GENESIS 2:18-24 HEBREWS 2:9-11 MARK 10:2-16
Divorce is a problem. It was a problem in Jesus’ day, and it’s a problem today. When the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a husband to divorce his wife he answered their question with another question. “What did Moses command you?” In other words, what does the law say? They answered by referring to a law in the book of Deuteronomy. “When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent,” he may write out a bill of divorce and hand it to her.
There are a number of things we need to look at before we look at Jesus’ response to them. First, a woman had no say in the bill of divorce because she had no legal rights. The only case when a woman could divorce her husband was if she could prove that he had committed adultery. Second, if a man was displeased with something that was “indecent” about his wife he could simply write out a bill of divorce, hand it to her, and dismiss her from his home. She was left penniless and abandoned.
At the time, there were two schools of thought about the definition of the word “indecent.” One said that it was to be interpreted solely as adultery. The other left the definition of “indecent” to the discretion of the husband. It could be chronic illness. It could be poor housekeeping. It could be the loss of physical beauty. It could be anything.
Jesus trumped their reference to Deuteronomy by quoting a more ancient text from the Book of Genesis. “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. 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 no human must divide.” He went on to say, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
In a way, things are in the same state as they were in Jesus’ day. We still have two schools of thought. The Roman Church, focusing on “what God has joined no human must divide,” doesn’t allow divorce. Even adultery isn’t automatic grounds for divorce. But…highly influenced by Roman law, it sidesteps allowing divorce by applying a different approach; it permits the annulment of the marriage covenant.
People requesting an annulment must prove that there was a fatal flaw in one or both of the parties that existed before the marriage. This flaw would eventually surface causing the breakdown of the relationship. One example would be if one of the parties, for some reason, felt forced into the marriage the validity of the covenant would be in question. Premarital pregnancy would certainly question the couple’s freedom to marry. Immaturity at the time of the marriage could be another reason to annul the covenant.
The Eastern Orthodox Churches, on the other hand, didn’t take the legal path the Western Church did. They allow divorce. They, too, quote Genesis, but interpret it differently. They chose a spiritual approach to marriage. Should a marriage not work out, it means that God had not “joined” the couple.
This brings me back to the first sentence in this reflection. Divorce was a problem and is still a problem. One out of two American marriages will succeed. About two out of three Catholic marriages will succeed. We’re doing better than the national average. In addition to the pain of a relational break-up, there’s additional suffering felt when Catholics the community divorce.
Men and women who are divorced and remarried without an annulment are barred from receiving the Eucharist. They may attend the Eucharistic celebration but are not permitted to partake in the Communion. (Please take note that Catholics who are divorced but NOT remarried are free to receive Communion.)
Where do we go will all of this? Jesus’ altercation with the Pharisees only goes so far, I think. His answer stayed within their legal milieu. If we look at his interactions with ordinary individuals, however, we see that he took a heartfelt approach, not a legal one. I immediately think of the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the town well.
In the course of their conversation he told her to go home, and to bring her husband back with her. She told him that she had no husband. He told her that that was true; she had had five husbands and the man she was with now wasn’t her husband. He didn’t preach to her. He certainly didn’t condemn her. He simply recognized her life. She had already been ostracized by the townsfolk because of her history. He gently acknowledged her present situation without any judgment. This changed her life. She ran back to the town and announced to everyone that she had met the Messiah. She converted the entire town to Jesus!
I’ve been a pastor for thirty-one years. I’ve witnessed hundreds of marriages. Many are still intact and life-giving. Many have broken apart. I know many divorced and remarried couples, as, I’m sure, you do also. I know many people who have gotten annulments and feel fully engaged in the Church. Sadly, I also know many men and women who are divorced and remarried and don’t join me at the communion table. This breaks my heart. I feel that, somehow, our Eucharist is incomplete without them.
I want so much to conclude this reflection with words of hope that the situation with divorced Catholics will change. Some change has been taking place in the annulment process making the process faster and less painful. Some couples have told me that they experienced a degree of healing by going through the process. That’s good. I’m happy for them. In general, though, divorced Catholics whose marriages haven’t been annulled bear the cross of judgment and separation. At the Last Supper Jesus prayed “That they all may be one.” Please pray that prayer with me today. May the Lord, heal our community. May we all, married, divorced, single, truly be one in faith and love. May we all accept each other with the love that Jesus modeled for us. May we join together as one body at the table of the Lord.