One of the most heart-rending statistics of our day is a 50 percent divorce rate. Regrettably, it is not much different among Catholics. More heart-rending, it should be understood, is the remarriage of a baptized Catholic, after a civil divorce.
Marriage, in the minds and hearts of many, is often entered into as an agreement “until further notice.” Prenuptial agreements are proof of this. The causes of divorce can be many and varied. But the primary diagnose for many divorces would be the spiritual illness known as selfishness. If this is the case, then the illness is much more insidious in those who are supposed to know better, namely Catholics. Jesus one day said that Moses allowed divorce “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew 19:8). There can be no better definition of selfishness.
It might be the case that many Catholics do not know better – their “marriage preparation” did not prepare them. Others just plain reject the church’s teaching because it seems antiquated to them. But in rejecting church teaching, one is rejecting Christ’s teaching. They are two ways of saying the same thing. I would imagine more people would at least pause before saying, “I reject Christ’s teaching.”
The church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage is none other than that of Christ himself. So what exactly is Christ’s teaching on marriage, which by consequence excludes divorce and remarriage?
Jesus, in response to the question of the Pharisees about divorce, refers to “the beginning.” “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘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 flesh?’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate…Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:4-6, 8).
As John Paul II said, in relation to this passage, “…that significant expression ‘from the beginning,’ repeated twice, clearly induced his interlocutors to reflect on the way in which man was formed in the mystery of creation, precisely as ‘male and female’” (Wednesday audience, Sept. 5, 1979). What is God’s original plan for marriage and family? We must go back to the beginning, to creation, to the book of Genesis to find out.
“God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them, saying: ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:27-28a). No other aspect of the material world is created in God’s image and likeness. Adam and Eve were created to share in the very life and love of God.
We know from the New Testament that this God is a Trinity of persons. Therefore, God created man, male and female, in the image of the Trinity. The three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are an eternal communion of divine persons. God created Adam and Eve as a communion of human persons who share in the communion of the three divine persons. So God calls this married couple to imitate the life of the Trinity.
But, what is the inner life of the Trinity like? This is what the second and third persons of the Trinity came to make known. They came to reveal the inner life of God: who God is, and what he has been doing for all eternity. Jesus comes to show us that Trinitarian life is a life of life-giving, self-giving love. 1 John 4:8 and 4:16 tell us “Deus caritas est”: that is, “God is love.” The Trinity is not just loving; the Trinity is love itself. God’s very being and existence is love.
But, how do we know what love is, in order to understand who God is, he who the married couple is called to imitate and participate in? John gives us the answer: “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him” (1 John 4:9). What God does tells us about who God is. The Father gives the Son to give us life.
From all eternity, before the foundation of the world, the Father is pouring forth his white-hot love and life upon the Son. The Son, the perfect image of the Father, is eternally imaging the Father, pouring forth his love and life back upon the Father. This reciprocal love is none other than the third person of the Trinity. The Son never has to be concerned about himself, because the Father and the Holy Spirit are. The Father never has to be concerned about himself, because the Son and the Holy Spirit are. The Holy Spirit never has to be concerned about himself, because the Father and Son are. The definition of true love, rooted in who God is, is selflessness.
This leads us back to where we started. Selflessness is the key – self-denial, not selfishness. To say that there should be able to be divorce and remarriage, to separate what God has joined, is like saying that the three persons of the Trinity should be able to be ripped apart and joined to some other god, which is clearly absurd. Married couples are not called to falsify the image of Trinity, but to participate in, and imitate, the life-giving, self-giving love of the Trinity. (Annulment, by contrast, is the recognition that a sacramental marriage never existed.)
This does not mean marriage is easy, but, through the grace of the sacrament of matrimony, it is possible.
In the next column we will look at more evidence from the New Testament to help us understand what the married couple is called to, namely, to imitate the relationship between Christ and his Church.