Another Kind of Death Sentence

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“If you forgive men their trespasses,” says Jesus, “your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt. 6:14-15).

In permitting divorced and remarried Catholics to partake of the Eucharist, Pope Francis may seem to have such words in mind, words that warn us that they who call for justice alone may get more justice than they bargain for. I do not wish to engage that question here—what to do after the fact, when there may be in the soul of the remarried person a conditional regret but no absolute will to make matters whole again. I understand why that absolute will may be wanting. It is not always or only because of cowardice and selfishness, though no doubt those do their bad work. There may be children by the second marriage to consider as decisive, when children by the first marriage were not. There may be a human and secular promise made to the second spouse to consider as decisive, when the sacred promise made to the first spouse was not.

But why should there have been a divorce in the first place? If Pope Francis has addressed this question, it does not appear as central to his thinking. Pope John Paul II gave us, in The Jeweler’s Shop, a profound meditation upon the love to be found in a marriage when love seems to have died. The face of Christ appears to the unhappy woman as the face of the husband she no longer loves—or believes that she no longer loves. To sentence a marriage to the electric chair is to do exactly what Jesus commands us not to do, when we pray as he taught us to pray. It is to be contumacious in judgment, to say, “This marriage deserves to die,” or, worse, “This marriage is already dead,” so that the juridical death sentence by the state is a mere formality.

Someone may object that forgiveness is one thing, but living together is another. Unless we are talking about grave moral or physical danger, that objection has no force. Imagine saying to God, “Please take me to heaven, and take my brother also, but keep us apart forever, because I do not want to look at the miserable scoundrel.” That is to insist upon your private closet from hell, even in heaven. It is a contradiction. Jesus lays no conditions upon our being forgiven, except for our willingness to forgive others. This is not to be understood as a quid pro quo. In the very refusal to forgive, the soul hardens itself against grace. It is to say, “God, I reject the economy of grace and choose instead the economy of law; give me only what I deserve, because I will give to this brother of mine only what he deserves. And he sure doesn’t deserve a feast.”

But what to do in the case of unhappiness? When those experts in the Jewish law ask Jesus his opinion on divorce, they take for granted that there are grounds for it, having to do with the man’s feelings. For Moses had permitted divorce when the man “finds some indecency” in his wife, or when he “dislikes her” (Dt. 24:1-3). The Hebrew is more forceful: the indecency is a “nakedness,” suggesting shameful behavior, and the dislike is downright hate, as in the psalms: “You hate all evildoers” (Ps. 6:5). Jesus, however, dismisses both the permission of the law in certain cases, and the hatred. They are beside the point. “Have you not read,” says he, “that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one [flesh]?’” (Mt. 19:4-5; the RSV unaccountably relegates the word “flesh” to a footnote). The Mosaic permission was not, if we trust Jesus, an act of mercy. It was a compromise with the sklerocardia of man, his hardness of heart.

But we may no longer indulge the disease. It is no accident that this stunning command regarding divorce comes immediately after the parable of the servant who owed his master a huge sum of money, was forgiven, and then straightaway seized upon a fellow servant who owed him a day’s wages and had him thrown into prison. When the lord found out about it, he gave that ungrateful and merciless servant what he implicitly demanded, the economy of a strict accounting. “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you,” says Jesus, “if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt. 18:35).

We must not complicate what Jesus makes clear. Jesus urges us to forgive, not because the sinner deserves it, not because it feels good, and not because it is socially healthy. He urges us to forgive because we ourselves are in debt to God: the ultimate debt, because we owe to Him our lives on earth, and all our hope of salvation in the life to come. The husband must not put away his wife, and the wife must not put away her husband. It is tantamount to a refusal to forgive. This refusal is not a temporary stubbornness, as was felt by the elder son in the parable—at least we hope it was temporary, so that at last he joined the feast and welcomed his prodigal younger brother home. It is not a sin such as anyone may commit in the heat of the moment—an angry word, a slap in the face. Divorce is premeditated, deliberate, and meant to be final.

That is a dreadful thing.

We can go farther still. Consider that Jesus appeals to the intention of the Father “from the beginning,” that is, before the fall of man. The Mosaic law is predicated upon that fall. But the new law, the new covenant, the law of charity, aims at restoring to man the wholeness he lost. Therefore, the wedding feast is no mere metaphor for the kingdom of God. Not all the miserable sagas of human pride, violence, lust, folly, ambition, envy, greed, and hardness of heart could separate God from his love of man; He has not divorced us, though we try our hardest to set ourselves far from Him. How then can we wear a divorce-garment and go to that wedding feast? We are not here talking about sluggishness to forgive. We have been warned of our sin, warned against hardness of heart, forbidden by the Lord himself to divorce, and invited to the great wedding feast of Christ and his Church. How shall we then invert the whole structure of salvation? “Christ will not divorce me,” says the sinner, “but I am going to divorce you.” The presumption is staggering.

At this point, a last defense may be mounted, an appeal to social utility or necessity. The murderer, in strict justice, forfeits his right to live because his deeds have set him at war with mankind. Can we say something analogous about divorce, that though it may be unfortunate, when love has died it is necessary?

The analogy is bad. Divorce does not involve a society’s self-protection; the reverse is true. Divorce is a plague upon society; its availability helps to make indifferent marriages bad, and bad marriages worse; it casts the shadow of falsehood upon every sacred vow; it makes young people wary of marrying at all, and thus does it contribute to loneliness, confusion, and the miseries of fatherlessness; it inverts the wisdom of Solomon, and saws its children in half. All that anyone can say against the death penalty can be said against divorce, and more properly and powerfully.

Pope Francis has wondered about what the children will feel, if they see their father with another woman and he is not permitted to receive Communion. We should back up a step or two, as my friend Philip Lawler has suggested, and wonder about what the children feel when they see their father with another woman, period. Or when they see their mother with another man. Or when they come home every day and do not see their father. What about their feelings then?

It has long struck me that every sexual sin is, directly or indirectly, an attack upon the family, and thus also an offense against childhood and children. “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them,” says Jesus, when the disciples want to guard him against the enthusiasm of the crowds (Mt. 19:14). People will say that their children can never be happy unless they themselves are happy. So do they oil their consciences with a lie. They imply, in saying so, that they can very well be happy regardless of how unhappy they make their children. The child, meanwhile, has no such calculation. He accepts his family as he accepts the order of the world, with the good and the bad of it. The alternative to order is chaos, darkness.

Peter asked Jesus how often he must forgive his brother. The reply, “seventy times seven” (Mt. 18:21), suggests no limit. But one does not make a sacred vow to one’s brother. The human race was not founded upon brotherly love, but upon the one-flesh union of man and woman in marriage. How often, then, must we forgive the husband, the wife? Really forgive, really setting the sins aside? And if we do not forgive, if we divorce, if we shrug away the Cross, if we scandalize the little ones, how is that different from the self-satisfaction of the Pharisees, and those who, trusting in the law and their righteousness, cried to Pilate, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Mt. 27:25)?

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

By

Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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