LegalWorks Apostolate - Counsel for a Culture of Life

The Sacrament of Marriage and the Spectre of Divorce

By Matthew Milhon

"Is there a history of divorce in your family?" Being a 23-year-old man on the verge of marriage, this question caught me more than a little off guard when asked by a priest who is preparing my fiancée and I for the Sacrament of Matrimony. At first I was not entirely sure why I found it offensive. Was it that I found it insensitive to pose such a question to a couple preparing to enter into sacramental union, or maybe I just did not want to entertain the notion of a future without my bride-to-be?

Upon reflection, it was all rather simple, I had to answer 'yes', and I did not welcome being asked to answer for my parents actions. I feared I might next be asked to prove that I would not make the same mistakes they had made. But then I realized that is exactly why Father was posing the question. My fiancée and I will be faced with the same struggles that my parents, and every other married couple, go through. My experience with a broken home would only add to the strain. It is through this lens that I reflected upon two recent articles in The Telegraph that examine marriage, divorce and the contemporary (an not so contemporary) assumptions made about both.

As conveyed in the first of these reports, a study was conducted amongst 61 cohabitating persons concerning their reasons for not entering into a marriage with the respective live-in partner of each. Among the most cited reasons for reticence, couples expressed a desire to 'do it right', which was defined as marrying only once, to the ideal partner.

While it is admirable that the majority of couples surveyed expressed sentiments that place marriage on a higher plane that mere cohabitation, an obvious requisite missing from this list would be '?until death do us part'. For example, the next most frequent responses were that marriage was difficult to exit and that "the rewards of marriage are not worth the risk of what might occur (namely divorce)."

From this, at least two things are quite evident. One, that young couples, even those who are cohabitating, view matrimony as something that is more than a mere sexual relationship. And two, the specter of divorce has a grip on those who see marriage as something desirable.

It has become the norm that marriages are expected to fail, no matter how long and seemingly healthy the marriage is it is assumed that, in this day and age, it will end in divorce at some point. My fiancée and I have experienced this sentiment first hand on a number of occasions. Upon learning our engagement, a number of folks, who have, I hope, a genuine feeling of excitement for us, nonetheless immediately quipped, "Well if you don't get it right this time around, you can always try again."

This would seem totally out of place as a sentiment of well-wishing if not for the follow- up which places their personal experience of failed marriages front and center: It took me 3 times before I got it right. At this point, the well-wisher normally wraps his or her arm around spouse number three and gives a squeeze intended to instill confidence, as if to say, "Don't worry, son, when you're filing for divorce there is light at the end of the tunnel -- not to mention alimony payments and weekend visits with your kids."

It is this attitude that pervades any discussion of marriage today; it is important, but not important enough to get in the way of my personal happiness.

Turning to the second of the two recent reports, we find that an Italian man has filed to divorce his wife of 77 years after discovering an infidelity that occurred decades prior. They have five children, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. I highlight this article not to lend credence to the popular notion that divorce is an inevitable event in the life of a marriage, not matter how long, but rather to herald the call to bear the difficulties of marriage with the grace that the sacrament offers.

As the Telegraph reports, Anastasia de Waal, head of a family and education think-tank called Civitas, observed as follows: "Research shows us that not marrying is often down to the fact that it is valued to the point of becoming unachievable?this attitude is mirrored in peoples expectations around the position that they must be in when they get married - in the perfect relationship and financial situation. In short couples are worried about entering marriage, commonly perceived as the ideal relationship, in case they don't live up to that ideal."

If only someone would tell these couples that marriage is not about entering into an ideal fiscal and emotional relationship, but about creating one through mutual spousal support, the begetting of children, and the grace of God offered to the couple and their children in the Sacrament.

If only marriage were seen as a means of salvation and to do it right meant to get your spouse and children to heaven, and not merely to marry once and to an ideal spouse, then the marriage union would be properly elevated to its rank of a truly and great sacrament of the New Law, [and] restored to the original purity of its Divine institution? and the specter of divorce would be vanquished by the Cross of Christ and would be branded rightly as a "hateful abomination which beyond all question reduce our truly cultured nations to the barbarous standards of savage peoples, (Casti Conubii," +Pope Pius XI).

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