Paper at the University of Cork – Friday, 17 November 2000


When one looks at the facts of marriage in modern western society, and the Roman Catholic doctrine of marriage, there seems to be a growing abyss between the two. Focusing just on UK statistics, four out of every ten marriages in the UK end in divorce, which means that more than 160,000 British couples embark on the divorce process every year. The number of people getting married in Britain declined by approximately 25 per cent in the 1990s. If this trend continues, divorces will start outnumbering marriages by the year 2025. More than a third of all births in England and Wales now take place outside of marriage, and every year more than 150,000 British children under the age of sixteen experience the divorce of their parents. These figures conceal human misery on an epic scale. Surely, we can do better than this.

The Catholic Church is well-known – notorious even – for its implacable opposition to divorce. The Catechism of the Catholic Church claims that “The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.”1 If that is the case, then modern society would appear to be unhealthy indeed. The Catechism goes on to say, in unapologetically exclusive language, “God who created man out of love also calls him to love – the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. … Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man.”2

On the face of it, we have here two very different views of marriage – one perhaps rooted in reality, but a reality that is riddled with failure, the other perhaps rooted in an ideal, but which by its very idealism can only add to the misery of those who fail to live up to it. Is there any possible bridge between these two worlds – the disintegrating social world of modern secular society, and the well-defended but increasingly deserted bastions of Catholic family life?

Well, you know, there are different ways of presenting things – there’s the saying that a pessimist says that a glass is half empty, an optimist says it’s half full. So I could say that, in a society where divorce is increasingly easy and marriage is a matter of choice – one no 1

longer needs a licence to have sex – what does it mean that more than half of all marriages will survive? Perhaps that says something very positive about the viability and endurance of marriage, even in a society which lends it relatively little institutional support. On the other hand, many married people now can admit to having made a mistake and begin a new life, when fifty years ago they would have been trapped in the downward spiral of a loveless marriage. Today, abused women are more likely to have the financial and psychological freedom to walk out of violent marriages, when even twenty years ago they might have had no choice but to stay and hide their physical and emotional wounds from the public gaze. And how many children who suffer the divorce of their parents, would have endured greater suffering as innocent victims of a destructive marriage? Marital breakdown has been shown to affect children negatively across a range of statistics, but in order to assess its real impact we need to compare the children of miserable marriages with the children of broken marriages, not the children of stable and happy homes with the children of divorced parents.

But if statistics on marriage lend themselves to alternative interpretations, so do Catholic ideas about divorce. The indissolubility of marriage applies to a baptised man and woman, who freely consented to the marriage and whose marriage has been consummated. I remember some years ago my Presbyterian mother was helping an Italian Catholic friend to apply for an annulment. She suggested to him that his case would be easier if he could prove that the marriage hadn’t been consummated. He replied, “Can’t we tell them that it was consumed but not enjoyed?”

In fact, from the beginning Catholic Christianity has allowed for the dissolution of marriage under certain circumstances. The Pauline privilege refers to Paul’s suggestion in 1 Corinthians that a believer can leave a non-believer under certain circumstances, because “God has called you to live a life of peace.” (1 Cor 7: 16) In addition, the so-called Petrine privilege refers to the papal right to dissolve a marriage between a baptised and a nonbaptised person, in order to allow for remarriage between two baptised believers. The insistence that both partners must have freely and knowingly consented to the union leaves considerable scope for annulment, and marriage tribunals are increasingly likely to look sympathetically on circumstances which at the time of the wedding ceremony might have nullified the marriage. I’ll talk more about that later.

So perhaps the social picture of marriage and family life is not as bleak as the statistics suggest, and perhaps the Catholic position on divorce and remarriage is not as intransigent as it might appear. It’s with these suggestions in mind that I now want to consider marriage and 2

parenthood under the three headings of tending, mending and ending. Under tending, I ask how one enters into and sustains a marriage, under mending I ask what happens when things go wrong, as inevitably they do in any marriage, and under ending I ask what options there are when things cannot be put right. In each case, I’m offering a theological reflection which is concerned with the pastoral and social questions that contemporary life poses to the Christian Church. I draw primarily on Catholic theology but what I say has relevance in a wider Christian context, although it needs to be borne in mind that only the Roman Catholic Church, and I think also the Methodist Church, consider marriage to be a sacrament. (The Catholic Church recognised marriage as one of the seven sacraments in the thirteenth century).

Tending Since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the Catholic understanding of marriage has undergone a transformation. As many of you know, the Catholic view of marriage has always included the two dimensions of partnership and procreation. Until Vatican II the partnership dimension was seen as secondary to the procreative dimension – having children was more important than the quality of the relationship between the husband and wife. In addition, although the sacramental understanding of marriage means that it is a sign of grace which reveals Christ’s love for the Church, the language of love has been conspicuously absent from the doctrine of marriage. Only with Vatican II did doctrinal statements start emphasising the importance of love in the conjugal relationship. The Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes, is regarded as a landmark in this context because of its emphasis on the love between husband and wife, and because it dispenses with the idea that this unifying love is secondary to the procreative purpose of marriage. Marriage is now understood as equally and inseparably concerned with the loving union between husband and wife, and with the openness of the relationship to procreation.

The idea of marriage as a sacrament became bound up with a legalistic and somewhat static approach in the Middle Ages, which focused on the contractual aspect.3 Marriage was a contract which was entered into through the marriage vows and sealed through sexual intercourse. This contract created an objective bond, the marriage bond, which was somehow seen as independent of the people involved in the relationship. As a relevant aside, it’s worth drawing attention to the fact that as late as 1958 a canon law decision stated that “Consummation can be had independently of consciousness and free consent of the will”.4 This meant that if necessary, one partner could be drugged in order for intercourse to take place to seal the marriage contract. Now, think about that for a minute. I stand to be 3

corrected, but I can’t quite see how a woman could consummate a marriage with a drugged and unconscious man. So what this is actually saying is that a marriage is validly consummated even if the man has to knock his wife out in order to have sex with her. Bear that in mind for later.

With Vatican II, the language used to describe marriage changed from that of contract to that of covenant. The word “covenant” evokes the love of God for Israel in the Old Testament, and the love of Christ for the Church in the New Testament. It is therefore a word which is associated with relationality, with a dynamic and ongoing commitment to love, fidelity and care. It’s with this in mind that I want to consider what it means to say that marriage is a sacrament, and to ask if a reaffirmation of the sacramentality of marriage might offer a way through some of our present dilemmas.

Today, we sometimes speak of grassroots theology, or theology from experience. This is a way of thinking about God and faith which makes experience the starting point for theological reflection. A grassroots theology is of great value in helping us to develop an informed faith which is relevant to daily life and expressed in a practical, experiential quest for justice, equality and the dignity of all. However, if we collapse our transcendent vision of God, goodness, beauty and truth – all those Platonic ideals which are so often denigrated in modern theology – into an entirely immanent view of God as seen only from within the human perspective, do we not end up with a rather small and perhaps hopeless God? If God can only be as good, as loving, as faithful and as wise as me, or as my community, or as my family, then God help me because that’s often not much to go by. So I think Christians need to sustain a sense of thinking about God from a space of loving encounter where all the complex realities of human experience meet the eternal love of God in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. That is what a sacrament is. It is here that God enters into and becomes part of the struggle and vulnerability of being human, while still being God. God still loves us as God – eternally, faithfully, compassionately – no matter what we do to God. Even if we crucify him. God is therefore encountered in every aspect of human experience, while never being reducible to or knowable through experience alone. What does this mean, in terms of the sacrament of marriage?

I want to ask this question in the context of Ephesians 5: 21-33 – Paul’s discussion on marriage which is the scourge of many feminists because it includes the claim that wives should submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ. Paul opens this reflection with the instruction, “Give way to one another in obedience to Christ.” There’s then a 4

complex discourse on marriage which culminates with the words, “This mystery has many implications; but I am saying it applies to Christ and the Church. To sum up; you too, each one of you, must love his wife as he loves himself; and let every wife respect her husband.” (Eph. 5:21-33)

I don’t have time to unravel Ephesians 5, but I think Paul is tying himself in knots: he’s trying to put across a vision of radical equality and mutuality in Christ, while at the same time not very successfully trying to make this concept of marriage fit within the prevailing patriarchal status quo. In the early Church, Christianity attracted many women converts because it accorded them equal rights and dignity in marriage, but their husbands did not always share their enthusiasm. So from very early on, the Christian understanding of marriage and gender relations was watered down to make it less socially challenging, and I think there’s a bit of this going on in Ephesians. Paul moves backwards and forwards between husband and wife, ravelling and unravelling complex relationships of both hierarchy and mutuality, wifely subordination and husbandly service. But what’s important is that he begins and ends by referring to Christ. Firstly, husbands and wives must give way to one another in Christ; finally, as if giving up on trying to disentangle himself from the muddle he’s created, he refers back to Christ and the Church. So however this complex world of marital relationships shapes up – or doesn’t shape up – in human terms, its first point of reference is Christ and the Church.

I want to suggest that this focus on Christ and the Church, rightly understood, can lift the burden of perfection from ordinary marriage. It reminds us that in Christian terms, marriage is primarily an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the Church, hence when Paul tries to map it too closely onto human marriage he is confronted with a mystery. This calls into question that quote from the Catechism that a couple’s “mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man”, because no human relationship can image God’s love. Many marriages turn out to be neither absolute nor unfailing, but that does not change the fact that God’s love for us is absolute and unfailing. My difficulty is that if we use the idea of imaging too literally, then a theology of marriage emerges which is impossibly idealistic and unattainable for many people struggling to sustain relationships which are human all too human, and often none the worse for that. Marriage is sacramental when it offers us not an image but an intimation, however obscure, of the transcendent, eternal love of God for us, a love that says I’ll always love you, no matter what you do, no matter what you become, because you’re you. Always.


But this covenantal understanding of the relationship between God and humanity means that the sacramentality of marriage needs to be understood as a process rather than a magic moment. Marriages that become sacraments of grace which reveal God’s love to the world are hardly constituted as such at a wedding ceremony. They gradually unfold through a lifetime of publicly committed and ethically responsible love. John Paul II describes marriage as a “sincere gift of self”. The gift of self is something that is continual, something that I need to redefine and perpetuate at every stage in life. Perhaps when a marriage becomes a sacrament, it can only truly be recognised as such with the death of one of the partners. And it’s worth mentioning that the working out of marriage over a timespan of fifty years and more is a new experience in history. Marriage has usually not involved the kind of commitments that we make today, when increased life-expectancy mean that couples might actually survive to celebrate their golden wedding anniversaries. In the past, serial monogamy was a more common social pattern, when people died younger and women often died in childbirth.

A sacramental understanding of marriage is also inclusive rather than exclusive. The Church’s teaching on procreation is a recognition of this – a marriage is not for the exclusive wellbeing of the couple. It is intended to create a domestic church, a community wherein the vulnerable, the lonely, the poor, find nurture and welcome. There is nobody more vulnerable and more in need of nurture than the newborn child, and Thomas Aquinas saw that Christian concern for the needy meant that couples who have children have a responsibility to bring them up in stable marriages. The Jewish writer, Hannah Arendt, uses the term “natality” to suggest that the newborn child has a claim upon us which symbolises the wider ethical imperative to care for the weak and the vulnerable.

But surely, we can be more imaginative than the Church is at present in terms of what it means for a marriage to be open to life. A marriage that is open to life is one in which parents provide a loving environment in which they can raise the children they already have or plan to have, not one in which they play Russian roulette with their sexuality. And whether or not a couple have their own children, every form of sacramental love must be open to others. This means that a sacramental marriage is open to life in terms of sharing its material, spiritual and emotional resources with those in need. How many families today living in the affluence of leafy suburbia with their doors and hearts locked to the cry of the poor can be said to be sacraments of grace in the world? The nuclear family in the modern state is not always a sign of God’s love. It can be and often is the place where our society perpetuates its values of selfinterest, greed and competitiveness in the lives of children who grow up to be hostile to the outside world and defended against it. 6

But while the sacramentality of marriage has rich potential for couples who are committed Christians, there is also a need to accommodate other models of loving relationship within the sphere of Christian acceptance and care. When the rules for marriage were established, it was in the context of a society which was almost universally Christian in its beliefs and practices. Today, challenges to this view come from many quarters. A sacramental view of marriage entails baptised partners explicitly living out their relationship in the space of prayerful encounter between God and humanity in Christ. But relatively few marriages in the modern world conform to this understanding, so there’s a need to ask how Christianity can acknowledge loving unions across a range of lifestyles and beliefs, while preserving the sense of sacramentality that is unique to Christian marriage.

Let me end this reflection on “tending marriage” with two images which for me suggest the sacramentality of marriage. The first image is of an elderly couple in my parish who used to walk to Mass every day, hand in hand. I don’t doubt that over the long course of their marriage they had many struggles, but I used to watch them making their way up the hill to the Church, and I used to feel that I was witnessing what marriage is ultimately about. The husband died a couple of years ago, and his wife now waits to join him. Hers is the quiet tragedy, the unseen Gethsemane which is inevitably the end of the best and most enduring marriages. The second image is similar in evoking themes of love and death, in R.S. Thomas’s poem entitled “A Marriage”. I want to end this section with that poem:

We met under a shower of bird-notes. Fifty years passed, love’s moment in a world in servitude to time. She was young: I kissed with my eyes closed and opened them on her wrinkles. ‘Come,’ said death, choosing her as his 7

partner for the last dance. And she, who in life had done everything with a bird’s grace, opened her bill now for the shedding of one sigh no heavier than a feather.

Mending I think it was J.R. Tolkein who said that every man marries the wrong woman, and perhaps one could add that every woman marries the wrong man. What this means is that in most marriages, there comes a moment when we fall out of love, and we no longer look at our spouse through the veils of romantic illusion. We begin to suspect that we’ve made a mistake. Out there there’s the man or the woman for me, but it’s not this one. That’s when, if a marriage is to last, we must learn to love rather than being in love. This is not the experience of falling in love, when chemistry and candlelight conspire to transport us into realms of fantasy – although that’s not to deny that romance can be the leaven of married life and chemistry and candlelight can continue to work their magic. But the day to day commitment to the other must become something deeper, something that is part of the person I am rather than of the feelings I feel. In the novel by Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Dr. Iannis is advising his daughter about marriage, and he says,

Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.5

For some people perhaps this kind of loving is a fortunate accident, something that happens in a marriage almost without them intending it or noticing it. But I suspect that for most of us, developing such a marriage is an art rather than an accident, something that we strive towards through years of struggle and tears, commitment and endurance, as well as joy and loving and laughter.


But society doesn’t provide an environment in which we can work at loving in this way. We live in an age of romanticised and commercialised love, an age of disposable commodities when everything, including human beings, can be discarded when they no longer please or interest me. I began this paper by quoting divorce statistics, and I suggested that sometimes divorce is a form of liberation. I’ll say more about that later. But I also don’t doubt that among those four out of ten marriages which break up, there are some which could and should have survived. Our culture encourages us to believe that we have a right to be happy and fulfilled in every aspect of life at every moment. Old-fashioned virtues like patience, self-control, moderation, prudence, don’t feature much on the agenda of modern values, and yet what marriage can possibly survive without them?

But it’s also true that in the past, the Church has over-emphasised values of self-sacrifice and patience, particularly as far as wives are concerned, in ways which have not encouraged the flourishing of both spouses in an atmosphere of mutual love and respect. If mending is necessary in every marriage, it is also necessary in our theological and cultural understanding of what marriage is. Marriage is an institution in crisis in no small part because the Christian tradition has failed to live out its early vision of sexual equality. If Christian marriage is to be a viable and attractive option in the modern world, then it has to be underpinned by a theology that recognises the full humanity and rights of women as well as men. Remember that unconscious act of consummation and its role in sealing the sacrament of marriage. That tells us a great deal about the Church’s traditional attitude to women.

Today, some people might have impossibly high expectations of marriage which are bound to end in disillusionment and disappointment, but many others are willing to work very hard to achieve sustained and sustaining relationships. Feminism is often criticised by conservatives for having a destructive impact on marriage and family life. While I think it’s true that some forms of feminism are problematic, in general the feminist movement has been a necessary corrective in an imbalanced and unjust culture in which women have been relegated to roles of silence and inferiority behind the closed doors of the family home, with the full blessing of the Christian Church. Today, women are redefining their roles and identities in ways which can also be profoundly challenging and disturbing for men, and inevitably there is pain associated with such widespread social transformation. But in the long term, this is a quest for wholeness and dignity. People are less willing today to stay in relationships which they experience as oppressive or dehumanising. The positive side of this is that perhaps good marriages are as good as they’ve ever been, as men and women slowly learn to communicate


and to love across centuries of gender conditioning designed to create a gulf between the sexes.

But I suspect that most couples don’t need gender theorists to tell them that such a gulf exists, and that culture conditions men and women to behave and to relate in very different ways. The best-selling book, Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, exploits this difference. Its ongoing popularity suggests how many people experience a real problem in communication between the sexes. Having said that, I don’t recommend this particular book as effective Band-Aid for wounded marriages, but a browse through any bookshop will show how preoccupied we are with what makes and breaks relationships in modern society.

Psychologists such as Carol Gilligan have argued that men and women develop differently from earliest childhood owing to different cultural expectations depending on our sex.6 Females grow up believing that it is right to be relational, caring and inter-dependent, while males grow up believing that it is right to be individual, strong and independent. The result is that women can have an under-developed sense of their own identity and value so that they are excessively dependent on others for their sense of purpose and well-being, while men can have such an exaggerated sense of personal identity that they find it very difficult to relate to others. Some feminist theologians suggest that this affects the whole Christian understanding of sin. Ann Carr writes that

male theological perspectives have dominated understandings of sin as pride and rebellion against God and have failed to attend to the sin of those who are powerless, who lack agency, selfhood, and responsibility, who have suffered violence and abuse. … Sin is understood, in a feminist perspective, as the breaking of relationships with both God and with human beings that can take the form of weakness as well as pride in its denial of the importance of human responsibility in both the personal and the political realms.7

These challenges to traditional thinking are not just theoretical. They seep through our social consciousness and into our most intimate relationships, so that even after many years of marriage we might find ourselves looking again at our ways of relating and our patterns of behaviour. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that for many couples, this means learning a new emotional language and a new way of relating, which can be a difficult and disorientating experience. Nick Hornby, in his novel, About a Boy, offers a wry reflection on the failure of the sexes to communicate with one another. There is one scene in which Will, 10

an archetypal macho man, finds himself in a pub with Fiona, an archetypal New Age feminist. Will knows that she wants to talk about “existential despair,” and he also knows that “He wasn’t cut out for chats about existential despair. It just wasn’t him.” Will “wanted to find a way in to the conversation that they had to have, but there didn’t seem to be one, and there never would be while he was stuck with his brain and his vocabulary and his personality.”8

Ultimately, learning to communicate and negotiate these differences can be revitalising for marriage, but I think there’s also a risk of excessive introspection and navel-gazing. If we’re constantly taking things apart to see how they work, we might one day find ourselves surrounded by the dismantled apparatus of what might once have been, in the words of Cardinal Hume, a “good enough” marriage.9

But also, and perhaps above all, mending means being able to repent and to forgive. I don’t know how many people remember the film Love Story, with its famous line that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Well, I think love means having to say you’re sorry again and again, and it means having to forgive again and again. True love is nurtured by a lifelong process of mutual repentance and forgiveness, necessitated by the inevitable mistakes and hurts which happen in a shared life, some resulting from the ordinary insensitivities of daily life, others resulting from devastating acts of betrayal, abandonment or selfishness. The interdependent words “sorry”, and “I forgive you”, when said from the heart and lived out in a relationship, are like flexible polyfilla in the cracks and gaps of married love. They allows us to bend and stretch, to shrink and enlarge, to mould our relationship to fit the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves through a lifetime of celebration and mourning, laughter and weeping, loving and, sometimes, loathing.

But what happens when it is no longer possible to forgive, or when there is no longer any love there to nurture? What happens when we begin to think in terms of ending rather than mending a relationship?

Ending That quote from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin that I read earlier, continues,

sometimes the petals fall away and the roots have not entwined. Imagine giving up your home and your people, only to discover after six months, a year, three years, that the trees have had no roots and have fallen over. Imagine the desolation. Imagine the imprisonment. 11

What does the Church have to offer people who marry in good faith, only to find themselves in a state of mutual desolation and imprisonment?

I referred earlier to the annulment process, and I think it’s important to recognise the strengths as well as the weaknesses of this process. Kevin Kelly, in his influential book entitled Divorce and Second Marriage, suggests that the marriage tribunal often plays a significant pastoral role in cases of marital failure.10 Having once been invited to sit in on a tribunal hearing, I was impressed by the sensitivity and wisdom of those involved, and by their awareness that they were dealing with complex human worlds of pain, betrayal and disappointment. When one looks at the grounds for annulment, they are wide enough to encompass many considerations which might render a marriage null. Both parties have to have made their vows freely and without coercion, in a state of mind to know what they were doing, and the marriage has to have been consummated. So, for example, in the trivialisation of marriage by some people in our modern world, there’s a case for saying that in the eyes of the Church, this was probably never a marriage in the first place, since it seems unlikely that it entailed a deep and sincere commitment to remain together until death. There are many other couples who might look back and recognise that when they got married they were too young to understand what they were doing, or they were under parental pressure to marry, or one or the other of them was in a psychological state that prevented them making a mature and honest commitment to marriage. In the modern Church, annulment is not necessarily an obstacle course. It can be a healing process which guides a couple towards separation and liberation from a union which never was sacramental or binding.

But this isn’t the case for every marriage that fails. There are marriages which are not null, that is, it’s not true to say that there never was a marriage in the first place. There are situations where love dies, or where incompatibilities reach a level where it is no longer possible for two people to stay together in a life-giving and dignified relationship. But for one or both partners, it might only add to the grief and wounding to conclude that this never was a valid marriage. They need a recognition that their marriage has died, not that it has never existed. For such people, there is surely a need for a more pastorally sensitive and compassionate approach on the part of the Church. If we’re talking about divorce rather than annulment, we’re talking about a real marriage breaking down, and if a marriage is real, then its failure is one of the most desolate experiences that a human being can go through. It is a form of bereavement – the loss of a way of life, the loss of a person who has been and perhaps still is dearly loved, the loss of an identity and a world constructed around the marriage. The 12

last thing such a couple and their children need is for the Church to add to the sense of guilt, alienation and failure.

Of course, it’s increasingly true that separated Catholic couples can and do find understanding and healing in the church community, but if they remarry or enter into another sexual relationship, strictly speaking they exclude themselves from the Eucharist. This is because the Catholic Church understands a valid marriage as an ontological bond which survives even when the relationship has died, so that it exists independently of the feelings and commitments of the couple.11 But what does it mean for the Church to be willing to sacrifice human worlds in this way to serve an abstract principle? Is this truly what the incarnation is about? On the contrary, and I’m returning here to the idea of an encounter between God and human experience in Christ, to live out the message of the incarnation is to recognise that abstract principles, however noble, can never be put above human well-being. I’m not saying that principles aren’t important. In general, marital breakdown is a social ill to be avoided. There is abundant evidence to suggest that men, women and children flourish best in loving and stable families. We are persons made in the image of the tripersonal God, made to discover ourselves in loving relationship to others. Marriage and family life are the locus wherein the human being comes to the knowledge of himself or herself as a person formed in relationship to others, and because the Church has a primal responsibility to human life, she has a responsibility to nurture the institutions and relationships that allow humans to thrive.

But we all know that marriage and family life can be the locus wherein personhood is destroyed, either through physical and emotional violence or through a subtle regime of lovelessness. In August this year the Irish Commision for Justice and Peace and the Pastoral Commission of the Irish Bishops’ Conference published a document on domestic violence.12 The document acknowledges that domestic violence can be perpetrated by women against men, and it refers to the growing realisation that such violence might go unreported. But at the same time, it points out that in the great majority of reported cases women rather than men are the victims of domestic violence, and it is concerned to explore the pastoral implications of this.

The document defines domestic violence as “an abuse of power” which includes “any action which unnecessarily and unjustifiably causes pain or distress either physically, psychologically, or emotionally within close-knit relationships.” It points out that in the Republic of Ireland, while the overall level of reported crime has fallen in the past three years, the number of reported incidents of domestic violence has continued to rise. Approximately 13

18,000 women contact women’s refuges every year in this country. The report also points out that pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence, with one survey reporting that 34% of women who had experienced physical violence had suffered assaults while pregnant. It is estimated that in Ireland only 20-30% of women who experience violence will actually report it.

These statistics are of course by no means unique to this country. In Britain domestic violence is the second most common violent crime, accounting for more than 25 percent of all violent crimes reported to the police. In the United States, it is the leading cause of injury among women of reproductive age. Citing statistics can mask the brutal reality of what we’re talking about, so let me read you a short passage from Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Woman who Walked into Doors:

Being hit by Charlo the first time knocked everything else out of me. It’s all I remember now about that time, up to the birth. It became the most important thing. It became the only thing. One day I was Mrs Paula Spencer, a young wife and soon to be a mother, soon moving into a new house, in a new place, making my husband’s dinner, timing it so it would be just ready for when he came in from work and had a wash. I was a woman listening to the radio. I was aware that my tummy was pressing into the sink as I was washing the spuds. I could feel the sun on my face, coming through the kitchen window. I had to squint a bit, squeeze my eyes shut; they were watering. I was a young, attractive woman with a loving, attractive husband who was bringing home the bacon with a smile on his handsome face. I was loving and loved, sexy and pregnant.

Then I was on the floor and that was the end of my life. The future stopped rolling in front of me. Everything stopped.13

“I was loving and loved.” This was a married woman, in a real marriage. That’s what it means to be loving and loved. “I was on the floor and that was the end of my life. The future stopped rolling in front of me.” This is suddenly a marriage that has become an antisacrament, not a sign of God’s love in the world, but on the contrary, a form of hatred and violence which obscures the face of God and distorts the human capacity to love and be loved. God is the God of the future, the God of an eternal future. When the future stops rolling in front of a marriage, then how can we say that God’s love is still being sacramentally revealed in that marriage? There are graceless marriages, marriages which for God’s sake 14

ought to be ended. The Irish bishops’ document says that “Christ’s commandment of love offers no justification for any sort of violence”, and it goes on to speak of “the right and possibly the duty not to stay in a seriously abusive relationship.”

Yet the Catholic hierarchy has a long way to go before this issue is resolved. It’s a great step forward to speak of the duty not to stay in an abusive relationship, but what about the freedom of that person to form a new relationship with somebody else? In 1994, Pope John Paul II beatified a woman, Elisabetta Canori Mora, who a century earlier had remained married to an abusive and violent man for the sake of her children. The Pope referred to her beatings as “conjugal difficulties” and held her up as a model of “Christian perfection”.14 Surely, the time has come to resist this distortion of the idea of female sanctity. Nobody, neither God nor humankind, is glorified through this kind of degradation. Children deserve to grow up in an atmosphere where they learn by example about the respect and dignity of the human being. To stay together in a relationship where one parent is abused, humiliated or dehumanised by the other is a violation of childhood. Whatever the pain of separation and divorce, sometimes parents ought to do it for the sake of the children, if truly every other option has failed.

And here maybe Christians need to embrace more deeply the truth of Christ’s love and forgiveness, which come to us in the form of a crucified body and broken bread. A loving marriage is a sacrament which reveals Christ’s love to the world, but a broken marriage is perhaps a different kind of sacrament, a sacrament which can reveal something of Christ’s compassion and healing to the world. It is in the most abject realms that God’s light shines with its darkest intensity and makes all things new. I suggested that forgiveness and repentance hold a marriage together, but we need them even more when a marriage falls apart.

This might entail recognising that what makes a real marriage indissoluble is not a bond but a relationship.15 It is indissoluble because it is the mark of the other etched on the soul, and that does not disappear when the marriage ends. A marriage is part of a person’s life story, even when it is no longer a part of his or her daily life. When it ends whether through death or divorce, it leaves a world of memories, attachments, regrets, joys and sorrows. The hollow that is left by the death of love or of a beloved can never be filled by another, but life does go on, new relationships are formed, and futures which had stopped rolling open up to new possibilities. At the end of Roddy Doyle’s book, when that abused and battered wife finally escapes from her husband, she tells her daughter that her father’s not coming back. She says, “It was a great feeling. I’d done something good.” The future starts rolling forward again. 15

Surely, the Church should be a part of building rather than condemning such hopeful futures, especially when they involve the possibility of new and loving relationships.

Today, we see many changes in family life. Remarriage is creating extended family groups of step parents and children, more like the feudal families of the Middle Ages than the nuclear families of recent history. Sustaining these multiple relationships is fraught with tension and often with hostility, but that is precisely why the Church could provide a space of acceptance and nurture where, for the sake of children and their parents, these newly formed family groups can be welcomed and encouraged to accept one another in forgiveness and love.

I want to finish with a very early image of the Church as an old woman with a book, found in a second century text called the Shepherd of Hermes. This is an image which suggests the wisdom of both maturity and learning. Mother Church surely has both. Maybe she could learn from some modern grandmothers, who in their lifetimes have had to adjust to dramatic changes in their children’s lives. Today, an old woman might find that her traditional, lifelong marriage has given rise to all kinds of permutations and combinations of loving. She might be great granny to married couples and their children, to cohabiting couples, gay couples, single parents. If she rejects them, she lives out a lonely and embittered old age. If she opens her home to them, she finds herself enriched and enlarged through surprising possibilities.

I began this paper with an image of the gulf between the social realities of marriage and the Church’s ideals. Perhaps, like a wise old grandmother, the Church needs to learn that the qualities she really has in abundance are experience, maturity, love, and a huge, extended, multi-cultural family. She also, at the moment, has a family home with many rooms to spare, because so many of her children have left home. Does she have the courage to welcome them back, just as they are, like the loving mother of so many prodigal sons and daughters, or is she going to live out her old age in a haunted and empty house full of vanished ideals and broken promises, with her doors and windows locked against a world crying out for meaning?


The Catechism of the Catholic Church (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994), n.1603, p. 359 (quoting Gaudium et Spes). 2 Ibid., n.1604 . 3 See Brennan R. Hill, “Reformulating the Sacramental Theology of Marriage” in Michael G. Lawler and William P. Roberts (eds.), Christian Marriage and Family: Contemporary Theological and Pastoral Concerns (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1996): pp. 3-21. 4 Canon Law Digest, Vol. 5, on canon 1119, quoted in Kevin T. Kelly, Divorce and Second Marriage: Facing the Challenge (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1996 [1982]), p. 35 5 Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (London: Minerva, 1995 [1994]), p. 281. 6 See Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge MA and London UK: Harvard University Press, 1993 [1982]). 7 Ann E. Carr, Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), p. 186. 8 Nick Hornby, About a Boy (London: Indigo, 1998), 252. 9 Cardinal Hume in The Tablet, 20 January 1996, Quoted in Kelly, Divorce and Second Marriage, p. viii. 10 See Kelly, Divorce and Second Marriage, 28-9. 11 For the complex theological history of the marriage bond, see Timothy J. Buckley, CSsR, What Binds Marriage? Roman Catholic Theology in Practice (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1997): pp. 2873. 12 See The Irish Commission for Justice and Peace and the Pastoral Commission of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, Domestic Violence, August 2000. 13 Roddy Doyle, The Woman Who Walked into Doors (London: Minerva, 1997 [1996]), p. 168. 14 See Mary Hunt, “Change or Be Changed: Roman Catholicism and Violence” in Feminist Theology, No. 12, May 1996: pp. 43-60, p. 46. 15 I am indebted to a conversation with Frs. Theodore Davey and Clarence Gallagher for helping me to think along these lines of relationality rather than bond.