The rest of the New Testament unlocks the deeper meaning. The Church is called the “Bride of Christ” and the throughout the gospels Jesus uses powerful nuptial imagery suggesting that he is the bridegroom and his followers are the bride. These nuptial passages echo and affirm the Old Testament passages in which God is the “husband of his people Israel.” They teach that a man “leaves his father and mother and joins his wife and the two become one flesh.” The imagery follows through, therefore, that the follower of Jesus Christ is to become “one flesh” with Jesus Christ.
This is repeated over and over again in many different ways throughout the gospel and the rest of the New Testament. We are to be “in Christ” and him in us. We are baptized “into Christ”. He is the vine and we are the branches. If we “live in love we live in God and God lives in us.”
The union between Christ and his disciples is therefore an eternal union. It is something that cannot be destroyed. For Catholics this is not just symbolism but reality–a sacramental reality, which means that the eternal realities are fused with earthly, physical realities. Through baptism and communion one really is joined in an eternal union with Jesus Christ.
Which brings us to marriage. Marriage is also a sacrament and therefore an everlasting union of the eternal and the physical and temporal. Just as bread and wine become the physical vehicles for an eternal transformation, so the man and woman, through a sacramental marriage, become physical partners in an eternal union.
The seven sacraments are also interwoven with each other and with the mystery of the Church. Eucharist and Baptism cannot be separated from Confirmation, Ordination, Anointing or Reconciliation. Neither can they be separated from the sacrament of matrimony. All of them are connected in the mystery of salvation and therefore to desacralize one is to unpick them all.
Marriage is therefore intrinsically interwoven not only with the order of creation, but with the whole order of redemption. Furthermore, it is through marriage, as a sacrament, that we learn the difficult lessons of love, make a lifetime commitment to submit to the lessons of love, learn the self sacrificial nature of true love, the eternal nature of true love and therefore make our way to heaven. Marriage, like all the sacraments, is a ladder to heaven. If that ladder is broken how will one get to heaven?
A valid marriage can no more be dissolved, therefore, than the bread and wine after consecration can cease to be the body and blood of Christ.
That Catholic marriages break down is a fact. That civil divorce happens is a fact. That adultery breaks marriage is a fact. That remarriage after divorce occurs is a fact, but none of these facts can destroy the basic indissolubility of marriage and the obvious pain of being excluded from communion because of a remarriage after divorce is the pain and the problem that comes with the breakdown of marriage and a subsequent remarriage.
What can pastors do in the face of this “difficult teaching”? The same thing we do with other difficult teachings of the church like “the only place for sexual relations is between a married man and woman”. or “If you would be my disciple you must take up your cross and follow me.” We say, “Geesh, that’s a tough one. Here, let me help you with that cross.”
To wave the hand and say, in effect, “All that is legalistic, fundamentalism” as Cardinal Kasper did in his recent interview in American magazine is incredibly shallow and one is amazed that he has no better argument than name calling based on sentimentalism.
Those who would dismiss the teaching of Christ’s church for two thousand years for pastoral reasons are saying, “Take up your cross and follow me? Fuhgeddaboudit.”