This is the first in a series of posts looking at difficult Church teachings through the lens of Affirmative Orthodoxy.
Divorce has become epidemic in our society and the Church rightly decries it as a scourge on families and society. But how can we take about marriage from the standpoint of Affirmative Orthodoxy? What would a “positive” approach to a discussion on divorce look like?
What Does the Church Say?
“The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant.” (CCC no. 1617)
œ’From a valid marriage arises a bond between the spouses which by its very nature is perpetual and exclusive; furthermore, in a Christian marriage the spouses are strengthened and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and the dignity of their state by a special sacrament.’ (CCC no. 1638)
“The love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses’ community of persons, which embraces their entire life: ‘so they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ They ‘are called to grow continually in their communion through day-to-day fidelity to their marriage promise of total mutual self-giving.’ This human communion is confirmed, purified, and completed by communion in Jesus Christ, given through the sacrament of Matrimony. It is deepened by lives of the common faith and by the Eucharist received together.” (CCC no. 1644)
“It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love. Spouses who with God’s grace give this witness, often in very difficult conditions, deserve the gratitude and support of the ecclesial community.” (CCC no. 1648)
“Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign.” (CCC no. 2384)
Teaching through Affirmative Orthodoxy
When approaching the topic of divorce and the Church, the key is focusing on what the Church affirms: namely that, as a sign of Christ’s abiding and eternal love for his bride, the Church, the union of man and wife is indissoluble and permanent. If the marriage bond were not indissoluble, one might rightly ask what good the marriage between Christ and the Church is. If the possibility were open that Christ might set aside his bride then the assurance of salvation has no foundation. But we cling to Christ’s promise of fidelity and it is in the image of this promise that the bonds of matrimony are formed. That is why divorce is described as an offence against the “covenant of salvation” — it denies the eternal fidelity of the Bridegroom, Christ, to his chosen ones.
On a more practical note, it is the indissolubility of marriage that allows for the total self-giving of husband to wife and wife to husband, most perfectly visioned in the openness to new life that is the mark of a Christian marriage. As we have seen time and again, children best thrive when both parents are present; when one or the other is missing it is almost always more difficult on the child. This formation of the family — mother, father, child — can only be maintained when relationships are stable and permanent.
This is why the Church takes marriage preparation so seriously. By helping couples to discern their intentions and capacity to commit to a life-long relationship the hope is that future complications can be minimized. (As anyone who is married can tell you you can never eliminated difficulties!) Unfortunately the modern culture’s commitment to radical individual autonomy and self-gratification makes this task even more difficult. It behooves anyone involved in marriage preparation to take this task most seriously and impress upon engaged couples the seriousness of the commitment they are making.
Finally, it is also important to clear up any misconceptions about what the Church teaches regarding the status of divorced individuals. Many people are under the mistaken impression that any divorced person is barred from receiving Holy Communion; in fact there is no such prohibition since, in the eyes of the Church, the couple is merely separated and the marriage still intact. (That does not, however, diminish the grave offense divorce commits against the natural order.) On the other hand, those who have divorced and “re-marry” without an annulment compound the offence and engage in “public and permanent adultery” (Cf CCC no. 2384) and thus should not present themselves for the reception of Communion (per canon 915). Failure to make this distinction has led to much confusion and kept some people away from the sacrament who might otherwise have benefited from its grace.
Photo by jcoterhals/flickrCC