By Fr. Nilo A. Lardizabal, OP
What God has put together, let no man separate.” (Matt. 19: 6)
These are the powerful words of Jesus himself that express the importance of married life and living together between a man and woman. The Church has interpreted this in the light of marriage because the verses before Matthew 19:6 talk about the real meaning of married life and sexuality. Jesus said: “A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body. (This line was taken from Gen. 2:24) Thus they are no longer two but one flesh.”(Matt. 19: 3-5)
It must be noted that the real expression of a healthy sexuality has been highlighted since the book of Genesis. And it has been quoted above. Man and woman are both created in the image and likeness of God so as to rule over the earth, to procreate and complete each other’s being. (see Gen. 1:27-28; 2: 18-25)
Marriage binds man and woman into husband and wife; they are no longer separate but one flesh. In the eyes of the Church and of society, in the presence of all the witnesses, with the priest as an official or even as a witness (see CIC 1108-11, 1115-16), the couple express their love which is supposed to endure until the day they die. It is simply “indissoluble”. Most of all, it is God himself who seals this covenant and gives it merit. Now notice the term I used – “covenant”. This has a very deep meaning, even beyond that of a promise. Promises, so they say, "are made to be broken”. A covenant, however, is a sacred pact sealed and authorized by God himself.
The weight of such a reality is so important that married couples have to undergo a long and tedious process before actual marriage! Months are needed to prepare the couples in all aspects – emotional, psychological, financial, and especially spiritual. Many documents have to be prepared (Baptismal, Confirmation, Birth Certificate, Bio-Data etc.), not to mention the long seminars on Pre-Cana, interviews and exams the couple have to undergo.
But what are all of these for, and why? It is because marriage as a sacrament is not just a gathering or a celebration – it is a sacred rite instituted by God where, as Jesus tells us, a man and a woman are no longer two but one. The Second Vatican document Gaudium et Spes (47-52) defined Marriage as a “covenanted communion for life between one man and one woman through which they become husband and wife, mutually share their complete selves, promote each other’s welfare, and in love beget and raise children.” The definition is very beautiful. And from here flows the Church’s condemnation of anything that could separate husband and wife from their covenant. This is the evil of divorce.
Divorce separates or dissolves the covenant made by the couple on their wedding day. Biblically, it already goes against Matthew 19:6. “What God has put together, let no man separate.” This is the reason why in the Catholic Church, divorce is never permitted. No human being has the authority to dissolve a holy and sacred “covenant”, especially one that has been ratified by God in the sacrament. To break that covenant garners nothing but sin.
The response of the Church then is never a separation. It is what is called annulment. Many critics say that annulment is actually just another term, or a Catholic term for divorce. No. An annulment means that no marriage, and thus no covenant, had actually taken place when the couple wed. There was a predetermined intention, on the part of either one, to deceive the other party, or to have ill intent on the other.
It would seem that to make this clearer, examples are necessary. Now, the following may be so basic (other situations can be much more complicated), but would nonetheless satisfy the definitions. Let’s say a happy couple got married in Church. A year later it was found out that the man was impotent, or carried a venereal disease. Now let’s say that the man “hid” these medical facts from the woman, who in fact wanted to have children; this then can be a ground for annulment. Why? Recall that the man “hid” his impotence or his sexual sickness from his wife. It was therefore a case of deception, a grave one. The wife cannot but assume that before they got married, her husband was fine, normal and without sickness. It was only after their wedding day that she learned of the deception. In other words, the ill intention was predetermined; at the event of marriage, the man knew all along of his disorders, yet hid them from his wife. This may be ground then for annulment. If the man was honest enough about his condition, and the woman still agreed to marry him, then the inevitable step would be to get married indeed.
Or take the case of a man who, say, was previously married. The woman he is about to marry thought all along that her husband was single, only to find out otherwise. Again, this may be a ground for annulment because at the event of marriage, the man knew all along that he had a previous wife. In this case it was another form of deception. This implies that no marriage or covenant took place at the moment of wedding. This is the dividing line between annulment and divorce. Divorce entirely severs or separates or breaks the marriage covenant; for annulment, no covenant was made in the first place.
Again, one must not think that all annulment cases are this easy. Some are really quite complicated, but the basics are here in these examples. There may be the elements of deception, foul play, ill intent and others which were not previously known by the other party. The biblical statement of“what God has put together, let no man separate” cannot simply apply to annulment, again, because no marriage took place at the very beginning.
We see here then why in Catholic marriages, the couple needs to undergo a very long process; this is to make sure that all the facts are laid bare, that the couples are free and not forced to marry, and that the backgrounds of each party are made known plain and simple to each other. This process assures the Church and each other that the both of them are ready to take on the responsibility of co-creators in the divine plan of God.
The real message of marriage has been made clear in the beautiful definition of Gaudium et Spes. It is a covenant made freely by one man and one woman; a covenant to remain together until natural death, with God as their Witness and the One who ratified their union. The ministers of the sacrament are the couple. They are the ones who will seal it in the presence of the witnesses. Couples enter marriage because they want to be co-creators in the gift of life; co-creators with God. And in giving each other so intimately and sincerely, they are no longer two but one.
What then makes a good marriage? There can be a lot of responses here. One thing can be transparency–couples would have opportunities to understand and love each other if both of them are honest and sincere. With this solid foundation, God will do the rest. It is His sacrament which will seal and prolong the marriage bond between husband and wife. In the meantime, both are called to a vocation to prayer. Recognizing God in their lives will merit blessings and a happy married life. We take inspiration from Tobit 8: 4-8, where with his wife Sarah, they prayed together in love and gratitude. The result: they were blessed by the Lord. Couples would be one step closer to this if only they cooperate in the divine plan of God.
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