The Catholic Thing
Marriage Is What It Is Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Thursday, 12 September 2013

“And some Pharisees approached Him, to tempt Him, saying, ‘Is it permissible for a man to put away his woman for any cause at all?’  And He answered, saying, “Are you not aware that the Creator from the foundation of things [arche] made them male and female?’ And He said, ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his woman, and they two shall be one flesh.’  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  So what God has yoked together, let not man put asunder.”

They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command that a letter of divorce [apostasiou - cf. English “apostasy”] be given, to put her away?”  He said to them, “On account of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed it, but from the foundation of things it was not so.”

I beg the reader to forgive my painfully literal translation of the passage from Matthew’s gospel.  It was necessary, to make as clear as possible the radical nature of what Jesus is saying here about marriage.  In English, the word “begin” is inceptive in meaning.  The first inning is the beginning of a baseball game.  The letter A is the beginning of the alphabet.  Then the innings and the letters go on, and what follows may have little to do with what came before.  But that is not the case with the Greek arche.

That word is more than inceptive.  It is ontologically foundational.  As the head is the “first” or primary member of a body, the arche is the first and governing principle, and is not limited to a specific time.  That fits well with what Jesus is saying about marriage.  He does not say that, once upon a time in a world far away, men and women did not divorce.  He’s saying that the indissoluble union of man and woman is built into the order of the world, as it was and is and shall be.  

Notice that He is not appealing to a “previous” law, one that pre-dated Moses’ permission of divorce.  That’s not the point.  There is no reason why an old law should be preferred to a new law, simply on the basis of age.  The point is that this law is ageless.  It may be abrogated or ignored, but it can never be altered or discarded, no more than we can discard the very nature of mankind.

The Pharisees were expecting a rabbinical commentary on the Torah, and instead they are advised to attend to the meaning of creation itself, of being-male and being-female.  This meaning applies to all men, not only to Jews. Jesus reaches back behind any division of mankind into the chosen race and everyone else.

         The Marriage at Cana by Marten de Vos, c. 1596

Therefore any Christian who believes that “church” marriage is one thing, and “civil” marriage another, is denying the full import of the words of Christ.  We do not believe that, if we happen to be Catholic, we may not divorce.  We believe that the law against divorce applies to people generally, as in some measure the blessings of marriage are bestowed even upon a man and woman who marry and who do not know the Gospel or the name of Christ.  When Adam took Eve to wife, there was in their awareness no other Church than they two, their union, and the God above.

It follows that every attack upon marriage must necessarily be a rebellion, an apostasy, against the Creator, and an attack upon man himself.  The violence of divorce is suggested by the barely submerged metaphors in the Greek verbs: to get rid of, to tear apart, to rise up against.  It is all the more deplorable when the attack comes from a supposedly Christian society; but it is an evil wherever and whenever it occurs, and, like all evil, it brings its own punishment upon the people who practice it, encourage it, or condone it.

We do not have to wait for the whole world to profess the name of Jesus, and to see the enchantment of all creation, including the majesty and divinity of man, male and female.  That enchantment, that majesty and divinity, already exist.  There already is something sacramental in the union of man and woman in marriage, even among the pagans.  I am not saying that their wedding is a sacrament in the strict sense; but I am affirming the holiness of what they are doing, even if it is encrusted with human errors and ignorance and folly.

It’s wrong for us to detach Jesus’ statement about marriage from His expressed context – the foundation of things, the Creator’s intent – and relocate it in some neo-Mosaic law.  That would turn us into Pharisees; marriage for me, and who cares what for thee.  Oh, we would be Pharisees of a more affable (and cowardly) sort, since we’d mainly keep our sense of moral superiority to ourselves, so as not to bruise any pagan feelings.

We must be absolutely clear about this.  We can no more countenance divorce, much less fornication or sodomy or other aberrancies, than we can countenance theft, murder, or depraved indifference to human life.  We may tolerate it in one context or another, because attempting to get rid of it will embroil us in worse evils; but we can never assent to it permanently.  It is a grave evil, and there’s an end on it.  To be “pluralistic” about it in principle is no more permitted to us than to be “pluralistic” about murder.

Nor should we hug ourselves, we Catholics, when we see that our Christian brothers have fallen into madness and incoherence on this and the other sexual issues. That would be like cheering to see our brothers catching typhus.  In this fight we need all the allies we can find.  And we must fight.  Truth and charity demand it.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Bedarz Iliaci, September 12, 2013
Wonderful article esp about the significance of the Greek word "arche".

The peculiar American problem is a defective view of society inherited from Hobbes, Locke and firmly embedded in conservative discourse-that society is an arrangement for mutual convenience of individuals and families.

Of course, if society is an arrangement for convenience, then it may be indefinitely adjusted for greater convenience.

The older classical view needs to be emphasized. The State, the Family and the Individual are irreducible features of the human organization-the City. Thus, we will approach marriage correctly--marriage is between two Individuals but celebrated in the City
The celebration part is not empty. It is not much of a marriage if it is not publicly recognized.

The American problem with the proper role of City are perennial and everywhere. For example, property should be a public and stable relation between a person and the thing he owns.
Otherwise, the social benefits of property-the stewardship-do not obtain.
Thus merely stock-owning or mutual fund unit-owning is not the kind of property that is oriented to stewardship and we see that giant anonymously owned corporations are not good stewards.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 12, 2013
Christianity, which speaks only to the conscience and guides by grace the little number of the elect, forbids divorce; the Mosaic law, which was the civil law of the Jewish commonwealth, permitted it. There is no inconsistency here.
written by Jack,CT, September 12, 2013
Wonderful Article!, thanks so much
written by Manfred, September 12, 2013
Dr. Esolen: Your last paragraph-You are worried avouit divorce? How about the American illegitimacy rate which runs, depending on the demographic, anywhere between 30% and 80%? These people never married. Pray tell, how do we "fight" this out-of-wedlock, divorce conundrum?
written by mary, September 12, 2013
society has gone mad with the tolerance , even the expectation of divorce. It shatters the children involved, cripples them emotionally and this is expected and tolerated also. I have heard that among young adults the expression " Starter marriage" is not popular, they call their ex marriage their starter marriage. It has come to this.
written by Rich in MN, September 12, 2013
I think the second to the last paragraph addresses your question since illegitimacy is due to fornication. And, in that same paragraph, I think it is especially important to flesh out the nuances of Dr. Esolen's second sentence: "We may tolerate it in one context or another, because attempting to get rid of it will embroil us in worse evils; but we can never assent to it permanently."
The misunderstanding and misapplication of this principle I think has been the source of so much confusion and "bad theology." For example, about a week ago in one combox discussion (I think it was a National Catholic Register article), some woman expressed confusion and disillusionment because some priest had told her that masturbation was not a sin. She was looking for some feedback from her fellow comboxians about that. I do not remember why I did not chime in, but the only person who did reply was some guy who said, "Hey, lady, a guy must relieve his powerful sexual impulses in some way!" Of course, this guy was completely confused about the difference between recognizing fallen human nature and condoning actions that might follow said fallenness. I would have loved to quote GK Chesterton to them: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." However, as I say, I did not respond for some reason. (It was probably during work time and I should not have been reading the article in the first place....) I hope that woman was able to receive CORRECT Catholic teaching from some knowledgeable Christian witness after hearing from two errant witnesses.
written by Aramis, September 12, 2013
Baby Boomers lamenting the young generation is hysterical. It is up to those of us born after the insane depravity of the 60's and 70's to pick up the pieces of western civiliation, and often our only guide are books published pre-1960 because our boomer parents formed as they were by the peculiar and anomalous zeitgeist of their youth, were too embarrassed to teach things like when to feel ashamed of yourself and why pursuing whatever makes one feel good is objectively wrong.
written by Sue, September 12, 2013
"These people never married. Pray tell, how do we "fight" this out-of-wedlock, divorce conundrum?"

We convince people to divorce themselves from Big Daddy Welfare State. Single mothers (whether divorced or never married) have plighted their troth with the State and they should see the results of this for what they are - the State owns their children.

We are living a fairy tale story, with women wanting to think they can spin straw into gold with welfare largesse. They must give up their firstborn to the person whose name they can't quite guess...that odd fellow over there rubbing his hands anticipating his new his name Rumpelstiltskin? Or Big Gov?
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 12, 2013
The divorce rate rose at an accelerating rate throughout the 20th century.

Taking the figures for my own country, Scotland, in 1930, there were 469 decrees. A generation earlier, in 1890, there had been 87. There were 890 decrees in 1939, but in 1949, there were 2,447, an increase of 175% over 10 years.

In the 1950s, the annual average was 2,071; in the 1930s, the annual average had been 597, representing a 250% increase on the 1930s average. So much for the family-friendly '50s

There were only 1,828 decrees in 1960, but in 1965, there were 2,691 and in 1969, there were 4,246.

In 1970, there were 4,618 decrees and in 1974, the last full year before no-fault divorce, there were 7,221, a 168% increase on the 1965 figure. In 1976, the first full year of no-fault divorce, there were 8,692.
written by cermak_rd, September 12, 2013
Good luck with that reasoning convincing anyone. It goes against the common American religious mindset which is that we are bound religiously by that which we accept (in other words, if we're part of a religious org, we ought to obey the rules of said org, and it we aren't we can safely ignore them) and otherwise only bound by law (which is supposed to be utilitarian and pragmatic).

It may make for a weak tea of civil religion, but it does allow for peaceful relations among different peoples.
written by Tony, September 12, 2013
Cermak: It allows for NO significant relations at all; that's different from peace. If families are broken or are never formed to begin with, then there are no coherent neighborhoods or communities, and most of the social life of man is truncated, both at the present time and across the generations. Sometimes I believe that the wealthy are quite content to live in the current anti-culture, because a really healthy culture would empower plenty of people beneath them in the social scale and would threaten their smug assumptions of superiority. Who profits from the disintegration of the family? Not the people who mainly suffer the disintegration, the poor and the lower middle class. Everybody above them profits, directly or indirectly. Politicians profit directly because they can enroll these people as their hangers-on, their dependent clientele. Social workers profit because they can expand their sphere of influence. But the upper classes, or call them the "educated" elites, profit enormously though indirectly, by having almost all of the competition removed from beneath them.
written by Chris in Maryland, September 12, 2013
"...the "educated" elites, profit enormously though indirectly, by having almost all of the competition removed from beneath them."


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