Saturday, 6 February 2010

On the Sacrament of Marriage

During the time of Jesus, marriage among Jews was a male-dominated institution. A wife was regarded as the property of the husband and had few legal rights. Adultery, for instance, was prohibited not as a breach of trust but as a violation of the husband's property rights. Divorce, however, remained an acceptable option and could be legally demanded only by the husband, although the wife could obtain it if the husband consented.

In the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Episcopal tradition marriage eventually became regarded as a sacrament. It was not until the twelfth century however, that the Roman Catholic Church taught that marriage is indissoluble, making divorce impossible. The only possibility of separation and remarriage was through annulment. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) acknowledged that the purpose of marriage in the modern world was not only the procreation of children but also companionship and even intimacy between spouses. Canon lawyers interpreted this shift as an expansion of the grounds for annulment to include psychological factors, and consequently the number of annulments granted in the church rose significantly. Was this necessarily a bad thing? Must an abused woman remain married to a physically and mentally abusing spouse or even a unfaithful spouse?

Today the Church acknowledges that many of its dogmatic teachings are being threatened especially by pressure from those prepared to accept same-sex marriage. This, many orthodox followers feel, could weaken their understanding of traditional marriage. But why should they want ensure that rules forbidding same-sex marriage should be enshrined by law? Surely fidelity and love between two people, recognized as a blessing of God, cannot be made stronger by the application of legal prohibitions (canon law)? The church can perhaps better serve to assist those in the matter of marriage preparation and/or break-up rather than become its legal enforcer. Fidelity is a matter of the heart and not a question of dictates.

Just last week (January 29/10) Pope Benedict XVI announced that "true pastoral charity and concern can never lead the church to grant an annulment to a Catholic whose marriage is valid according to church law." Those affected would therefore be refused certain sacraments, such as the Eucharist. "One must shun pseudo-pastoral claims that look only at the desire of divorced Catholics to return to the sacraments," the Pope said. "The church cannot act charitably toward its faithful without upholding justice and truth", he added. Readers must ask 'If a divorced individual wants to remain bonded with the Eucharistic sacrament is that not a sign of their fidelity to God? And, should that not be encouraged rather than denied?

It is painfully obvious that this Pope wants us to understand charity, forgiveness and the sacraments in the context of Church Law and not as it was taught by Jesus. Let us once again enter into the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman as told by St. John. Here is a woman who had been married to not less than five men and now living in common law with a sixth. Did Jesus deny her his presence? Did Jesus condemn her in any way? Did Jesus embark on a great discourse about justice and truth! Instead Jesus empowers this 'sinful' outcast to convert an entire town to into his fold. Was Jesus simply applying some pseudo-pastoral exercise by asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water? Isn't it remarkable that it was Jesus who was initially in need rather than the woman? Does the Church not realize that it is those it serves that are the ones in need – not the other way around? Finally, it seems that the Church would rather apply punishment than offer its faithful Jesus' life giving water!

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