, Protestant writers and theologians agreed that remarriage after divorce should be allowed, though they disagreed as to what constituted valid reasons. Luther, Melancthon and others even signed a letter to a German prince, Philip of Hesse, in 1539, encouraging him to consider polygamy with his mistress rather than continue in adultery.
The Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation and to the present maintains a unified teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage. This teaching will remain the same: No amount of lobbying will change it, and no future pope will overturn it.
This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. . . . By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, [Jesus] himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life. (CCC, 1615)
For centuries Christian people of all levels of intelligence, talent and wealth have lived this truth by the grace of God. Jesus gave his teaching on marriage in the midst of an “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mark 8:38; see Matthew 12:39), so the challenges that our day presents cannot be excuses to ignore the Church’s teaching. Even nonreligious couples in many countries have remained faithful in marriage. How much more is faithfulness possible in a marriage empowered by sacramental grace?
Our loving heavenly Father gives us this teaching on marriage to bless us rather than to make life difficult or even impossible. He establishes boundaries for marriage that enable union and communion to flourish. He offers us a vision of what is possible and then pledges his grace to help us live it.
Thus the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by God’s fidelity. (CCC, 1640)
God’s faithfulness is the foundation of our faithfulness. We need to impart this vision to the world.
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