Monday, January 12, 2015

What does it mean that marriage is indissoluble, Part I

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The October 2014 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops brought up many questions and concerns regarding marriage and the family, but none quite so fixated on as sacramental marriage and its description as “indissoluble.” That is to say, marriage is indissoluble and therefore it is not simply that the Church refuses or doesn’t want to grant divorces, as many may think, but that, bluntly put, she cannot, because divorce does not actually exist. Marriages simply are indissoluble—there is no way around this.

But what do we mean—what does the Church mean—when we say “indissoluble”? I intend to explore the term and all that it entails in two short articles, this, of course, being the first. To start off, in order to understand indissolubility and all its implications better, let’s explore the components, if you will, of a marriage. We know the deal: a man, a woman, their vows to each other, and the witness (barring truly extraordinary circumstances) of a priest and someone else. It seems pretty simple, and in a way it is, because marriage is in one way the most natural phenomenon that exists. In another way, it is the most supernatural—that is, filled with grace—and it’s this paradox of marriage’s supernatural natural-ness that will help us understand indissolubility better. But in order to look at this paradox properly, we have to look at what a vow is.

Put simply, a vow is the handing of oneself over to another forever. But in this time of indecisiveness and easy choice, taking up one’s freedom in order to say “forever” seems unlikely at best, or maybe even impossible: How can I give myself away unless in every moment I’m making that decision all over again?  But this is not what the marriage vows, or any other vows, mean: a vow makes that decision, as it were, for the rest of one’s life. We relieve ourselves of the burden (while surely taking on new ones) of trying to understand what the state of one’s life is after making a vow.
By Jeff Belmonte from Cuiabá, Brazil (Flickr) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Is this actually possible for human freedom? To say “forever” in a moment and have that moment have real consequences for the rest of one’s life? Commonly conceived, freedom, it seems, is the unbridled capacity to choose, so shouldn’t we be able to say “forever” if that’s what we want? And yet, just looking at the state of marriage today, it seems that freedom doesn’t have the capacity to say forever, that the modern concept of freedom, which seems so limitless, is actually too shallow to answer a very human desire to give oneself to another.

This is our first hint that maybe our common conception of freedom as doing whatever we want so long as it doesn’t impinge on someone else’s freedom is perhaps not entirely adequate to what freedom actually is. If it lacks the capacity to say “forever,” then it is not true to our human experience. We don’t get married in order to throw an extravagant party (though maybe that too), we get married because it is within us, and we want, to say “forever” with our very selves.

So then, let’s start with an understanding of freedom that actually pertains to human being, and has the capacity to say “forever,” which includes someone’s whole self, body and soul, past and future. This already puts the vows in a different light—that is, that vows aren’t the exception to the rule of freedom, but rather freedom’s very fulfillment. Thus marriage is paradigmatic of human freedom, rather than some strange romantic aberration. Therefore, we see that a choice that two people make to marry each other and thus give themselves to one another forever in the vows, isn’t foreign to us. Indissolubility isn’t foreign to human nature. However, we still lack some precision, as to what indissolubility actually is or means, so we must go a bit further in our reflection. I’ll leave this for part two.

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