Your donations make
a real difference
for the friars of the Western Dominican Province and their ministries.
Simple, Safe, Secure
Donations made easy
Please visit our
Keeping the Light Shining Bright
Our Program of Formation involves eight years of academic and ministerial training. Throughout all that time our student friars in formation depend completely on the generosity of others and so keep our benefactors in particular at the center of our prayer life. Pleased do ad your own regular donation to our continuing need. We thank you now and will continue to thank you with our prayers.
You are called.
Are you called to Religious life?
Click here, and discover what it means to become a preacher of truth!
Western Dominican Province
5890 Birch Court
Oakland, CA 94618-1626
Our Dominican School
The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA offers Masters and other degree and certificate programs rooted in the tradition of the Dominican order and our brother, St. Thomas Aquinas. Faithful to the teaching of Holy Mother, the Church, our school prepares not only young men studying for the priesthood, but also other men and women who will be the leaders of local communities of faith. Please do join in supporting this essential ministry of the Western Dominican Province.
Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Gn 2:18-24; Heb 2:9-11; Mk 10:2-16
By its very nature, marriage aims at indissoluble union; it finds its fulfillment in the family. Thus, the two ends of marriage, babies and bonding, cannot be divorced either.
I. Today’s Gospel gives us Jesus’ well-known teaching that marriage cannot be dissolved, that there cannot be divorce, that husband and wife are inseparably one flesh, one body; and that to divorce and remarry would be an act of adultery. Doubtlessly, that saying must have sounded as hard then as it does today with our high divorce rates and all the pain that is involved in it, for spouses as well as for their children. But precisely on this background we might come to appreciate that what Jesus is doing here is not just that he is laying down an oppressive law. Rather, he is making a promise: he is restoring how it was in the beginning, before Moses relaxed the rules “for the hardness of their hearts.” Jesus promises us the restoration of paradise in the sense that he gives us back our hearts of flesh, rather than hearts of stone. In other words: he gives us the grace to love in such a way that the original plan for marriage is restored. For, what is marriage about, if not love, and what does love aim at, if not perfect and unbreakable union? What Jesus is saying is that he will make us capable of doing what our hearts really want, if only we collaborate with him and his grace.
II. So then, why can there be no divorce? Imagine you are giving someone a birthday gift, let’s say a car. And then you return the next day and say: “but now give it back to me!” The receiver of that gift would be rightly puzzled and say: “But you gave it to me as a gift! It is mine now; you cannot take it back!” So what has happened is like an unwritten contract. Contracts exchange goods and services, which cannot be asked back anymore. Is marriage of that kind? Is it a contract that exchanges goods and services? Yes, to a certain extent it is: households are merged, paychecks and household chores are united. But if that were all, then it would not be marriage, but just any kind of living arrangement. Marriage is not a contract, it is a covenant. What a covenant brings about is not the exchange of goods and services, but an exchange of persons. What you agree to give away is not something like a car or other gifts; you yourself are that gift; you give yourself away. This means there is not even anybody left to ask back the gift. Not only a gift is gone, but the giver. You can imagine what the result would be, if only one of the two spouses consents to that kind of covenantal exchange, but not the other: the result would not be marriage, but slavery; you would become someone else’s. The Church would not recognize this as a valid marriage. But if the consent and the giving is mutual, then the result is not slavery but unity. And was this not what love aims at? Unity? Here we find that the law against divorce is not a heartless law, but a law that protects hearts and their love. Nobody will make such vows without fear and trepidation. And indeed: how could anyone so entirely give oneself, if there were not somewhere the guarantee that this is a lifelong and irrevocable union and protected as such?
II. And so this is why marriage vows must be irrevocable and life-long, not just for pragmatic reasons, but by their very nature. Union can only be achieved, if it is entire. If you just give yourself “until further notice,” then you do not truly love. We are capable of more. We are the only beings that are capable of making a commitment over our whole life-span, “until death do us part.” This is truly and literally an “existential” commitment, because we give our whole existence, our whole being. Nowhere else do we make such commitments except in the sphere of religion, because only God does otherwise have a claim on our whole being. Marriage is indeed intrinsically connected to religion; it is a union of love that is sacred and protected as such. God has made marriage an existential and sacred reality from the dawn of humanity. And this is true not just for Christians; it is part of what we call the “natural law,” simply because it is implied in the very nature of marriage.
III. But with that we still have not entirely grasped the nature of marriage. I would suggest that it is not by accident that, in the Gospel, right after this saying, people bring children to Jesus. Marriage is by its nature aiming at children. We do not understand what an acorn is, if we do not know that it is meant to grow into an oak tree; and likewise we do not understand what marriage is, if we do not understand that by its nature it is meant to grow into a family. Marriage is for the sake of family and it is unintelligible, if it is divorced from it. Here too, we must not divorce what God has put together. The Catholic Church speaks of the two ends of marriage: the unitive and the procreative part. The unitive part has to do with the bonding of the married couple, which is the union that they form with each other. The procreative part on the other hand is built into the nature of the very acts by which they express their union with each other. These acts are by their nature fertile and result in babies. Marriage is therefore about both babies and bonding.
IV. But why is that? Has God just randomly united these two things: love and fertility? Or is there something in the very nature of love that wants to be fertile? Yes, love wants to be creative and giving. But that might be too generic. That would be true for the love that is expressed in charitable works as well, to take just one example. And it is certainly important to the vows that religious take that they lead to creative love. But religious vows and charity or the love of friendship are obviously not what we call “marriage.” C.S. Lewis in his book on the Four Loves notes in his chapter on “erotic love” that it indeed aims at what Jesus talks about in the Gospel: Jesus quotes today’s first reading from the book of Genesis which says that this love aims at becoming one flesh. “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.” Again: love aims at union. The two want nothing less than to become so much one that they share one body. C.S. Lewis comments that the physical acts that aim at such a fleshly union are not devoid of comical or tragic aspects; for, much as they might try, they cannot literally become one flesh. If this were all that marriage was aiming at, it would be frustrated in its end, which is union. But this is where the babies come in: in their children, husband and wife literally become one flesh. Both of them contribute half of the genetic material; they give themselves in order to form one unified whole in another human being. They are coming together in one being; they become literally one flesh. Their love becomes incarnate in their offspring. And children in turn will therefore naturally understand their identity in reference to their parents (“I am the son or daughter of Mary and John Smith” etc.). And so, certainly, as it is frequently pointed out, rules against divorce are aiming also at protecting the good of children. But there is a deeper reason for this connection: it protects the very identity of children at the same time that it protects the love and union of the parents of which the child is an image.
V. So, the unitive end of marriage aims at the procreative end; the bonding wants babies, and without babies the union and the bonding themselves fail; they are by their very nature part of marriage. They are the oak tree into which the acorn of married love wants to grow. So we can see how well God has done this, to put these two things together. And we do therefore well not to divorce these two aspects of marriage. Contraception, for example, separates the bonding from the babies; but with that, the bonding will eventually also fail. Technologies of artificial reproduction in turn do the opposite: they separate the babies from the bonding. Here conception is from the hand of the medical technician, and sometimes in its material even from someone else than the spouse. Apart from numerous ethical problems with this procedure, one of its effects is to divorce children from their biological parents, with very real consequences as we can observe today: there are websites of now grown up children, who struggle with such identity issues, trying to find their biological parents.
VI. It should also be obvious that it takes two people of the opposite sex to bring about this kind of marital union. For two people of the same sex it is impossible to become one flesh – and this already on the anatomical level. But this is not the only level on which such relationships are perpetually frustrated. Even if that could be remedied – and it is hard to see how it could – two people of the same sex would still not be able to become one flesh in a child. They might try to have children in artificial ways, but this would precisely destroy the union that I have described earlier, for all the reasons that would apply to marriage as well. And this is not the fault of some oppressive ruling denying someone the rights they claim to have; it simply is the nature of the thing, it is what marriage is; “homosexual marriage” is an oxymoron. In addition, even in artificial ways one cannot produce children that embody a union of two people of the same sex, because one cannot merge two male or two female genomes. In the absence of this possibility we see all sorts of complications emerging, for example with surrogate mothers and other third parties being involved in the process. In California there is now a law trying to recognize a set of three legal parents. In that scenario it will be the judges who decide who the parents are, because biology does not account for it anymore. In New Jersey, the Governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed children to be fabricated who would be biologically unrelated to either legal parent, and brought to birth by yet another person who would be a surrogate mother. It should be obvious that this results in endless frustrations and in the fragmentation of what marriage originally was aiming at: the union of married love. Once we begin to ignore the nature of marriage in order to follow incompatible kinds of desires, marriage is falling apart, and it will become impossible to put Humpty Dumpty back together. And we should notice that all of this is true completely apart from any kind of Church teaching; it is not based on any kind of faith. It is something that should be recognizable to any unprejudiced person of good will. And until just a few years ago it has indeed been recognized by virtually everyone.
VII. There are, of course, religious reasons as well. Faith confirms what we can know by reason alone. Married love is the origin of a new human life, a new person with a rational and immortal soul. In the understanding of the Church, such a soul cannot be the result of the union of the parents alone. It is the result of God creating this soul at the moment of conception. If we believe this (and one could even make a purely philosophical case for it), then marriage is even more profoundly sacred, because it collaborates in God’s creation of an immortal soul, destined for eternal life. We cannot understand marriage apart from this profound dignity and privilege that God has built into it: this is something that can happen only in human marriage. Angels cannot do this. The second reading from the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that in Jesus God himself has “become lower than the angels,” that he has entered the human family, being born from a woman, calling himself our “brother”. Why? So that he can “bring many children to glory,” as it says. God becomes man so as to beget us anew and from above. The Church Fathers call the baptismal fountain the womb of the Church; we are born again, now in the image and likeness of our heavenly Father, with a new identity, a new set of spiritual genetics, if you want. We become God’s own children, and it is indeed, in the words of the Gospel, “these children to whom the kingdom of God belongs.” Throughout the Bible, marriage is an image of the union of God and the people Israel, of Christ and the Church, of a mystical union of God and our soul. For Christians this has even become a one-flesh union: we are incorporated into Christ’s mystical body by baptism, and united with him in the flesh in the Eucharist, the marriage banquet of the lamb. Our redemption consists in this union, which is likened to a spousal union. Grace builds on nature, and God in his creation of marriage has anticipated the way in which he wanted to redeem us: as the bridegroom who lays down his life for his bride the Church, because nobody has greater love than this. Love aims at union, and the greatest love is the one that wants to unite us to God himself. If marriage is an image of this reality, then we have additional reasons to propose to the world that marriage – in the union of all of its aspects – is worth our protection and nurturing, and that “what God has joined together, man must not separate.”
-- Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP