My mother and father’s 73-year marriage came full circle several weeks ago as Mom and the rest of our family lovingly ushered my father to the goal of their union from the beginning: the merciful encounter with our heavenly Father when this earthly life is done. The little church where we celebrated the funeral Mass was filled to overflowing with those touched by the truth, goodness and beauty of my parents’ deeply loving and fruitful, even if not perfect, union. I did nothing to deserve such a foundation of human love in life; my parents’ marriage was simply a gift. It is a gift that demands a response of gratitude and an effort to live in such a way as to point to the reality present and revealed in such love.
The Beauty of marriage as indissoluble
This reality of faithful married love is truly beautiful. As Pope Francis says in “Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love)” (86), “With inner joy and deep comfort, the Church looks to the families who remain faithful to the teachings of the Gospel … for they bear witness, in a credible way, to the beauty of marriage as indissoluble and perpetually faithful.”
There is indeed something profoundly beautiful about indissolubility. As the Holy Father says, it makes marriage capable of being (AL 11) “a true and living icon … capable of revealing God the Creator and Savior.” It gives children a stable home in which they can naturally trust in God’s faithful love of them. The Catechism puts it this way (1640): “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. The Church does not have the power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom.”
“This is a hard teaching.”
When in the Nicene Creed we profess our faith in the “Father Almighty, Maker … of all things visible and invisible,” one of the most powerful invisible realities we should have in mind is the invisible but real and indissoluble bond put in place by God at the consent of man and woman in the covenant of sacramental marriage.
Down through history, the challenge of this teaching has been found by some as too much to bear or too much to expect of mere mortals. Still today, some seek to explain it away using various arguments, even seeking to use, wrongly, the teaching of Pope Francis to justify relativizing the permanence of the sacramental marriage bond.
For example, one of these clever but unsound arguments goes something like this: “A consummated, sacramental marriage is indissoluble in the sense that spouses ought always to foster marital love and ought never choose to dissolve their marriage and remarry; however, by causes beyond the spouses’ control and/or by the grave faults of one of them, their human relationship as a married couple sometimes deteriorates until it ceases to exist. When a couple’s marriage relationship no longer exists, their marriage has dissolved, and one or both parties may rightly seek a civil divorce and remarry.”
Such an argument, in all of its worldly exhaustion, has one glaring problem: Jesus Himself, the incarnate Son of God who showed us the surprising depth and reality of Love, disagrees clearly and wholeheartedly. He says (Mk 10:9ff), “What God has joined together, no human being must separate. … Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
In this famous passage found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, even the Lord’s disciples balked (Mt 19:10): “If that is the case of a man and his wife, it is better not to marry!” How could the call of marriage, they thought, be so clear and absolute? But the faithful of the Church, by becoming one with Christ in Baptism and putting on the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit, come to trust the truth and discover that with God all things are possible. It is at one and the same time challenging and exhilarating, calling for obedience and gratitude and moving the Church’s ministers to accompany, with mercy, those who have violated it or find it difficult to bear.
Mercy and the Marriage Bond
As the Jubilee Year of Mercy comes to a close this month on Christ the King Sunday, the renewal of our hearts through mercy must continue and grow in the Church. Heaven forbid that we be among those Christ rebuked most strongly, the Pharisees, who were unmoved to help their people with their burdens (Cf. Mt 23:4).
I remain deeply grateful to those priests, religious and lay leaders who have devoted serious time to accompany the engaged, the civilly divorced, those seeking an investigation of nullity as well as those struggling in marriage to be faithful to the clear words of our Lord. I am especially appreciative of their evangelical courage in upholding the livable ideal and in cultivating the affective maturity which keeps us from backing away from the wounded and the confused who come to the Church for strength on the journey to Heaven.
We have great reason for hope that the challenges of marriage in our time will give rise to heroic witnesses to Christ as He pours out graces more than equal to the task. St. Paul reminds us that history is replete with examples: “where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more …” (Rom 5:20). The marriage “icons” of our time have the task, and the capability with God’s abundant grace, to radiate the beauty and goodness and truth of God’s glory.