Valuing the covenant of marriage

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

As we know, our culture prizes individuality and self-expression, and sometimes holds in low regard past traditions, customs and laws and rules in general. Unfortunately, because of this attitude, marriage is mostly seen as a social arrangement of convenience, a short-term reality, not as something far more precious and fundamental. Fidelity in marriage, and perseverance through difficulties in marriage, are so often not valued. Divorce seems an acceptable solution to even the most trivial marital issues. And remarriage after a divorce for some is seen as merely another temporary convenience.

Although these attitudes are extremely common, they are entirely at odds with the Gospel. Our Lord Jesus Christ taught clearly that marriage is a profound commitment – a covenant, in fact, modeled on the perfect, eternal covenant of divine love with the church. Just as, in our mystical union with Christ in the church, we become “one body” and “one spirit” with Him (1 Cor 10:17, 1 Cor 12:13), so also the union of a man and a woman in marriage is a spiritual, “one flesh” union (Gen 2:24, Mt 19:6, Mk 10:7-8).

Jesus therefore teaches, without ambiguity, that marriage is indissoluble: “What God has joined together [in one flesh], let not man put asunder” (Mk 10:9). No power on earth, legal or spiritual, can cause a valid marriage to cease to be, before the death of one of the spouses. And in consequence of this most profound reality, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11-12). These words come from the very lips of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The yawning chasm between the clear and uplifting teaching of our Lord about marriage, divorce and adultery, and the commonly accepted cultural assumptions, create for the church a very difficult pastoral problem. Twenty years ago, the Catechism of the Catholic Church could already say with great precision, “This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy – heavier than the Law of Moses.  By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to ‘receive’ the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life.” (CCC #1615).

It is still true that some people experience the holy bond of marriage as a burden, subjectively and emotionally. We are all sinful and broken humanity, redeemed only by grace and not by our own powers. In spite of our best efforts, it is sadly true that marriages sometimes fail. The church accompanies those who find themselves in such a situation with prayer and compassion, offering among other medicines, as a “field hospital” to those injured in the battle of life, the possibility of determining whether the failed marriage was indeed valid or not – and if not, then a person will be free to marry again.

In my four decades of experience as a priest and bishop, however, it has often been the case that marriages fail, not in spite of our best efforts, but because of the lack of effort. So often selfishness and the refusal to follow Christ on the road of the married vocation are more often the root of the failure of marriage. These cultural attitudes too often override the invitation of Christ, resist sanctifying grace in the sacrament of marriage and harden hearts already dulled by habitual sins.

To one who is hardened in resisting grace, more grace and healing from the church does not look like compassion, but like judgment or condemnation. The problem, however, lies not in the church, but in the culture which rejects Christ’s teachings.

Healing for a culture that prizes lust, greed and selfishness is not going to come from lowering the church’s standards of sacramental discipline. Yes, the church must always strive with renewed commitment to meet people where they are and accompany them on the journey to Christ.

But one cannot reach that particular destination, namely, union with Christ in the Eucharist, by a shortcut, any more than Christ could give himself to us as the paschal lamb without mounting the cross. The disciplinary norms for such situations described in St. John Paul II’s exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” must still, therefore, be those embraced by the church as witnessing to the truth and power of the Good News.

Healing for our culture can only come from Christ, and the church. A new and healthy culture of marriage can only be the fruit of the witness of those dedicated followers of Christ who live their own vocation to marriage and family life with great and holy fidelity. Your daily witness to how love grows from willing sacrifice will draw people unhappy with the world’s ways to Christ, whose sacrifice in the Eucharist is divine love itself.

May our good and gracious God, father in heaven, bless each of you with every spiritual blessing and every needed good thing in this life, and especially bless those in difficult marriages or family situations. May he pour out grace upon you, protect you from evil, and bring you safely home to heaven. Please pray for me also.

Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City

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