Swimming the Tiber 36: Let No Man Put Asunder

This series has meandered its way through several sub-series. We started with some basic bibliology, Christology, and theology, then moved into the sacraments, Marian doctrines, and scandals. Now’s the part where I talk about moral behaviors and you accuse me of thinking I’m perfect (I don’t, but if I went into detail about all my sins, we’d be here much longer than the 9 months it has almost been since I started the series).

I’ve already talked in some detail about marriage, focusing generally on what it is. This post is more about what it isn’t. I touched on this in the older post, but I’d like to go into a little bit more detail here. Remember, the Catholic position here is based on personalism, or the philosophy that all persons are whole persons who deserve respect as persons (and not as objects for our use).

Marriage Isn’t a Feeling

As I’ve mentioned at least once, to love someone is to want what is best for that person. To be clear, it does not mean to want someone to be “happy,” which is fleeting, but it means you strive to bring that person closer to God. The point and purpose of love, then, is not emotional fulfillment, but spiritual development.

It can, of course, mean other things in addition to that overarching goal. To love a sinner means to show the same mercy that God does. To love the poor means to give generously of yourself, as Christ on the cross. But those tie into that main goal: by showing mercy and generosity, we bring people closer to God.

I admit, there is a great temptation to treat love as a feeling. There are a lot of feelings associated with love. That butterflies-in-your-stomach sensation. That pitter-patter of your heart. The incessant desire to swoon. The adrenaline rush of time spent together, and the ache of time spent apart. But none of those feelings is love–they just tend to coincide. Because if you feel those feelings, and you say, “That’s love,” and then you stop feeling those feelings… have you stopped loving? A sudden lack of sensation would throw an entire relationship into jeopardy.

Can you believe that? People actually stop being friends, or married, or familial because they missed out on a few short-lived emotions that flit by like dust motes in the wind.

Don’t assume I want you to be purely logical ( ? ) about love. Feelings are powerful and can be indicative of important truths. But those are things you need to bring into the open and discuss in the light of day; they should inform your decisions and talks about your relationship, but they shouldn’t make those decisions. Because marriage isn’t a feeling.

Marriage Isn’t a Contract

I just said it, and I’ll say it again: Don’t be purely logical about love and marriage. Marriage is not a relationship of utility. Don’t get married for money or sex or vanity. A marriage isn’t a contractual relationship, where you lay out a set of terms and so does your spouse, and no matter how long you’re contractually joined, any violation of those terms is cause for dissolution of the contract. You can’t set an end date for a marriage.

Instead of marrying for utility, marry for love. Remember, this isn’t the feelings of love, but the action of love. If you’ve already forgotten what that means, scroll up maybe half your screen and read the first paragraph of the last section again.

Go ahead; I’ll wait.

So the purpose of marriage isn’t utility, but to bring your spouse (and you) closer to God. So the secular laws of the nation don’t begin to enter into it. The government cannot dictate what a marriage is or is not. The government has no power over marriage, because it isn’t a contract. It’s not something you need the government’s approval for, and if you’re not validly married, the government can’t say that you are. On top of that, it’s not something you can resolve through a lawsuit. If you have a disagreement with your spouse about your marriage, that’s between the two of you; getting a secular court involved will accomplish nothing real in your marriage–it will just confuse the matter. Because marriage isn’t a contract.

Marriage Isn’t a License

Despite the fact that the government hands out “marriage licenses,” which are legal indicators that you have attained a legal status that has an effect on your legal person (e.g., different taxation considerations), it’s entirely wrong to treat your marriage license like a driver’s license. A driver’s license, for example, allows you to drive your car on any road as long as you don’t break any laws; it gives you a certain amount of control over your car.

But marriage doesn’t give you the same freedom. Many people, even faithful Christians who remain abstinent before marriage, treat marriage as opening the floodgates. “Anything goes in marriage,” some may say. But that’s not true. Marriage doesn’t give you the right to use your spouse any way you want (as long as you don’t break any laws). In marriage, you’re not dealing with cars and roads, you’re dealing with another human person; you must treat that person as a person, meaning that your relationship must follow certain standards that the law cares nothing about.

One of those standards is autonomy: you cannot control your spouse simply because you’re married. Another is safety: you cannot harm (emotionally or physically) your spouse because you’re married. You must at all times respect your spouse as a person. Because marriage isn’t a license.

Marriage Isn’t Dissoluble

Because marriage doesn’t fit these weak facsimiles, it also cannot be managed by the same methods. That means that marriage (i.e., a valid marriage between two persons) cannot be dissolved. There is no reason so good that it can cause a marriage to be dissolved–not a loss of feeling, nor a breach of contract, nor a rule violation, nor crime, nor sin, nor general unpleasantness. What’s done is done and it cannot be undone.

“But wait!” say you, “I’ve heard of Catholics getting a divorce and still being okay in the eyes of the Church!”

Well, that’s not a divorce; that’s an annulment. An annulment is exactly what it sounds like: a declaration of the marriage as null. Not, “This was a marriage, but now it isn’t,” but rather, “This was never a marriage.” That’s why annulments need to be investigated (you need to discover a reason that one or both parties were incapable of a valid marriage at the time of the event) and not just signed like another contract. Annulments can and do happen, even when there are many “marriage-like” things in the relationship, like children and dinner parties and throwing out one party’s sports paraphernalia, but they’re much rarer than divorces, because, “We don’t like each other now,” is not a good reason to claim that you couldn’t get married last week.

If your marriage isn’t annulled, then your marriage is just like you said in your vows: until somebody dies.

This has the unfortunate side effect of putting people in very difficult positions. Sometimes, you’re validly married to an evil, abusive person; in such cases, the Church does allow civil divorces so that the force of law can be used to separate an abuser from his/her victim(s), but as long as the marriage was valid, you’re still married, just separated. Sometimes, you get married and divorced while fallen away from the Church, and one of you gets remarried before you come back to the Church. If the first marriage was valid, then the “remarriage” is invalid, and this puts you in the very hard place of either (1) living chastely with your new roommate (not spouse) or (2) separating from your new roommate to reconcile with your spouse. This is fraught with emotional challenges and hard choices, and there are often children involved and all of that is incredibly difficult to untangle.

This is not meant to be uncharitable, though it may seem so. The Catholic Church does everything in her power to ease the hardship in these cases–but it is not within her power to break the bonds of marriage.

And Pharisees approached him, testing him and saying, “Is it allowed for a person to release his wife for any cause?” And having answered, [he] said, “Did [you] not know that the [one] having created [them] from the beginning made them male and female?” And he said, “On this account a man shall leave behind the father and the mother and will be glued to his wife, and the two will be into one flesh. Thus [they] are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God yoked together [on a particular occasion], let man not separate.” They said to him, “Why therefore did Moses command [us] to give a bill of divorce and to release {her}?” He says to them, “Moses yielded to you, with respect to your hardness of heart, to release your wives, but from the beginning [it] has not been so. But [I] say to you that whoever releases his wife, except over fornication, and marries another commits adultery.”

– Matthew 19:3-9 (my translation)

And so you see that the Church is incapable of divorcing people, by the words of Christ Himself.

“But wait!” say you, “What about divorces because of fornication? It says it’s okay right there.”

Does it? Christ did not say, “What God yoked together, let man not separate, except over fornication.” He said, rather, “Whoever releases his wife, except over fornication, and marries another commits adultery.” In Mark 10, he makes a similar statement (and clearly enforces the rule for wives who wish to divorce their husbands as well), but leaves out this exception; Luke 16:18 likewise omits the exception. The exception here does not overrule the other Gospels and allow divorce, but links this verse with Matthew 5:31-32. You see? He’s not saying that you can get a divorce because of fornication; he’s explaining that any divorces for non-fornication reasons cause adultery (because the divorce was impossible). Divorces for reasons of fornication, whether the wife’s or the husband’s, do not cause adultery anew because it has already occurred (through the fornication).

It’s not that you shouldn’t get a divorce because you don’t want to commit adultery; it is, rather, that you can’t get a divorce, because you’re married. The end of a marriage isn’t just disallowed by the Church–it’s impossible. For any reason. At any time. Except by death.

Because marriage isn’t dissoluble.


So what’s the take-home message here? That if you’re in an unhappy marriage, you’re stuck? Well, if you’re merely unhappy, you should work on that through therapy or counseling or by praying together and going to Mass and becoming holier. If you’re in a dangerous or extremely painful situation, then I agree that it is very, very difficult, but we Christians have never been excused from something on account of difficulty. (Obviously, if you or your family is in a dangerous situation, take every available step to escape that danger and put it away from you, but the hardship of the indissolubility of marriage remains. Remember, marriage isn’t a license, so if your spouse abuses you, you are not obliged to take it–and by no means should you–but their wickedness does not release you from your vow.)

Perhaps the most important thing I can tell you, whether married or unmarried, is that marriage is not a light thing, nor is it to be taken lightly. By marriage you are bound to another person even until death; do not choose someone carelessly, but pray fervently for God’s will in your life. In the same way, whether you choose or have chosen for you, marriage is final; do not seek to destroy it, but seek to build each other up in Christ.

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