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The Unity And Indissolubility Of Marriage

February 24, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


As is true of the worthy reception of each of the seven sacraments, special graces are given to those who enter into sacred Matrimony. There “arises a bond between the spouses which by its very nature is perpetual and exclusive” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1638). The unique graces that are bestowed tend “to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity” (CCC, n. 1641).
In addition to an increase in both sanctifying grace and participation in the Indwelling Presence of the Holy Spirit, they receive actual graces to assist one another in growing in holiness, welcoming and educating children, practicing lifelong fidelity, fulfilling marital rights and duties, and perseveringly bearing with one another’s faults.
Couples faithful to the vocation of marriage are given the graces to perfect their love for one another and, as we saw last week, to grow in virtue. “This love God has judged worthy of special gifts. . . . Such love, merging the human with the divine, leads the spouses to a free and mutual gift of themselves . . . [and] pervades the whole of their lives: indeed, by its busy generosity it grows better and grows greater,” declare the fathers of Vatican II.
“The constant fulfillment of the duties of this Christian vocation demands notable virtue. For this reason, strengthened by grace for holiness of life, the couple will painstakingly cultivate and pray for steadiness of love, large-heartedness, and the spirit of sacrifice” (Gaudium et Spes [GS], n. 49 §§ 2, 3).
The Catechism now examines the “goods and requirements of conjugal love,” focusing particularly on the two essential elements of marriage: unity and indissolubility. In his 1981 apostolic exhortation On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, Pope St. John Paul II beautifully synthesizes what the Christian conjugal bond encompasses:
“Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter — appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, the unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility (cf. Humanae Vitae, n. 9)” (Familiaris Consortio [FC], n. 13 § 9; as cited in CCC, n. 1643).
Indeed, as Sacred Scripture states, the two “become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Eph. 5:31).
The Catechism goes on to clearly state that “the love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses’ community of persons, which embraces their entire life” (CCC, n. 1644).
Likewise, the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) unequivocally states that “the essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility, which in Christian marriage obtain a special firmness by reason of the sacrament” (canon 1056).
In precise terms, what is meant by these two terms in the context of marriage?
Before defining them it is important to recall that these indispensable qualities are inherent in the institution of marriage itself. Consequently, the Church teaches they are properties of marriage in virtue of the natural law — they apply to all marriages, not only to those of Christians. However, as was stated earlier, they “obtain a special firmness by reason of the sacrament” for baptized persons who validly enter into a marriage covenant.
The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (NC-CCL) defines unity in marriage as “an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman” (p. 1249). As articulated by the Second Vatican Council fathers, “the unity of marriage will radiate from the equal personal dignity of wife and husband, a dignity acknowledged by mutual and total love” (GS, n. 49 § 3).
Moreover, elaborates St. John Paul II, the exclusive and self-giving relationship shared by the spouses enables them “to grow continually in their communion through day-to-day fidelity to their marriage promise” (FC, n. 19 § 1).
Polygamy, therefore, whether simultaneous or successive (i.e., divorce and civil remarriage), “is contrary to conjugal love which is undivided and exclusive” (CCC, n. 1645). It radically contradicts the communion of man and wife and “directly negates the plan of God which was revealed from the beginning” (FC, n. 19 § 4).
To say that marriage is indissoluble, on the other hand, “means that it is a perpetual relationship which not only should not be terminated but cannot be terminated, even if the couple’s existential relationship is irretrievably broken” (NC-CCL, p. 1249).
“The intimate partnership of married life and love,” teaches Vatican II, “is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent” (GS, n. 48 § 1). In other words, the bond cannot be intrinsically dissolved, even if one or both of the parties subsequently withdraw consent, once the marriage is validly entered into.
As explained by St. John Paul II, “the indissolubility of marriage finds its ultimate truth in the plan that God has manifested in His revelation: He wills and communicates the indissolubility of marriage as a fruit, a sign, and a requirement of the absolutely faithful love that God has for man and that the Lord Jesus has for the Church” (FC, n. 20 § 3).
“Through the sacrament,” teaches the Catechism, “the indissolubility of marriage receives a new and deeper meaning” (CCC, n. 1647). This is made possible because “the Savior of men and the Spouse of the Church comes into the lives of married Christians through the sacrament of matrimony,” state the Vatican II fathers.
“He abides with them thereafter so that just as He loved the Church and handed Himself over on her behalf, the spouses may love each other with perpetual fidelity through mutual self-bestowal” (GS, n. 48 § 2).
Even though, humanly speaking, “it can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being” (CCC, n. 1648), the supernatural power provided by the graces of the sacrament make it possible.
To be sure, challenges and difficulties will be encountered in all marriages, perhaps even the temptation to “call it quits.” However, we can be assured of God’s help should we sincerely ask, for “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
As the Catechism adds: “This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love” (CCC, n. 1648).
“To bear witness to the inestimable value of the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage,” proclaims St. John Paul II, “is one of the most precious and most urgent tasks of Christian couples in our time” (FC, n. 20 § 6).
“Yet there are some situations,” continues the Catechism, “in which living together becomes practically impossible for a variety of reasons” (CCC, n. 1649). For compelling reasons (e.g., physical or psychological violence), “the Church permits the physical separation of the couple and their living apart” (ibid.).
St. John Paul II cautions, however, that “separation must be considered as a last resort, after all other reasonable attempts at reconciliation have proved vain” (FC, n. 83 § 1).
Furthermore, as Gerhard Cardinal Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, points out: “It must be remembered . . . that the marriage bond of a valid union remains intact in the sight of God, and the individual parties are not free to contract a new marriage, as long as the spouse is alive” (Remaining in the Truth of Christ, p. 161). [Interested readers are encouraged to refer to canons 1151-1155 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law for more information on separating while the marriage bond remains.]

Love And Assistance

The Catechism next addresses a situation all too common in contemporary times: “Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ . . . the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists” (CCC, n. 1650).
Later the Catechism clearly states, “Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death” (CCC, n. 2384). At the same time, it is acknowledged that “if civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense” (CCC, n. 2383).
What is the Church’s response to those who find themselves in these difficult situations, who are striving to keep the faith and bring up their children in a Christian manner?
“Priests and the whole community must manifest an attentive solicitude, so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptized persons” (CCC, n. 1651). “Here it is even more necessary for the Church to offer continual love and assistance, without there being any obstacle to admission to the sacraments” (FC, n. 83 § 3).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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