HOMILY for 7th Friday per annum (II)
A couple of days ago, Cardinal Muller re-affirmed that valid Christian marriages cannot be dissolved. Divorce is not possible, he said, since “Church dogma isn’t just some theory created by some theologians” but is “the word of Jesus Christ which is very clear”. He must have had today’s Gospel in mind when he said this. But when the Catholic News Service posted the Cardinal’s words on their Facebook page, it generated a huge and rather revealing debate.
Now, we’re not speaking here of cases where a spouse is abandoned or abused. In such cases, the Church advocates separation. Hence the Catechism notes that “there is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage” (CCC 2386). Nevertheless, even where there is a valid marriage and where there is some fault, a good number of people commented on Facebook that this doctrine had to change. Which suggests that some Catholics believe that Man knows better than God, or at least, that Jesus was mistaken. Such was the original sin of Adam, so such hubris is not new. A few said that a celibate man had no right to lay down rules on marriage. It’s uncertain if they were referring to Jesus or Cardinal Muller; the latter, I suspect, which makes the comment all the more ironic. And some said we needed more love and less doctrine. Except, of course, the Gospel says that, “as was his custom”, Jesus “taught” the crowds, that is to say, he gave them doctrine (Mk 10:1). And teaching, too, is an act of love, isn’t it, especially if it leads one to Truth and to the Good? But just as some rejected Jesus’ teaching then, so it appears that some would reject it today. And this, too, is nothing new for every sin is a rejection of God’s wisdom in some way.
But where is the Gospel, the good news, in all this, then? As always, the Gospel is found in a vision of what God’s grace makes possible, transcending what nature by itself can achieve. So, Jesus recalls that in the first place, men and women were both created with equal dignity. But because of Israel’s “hardness of heart”, that is, because of sin this unity was disrupted. Man obtained power over his wife as though she were chattel that he could just “put away” (Mk 10:4). But Jesus comes to restore what was lost through sin, and to elevate nature through grace to a new supernatural end. Hence Jesus repudiates the concession made to sin and says that in his restoration and re-creation of the cosmos through grace, husband and wife “are no longer two but one flesh” (Mk 10:8). Indeed, Jesus then elevates marriage so that it becomes a sacrament, a sign of the new creation caused by grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, as St Paul says: “This mystery [of two becoming indissolubly one flesh] is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:32).
However, we are still likely to find this teaching hard to grasp. So did the disciples, hence they “asked him again about this matter” privately (Mk 10:10). They wanted to be sure that they understood Jesus properly, and so he explains himself in even more blunt and plain language. It is in utmost fidelity to this explicit teaching of Jesus Christ that Christ’s disciples today, that is, his Church continues to teach that valid Christian marriages are indissoluble. We can do nothing else but be faithful to Jesus’ teaching.
But it’s not surprising that we should find this difficult. Because although Christ has given us his grace to live as his new creation, and although his Spirit dwells in our hearts, we still find ourselves very much attached to former habits, still very much surrounded and influenced by the old sinful self and its ways; we still struggle with sin. As St Paul says, then, we need to let our old selves die so that a new will arise with Christ (cf Rom 6). Hence, living the Christian call to holiness constitutes a cross, and discipleship means picking up our cross, dying to ourselves, and following Christ.
For those who have chosen to marry, marriage is a central beam of that cross. It is one that was freely taken up and committed to for life. As St James said: “let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation” (5:12). So, having made this commitment, the married couple have to depend on Christ’s grace and take up their cross. This means having to work at the marital relationship, learning to forgive, and stretching one’s heart and mind and life so as to make space for another. It means, ultimately, learning to love, and this is never easy. There will be falls and mistakes but these have to overcome with grace and faith, as both husband and wife strive for holiness. Hence, Christ’s vision of marriage is certainly possible and even joyful if we co-operate with God’s grace – the witness of countless Christian couples down the centuries testify to this. However, as so many saintly married couples show, it is certainly easier and thus objectively better if both parties in a marriage desire holiness, and, so, as “one flesh” both desire to learn from Christ.
The Church, then, is to be a facilitator of God’s grace and not an arbitrator (cf Evangelii Gaudium, §47). She exists to make it easier for us to co-operate with God’s grace and to grow in holiness. Hence Cardinal Muller says that “God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church. Rather it supplies us with the grace and strength needed to fulfill them, to pick ourselves up after a fall, and to live life in its fullness according to the image of our heavenly Father”. If holiness is our goal – whatever our vocational state of life – then changing or removing Jesus’ teaching, or walking away from his Mystical Bride, the Church, certainly will not help.