Second in a Series on Catholic Marriage and Parenthood
Fr. Thomas J. Gerrard
It is part of God's providence that, when He sets before us an end to be attained, He provides us also with the means of attaining that end. So in the case of marriage, having ordained it for the high purpose of preparing souls for heaven, God has endowed it with qualities which make it an apt instrument for the purpose for which it was instituted. These qualities are revealed in the truth of Christ and the Church. Christ's Church was to be one only, and it was to last until the end of time. The bond of Christian marriage must likewise be one only and must last until broken by death. Unity and perpetuity are the qualities which make the marriage state specially fitted for the great object of bringing children into the world, of nourishing them in body, mind, and spirit, of bringing them to the final perfection for which man was created. If the bringing of children into the world is attended with great pain and labor, the bringing of their souls to perfection is attended with still greater pain and labor. It requires nothing else than the united life and love of both parents.
Now, such is the nature of man and woman that they cannot love effectually with a divided love. Let either partner give the other the slightest cause for jealousy and there is an end of that perfect love and harmony in the family which is so needful for the well-being of the children. The archtype of perfect love is the mutual love of the three Persons of the blessed Trinity. One of the fairest created reflections of that love is the triple love of family life: the love of husband, wife, and child. It will brook no intrusion from without. It cannot bear the prospect of it coming to an end. This is a fundamental and universal law of nature, a law of nature which is accentuated, ennobled, and made perfect by a law of grace. The Sacrament of Matrimony implies a special divine sanction to the laws of unity and perpetuity in the marriage bond.
The need of the higher sanction and help is seen from the passing nature of the merely natural charms. The mere physical pleasures pass away with their satisfaction. Youthful ardor burns out before the mature part of life is reached. In the course of a life so intimate as that of husband and wife, many faults of character become exposed. Marriage certainly brings a revelation of many new beauties of character, but it also brings a revelation of many faults of character. It is fraught with disappointments even as with agreeable surprises. The fading of bodily beauty also tends to weaken the natural bond. When the hair turns gray, and the eye loses its luster, and the features fall into wrinkles; when the general buoyancy and ardor of youth tones down into the prose of middle age; then, indeed, is there need of something more sustaining, something more lasting than the mere tie of natural affection or natural contract. It is found in the unity and perpetuity of the Sacrament. The Sacrament imparts all the courage, the energy, the refreshment, and the love needful to make the bond strong and lasting. It renews the youth of married life and makes it satisfying even in spite of years.
The Church claims to have the care of this Sacrament. The Church, therefore, has ever insisted on its unity and perpetuity. The Church regards the sin of adultery as something infinitely more heinous than any sin possible among the unmarried. The father who has to provide for his children must be certain that they are his own. He cares for them only on the supposition that they are his offspring. Any infidelity, therefore, on the part of the woman must of necessity tend to break up these sacred family relationships. A father cannot love and care for children who may be those of the man who has done him the greatest possible injury. And if a woman gives unswerving fidelity to her husband she has a right to claim an equal fidelity in return. Infidelity on the part of the man, although it does not act directly in rendering the offspring of the family uncertain, yet it strikes at the root of conjugal love, and thus almost directly at the foundations of family life. A violation of the sanctity of marriage, then, by either party is a double violation of God's law, a violation of chastity, and a violation of justice. Hence, we have the most stringent laws against adultery, against polygamy, and against divorce.
Among the Jews the penalty of adultery was death by stoning. In the most savage races of the earth, its punishment is immediate death. The law of Christ makes the law of nature and the law of Moses more perfect. This it does by all the conditions and rules which it lays down for the prevention of polygamy and divorce. By polygamy we usually understand the possession of two wives at the same time. The possession of two husbands at the same time is known as polyandry. Both are equally condemned by the Christian law.
The cases of polygamy among the Jews are frequently quoted by those who want an excuse for disregarding the laws of Christian marriage. Attention must be paid to the circumstances of time and race. If polygamy was permitted, then it was for a special reason. And the permission was mere toleration. The circumstances of the times required that it should be permitted in order to avoid greater evils. Nevertheless, God did not cease to give signs to His people as to what was the great ideal. The most wondrous love song ever sung by man was that inspired by the Holy Spirit, the song of songs, which tells of the love between one bridegroom and one bride, the love which lasts till death.
One is my dove, my perfect one is but one. [...] I to my beloved and my beloved to me, who feedest among the anemones. [...] Put me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thy arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy as hard as hell, the lamps thereof are fire and flames. [...] My beloved to me and I to him who feedeth among the lilies, till the day break and the shadows flee away.
So the young Tobias could say to his wife Sara: "For we are the children of saints, and we must not be joined together like heathens that know not God." In praying to God for a blessing on his marriage he referred back to its original conditions: "Thou madest Adam of the slime of the earth, and gavest him Eve for a helper. And now, Lord, thou knowest that not for fleshly lust do I take my sister to wife, but only for the love of posterity, in which Thy name may be blessed forever and ever." And Sara prayed with him: "Have mercy on us, and let us grow old both together in health."
Further, the Church, although she insists that the marriage bond lasts only till death, although she allows remarriage after the death of one of the partners, yet she looks upon such remarriage as something less perfect. Her ideal is that a marriage should be so distinctly one and perpetual as to exclude any other marriage even after the first has been dissolved by death. A marriage is not merely a union of two in one flesh, but also of two in one spirit. The more perfect thing, therefore, would be to consider the bond of love lasting right through death. The reason why the Church allows remarriage after the death of one of the partners is because there are other ends of matrimony besides mutual love. To give expression to her wish, however, and to mark the distinction between the more perfect state and the less perfect state, the Church does not give the nuptial blessing in cases where the bride is a widow if she has received it in a previous marriage. She gives It where the bride is being married for the first time, even though the bridegroom be a widower. Having regard to the dignity of the bride, the Church in this case overlooks the defect in the bridegroom. Her end is achieved by withholding the blessing only in the case of the marriage of widows, as stated above.
This brings us to the all-important question of divorce. If both the natural and divine laws maintain the unity and perpetuity of the marriage bond, then no power on earth, not even the Church, has power to grant a divorce. "What, therefore, God hath joined together let no man put asunder." Here, on the threshold of the question, it is necessary to make a clear distinction of terms.
When it is said that no power on earth can grant a divorce, divorce must be understood in a particular and strict sense of the word. Let us distinguish then between three kinds of separation. First, there is a separation which implies that the husband and wife are allowed to live apart. It is called, in juridical language, a judicial separation. It is called, in theological language, separatio a mensa et thoro, or "separation from bed and board". Its meaning is that, although the parties are separated from each other, yet they are not free to marry again. If they were allowed to marry again the separation would be said to be a vinculo, or "separation from the bond". The actual contract or tie would be broken. Now, the first kind of separation is allowed by the Church whenever there is a grave reason, such, for instance, as the misconduct of one of the parties. But the second kind the Church allows never. The bond which has been made by God may not be broken by man. One of the parties may forfeit certain rights of marriage through infidelity to the partner, but can never thereby acquire the freedom to marry again.
And further, the Church makes no distinction in this respect between the innocent party and the guilty. A bond is a bond, the contract is a two-sided one, and, therefore, as long as the bond or contract remains, it must bind both the parties. However unfair it may seem to the innocent party, yet it is God's law and God will see to it that those who observe His law, will, in the final balancing, receive their just reward.
Then there is another kind of separation which is frequently believed to be a divorce and which is a source of much perplexity to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It is called a declaration of nullity. It means that that which has appeared to be a marriage is declared never to have been a marriage from the beginning. The parties have gone through the ceremony, but there has been some obstruction in the way which has prevented the knot from being tied and so the supposed marriage must be declared null and void.
Let us take an instance. A Jew married to a baptized Christian wife seeks for a divorce in the law courts. He is successful in his suit. Then, he becomes a Catholic, falls in love with a Catholic girl, and wishes to be married to her in the Catholic Church. There is no difficulty, the Church approves of the marriage. What has happened? The undiscerning public think that the Church has approved of divorce and of the remarriage of a divorced person. And if the man happens to have been a wealthy Jew, the undiscerning public is not slow to attribute unworthy motives to the Church. But again, what has really happened? The Jew's first marriage was really no marriage at all in the sight of the Church. Baptism is the first Sacrament and the door of the other Sacrament. The Jew had not received the Sacrament of Baptism and so was incapable of receiving the Sacrament of Marriage. And, being unbaptized, he was furthermore incapable of making the contract of marriage, for the Sacrament is the contract. Therefore, the marriage which, by the law of the land, was declared to be dissolved was, by the law of the Church, declared never to have existed, to have been null and void from the beginning. Consequently, when the Jew became a Catholic and received the Sacrament of Baptism, he was quite free and capable of uniting himself with the partner of his choice.
There are three exceptions to the law of indissolubility. The first two concern marriages ratified but not consummated. Such may be dissolved either by papal dispensation for some grave reason, or by the solemn, religious profession of one of the parties. The third is known as the Pauline privilege. It may happen only in a marriage between unbelievers, and this even when consummated. If one of the parties is converted to the Christian faith, and the other refuses to live peaceably, or shows contempt for God and religion, or tries to pervert the faithful partner, then the faithful one has a right to a real divorce (1 Cor. 7:15).
Within these limitations, the Church is absolutely inexorable against any attempt at separation from the bond. She has suffered the loss of whole nations from the faith rather than sacrifice one jot or tittle of her principle. The care of the Sacrament has been committed to her keeping, and to have condoned a denial of the sacramental nature of the matrimonial bond, even in one case, would have been to renounce the divine charge given to her. For the English-speaking world, the Pope's firmness in refusing to grant a divorce to Henry VIII must ever be a monument of the fidelity of the Church to the sanctity of the marriage state. And the famous Encyclical of the late Sovereign Pontiff, Leo XIII, must ever remain the character of woman's dignity and safety as to her marriage right. He wrote:
The great evils, of which divorce is the spring, can hardly be enumerated. When the conjugal bond loses its immutability, we may expect to see benevolence and affection destroyed between husband and wife; an encouragement given to infidelity; the protection and education of children rendered more difficult; the germs of discord sown between families; woman's dignity disowned; the danger for her of seeing herself forsaken, after having served as the instrument of man's passions. And as nothing ruins families and destroys the most powerful kingdoms like the corruption of manners, it is easy to see that divorce, which is only begotten of the depraved manners of a people, is the worst enemy of families and of States, and that it opens the door, as experience attests, to the most vicious habits, both in private and in public life.
Views subversive of the Catholic ideal are now very prevalent, and are becoming day by day more prevalent. In the matter of the sanctity of marriage, as in many other things, it is the Catholics who are the salt of the earth. Whilst other religious bodies are prepared to give way under any specious pretext which may arise, the See of Peter proclaims the principle of no compromise. And when the churches which ought to guard the sanctity of marriage show themselves weak and accommodating to the lower pleasures of man, we must not be surprised if non-religious bodies speak openly in favor of divorce and, all unashamed, make profession of free love. This, indeed, has come to pass.
High time is it, then, for Catholics to make their voice heard in protest. Nay, absolutely imperative is it that Catholics should rally themselves anew with even greater loyalty around the Holy Father who watches the marriage Sacrament so anxiously and sees its dangers so clearly. Legislation is made which may be irksome; but the irksomeness thereby suffered is trifling compared with the irksomeness thereby avoided. Let us admit boldly that the marriage state is fraught with difficulties, that love is liable to grow cold, that childbearing is a burden, that the education of many children is a tax on the family's resources, that a drunken husband is an almost intolerable nuisance, that a gossiping wife is a plague of a life; let us admit all this, but at the same time insist that the Sacrament of Marriage has power either to prevent or mitigate the evils. It restrains the passions. But let the idea of divorce once get established, and there is an end of restraint. The passions are let loose and fall victim to every little counter-attraction to family life. The half-hearted partner who realizes that there is an easy escape from the burden of married life makes no serious attempt to bear it. Then comes the sad spectacle of a mother left alone with a house full of children and no father to provide for them; or what is perhaps even more sad, a father with a house full of children and no mother to take care of them. The Church's laws may be hard to bear at times. They are, however, as the yoke of Christ, sweet and easy to bear, if only we spread them out over the short run of life.