|Dr Brian Lewis is one of Australiaĺs
most eminent moral theologians.
He is a graduate of the Angelicum and the Alphonsian Academy in Rome
and formerly lectured in moral theology in Ballarat and Melbourne.
Prior to retirement he taught scripture, theology and ethics on campuses of the present Australian Catholic University.
He has contributed articles to many journals and reviews.
Perspectives - The articles at
this link are part of an ongoing series written by Dr Brian Lewis which
explores understandings of conscience and morality in the Christian
tradition. Deeper insights into the Scriptures and church traditions open
up new possibilities in ecumenical and philosophical thinking in the
search for a more comprehensive moral worldview.
Brian's previous articles
August 6, 2012 Brian Lewis, Ballarat, Australia
0ne of the most remarkable features
of Vatican II's treatment of marriage is the emphasis placed on marital love.
However, given the very personalist approach of the Council, this emphasis is
The Constitution on the Church in
the World Today (Gaudium et Spes,
n.49) makes a number of points about this truly human and divine love:
It involves the good of the whole person of the couple.
It enriches all the expressions of body and mind with a unique dignity as fleshing
out and signifying the friendship distinctive of marrage.
It attracts special gifts: healing, grace, agape.
It leads the spouses to a free and
mutual gift of themselves.
It is meant to grow and develop.
It is uniquely expressed and perfected through the marital
act, which in a unique
manner promotes the joy and richness of togetherness
It thus expresses and promotes the mutual
self-giving of the spouses.
It remains steadfast in bright days or
The tragedy of marriage breakdown,
which today has reached alarming proportions, is no doubt due to many reasons,
but the research of Dr. Jack Dominian has shown that a major contributing factor
is the inability of many couples to establish the sort of love relationship
which the Council sees as one of the essential purposes of marriage. One or both
spouses lack the personal qualities and maybe the verbal, sexual and other
skills needed for the promise of the wedding day to be realised. As Vatican II
says in the above document, 'this vocation demands notable virtue..... the
constancy of love, largeheartedness and the spirit of sacrifice'. The challenge
to grow in love is made more difficult to realise when other problems, like
unemployment, poverty, substandard housing and conditions, social pressures to
accept certain values and 'live up to the Joneses' complicate the issue. Sadly
some just do not have the capacity to strengthen and develop their relationship
in days bright or dark and make it work.
The emphasis on marriage as a love
relationship in the terms used by Vatican II throws light on the words of Jesus
proclaiming the absolute indissolubility of marriage. He
was confronting a patriarchcal society, in which women's main role in
marriage was to provide a male heir for their husbands and to ensure his
inheritance remained in his family line, and in which divorce by the male was
countenanced if the woman failed to live up to expectations. In such a context
little encouragement for the growth of a loving personal relationship was
possible. Questioned by the Pharisees about the situation, Jesus replied: 'Have
you not read that the Creator from the beginning made them male and female and
that he said: This why a man must leave father and mother, and cling to his
wife, and the two become one body? They are no longer two, therefore, but one
body. So then, what God has united, man must not divide' (Mat.19:3-6;
The words of Jesus were a strong
challenge to the establishment's attitude to marriage and divorce and a defence
of the dignity of women in face of their diminished status, which rendered
difficult any mutual, harmonious and equal relationship intended by the Creator.
There is general agreement today among scholars that these words of Jesus are
gospel not law. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was professor of theology summed up
the position in his book on the theology of marriage in 1972:
Instead of entering into the
casuistry of interpreting the law and adopting this position or that, Jesus goes
back behind the law and interpretation to its origin, to
what man (sic) really is and should be all about in the sight of God....
Because Jesus goes back behind the level
of law to the origin, his saying should not itself be
seen immediately and without further ado as law; it cannot be detached
from the sphere of faith and discipleship.
Jesus did not cast his teaching in
the legal form of an authoritative statement about a bond that cannot be broken.
Yet he did more than just set before us an ideal without any binding force.
Rather, the saying of Jesus carries an obligation, a 'moral ought', obliging the
disciples of Jesus fully and utterly to pursue a goal. It is a command, as
Bernard Hńring says, like the command to love one's enemies or the saying: 'Be
merciful, even as your Father is merciful' (Lk.6:36). 'This kind of commandment
indicates a direction, but also obliges one to commit oneself, to prepare
oneself, to train oneself to reach the goal and to practise and love the
corresponding modes of behaviour' (No Way
The early Church continued to uphold
the teaching of Jesus about the absolute indissolubility of marriage, but at the
same time strove to apply this teaching to particular situations with the
compassion that Jesus himself had shown to those in difficulty. Well-known
English moral theologian, Kevin Kelly, states that the exceptions permitting
divorce found in the writings of Matthew and Paul reflect how early Christian
communities tried to deal with new situations that arose in the course of their
ministry in their communities, while remaining faithful to the prophetic message
of Jesus. Problems arose, for instance, when one spouse embraced the Christian
faith while the other did not. 'Paul insisted that this did not give the
Christian partner an automatic right to divorce, even though he also wrote that
divorce, and presumably remarriage too, was acceptable whenever difference of
religious belief made it impossible to maintain peace in the home' (Kelly, Divorce
and Remarriage, in Bernard Hoose (ed), Christian
Matthew and Mark both of course
defend marriage against easy divorce. But Mark applies this to a Hellenistic
world, while Matthew permits divorce to those of his community whose first
marriage did not measure up to the demands of Jewish law. There is growing
agreement among biblical scholars that Paul and Matthew give evidence of an
exception to the absolute prohibition of divorce and show that in their
particular Christian communities Jesus' teaching was adapted to particular
circumstances. There is also growing consensus that these examples should have
an important bearing on the life and practice of the Church today.
The Church today seeks to carry on
the pastoral aspect of Christ's ministry and the practical concern of Paul and
Matthew through the work of its marriage tribunals, through its outreach to
divorced persons and through the ministry of priests in the forum of conscience.
Nevertheless the pastoral care of those often in desperate need continues to
challenge the whole People of God. Further reflection, and appropriate action
where called for, must remain a continuing challenge and an unfinished task.
Kevin Kelly cites with approval the words of Catholic biblical scholar John R.
bearing in its life the prophetic teaching of Christ, the Church must also
present to the world that Christ who defended the innocent victims of
different forms of oppression and who was ever present to sinners and tax
collectors and whose offer of love was closer to the religiously marginal than
to the pious and just. Any step backwards to a simple 'adamantine opposition' to
divorce without adaptation of this
opposition and the questioning of its application would not be faithful to the