The All-Important Question of Divorce – The Catholic Ideal


by the Rev. Thomas Gerrard, 1911

This brings us to the all-important question of divorce. If both the natural and divine laws maintain the unity and perpetuity of the marriage bond, then no power on earth, not even the Church, has power to grant a divorce. “What, therefore, God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” Here, on the threshold of the question it is necessary to make a clear distinction of terms.

When it is said that no power on earth can grant a divorce, divorce must be understood in a particular and strict sense of the word. Let us distinguish then between three kinds of separation.

First, there is a separation which implies that the husband and wife are allowed to live apart. It is called in juridical language a judicial separation.

It is called in theological language separatio a mensa et thoro, or separation from bed and board.

Its meaning is that, although the parties are separated from each other, yet they are not free to marry again. If they were allowed to marry again the separation would be said to be a vinculo, or separation from the bond. The actual contract or tie would be broken.

Now the first kind of separation is allowed by the Church whenever there is a grave reason, such, for instance, as the misconduct of one of the parties. But the second kind the Church allows never. The bond which has been made by God may not be broken by man.

One of the parties may forfeit certain rights of marriage through infidelity to the partner, but can never thereby acquire the freedom to marry again.

And further, the Church makes no distinction in this respect between the innocent party and the guilty. A bond is a bond, the contract is a two-sided one, and, therefore, as long as the bond or contract remains it must bind both the parties.

However unfair it may seem to the innocent party, yet it is God’s law and God will see to it that those who observe His law, will, in the final balancing, receive their just reward.

Then there is another kind of separation which is frequently believed to be a divorce and which is a source of much perplexity to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It is called a declaration of nullity.

It means that that which has appeared to be a marriage is declared never to have been a marriage from the beginning. The parties have gone through the ceremony, but there has been some obstruction in the way which has prevented the knot from being tied and so the supposed marriage must be declared null and void.

Let us take an instance. A Jew married to a baptized Christian wife seeks for a divorce in the law courts. He is successful in his suit. Then he becomes a Catholic, falls in love with a Catholic girl, and wishes to be married to her In the Catholic Church. There is no difficulty, the Church approves of the marriage. What has happened?

The undiscerning public thinks that the Church has approved of divorce and of the remarriage of a divorced person. And if the man happens to have been a wealthy Jew the undiscerning public is not slow to attribute unworthy motives to the Church. But again, what has really happened?

The Jew’s first marriage was really no marriage at all in the sight of the Church. Baptism is the first Sacrament and the door of the other Sacrament. The Jew had not received the Sacrament of Baptism and so was incapable of receiving the Sacrament of Marriage. And being unbaptized he was furthermore incapable of making the contract of marriage, for the Sacrament is the contract.

Therefore, the marriage which, by the law of the land, was declared to be dissolved was by the law of the Church declared never to have existed, to have been null and void from the beginning. Consequently, when the Jew became a Catholic and received the Sacrament of baptism he was quite free and capable of uniting himself with the partner of his choice.

There are three exceptions to the law of indissolubility. The first two concern marriages ratified but not consummated. Such may be dissolved either by papal dispensation for some grave reason, or by the solemn, religious profession of one of the parties.

The third is known as the Pauline privilege. It may happen only in a marriage between unbelievers, and this even when consummated. If one of the parties is converted to the Christian faith, and the other refuses to live peaceably, or shows contempt for God and religion, or tries to pervert the faithful partner, then the faithful one has a right to a real divorce (I Cor. vll, 15).

Within these limitations the Church is absolutely inexorable against any attempt at separation from the bond. She has suffered the loss of whole nations from the faith rather than sacrifice one jot or tittle of her principle.

The care of the Sacrament has been committed to her keeping, and to have condoned a denial of the Sacramental nature of the matrimonial bond, even in one case, would have been to renounce the divine charge given to her.

For the English-speaking world the Pope’s firmness, in refusing to grant a divorce to Henry VIII, must ever be a monument of the fidelity of the Church to the sanctity of the marriage state. And the famous Encyclical of the late Sovereign Pontiff, Leo XIII, must ever remain the character of woman’s dignity and safety as to her marriage right.

“The great evils,” wrote the Pontiff, “of which divorce is the spring, can hardly be enumerated. When the conjugal bond loses its immutability we may expect to see benevolence and affection destroyed between husband and wife; an encouragement given to infidelity; the protection and education of children rendered more difficult; the germs of discord sown between families; woman’s dignity disowned; the danger for her of seeing herself forsaken, after having served as the instrument of man’s passions.

And as nothing ruins families and destroys the most powerful kingdoms like the corruption of manners, it is easy to see that divorce, which is only begotten of the depraved manners of a people, is the worst enemy of families and of States, and that it opens the door, as experience attests, to the most vicious habits, both in private and in public life.”

Views subversive of the Catholic ideal are now very prevalent, and are becoming day by day more prevalent. In the matter of the sanctity of marriage, as in many other things, it is the Catholics who are the salt of the earth. Whilst other religious bodies are prepared to give way under any specious pretext which may arise, the See of Peter proclaims the principle of no compromise.

And when the Churches which ought to guard the sanctity of marriage show themselves weak and accommodating to the lower pleasures of man, we must not be surprised if non-religious bodies speak openly in favor of divorce and, all unashamed, make profession of free love. This, indeed, has come to pass.

High time is it, then, for Catholics to make their voice heard In protest. Nay, absolutely imperative is it that Catholics should rally themselves anew with even greater loyalty around the Holy Father who watches the marriage Sacrament so anxiously and sees its dangers so clearly.

Legislation is made which may be irksome; but the irksomeness thereby suffered is trifling compared with the irksomeness thereby avoided. Let us admit boldly that the marriage state is fraught with difficulties, that love is liable to grow cold, that child-bearing is a burden, that the education of many children is a tax on the family’s resources, that a drunken husband is an almost intolerable nuisance, that a gossiping wife is a plague of a life; let us admit all this, but at the same time insist that the Sacrament of Marriage has power either to prevent or mitigate the evils. It restrains the passions.

But let the idea of divorce once get established and there is an end of restraint. The passions are let loose and fall victim to every little counter-attraction to family life. The half-hearted partner who realizes that there is an easy escape from the burden of married life makes no serious attempt to bear it.

Then comes the sad spectacle of a mother left alone with a house full of children and no father to provide for them; or what is perhaps even more sad, a father with a house full of children and no mother to take care of them.

The Church’s laws may be hard to bear at times. They are, however, as the yoke of Christ, sweet and easy to bear, if only we spread them out over the short run of life.

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