Saturday, November 8, 2008

Starting from a positive hypothesis: marriage is indissoluble

Marriage is a huge controversy right now. It also happens to be a subject of academic exploration for me presently. So, here is another extract from a position paper on marriage as a sacrament I recently wrote. It is offered as beginning from a positive hypothesis, which is the only Christian starting point. There will be a follow up on the other essential property of marriage: unity.

"The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized," this is how the church defines marriage in the first paragraph of Canon 1055. Marriage has two essential properties "unity and indissolubility" (Canon 1056). In Christian marriage these two properties "obtain a special firmness by reason of the sacrament" (1056).

The scriptural view of marriage leaves no doubt about its indissolubility. In scripture, we first encounter marriage in the second chapter of Genesis as part of the second creation narrative found in the first inspired book. In this narrative woman is fashioned by God out of the rib of man as a "suitable partner" (2.20). Hence, the two are flesh of one another’s flesh and bone and of one another’s bone. This is truly what the sacramental bond of matrimony is. The sacramental nature of marriage is taught to us by Jesus himself in his dispute with some Pharisees. Jesus is asked by the Pharisees if it is legal for a man to divorce his wife (Mark 10.2). Jesus answers a question with a question: "What did Moses command you" (10.3)? They responded correctly by saying that Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife simply by writing "a bill of divorce" (10.4). It is crucial to note that there was no question about whether a woman could divorce her husband, under the law of Moses she could not. Nonetheless, Jesus levels the playing field, but he does so in a striking and unexpected way, by looking deeper into the law. He tells the Pharisees that Moses only allowed them to divorce due to "the hardness of [their] hearts," but that it was not so from the beginning (10.5-6). He then quotes Genesis: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), and the two shall become one flesh," he then adds the words that immediately follow the exchange of vows in the Rite of Marriage, "[w]hat God has joined, men must not divide" (2.24; Mark 10.7-8; par. 25). Stated clearly, "Christians are called to be faithful witnesses in a world where commitments are too often unfulfilled" (Preparing for Marriage in the Diocese of Salt Lake City 1).

Rebecca, writing over on Faith's Mystery, has some sobering observations about the passage of Proposition 8: California Prop 8 Backlash. On a not so unrelated note, today is Dorothy Day's birthday. Here is a quote taken from Deacon Greg's lovely post, written by one of her biographers, Jim Forest, on this Christian woman: "Dorothy was sometimes criticized for being too devout a Catholic. How could she be so radical about social matters and so conservative about her Church? While she occasionally deplored statements or actions by members of the hierarchy, she was by no means an opponent of the bishops or someone campaigning for structural changes in the Church. What was needed, she said, wasn't new doctrine but our living the existing doctrine. True, some pastors seemed barely Christian, but one had to aim for their conversion, an event that would not be hastened by berating them but rather by helping them see what their vocation requires. The way to do that was to set an example."

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

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