Reflections on the Indissolubility of Marriage and the Trinity

Painting credit: The Holy Trinity, by Antonio de Pereda (first half of 17th c.).

The source of our holiness as Christians is rooted in the revelation of God as Trinity with an interior life of total reciprocal, self-giving love between unique, distinct Persons who are, together, the Divine Unity. But the Divine Trinity is not only the source of Christian holiness, but also the ground of all reality, the existence of the world as true, good, and beautiful. At the same time, God’s Revelation tells us, at the very beginning, that it is central to the fruitfulness of personal, earthly reality for man and woman to be joined together by God in a marital unity of “one-flesh.” This seems to have a place of great importance in God’s plan. Much of the early Scriptures have to do with God forming a people as holy primarily through holiness in the family.

Yet, much of the discussion of the issue of divorce and remarriage after divorce seems to have forgotten the centrality of Christian holiness before God, and this task as a priority for married couples. This task is not about a satisfactory family life, personal fulfillment, sexual desire, earthly happiness, or community acceptance, even though these could be secondary fruits. It is primarily about forming a holy people as a sign of God’s presence in the world. How, then, can we recover the heart of this reality in our communication about marriage?

We need, first, to reflect on self-gift in the Trinity. The Divine Father, who is the First Principle of all that is, gave his whole Divinity to the Son, withholding nothing. In doing so, he subtracted nothing from his own Person, but confirmed it as Origin, Gift, and Love. Thus, the Father is both Giver and Gift. According to St. Athanasius, the eternal begetting of the Son forms the nature of actuality, resulting in Creation in which the Word is the economic communication of God in the world. The Father and Son face each other in mutual respect for the wholeness of their divine Substance, with a corresponding receptive participation in their enjoyment of the fullness of actuality, each Person in a unique relationship, giving to the Other in the circumincession of Love from which proceeds the Holy Spirit, who is Fruitfulness and Gift. The closest image we have of this in human life is marriage. We are all created as “image of God” and called, therefore, to reflect this self-giving love of the Trinity. But marriage is a particularly concrete image of this, desired by God to be fruitful in human life and love. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s relationship with his people is described in nuptial terms. In the New Testament, this is fulfilled in Christ’s nuptial relationship with his Beloved Bride, the Church, of which marriage is the icon.

The nuptial vow, then, is an analogy of the Trinitarian self-gift. As such, the spouses are both giver and gift to each other. As a person, one is a gift before giving oneself away. The totality of the giving subtracts nothing from oneself, but is, rather, a fruitful multiplication of oneself. This is concretely self-evident in the birth of a child. The child is the marriage in this sense. However, this does not mean that a couple who experiences an undesired infertility is not living the fullness of marriage since their openness to procreation is already a fruitfulness of their love. The vow states the couple are giving their whole self and life away to the other, so there can be nothing left over for something else. Love is the act of being in its social form and, thus, has the quality of totality, and God is present in this love. The totality in the mutual self-giving in the Trinity is the paradigm of self-gift, and it is this totality that God intends to be reflected in human marriage, as Christ explained in saying, “What God has joined, let no man put asunder.” The man and the woman as two distinct persons form one unity, the marriage. The model for this is, of course, Christ’s unity with the Church, his Bride, which forms the Mystical Body. This fuller understanding of the indissolubility of marriage needs to be stressed, so that Christians can recover their calling to be “perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect,” and to be faithful as Christ is faithful to his Bride.

Since we are steeped in sin, obviously this is not easy.  However, we were never told that Christian life was easy. “Unless you pick up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.” We, all of us, have to bear the sinfulness of others and, in particular, our own sinfulness. At the same time, we are called to holiness. Perhaps, it would help to reflect a little about Christ’s call to celibacy for the kingdom. It is said that consecrated religious life is an eschatological sign of the eternal life we will all hopefully live with God. Could it be that those Christians who have suffered the tragedy of divorce have been given a new vocation to live their life as a similar eschatological sign of the future life of paradise? Earthly life was never meant to be the end game, but only the journey toward heaven. Why should we assume that divorced Christians are incapable of holiness if Christ has challenged all of us to seek to be perfect as the Father? After all, many people, besides the celibate clergy, and those in religious orders, live celibate lives. Realistically, of course, the difficulty comes when a man and woman have chosen to live together for the purpose of marital sex, and then are faced with the choice of returning to a celibate state.  However, the words of St. John Paul II in a letter to the bishops on the pastoral care of those with a homosexual condition, are also relevant to those civilly divorced:

Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross. … It is easily misunderstood, however, if it is merely seen as a pointless effort at self-denial. The Cross is a denial of self, but in service to the will of God himself, who makes life come from death, and empowers those who trust in him to practice virtue in place of vice. … (They) are called, as all of us are, to a chaste life. As they dedicate their lives to understanding the nature of God’s personal call to them, they will be able to celebrate the sacrament of penance more faithfully, and receive the Lord’s grace, so freely offered there, in order to convert their lives more fully to his Way. (Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986, Pope St. John Paul II)

Perhaps, we can look at this from another perspective as well.  What used to be called the counsels of perfectionpoverty, chastity and obedienceare virtues which have more recently been emphasized as important to all Christians, to be practiced according to their particular state in life.  The spirit of poverty includes freedom from ambition and greed. It requires humility, which is the key to holiness. It means setting aside one’s self-image before the world, and taking on the image of Christ. This is the fruit of prayerful self-abnegation before God. The practice of this virtue can facilitate the practice of chastity. The self-control of chastity is necessary for every marriage; for example, it enables a couple to reject artificial contraception, and practice natural forms of birth regulation. The fact that couples who practice this have a very low rate of divorce, compared to couples who do not, is a sign that chastity is a virtue central to all Christian living. Such couples have also discovered how many are the ways to express love, other than the marital act, thereby growing into a greater depth and breadth in their love for each other, and opening up new spiritual horizons in their relationship with God.

For a person who has been rejected by a spouse, and forced into an undesired divorce, the virtue of chastity now takes on the form of complete celibacy for the kingdom of God. Since this is not the vocation the person originally chose, this can seem very difficult and problematic. But it can also be a freedom enabled by grace, opening to a world of the spirit, perhaps unsuspected before. Each person must make his or her own choice, but this is our freedom: to open ourselves to the “more” God may have in store for us. It is respectful of a person’s dignity to recognize this as a positive choice. If one must look on it as a burden, one can, at least, look at it in view of the cross that Christ carried to free the world from its weight of sin. It is a great honor to participate in Christ’s own task.

The other key virtue, obedience, is not highly valued in contemporary society, but it is basic to the Christian. In baptism, Christians are given the grace to love God with their whole heart, mind, and strength. A Christian can gratefully obey the commandments of God when it is realized these are gifts of loving guidance that are a help in living the Way of Christ. It is Christ’s self-gift in carrying the cross of our sin that provides the grace to actually do this. The sixth commandment has always been one that frequently has seemed difficult to obey. Today, it is even harder to honor since the acceptance of remarriage after divorce is the majority view. But such honor of God’s word to us is part of the desire to love God above all else, because he is the one who holds the key to life, and the truth in the depth of our personal being.  A baptized Christian has been given so many treasures of grace that obedience to God in all things is a matter of gratitude and love. It is true that the circumstances of our sinful world can make this difficult to live out. The Christian community needs, especially, to accompany their brothers and sisters struggling with this, and be present with them to provide friendship and spiritual support.

The question of receiving the Eucharist, while continuing to live in an objective state of adultery, has become a hot issue clouded with emotion. One wants to empathize with the difficult situation the couple is in. But it is not a judgment on the particular couple that the Church is maintaining, and it does not resolve their difficulties to ignore the reality of sin. It is actually an exercise of mercy to invite the couple to grow in their relationship with the Lord until they can respond to the grace to change in conformity with his word. It is not merciful to make light of the infinite holiness of the Lord, who gives himself away in the Eucharist. We need to recall the ancient admonition that if you are not holy, the holy will burn you. We are so surrounded by secular ignorance of God, that even practicing Catholics take the awesome reality of Christ’s divinity too much for granted.  The difference between us and God is infinitely great, and we only draw close to him through his gracious gift of grace. The Church expresses this by reminding us that we need to be in the state of grace before presenting ourselves for Communion. In receiving Communion, we are united with the resurrected Christ, which is a taste of the eternal life we will experience after the death of the body and its resurrection. Confession, and the resolve to sin no more, are a kind of death that we need to experience before receiving this gift of Christ’s resurrected life, which is like a down payment on our future life with God in eternity.

The need for confession before receiving Communion is a requisite for all of us who are guilty of various kinds of sin, not just for those remarried after civil divorce. Singling out this circumstance as somehow different from the rest of us makes no sense. That this has happened is a sign that too many have absorbed the impiety, ignorance, and sexual fixation of our secular culture. It seems that some have inferred that because those remarried after divorce cannot receive Communion, the Church is singling them out to exclude them, but it is the state of sin on the part of the person that is blocking his or her reception of the Eucharist. The actual situation, in not a few parishes, is that the remarried, who are living in objective adultery, are continuing to go to Communion. This is endangering their spiritual state with an act of sacrilege dishonoring the Lord, as well as causing scandal and confusion in the parish. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord … For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:27, 29).

Real mercy is helping persons live in the truth of Christ in place of multiplying a state of sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Sacrilege is a grave sin, especially when committed against the Eucharist.”  Canon 915 states that those “who obstinately persist in manifest, grave, sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.” If this is practiced firmly, the next generation of young people looking toward marriage will be impressed with the resolution of celibacy for the divorced, and will be helped to think seriously about the spiritual requirements of marriage, and the hurtful fallout from divorce. Sadly, too many Catholics, whose lives should stand out as distinct from secular culture, are too often absorbed by it, to the point where even the inner sanctum of the Church’s life may be in danger of being reduced to barren meaninglessness. Those who have the courage to be a distinct light of faithfulness to all Christ’s teaching need to be supported in as many ways as possible.

God, whose very Substance is Love, acts in mercy when he sends his grace to enable us to change, and participate in his divine life of love. Marriage, in a particular way, participates in the divine life of the Trinity because the spouse gives all of him or her self to the other in totality, and unchanging faithfulness. This is why contemplation of the Trinity needs to be at the center of marriage preparation and counseling, and reinforced from the pulpit. As Christ was sent to represent the Father’s love to us, so we, as members of his Mystical Body, are sent out to complete Christ’s mission to the world, to be like Christ, perfecting in ourselves the mystery of his suffering, death, and resurrection, through the power of the Holy Spirit, active in our life. “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to man himself, and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). Here is the high dignity of man.  There are times when the gate is narrow, but it is the way to life. The world is full of evil deception that would tempt us to follow the broad avenue, but if the Church is to truly be a light to the world, the yeast that helps the rest of society to rise, then each of us is asked to courageously face our difficulties and respond to this high calling.

St. Joseph is the model of the chaste spouse, and dedicated father, protector of the Holy Family.  We can ask for his intercession in our struggles to be faithful to God’s call. The world is in great need of “everyday saints,” who live ordinary lives, but ones steeped in holiness. These are the treasures the Church has to offer the world.

Kathleen Curran Sweeney About Kathleen Curran Sweeney

Kathleen Curran Sweeney holds a Master's degree in Theological Studies in Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., an MA in History from the University of Washington, and a BA from Seattle University. She has worked for several years in the pro-life arena. She has published articles on pro-life topics, bioethics, theology, education, and history. She is a member of both St. Agnes Church in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, and the People of Praise Ecumenical Community.

Comments

  1. Tom McGuire says:

    “This task is not about a satisfactory family life, personal fulfillment, sexual desire, earthly happiness, or community acceptance, even though these could be secondary fruits.”

    The problem with this approach begins with the above statement. It is in the experience of satisfactory family life, personal fulfilment, sexual desire, earthly happiness,and community acceptance that married people find the way to perfection. These are primary to the way of holiness not secondary for married people. As a man married for 42 years, I find it difficult to relate to your theological explanation of marriage.

    Jesus did not seem to have a problem being with sinners. In fact, he came for sinners. I am a sinner and rejoice in the mercy of God. God loves me, even in my sinfulness. The great scandal of the Catholic Church is the judgmental way we Catholics treat people who do not fit the objective framework of holiness.

    • K Curran Sweeney says:

      I appreciate your comment. Perhaps I didn’t state this clearly enough. The aspects of married life mentioned are fruits of a marriage lived in the grace of God certainly. However, it can be a problem when these fruits are made the primary focus instead of beginning in the holiness of God. Too often a concern about one’s own fulfillment and satisfaction leads to marital discord instead of leading to holiness. The holiness of God is, after all, the source of love. Since God is love, it is in Him we need to look for the source of these fruits. These fruits do not appear automatically and human effort alone does not produce them. I detect a certain judgmental attitude on your part about holiness and the primary need for grace. Your comment about how Catholics act toward sinners does not match any experience I have had about how Catholics act. What you describe as “the objective framework of holiness” is simply the example and teaching of Christ to show us the way to life, truth and freedom. Why should it be a “scandal” to be faithful to this? Is it not an act of love to offer it to others who are struggling? It has been the gift of such sharing that has contributed to growth in my own marriage.

  2. As a woman married for almost 30 years, I sincerely admire this theological explanation of marriage- that the author has addressed something sometimes mentioned in Catholic reflections on marriage, but rarely if ever “fleshed out” – how the nature of the Trinity is not just reflected but concretely lived out in Catholic matrimony, often through sacrificial love. I think the theological explanation will be very inspiring and helpful to thoughtful young couples (and older ones, too) especially in times of crisis (and what marriage is without times of crisis?!) If, instead of understanding – or at least attempting to understand – the nature of our God, we insist only on understanding and experiencing marriage through the “secondary fruits” (such as a satisfying family life, personal fulfillment, sexual life, community life, etc.) our marriage may easily be seen or experienced as a failure when these aspects fail or just fail to live up to a certain norm. I would think that engaged couples, and probably all young Catholics, need to receive precisely this kind of theological reflection on unfathomable nature of Trinitarian love in order to face the sacrifices required to be faithful to God and their spouse in a culture that is both hostile to our Catholic faith and intensely hedonistic. I hope the author will write more on this important subject – we really need it!

  3. Tom McGuire says:

    I was reading Dorothy Day’s “Duty of Delight”, while thinking of your response to my comments. I always appreciate dialogue. These words seem to capture your meaning:

    “When one is “in love” one feels a renewal, a sense of being thoroughly alive, a feeling, a consciousness of every sense, alert, keen, and functioning normally to its fullest extent. Or rather, one might also say an expectation of fulfillment, an expectation of flowering, a hunger and thirst for the ineffable where death is swallowed up in victory when we will be dissolved and be with the beloved. We look for happiness in sex, for pleasure, for ease, for fulfillment; and we lose it or spoil it in two ways: first by not accepting it all as from God, as a sample of God’s love, as a foretaste of a new heaven and a new earth, by seeking such happiness as an end in itself; and second by frittering away our taste for true happiness.”

    Day, Dorothy (2011-10-25). The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day (Kindle Locations 2137-2142). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    My point is that anything from God is not secondary. We live in the concrete here and now. Yes, love requires death.

    As for Catholics not being judgmental, I only wish I had your experience. There are so many people I know who do not seek God because their experience in the Catholic Church made them feel unloved and unworthy, thus incapable of being forgiven. God have mercy on us.