IV. MARRIAGE FOR LIFE
It is our common conviction that in the conjugal union a man and
a woman commit themselves for their whole lives, and that the couple
is destined through marriage to remain united "as long as life
lasts," as is said in our liturgies. Being a reciprocal gift
that makes the spouses "one flesh," it must be total,
without reserve and unconditional. This is required by the dynamism
inherent in any authentic love which by its very nature tends to
be life-long. It is a matter of the deep respect for each other
of those who mutually commit themselves, and of the good of their
children, as well of the common good of the human community. That
is why, in our efforts to be in our Churches constant witnesses
to this conjugal love, we feel we can render a service to humanity
and to the individual couples concerned.
Although we have this common conviction, the fact remains that we
also have divisions, clear divisions just as we have with regard
to the "sacramental" aspect of marriage. In this latter
case our divisions are rather of a theological nature. In the present
matter our divisions concern, in great measure, pastoral work. They
are so important that it is necessary at this point to give a brief
exposition of the motives underlying these differences.
The Catholic Church acknowledges it is powerless over a marriage
that has been validly contracted and truly agreed upon between two
Christians (what is called by the Church a marriage ratum et consummatum).
In fact, in the Church's view such a marriage is the sacrament or
sign of the union of Christ with the Church, and thus it is as indissoluble
as this union.
Confronted by the difficulties that such a marriage can encounter,
one may ask oneself from the Catholic Church's viewpoint - whether
these may not derive from a certain shortcoming inherent in this
marriage, and which in effect renders such a union in existent or
null. If the marriage appears to be truly valid and effected in
the normal manner, one tries by every possible means to save the
union by having recourse to the grace that the relationship of marriage
to the mystery of grace puts at the disposal of the spouses. If
in the end the continuation of conjugal life seems impossible, a
separation is then considered legitimate. But if the spouses decide
to obtain a divorce, then the Catholic Church considers that it
has not the right to view the second marriage which might follow
as a Christian marriage or even as a valid one. That is, it denies
that this second marriage, following upon a divorce, can represent
the union of Christ with the Church, a union which lasts for ever.
The Catholic Church does not, therefore, consider that the passages
in Matthew 5 and 19 imply tolerance of divorce. The purpose of the
Church's severe exclusion from the sacraments of such spouses, is
to manifest her disagreement with their behavior, and to point out
how they are acting against the mystery of Christ by contracting
a second marriage. But this exclusion (from the sacraments) should
not mean withholding the spiritual support which such spouses have
the right to find, in any event, within the Church.
Even though they hold that marriage is a sign of the Covenant, the
Reformation Churches do not consider Christian marriage to be a
sacrament in the full sense of the word. Undoubtedly they see in
the union of Christ with his church the model of Christian marriage.
Therefore they too, in accordance with Ephesians 5, endeavor in
every possible way that marriage should possess the quality of fidelity
which Christ expects of it. But this relationship with Christ does
not mean that the spouses who are mutually committed consider incompatible
with the mystery of Christ the fact that they might possibly, in
the case of a complete failure, seek a divorce.
That is why, when it seems that the marriage cannot continue any
longer, the Reformation Churches consider that the bond of marriage
has been destroyed, a fact which is ascertainable, like death. Nothing
remains of the first marriage, therefore, that could prevent re-marriage.
This does not mean that in this way the Reformation Churches resign
themselves to divorce; but once divorce exists, they would not consider
themselves bound to hold that a new Christian marriage is always
impossible. The second marriage might perhaps achieve what was not
possible in the first one, that is, a greater conformity with the
love of Christ for the Church.
The difference between this and the Catholic position is clear.
In the Catholic Church marriage exists as a Christian marriage only
in so far as it represents-must and can represent-in its fidelity
the love of Christ for the Church. The Reformation Churches, on
the other hand, consider that, since marriage needs to conform to
the unity of Christ with the Church, the unity that the first marriage
has not been able to realize, may possibly be realized in a second
marriage after a divorce. They do not therefore view divorce as
a radical obstacle to a second marriage.
The presuppositions of such an attitude are numerous. Without entering
here into the relation between creation and sin, we shall refer
to the following points: 1) the doctrine of the justification of
the sinner; 2) a view of the Gospel which, over and above all its
requirements, sees the need for a spirit of mercy and forgiveness;
3) an interpretation of the passage in Matthew as indicating a Christian
tolerance of divorce. As regards these last two points, the Reformation
Churches adopt a position that is close to the Orthodox practice
of "oikonomia," since they too in their own manner wish
to give witness to the Gospel by showing mercy toward those who
are divorced. And lastly, 4) there is some support for this doctrine
in certain facts in the history of the Catholic Church. Moreover,
attention is called to the fact that although the Catholic Church
reaffirmed the indissolubility of marriage at the Councils of Florence
and Trent, she has never formally condemned the position of the
The differences between our various Churches, therefore, are considerable.
None of us dreams of denying this, and none imagines that such problems
can be resolved by us in an artificial way. But one thing is certain,
a thing we all share in common: that we all desire, each in his
own way, to be submissive to Christ who indicates for marriage a
fidelity which before his time was too often sacrificed. It is therefore
in his presence that we must together place ourselves.
When confronted with the problem that divorce presents to the conjugal
union, Christ, taking up again the teaching of Genesis, proclaims
formally: "What therefore God has joined together, let no man
put asunder" (Mt 19:6). The weakness and "hardness of
heart" of men had obscured the plan laid down "from the
beginning" by God himself, and the Lord Christ opposes with
all His authority the tolerance introduced by the mosaic law. He
calls spouses to an irrevocable fidelity with such great force that
His disciples take fright, forgetting that what is impossible for
men is possible for God.
In reality, just as God goes to meet His people in a Covenant of
love and fidelity, one that is described by Hosea and other prophets
with symbolism derived from conjugal life, so too Christ, the Savior
of men and the Spouse of the Church, goes toward the love of Christian
spouses, whose model He is through His union with the Church. If
He spoke, therefore, about the indefectible union of man and woman,
this was not just in virtue of the lucidity of a legislator, but
principally because He is in His person the very source of this
requirement of married love. Or better, this requirement flows directly
from His way of being in regard to men. In His saving power, in
effect, He remains ever-present with them so that, as He himself
has loved the Church and given Himself for her, so too the spouses
may be able to love each other faithfully as long as life lasts.
This fidelity to God, which was fully revealed by Christ through
the crucifixion and resurrection, renders possible and supports
the fidelity of the spouses to the love which they have promised
and owe one another. The sexual impulse is assuredly an essential
component of this love; but notwithstanding its great importance,
it does not suffice by itself to ensure the perennial quality of
love. As long as sin exists in the world, conjugal love will remain
vulnerable, just as marriage itself is vulnerable. But since the
promise made by Christ to the spouses is a promise of fidelity,
it is able to make their love durable. This promise which is both
a gift and an expression of God's will, a vocation and an exigence,
can also become a judgement when it is refused.
The mark of the Christian couple, therefore, consists in this promise
which precedes and accompanies them. It is also the fact that this
promise is received with faith, is lived out and verified, as it
were, every single day. By means of it the conjugal union is enabled
to persevere, to grow through joys, as well as perils and sufferings,
and even to last throughout life.
The indissolubility of conjugal love is manifested to us from then
on as a fruit of the fidelity of God which demands and makes possible
a similar fidelity in the spouses. And so, before being a law, indissolubility
is a vital requirement of the love which the spouses have for each
other and which they also owe to their children.
39. It is true that we live in a society that tends to question
the validity of institutions and of marriage in particular. The
aim of a protest of this kind against marriage is to protect couples
from what used to be, or seems to be, a mere formality. This is
why many young couples refuse to give their relationship any official
character, whether civil or religious. Sociology and psychology
have contributed to the fact that today perhaps more than in the
past marriage is seen as a means to success, personal fulfilment
and happiness, a view which tends to make marriage more vulnerable.
Also, life together is envisaged as an experience the duration of
which one cannot, and does not wish to, guarantee. However difficult
it may be to evaluate all the consequences of this calling in question
of marriage - consequences which are not all negative and which
go beyond the boundaries of marriage itself - our common concern
is to see that nothing should damage marriage as a cell of life
and of love.
This concern is for Christians and indeed for all men. The problem
is such a profound one that it goes beyond our doctrinal and practical
differences. Therefore, with one heart and one faith we proclaim
once more our common conviction that God wishes marriage to be a
bond for the whole of life, in both depth and duration; and this
is for the good of humanity. The doctrine and behavior of our Churches
should therefore proclaim this message unceasingly, just as it is
proclaimed in our liturgies in such a strikingly similar way and
with a conviction born of faith.
And yet, however deep this accord, the fact remains that, as we
have pointed out, our views and our practical pastoral approaches
are opposed to each other in regard to the relation of Christian
marriage to divorce. While Christian marriage and divorce remain
incompatible in the Catholic Church, this is not always the case
for the Reformation Churches and for the Orthodox. But each of us
is convinced to be faithful to the Gospel, even if this does not
exclude serious differences between us.
Lutherans and the Reformed Churches ask Catholics whether in their
approach to the indissolubility of Christian marriage they forget
the quality of mercy for the sake of a "mystery" which
to their brothers of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches seems to
have become a "law" that has not much to do with the Gospel.
Catholics ask Lutherans and members of the Reformed Churches whether
the way they reconcile divorce and Christian marriage does not contradict
the mystery of Christ, and also whether the practice of re-marriage
after a divorce does not blur the principle itself of indissolubility.
To these questions there are no ready-made answers which could satisfy
all concerned. On the one hand it is true that an attitude of mercy
should never favor solutions that are destructive of marriage and
of love. On the other hand, there is the Orthodox usage of "oikonomia,"
and the passage of Matthew is a fact which remains a problem. It
is clear, therefore, that we cannot overcome these difficulties
by employing any short-cuts which might, mistakenly, be considered
ecumenical. It is better to face the fact that our pastoral differences
on this matter for the time being remain unreconciled, if not, perhaps
However, since we all wish to be faithful to the mystery of Christ,
our main concern is with this mystery, and not just with our mutual
relations. Consequently, we all need to answer a question which
should exclude the possibility of any complacency: how are we serving,
and do we truly serve, or do we serve as much as we should, the
truth of Christian marriage through our different practical approaches
to this matter, above all at a time when this spiritual service,
both in regard to marriage and to love, is more than ever necessary
And so we are led to Him whom we have never ceased to discover at
the heart and source of Christian marriage: the Christ whose mystery
of life and salvation we want to make shine out among us: something
we are never completely certain that we are doing, but also never
give up hope of doing. It is in any case this desire which should
inspire the attitude we have to adopt toward mixed marriage, without
minimizing or over-stating either our points of agreement or our
points of dissent.