by CJ Lam on November 30th, 2002
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This is one of several entries my friend CJ from Hong Kong wrote in my guestbook...
Perhaps there is nothing about the Catholic Church which causes more inquiry than her position with regard to marriage and divorce. It is a subject which comes up constantly wherever people discuss social questions. Moreover, in a country like ours, where people of every religion and of no religion live side by side and frequently form intimate friendships, which may result in marriage, it is a matter which concerns us intimately.

Sometimes we hear of a so-called Catholic divorce and wonder how it can be, since the Catholic Church never grants a divorce to her children where there has been a consummated valid marriage. Again we may read of a divorced non-Catholic marrying a Catholic, and we are at a loss to understand how this squares with the Catholic doctrine that divorce with right to re-marry is not allowed among Christians. And so of other things pertaining to marriage and divorce.

Let me preface my treatment of the subject by stating first, that the position of the Catholic Church with regard to marriage is precisely what God has ordained, as we shall see. In the second place, the Church never has, and, moreover, never can, grant a divorce among Christians in case of a consummated valid marriage. Divorce with right to re-marry is altogether different from divorce which grants separation only. When we say that the Church cannot grant a divorce in case of a consummated valid marriage, we mean divorce with right to re-marry.

There are three things to keep in mind in this matter: first, that marriage among Christians is a divine institution, the nature of which has been expressly declared by Christ Himself; secondly, that marriage means a valid and consummated marriage; and thirdly, that divorce means not separation only, but separation with right to marry again. Keeping these points in mind, and also understanding that Christ, after instituting the Sacrament of Matrimony and declaring marriage to be indissoluble, left to His Church the regulation and formalities of the marriage ceremony, we are in a position to have a correct idea on this important matter, and to be able to inform others when occasion requires.

Catholic means universal. The Church of Christ is the only universal Church. That is why it is called Catholic. It is the only Church in the world which has corporate existence in every nation and every part of the world. Catholics everywhere are under one Supreme Head, the representative of Christ on earth, the Sovereign Pontiff, known as the Pope. The Church, being universal, legislates for all mankind. National churches and those of local or temporary character have to consider only a certain class of people. The universal Church has to consider human nature universally.

Legislation regards the welfare of the many. Every law entails hardship on some individual, but makes for the peace and security of the multitude. This must be kept in mind in considering the Church's legislation on matrimony. Take, for instance, the law about automobile speeding in our cities. It protects the great body of the people, but at times causes inconvenience and serious loss to the individual. Every law looks to the general welfare, and puts society as a body above the individual.

Marriage is the most vital factor of social existence. A nation or people will not be better than its marriage status. Christ, who knew human nature best of all, for He was its author, considered marriage so important that He raised it to the dignity of a sacrament. He made it an especially holy thing, realizing that Christian marriage called for virtue in order to fulfill its duties and abide by its consequences. Marriage is easily the most important contract into which a man may enter. If you buy a piece of property or an interest in a business, you are careful to comply with all the legal requirements. But property or business may be disposed of at will. A family cannot be bartered or abandoned. A family is the ordinary outcome of marriage, and the universal Church in legislating for marriage has in view its ordinary, not its exceptional, nature.

We have then, the universal Church legislating for mankind as a whole on the most vital contract that affects the individual and society. All this must be kept in mind in the consideration of this subject. Also we must bear in mind that the Catholic Church is the official mouthpiece of God. God, in dealing with us, has in view not merely our welfare here, but especially hereafter. Moreover, life is not the end of man, but the way to the end. Furthermore, and this needs to be particularly kept in mind, God's commandments, all of them, oblige us to their observance regardless of inconvenience or loss to ourselves.

For instance, the commandment not to steal obliges the poor man as well as the rich. A man by stealing might procure comfort for himself and his family, or be spared great hardship, but he is not allowed to steal. By stealing, he might be able to educate his children, but they must go without education rather than get it as the result of dishonesty. And so on. Therefore to plead hardship as a reason against a law is to do away with all law. All our civil laws cause hardship to individuals at times. No one brought before a judge for theft would think of pleading the hardships of poverty as a defense for violating the law.

They, therefore, who oppose God's laws on marriage on the ground of hardship, or other such reasons, are acting in a way which would not be tolerated by any court of law. I am saying this because there is so much flippant talk nowadays on the most sacred contract that may bind mankind. A proof that the Catholic Church is divine is that it is the only Church which upholds marriage as instituted by Jesus Christ. All the others have made concessions more or less to the pressure of passion or advantage.

For sixteen centuries there was no such thing as divorce among Christians. The first divorce granted was by Martin Luther. And that tiny trickle has resulted in a flood which now threatens society. The Catholic Church could have retained England in her fold had she been willing to grant Henry VIII a divorce. But she could no more do it than she could grant him permission to murder.

Unless the Catholic Church were divine, she could not maintain her position with regard to marriage in face of the demands of a clamoring world. But because she is God's representative on earth, she will always teach what He taught, and do what He commanded her to do. I have said this much in order to make plain and reasonable what I am to state on marriage as a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ and entrusted to His Church for its administration.

A consummated valid marriage among Christians is indissoluble. No power on earth can dissolve such a marriage. No Catholic may marry a divorced person whose partner of a valid Christian marriage is living. This is the legislation of Jesus Christ, not of any man nor of any human institution. The Catholic Church does no more than carry out Christ's commission. One may defy the Church and her laws, but in doing so one is defying Christ. People have said to me that if the Church would open her doors a little wider with regard to marriage, many more would enter. But God does not want any one to enter except in His way, and that was fixed long ago, and the Church could not change it if the whole world would enter. The nature of marriage was stated by Christ Himself. Find fault with Him, but not with His Church for being faithful to Him.

No legislation was ever more explicit than Christ's on marriage. Let us hear Him: "What, therefore, God hath joined together let not man put asunder" (Mark X. 9). Again, "His disciples asked Him concerning the same thing, and He saith to them: Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if the wife shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery" (Mark X. 9-12). That is about as plain as it can be put. Again Christ said: "Everyone that putteth away his wife and marrieth another committeth adultery; and he that marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery" (Luke XVI. 18). It would be impossible to word legislation more unequivocally than that.

From the viewpoint of this clear declaration, every other reference to marriage must be interpreted. It is legal procedure to interpret an obscure or less clear statement by the light of a clear, specific and unequivocal statement. Hence St. Paul, who certainly knew the mind of Christ in the matter, spoke as follows on this subject. It was an important issue in the very infancy of the Church. "But to them that are married, not I, but the Lord commandeth, that the wife depart not from her husband" (1 Cor. VII. 10). "A woman is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth, but if her husband die, she is at liberty" (1 Cor. VIII. 39). "For the woman that hath an husband, whilst her husband liveth is bound to the law. But if her husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. Therefore whilst her husband liveth, she shall be called an adulteress if she be with another man" (Rom. VII. 2-3). That was the way St. Paul the Apostle regarded divorce followed by re-marriage. If the Apostles were wrong in this matter the Church was wrong, and if the Church was wrong, Christ's guarantee was false, and consequently, both He and His religion should be rejected.

However, some contend that the following words of Christ give authorization of divorce and re-marriage on the ground specified: "And I say to you that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery" (Matt. XIX. 9). This statement was in answer to the Pharisees' question: "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" The Gospel says that they asked him this question tempting Him. The Jews had multiplied the reasons for putting away one's wife. The Pharisees asked if it was lawful to do so for all these reasons. The putting away of one's wife had gotten to be a crying abuse. It was against this abuse that Christ spoke, saying that a man should not put away his wife for every cause, but for fornication only. That answered their question. The words "except for fornication" refer to putting away one's wife. They do not give justification for re-marriage. Christ was not speaking of a man putting away his wife to marry another, which He had already expressly forbidden: "Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if the wife shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery" (Mark X. 11-12).

In view of Christ's absolute condemnation of re-marriage after separation, the passage in question can have but one meaning. It was the answer to the Pharisees' question which referred to separation only. St. Paul so understood it and so proclaimed it. The Catholic Church has always so understood it. It was so understood by all Christians for fifteen hundred years, until the so-called Reformers reformed the doctrine of Christ Himself and granted the first divorce with re-marriage. Let it be said once for all that if the Church of Christ was wrong in this matter, the Christian religion collapses, for its basis is the guarantee of Christ that it should never teach error.

This much has been said in order to lay a foundation for what follows regarding marriage and divorce. If the Catholic doctrine on this matter were given without the foregoing explanation, it might seem arbitrary or debatable. After what has been said, we know that the Church's legislation on marriage is Christ's. Details of ceremony and other incidental things pertaining to the marriage rite, Christ left to His Church, divinely guided, but the essential nature of marriage as a sacrament is just what Christ proclaimed. With this clear understanding we now approach some questions which arise concerning marriage.

Just as the State legislates how a contract shall be drawn up to be valid, so the Church specifies what constitutes a valid marriage, for marriage is a contract. If a man sign a civil contract fraudulently, the courts decide, not to break the contract, but that it was not a contract at all, because a contract that is not valid is no contract. If one sign a civil contract as a minor, under threat of violence, or through essential fraud, or against existing laws, the contract is null and void.

So with marriage. The Church declares beforehand what constitutes the valid marriage contract. If a marriage be performed without complying with the specified conditions, the Church does not recognize the marriage. The Church in such cases does not undo a marriage, but states that there was no marriage. Whenever, therefore, you hear of a Catholic marriage being set aside, it means that in that case there was no marriage from the beginning. Whenever you hear of a Catholic marrying a divorced person, it means that the party divorced previously was not a Christian or else not rightly married. Even the Pope himself could not annul, with right to re-marry, a valid and consummated marriage. He could not do it for his dearest friend, not for a member of his own family, nor to save a whole nation. So much for the indissolubility of marriage. The nullity of some Catholic marriages has been declared, but always because they were not validly performed. It can be said definitely and explicitly that there is no such thing as divorce and re-marriage in the Catholic Church. The Church stands on that ground.

In another chapter I shall give some interesting and instructive information on what constitutes a valid and consummated marriage, and on the reasons why presumed marriages are declared null and void, thus permitting re-marriage to the parties. I shall also explain the Pauline privilege, which constitutes the only exception for the re-marriage of non-Christians to Christians. This chapter has laid the foundation on which Christian marriage rests.

It has been made evident, I trust, that Christian marriage is Christ's own institution, that His Church is simply carrying out His mind in the matter, and that as long as the world lasts she will not change her position with regard to it, because she cannot misrepresent Him. None but a divine Church could be so firm in a matter where weak human nature is concerned. Every other Church but Christ's yields to human passion and weakness. She, like Him, is the light of the world. She, like Him, holds up to mankind the right standard of living. She, like Him, will be opposed because of the truths she teaches. Men would have proclaimed Him the Messias had He agreed with them and given them what they wanted. But He came to make known God's will to mankind, knowing that it was by doing God's will, not our own, that we may become partakers of the divine nature.

The mistake which many make nowadays is to maintain that man is supreme and owes no allegiance or submission to any one above. But man is a creature. The Creator who made him is his Sovereign. Man owes his Sovereign respect and submission, which are shown by keeping His commandments. If a man owes submission to civil government, much more does he owe it to the King of kings and to the Lord of all creation. For man, therefore, to make his own marriage code after God has once proclaimed it, is to take the law into his own hands. No government would allow that.

Much less will God allow it. Catholics firmly believe that God speaks by His Church. That is why they respect and reverence and obey her. Her position on marriage is God's. In the final reckoning, it is God's standard, not man's, that matters.