Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Our Scripture readings this weekend point us to some important truths about the purpose, nature, and goods of marriage. We see in Genesis that marriage is, from the very beginning, a part of God’s plan for humanity. That is, it is a natural institution, positively willed by God. The Lord who creates the human race in His image and likeness, who creates humans male and female, and who creates humans for this profound relationship with one another, reveals in Genesis that the marriage bond unites man and woman as a single body with one another. Our Lord’s words in the Gospel of Mark teach us that marriage is an indissoluble union, so precious that it is to be seen as a sacrament and that “what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”
From these Biblical teachings comes the Church’s approach to holy matrimony. The union of man and woman in marriage exists according to the order of creation – it is a natural state. Jesus shows us that marriage is to be a supernatural state, though. That is, marriage is a sacrament (an outward sign, instituted by Christ, that confers grace, if you remember from your Baltimore Catechism). We are reminded by St. Thomas Aquinas that grace perfects nature. Applied here, this means that the natural union of a man and a woman is perfected by God’s grace in the sacrament of matrimony. If the bill of divorce that Moses permitted was because of the hardness of people’s hearts, Jesus provides the antidote. The one-flesh union of marriage is not simply a contractual bond that can be dissolved by legal agreement. It is rather a joining together of two persons by God’s grace. Before continuing the discussion of the indissolubility of marriage, it would be good to clarify some other aspects of what the Church teaches regarding this holy sacrament.
In the life of the Church, Catholics have certain rights and obligations. For example, we have the right to hear the Word of God and to receive the sacraments; we are obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Just so, a Catholic has the right to the sacrament of marriage and the obligation to marry in the Church. The requirement to marry in the Church, as opposed to at city hall or a rustic barn or a family member’s backyard, exists because sacramental marriage is a liturgical, public act. Sacramental marriage carries with it certain rights and obligations, especially duties of spouses to one another and to their children. As a state in life, it requires certainty – hence witnesses are necessary – and the presence of those witnesses along with the public nature of the consent declared by the man and woman protects their “I do” and helps the spouses remain faithful to this covenant. The presence of the Church’s minister (the priest or deacon) and the witnesses, gives visible expression to the fact that the marriage is not simply a legal or natural reality, but also an ecclesial reality.
It is not uncommon for Catholics to opt for a wedding somewhere other than in the Church. Unfortunately, this happens most often because no one has ever told them that they not only should marry in the Church, but have the right to such a wedding. A man and a woman desiring marriage have the right to the grace of God poured out in abundance on their marriage until the day they are parted by death! While we can forego the exercise of our rights in certain circumstances, I can’t think of any reasons to forego this right, a font of grace that endures throughout life! I have a responsibility as a pastor to make absolutely clear that any Catholic wishing to marry is obliged to do so according to the sacramental form celebrated by the Church – any other form of a marriage celebration is not a valid sacrament, or at least leaves a question as to the presence of the grace-filled sacramental bond. We all share in the responsibility of teaching our children that, if they are called to the married vocation and state in life, they must marry in the Church. This section of my note may strike a chord for some readers, especially if they are living in a civil marriage or otherwise did not seek the Church’s ministry and blessing in marriage. If that is the case, please know that I do not write this to turn you off or make you feel guilty. Rather, my hope is that you might experience a desire for the sacramental grace to which you are entitled! If you married outside the Church’s sacramental form and would like to receive the sacrament of matrimony now, please contact me and I will be happy to discuss convalidation with you (colloquially, this means having a marriage blessed by the Church). This sacrament makes a real difference, and the world stands in desperate need of God’s grace present in marriage and family life!
Following this, we can return to Jesus’ teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Here, the Church, like Moses, must interact with the human condition. The simple fact is that some marriages fail, and there can be no doubt that such an occasion is a source of tremendous pain. While the Church never encourages divorce, she recognizes situations where separation may be necessary for the protection of one’s safety or that of children, or where common life is simply too unhealthy to continue. However, unless proven otherwise, the Church views the sacramental marriage bond as something intact, status as one separated or divorced notwithstanding. When we speak of “annulments” in the Church we are speaking of a process by which the Church accompanies someone who has suffered the breakdown of a marriage to examine whether or not the sacrament of matrimony in fact took place. It is possible for the appearance of a sacrament to be present, but for something to be lacking that means no sacrament has taken place. For example, if a man dressed as a priest but who had never been ordained went through the motions of a Mass, it might look like the Eucharist had been consecrated, but because the man who “said” the Mass was not actually a priest, what is visible is nothing more than bread and wine. Analogously, it is possible for something(s) necessary for a valid sacramental marital union to be missing from the beginning. The Church has a desire to pastorally accompany people through this pain and determine if a sacramental bond is present. Please contact me if you would like to learn more about this process and I will be happy to walk with you to seek a declaration of nullity.
Notice that our Lord’s teaching on divorce is followed immediately by the story of children being brought to him for blessings. “Let the children come to me,” He says. Read this in light of the questions posed to Him by the Pharisees. Whatever circumstances may be present – hardness of heart or broken relationship or something else – Jesus still invites us to come to Him. Just so, the Church, following the example of Jesus, wants to invite people into the sacramental grace that she holds. Perhaps you desire the sacrament of marriage? The Church invites you! Perhaps you are hurting and wondering if your marriage was sacramental, or now desire the grace of holy matrimony but are not free to marry because of a previous marriage? The Church invites you! Yes, the Church holds ideals and standards before us, along with rights and obligations. And when those rights and obligations are missing, ignored, or broken, the Church invites us in our brokenness to come to Jesus to receive healing, strength, and blessing!