What Is Our Lord Saying to Catholics About Marriage?

We have been reflecting on what God is saying to the Church today through the prophet Malachi.  After reproving priests for their failure to teach, Malachi turns his attention to the state of marriage among God’s people, focusing on two problems.  He asks,

Why then do we break faith with each other, violating the covenant of our fathers? Judah has broken faith; an abominable thing has been done in Israel and in Jerusalem. Judah has profaned the temple which the Lord loves, and has married an idolatrous woman.  (Mal 2:10-11, NAB)

The prophet is referring to the men of Israel marrying foreign wives who worshiped pagan gods.  Intermarriage was forbidden by the Torah (Deut 7:1-4), although it was commonly practiced.  In fact this practice by Israel’s kings, including Solomon, contributed greatly to the nation turning away from God to idols and becoming subject to judgment and exile (1 Kings 11; 2 Kings 23:13).  After the return from exile there was a concerted effort to avoid this sin, but in Malachi’s day the practice had crept back.

The second problem that Malachi addresses was an epidemic of divorce.  The people of Judah noticed that God was not accepting their sacrifices, hearing their prayers or blessing their land, and they were asking why not.

It would be wise if we American Catholics reflected on the troubles of our Church, nation, and families and asked ourselves the same question. Is God is trying to tell us something?

Perhaps the Jews of Malachi’s day were surprised to learn that what displeased the Lord so much was divorce:

Because the Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant….

And what does the one Goddesire? Godly offspring. So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth.  (Mal 2:14-15, NRSV)

Two points are noteworthy.  First, that the Lord takes marriage vows and the marriage covenant seriously—he calls himself a witness to marriage.  He therefore judges the men of Israel for being “faithless,” i.e., for breaking their vows.

Second, Malachi reveals the divine intention that motivates God’s teaching about marriage:  God desires “godly offspring.”  Divorce or marriage to someone who doesn’t worship the Lord undermines the godly formation of the next generation.

The following stern words and direct address leave no doubt about God’s perspective on the matter:

For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless. (Mal 2:16)

Jesus strengthens Old Testament teaching against divorce (Matt 19:3-9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor 7:10-15) and the New Testament continues to teach against marrying outside the faith (1 Cor 7:39; 9:5; 2 Cor 6:14-16), although Paul gives advice to those who find themselves in this situation (1 Cor 7:12-16).

If marrying outside the faith and divorce was displeasing to the Lord in Malachi’s day, we can be sure the same is true in our day.  Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and Catholic marriages fail at almost the same rate as the rest of the society.

God judged his people for these practices in Malachi’s day, so it should come as no surprise today when individuals, the Church, and the nation experience troubles and suffering rather than blessing.

If Malachi were prophesying now, he would undoubtedly also denounce the premarital sex and cohabitation has become commonplace among Christians for nearly a generation.  When my wife and I attended a marriage preparation retreat for engaged couples at a nearby parish twenty years ago, we were the only couple on the retreat that was not cohabiting.  Premarital sexual relations and cohabitation have become a new social norm that faithful Christians require great courage and self-control to resist.

This disobedience to God’s teaching regarding the intrinsic link between sex and marriage ought not to characterize people who have the word of God, the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the sacraments.  However, a vicious cycle has set in: premarital sex and cohabitation sometimes lead to marriage to unbelievers, sometimes to marital unfaithfulness, sometimes to divorce, and often to offspring who do not grow up knowing God or his ways, so the cycle continues.

Something has gone terribly wrong.  Yet contemporary responses to sex and marriage problems among Catholics often echo the same two wrong responses that displeased the Lord in Malachi’s day:

You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, ‘How have we wearied him?’ By saying, ‘Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.’

Or by asking, ‘Where is the God of justice?’ (Mal 2:17)

Some give up on resisting societal pressures and offer false reassurance about the acceptability of disobeying God’s teaching.  Others disapprove of how marriage is commonly approached among Christians but despair that anything can be done about it and wring their hands.

What can be done about the state of marriage among us?

First, we should deliberately reject the two responses that the Lord condemned in Israel: accommodation and despair.

Second, we should repent for the ways in which we are, or have been part of the problem, rather than the solution!  God is very merciful and can bring good out of our past sinful choices.

Third, we should pray and repent on behalf of God’s people, asking that God have mercy on us.  Prayer is powerful!  Remember Elijah (James 5:17-18)!  Remember Jesus’ extraordinary promises (John 14:12-14; 15:16; 16:23-26)!

Finally, we should learn, practice and faithfully tell others what God’s word says about marriage, sex, divorce, and raising children in the Lord (Deut 6:6-9, 20-25; Eph 6:4).

We should focus our prayer and our speaking on the people for whom the Lord has given us particular responsibility—friends, family, students, parishioners, etc.  We should pray for wisdom about how we speak (see Matt 7:3-5; 18:15; Gal 6:1-2; 2 Tim 2:24-26), but then speak.

It’s not too late.  Many will not respond, but some will.  Our job is to proclaim God’s word “in season and out of season, [to] convince, rebuke, and exhort, [to] be unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).  Like Jesus, we are called to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37).  We plant the seeds; God will cause them to grow in people’s hearts, even if some reject the message.

In the next chapter of Malachi, the last chapter in the Old Testament, God declares that he himself is about to act.  Among other things, Malachi says that God will respond to those who repent and have compassion on them.  He will distinguish between the just and the wicked, between those who serve him and those who do not (Mal 3:17-18).

I’ll write more on the action God intends to take and the Lord’s call to repentance in the next installment.

To see the previous posts in this series, go to

1) What Is Our Lord is Saying to American Catholics?

2) The Lord’s Word to Priests and People…

19 Comments

Filed under current events, Peter Williamson, Uncategorized

19 responses to “What Is Our Lord Saying to Catholics About Marriage?

    • LJ Dunman

      Please quit using the inaccurate 50% divorce number. The rate of divorce for first marriages is 17%. The 50% number was obtained through some census data for one year which considered all marriages.

      • Joseph

        I agree with you. I discovered this thru an Evangelical newsletter In an article they used the example of I think 1985. In Rhode Island that year there were 3000 marriages and 1500 divorces giving us a divorce rate of 50%. I won’t go into the illogicality of that reasoning. In a late 1900″s survey, Fr. Andrew Greeley said that something like 89.1 out of every 100 first marriages were still with the same spouses, I wish there were more recent statistics. Unfortunately, the younger the couple, the more chance for divorce. I believe the 50% divorce rate comes from people who want to encourage divorce for ulterior motives.

  1. The Catechism states inter-religious marriage is permitted. It’s not against God’s Commandments for a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic. Inter-religious marriage is not like divorce. And to fall back on the Law of Moses is a doctrinal error, and if obstinate in such a doctrinal error, is a heresy

    • Peter

      It is permitted, but it certainly isn’t ideal.

    • Peter S. Williamson

      Thanks, Nick. In my post I was only commenting on what the NT teaches rather than what the Church allows.

      Thanks for drawing my attention to what the Catechism says on the subject, 1633-1637. The Catechism distinguishes between “mixed marriages,” marriages between a Catholic and a Christian of some other profession, and “disparity of cult,” marriage to a non-Christian.

      To marry a non-Catholic Christian, A Catholic needs the “express permission” of Church authorities. But to marry a non-Christian requires “an express dispensation from this impediment… for the validity of the marriage,” indicating the seriousness with which the Church regards this.

      It is true that Christians are not under the law of Moses the way that the Jewish people are. But it is also true that in very many matters the law reveals God’s intentions for Christians–Jesus and Paul point people toward the law to understand God’s will. Rather than outlawing marriage outside the covenant as Moses did, Paul strongly exhorts Christians not to be “unequally yoked” (2 Cor 6:14ff), not to “be partners” with “those who are disobedient,” and to “find out what pleases the Lord” (Eph 5:6-10; NIV).

      • Correct about mixed marriage. Even still, divorce is an offense to marriage – like polygamy and cohabitation are. Which is not the case for mixed marriages. Hence, you can’t condemn the two as if they are both some sin. Because under the the Law of the Holy Spirit, only one of them is a sin.

        1 Cor 7:8-17
        Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do, but if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire. To the married, however, I give this instruction (not I, but the Lord): a wife should not separate from her husband – and if she does separate she must either remain single or become reconciled to her husband – and a husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say (not the Lord): if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she is willing to go on living with him, he should not divorce her; and if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he is willing to go on living with her, she should not divorce her husband. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through the brother. Otherwise your children would be unclean, whereas in fact they are holy. If the unbeliever separates, however, let him separate. The brother or sister is not bound in such cases; God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband; or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? Only, everyone should live as the Lord has assigned, just as God called each one. I give this order in all the churches.

  2. TeaPot562

    More troublesome: Why are many Catholics in their 20s and 30s who have no impediments to marriage choosing to “exchange vows” in a non-church setting & w/o a priest? Typically these are couples who have cohabited before marriage; but does the Sacrament of Marriage mean nothing to them? What is missing from the catechesis since V-II on this?
    What is suggested beyond prayer? Any ideas?
    TeaPot562

    • I suggest you begin with faith and virtue, than prayer and evangelization. Without faith, you will be judged rashly. Without virtue, you will judge others rashly. Without prayer, you will work fruitlessly. Without evangelization, you will pray in dishonor of God Who works within us.

    • Yes. Explain to them WHY marriage in a Church is so important. Show them the beauty of the Sacrament as practiced in the Catholic Church. The reason most children/young people reject the practices of their elders is that no one has been able to adequately explain to them why it really matters.

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  4. Name withheld for privacy

    It is extremely important that the Church (and all who comprise it, from Priests to Laity) hold steady to uncompromising standards when spouses come to the Priest whining that they no longer love their spouse. While we all understand that we cannot advise anyone to remain in abusive situations, we cant fall into the foolishness that the world offers us about pursuing happiness.

    My husband announced after 18 years of marriage his intent to divorce me and gave a laundry list of faults and errors going back to our first date. He insisted that I had been a terrible wife and he was forced to marry me. Neither of those things were true. The truth was that Satan had lead him like a lamb to the slaughter into the arms of an adulteress…just like scripture warns of.

    His double life was insanity provoking and he got to a point where he could no longer tell right from wrong and fantasy from reality. One of the only things that lead him back to solid ground was the unwavering position of the Church. If he could have gotten a quickie divorce and married his adultery partner, he surely would have done it. In the insanity he knew (if he went through with his plan to abandon the family) he would have to give up Eucharist and the last 3 functioning brain cells he had told him that that path was wrong.

    Priests and abandoned spouses would be wise to be aware that men hardly ever leave a stable marriage without a replacement partner “in their bed or in their head” and most of the carping they do about thier spouse is smoke and mirrors to throw everyone off the trail of truth.

    Truth is the solution. Pray for Truth…Truth so powerful it took on flesh and walked the earth.

  5. gonesimera

    “It would be wise if we American Catholics reflected on the troubles of our Church, nation, and families and asked ourselves the same question. Is God is trying to tell us something?”

    Would it not be best to leave out nationalism when trying to reach a world wide audience?

    Apart from that I thought it a very good article, spoke a lot of truth.

    Thank you

  6. Suz

    I’m a convert and I have come to trust the Church’s teaching on everything. My husband of 32 years left me suddenly a few years ago and it has been a very difficult row to hoe. I did have the marriage annulled. However, now I have met and am now engaed to a wonderful man who’s wife abandoned him (and the 4 children) over 18 years ago. He has raised the kids himself into wonderful adults. He had never had much of a faith life and is now extremely interested in joining the church (he was never baptized) However, the church is making it incredibly difficult for him to get his annulment. While I understand the importance of marriage I don’t understand making it so difficult to get the nullity, especially in this case where he was never baptized, his wife’s abandonment, AND his sincere and pure desire. The insensitivity (now of 2 tribunals) is really putting a bad taste in his mouth. There is no reason for it to be so difficult, especially when things in the past should be ‘under the blood’ of Jesus! The past is forgiven and forgotten by God at our conversion/baptism, so why does the Church have to go thru such ridiculousness on this ONE issue? It should be forgiven as well.

    • gonesimera

      Have you not thought of the Petrine Privilege?

      “A Petrine Privilege or Privilege of the Faith is a dissolution of marriage in which at least one of the parties to a previous marriage was non-baptized throughout the entire duration of their married life. If the petitioner is the non-baptized party or was baptized in another Christian church, he or she must either wish to be baptized or received into the Catholic Church, or seek to marry a baptized, practicing Catholic. If the petitioner is a baptized Catholic who was married to a non-baptized person, he or she must either wish to enter into marriage with a baptized Christian, or promise to enter marriage with a baptized Christian in the future. Privilege of the Faith cases involve a special petition to the Holy Father and are decided in Rome.”

      Just a Thought !

      • Suz

        Yes, we’ve been round and round on this. One of the tribunals suggested the Petrine but said it would take over 2 years, that the Petrines were ‘rarely granted,’ and would cost $950. The other tribunal says the Petrine is not at all appropriate and is looking at the Pauline. Sigh. The major problem is that EVERY SINGLE tribunal/priest/diocese seems to interpret the Pauline and the Petrine COMPLETELY differently. AND the people we have met with are not always very nice at all and usually very condescending. It’s just very discouraging, especially when he is so pliable in his faith. It just makes the church look very bad.

  7. @Suz: Remind your fiance not to be discouraged by the trials that are coming his way right now, but to consider them as God’s way of testing his resolve. If God takes his time in answering a prayer, it is only because He is building something for eternity.

  8. tobias

    Suz
    Sounds very strange to me.
    I have seen cases that has been interpreted very gratious by the church. By comparison your case looks easy.

  9. George Jones

    Prof. Williamson’s statistics on the incidence of divorce are sadly true, http://www.drphil.com/articles/article/351

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