ROME — Marriage in the Catholic Church is sacramental — and forever.
That teaching has not changed with the times, but modern culture imposes a radically different definition of relationships.
Pope Benedict XVI has taken the opportunity to clarify the true meaning of marriage on a couple of occasions lately — in a new reflection on the Eucharist and in a talk to the Roman Rota, the Church’s central appellate court.
When the Rota gathered for an annual meeting at the Vatican in January, the Pope urged members to recover the “truth of marriage,” which loses all significance in a culture of relativism that considers “marriage as a mere social formalization of the ties of affection.”
As a natural result of that attitude, Benedict said, marriage becomes “contingent,” just like feelings, and “a superimposed legal structure that human will can manipulate at will, even denying its heterosexual character.”
Since Vatican II, the Pope cautioned, a false notion has spread that indissoluble marriage is an ideal that “not all ‘normal Christians’ can be ‘obliged’ to follow.” He pointed to the Book of Genesis as the foundation for the truth of marriage as a “potent bond established by the Creator” and not merely a “commitment of the two parties involved.” The nature of marriage, Benedict explained, stands against “the subjective and libertarian realization of sexual experience,” and involves life-giving love between husband and wife.
Judges of the Roman Rota determine when a marriage may be nullified, and the Pope talked to them about the danger of a false interpretation of canon law. Pope Benedict cautioned officials against allowing themselves to be seduced by interpretations that break with Church tradition.
He continued that thought in the recently released apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (The Sacrament of Charity), warning that “lest confusion arise among the faithful concerning the value of marriage,” pastoral care must be taken when people try to dissolve it.
The Holy Father noted “the painful situations experienced by some of the faithful who, having celebrated the sacrament of matrimony, then divorced and remarried. This represents a complex and troubling pastoral problem, a real scourge for contemporary society, and one which increasingly affects the Catholic community, as well.”
Patrick DiVietri, director of the Family Life Institute in Manassas, Va., has a lot of experience with that problem and with preventing it by educating couples on faith and morals, as taught by the Church.
“Marriage is a covenant vs. a contract,” he said. “A contract is conditional, but a covenant is absolutely unconditional and irrevocable. Things are exchanged in a contract, whereas human beings are exchanged in a covenant. A contract exists in time, but a covenant is living.”
This, he claims, is easy to teach couples with 10 minutes and a graph chart.
“The intrinsic nature of the marital bond is there at the time of marriage, and does not depend on how people feel or what they do later,” said DiVietri, also an adjunct professor at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.
That’s the part Catholics in the modern culture find difficult to accept when they “fall out of love and think they can walk away,” said DiVietri. “Once a marriage is formed, there is no divorce in the Catholic Church.”
Many studies show Catholics divorce in numbers roughly equal to the culture at large. But statistics usually don’t take into account the differences between Catholics who attend Mass weekly and those who merely answer “Catholic” when asked what religion they are, whether they have gone to church recently or not.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, in order for a marriage to be valid it must have the free consent of the two spouses.
“The consent must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free of coercion or grave external fear,” says the Catechism (No. 1628-9). “No human power can substitute for this consent. If this freedom is lacking the marriage is invalid. For this reason (or for other reasons that render the marriage null and void) the Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage, i.e., that the marriage never existed. In this case the contracting parties are free to marry, provided the natural obligations of a previous union are discharged.”
The divorced and remarried continue to belong to the Church, which accompanies them with special concern and encourages them to live as fully as possible the Christian life through listening to the word of God, regular participation at Mass (albeit without receiving Communion), Eucharistic adoration, prayer, participation in the life of the community, honest dialogue with a priest or spiritual director, dedication to the life of charity, works of penance and commitment to the education of their children.
Marriage at Cana
Virtually all dioceses offer some kind of marriage preparation, but some cover practical advice like effective communication, financial management and life skills, without much theological groundwork. The Archdiocese of Denver offers a model three-step program that covers all that ground, beginning with a workshop on theology, progressing through a course on life skills and culminating in a thorough Natural Family Planning series.
The program DiVietri established in the Diocese of Peoria gives couples their foundation in a day-long pre-Cana workshop, followed by another day of teaching on Christian sexuality that, like Denver, covers Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body catechesis. One survey revealed that the majority of those couples were attracted to NFP, but had never learned of it before.
“Marriage preparation is not hoops to jump through, but learning the nature of marriage as fully an adult commitment,” said Msgr. Richard Soseman, a canon lawyer, Peoria diocesan tribunal judge, and pastor of St. Mary’s of the Woods in Princeville, Ill. “Part of the difficulty we have in the culture is the separation of ‘life giving’ and ‘love making.’ And the acceptance of birth control is part of that problem.”
That leads to many couples living together before marriage, but Msgr. Soseman noted that 85% of those couples end up divorced and feeling worse than they thought they would afterward.
Especially if they haven’t received an annulment, claimed Susie Frank, a fervent marriage advocate and Catholic blogger at wedding-at-cana.blogspot.com.
“Most people are in extreme pain; they have no forgiveness, and it’s moving through generations,” said Susie Frank, who with her husband, Jeff, helps couples in crisis. They bring troubled people together with healthy, faithful couples for food, wine, music, mingling and stealth evangelization. She knows the issues well.
“When you’re sitting in divorce court, it’s like being in the midst of cancer,” Susie Frank said. Her first marriage ended in a divorce and “a totally disordered” faith. “We had a pre-Cana, but not the ‘wedding at Cana,’ and without proper formation, there were many problems.”
She and Jeff were married in a civil ceremony on a beach. But she loved the Church and wanted to be in it.
“With the help of a priest in the confessional, I learned the importance of annulment, the seriousness of the marriage union and its sacramental nature, and the grace it gives,” she said.
After receiving an annulment of her first marriage, the Franks wanted a Church ceremony, immediately.
“The key is this,” Susie Frank said, her voice serious and certain, “annulments are God’s mercy; they move your life into the state of grace. There’s chaos out there. Annulments are the way to make marriages right.
“People who refuse to seek annulment need to work through their imprisonment and get the grace for themselves and their children. Some mistakenly think it makes children illegitimate. Nonsense,” she added. “Annulment opens children to graces they are cut off from without it. Annulment heals and releases, and God gives the grace for that. This is so critical.”
So is the understanding of what it is.
The Diocese of Trenton, N.J., posts “frequently asked questions” on its website, dioceseoftrenton.org, explaining the tribunal process.
“Unlike a divorce, which states that a marriage that once existed no longer does, an annulment is a declaration by the Catholic Church that the prior union never had the binding force that characterizes marriage. An annulment does not deny the reality of the wedding or the experience of the spouses during married life, but rather says that because something was seriously defective when the bride and groom spoke their wedding vows, the marriage lacked the binding force that Jesus taught.”
On children of an annulled marriage, it explains: “Children become and remain legitimate when or because a wedding ceremony has taken place. They can never lose that legitimacy even after an annulment or dissolution.”
The United States bishops offer information and resources as well at nccbuscc.org/laity/marriage/marriagefaqs.shtml.
Some of these issues, unclarified, have caused deep rifts and divided Catholics unnecessarily.
Phil Webb, Denver’s director of Marriage and Family Life, hears from those people frequently. He described a woman who married a divorced Lutheran outside the Church in 1984.
Said Webb, “She wants to be at peace with God, but she’s confused and doesn’t know where to turn to get right with the Church again. That’s a typical e-mail.”
“What the world offers is not enough,” said DiVietri. “We’re going through a moral reconstruction. It’s natural that people want to have their union justified and blessed by God, and acknowledged as good in the Church.”
“Society, on a theoretical level, wants marriage to be forever,” Msgr. Soseman elaborated. “It’s like the love song says, ‘I’ll love you till the stars fall from the sky.’ The Church’s vision of marriage is very romantic. People get into the trap of addressing the minimum standards. But when you look at what the Church holds as a valid, sacramental marriage, you see how earth-shatteringly wonderful that is.”
Pope Benedict sees it as the foundation of order in the world.
“The good that the Church and society as a whole expect from marriage and from the family founded upon marriage is so great as to call for full pastoral commitment to this particular area,” he wrote in Sacramentum Caritatis. “Marriage and the family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is injurious to them is injurious to society itself.”
is based in Chicago.