Once, when Our Lord was speaking with the Pharisees, they tried to test Him by asking Him about the lawfulness of divorce. In response, He invited them to return to the beginning when, in God’s plan, man and woman became one through marriage. In revoking Moses’ concession to man’s hardness of heart and outlawing divorce, He announced the indissolubility of marriage as a key aspect of the New Covenant. This teaching however has become a source of controversy among Christians to the point where only the Catholic Church has remained faithful to Our Lord’s teaching of marriage as indissoluble. Moses may have allowed divorce outright, but this is not the only way to “allow” divorce. There is a second, more subtle way, that many within the Church would like to adopt—the “yes, divorce is wrong, but it doesn’t really matter” approach.
Remarriage is not the Only Problem
A point of clarification is necessary at first. At first it seems the issue is really about remarriage after divorce. But the Church, echoing Christ’s words is really against divorce. In Matthew 19:9 Our Lord issues an exception opening the path to divorce because of “unchastity.” The actual Greek word used by St. Matthew is porneia and has remained rather elusive as to an exact translation. All of the ink spilled on a proper translation of this word is pointless unless we understand two things.
First, regardless of whether it refers to serious sexual sin or other forms of infidelity such as abuse, divorce is only a legal arrangement of living apart. The marriage bond is not, nor can it ever be, broken. Nowhere throughout the history of the Church did this ever mean that the person was free to remarry. This teaching comes directly from St. Paul who taught that the separated couple has two options: reconciliation or remain single (1 Cor 7:10-11).
Second, the exception proves the rule. This needs to be mentioned because we now live in a culture where the exception becomes the rule. GK Chesterton said that because we have an “incapacity to grasp that the exception proves the rule, …silent anarchy is eating out our society.” He goes on to say that “if you treat a peculiar thing in a peculiar way, you thereby imply that ordinary things are not to be treated in that way…Anything in a special situation shows by implication that all things are not in that situation.” In other words, the argument that there is an exception for “unchastity” says that divorce is normally wrong. There can be no such thing as “no-fault divorce” because it takes the exception and makes it the rule.
That being said, divorce really does matter and we should not merely turn a blind eye to it. Divorce really matters because of its effect on the Family. When I say capital F Family, I mean the social reality that is the Family. Yes, obviously, it has profound effects on those families touched by it directly, but no family remains immune to it. Divorce leads to a divorce culture; a culture born not just by imitation, but also by intimation.
Marriage and Children
To see this, we must first acknowledge the relationship between marriage and children. Most of us know these things are intrinsically connected but would struggle to articulate it. Even the most ardent supporter of same-sex marriage knows this and often goes to great lengths to simulate it as part of their relationship. The purpose of marriage is the mutual perfection of the spouses. Marriage is an end in itself—it is not a means to have children. A man and a woman desire marriage with each other, not because it will bring children into the world, but because they desire to be completely united to their spouse so that the two become one—spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
What does the Church mean then when she says that “Procreation and education of children is the end of marriage”? What this means is that when the two become one, children naturally follow. In other words, children are the fruit of conjugal love. Procreation and education of children is the end of marriage not as the reason why spouses come together, but as a result of their coming together. Marriage is the natural place in which a child is brought into and up in this world. Yes, there are exceptions and courageous ones at that, but the exception proves the rule. A child brought up with only one parent is at a disadvantage.
Clarity as to why this is a disadvantage emerges when we examine our brokenness. As a result of the Fall, conflict and division emerges between men and women (c.f. Gn 3:16). Their relationship becomes mainly one of competition. But, “in the beginning, it was not so.” Humanity is not man or woman, but both. A child brought up with only a father(s) or mother(s) is really only half-educated on what it means to be a human person. They need, and therefore have a right to, both parents.
But not any man and any woman will do. They must be indissolubly united by love because each child must know that they are not a result of some random encounter, but through an act of everlasting love. They remain incomprehensible to themselves unless they know they were loved into existence. This is why their security always rests in the stability of their parents relationship and the love between the spouses must be the primary catalyst for the love of the parents for the child.
The Hidden Effects
In this setting, the child intimates what becomes a very important belief that puts structure his whole life. A child needs a father and a mother not as separate or competing influences but as cooperating influences in their complementarity. The world, especially today, says that men and women are mostly competitive and will only come together when, and for as long as, there is mutual benefit. By remaining indissolubly united, the children learn that men and women are not naturally competitive but cooperative. The minute divorce enters the picture, the child only sees the competitiveness. When this happens enough and divorce within society gathers a certain momentum, indissoluble marriage becomes the exception and society built upon the Family crumbles.
Chesterton calls divorce, especially when there is remarriage, the height of superstition. Can we really expect someone who broke a vow at the altar to keep a vow the second time at that same altar? Vows mean very little and within a divorce culture integrity becomes an anti-value. We are married at an altar because an altar is a place of sacrifice. Marriage leads to the fulfillment of spouses because each learns to truly love. It is a sad world where happiness (in the worldly sense) and love must co-exist. Marriage is the school where love is learned and taught, and not just to the children. Divorce says all of that was a lie.