Marriage: Validity & Indissolubility (Part 2)

Last entry, I focussed intensely on what it takes for a marriage to be validly entered and gave examples of how my wife, Amanda, and I are able to be confident that we have a valid marriage.

This time, I wish to pursue my real goal behind this endeavor: discussing indissolubility. Last post, I stated:

When entered into validly, nothing can break a marriage covenant, but death . . . 1) In order for the marriage covenant to truly exist, it must be validly entered [which I established]. 2) Once entered, the marriage covenant between the two people exists until one of them dies.”

. . . for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘till death do we part. We commonly recognize these (or similar) words as the vows of those entering into marriage. My wife and I used the Catholic standard vows:

I, Casey, take you, Amanda, to be my wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.

. . . but it’s the same vow because it’s entering into the same covenant. Have you ever stopped to think about what this really means? Let’s reflect for a minute.

Entering into the covenant of marriage is a great responsibility, which one professes before God, one’s spouse, and one’s community. When we say we “are married,” my wife and I recognize that this is so on multiple levels:

  1. First, the government thinks we’re married. The State of Michigan validated our marriage license application and it was signed by the priest, so, according to the state, we’re officially married: we have a legal bond with each other. This is, more or less, a formality and not really the major goal of what she and I were after.
  2. Second, the Church thinks that we were married. As far as She is able, Holy Mother Church, from Her exterior view (and from the recommendation of the priest on our interior dispositions) thinks we are married. The Church thinks so highly of marriage that She assumes that all marriages are valid unless proven otherwise. [Who wouldn’t think a couple is married? They went through the ceremony; they said: “I do.” If those are your thoughts, please refer back to my previous post about validity for a few ideas about what would make a marriage invalid, even though the couple went through a ceremony.]
  3. Finally, and most importantly, God thinks we’re married–in fact, God knows that we’re married. Moreover, He’s the One Who designed real marriage and allowed Amanda and I the opportunity to give ourselves to each other (such that we are married) to begin with. We are married not only in our thoughts, in the thoughts of our friends and families, in the eyes of the state, or even just in the eyes of the Church, but we’re married IN REALITY. Not only is there the legal bond between us, of which the state is in charge, but a REAL bond exists between us. This is what Catholics mean when we refer to a couple as being married “in the eyes of God.”

Two bonds have come about from this union. The first (imparted by the state) is legal and pertains to legal things. The second (imparted by God Himself) is real and pertains to reality itself. If both spouses are baptized Christians, a real marriage also contains a sacramental bond, which pertains to grace (fuller participation in God’s Life). This real bond is the real marriage; the legal bond is called marriage, but it’s really just the state’s signal that it thinks we’re married.


This real bond between Amanda and I is that for which we vowed. We recognize that nothing can break this bond (not the state, not us, not anyone else). We have been joined by God Himself and “what God has joined, no man can separate” (c.f. Matthew 19:6). We fully recognize that, no matter what happens, we are called to love and honor each other for the rest of our lives. Honoring our vows is a HUGE responsibility. Let’s say, God forbid, something really bad happens to us. No matter what, we still honor those vows. Let me discuss some extreme examples:

  1. Major Injury/Disease – Let’s say that Amanda were to get into a huge car accident (or developed some majorly debilitating disease) and she was comatose, barely alive and the doctors thought that for the rest of her life, she would be non-responsive. She has a normal life expectancy of at least another 50-60 years. This would mean that probably for the rest of my life, I would no longer have her conscious company and I would not be free to enter into any other relationship. I would still be married to her as long as we are both still living. This would be a great cross to carry for the rest of my life, but that is the vow I made before God and that is the vow I will honor as long as we both shall live. I will live out my role as her husband and pray for her soul that she may be spared the punishment that any sins she may have committed would have earned her. I would offer her soul to God and I would live a life (however lonely) by her side as long as I still breathe. God-willing, one day we will both be glorifying God together in Heaven (though, at that point we would no longer be married–c.f. Matthew 22:30). That would be the truly loving way to live out the vow.
  2. Mental Disease – What if Amanda developed some form of mental disorder whereby she either didn’t recognize me and was afraid of me or (worse) hated me? Even in this state, I would be called to love her. Even if she were to run/move away, I would be called to love her as my wife, even though she no longer recognized our relationship. I must still recognize our marriage, pray for her return to sanity and her return to me. That may or may not ever happen, but that would be my calling. That is the only way to live out the vow: for better, for worse, ’till death. That would be the proper way to love her.
  3. Danger – What if that mental disease caused Amanda to become extremely violent to me and/or any children we may one day have? In this situation, I would be called to love her from a safe distance as long as the real threat of violence perdured. Temporary separation, for one reason or another is allowable. In this instance, it would be justified to have her committed or at least for me (and the kids) to move out during this time. We would still be married, but I would have to love her remotely for both of our sakes and/or any children’s sakes. I would pray for her to return to sanity and hopefully she would be led there. The fidelity through such fear and strife is the way to truly love her and live out the vow.
  4. Infidelity – This would never happen, but for the sake of illustrating the worst case scenario, allow me to push the envelope. What if Amanda were to be unfaithful to me? Worse, what if this were not an isolated incident: what if she were to run away with another man? She would obviously not be living out her end of the vow, but what would be my responsibility in that instance? I would be called to remain faithful. No matter how unfaithful she might be, I am called to live out my vow. I would be called to pray for her soul, for her conversion, for her return. It may or may not ever happen, but as long as we both should live, we would both be married and I would be called to act as her husband. Even if it has been 20 or 30 years since I had last heard from her, I would still be her husband. Again, it would be an arduously long and lonely road down which I must carry that cross, but I signed up for fidelity through thick or thin. I would still love her and all those years of bearing my burden of loneliness would be my sacrifice for her and for God. That would be my duty. That sacrifice (united to that of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross) might be what ultimately saves her soul. That would be the way of true love.
  5. Forced Separation – I don’t know how this would happen, but let’s just say that the US was invaded by some foreign country–for humor and proximity, let’s use the Canadians. So, the Canadian army sweeps down into America and has a big problem with the Church (let’s face it, Canada’s government hasn’t been to kind to her lately), so they start deporting all Catholic bishops, priests, deacons and teachers and separating them from their families. Even if I were taken into a Canadian concentration camp for the rest of my life, Amanda would be called to remain faithful to me (and I to her). This scenario would leave us both lonely and longing for each other. We would pray and work toward our reunion, and if God allowed it to be, it would be wonderful, but as long as we haven’t heard otherwise, we would assume that the other still lives and would live up to our vows. This would be how to truly love each other in that setting.

In each of these scenarios I would be, in some way, left alone, but still married. Even if I were to meet other women, I would be able to have common friendships with them, but never would it be licit for me to even entertain thoughts of relationships with them, for that would be adultery in my heart (c.f. Matthew 5:28). No flirting, no dating, I would have no romantic companionship unless God allowed a change in the situation whereby Amanda could reunite. I would be a lonely married man, but I would still be a married man. The status of our “being married” will never change until one of us dies. My vow is to God, to her, and to our family, no matter how well or how poorly things are going, I must remain faithful (and so must she).

“What about a divorce?” one might ask. In our society of no-fault divorce (more or less on demand), there could easily be a situation whereby spouse #1 is living out the marriage vow while spouse #2 is not, and eventually #2 files for a divorce and receives it. What has happened? How does spouse #1 live this out? If we have a proper understanding of the two bonds in a marriage, we can understand what has happened in the divorce: the state no longer thinks that the couple is married. Does that mean that they’re not really married? No. It means that the legal bond has been broken, but the real bond still exists. Does this free the spouses to marry? No, it doesn’t. Although the state might consider them legally free to marry other persons, they are still, in reality, bound to each other. The state didn’t create marriage and has no real say over what marriage actually is. No matter how hard they try, they will never be able to achieve a different real marriage bond unless the previous spouse has died. Divorce has no effect on the real bond. Knowing that Amanda and I are definitely married, we are comforted by the surety of knowing that nothing can ever take us apart, not even us.

Didn’t Jesus say that divorce was okay in certain situations? No, He didn’t. He said:
“For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for [porneia], and marries another, commits adultery.” [Matthew 19:8-9]
What is this porneia? Is it some sort of exception? Some translate it as “unchastity,” “adultery,” “concubinage,” or “immorality,” but none of these really gets the idea of the Greek term porneia. The basic idea of porneia is that it is a situation so perverted that no real marriage could have existed in the first place. These would be relationships that are incestuous, homosexual, etc. In today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (5:1-8), he also uses the word porneia. Paul is describing a situation where a man is living with his father’s wife. Whether this is his mom or his step-mom, this man is in an incestuous or (at least) quasi-incestuous relationship with a woman who is already married to someone else. Their relationship is obviously not able to be a marriage. Because they are living as thought they are married, that relationship is described as porneia.

A relationship described as porneia would have been one which could never be a valid marriage in the first place. In such cases there is no divorce on the level of reality. There may be a legal divorce to make sure that no legal bond exists between the two, but such a divorce would have no effect on their reality because no real bond ever existed. “What therefore, God has put together . . . ” [i.e. when there actually is a real bond] “let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). Not even a divorce can change the real bond of marriage.

What about annulments; aren’t they just Catholic divorces? No, an annulment is a statement that the marriage in question was never (at any point) valid. There never was a real bond between the couple. There are many ways in which one might go through a marriage ceremony, but not enter into a valid marriage (i.e. things brought up in my previous post). If someone believes he/she might have been invalidly married, they would bring it to the attention of the marriage tribunal of their local Catholic diocese. This tribunal will spend a great deal of time researching and collecting all the possible data they can on that marriage: interviewing, collecting records, etc. Throughout this entire time, the marriage is presumed to be valid. Through an exhaustive process, the tribunal comes to a decision whether the Church still thinks the marriage is valid. Perhaps there was a secret previous marriage that one partner was concealing; perhaps it was shotgun wedding and the people weren’t really able to give their consent to the union; perhaps there was a lack of form; perhaps they were 1st cousins; perhaps there was something else that prevented the couple from entering into a real bond (even if they had been living in what they thought was a marriage for many years). In such cases, the tribunal would make a declaration of nullity (an “annulment”), stating that no real marriage ever actually existed. If an annulment is declared, then the couple is able to know for sure that they are not bound to each other, and that they are free to marry other persons.

Such is the case for my parents. They were married for many years and eventually divorced. Eventually my mom was interested in the possibility of getting married to someone else. Knowing that the Church still believed that she was married to my dad, she brought the case to the tribunal. After a long deliberation, the Church found that there was enough evidence to prove that my parents were only legally married all those years and that no real bond existed between them. Now, if my mom were to meet a good Catholic guy, she knows that she would be free to pursue a relationship with him. Whereas before the declaration of nullity, she would have to presume that her marriage with my dad was valid–all marriages are presumed valid unless proven otherwise. She knows that there is no real bond that unites her to my dad. This might also help to explain why they divorced in the first place–they had no backing: no real bond means no graces from marriage as a sacrament. With no sacramental graces and no real bond, it is much harder to live with each other and remain a solidly married couple.

Through all of this, the real bond is never broken (if it ever comes into existence, it always remains, until one of them dies). If a couple prepares well for the sacrament of marriage, they can be confident that they have a valid marriage. Amanda and I have such confidence. We know that nothing can take us apart. We know that we will be true to each other through good times and bad, and that no matter how tough things get, we have given ourselves to each other, God has bound us together and we are a family–nothing can change that. This mutual knowledge and respect for our vows, for God and for each other, creates an environment of trust between us. Knowing Amanda’s great love for God and knowledge of the covenant into which we have entered, I can rest assured that Amanda won’t simply take off tomorrow (or some day down the road). I know that she and I will live out our vows to the best of our ability because we both know full and well just what it is to which we have vowed ourselves–and we are backed up by extra graces because our marriage is not only real, but because we are Christians, it is a sacrament–it instrumentally causes us to have a greater participation in God’s Life.

Praise God for marriage! Praise God for His Church and Her sacraments! Praise God for Amanda, who is such an amazing woman! Praise God for our preparation prior to marriage! Finally, praise God for our love and our marriage!

Continuing in love,
– Casey

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