How often my students are confused (and many others as well) about why the Roman Catholic Church still holds, in spite of our cultural views about it, that marriage is FOR LIFE. When asked about divorce, I am quick to ask, “What?” I ask what that word was that was just said. “What was that word, D-i-v-o-r-c-e?” I tell them that I don’t know that word at all and that it simply is not part of my vocabulary–nor the Church’s for that matter. There are only two ways of being in relation to marriage. Either you’re in one or you’re not. Either a person has never been married or they are in a marriage (excepting the death of a spouse where they have been married but are not longer because of that spouse’s death). That’s it, regardless of what the state and their paperwork, lawyers, or anyone else has to say about it.
All this is because we still believe in the wondrous beauty of uniting oneself to another before God and community, that simply cannot be undone. When I was growing up I could not stand tomatoes! I like ketchup and marinara sauce, but I have no love for a wedge of tomato! My mom, however, always put them on our salad in spite of my protest and told me that if I didn’t like them I could simply pick them off. The same was true of most things, actually. If I didn’t like the toppings on my pizza, I could pick it off. The peas in my chicken and rice–pick them out. The onions on my burger–pick them off (except McDonald’s that diced them into a thousand un-pick-off-able pieces). Many people in our culture approach Marriage in the same vain. If you don’t like your marriage, “pick it off,” “pick it out,” “go back and reorder something you like.”
The thing is, marriage is NOT like a salad, and instead is more like a cake. Or again, not like a pizza, and instead more like the sauce! If my wife makes a cake and puts a slice in front of me, I can’t tell her that I’m not a big fan of eggs and ask her to take them out! She would rightfully look at me like I was crazy! In the case of a salad, the items are together, but they are not one thing. They are instead a number of things thrown and held loosely together. But with a cake, the individual ingredients have been united, stirred, blended, and baked and are no longer themselves. They have been united and have become something else entirely! You can’t undo it! You can’t pick anything out! You just enjoy it. And so it is with marriage.
In today’s Gospel, Mark 10:2-12, 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. So they are no longer two but 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 against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
The truth of the matter is that we have become hardened in our hearts, like those in Jesus’ day. We have lost a sense of commitment to anything–even our relationships. Jesus and the church offers up the ideal toward which we must all strive. I think a lot of the problem is the use of the term “marriage” by the church and the state. We are using the same word, but we mean two separate things. When someone is married according to the state, two people agree with others as their witness to be with each other until they are not. When it no longer works for them, they get a divorce and the contract ends. For Catholics, however, a man and a woman agree before God and others to be united in a perpetual covenant that symbolizes and celebrates God’s own covenant with His people. The marriage imitates and reveals God’s own love and commitment for us!
Therefore, for a marriage to be a marriage, both parties must be free to give their consent. They must be willing and able, knowing all that their consent requires, to enter into that sacred covenant with God and their spouse. If a person is not free, or lacks sufficient knowledge with regard to the implications of their consent, it may be the case that a marriage simply cannot take place. In that case the Church community, before whom they were bound in unity, may see fit to grant an annulment–that is not a divorce (remember that we don’t know that word), but is instead a statement that a covenant bond, a MARRIAGE, due to impediments to free consent, never took place. If my son, Mark (almost six years old), came home with military contract next week because some overzealous recruiter wanted to get boys in early, he would not be bound to the contract. The recruiter might protest and say, “But he signed the contract!” to which I would reply that he could not possibly know what he signed. Mark, would, of course, not be bound by the contract. It could be said that he was never even in the military in spite of their previous agreement made out of ignorance and irresponsibility. And so it is with marriage.
Finally, “Marriage is forever” is not a threat. It has been the most helpful truth of mine and Jill’s marriage. When we first got married Jill was so worried that she would not be all the wife and mother her mother was to her father and siblings. Jill was always afraid that I would leave her because she didn’t cook well enough, or didn’t look good enough, or that the house wasn’t clean enough. I sat Jill down and said, “Jill, you can burn every meal for the rest of our lives, you can be covered in welts and sores, and we might live in the filthiest pig stye, but I will NEVER leave you. We have be united FOREVER.” That’s not a threat. It’s a promise of fidelity and love and brings the couple peace during the most difficult times. And that promise is the same promise God gives us–most especially through His Son, Jesus Christ, who although we were sinners still loved us to death. Amen?