What God has joined together ...
Last week, my sister and brother-in-law celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They renewed their vows in the same context in which they first pronounced themat Mass and with a reception for friends and family. At the end of August, many couples from around the Archdiocese will gather at Holy Name Cathedral for Mass on two consecutive Sundays to renew their vows after 50 years of marriage. The whole Church rejoices in these celebrations because the whole Church is blessed by marital fidelity.
What is marriage? The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament. In these few sentences from the Code of Canon Law, rooted in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et spes 48, no. 1), the Churchs understanding of what happens not only in the celebration of a wedding but also in a lifetime of marriage is summed up. Marriage is a covenant (a sacred agreement based on trust) between a man and a woman, who share all that they are in support of one another and of the children born of their union. It is a sacrament, that is, an action of the risen Christ. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say, there are three parties in a marriagethe husband, the wife, and the Lord who seals their union sacramentally.
Because marriage celebrated in the Church is a sacrament, it cannot be undone. The Church cannot break a bond created by Christ himself. What, then, is a declaration of nullity delivered by a diocesan marriage tribunal? What the Church does, at the request of one or both partners in a presumably sacramental marriage, is to conduct a careful examination of fact to see if all the conditions necessary for sacramentality were present at the time of the wedding ceremony. Sometimes they were not. Such examinations are more common now because of the unfortunate prevalence of civil divorce among Americans generally (over 40 per cent of marriages in the United Sates end in divorce) and also among Catholics (over 30 per cent of marriages in the Church also end in divorce). The state cannot dissolve a sacramental marriage any more than the Church can; so divorced Catholics come to the marriage tribunal to see if they are, in fact, free to marry after a civil divorce. The so-called annulment process is a legal examination designed to discover the truth about a marriage. The tribunal does all it can to operate with pastoral concern and care. No one is refused access to the tribunal because of lack of funds. Inevitably, any legal process can leave some people unhappy with a decision of the court; but the purpose of the courts and the process is to respond to requests that Catholics have the right to bring.
Behind the celebration of the sacrament of marriage and the Churchs teaching about its indissolubility are two mysteries of faith: Gods fidelity to his people and the union between Christ and his Church. Again and again, Scripture tells us that Gods is a faithful love. Made in Gods image and likeness, we are called to be faithful. Fidelity grounds our relationship to God and to those he has given to our care. A man and a woman are able to take the risk of loving each other completely because they know themselves to be loved completely and faithfully by God. Jesus, when questioned about marriage, said, A man must leave father and mother and cling to his wife and the two become one body. They are no longer two but one body. So then what God has united, man must not divide. (Mk. 10,7-9) Jesus, our savior, gave himself completely to his bride, the Church, so that, at the baptismal font, she can bring forth new disciples of the Lord, children who can live with his life here and share that life forever in his heavenly kingdom. (Ephesians 5: 25, 32)
The Churchs constant handing on of Christs teaching about marriage sometimes creates tensions in the lives of divorced Catholics and resentment on the part of others. Perhaps the fear of suffering through the break up of a marriage is, in part, responsible for people not entering into marriage at all. Co-habitation without marriage is a much more common relationship than was the case 40 years ago. The goal of mutual fidelity is therefore separated from sexual relations. The easy availability of artificial contraception means that the normal fruit of married love, children, can be prevented from being conceived; and the enshrining of abortion as a human right means that, even when conceived, children can be legally killed. The begetting of children is therefore separated from sexual relations. Yet the pull of both nature and grace keeps alive among us the goal of permanent marriage between husband and wife and the completion of their love in raising their children together.
Even though there are times when a civil divorce become necessary, a new study on divorce from the University of Chicago Divinity School provides some evidence to contest the assumption that a couple having difficulties in their marriage will be happier if divorced. The researchers found that two-thirds of unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported that their marriages were happy five years later. Given time and some endurance, many of the sources of conflict and distress in marriage eased.
In fact, a strong commitment to staying married was found to increase the possibility of happiness in the marriage. Children especially were found to be far more harmed by divorce than by remaining in their own family, despite the distressed state of their parents marriage.
In his 1994 Letter to Families, Pope John Paul II wrote: No one is without a family in this world; the Church is a home and a family for everyone, especially for those who labor and are heavily burdened. Those in the Archdiocese who help prepare people to enter into sacramental marriage and those who counsel people in troubled marriages and those who bring to marriages the careful scrutiny of canonists and pastors deserve our thanks. Their fidelity in ministry is at the service of fidelity in marriage. May God give us all the grace of fidelity in our respective vocations and the joy of being forever members of his family.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago
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