The True Meaning of Christian Marriage

Feb 12, 2017: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sirach 15:15-20
Psalms 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-3
First Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5:17-37

Today Jesus gives us one of His less popular teachings.

He tells us that if a couple is truly married, that marriage cannot be dissolved except by the death of one of the spouses. He tells us that because of this, divorce and remarriage is not an option for His followers — it is the same thing as committing adultery. Jesus taught this in the Gospels, and so His Church continues to teach it today. This is why divorced and remarried Catholics should not present themselves to receive communion — because they are in a state of opposition to God’s plan for their lives; they are not in “communion” with His will.

Why does Jesus teach such a hard doctrine? Is He not being excessively harsh? Is this a contradiction of His compassion?

To answer those questions, we have to take some time to reflect on the meaning of marriage from God’s perspective. After all, He was the one who invented it, so He is the one who understands it fully. So, what is the sacrament of marriage, from God’s perspective?

Let’s take a brief look.

Every once in a while, we read news stories about spouses who shared long and loving marriages and then died almost simultaneously, not for medical reasons, but for spiritual ones.

One spouse passes away because of a stroke, for example, and a few days later, the other spouse, who seemed perfectly healthy passes away — unable, so it seems, to allow their loved one to get too far out of reach. This phenomenon eloquently illustrates something about marriage of which you rarely hear people speak. That is too bad, because that “something” is the most important thing about marriage. It’s called “the marriage bond.” Understanding what it is and where it comes from is the only way to understand Catholic teaching about divorce, remarriage, and annulment.

When two people go into business together, they form a partnership.

They agree to work together on a project that will benefit each of them.

The bond they form is entirely practical, exterior, and contractual.

When two people get married, they do much, much more. They pledge their whole selves to one another, unconditionally, out of love. In so doing they become, as it were, one person. They are bonded together not by an external contract or agreement, like business partners, but rather by the mutual commitment to be one another’s spouse. Not just friends, not just companions, but spouses. As spouses, their very identity as individual persons is enriched: Tom and Paula are no longer just Tom and Paula; they are now Tom the Husband and Paula the Wife. Two separate individuals have come together and freely entered into a new, unified life in which the spouses live no longer for themselves, but for each other. A new physical-spiritual reality has come into existence: a marriage, a unique, exclusive, permanent bond between husband and wife.

That is what marriage is; that is how God designed it.

Jesus himself explained the marriage bond like this, quoting Genesis He said:

“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…” (Matt 19:4-6).

Even though you cannot physically see the marriage bond, it is as objectively real as the child that naturally springs forth from it. That child, an objective, physical-spiritual reality that did not exist before, is a living icon, a clear expression of what the marriage itself is, by its very nature: an objective, physical-spiritual reality that did not exist before. And that’s why a true marriage can no more be “undone” — which is what divorce and remarriage claims to do, to “undo” a previous marriage — than the life of that child. You can dissolve a business agreement, but you cannot dissolve a child — at least, not without murdering it. You cannot dissolve a marriage without the death of one of the spouses.

This understanding of marriage is, admittedly, not easy for a lot of us to accept.

We have all been more or less infected by our society’s divorce mentality, which sees marriage as a mere social construct, just like any other type of social agreement, like any business partnership — purely at the mercy of the needs and whims of the partners. We don’t have to go very far to discover the flaws in that point of view. We don’t even have to go to the Bible or the Catechism. All we have to do is go to human experience. Even though different societies have surrounded marriage with many different ceremonies and taboos and external traditions, they have all had the institution of marriage.

Human beings create business and legal partnerships, but we do not “create” marriage — rather we enter into marriage, just as we enter into friendship. The institution of marriage is natural, it’s an objective reality built into human nature by God himself, and it is what people do. It exists prior to legal and social codes and cannot be essentially altered by them any more than human nature itself. As Christ put it, “What God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Matt 19:6).

That’s what the scientists can tell us about marriage.

However, common sense leads us to the same conclusion. When a normal couple gets married, it is because they want to spend the rest of their lives together and they want to build a family. That is what marriage is. If asked why they want to get married, that is what they will answer.

And if that’s not their answer, if their answer is something like, “we’re looking for financial security” or “I need a spouse in order to advance in my career” or “she’s pregnant and she doesn’t want to get an abortion but we don’t want to embarrass her”… if those or other external, practical goals are the only real reasons for either one of the spouses, then they may go through with a some kind of a marriage ceremony, and they may have a wedding, but they will not really be consenting to marriage. They will be entering into a glorified business partnership, but not into the marriage bond.

Likewise, if one or both of the would-be spouses puts unnatural conditions on the marriage — for example, that they will purposely avoid having children so they can be free to travel, or that if they get a divorce they will divide their property in such-and-such a way, or if the groom is consciously intending to continue having extramarital affairs… in cases like these, the formation of a true marriage bond is blocked.

The couple may be forming a legal, contractual relationship, but not the full, interpersonal communion of spouses.

In other cases, even when the couple enters marriage in good faith and does everything they believe is necessary for marriage, there may be an unconscious defect in their capacity to make the full consent necessary to form the marriage bond: a temporary or permanent psychological condition, for instance. In this case, too, no real marriage would be entered into.

Because human nature is fallen, wounded by original sin, cases like these happen.

That is why the Church has what is called the process of marriage annulment. Unlike divorce, which claims to undo a marriage bond that really existed, an annulment states that an apparent marriage never really did exist, because a flaw in the consent of one or both parties blocked the formation of the marriage bond. In that case, the parties involved are not really married, and so they are still free to get married. Sometimes the cause of “failed” marriages can be traced back to these kinds of conscious or unconscious flaws in the original consent. Each Catholic diocese assigns the difficult and delicate task of discerning these cases to a marriage tribunal, which operates according to carefully prescribed procedures.

Sometimes serious difficulties in a marriage may require, for the good of the spouses or of the children, separation, or even civil divorce (for example, in the case of physical abuse), and Catholics in these situations can still be in full communion with the Church.

Annulments and separations are always painful, which is one of the reasons why the Church encourages her children to prepare well for marriage. Not only by attending marriage preparation classes — which are important — but most importantly by living a life of virtue, prayer, and faith, and by ridding themselves of the widespread “divorce mentality.” There are times in every marriage when love is sorely tested, and it will emerge stronger and deeper if the test is met and overcome with fortitude, self-sacrifice, and maturity. Virtues like these need to be developed before the moment of crisis in order to be activated during the crisis.

The same fallen human nature — what Christ called “hard-heartedness” — that causes crises in individual marriages, also gives rise to the various social corruptions of the institution of marriage, such as polygamy (in which one man has many wives simultaneously), or legalized divorce and remarriage, or so-called same-sex marriage. Certain societies admit these and other deviations, but that does not alter — it cannot alter — the true nature of marriage. Jesus explained it like this to the Pharisees:

“…Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so…. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife and marries another (unless the marriage is unlawful [in other words, if there was no real marriage bond in the first place]) commits adultery…” (Matthew 19:8-9).

Jesus thinks so highly of this natural institution of marriage, in fact, that He elevated it to the level of a sacrament.

For baptized Christians, therefore, the natural bond of marriage is reinforced with the strength of God’s grace, and transformed into a supernatural reality, a way for the spouses to love not only each other and their children, but also God and the Church. (Cf. Ephesians 5)

I would like to finish with a short but true story about a married couple — Barbara and Matt.

They were popular, wealthy, and well-traveled.

After they had been married for only one year, Matt was in a horrible car accident. When they got him to the hospital and stabilized his condition, they discovered that he was paralyzed from the neck down. When the doctors told Barbara, she was devastated. All their wonderful plans were shattered in an instant.

When Matt regained consciousness and the doctors told him what had happened, he asked to see his wife. They each tried to smile through their tears. He told her that he knew she did not marry him in order to stay home and take care of a cripple, in order to spend her life celibate and childless. He told her that he knew she would be happier if she left him and found someone else. He told her he would understand. Barbara went out of the hospital room, sat down, and cried. A few minutes later, she came back in, knelt beside Matt’s bed, took his hand, and through her tear-stained faced she said: “I will never, never, leave your side.”

As we continue with this Mass, in which Jesus renews His untiring, unconditional commitment to each one of us, let’s renew our commitments to Him, and to following His plan for our lives.

And let’s pray for all married couples, that they would turn to Christ in good times and bad, trusting in His grace and wisdom to strengthen their marriage bond and lead them to the happiness that only He can give.

One Response to “The True Meaning of Christian Marriage”

  1. Linda Busti Says:

    EXCELLENT! I will save this for future teaching.

Leave a Reply