(Part of a series: see part one.)
Another theme I noticed in the divorce discussions, especially at Think Christian, is the idea that God forgives sins, so therefore he forgives divorces and remarriages. And indeed, in general Christian practice you can repent of any sin and make a clean start again with God. So it does seem a bit odd that divorce seems to be unforgivable: if you do it, you are either sentenced to a life of celibacy or are considered a habitual adulterer.
I gather that the traditional Catholic answer to this is that divorce isn’t so much a sin as a human impossibility. Marriages, in this theory, are created by God, so mere mortals don’t actually have the power to end them. Sure, you can say you’re divorced and that someone else is your spouse, but in God’s eyes this is an illusion. The sin is human beings thinking they have control over these things.
I respect that point of view, and it does comport with Matthew 19, which definitely implies that God created marriage at the time he created human beings, and so it is not subject to human culture and manipulation. This kind of raises the same problem that I brought up in the discussion of infant baptism, though, which is how we can say God did something that so clearly depended on human agency. And in this case in particular, it means God respects your agency at some points that may not be your best. I can easily imagine someone on the edge of divorce thinking, so God obligingly created a marriage at the behest of my stupid younger self, but he won’t listen to my older, wiser self saying that it was a mistake?
Another difficulty this raises is that it creates “the marriage” as a sort of third party, to which the spouses are bound to be loyal in addition to being loyal to each other. This becomes an issue in a situation where both spouses want out. If you think of the marriage as something they created then there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to stop them, but if you think of marriage as a God thing then they are bound to submit to it.
I suppose one way of looking at it that might be more amenable to Protestants is that even though God forgives your sins, that doesn’t mean he cleans out all the temporal consequences of those sins. And marriages, even mistaken ones, usually have irreversible consequences. Children, for one; also a whole network of relationships that would have been even more important in Jesus’ day. And emotionally, you can’t “undo” a marriage; you can only move on from it.
This agrees with the Catholic approach on the irreversibility of marriage, although it says something somewhat different in defining “marriage” in the first place. As I said before, the Catholic high-sacramental approach would actually invalidate a lot of modern American marriages because they weren’t made with the proper understanding (a point on which Fr. Jim apparently agrees.) But if you’re talking about unions with irreversible consequences, that covers a lot of shackings-up and even dating relationships. This seems to go less with Matthew 19 than with Paul telling the Corinthians that you become “one flesh” with anyone you have sex with, even a prostitute. Hmmm…