What God has joined together, no man must separate Print
Bishop Morlino's Column
Thursday, Sep. 17, 2015 -- 12:00 AM
This column is the bishop’s communication with the faithful of the Diocese of Madison. Any wider circulation reaches beyond the intention of the bishop.

Dear friends,

Marriage matters. Marriage matters on all levels. Marriage matters to the men and women joined together in it, to children, to families, to communities, to our nation, and to the Church. Marriage is foundational to the stability of humankind, to the health and welfare of nations, and to our future.

All of that can be stated without recourse to theology, Sacred Scripture, or to 2,000 years of Church teaching. The fact that marriage matters has been known by human beings since before Jesus Christ was born.

It’s been known since the very beginning, because it is inscribed on the hearts of rational man and woman. Not only can the natural reproductive function of human anatomy be clearly seen, but the natural benefits of a stable, fundamental unit of society, made up of father, mother, and child, can be immediately realized.

God’s plan for marriage

Beyond that, however, we as Christians believe that, in His love for humanity, God has revealed his plan for marriage time and time again. From the creation of Adam and Eve, through the giving of “the law” as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, to the creation of a “new law,” in Jesus’ words to the Pharisees, to the elevation of Holy Matrimony to an inviolable Sacrament, God Himself has made clear in extraordinary ways that marriage matters.

Since the time that there was a Church (and before), marriage has been between one man and one woman, for one lifetime, with openness to children. It is for this reason (particularly in defense of the marriage bond) that St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas More, and so many others spoke truth to power at the expense of their own lives; it is for this reason (particularly in defense of the fruitfulness of marriage) that Blessed Pope Paul VI made clear, in the face of much dissent, that human procreation must not be stymied by artificial means of birth control; and it is for this reason in our own day (particularly in defense of the reality of marriage between one man and one woman), that the Church and her faithful have taken such abuse for saying (with love) that there is no such thing as “gay marriage.”

The fact that marriage matters and that marriage is in a state of crisis has also been very central to every recent pontificate, up until and very much including Pope Francis. This is the reason that Pope Francis has made the two Synods on the Family one of the key focal points of his pontificate thus far. It’s the primary reason for his visit to the United States — the trip being triggered by the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. And it’s the reason that he’s asked for a reform of the process the Church uses for trying to determine whether or not a particular marriage was valid in the first place.

And this last piece — of course — has drawn everyone’s attention in the last week or so.

Frequently asked questions

Now, on our diocesan webpage is a whole series of “Frequently Asked Questions” and answers with regard to what exactly the new “Motu Proprio on Marriage Nullity” cases actually says and what it means practically for our diocese and for the Church; I’m not going to wade very deep into all of those technicalities here. What I am going to do is remind you, once again, that marriage matters and very briefly try to clear up a bit of confusion with regard to “annulments.”

The first point is this, marriage matters to the point that it is elevated by God to a Sacrament, and it’s a Sacrament that, if validly administered and consummated, cannot be undone.

Thus, in addition to being a tremendous natural good for society, for human flourishing, and more, Jesus Christ has made marriage a source of supernatural grace and a sign and instrument of His Holy Spirit at work in the world. Marriage is a holy bond and a promise made by the couple, before God and His Church, and sealed by God Himself.

In this regard, Jesus Himself spoke with clarity to the Pharisees who were questioning Him on divorce, saying:

“Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” (Mt 19:4-6)

Marriage as a Sacrament is a joining together of one man and woman for one fruitful lifetime. Once effected, this Sacrament cannot be “undone.” People can reject their Baptism (and face the consequences of doing so), but they can never be “unbaptized.” Once consecrated, bread and wine of Holy Communion can never be “unconsecrated.” Even a priest, though dispensed from his promises and “laicized,” can never be “unordained.”

In marriage, it is the bond between the man and woman themselves that is “Sacramentalized,” and once in place, that bond can never be broken, “. . . until death do us part . . .” as the anglicized text says. Marriage is a Sacrament that cannot be undone.

What is annulment?

What then is “annulment?” Annulment is not “Catholic divorce,” as it is so frequently (even near-universally) misunderstood in the United States. The Church does not do anything to a marriage; it cannot. Neither a Church lawyer, nor a pastor, nor the bishop, nor even the pope himself can break the sacramental bond of marriage once it has been validly undertaken and consummated. “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

Now — and this is reaffirmed in the very first paragraph of Pope Francis’ new document — what the Church, and the diocesan bishop in particular, can do, is release a couple from a bond that was assumed to be present, but which never actually took effect, due to some overwhelming preexisting defect. That is to say, the Church, after gathering all the evidence, can make a determination that a marriage was, in fact, null; it was not a marriage to begin with.

And that’s the second point, the Church has, by Divine right, the ability to determine whether or not a sacrament has been effected in an individual case. However, since it is a question of human beings in the Church making determinations with regard to the things of God, the process for doing so must be very carefully executed and bound by precise law so that, as best as possible, we do not allow human sinfulness and error to sway judgement or to attempt to separate that which, in fact, God has joined together.

This brings us to the third point I wish to make at present: at the heart of the Church’s process for determining marriage validity or nullity must be concern for the salvation of souls — true mercy. Pope Francis makes this very clear in his document, saying that the catalyst of his reforms is to remind himself and all the bishops of the Church of their “supreme goal,” in these matters, “that is, to protect unity in the faith and in the disciplines regarding marriage, the hinge and origin of the Christian family (Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, Para. 5).”

And so, while the mass media would like to jump to discussions of how quickly Catholics can now “get their annulments,” and while in our consumerist society it is easy to think that the end goal here is giving the “customer” what they want and when they want it, I must remind you that the real goal of what we do as a Church, and what these reforms are intended to help, is to bring people to know and to love Jesus Christ and to understand that the Sacraments He gives, are life-giving and full of goodness — a goodness that cannot be thrown away willy-nilly. The Church defends the bond of marriage, because the bond of marriage is a good that God desires for us!

There are so many other points that I’d like to make, but I don’t have the space here in this column. I’d like to talk about the very real needs that Pope Francis is addressing with these reforms; I’d like to discuss the hurt which is being felt by couples who go through divorce and who are asking the Church to determine the validity of their marriage; I could discuss how in the past 50 years so much confusion has entered the minds of Catholics (often made worse by the practices of diocesan tribunals and the well-intentioned actions of the pastors of the Church themselves) with regard to marriage nullity; and I’d also very much like to talk about the courage and faithfulness of those couples who continue to live their lives of faith and respect the bonds of their Sacramental marriages, even after going through civil divorce, separation, or abandonment.

Nonetheless, as a start, I’ve addressed the overarching confusion that is certainly in danger of being made worse in recent days.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you want to learn more about the most recent changes, I’d urge you to visit our diocesan web site (www.madisondiocese.org).

May God continue to bless you and all your loved ones. In a special way, may God be with all those in our Church who have suffered and who are suffering the effects of a failed marriage, and all those who are seeking to know whether initial marriages were valid in the first place.

Please pray for me, for our Holy Father, and for all those seeking to defend and to respect the fact that marriage matters to all of us!

Praised be Jesus Christ!