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What Hath Man Put Asunder? An Analysis of Catholic Teaching on Marriage in Light of Modernity

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Since the dawn of man, the institutional concept of marriage has enjoyed its pride of place in virtually every culture. The story of Adam and Eve at the beginning of the history of man makes clear the importance and value of the marital way (Gen. 2:18-24). Throughout biblical history, and even secular history, institutional marriage has been a necessary although technical facet of human life. Despite its sometimes-political function, the Christian tradition has always maintained a special respect and love for marriage as more than just a contract.

Increasingly, there encroaches upon Christendom a shroud of confusion that threatens to submerge the millennia-old tradition of married life. As faithfulness has become encumbered in recent years by the plagues of scientism and relativism, the religious and family structures which are the backbones of western society have begun to quiver under pressure. While the divorce rates are nowhere near the 50% rate they were once feared to be at,[1] the glaringly obvious problem of this generation is that divorce is no longer the issue. The sea foam left ashore from the waves of relativism has been tragic for the modern family.

In unprecedented fashion, cohabitation rates in the United States have skyrocketed in recent years. According to some sources, women between the ages of 15-44 have a 25% change of living with a man before marriage—and a 75% change by the time they’re 30 years old.[2] These staggering numbers point to an evolution—or rather a devolution—of the western mindset. What was once a battle against rising divorce rates (divorce being the response to a fear of permanence) has become a battle against rising cohabitation rates (cohabitation sometimes being the response to droves of failed marriages).

While many consider cohabitation to be a “step toward marriage,” according to the Pew Research Center,[3] less than half of such relationships end in marriage.[4] This points to a certain dichotomy between the desire for permanence in a relationship and the competing fear of dissolution. What has been made clear is that divorce rates, which are now falling, are no longer to blame. The new thorn in the side of western civilization is the ever-slowing rate of marriage and its complimentarily speeding rate of cohabitation.

The answer to this multifaceted concern is not something within the scope of this paper. For the purpose of responding to the use of marriage in light of Church teaching, however, we would do well to acknowledge the most contemporary reasons for which the Church must reinvigorate the ancient pedagogy that so intimately concerns itself with the nature of marriage. As such, the existence of the problems of divorce and cohabitation are evidence enough to reinvestigate the historicity of Christian marriage, it’s properly-ordered use, the well-addressed theology of matrimony, and why the Sacrament of Matrimony is a timeless component of a healthy society and church.

The Christian understanding of marriage, although unique, is nothing novel. Between the first instance of marriage in Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis and the teachings of Christ on marriage and divorce in the book of Matthew (Mt. 5:31-32), there existed long-running understanding that marriage was a part of life. Even in the New Testament, when Jesus discusses the nature of marriage, it was only insofar as divorce was not an option. The implication is that marriage is a permanent, indissoluble institution—and it always had been. In fact, when Christ appears to be suggesting a new doctrine saying, “[B]ut I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife…makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Mt. 5:32), what he is really saying is that divorce was never really permitted. He makes this perfectly clear later in Matthew when he says, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt. 19:8-9).

In keeping with Christ’s teaching, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law,”[5] the natural law authored by God at creation. It is with the same confidence that the Church professes that “Divorce is immoral” not only because Christ has deemed it so, but “because it introduces disorder into the family and into society.”[6] In light of the present social condition in the west—with cohabitation rates exploding and marriage rates plummeting—this passage seems to ring particularly true.

But it isn’t only according to the Old Testament and Jesus Christ that marriage is permanent, binding, and sacred. Sacred Tradition has provided us with a litany of patristic saints who have all affirmed these basic elements of the institution of marriage. St. Basil, who lived in the 4th century, touches on the indissolubility and unitive nature of marriage with a single passage:

If a husband, separated from his wife, approaches another woman, he is an adulterer because he makes that woman commit adultery; and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has drawn another’s husband to herself.[7]

On the importance of recognizing the two-fold good of marriage, St. Augustine, a 4th and 5th century patristic father, writes, “The union, then, of male and female for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage.”[8] But far from granting marital unions the license to “call it quits” if they cannot produce offspring, he continues,

It is certainly not fecundity only, the fruit of which consists of offspring, nor chastity only, whose bond is fidelity, but also a certain sacramental bond in marriage which is recommended to believers in wedlock.[9]

The Sacrament of Matrimony was established at the foundation of the Catholic Church. It has long been reported that marriage was a construct of the medieval Church, but this is founded on a poor understanding of the use of councils. In truth, the Sacrament of Marriage was only reaffirmed at the Council of Trent.[10] Before that, the institution was clearly understood to be holy, God-given, and sacramental. In fact, Tertullian, a 2nd and 3rd century writer, sets the tone for the Sacramental reality of marriage long before the Middle Ages. He writes,

Whence are we to find (words) enough fully to tell the happiness of that marriage which the Church cements, and the oblation confirms, and the benediction signs and seals; (which) angels carry back the news of (to heaven), (which) the Father holds for ratified? For even on earth children do not rightly and lawfully wed without their fathers’ consent. What kind of yoke is that of two believers, (partakers) of one hope, one desire, one discipline, one and the same service? Both (are) brethren, both fellow servants, no difference of spirit or of flesh; nay, (they are) truly “two in one flesh.”[11]

Perhaps one of the pressing issues of today is that we no longer seek “our father’s consent.”

Having made clear the historical significance and legitimacy of the institution of marriage, it should be made clearer the theological importance of the practice. In accord with the patristics, the Catechism rightly upholds the two-fold purpose of marriage: Fecundity, which is the response to God’s heavily repeated command to “be fruitful and multiply;”[12] and unity, or the forming covenantal bond, which Regis J. Flaherty says, “is a sign of [the] covenant between Christ and the Church.”[13]

The order by God to bear children is as old as Genesis.[14] As the first end of marriage, the Catechism teaches that, in their call to give life, “spouses share in the creative power and fatherhood of God.”[15] This was no new doctrine of marriage. In the 2nd or 3rd century, patristic father Clement of Alexandria shared the same insight on the call to fecundity when he wrote, “Marriage is the first conjunction of man and woman for the procreation of legitimate children.”[16] The demonstrably proven fact is that marriage, in the eyes of the Church, has always been ordered toward the procreation of children as a primary end of marriage.

Having children might also be called a primary gift of marriage.[17] Certainly today, men and women, both inside and outside of marriage, often refer to their children as the best thing that has ever happened to them. It is easy to empathize with this sentiment, but it is incomplete. While some cling to their children as a source of love and hope, it is more properly ordered toward Christian hope to cling to one’s own spouse and to raise their children—not to simply befriend them. It makes sense with this in mind that marriage remains permanent and unchanged as it were like a lifelong duty to God (and spouse) while parenthood, raising children, is far more to be considered a precious gift and a duty which is fleeting and ever-changing. Children, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, do “not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment.”[18]

But of unity, that second end of marriage, even more can be said. Marriage is the life in which man and woman can relate to each other as Christ relates to his beloved Church. Just as offspring in marriage is analogous to being reborn into the Church, “[t]he union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator’s generosity and fecundity.”[19] The unitive aspect of marriage carries a two-fold benefit: The promises of cohesion (teamwork), and perspective.

Marriage, then, hopes to foster cohesiveness and perspective; both are fruits of the unitive aspect of matrimony. The promises made by both parties during the nuptial ceremony necessarily include the insistence of a continued effort on both their parts to complement each other in every endeavor. In other words, the vows of both parties, if made with serious commitment, are insurance against the weakness of their flesh. Wedding vows fuse together the promise of cohesion and the perspective in which spouses ought to order those promises. Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical, On Christian Marriage, summarizes this point thusly:

[T]he mutual duties of husband and wife have been defined, and their several rights accurately established. They are bound, namely, to have such feelings for one another as to cherish always very great mutual love, to be ever faithful to their marriage vow, and to give one another an unfailing and unselfish help.[20]

Once we understand the theological and historical background, it becomes easier to envisage the practicality and necessity of natural marriages that are made in the sight, and with the inclusion, of God, thereby making them supernatural marriages. If marriage is historically well-established and theologically backed by the heavy-hitters of Christian theology, the final piece to the puzzle must be the proper application and fostering of marriage. Since the Catechism (rightly) says that divorce brings about disorder in society,[21] the common sense conclusion should be that marriage, as the naturally ordered counterpart of divorce, ought to reinvigorate society. Pope John Paul II, in his papal encyclical Familiaris Consortio, takes care to examine the value of the family within society: “The family has vital and organic links with society, since it is its foundation and nourishes it continually through its role of service to life.”[22]

His clear message is this: The family is the backbone of society and its foundation. It follows logically that a healthy, strong marriage is the backbone and foundation of healthy, strong family. Because the family is so intimately responsible for society and the direction in which it heads morally, socially, economically, etc., every person would do well to investigate married life.

As an alternative to cohabitation, marriage holds well. It has already been well documented that cohabitants, in less than half of cases, marry. When they don’t, and they begin to have children and start raising families, a new problem arises. Far from “a simple piece of paper,” marriage makes concrete the nature of commitment. Almost as a force of habit, people tend to take comfort in documented promises, rather than those made on merit. With that in mind, it seems not only prudent, but also sensible to marry—to make a written and spoken promise before God and eyewitnesses of the love and fidelity that is intended to last for a lifetime.

Concerning divorce, the question becomes even clearer. As a concept, divorce is perhaps “as old as time,” but in practice, it hasn’t always been so prominent. Before the twentieth century, divorce was quite uncommon, and never without cause, or “fault.”[23] It stands to reason that divorce, being unnatural and relatively foreign, is something to be discouraged. In addition to its strangeness, divorce is dangerous to society. Complimenting the Catechism, demographics have shown correlations between divorce rates and incarceration rates.[24] The sheer gravity of the issue points to a need for a restructuring of the family life.

The Catholic Church is the source and facilitator of the Christian life. Christ founded the Church with the confidence of God and trust in his disciples. It is my firm belief that marriage, as the foundation upon which society is built and fostered, ought to be built and fostered itself. It is only sensible that in order to correct the problems that are manifesting themselves in society, we must correct source. People are the problem, and the family is the solution. Because so many people are raised without a family, one that is complete with a father, a mother, and God, everyone is lacking. John Paul II says that “families should grow in awareness of being “protagonists” of what is known as “family politics” and assume responsibility for transforming society.[25]Marriage is the glue that binds society to morality. Goodness is something that flows forth from godliness; and godliness from living according to the Word of God. Because Christ saw such value in marriage so as to adamantly reject divorce, and because marriage has for so long proven to be that force which raises children to be decent members of society, the decline in marriages has directly translated into the decline of society—so-called “social decay.” If the lifeblood of the human body (marriage) ceases to flow through the veins of society, decay is indeed the correct term.

[1] Dan Hurley, “Divorce Rate: It’s Not as High as You Think,” The New York Times, April 5, 2005, (accessed April 20, 2018).

[2] Jonel Aleccia, “’The new normal’: Cohabitation on the rise, study finds,” NBC News, (accessed April 20, 2018).

[3] The Pew Research Center reports that 64% of cohabitants have considered themselves to be on track for marriage. Pew Research Center, “Cohabitation a Step Toward Marriage?”, January 6, 2011, (accessed April 20, 2018).

[4] Jonel Aleccia, “’The new normal’: Cohabitation on the Rise Study Finds.”

[5] Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997), 2384.

[6] CCC, 2385

[7] St. Basil, as quoted in CCC, 2384.

[8] Augustine of Hippo, On Marriage and Concupiscence (1886). In P. Schaff (Ed.), P. Holmes (Trans.), Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings. (New York: Christian Literature Company.), Vol. 5, p. 265.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lauren Everitt, “Ten Key Moments in the History of Marriage,” BBC BBC News, March 14, 2012, (accessed April 20, 2018).

[11] Tertullian. (1885). To His Wife. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), S. Thelwall (Trans.), Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second (Vol. 4, p. 48). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company; parentheses in original.

[12] See Gen. 1:22, 1:28, see also Gen. 9:1, 9:7, and 35:11, RSV.

[13] Flaherty, Regis J. Sacraments: The Seven Spiritual Wonders of the World. Faith Basics. Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road, 2012.

[14] In the first book of Genesis, God commands Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply.” See Gen. 1:22.

[15] CCC, 2367.

[16] Clement of Alexandria. (1885). The Stromata, or Miscellanies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire) (Vol. 2, p. 377). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

[17] See CCC, 2366.

[18] Ibid.

[19] CCC, 2335.

[20] Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical on Christian Marriage Arcanum (10 February 1880), 11.

[21] CCC, 2385.

[22] John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1981), 42.

[23] Chanen, Jill Schachner, “And Then There Was None,” ABA Journal, (accessed April 20, 2018).

[24] While the two figures have not to my knowledge been studied specifically for the purpose of showing the correlation, the correlation nonetheless exists. On this, see the Washington Post’s divorce rate graph at (accessed April 20, 2018), and Prison Policy’s incarceration graph at (accessed April 20, 2018). Divorce rates began to steadily rise around 1970, and incarceration rates began to skyrocket only 10-15 years after that. I implicate the breakdown of the family as the cause for these staggering numbers.

[25] Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 44 (my emphasis).

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