Back to the Beginning
by Rev. Jerome A. Magat
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.
The Pharisees approached Jesus and asked, "Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?" They were testing him. He said to them in reply, "What did Moses command you?" They replied, "Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her." But Jesus told them, "Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate." In the house the disciples again questioned Jesus about this. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery."
And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them, "Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it." Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them.
In this week’s Gospel, the Pharisees test Jesus on the question of divorce. The Pharisees cite the fact that in the time of Moses, divorce was permitted. They want to know if Jesus will propose to reject this earlier teaching. In response, our blessed Lord explains the rationale behind the concession that Moses made regarding divorce and elevates our understanding of marriage by returning us to an original interpretation of marriage as described in the Book of Genesis.
By returning to an understanding of marriage through the lens of Genesis, Jesus asserts that by its very nature, marriage is indissoluble. He says that what God has joined, man must not separate. Thus, Our Lord implies that not only is divorce not desirable (it was only permitted by Moses due to the hardness of the hearts of the Jews) – divorce is not possible.
Not possible? How are we to understand that divorce is not possible when the majority of marriages end in divorce? While we much concede that divorce is a legal reality in the temporal sphere, it is not possible in the spiritual realm. This is the reason why the church does not recognize a civil divorce as the termination of a sacramental or natural bond rendered in marriage. This is what distinguishes the annulment process from a divorce proceeding. While a civil divorce states that a civil contract called marriage once existed and now no longer exists, a decree of nullity states that a sacramental or natural bond between the couple never existed at all. The couple may have had children (who are all considered legitimate, since annulments pertain to spiritual and not civil matters) and a common life together, but on the day of the wedding, a true marriage was never conferred. In other words the couple never truly was married.
The pastoral care of the divorce and remarried is an area of great concern to many Catholics. With a high divorce rate that is not different for Catholic couples who disregard church teaching on artificial birth control, the number of civilly divorced Catholics who have remarried invalidly outside the church is alarming. While a civil divorce per se does not disqualify a Catholic from the sacraments, a remarriage outside the church, without first having attained an annulment, does disqualify a Catholic from reception of Holy Communion and the sacrament of penance. A divorce and subsequent marriage outside the church is tantamount to adultery, since the sacramental or natural bond remains from the first marriage. To the surprise of many, a Catholic who is divorced and remarried outside the church cannot even celebrate the sacrament of penance. The Catholic may have sins to confess and sorrow for those sins, but they cannot make a firm purpose of amendment not to sin again if they do not intend to live as “brother and sister” with their current spouse until the first marriage is declared null (assuming it can be) and the current marriage is validated in the church. In any case, such Catholics are encouraged to attend mass, refrain from reception of the sacraments, and seek an annulment and validation of their current civil bond. Such persons are not excommunicated, as many are led to believe. They remain part of the mystical body of Christ but must also work to regularize their marriage situation.
The church takes the indissolubility of marriage seriously because Christ does. By returning to the Book of Genesis as His starting point for understanding the sacrament of marriage, Our Lord reminds us that man must not separate what God has joined. God created marriage to be indissoluble – as indissoluble as Christ’s love His bride, the church.
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