Short Post Script to The Last Post

Over the weekend, it occurred to me that there is an additional level to the discussion of the need for a theology of relationships in connection with divorce, and that is a recognition that relationships can and do actually end, notwithstanding philosophical commitments to the contrary.

Here's what I mean.  Look again closely at Matthew 19:3-9:

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’

I have emphasized those four short phrases to point out that the most natural reading of this passage has Jesus making a moral claim--it is not morally acceptable to divorce your spouse.  You can (i.e. are practically capable of) get a divorce, but you should not do so.  Catholic theology, however, turns this into an ontological claim--it is not possible, at least from a spiritual perspective, to divorce your spouse.  It would seem to me that, if that's what Jesus meant, the above paragraph would read something like the following:

 Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it possible for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together may not be separated.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses [?], but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever attempts (or pretends) to divorce his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’

But, of course, it doesn't.  Until working through this exercise, it never occurred to me that the ontological understanding creates a problem with trying to understand what was going on in Leviticus.  Before you can get to the question of whether divorce is allowed, you must first say that divorce is something that exists.  Since the Torah clearly allows for divorce, it must accept the idea that divorce is a thing that is real.  If marriages are really indissoluble in an ontological sense, then it seems that the Torah was not only wrong, but nonsensical.  And because the Catholic Church insists that marriage is a "natural" institution (thus all marriages, regardless of religious tradition or circumstances, operate on the same principles), we can't go with some sort of dispensational theory, where there is one set of rules for Jewish marriages before Jesus and one set of rules for Christians.

But the real problem here is a combination of an empirical one and a linguistic one.  In keeping with the notion that marriage is ontologically indissoluble, the Catholic Church takes the position that any and all indicia of divorce--physical separation, division of assets, a civil judgment of divorce, the firm commitment of the parties to terminate the relationship, etc.--is irrelevant.  All of the previous could be true, but the parties are still "really" married in a canonical sense.  In other words, the concrete relationship between the couple is ultimately tangential to the "true" status of the marriage, because two people whose relationship has eroded to nothing can still be fully and completely married.

This strikes me as an excellent example of the problematic Christian otherworldliness we see in other contexts.  When the canonical status of a couple is wholly uncoupled from the actual state of the actual relationship between the two people involved, Catholicism starts to drift away from a solid grounding in real life and enters a funhouse mirror world.  If two people split up in a permanent and definitive way, then their marriage is over.  Such a split may indeed be morally unacceptable (as Jesus seems to clearly say), but it is nevertheless real, just as the termination of any relationship is real.  Saying that the relationship is not over in some intangible way doesn't change this "fact on the ground."

All of this is particularly weird since the Catholic Church insists, uniquely among the sacraments, that the ministers of the Sacrament of Matrimony are the couple themselves, not the priest officiating.  If Catholicism understood marriage as something imbued by the Church on the couple (as the Orthodox do, for example), it would make more sense that the Church would see it self as the final arbiter of the status of the marriage--if only the Church can provide it, only the Church can take it away or adjudicate it.  But that is not Catholic theology.  If the couple is the ministers of the bond linking them together, then those ministers firmly declaring the bond at an end would seem to be definitive (if not necessarily morally acceptable).

Once again, we come up against a lack of a robust theology of relationships.  Relationships exist, relationships are important, and unfortunately relationships can be terminated.  It is simply a fact that marriages can and do end.  It seems perfectly appropriate to decry this fact, work to reduce the incidences of this fact, and to call it out as morally unacceptable and tragic.  But it seems purposeless to pretend that it isn't true.  By ignoring the concrete facts associated with a a broken marriage, the Catholic Church is like a little kid putting his or her fingers in the ears and going "La La La, I can't hear you," when people come to them for support and healing.  


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