The homily about divorce and marriage that didn’t work

This is the homily that did not work—at least, not as planned. And, yes, you might well ask if any of them do.

Through the selection of readings for this Sunday, the church proposes that we ponder marriage. We Catholics say a lot of wonderful things about married love: God raises the deepest of human loves to the reality of a sacrament; spouses, quite literally, become expressive instruments of God’s love and presence to each other; and, like every vocation in the church, marriage is a path of self-surrender, a way we pour ourselves out in love of others. We preach all these things at weddings and rightly so.

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But what do we say to those whose marriages did not work? That is where a Sunday homily slides into shoals. Do we say that something went wrong in God’s great gift to you? But how does that happen? Isn’t the point of being God that things do not go wrong?

Like all the graces of God, the gift of marriage can also be frustrated by human sin.

Nothing can go wrong for God—unless by God’s own choice and in God’s own love God decides to create a creature who can choose to love or choose not to love. Something quite profound happens in the creation of humanity. God makes us a part of all that is, yet endows only ourselves with the ability to reject all of it and to reject God as well. So to admit that things go wrong in marriages is not to deny the blessing that marriage is. It is simply to note that, like all the graces of God, the gift of marriage can also be frustrated by human sin.

Have we drawn all too neatly a boundary between those who have accepted the blessing of marriage and those who have rejected it? Absolutely. Any line we humans draw is going to be too neat. We cannot look into the hearts of those who have experienced divorce. We certainly cannot assign blame to the partners the way civil courts divide their assets.

Small mistakes, made early in a relationship or in life itself, have a way of growing into heartbreak. Sin first appears as something trivial, something that we choose. Yet the longer we live with it, sin becomes something mighty, something that controls us. Sin fetters us and then ferries us to places we would never wish to visit.

Yet God is merciful. God never withdraws grace. We can grow into better human beings on the other side of a divorce. Remember that astute observation of St. Paul: “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Rm 5:20). In failed marriages, as in life, sin recognized, confessed and forgiven can lead to a deeper, stronger life.

The greater the love, the greater the ability to wound the other. We often hurt those whom we love the most.

And only a fool thinks that those who are, as we say, “happily married” do not struggle with sin and selfishness, are not sometimes truly cruel to each other. Remember, the greater the love, the greater the ability to wound the other. We often hurt those whom we love the most.

I have been a priest for 34 years. Some might suggest that I know very little about marriage. I have also never had a terminal illness. Yet I have spent most of my life as a priest-counselor talking to those who are dying and those who are struggling with a failing or failed marriage.

Some of my fidelity to my vows as a priest I can claim, but I know that had circumstances been different, had temptations been just a little stronger or fear a little more powerful, I might not be a priest today.

And, of course, simply remaining a priest says nothing about how fruitful one’s priesthood is, any more than staying married tells us that a marriage is life-giving. Sin and grace do battle in all vocations, those we salute and those we lament.

Marriage, as a profound, fundamental human reality, is truly an arena where sin and grace do endless battle.

This homily also fails to offer a prescription for progress. With sin scattered so liberally in the married and the divorced, what are we supposed to learn, except that marriage might be a risk too great to take?

Yet then we come back, not to a teaching but to the person who is the core of our faith, Christ Jesus. He tells us that we must risk death itself if we really want to live. He says that what is impossible for us is not impossible for God. He promises that if we rise above self, God will reach down to aid us.

Then the closing question, for each of us, is whether we are dying to self so as to live in Christ. And here is the peculiar thing: Some would characterize Catholicism as always insisting that it has all the right answers, that it never needs to search for them. But on this point, Catholics part ways with some Christians. We do not think that you should be sure about your salvation, sure that you are surrendering to God. Yes, the Scriptures sing of God’s fidelity. They insist that we can place all of our trust in him. God will not fail us. Yet from start to finish, the Scriptures attest to the possibility that we can fail ourselves, that those who are most sure of their righteousness might be terribly mistaken.

This homily just doesn’t work. We still do not know where we as individuals went wrong or if, even now, we have truly chosen for the good. All we have done is to show that marriage, as a profound, fundamental human reality, is truly an arena where sin and grace do endless battle.

So I will do what great preachers do, and the pathetic as well. I will quote Scripture and sit down. “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Rm 5:20).

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24 Hebrews 2:9-11 Mark 10:2-12

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John Walton
1 year 1 month ago

Brilliant, thanks for writing this! Jack

A Fielder
1 year 1 month ago

Fr Terrrance, thank you sharing your heartfelt struggle with this difficult issue.

I have just a few observations. 1. Your usage of the concept of sin here does not have much content to it. Aside from being the culprit for all our problems and the generic selfishness or failure to chose God, I am really not sure what you mean by sin, as you give no examples. 2. Also, you suggest that sin is something we can confess as a condition of God’s forgiveness and mercy. But I don’t think you give enough consideration to the reality that many people suffer on account of the sins or wrong actions of others. The pain of sin is not always self-inflicted. it is wise to evaluate ones own behavior first, before simply blaming someone else for your problems, but I don’t think that tribunals grant no-fault annulments. Usually one party does carry more weight for the failed marriage. 3. The gospel reading contrasts prudential laws (from Moses) with God’s original intention and ideal.. Certainly laws are necessary, even the man made ones, assuming they are also just. Our tradition is not very good at holding these two different concepts in constructive tension. I wish we were better at letting people make prudential decisions about their lives and loves while also holding up an ideal even if many might not be able to model that ideal.

I’m just a little younger that you are, and I have never been married either, but I imagine that many people, regardless of their vocation, have some experience of loneliness which testifies in itself to God’s original intention that it is not good for us to be alone. I would like to think.that there is always hope for companionship and emotional intimacy in relationship. To what extent that relationship resembles the ideal is a different question which need not be subject to the strict scrutiny of strangers who are unaware of the circumstances of a person’s life.

Shalom.

Phillip Stone
1 year 1 month ago

Well, you are much younger than I. One wife, 6 living children grown and flown the nest, still working as doctor past 75,

The Cross dealt with the punishment due to the sinner who does terrible harm through the sinning and the terrible suffering of the injured innocent - the suffering and damage has both a perpetrator and a victim and God is taking responsibility for both, identifying with both sinner and sinned against.
God gave free will to one of his creatures knowing full well that some willed choices would result in terrible things, on the Cross He took the punishment as the responsible party and on the Cross he joined the innocent in being tortured and executed while without deserving it.
The incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection is a mystery and not a simple theorem in "social justice".

This created universe is not a mechanical instrument with theorems and ideals and templates; we are each unique individuals and each lifetime is a new process, a new phenomenon and each will have one name unlike every other in the kingdom of God. Until death, he has provided no safe spaces, endowed none of us equally and invited each to journey with courage and hope, engaging in life and risking all to gain the prize.

Alex Hilson
1 year 1 month ago

Marriages and divorces. In each person’s life, family and marriage play an important role, and divorce can be not only a turning point in his personal life, but also a cause of changes in the social situation. Contrary to popular myths, almost always divorce - divorce, is negatively reflected in all spheres of life.
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A Fielder
1 year 1 month ago

Editors, the above link provided by Alex is an advertisement that should probably be deleted.

Molly Roach
1 year 1 month ago

So America is advertising for viagra now?

John Chuchman
1 year 1 month ago

Staying in an abusive marriage is Sinful.

Phillip Stone
1 year 1 month ago

I suppose you would have been one of the onlookers who jeered at Christ for not coming down from his Cross

Dolores Pap
1 year 1 month ago

Agreed! Get out as fast as possible before serious harm , both physically, as well as emotionally, is inflicted on the suffering spouses and their children.

Michael Barberi
1 year 1 month ago

While sin may be involved in divorce and remarriage, it is not always the case in many cases nor are both husband and wife guilty of sin.

Marriage sometimes does not work for a number of reasons. Sometimes it involves adultery by one spouse, sometimes one or both spouses were immature at the time of their marriage, sometimes neither spouse fully understood the teaching of the Church on marriage. For example, we know that many spouses only received a very basic Catholic education, and many couples rarely went to Church/Mass before the wedding nor did they go to Mass after it. In other words, they got married in a Church because that is what was expected.

Clearly, divorce is a major problem and it is true that when marriages are endangered, many couples do not manage their marital problems very well, nor do many seek marriage counseling.

As to Fr. Klein's article, I am disappointed that he did not give adequate time to explain a homily and pastoral solution that does work, namely, the beauty of Amoris Laetitia (AL). This Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis recognizes how wounded we all are as well as the moral dilemma many couples face in a broken marriage. Thank God we have a pastoral application of the teaching on marriage and divorce (e.g., AL), where under certain circumstances many divorced and remarried Catholics can receive reconciliation and receive Holy Communion through a process of discernment, mercy, the internal forum (e.g., the informed conscience) while acknowledging past wrong-doings but now have a sincere desire to come back to the Church and live a life Jesus asks of us.

Unfortunately, not all Bishops support AL. This divides and confuses Catholics and any homily that repeats the teaching that unless you get an annulment or live a life of sexual abstinence, you cannot receive Holy Communion. This teaching says that if you are divorce and remarried you are living in perpetual sin, full stop. Of course, such a homily does not work.

My comments here are not to argue over AL but to point out that we have a pastoral solution to those that have been wounded by a broken marriage and are now divorced and remarried. These Catholics have been standing outside the doors of the Church for a long time. Many of them feel disenfranchised.

For the divorced and remarried, AL is the message and homily that works.

Bridget Spitznagel
1 year 1 month ago

"a homily and pastoral solution that does work, namely, the beauty of Amoris Laetitia (AL)." This doesn't work for me. I'm separated from an abusive husband and in the process of divorcing him for safety. I have no intention of marrying anyone else. Homilies about the beauty of marriage and homilies about whether someone can receive communion when living with someone that in the eyes of the Church they cannot marry without first seeking an annulment, both do not speak to me. Talk to me about how to know that it is time to get out. Talk to me about Christ asking us to do things that are very hard, because leaving the man you have loved for years is hard. Talk to me about being asked to live a life that is not possible without daily help from God. Talk to me about where to find help in the community and tell me to seek help for depression, which is often caused by abuse. First, learn how and when to give this kind of pastoral care. Then give it.

Don Daniel
1 year 1 month ago

Forgive me , Father, but you clearly have never married. Your column is one reason why the Church is no longer relevant to many people.

Tom Poelker
1 year 1 month ago

Terrance Klein, did you really intend to imply that all divorces are the result of sin, of offenses against God? See Michael Barbieri's descriptions of other things which harm marriages with no moral culpability.
Indeed, Jesus taught an ideal. Yet, a millennium later, the institutional church began applying that ideal to all and legislated the ideal to be the norm, an impossible undertaking which gave the institution leverage over civil society.
Too much church practice is retroactively justified support for social structures. In turn, too many of those social structures were based on dominance and exploitation set into law and "custom".
Proposition, what if the church recognized that civil marriage and sacramental matrimony are different realities? Perhaps the sacramental covenant would ordinarily come only after experience and extended study, similar to that fourth Jesuit vow that not every Jesuit takes?
Is there really a good correspondence between the social and biological expectations for marriage of those just entering adult life and the ideals of a covenanted union of sacramental marriage? Maybe the historic precedent should be the practice of temporary vows?
So long as the incongruency exists between social/biological expectations and theological ideals, there will be divorces. So long as the RCC insists that there is a congruence while also pretending that it is not a cultural institution as well as striving to teach us how to practice love for one another, there will continue to be such failed homilies.

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