Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Marriage and Truth

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

One of the most heart-rending statistics of our day is that there is a divorce taking place every 10 minutes in Malaysia. Regrettably, it is not much different among Catholics. What could be the cause of this spike in divorces? The answer lies in the manner in which so many view marriage. The permanency of marriage is today viewed merely as an ideal at best, or a silly naïve myth. Marriage is often entered into as a tentative enterprise, an agreement “until further notice.” But the Church upholds and defends marriage in a manner which is radically different. For us Christians, marriage is a unique contract. Unlike other contracts, marriage has no break clause. The permanency of the marriage bond is what sets it apart from any other contracts. As I’m fond of telling couples, it consists of burning the bridges behind you, removing all the reset buttons, throwing away the life boats. You swim or you sink together!

Perhaps, the world finds such an arrangement harsh and untenable. It does so because it seems that everything in this world is marked by a certain tentativeness, that’s why the inclusion of a break clause in most contracts to allow the parties to mutually exit the partnership when things turn sour. But the Catholic Church sees it differently. She takes a Catholic at his word when he makes his vows, freely and knowingly, at his wedding. The Church must likewise call him to lifelong faithfulness to that vow, for the marriage vows bring into existence a permanent union that is joined together by God. It is “God” who joins man and woman together,” and therefore only God who can put them asunder. The reason why the Church objects to divorce and would not allow a “second” marriage, is because the Church does not presume that it has the authority to erase the tape on someone’s marital history and then pretend to take him as his word when he makes his wedding vows a second time. Marriage either is what Christ taught us it is, or it means whatever you want it to mean.

The church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and the ban against remarriage is not an invention of a harsh and demanding Church, a Church removed from reality. No, the Church’s teaching is none other than that of Christ himself. Jesus, in response to the question of the Pharisees about divorce, teaches that “from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. This is why a man must leave father and mother, and the two become one body. They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. So then, what God has united, man must not divide.” Later, upon being questioned further by his disciples, Jesus lays down the law,” The man who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she is guilty of adultery too.” There is nothing tentative about the words of Christ. They are explicitly clear and there is nothing ambiguous about his teaching. So anyone who wishes to take a spin on the teachings of Christ and questions the Church’s fidelity to it, would have to either ignore this passage or come out honestly and admit, “I reject Christ’s teaching!” 

In the debate leading up to the October Synod on Marriage and Family, one of the proponents arguing in favour of the traditional position of the Church, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, Archbishop of Bologna, spoke to an Italian periodical, Il Foglio, and explained the premise of the Church’s position on the indissolubility of marriage. “When I speak of the truth of marriage I do not mean some sort of normative ideal. I mean, rather, the truth that God in his creative act has inscribed upon the person of every man and woman… Here we are not talking simply about a norm that may or may not admit of exceptions, nor of an ideal after which we strive. We are talking about the very essence of marriage and the family …The indissolubility of marriage is a gift that is given by Christ ... Above all it is a gift, not a norm that is imposed. It is not an ideal after which they have to strive. It is a gift from God who never reneges on his gifts... It is God who unites, otherwise the definitively binding nature of the act would rest upon a desire that is yes, natural, but also impossible to achieve. God himself gives the completion of the act.”

Marriage is indeed a sacrament, a sign of the eternal love of the three Persons of the Trinity, a sign of Christ’s self-effacing and sacrificial love for his Bride, the Church. Marriage should remind us of that inseparable bond.

How about those who are already divorced and “remarried”? Is there no place for them within the Church? Pope Francis recently gave a general audience in which he discussed the situation of those who have divorced and remarried without an annulment. He stressed that “these people are not at all excommunicated, they are not excommunicated!” The mainstream media had another field day suggesting that our Latin American Pontiff had once again departed from the norms of the Church, a decision to be lauded. What the media and many failed to recognise was that the Pope was merely restating the position of the Church. Excommunication is a canonical penalty and it is true that divorcing and remarrying without an annulment does not incur excommunication. The Pope is absolutely correct. But then, the media forgot to mention the teaching of Christ. Such a situation, though not warranting excommunication, is a serious sin, the sin of adultery according to the words of Christ himself, which separates them from communion with God and the Church. Pope Francis himself acknowledges that such a situation “contradicts the Christian Sacrament.”

Pope Francis then echoed the message of his predecessors in calling upon the members of the Church to provide maternal and pastoral care to people who are in these situations. As Pope St John Paul II once wrote, “Indeed the problem of divorced and remarried persons is one of the great sufferings of today’s Church. And we do not have simple solutions. Their suffering is great and yet we can only help parishes and individuals to assist these people to bear the pain of divorce.” He went on to say: “As regards these people … the Church loves them, but it is important they should see and feel this love. I see here a great task for a parish, a Catholic community, to do whatever is possible to help them to feel loved and accepted, to feel that they are not “excluded” even though they cannot receive absolution or the Eucharist; they should see that, in this state too, they are fully a part of the Church.”

And that would be our challenge. That we should never lower the bar when it comes to defending the indissolubility and unity of the marital union, for if we failed to do so, we would not only be turning our backs on the teachings of Christ but falsifying the truth about God, a God who never reneges on his promises. At the same time the Church must never close its doors on those who have suffered separation and divorce. The Church remains a mother to both – those who struggle with much courage, patience and perseverance to remain faithful to their marital bond, and those whose lives have been torn asunder by dereliction of their vows and now attempt to pick up the pieces. She remains a loving Mother as she continues to guide, to lead, to comfort, to heal and even to admonish when necessary, in order that all her children may find peace, a peace that can only be found when the truth of one’s lives conforms to the truth of one’s communion with God.

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