Those of you who heard my homily last week know that I gave a reflection on one of the foundational spiritual principles, namely, “it’s not about us.” Today’s readings make it possible for us to reflect on a foundational principle of moral theology, namely, we must always do what we were created for. In the beginning of the third Eucharistic prayer, there is a line that says, “Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise.” In my very first test of my very first moral theology class in seminary, that line was quoted and the question was asked, “A rock is part of creation. How does a rock give God praise?” The correct answer, I had been taught, is “by being a rock.” All of creation gives God praise by doing what it was created for. This same standard applies to us humans, but on a much more elevated level, since we are a more elevated form of creation.
Today’s first reading provides a portion of the creation story, specifically the creation of a companion for the man, ultimately concluding in the creation of the woman. Many in the past have seen this story as proof that women are inferior to men, because it was from the man’s rib that the woman was created. But the man was created from dirt, and there is no mention of man’s inferiority to dirt, so I think that myth can be safely dispelled. What we see instead was that both the man and the woman were created by God, and that neither of them had a hand in their own creation or in the creation of the other. Each of their lives was a gift, and that gift is what we should focus on. They were created to be a gift to each other and, as it says at the end of that reading, to become one flesh together.
Both this first reading, and portions of today’s Gospel reading, are familiar choices for couple being married. The reason for that is obvious, that they want to speak to the fact that they were created for each other, which is exactly what these readings tell us. From the very beginning, man and woman were created for each other, and nothing in heaven or on earth can separate them. The love of man and woman echoes the love that God has for all of us, a deep and abiding love which can never end, because God is love itself. When a couple is married, they become a sacrament for the world, a rich symbol of the love of God. So if they are a sign of God’s love for the world, and if God’s love can never end, then no one may divide two people joined in matrimony. This teaching of Jesus has always been the teaching of the Church, and a difficult teaching at that.
The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes says of marriage: “Thus a man and a woman, who by their compact of conjugal love “are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matt. 19:6), render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions. Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them.” (Gaudium et Spes , 48)
Having said all that, I want to make some points and dispel some myths about the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, remarriage, and annulment. The first myth is that divorce is a sin which excommunicates a person from the Church and does not allow them to participate in the life of the Church or receive the sacraments. This is false. Divorce is not a sin in and of itself. It may well, however, be the result of sin, and a consequence of sin. Those who are divorced, however, remain Catholics in good standing and are free to receive the sacraments including the Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick. However, they remain married to their partner in the eyes of the Church and are not free to remarry, unless they receive an annulment. Those who remarry without an annulment have taken themselves out of communion with the Church and are not free to receive the sacraments.
The second myth is that an annulment is really just “Catholic Divorce.” This is also false. An annulment is recognition by the Church that a valid marriage, for some reason, had never taken place. The diocesan policy document on annulment defines it in this way: “Although not every marriage is a sacrament, every marriage (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Non-Believer, etc.) is presumed to be a valid marriage. The good of all concerned (spouses, children, in-laws, society, the Church, etc.) demands this presumption. In every presumption, the opposite may be true. If sufficient evidence can be shown that a particular marriage is invalid, the original presumption no longer holds. Therefore, when it can be shown that a particular marriage is not a true marriage, or not a sacrament, or not consummated, then it is possible for the Tribunal to declare that the parties are free to marry in the Catholic Church.” (Declaration of Nullity Proceedings, Diocese of Joliet , p.3) The annulment basically states that a valid marriage never happened in the first place, usually because the parties for some reason were not free to marry. These reasons may include extreme immaturity, a previous and previously undiscovered prior marriage, or entering marriage with no intention of remaining faithful or of having children. There are other considerations, of course, and if you need to explore this further, you should contact me or Fr. Ted.
A third myth is that those who are marrying a non-Catholic who had been previously married are automatically free to marry, since the non-Catholic’s marriage did not take place in the Catholic Church. This is false. The Church, as I mentioned earlier, presumes marriages between non-Catholics to be valid, so their previous marriage would have to be annulled by the Catholic Church before a Catholic is free to marry them.
A fourth myth is that the Church always insists that the parties stay together. Today’s readings show that the permanence of the marriage relationship is the intent of God, and the strong preference of the Church. However, we all understand that there are circumstances in which that may not be possible. Fr. Ted and I attended a workshop this week on domestic violence. We would never counsel someone to stay together in an abusive relationship only to see them again at their funeral. That is completely unacceptable. If you are in an abusive relationship, whether the abuse is physical, verbal, or emotional, you need to seek help and safety. The Church will support you in that decision. If you find yourself in that kind of relationship, whether you are married or not, please see someone on our staff immediately.
Finally, there are some misconceptions about annulment proceedings that I want to clear up. First, if you do receive an annulment, that does not mean your children are illegitimate. Many people think that, but that is completely false. Second, people think annulments are too expensive. They are not. The diocese requires a visit to a psychologist or psychiatrist, the cost of which is approximately $150. The diocese also requests $175 for processing the paperwork. But, under no circumstances will an annulment be denied if a person cannot meet those expenses. Having said that, an annulment is not painless. There are all sorts of emotional experiences that an annulment would dredge up, and I am certain they are going to be painful. But that kind of pain is part and parcel of any healing, so when you are in the right place for it, if you think your marriage was invalid, you should speak to a priest who can advise you how to begin the process.
I began this discussion by teaching the moral principle that we must do what we were created for. The whole idea of sin is that it involves us abandoning that principle, by not doing what we were created for, or even doing something that destroys God’s creation. The relationships in our lives can be the source of our greatest joys and our deepest pains. As I have told the couples I have prepared for marriage, the decision to love one another is not something that is done once and for all on the wedding day. The decision to love one another, to be one flesh, is a decision that both parties must make every single day. That may be easy on the wedding day when people come to this Church full of hopes and dreams, with every intent of being one forever. But life often throws them some curves, and sometimes more than one curve at a time. The day-in, day-out living of a marriage is going to mean that one of them might have a rough day, week, month or more at work which will distract them from the way they would otherwise choose to love the other person. Or the raising of children will cause a need for a long discussion on priorities and discipline. Money problems, too, have a way of creeping into the relationship and seeming so huge that they will threaten to tear it apart. In old age, people get sick and often must be cared for on a long-term basis by the other person in the relationship. Life takes us in different directions than we expect at the beginning of life together. But the promise to be one does not go away when times become rough. We were created to help one another through the difficulties of life, and to choose to do anything less than that is sinful.
To be the people we were created to be, we must choose to love each other every single day of our lives. That is true of married couples for one another. It is true of parents and children for one another. It is true of priests and parishioners for one another. Our promise to love one another is a sacrament to the world, proclaiming God’s love for every person he has created. “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.”