In October 1997 Pope John Paul II was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he met with married couples representing Christian families from the various countries of the world. He called the men and women of our age to take seriously the sanctity and integrity of the institution of the family, which is the fundamental cell of society. He continues today to remind the world that the family is the first school and the domestic church where children learn their values and habits; that the family is the sanctuary or sacred place where they are first introduced to God and taught to love. When the family is wholesome, a peaceful society is guaranteed. But when the family is diseased, the entire society has no hope of peace and love. In Rio de Janeiro, the Pope denounced the practice of abortion and other acts that violate human life and dignity. He condemned the scandalous disparity between the rich and poor in the same country. Asserting the right of children to adequate food, shelter and clothing, he said it was unacceptable that in this day and age so many children should be abandoned to the streets to begin their lives in total destitution while others engage in conspicuous consumption. As the Pope meets with families again in October 2000, on the occasion of the Jubilee of Families, this time in Rome, the same message was be heard loud and clear: uphold the sanctity of the marriage covenant and the integrity of the family!
In the Gospel of Mark (10:2-12) and Matthew (19:3-11), Jesus makes it clear to his listeners that marital infidelity, separation and divorce are not in accord with God's design and purpose for men and women. Marital instability, infidelity and divorce are brought about by human depravity expressed in selfishness and stubbornness. Jesus Christ teaches that God's kingdom is for the meek and the humble, who know how to forgive, how to be open, how to tolerate, how to give up some of their rights and how to serve others. It is not for the proud and arrogant who must always dominate, who must always be first, and who must always have their own way. The kingdom of God is for those who approach the mystery of life, the mystery of love and the mystery of marriage with the openness and receptivity of a child.
We are witnessing in our age a very frightening decline in the scale of values held by the dominant culture. We seem to be promoting and defending in our age a culture of materialism and a lifestyle of acute selfishness and individualism that tantamount to the idolatry of the self. Men and women promote and defend values and behavioural patterns that are antithetical to true human dignity, true love, self-discipline and self-sacrifice. Not only individuals, but whole industries, organisations and agencies are set up to promote hedonism and make war on the traditional institution of marriage and the family. So today we do not talk of marital rights, but sexual rights which for some should include the right of adult male and female to co-habit and their freedom to engage in sex irrespective of marital status. When we speak of sexual rights we also mean the freedom to engage in homosexual or lesbian practices which are a chronic aberration and an abomination for most traditional societies. There are some who today even include freedom to abort a child as part of their sexual rights. There is a lot of pressure being mounted on the men and women of our generation to reject the traditional institution of marriage, especially in its monogamous form, as enslaving. The men and women of our generation are being told to disown the long-cherished value of virginity or pre-marital chastity as primitive and hypocritical. Young people in our generation are under pressure to refuse to submit themselves to the kind of social norms which forbid them to co-habit as husband and wives without first making a public commitment in the presence of the people of God.
Thus, the value of sacrificial love, forbearance, discipline and humility have become anachronistic or out of fashion for many people who now operate a supermarket or "cash and carry" idea of conjugal love and marriage. They are in love as long as it soothes, and they check out of love when it begins to hurt. The result is that our age now records a dangerously high rate of marital infidelity and instability, separation and divorce. And the consequence of a widespread rejection of sacrificial love, forbearance and humility in our age is the general crisis of commitment which we witness in every facet of human life today. What we have instead of sacrificial love is a regime of manipulation and abuse by which smart individuals and groups use and abuse their fellows for selfish gains. Many marriages are thus nothing but an exercise in unilateral or at best mutual exploitation. But this is far from God's design for humanity. What is happening today in the dominant culture is a violation of God's will which shall never bring about the joy, peace and fulfilment that human beings desire deep in their hearts.
The rejection or denigration of the institution of marriage is not necessarily a sign of maturity on the part of the men and women of our generation. The widespread practice of sex before marriage and infidelity in marriage is definitely not an expression of true love. If anything it is a perversion of love. Sex before marriage is the stunting of the growth of genuine love. By refusing to commit themselves to each in a permanent bond of matrimony, young people who refuse to make a public commitment, are not engaged in a life of mutual self-giving, for in spite of sexual intercourse the two never really become one flesh. Instead what such couples are doing in their selfishness and blindness is that they are leaving escape routes for themselves in case the union fails. True human fulfilment and peace do not result from this kind of union, for Jesus Christ teaches that it is in giving that we receive; it is in dying that we are truly born.
In the Jewish society of Jesus' day as in our own day, divorce was easy to obtain. The law of Moses allowed people to divorce their wives, and depending on the orientation of the interpreter of the law (as contained in Deuteronomy 24:1), divorce could be obtained by a man on any pretext whatsoever. All the man needed to do was to write a writ of dismissal so that she could be free to marry another husband if she finds one, and he on his own would surely marry another wife. A study of that text shows that Moses only adapted the customary laws of his day. He could not insist on the indissolubility of marriage, for he had the stubbornness of the Jews to contend with. He tried to remedy the injustices and arbitrariness of the custom and limit its harmful consequences on the woman, by insisting on precise legal forms for divorce and re-marriage. In the Gospel of Mark (10:2-12), the Pharisees who came to Jesus to ask him the question on divorce quoted the Mosaic law for him. "Moses allowed us" they said, "to draw up a writ of dismissal" and then we could send the woman away. But Jesus is not a fundamentalist. He does not take the text of the law literally. He takes his listeners beyond the material letter of the law to reflect on the will of God for humanity. So he speaks of God's original design and purpose.
The plan of God is that men and women, once married, should become one flesh. They become one by divine decree. And Jesus adds authoritatively that no one may put asunder what God has put together. In the same text of Mark's Gospel he says that whoever divorces his wife or her husband and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a divorced person also commits adultery. He shocks his contemporaries here by insisting on the equal dignity of men and women. He made them realise that it is the hardness of heart of the people, their rejection of sacrificial love, that often led a man to cast off the wife that is no longer to his liking. This practice he reasons, is antithetical to the logic of the kingdom.
As he directs us to God's original plan for man and woman, Jesus calls upon his followers to re-examine our idea of conjugal love, to beware of the prevalent sociological currents, outlooks and opinions. He warns Christians not to join the bandwagon in celebrating the false freedoms that comes via divorce, pre-marital sex and co-habitation without marital commitment. The idea of conjugal love and marriage often exhibited by movie stars, and sports celebrities, who call the whole world together one day for marriage only to shamelessly obtain a divorce the next day is not fit for the subjects of the kingdom. The idea of conjugal love often expressed in Hollywood movies and pop songs as something easily contracted and disposed of is not for Christians to embrace. For Christ, conjugal love is rooted in the love of God, which is sacrificial love, love that is true only when it hurts, not one that runs away when it begins to hurt.
Rather than conforming to the dominant values of the day, the level of our Christian commitment is always to be measured by how far away we are from the dominant values of our age that is full of evil inclinations. The mission of Christ is to take humanity to the original beauty of creation, to marriage in its pristine purity. The issue is not whether divorce is legal or illegal. The orientation of Jesus is not one of legality but of morality and spirituality. It is the hardness of heart of the Jews that made Moses allow divorce. But for Christians, this is not to hold. The issue at stake is that of marriage as a covenant relationship that can only be sustained by covenant love. Those who wish to be part of the new covenant of Christ cannot live by the prevailing permissive logic that is based on pride, arrogance, hedonism and the idolatry of the self. Instead they must embrace the high standards of sacrificial love, humility, self-effacement, self-abnegation and self-discipline put forth by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
The entire Christian life, and particularly the union of man and woman in Christ is a sign of contradiction. The call to Christian marriage is often an invitation to go against the current of promiscuity, permissiveness, manipulation and exploitation, the type that made Moses relax the law. The call to Christian marriage is an invitation to embrace sacrificial love, to remain faithful and committed to a covenant of love, even when it hurts. In fact, as the legendary Mother Teresa of Calcutta so powerfully put it, "until it really hurts, all claims to love are mere pretensions." So she often admonishes people to "love until it hurts.
Many parents do not seem to know what emotional and psychological violence they do to their children when in their selfishness, arrogance, hard-heartedness and blindness they refuse to make the necessary sacrifices to keep their marriage together. Many children are constantly living in fear and tension because their parents are quarrelling. On October 1, 1997, I was at a Catholic School in Benin City attending a Eucharistic celebration to mark Nigeria's Independence. At the end of the celebration which was very lively and uplifting for most of the eight hundred or so young people, one fourteen year old student approached me to say that she had a personal problem that made her always very sad. She is neither able concentrate in her studies nor is she able to rejoice with the rest of the students on such occasions as we just had. She asked for my prayers for her parents whom she said "are always quarrelling." She added that the "situation is getting worse," such that she is always afraid of what may be happening back home at any particular time.
Many young people live through their entire childhood with such violence, abuse and fear, and often grow up to become timid, aggressive, resentful, hateful and distrustful of the adult society which their parents represent. Many children are clearly traumatised because their parents are separated or divorced. This is part of the reason why we are faced with so much crisis with our young generation. This is part of the reason why our youths are becoming so perverse and deviant. It is part of the reason why there is an epidemic of juvenile delinquency in our society, why many young people are seeking escape in hard drugs, and why violent cults now thrive in our institutions of learning, unleashing havoc on the rest of society. Social scientists across the world are agreed on the fact that children from broken homes and unwholesome family environments form the majority of those who become criminals and deviants in society.
Matrimony, that is, the sacramental union of man and woman that is permanent and indissoluble, one that is founded on faith, hope, sacrificial love, humility, forbearance, and mutual forgiveness, is a gift of God. The rejection of this gift comes with unwholesome consequences for the individuals concerned, for their children and for the entire society. Christian marriage is indeed a grace, a free gift of God. It is by the power of God that two personalities, fundamentally different from each other, are made one. The human person has a natural inclination towards selfishness, and this makes marital love impossible. But the grace of God is capable of healing the human person of his or her inordinate inclinations that make the sacrificial love required by Christian marriage impossible. With the grace of God, the human person can love with a true covenant love through which the bond of marriage between a man and a woman shall become the symbol of "paradise regained."