What God has joined together

Cooke, Bernard

WHAT GOD HAS JOINED TOGETHER ... REFLECTIONS ON INDISSOLUBIUTY BERNARD COOKE Among the pastoral problems to which Catholic theology should address attention, few have as widespread impact as the...

...Without suggesting any final answer to these questions, it does seem that we can associate the indissolubility of Christian marriage more satisfactorily with the sacramentality of marriage than with any other aspect...
...Similarly, two Christians can be very genuinely and sacramentally married, but they are still being married to one another...
...Not that all Catholic couples as they begin their married life are conscious of and open to this broader meaning of their marital contract, but this is the intrinsic reality of Christian marriage which we can hope will become understood and appreciated by people...
...Let us, then, draw upon the first of these methodological shifts, namely the use of Christian experience as a basis for reflection...
...And when one introduces Christian significance into this action so that it can become the heart of the marriage's sacramentality, the need for lifelong learning becomes only too apparent...
...The contemporary church is rapidly regaining its sense of Christian existence as a process, a lifelong initiation into relationship with the Christian community and with the risen Lord...
...but human experience teaches us the bitter lesson that friendships, even long-standing and 178 treasured ones, do not always stand the test of time...
...Perhaps we can and must say that the promise not to engage in marital intimacy with any other person, the promise that each party made at the time of beginning their marriage, remains in force no matter what happens...
...We might in some cases say that there has been infidelity that extends beyond the two persons to the Christian community and to God, that there has been sinful negligence or malice, that some responsibilities may still remain from the earlier covenant commitment...
...and it has moved away from the "automatic effect'' mentality that characterized so much post-Tridentine explanation of sacraments and has instead re-emphasized the extent to which the sanctifying effectiveness of sacraments depends on the awareness and decisions of the Christian people involved in one or other sacramental context...
...Legalism was able, however, to triumph: the chancellor obtained a "sanatio in radice'' and the young couple never had to know that they began their married life in a state of material sin...
...like anything in creation, particularly anything in human history, a marriage exists eschatologically...
...In this context, the contractual aspect of the pledge between woman and man in marriage takes on added dimensions: the couple commit themselves to one another, but they also commit themselves as a couple to participate sacramentally and ministerially in the life of the Christian community...
...Sympathetic to the young people's desire, he offered to marry them privately in his office...
...One can, of course, give an essentially legal response to this question: we have a law, a law that gives expression to a view of Catholic marriage which we are not free to abandon...
...We seem to be left, then, with no other clear alternative than the one we have already discovered...
...When we come to the New Testament, the raising of Jesus from the dead is seen as the culminating fulfillment of God's promises, the supreme proof of divine fidelity...
...They are the sacrament, not simply because they are recognizable in the community as the two who publicly bound themselves by marital contract, but because and to the extent that they can be recognized as translating Christian faith into their married and family life...
...As in the past, liturgical action points the way for our theological reflection and our doctrinal clarification: lexorandi, lexcredendi...
...Perhaps this law itself is meant to be the statement of an ideal toward which Catholics should strive with varying degrees of success or failure...
...Can we in the face of this widespread experience justifiably say that these marriages continue to exist...
...The extent to which an actual situation of sexual interchange symbolizes an irrevocable, i.e., indissoluble, commitment of each to the other seems, then, to be commensurate with the attitudes, understandings, etc., of the two people engaged in marital intercourse...
...the source of whatever indissolubility attaches to a particular marriage must be the character of the marriage itself, more specifically its symbolic import as a Christian sacrament...
...Having raised that question, let us bracket it for the moment and come back to it after we have treated some other elements of sacramental theology...
...it reaches in its significance to the divine...
...This is true of individual human existence...
...But it reflects also the broadened context of doing theology today, and it is to this aspect of reflection on indissolubility that I wish to direct my remarks...
...Perhaps we can sharpen the focus a bit by raising the question: If indissolubility is in some way and to some degree "intrinsic" to Christian marriage, what is the source of this indissolubility in a particular case...
...Since "absolute' ' is a characteristic reserved to divinity, one cannot strictly speaking apply it to any created reality or to any bit of human knowledge...
...Can a person remain committed to the Christian community to live out a sacramental relationship that is existentially impossible...
...Exactly how all this will occur in a given instance is as diverse and distinctive as are the people involved and the overall social situation of a given culture or historical period...
...Can a marriage speak experientially about a divine love that never fails, unless it itself is lived as a relationship that is indissoluble...
...Is God the source or, to put it more bluntly, is God doing something extra to make a particular Christian marriage indissoluble...
...It would seem, then, that one should not talk about a marriage as being completely or absolutely indissoluble but as becoming increasingly indissoluble as it becomes increasingly Christian...
...More precisely, it is to question ecclesiastical power to condition the indissolubility of marriages...
...But that does not say that it is impossible for them to fail at this task, impossible for the actual indissolubility of a marriage to gradually weaken and ultimately disappear...
...For Christians the parameters of personal destiny, of personal responsibility and commitment, of personal development and achievement, in brief of human life, are broadened by the revelation contained in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth...
...Indissolubility is an aspect of the intrinsic finality of any marriage, more so of a Christian marriage because of its amplified significance...
...A final possibility for grounding the indissolubility of Christian marriage lies in the sacramentality of the two Christian persons as they live in relationship to one another...
...This Is the clear import of the post- Vatican II revision of the rite for the initiation of adults...
...And if the special indissolubility of Christian marriage is tied to sacramentality, in what way does indissolubility pertain to marriages that seem to have lost all operative sacramentality...
...His books include Ministry to Word and Sacrament and Sacraments and Sacramentality...
...Much as it pains us, the overall common good requires that exceptions not be made, so that the indissoluble character of Christian marriage will be safeguarded...
...Precisely because it is so human distinctive with each couple, fragilely linked with all the other elements of a couple's relationship to one another, symbolically expressive of so much that cannot find explicit verbalization yet is itself in need of communication between persons to make its meaning clear truly human sexual intercourse needs to be learned over a long period of time...
...I have no intention of summarizing, even briefly, that history...
...Today's developments in theology constitute a multi-faceted phenomenon...
...It is true that for two people deeply in love, there is often profound meaning in their first full sexual intimacy, but theirs will be a sad married life if they do not progress in their self-giving far beyond this first experience...
...What I do wish to do is suggest the impropriety of such an abstract understanding of sexual intercourse, especially of marital intercourse...
...Finally, as a paradigm form of human friendship, marriage at its best should certainly mature into an increasingly indissoluble bond between persons...
...Tragically, very many marriages are scarcely consummated as personal relationships...
...However, the fact that it does not yet have in full fashion the modalities such as indissolubility that should characterize it does not mean that it is devoid of them...
...REFLECTIONS ON INDISSOLUBIUTY BERNARD COOKE Among the pastoral problems to which Catholic theology should address attention, few have as widespread impact as the question of the indissolubility of Christian marriages...
...My purpose in citing this example is not to ridicule canonical arrangements in the church...
...Indissolubility is something they should strive to intensify in their shared life...
...On the other hand, the view of all creation as eschatological accords with the first of all biblical commands, "I alone am the Lord, your God...
...3) We are beginning to theologize ecumenically, realizing that we cannot ignore other Christian traditions for that matter, religious traditions other than Christian in our attempts to understand more deeply and accurately the workings of the divine with humans...
...1) Today we are using the life experience of believing Christians, as individuals and as communities, as the starting point of our theological reflection...
...The clear conclusion is that an individual Christian marriage does not from its first moments completely reflect the Christ-mystery, completely reflect the indissoluble bond of saving love that links Christ with his spouse, the church, any more than a person is completely Christian with baptism...
...Among these are many that begin in a Catholic wedding ceremony...
...Perhaps we can and must say the responsibility for the other rests permanently on each of them...
...But has not the official church, at least as far back as Trent, claimed the power to govern the existence of Catholic marriages by its legal activity...
...The concrete interaction with one another in their daily life will unavoidably serve as '' word of God'' in the light of which they will develop their self-image, their freedom, their values, their faith and hope and love...
...That there is some special personal commitment signified by this action is hard to deny, but it is also hard to deny that it is signified only to the extent that this act is one of genuine personal love, expressive of each person' s selfhood and honest respect of the other's selfhood...
...But what are we to say when the contract has been broken by one or both parties...
...Certainly, we are closer to a grounding for indissolubility when we regard Catholic marriage as Christian covenant, for the promise involved has a clearly eschatological orientation...
...In this context, we can return to the questions raised earlier about the commitment implicit in marital intercourse...
...Finally, it seems that we need a somewhat new though tradition-respecting look at indissolubility to discover whether we are justified in applying it as absolutely as we Catholics have done in more recent centuries...
...rather, it is to raise some basic questions about ecclesiastical claims to make things be or not be...
...We enter a somewhat different realm, however, when we regard Catholic marriage in the light of the biblical/theological category of covenant...
...The reproductive drive of the species, society's concern for successful childbearing, marital sexual intimacy, human friendship all these dimensions of marriage certainly point to some degree of permanence, but not to sufficient grounds for universally attributing indissolubility to all marriages, including Catholic marriages...
...within this complex change, it seems to me that three shifts are of special relevance to the topic of our discussion...
...Could one truly say that there did not exist a deeply sacramental Christian marriage...
...But, to return to our emphasis on doing theology out of experience, is not the experience of' 'getting married'' and the significance (sacramentality) attached to it one of promise to the other person rather than to the community...
...But God's word, no matter what the medium of its transmission, has always been a promise of unconditioned divine fidelity...
...Does the Christian community, more specifically do the bearers of authority in the church, have the power to make Catholic marriages dissoluble...
...To put it in biblical terms, a Christian marriage, like any other created realities, does not exist absolutely...
...Despite the most Christian self-giving on the part of two devoted Catholics, the absence of the legally-established form or of proper delegation on the part of the witnessing cleric rendered their marriage invalid...
...Too much of the discussion of sexual intercourse among moral theologians and canonists has forgotten that it is a human activity, even though they have verbally nodded in that direction...
...Israel's God is a faithful God...
...the more profoundly Christian a marriage relationship becomes, the more inseparable are the two persons as loving human beings, and the more does their relationship sacramentalize the absolute indissolubility of the divine-human relationship as it finds expression in the crucified and risen Christ...
...But can we say, for example, that an innocent and betrayed person in a marriage, a person who has clearly been irrevocably deserted, is still involved in a onesided contract...
...Common sense seems to say that there is something wrong here...
...If consum181 mation is intrinsic to the establishment of a Christian marriage, one can only wonder how many marriages qualify as "Christian," and therefore how much claim they can lay to indissolu-bility...
...Men and women are gradually initiated into marriage as a human relationship and a Christian sacrament...
...While it may always be "eternally true" that two married persons were close friends, if the friendship does cease, one simply cannot assert that it continues and constitutes indissolubility...
...Inadequate as our understanding of the sacramentality of Christian marriage is, it does seem to provide some focus for the practical pastoral judgments about indissolubility that we face at this moment in Christian history...
...one becomes married...
...On the other hand, contemporary sacramental theology has increasingly broadened the scope of sacrament beyond simply the liturgical ritual...
...In doing so, we have rediscovered the eschatological perspective that characterizes biblical thought...
...2) We are gradually absorbing into our theological process the historical consciousness, the awareness of process, and the general acceptance of evolution that are hallmarks of modern Western thought...
...the initiation is never completed in this life no more than is a person's lifelong initiation into Christianity, for becoming married is for most Christians a major element in the broader initiation into Christ...
...Unless I misread present theological developments, it seems that we are presently moving toward a reinterpretation of "providence" in terms of the divine presence in the lives of humans...
...But does the preservation of this ideal demand the absolutely universal implementation of this rule...
...Clearly, it would have been catastrophic to contact the newly married in the midst of their honeymoon and ask them to return so that they could be married...
...they do not grow...
...If Christian couples themselves are the sacrament of Christian marriage, and couples obviously differ greatly in the extent to which they are genuinely Christian, to what extent is a particular marriage truly sacramental, to what extent does it actually symbolize the love between Christ and the church...
...As such, it shares in the responsibility to fulfill that finality which a woman and a man undertake when they enter upon a marriage...
...For example, at the most elemental biological level, where marriage involves two people mating for the continuation of the race, it is undeniable that in many cases such a strictly biological relationship does not and need not continue beyond a certain point...
...While other sources of insight Scripture, traditional teaching, liturgy, etc...
...However, the next day the chancellor obviously with great embarrassment realized the lack of due form because there had been only the one witness to the marriage...
...they commit themselves to shared dis-cipleship and a life together of working for the establishment of the Kingdom of God...
...Perhaps we could profitably borrow a notion from recent New Testament scholarship, namely "realized eschatology...
...The above article is excerpted from Commitment to Partnership: Expolorations of the Theology of Marriage, edited by William P. Roberts, to be published by Paulist Press in May...
...their union can become yet richer and stronger...
...One wonders if the understanding of Christian marriage has not for centuries suffered the fate of being overly structured and frozen by the use of Greek categories of thought with their presumptions of universality and absoluteness...
...Apparently we must ask, in a somewhat more restricted form, the question we just raised about the broader reality of Catholic marriage: When are we justified in applying the term "sacramental...
...And the question comes then: Can a Christian marriage truly sacramentalize, i.e., both speak of and make present, this divine fidelity unless it itself bears the mark of unfailing, irrevocable endurance...
...Is the church the source...
...enter in as principles of interpretation, it is the providential action of God in people's lives that provides the immediate "word" of revelation with which we must deal as theologians...
...According to the account, a socially prominent young couple, wishing to avoid all the fuss of a big public wedding celebration, went for advice to the chancellor of a large U.S...
...That we are seriously re-examining this element of Catholic teaching reflects pastoral anxiety for the well-being of the millions of women and men in situations that have separated them from their Catholic roots...
...It strikes me that a more flexible and individualized approach will still continue to honor the teaching that Christian marriage is of its nature indissoluble...
...By way of corollary, it might be well to extend these remarks to the notion of marital consummation...
...For Christians, married life is meant to share in this initiation into Christ...
...One becomes Christian...
...Up to this point our reflection together could quite justifiably be faulted for the static way in which it has treated marriage, so let us examine the indissolubility of Christian marriage from the perspective of marriage as process...
...A list of questions: To what extent does modern process view of reality affect the way in which we consider a particular Christian marriage as indissoluble...
...What can one say by way of conclusion...
...Suffice it to recall the operative church law that regards a marriage soluble if it is only ratum and not consummatum...
...diocese, since he was a close friend of the woman's family...
...Let us suppose that the diocesan chancellor had never realized his error, and that without any legal "sanation" the two people had lived a life together that reflected to their children and to all who knew them the transforming presence of God's love...
...But how can we say that a relationship that in its human and existential aspects, and therefore in its sacramen-tality, has dissolved is indissoluble...
...When two Christians are married they commit not only their growth as persons to one another, they commit their faith, their relation to God in Christ to one another obviously, not totally, but to a very considerable degree...
...In this case the indissolubility attaches to the overall ecclesial sacramentality of the institution of Christian marriage rather than to the sacramentality of this or that particular marriage union...
...Being Christian" is something a person only gradually and incompletely achieves...
...But if this is so, and if we then apply this to marriage, it would accentuate the importance of awareness and free decision in the sacramentality of any given marriage, for God's presence to humans is conditioned by their conscious and free acceptance of the divine saving love...
...I know of no theological voice that would clearly respond "yes," that would go beyond claiming for the church the power to proclaim and defend and socially implement (within the church's own internal life) an indissolubility that already exists in Christian marriage prior to any church action or regulation...
...And if they do have such power, is their exercise of this power the cause of Catholic marriages being indissoluble...
...For example, years ago, when I was studying the canon law of marriage, the teacher highlighted the importance of'' proper form" by repeating a canonical "horror story" whether factual or not, the story quite clearly made its point...
...No characteristic is more emphasized in the biblical literature...
...Or are we to say that the covenant pledge, with one's partner and with the Christian community, which one took at the wedding ceremony remains a promise to the community even if the actual human marriage relationship dissolves...
...There is a long history of the role of first sexual intercourse between a couple as establishing a societal bond, and along with this a long history of Christianity considering first marital intercourse as somehow intrinsic to the marriage contract and therefore to the very existence of the marriage...
...so, he requested his secretary to join them as witness to the marriage, the marriage was performed, and the young couple on their honeymoon informed their respective families of the fait accompli...
...Here we are faced with the concrete and unavoidable reality: according to every ordinary observable measure, BERNARD COOKE chairs the department of religious studies at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts and teaches systematic theology there...
...Historical studies have pointed out how the meaning of "sacrament"as applied to marriage has shifted from the emphasis on "binding promise" which it had in Augustine's explanation of Christian marriage to greater stress in medieval and subsequent centuries on the meaning of 179 "Christian symbol...
...Nonetheless, the large number of people who have given up this attitude for one of remaining together "as long as things work out" suggests that there is no self-evident and adequate grounding for indissolubility in some promise intrinsic to marital sexual self-giving...
...it is true of the shared existence that is marriage...
...large numbers of Catholic marriages do, in fact, dissolve...
...Sexual intercourse does consummate Christian marriage, but only in this context of ongoing personal intimacy, for it can only authentically say what the two Christians honestly are for one another...
...it is tending toward its fulfillment 180 beyond this world...
...Marriages come into existence over a considerable length of time, conditioned by any number of occurrences and experiences and choices, progressing if they do progress through stages of change that find their Christian explanation in terms of the mystery of death and resurrection...
...Or to change the question slightly, but perhaps importantly if it is not lived this way can one speak of it as sacramental...
...As a distinctive personal relationship involving a unique sexual commitment, marriage does suggest some aspect of indissolubility at least many people do believe and hope as they marry that this special self-giving is "forever...
...As a social institution providing stability for the process of begetting and raising children, marriage can take various forms, including, in modern societies, persons being involved in a sequence of marriage-divorce-remarriage...
...Christian marriage already realizes to some degree the indissolubility which can mirror the divine fidelity to humans, but it cannot yet lay claim to the absoluteness which will come with the fullness of the Kingdom...
...Any response to that question must distinguish among several meanings of "marriage...
...A Christian marriage is indissoluble, but short of the eschaton it is incompletely indissoluble...

Vol. 114 • March 1987 • No. 6


 
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