'Til Death Do Us Part

Edward Holloway FAITH Magazine July-August 2002

Marriage, a momentous decision

When a young man presents himself before the Bishop to take the Diaconate, the decisive step towards the priesthood to which is attached the irrevocable vow of chastity, the Bishop addresses him with words in which solemnity is mingled with a certain tenderness. "Dearly, beloved son", he begins, "again, and yet again I admonish you, consider how great a weight of responsibility you will take upon yourself today." When a young couple stand before the altar to give and receive the vows of marriage, there is a similar sense of the drama which surrounds a momentous human decision. For while the dedication of marriage is so different from that of Holy Orders, and less exalted in nature, marriage is a great sacrament and no humdrum event. This union is pleasing to God, andblessed by Him as He blessed our first parents, the dedication of their lives to God and to each other is "till death do us part," and these vows are irrevocable, for the sacrament cannot be dissolved except by death.

The indissolubility of marriage sometimes appears hard even to catholics, which is an indication that they do not fully understand and appreciate their Faith. Yet it can be said in excuse that the first disciples of Christ also, when they were immature, and learners in the Faith, were surprised when he revoked the law of divorce permitted to the Jews by Moses "because of the hardness of your hearts." When Our Lord restored marriage to the status and perfection it had been before man fell, the disciples exclaimed - "if the case of a man with his wife be so, it is not expedient to marry" (Matt.19.10). Far from compromising, however, Christ took occasion from these words to give men an ideal even higher - "all men take not this word, but they to whom it is given." Not all men,that is, take the counsel to give themselves more perfectly to the love and service of God in the state of perfect chastity, but only those to whom God gives the will to desire it, and through His grace the means to attain it. "He that can take it," He invited, "let him take it".

‘Without me you can do nothing’

People who are dismayed by the Church's teaching on the permanence of marriage, make the common mistake of thinking that they can find the means of living so high a standard of love within themselves and their partners, whereas the thoughts, words and deeds of men are all the time dependent upon the love they have for God, and the promptings of His grace within their souls. "Without me," said Christ, "you can do nothing," and this is a lesson we must learn in our approach to everything in life, that we are self-sufficient in nothing at all.

In the first place, the word "indissoluble" is not a mere negative when used of marriage. Young catholics often miss the full meaning of marriage as Christ taught it, and the Church maintains it, because they see only the negative aspect of the word, in which it means that once a Christian marriage has been consummated, it cannot be broken by divorce. If the word means that there is no divorce in Christian marriage, it also means positively that Christian marriage is founded on the bedrock of entire self-surrender, and irrevocable love. This is the other and important aspect of the word "indissoluble". 

The hopes and fears of love

This gift of love, ratified by God and by men, which does not admit of any going back, is itself a profound human experience, and without this element of acknowledged dedication the fullness of love in marriage cannot be gained. Full generosity, and full confidence in love given and taken is the natural desire and expectation of man and wife in marriage, and in Christian marriage husband and wife really do belong to each other and cannot give more. Only in this atmosphere of peace and security can children be born and reared in happiness and the virtues of family life develop to their best.

The non-catholic looks at Christian marriage and hesitates before the risk. How can you be sure that it will work out well? If it proves to be a tragic mistake, will not life together be one long martyrdom? Divorce is the only remedy for such cruel suffering! You cannot be sure that it is going to work out well. You cannot be sure of that whether you are a catholic or a non-catholic. Nor, just because you believe in divorce, can you be sure that it is going to work out the second, third, or fourth time either. There are many outside the Church, and some catholics who knew better than the Church, who have experienced the bitter frustration of seeing their homes and their hopes break to pieces more than once. The hard fact of all human life is that men arefree to choose good or evil till they die, and that you can never guarantee the future goodness and integrity of anyone at all. When Judas was called by Christ to follow Him, he was humanly speaking worthy of the vocation which was offered, but on the night of the Last Supper, he "betrayed the Son of Man with a kiss." There is nothing that can guarantee any man's perseverance in loyalty and goodness, except humble and prayerful reliance upon God. That is why we spoke of the futility of thinking that worldly wisdom and self-reliance could plan ahead the happiness of married life. Simply because it is free, you cannot plan the heart of man ahead.

Divorce and the Erosion of Trust

Men will not find any remedy for human sin and insufficiency in divorce, for divorce is terribly demoralising, and terribly cruel. It is demoralising because it weakens the will to make the marriage a success, it saps resolution under temptation. When quarrels occur in married life, and pride is hurt on both sides, divorce encourages men and women to brood over "the way out". It is this possibility which hardens sulky pride, destroys humility, and the sense of being two in one flesh, and is a direct incentive to unfaithfulness. Divorce is terribly cruel also, especially to children and to an innocent partner, for the break-up of a home always inflicts a lasting wound on the personalities of all involved in it. Even after a reconciliation, the mere fact that eitherhusband or wife has seriously threatened divorce during an estrangement, so weakens mutual trust that often they are unwilling afterwards to have children.

Divorce does not cure unhappiness in marriage, rather it kills both marriage and married happiness. In fifty years of increasingly easier divorce in this country, the number of applications has risen from a few hundred a year to some forty thousand, and still the number rises, and the toll of human misery it represents. You cannot cure your sin or somebody else's by another sin, to add sin to sin only empties out the soul more, and makes it worthless. Any man who ponders in his heart will know the truth of this, and he who says he does not know it, does not want to know it.

The Compassion of Christ and his Church

The Church is not harsh, she cannot be for she teaches only the word of Christ, who is love and compassion incarnate. She is true to the finest men can give, and true equally to their weakness and waywardness. The Church's doctrine of marriage offers men the highest ideal of marriage, and the sacrament gives the grace to live it fully. In the wisdom of God, too, the same doctrine curbs the waywardness of men, and Christ's outright prohibition of divorce dries up the source of many temptations to human pride and lust which divorce encourages. No man or woman can be sure that they will not be betrayed, even as Christ was betrayed, but a Christian will always find in Christ a lover who never deserts in even the most poignant distresses of life. There is always muchto be done for God, and much happiness to be found in Him, whatever may come to us from men. It is only the pagans who "sorrow as those who have no hope".

It is because men are not self-sufficient and cannot guarantee their own goodness that we need to go to Christ, our food and strength; to the "Bread of Heaven", by whom, more than by earthly bread, men live, as He has told us Himself (Jn. 6). The soul has to grow in stature of virtue over the years, just as the body in vigour, until it comes to what St Paul calls "the age of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13) which means the perfection which God intends for each of us. This can be done only by the wholehearted living of the Faith and Morals given us by Christ. There is nothing that can undo this law of life in the soul, or take its place. As the sunshine and the shower quicken the seed cast into the ground in springtime, maturing it in vigour until it brings forth itsfruit in season, so is God the sunshine and the shower within the soul. The grace of God, from which all the virtue and loyalty of any man derives, is that life more abundant by which the soul responds to God dwelling within it, and working within it. And if He is allowed, God will bring forth our harvest within us in due season. We cannot leave God out of human reckoning, either in marriage or in anything else.

The Grace of God, ‘in sickness and in health’

An attachment which is in defiance of God will grow more selfish with the years, and give no fulfilling happiness in this life, apart from the judgement of God upon it in the next. Any marriage must have its difficulties at times, and it is because of this that marriage confers a grace which enables those who receive it to live worthily in their vocation. 

The protestants of an older time rejected the belief in interior grace, and few of them have come to understand it properly since. It is not surprising, therefore, that first in one thing, and then in another, non-catholics should so often say of Christ's teaching - "this saying is hard, and who can hear it?" The power to live in holiness is not within our unaided selves, and we shall not find it anywhere out of God.

Faithful witnesses to love eternal

Thank God, there are countless thousands of men and women in the Church who have known the happiness of Christian marriage lived at its best. They will know with gratitude to God for His providence, and the fulfillment He has given them in each other, that only the Church of Christ knows the measure of human life, and the measure of married love and duties. Their lives and their constancy are the living teaching of their children, for the sound Christian home is the human basis on which the Church is built.

Such husbands and wives are bringing to harvest the hopes that were sown on the day they made their vows to each other before the altar in the touching and lovely language of the Church's rite of marriage. "I take thee - to have, and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part; and thereto, I plight thee my troth." They have sown in the spirit, and of the spirit they will reap life everlasting in God's due season.

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