Affirmative Orthodoxy and Divorce

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

Reading bad books

In a factory a man was selling many copies of a penny paper consisting entirely of attacks on God and religion. One Catholic boy, Dan, refused it. ‘Afraid to read the other side?’ sneered the seller. ‘I’d rather not swallow poison either into my stomach or my mind’ was the answer.

Jim, another Catholic boy, said: ‘Let’s have a penn’orth!’ Then during the dinner-hour, sitting around with some of his mates, he read bits out of the atheist paper with comments of his own, showing its arguments up and where its facts about the Church were all wrong.

‘Well, what about this?’ said one of the listeners, pointing to a bit about something some Pope had done hundreds of years ago. Jim read it.

‘Well, that’s a new one to me. But I bet you a packet of Woodbines I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.’

So in the evening he took the paper round to a Catholic friend who could always put him wise on such occasions.

Dan’s attitude and Jim’s were both good in their way, but Jim’s is evidently the best for those who can rise to it.

– Rev. F.H. Drinkwater, Catechism Stories Part III: The Commandments (1939)

“Restoring clarity where there had been confusion…”

There are worse ways to mark the passing of Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, than by taking to heart these words from an unpublished interview by John Allen:

I began by explaining the gist of my project, which is to identify the most important forces shaping the future of the Catholic church over the next 100 years. Dulles did not hesitate to offer his candidate: “The internal solidification of Catholicism,” he said, a project that Dulles said began under Pope John Paul II and continues under Pope Benedict XVI.

I pressed Dulles to explain what he meant.

“Restoring clarity where there had been confusion in the period following the Second Vatican Council,” Dulles said. “Rebuilding a strong sense of Catholic identity, including a clear repudiation of the notion that church history can be divided into a ‘before’ and ‘after’ Vatican II. You can see this working itself out today in theology, in liturgy, in religious life ¦ both popes have emphasized the organic connection between the ‘now’ of the church and what came before.”

Read the whole interview. It is, as you would expect, very insightful.