Commentary on Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16
WE TOUCH TODAY on a very topical, very sensitive and very painful reality of life in our time – the question of divorce. However, today’s Gospel indicates that it was a controversial question in Jesus’ time and in his society also.
In reply to the Pharisees’ question about the permissibility of divorce Jesus quotes from the book of Genesis in a passage used in our First Reading today. It expresses in beautiful language the ideal of the perfect marriage: "The man exclaimed [speaking about the companion God had given him]: ‘This is bone from my bones, and flesh from my flesh’… This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife and they become one body."
We are hardly shocked nowadays when we hear that a couple we know have decided to divorce. There are some places where as many as half of the marriages end in the divorce courts. And the percentage among Catholics is often on a par with the rest of the population. Even where the figures are not high, they are growing nearly everywhere and are a matter of serious concern.
More than one kind of divorce?
The problem may even be more widespread than official figures indicate. We might say that there are two kinds of divorce. First, there is the obvious case when a couple decided legally to separate and terminate their marriage permanently. However, there is another kind of ‘virtual’ divorce which may be almost as bad and, in some cases, even worse. This is where the husband and wife nominally remain a couple but where, in fact, their lives have become completely separate. One or both partners may even have established new liaisons of their own. This second kind of ‘divorce’ may be more common than we realise.
Some time ago a woman wrote to me in these terms: "Yesterday was our 40th wedding anniversary. No big deal really despite attending two Marriage Encounter sessions, a Cana weekend, and reading umpteen books on how to have a better marriage. Love, whatever that is, flew out of the window a long time ago. I’m committed to this marriage physically but my thoughts and fantasies in a ‘different world’ make me wonder is this what life is all about? A half life? We try to do all the right things. [My husband] seems quite content with his life, but I don’t really know. I might appear to be content with my life, but how can this be when I find myself thinking… ‘Oh well, when I’m a widow, I shall be able to do this, that and the other.’ Before, it was ‘when I retire, I shall…’ but this has not worked out at all… How do I know if I will outlive [my husband]???" One wonders how many are living in half-marriages like this: neither in nor out.
Can Catholics divorce?
Is divorce possible for Catholics? Our first reaction would be to say, "Of course, not." Yet, strictly speaking, there is nothing to prevent Catholics deciding not to live together any more. They can even go to a civil divorce court and have their civil marriage and all the legal responsibilities connected with it set aside. What is ruled out for baptised Catholics is remarriage with someone else. The Church would also exclude remarriage for non-Christians who are, in its eyes, validly married. There are, however, limited exceptions to this which we cannot go into here.
No matter how high our ideals may be, we have to face the fact – and it is a fact – that marriage relationships can and do break down. They can break down completely and irrevocably. It is not something that happens overnight but, if the warning signs are ignored, a couple can reach a point of no return. A relationship becomes stone dead. If the symptoms had been dealt with in good time, perhaps it need not have been like this. Perhaps, with hindsight, they should never have got married at all. But right now the couple is faced with an apparently an unresolvable incompatibility.
If this happens in a marriage between Catholics, what are they to do? If it is clear that they can no longer live together, the Church very clearly provides for separation, even permanent separation from bed and board. This is not divorce nor is it annulment; the marriage bond still exists. (In annulment the marriage is regarded as never having validly existed.)
Where a legitimate separation takes place and where, after a reasonable period of time, it is clear that the separation is permanent, there would seem to be no problem for the couple to go through a civil divorce. This in no way affects the obligations arising from their Christian marriage but it does withdraw the state’s recognition of the marriage and the civil obligations that arise from it.
In this way, the separated couple may come to a legal and satisfactory arrangement over material goods they were holding in common. The court may also help to decide equitably the status of the children and the rights of access of each parent to them. Yet, as Catholics they need to remember that their Church marriage still holds and any further marriage is, according to Church law, ruled out.
Remarriage of separated couples
Nevertheless, it is not unknown that, after a separation and civil divorce, one of the couple does remarry – though not, obviously, in church. It is also not unknown that the first (church) marriage may have ended in disaster quite early on. Once the first flush of romance had faded it was seen that the marriage was a terrible mistake. But the second marriage, what the Church prefers to call an "attempted" marriage, may prove to be stable, deeply happy and last for decades until the death of one partner.
In this case, what is to be done? May this remarried couple, who are both fervent Catholics, whose children are being formed in the Christian faith, be reconciled with the Church? Must they continue to be severed from the Eucharistic table at which their children partake – and thus be prevented from expressing their union as a family?
Again, according to the letter of the law, this is possible provided the parents no longer have sexual relations with each other and that no scandal is given to other Catholics who know their situation. In practice, it should be said that the Church, in its pastoral concern, may apply more sympathetic solutions on a case by case basis. In reality, can we say that a remarried couple who are now members of a deeply Christian family community and sharing their marriage bed should still be regarded as "living in sin"? Are we to be guided by the existential relationship (i.e. non-relationship) that now exists between two separated partners or are we to have our lives determined by a legal prescription?
However, for the Church in its official teaching we are not dealing just with a law but with the very nature of things which cannot be changed. The question remains, though, whether we understand the nature of things differently now and under what circumstances divorce was seen in the past. Even the whole institution of marriage has undergone radical changes in more recent times. This is likely to affect the question of divorce also.
Whatever the case, it is important for the Church to be always mindful of the healing compassion of Jesus who came to save and not to condemn. It remembers the words of Jesus that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.
A painful experience
In spite of its being so widespread, there is no doubt that a divorce is a most painful experience for a married couple. Although we are told that people nowadays find commitment more difficult, it is not likely that most married couples enter marriage on a trial basis, to "see if it works". On their wedding day they presume this is for keeps. (In preparing people for marriage, I have never met a couple who had any doubt that it was for keeps.)
Facing the threat of divorce is an experience no one would want to go through. It is an admission of failure. Two people who once seemed so sure about each other have now to admit that they can no longer live at the level of union expected of a marriage relationship.
Even the hardy Miss Joan Collins, whose real life seemed hardly less stormy than her role in the "Dynasty" soap opera, has said that the pain of divorce is too great for her to contemplate another marriage.
And then there are the children. They, of course, are the real victims. How long into their future lives will the experience of seeing their parents marriage falling apart affect their own interpersonal experiences later on? The tragedy is made even greater when divorce is seen as being the lesser pain than continuing to live in a home riven by constant conflict.
What to do?
What is the answer to divorce? As in most sicknesses, physical or social, the best cure is surely prevention. Yet how can divorce be prevented? One important way must surely be a much better preparation for marriage. In most cases, so much time, effort and money is poured into preparing for the wedding day which lasts a matter of hours. Next to nothing may be done to prepare for the decades of living in intimate relationship together.
Somehow there is a naive belief that with the wedding over, the couple can be left to their own devices and that nature will take care of the rest. What could be more natural than sexual union and procreation? Millions of broken marriages and divorces should long ago have told us that things are not so simple.
Today’s Gospel says that the couple are no longer two persons but "one body". To develop that kind of two-becomes-one relationship requires a lot of work. It requires a good deal of guidance and help to make it happen. In fact, marriages don’t happen; they are made. Eric Fromm spoke about the art of loving. It is an art, a skill to be learned.
The Church, in its wisdom, in many parts of the world insists that couples intending to get married must follow a comprehensive pre-marriage course led by experienced married people. What the Church – and society – does not do sufficiently is to follow up the couple after they are married. Marriages often run into trouble simply because there is no one around to give support and counsel when a marriage runs into a rough passage. While in our society there are expected roles for parents and relatives of young married couples, they often do not provide the kind of affective and wisdom-sharing approach that is really needed in today’s pressurised living. For Catholics, however, there are in most places Marriage Encounter experiences or Cana Conferences where couples can re-affirm the marriage commitment in highly supportive environment.
But Jesus is right. Divorce is not the answer.