Divorce and Remarriage

By Spaemann, Robert | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, August/September 2014 | Go to article overview

Divorce and Remarriage


Spaemann, Robert, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


The divorce statistics for modern Western societies are catastrophic. They show that marriage is no longer regarded as a new, independent reality transcending the individuality of the spouses, a reality that, at the very least, cannot be dissolved by the will of one partner alone. But can it be dissolved by the consent of both parties, or by the will of a synod or a pope? The answer must be no, for as Jesus himself explicitly declares, man cannot put asunder what God himself has joined together. Such is the teaching of the Catholic Church.

The Christian understanding of the good life claims to be valid for all human beings. Yet even Jesus's disciples were shocked by their Master's words: Wouldn't it be better, then, they replied, not to marry at all? The astonishment of the disciples underscores the contrast between the Christian way of life and the way of life dominant in the world. Whether it wants to or not, the Church in the West is on its way to becoming a counterculture, and its future now depends chiefly on whether it is able, as the salt of the earth, to keep its savor and not be trampled underfoot by men.

The beauty of the Church's teaching can shine forth only when it's not watered down. The temptation to dilute doctrine is reinforced nowadays by an unsettling fact: Catholics are divorcing almost as frequently as their secular counterparts. Something has clearly gone wrong. It's against all reason to think that all civilly divorced and remarried Catholics began their first marriages firmly convinced of its indissolubility and then fundamentally reversed themselves along the way. It's more reasonable to assume that they entered into matrimony without clearly realizing what they were doing in the first place: burning their bridges behind them for all time (which is to say until death), so that the very idea of a second marriage simply did not exist for them.

Sadly, the Catholic Church is not without blame. Christian marriage preparation very often fails to give engaged couples a clear picture of the implications of a Catholic wedding. Were that so, many couples would very likely decide against being married in the Church. For others, of course, good marriage preparation would provide a helpful impetus to conversion. There is an immense appeal in the idea that the union of a man and a woman is "written in the stars," that it endures on high, and that nothing can destroy it, both "in good times and in bad." This conviction is a wonderful and exhilirating source of strength and joy for spouses working through marital crises and seeking to breathe new life into their old love.

Instead of reinforcing the natural, intuitive appeal of marital permanence, many churchmen, including bishops and cardinals, prefer to recommend, or at least to consider, another option, one that is an alternative to Jesus's teaching and basically a capitulation to the secular mainstream. The remedy for the adultery entailed by remarriage of the divorced, we are told, is no longer to be contrition, renunciation, and forgiveness but the passage of time and habit, as if general social acceptance and our personal comfort with our decisions and lives have an almost supernatural power. This alchemy supposedly transforms an adulterous concubinage that we call a "second marriage" into an acceptable union to be blessed by the Church in God's name. Given this logic, of course, it is only fair for the Church to bless homosexual partnerships as well.

But this way of thinking is based on a profound error. Time is not creative. Its passage does not restore lost innocence. In fact, its tendency is always just the oppositenamely, to increase entropy. Every instance of order in nature is wrested from the grip of entropy and over time eventually falls under its dominion once again. …

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