1.Marriage creates families out of sex. Marriage makes sex personal, committed, and responsible. When two people marry, they promise to give to each other their whole selves, body and soul, for their whole lives, and they promise to give each other children, and to give themselves to their children, who will make up an enormous part of their lives. They are not just his children or her children, or even his and hers, but their children, forever.
2. Is the origin of marriage a choice, or is it love?
It is a choice to love. What makes a marriage is a love-choice, not a love-feeling. Love-feelings (“falling in love”) usually motivate the choice, but they don’t make the choice. You do. What transforms these feelings into a marriage is a deliberate, free choice of the will, which is expressed in the marriage ceremony in the words “I do.”
Feelings are not free; choices are. We do not freely choose to feel, but we freely choose to act on our feelings or not to act on them. We can do the deeds of love with or without the wonderful feelings of love. Of course the feelings make loving much easier and more delightful. To choose to marry is to promise to do the deeds of love to this other person always. We hope we will also feel the feelings of love toward this other person always. But we cannot promise to feel a certain kind of love always because we cannot control our feelings as we can control our choices, our actions, and our words.
Therefore, the love we promise to give in marriage must be the kind of love we can choose and control. What kind of love is that? The gift of the whole of yourself to your spouse alone. It is called fidelity, or faithfulness. It means being with and remaining with the other in body and soul, “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in health, until death do us part”. Being with the other in soul includes giving attention, care, and good will, putting the other first in your life.
The love that originally motivates the marriage and its promises is romance, but the love that fulfills the marriage and its promises is commitment. Romance makes you jump off the diving board, but commitment keeps you afloat and swimming in the pool.
That sounds all very nice, but that’s not what marriage is today. It’s a mess. The Church tells us what marriage is ideally, but the real it not the same as the ideal.
That is unfortunately often true. The Church tells us what God’s design for marriage is, what marriage is supposed to be. By divine design, family is supposed to be the fulfillment of marriage and marriage the fulfillment of sex. And it often is. But what sex, love, marriage, and family have actually become much of the time in our fallen world, especially in our very confused American society, is far from what it is supposed to be. The real is not identical with the ideal in any society at any time after the Fall, for nothing in this world is perfect, especially human beings, their loves, their sexuality, their marriages, and their families. But these things are all more in crisis today than ever before.
But the Church also tells us what to do about the crisis, how to put marriage back together again. No matter how badly we have defaced, misused, and spoiled these three things–sex, marriage, and family–no matter how unhappy we have made these three happy divine inventions, they all remain very good things. They are three great gifts God gave us when He created us, in our original innocence, before the fall into sin. God designed them for our joy, and even in their fallen state they still give us great joy. In fact the greatest love and joy still always comes in families. (Think of Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or family vacations.)
Many families are in crisis today. The very institution of the family is in crisis. The percentage of American families that have been broken by divorce or desertion has increased from 5 percent to 50 percent in two generations. Modern society has made great moral progress in some areas–for instance, in our appreciation of human rights, equality, and compassion, especially to the poor and the handicapped. But there has been moral regress in other areas, especially marriage, the family, and sexuality. Previous generations were usually better than we are at the “hard” virtues (for instance, chastity, honesty, and courage) and worse than we are at the “soft” virtues (for instance, they tended to be more cruel and insensitive). This means we need to relearn the “hard” virtues and not keep using the “soft” ones as excuses for not practicing the “hard” ones.
3. Why did God invent families?
Every invention reflects the inventor. The Inventor of families is a Trinity, and the family reflects the Trinity, which is the nature of God, the nature of ultimate reality. Something like the family “goes all the way up”. God is a kind of family–nonbiological, spiritual family–a society of three divine Persons bound together by eternal, infinite love. The ultimate reason why God designed us to live in love, in families, and in societies is because He is love, He is a family, He is a society.
4. Why do families exist? What is the purpose of the family?
To be the place we are born into in this world. To be like landing strips for the airplanes from Heaven that we call children. God creates children and we procreate them. Whenever a man and a woman procreate a new human body, God creates a new human soul for it. A mother’s womb is the center of a family, the place the family originates.
The family surrounding the mother and her womb is the place God designed to shape those most valuable things in the universe. Healthy bodies are shaped by “health care”: food, exercise and so forth. Healthy souls are shaped by the spiritual health care of love. Families are our schools of love, our first lesson in overcoming our natural egotism. Each of us is created as an individual, with our own will. With that will, we make millions of choices throughout our lives. This makes each life a drama, and the most important theme of the drama is the choice between good and evil, between unselfish love and selfish lovelessness, between centering our lives on ourselves and centering our lives on others, between treating ourselves as God, as the center of the world, and loving others as God loves them. The family is our great weapon in that battle.
Everywhere else, you are judged on your performance: you get promoted on the job only if you work well, and you get A’s in school only if you get most of the questions right on a test. If you do not do a good job at work, you are fired, and if you get enough questions wrong in school, you get an F. But the family is the job that never fires you, and home is the school you never flunk out of. “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.”
This lesson of unselfish love that the family teaches is not only life’s most important lesson to learn, but it is also life’s most difficult lesson to learn. It’s not intellectually difficult; it’s morally difficult. It’s very easy to learn to know it, but it’s very hard to learn to do it. We know we should love unselfishly, but we don’t do that very well. The meaning of life is to be a saint, but we find it hard to be saints. The basic problem in life, the basic problem in all the world, the basic cause of war and hate and violence and divorce and injustice and oppression and most of human suffering is selfishness; but we find it terribly easy to be selfish. We need a lot of practice and training in this fundamental lesson. The family is the first and most essential training ground.
How are private families connected to the larger public society?
The family is the bridge between the individual self and the rest of the world. All of social ethics is founded on the family, for all of society is an expansion of the family. Catholic ethics, like biblical Jewish ethics and Muslim ethics, has always been very strong both on the private family and on public social morality (for example, charity to the poor, social justice, the common good, and the individual’s responsibility to work for and improve his community, school, country, and world). The present political tendency of the “right” or the “left” to emphasize one of these at the expense of the other is not natural. The Church is sympathetic to both the “conservative” emphasis on individual and family morality and the “liberal” emphasis on public, social morality. Neither can be a substitute for the other.
6. What is the relation between the family and the state?
The family is prior to the state. It is not the state that gives parents and children their rights, but God. Since the state did not give parents these right, the state cannot take them away. That includes the parents’ right to educate their children as they see fit. If the state offers free public education for parents to use, that’s fine, but the state can be only the instrument of the parents, not vice versa.
The state is not the same thing as society. The state is necessary because we are fallen and sinful. (Think of how awful it would be if there were no police.) But society is a divine invention even before sin came into the world. There was no state in the Garden of Eden, but there was society. There will be no states in Heaven, but there will be society.
Society is like a larger, looser family; it is simply other people. The state is a specific, concrete institution. It is natural for man to live in states as well as in society, but the state is a legal authority over a limited geographical area, with the power to tax and to make war. The state is “political”. The state is an instrument of society.
Society is much more important than the state. Many great men, like Jesus and Socrates, have been “apolitical” (unpolitical), but none have been unsocial.
7. How is all this connected with sex?
Families are created by marriages, and marriages are created by sexual love, so families are created by sexual love. And since the family is the foundation of society, society is created by sexual love. Sex and society are connected by nature.
That is why society, and the state that is the instrument of society, has a strong interest in sexual health and in sexual morality and sexual responsibility. Sexual irresponsibility must always result in social irresponsibility. If you lie to, betray; cheat on, and “rat on” your solemn, serious promise to your husband or wife, the one person closest to you, the one to whom you promised to be true and to give your whole self and your whole life, then you will certainly lie, betray, cheat on, and “rat on” anyone else in society. If you harm your own children by breaking up your family, you will certainly harm other people and their children too. If you betray the people you loved the most, you will certainly betray those you love less.
8. Is that why the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce?
Another reason is that the Church does not have the authority to change the teachings of Jesus. In all four Gospels, Jesus clearly forbids divorce.
The reason is clear: Jesus said, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (pull apart) (Mt 19:6). This is a very simple truth but a radical one: it is God who joins husband and wife together in marriage.
Marriage is a sacrament, and it is God who is the primary agent who “works” every sacrament; we are only His instruments. In the Eucharist, it is the priest who is His instrument; in marriage, it is the man and woman who marry who are His instruments, His priests, so to speak. It takes three to get married, not just two.
9. How can there be divorced Catholics if the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce?
There are three things that are often confused with a divorce: (a) a separation, (b) an annulment, and (c) a civil divorce.
a. A separation is not a divorce. It is two married people living apart instead of together. That is necessary sometimes because of physical danger, when one of the two is a threat to the other. A married Catholic does not have to keep living with a spouse who is constantly abusive. But when two married people no longer live together, that does not mean they can marry someone else or have sex with someone else. They are still married. Sex with someone else after you are married is adultery.
b. An annulment is not a divorce either. An annulment means that the original marriage was not really a sacramental marriage in the first place, because at least one of the parties did not enter it with full knowledge or full willingness to do one or more of the few basic, essential things that are necessary to have a real marriage: for instance, to have sex, to have children, or to be responsible for raising the children. If one of the spouses was mentally ill or addicted to drugs, he or she was not mentally free and competent to enter a Catholic, sacramental marriage. The Church grants an annulment only when, after careful investigation, she finds that one of these impediments to marriage was there from the beginning, when the two got married in the first place.
The Church is not infallible when it comes to practical decisions like this, though she is authoritative. (Parents are not infallible but they have authority over their children.) Mistakes can be made here. Often, annulments have been granted when they should not have been granted, just to make it easier on the people involved. The Church does not want to make life needlessly difficult for anybody. But the Church cannot betray her principles because they are not just hers but Christ’s.
The Church cannot solve all our problems and fix all our mistakes. We are responsible for our own choices and their consequences. The choice to marry someone is the second most important choice in your whole life. The four most important choices in your life are the choice of a God to believe in, a spouse to love and marry, friends to trust and be loyal to, and a career to work at–in that order.
c. A Catholic can get a civil divorce, a divorce in the eyes of the state.
That is not a real divorce. There is no such thing as a real divorce in the eyes of God. The kind of marriage that the state certifies is not a Catholic marriage, a sacramental marriage, a marriage that cannot be dissolved, the kind of marriage that Christ taught. It is only a human contract. God did not create that, only man did; so man can dissolve that.
Catholics who get a civil divorce, an annulment, or a separation are still Catholics. They are still in the Church, not out of it. The Church still ministers to them. They can still receive the sacraments.
And even when a Catholic gets a civil divorce and a civil remarriage to a second spouse without the Church’s approval, the Church still offers her love, pastoral care, counseling, and most of her other ministries. But if one remarries without an annulment of the first marriage, the Church cannot offer the Eucharist, because even though the person may have good intentions, he or she is living in adultery and not repenting. Repenting does not mean merely feeling sorry; it means resolving to stop sinning. You can’t intend to sin and repent of sin at the same time, whatever the sin may be.
The Church may see cruel here, but she has to be honest. Honesty often seems cruel, but it is not. For honesty means telling the truth, even if it hurts, and in the long run, lies always hurt us more than the truth does. It is possible to avoid all lies, but it is not possible to avoid all hurts. We are fallen, sinful, imperfect creatures who sometimes make big mistakes, and we live in a fallen and imperfect world. In this world, life is often terribly unfair. We not only suffer, but we also often suffer unfairly. The Church, like her Lord Jesus, wants to be with us in our suffering, if we will let her, but she cannot tell lies about us or about our sufferings and our situations. Jesus never did that.
In the long run, the Church’s absolute no to divorce is far kinder than allowing divorce, because divorce is one of the most painful things in life. The Church wants to spare us that pain. Like a doctor, she heals us of pain; but like a doctor, she sometimes has to do things that give us pain to order to spare us greater pain. The Church speaks in the name of Christ, and Christ was the kindest person who ever lived. But he was also the wisest, and therefore he knew what is best for us in the long run.
Prof. Peter Kreeft
Professor of Philosophy at Boston College and the Author of numerous books