The Church is so right and yet so wrong about marriage.
I believe what philosophers call the fallacy of composition is one of the most dangerous ideas in philosophy. It states that when we talk, for instance, of a school of whales it is an error to think that there is more to the school than the sum of its members. The school is not ‘a thing in itself’ transcending the whales that compose it. That is surely right. But people also apply this to entities such as, say, a molecule. I think water does transcend the oxygen and hydrogen that compose it. It is more, a new thing that is beautiful and indivisible and indissoluble. In such a relationship the parts enter into a higher unity. A drop of water is as much water as an ocean, you can’t chop it up into parts but only reduce it to its constituents, in which case it simply disappears. This transcendence of the molecule over its parts is not something physical. You can’t see it or weigh it, but only comprehend it with the mind.
When Jesus answers questions about divorce he points out that the indissolubility of marriage is not some religious decree but a fact of nature – God established it ‘in the beginning’. In marrying each other two people enter into a higher unity, which is indissoluble just as a molecule is indissoluble, but which, like the molecule, can’t be chopped up but only reduced to its constituent parts, in which case we don’t have two bits, it simply disappears. If there’s anything about which Christ was right I believe it to be this. On a Darwinian view of sex nature provides humans with natural attractors that lead people to fall in love with each other. But nature also wants to spread genes. After two years or so it has also provided that people fall out of love, as is so often evident. Men can spread their genes further by promiscuity, women can get better genes for their future offspring by deserting their present spouse for one genetically better endowed. Christ cuts right across this and offers us a view which, I believe, is much truer to nature than the Darwinian one. In marriage the partners enter into a higher unity which is far more productive of human happiness, a transcendent unity that becomes ever more exciting, constantly more wonderful, more and more profound as they hasten towards our heavenly kingdom. I’m sure many Christian couples would testify to this. The Church has in its gift one of the greatest treasures that can be offered to mankind.
But, as so often, it has fouled up its own beautiful doctrine. Christ is saying that marriage is not about property and inheritance but a union of hearts and minds. Yet the Church has often blessed as marriages alliances that were patently no more than political and economic opportunities, and withheld its sacrament from people deeply committed to each other but who, for some technical reason, did not fulfill the conditions of canon law. According to Christ marriage is not a church regulation but a law of nature. Therefore two non-Catholics who marry in a registry office are indissolubly married. But if one of them is a Catholic, says the Church, they are not. This is surely nonsense, they marry not as Catholics but as human beings. Because they are human if they gave themselves to each other and intended it to be for ever in a registry office, it’s a marriage.
We have to remember that the present Church legislation about marriage was forged during the Middle Ages when the Church was locked in a titanic struggle with the feudal powers. Up until the twelfth century it was common for kings and barons to put away spouses for purely dynastic reasons and marry another who was a better prospect, and dispensations were usually regularly granted. By tightening its control of marriage the Church struck a powerful blow at the feudal system. Its power to bind and loose, to grant or withhold dispensations, now held even kings in thrall, as witness its relations with Henry VIII. It is only if marriage is indissoluble in the sense that there can never be divorce and a second marriage (unless the Church grants you a dispensation), that its claim to dispense becomes so potent. Its power to do so is founded on the sayings in Matthew 19:3-10 and 5:31-32, Luke 16:18 and Mark 10:11-12. ‘And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery’.
It’s strange how little attention is usually paid to that ‘except for unchastity’. I’m no great biblical scholar, but I am just wondering whether, in the context in which they were spoken, Christ’s words had quite the ring that the English translation has given them. My admittedly quite inadequate researches (don’t believe me, I’m just an amateur theologian and might always have got it wrong, my aim is just to get people to ask questions, not to lay down Church law) what I have gleaned leads me to think that there are two different Aramaic words, both of which have been translated by the New English Bible, and most others, as divorce. The King James version is truer, whoever ‘puts away’ his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery’ and in Matthew 5 ‘Anyone who puts away his wife, except on grounds of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery’. But I’m just wondering whether, in this second case, even the King James version hasn’t got it quite right, whether the correct translation in both parts of the saying is ‘put away’ , and whether it should read ‘whoever marries a put away (i.e. undivorced woman) commits adultery’.
The context is one in which women are regarded as complete chattels for the husband to do what he likes with. The Pharisees are outraged by Jesus’s suggestion that women aren’t just chattels that can be treated not as persons but as things. There is at least a case to be made that what the Pharisees are actually asking Jesus is ‘is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for any cause?’ (i.e. without divorcing her). They mean the opposite of how we take it. They are not saying ‘why can’t we divorce, Moses let us’ but ‘do you have to do what Moses said, why can’t we just show our power over her by kicking her out’. In reply Jesus says that from the beginning marriage was indissoluble. We never heard that, they reply, for if that’s the case why did Moses allow divorce at all. In response: Moses allowed you to divorce but that’s because you are so lacking in love, it’s not about property or control but faithful love, and now, in answer to your question follow the law of Moses if you must. You don’t have to issue a bill of divorce if your wife has been unfaithful for what’s what the law says. But according to the law you can’t just put her away, and anybody who marries a woman who has not yet been divorced commits adultery.
Christ doesn’t necessarily mean that once you’ve been married and it breaks down you can never marry again. He means that if a marriage does break down it has to be ended properly, i.e. through a divorce procedure. If it does break down it’s a failure and, as in the case of the molecule, there are not now two bits, the transcendent unity is over. Yet the first marriage was indissoluble. A subsequent marriage will always in a sense be adulterated, there will always be a shadow of the first marriage in the second. For you can divorce, but any more than you can’t chop up wateriness, you can’t unmarry. Once you have entered into a relationship of total personal commitment it will be there for ever, and indeed, the tenderness that ex-spouses sometimes show to each other once the plate-throwing is over, though admittedly by no means always for hatred can be as indissoluble as love, such ongoing feeling is an ironic testimony to the truth of Christ’s words. Because marriage is indissoluble a second marriage will always be adulterated by the first. But that doesn’t mean that there can never be a second marriage.
But as I say, I’m no great scholar and may be quite wrong. I just read what rabbis put on the internet about the meaning of Hebrew and Aramaic words. The Church is not an unchanging rock, however, but a living and breathing and developing organism and we need to think about all these things.