Why is Marriage Indissoluble? Part II

Christ the Redeemer statue
Christ the Redeemer statue

[1] Redemptor Hominis, 8.

[2] 1 John 4:8

[3] Dominum et Vivificantum, 50.

[4] John Paul II, General Audeinces, “The Original Unity of Man and Woman”. 11/7/79

[5] John 15:13.

[6] Ephesians 5:25.

A Synthesis According to an “anthropology of Love”

The center of Pope John Paul II’s “anthropology of love” is Christ, in the Incarnation, and in the redeeming power of his sacrifice on the cross on the human person’s fallen nature. As the Pope frequently repeats—“Christ is the way of man”. Marriage reflects this insofar as Christ is the center of marriage (as he is the center of the human experience and desire for happiness), and the Cross is the example of the fullness of marriage as love and gift. “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light”, and Christ, in his love, “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling”.[1] According to John Paul II, man only fully realizes himself in love, and in a complete self-gift of himself. This self-gift is what our anthropology of marriage will be centered around.

Marriage is a reflection of the inner life of God, his Trinitarian nature; and thus, by stuyding, in the very limited way we are able to, the immanent Trinitarian theology, we can understand what marriage should look like. “God is Love,”[2] and the Trinity is a manifestation of that love, especially in the person of the Holy Spirit, who is the spiritual-personal reality of the perfect love between the Father and the Son—the love is another person. God is, what Pope John Paul II calls, a “person-love, person-gift”.[3] What it means to be human is to be in relationship and to give and receive love in the self-gift way exemplified by Christ.

In his audiences on “Theology of the Body”, John Paul II comments on the relationship between this self-gift and the engendered body of the human person. The gender of man and woman are two distinct ways of being human, you can only understand one fully in light of the other, and each gender was made to be given to the other.[4] Therefore the body is “spousal” because it can express love through this engendered mutual giving, especially in the context of the sacrament.

In Veritatis Splendor the Pope comments on part of the nature of this self-gift and the degree to which it should be practiced. First, this self-gift should be in imitation of Christ’s love on the Cross. Secondly, because it is in imitation of Christ, this self-gift should be given even in the midst of suffering and unto death. For as Christ gave up his life for us, so should we, for “there is no greater gift than to give up one’s life for a friend”.[5] This is echoed in Ephesians when Paul tells men to love their wives as Christ loved the Church.[6]

To review, the anthropology of Pope John Paul II focuses on Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice on the Cross as both the center of the human experience and internal and implicit desire for redemption, and as a perfect example of the self-gift in love. Humans are made for and only fully known in this love, which, in imitation of Christ should be even to death.

[1] John Paul II, General Audiences, “The Unity and Indissolubility of Marriage”. 9/5/79

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Paul II, General Audiences, “By the Communion of Persons, Man Becomes the Image of God.” 11/14/79

[4] John Paul II, General Audiences, “In the First Chapters of Genesis, Marriage Is One and Indissoluble.”11/21/79

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] John Paul II, General Audiences, “The Human Person Becomes a Gift in the Freedom of Love” 1/16/80

[8] Ibid.

As Applied to Marriage

John Paul II’s fascination with marriage begins in the book of Genesis, which he believes is essential in realizing the fullness of the Sacrament.[1] The core of marriage’s indissolubility flows from Genesis 2:24, "Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." In commenting on this passage the Pope turns to the words of Christ:

The normative meaning is plausible since Christ did not confine himself only to the quotation itself, but added: "So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." That "let not man put asunder" is decisive. In the light of these words of Christ, Genesis 2:24 sets forth the principle of the unity and indissolubility of marriage as the very content of the Word of God, expressed in the most ancient revelation.[2]

John Paul also seems to comment on what could be extrapolated to consummation saying,

Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. Right "from the beginning," he is not only an image in which the solitude of a person who rules the world is reflected, but also, and essentially, an image of an inscrutable divine communion of persons.[3]

More on this quotation later, but it is apparent that in marriage John Paul sees an important connection between the intrinsic indissolubility at its very start, and the powerful communal effect of procreation. In fact, the idea of procreation, “openness to fertility”, is essential to the nature of sexuality. John Paul II states, “the biblical formulation, extremely concise and simple, indicates sex, femininity and masculinity, as that characteristic of man - male and female – which permits them, when they become "one flesh," to submit their whole humanity to the blessing of fertility.”[4]

This act of unity and procreation, the sexual union of a married man and woman, is so intrinsic into the grace-giving sacramentality of the marriage that,

Uniting with each other (in the conjugal act) so closely as to become "one flesh," man and woman, rediscover, so to speak, every time and in a special way, the mystery of creation. They return in this way to that union in humanity ("bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh") which allows them to recognize each other and, like the first time, to call each other by name.[5]

Fundamental to this act is the personal and free choice of both the man and the woman, which “establishes the conjugal pact between persons, who become one flesh only on this basis”.[6]

Finally, this gift of self, especially in the form of sexual union and procreation, is not merely a gift of self, but an expression of the Sacrament through freedom. The nuptial understanding of body hinges upon true freedom, for in a true gift of self, the man and women recognize with full consciousness, the reality of the body, and thus in a sense are “naked” as Adam and Eve were in the garden—they are free from “any constraint of the body and of sex” and “are free with the freedom of the gift”.[7] It is through this realistic understanding of their sexuality, and the consistent choice to give fully and freely their selves to the sexual union in an openness to procreation, that enable the Sacrament of marriage to fully flourish and impart grace and sanctification upon the couple.[8] This is not to say that the man and women make themselves holy through the Sacrament, but rather that through a fullness of understanding of their own anthropology, as well as a complete openness to God’s will for their bodies, they will become fully free to be sanctified by God’s grace.

Established at Consent

Whereas consent, consummation, and the lived faith of the partners are all closely connected to the indissolubility of marriage, the purpose of this paper is to distinguish their role in the marriage.

Consent is the first and primary moment when marriage becomes indissoluble. De Reeper states the heart of the matter when he states that consent makes the marriage indissoluble in principle. From the paradigm of “general theology” this is the case because of the Sacramental grace given by the proper disposition presumed by consent. This fact is expressed both through Canon Law and the teachings of the Church Fathers. Mary and Joseph are the perfect example of consent bearing grace through the Sacrament.

From the perspective of Pope John Paul II’s anthropology of love, the fact that consent establishes indissolubility derives both from the example in Genesis and the nature of the human person.

Assuming the marriage is valid, the two entering into the Sacrament can be presumed to have the necessary knowledge and intent. This intent is properly, as stated in Ephesians 5, to be mutually submissive, and to lead the spouse to sanctification by continually receiving the grace through openness to the fullness of the Sacrament. Implicit in this intent is the imitation of Christ’s love to the end, even unto death. This end or death presumes indissolubility. Finally, this proper intent also includes an acceptance of everything the Church teaches about marriage, which, as was shown by John Paul II’s commentary on Genesis, includes an understanding of the permanence of marriage (even Adam and Eve’s marriage was indissoluble) due to the becoming of one flesh.

Ratified through Consummation

The fact that consensual but non-consummated marriages have been dissolved by the Church cannot be ignored. Therefore, while the marriage is indissoluble in principle by consent, it is “indissoluble in practice” through consummation. This is because, as the Church teaches, consummating the marriage “ratifies” the Sacramentality of the union.[9] By ratifying we mean making final formally. This perhaps derives the tradition of the Jewish people of a “two-stage” marriage. An ancient example of this is found in Exodus 24, the ratification of the Hebrew Mosaic Covenant.

“When Moses came to the people and related all the words and ordinances of the Lord, they all answered with one voice, “We will do everything that the Lord has told us” (24:3). They are, in effect, saying “Amen”. This is analogous to what happens when a marriage is consummated. By engaging in the sexual union, the couple is in effect saying, “we will do everything the Lord has told us concerning marriage”. This includes especially the openness to children, which is the primary good marriage, and the openness to which presumes indissolubility. The full good of the child is dependent upon a healthy and permanent family life. By consummating the marriage, the couple is formally declaring that they intend to be open to the will of God in the marriage and thus are making permanent the permanence of the marriage. While it is not the topic of this paper, this raises the question of whether or not a couple, who have always used contraceptives since the consent of a marriage, have a truly ratified union.

From the perspective of an anthropology of love, if we remember the quotes used earlier in the paper, we realize that while the marriage is indissoluble in essence from consent, it is at the moment of the conjugal gift when the man and woman fully become one flesh. Furthermore, since the conjugal act is a complete gift of self, through it the male and female become more fully human as they engage in an act which, as a manifestation of gift, can only be surpassed by the sacrifice of their life for another. This full gift of self, combined with the explicit openness to God’s will through the conjugal act, make it a finalizing of the marriage covenant.

Fruitful through Faith

While the lived faith of the couple does not affect the indissolubility of valid marriage, it does greatly affect the fullness and fruitfulness of the bond. Because through each conjugal act the couple rediscovers the fullness of each other, and because the act, done with complete openness and with the correct disposition and intent, enables the couple to be fully free, the fullness of the lived faith of a married couple is seen through a proper relationship sexuality. This will be truly fruitful, for not only will it lead to the sanctification of the couple, but also the fruit of procreation—offspring.

However, while the fullness of marriage spirituality is in the conjugal act, this does not mitigate the necessity of other elements spirituality, especially the other Sacraments. Without a proper personal spirituality—prayer, sacraments, avoidance of sin, etc.—the couple will become more susceptible to lust and a false sexual intimacy. This is a cyclical cause and effect, and while a marriage is still valid without this fullness of sexual consciousness, the marriage cannot be fully fruitful nor sanctifying, without this form of lived faith and mutual love.

Is Divorce Ever an Option?

  • Yes, why should people stay together if they're unhappy?
  • Yes, but only in extreme circumstances?
  • Yes, but they should not remarry?
  • No, Jesus said so.
  • No, there's always a way to work it out.
  • I'm still not sure...
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This paper has examined the history of marriage sacramentality as well as three primary arguments about why marriage is indissoluble. It has outlined Pope John Paul II’s “anthropology of love” as Christo-centric through the incarnation and sacrifice of the cross, as well a description of the person (and marriage) as a imitator of Christ’s self-gift and loving sacrifice. In applying this anthropology to marriage, it has distinguished the three theories, and established the thesis that marriage is indissoluble in principle at consent, in practice through ratifying consummation, and only fruitful and sanctifying through the proper lived faith of the partners.


Bekker, Egon de. “Consent makes marriage.” Afer 7, no. 4. October 1, 1965: 299-306.

Catholic Church.Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.

De Reeper, J. “Indissolubility of marriage, and divorce”. Afer11, no. 4. October 1, 1969: 346-352.

John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Dominum et Vivificantum, Vatican City: Vatican Publishing, 1986.

General Audiences, “The Human Person Becomes a Gift in the Freedom of Love” 1/16/80

General Audiences, “In the First Chapters of Genesis, Marriage Is One and Indissoluble.”11/21/79

General Audiences, “The Unity and Indissolubility of Marriage”. 9/5/79

General Audiences, “By the Communion of Persons, Man Becomes the Image of God.” 11/14/79

General Audeinces, “The Original Unity of Man and Woman”. 11/7/79

Encyclical Letter, Redemptor Hominis. Vatican City: Vatican Publishing, 1979.

Kilmartin, Edward J. “When is marriage a sacrament.” Theological studies 34, no. 2. June1, 1973: 275-286

Kuntz, J M. “Is marriage indissoluble.” Journal of Ecumencial Studies 7, no. 2. March 1, 1970: 333-337.

Lawler, Michael G. “The mutual love and personal faith of the spouses as the matrix of the sacrament of marriage.” Worship 65, no. 4. July 1, 1991: 339-361.

Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Code of Canon Law. Washington: Canon Law Society of America, 1983).

Vatican Council, Edward H. Peters, and Gregory Baum.De Ecclesia; the Constitution on the Church of Vatican Council II Proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, November 21, 1964. Glen Rock, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1965.

© 2012 rdlang05

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Comments 4 comments

expertscolumn profile image

expertscolumn 3 years ago from New York

If the center of John Paul's anthropology is Christ, then why is John Paul emphasized as an authority in the matter? It's a divine mandate of God that man and woman should be one and they should not separate but through thick and thin work it out.

Nonetheless great research paper

rdlang05 profile image

rdlang05 3 years ago from Minnesota Author

Thank you,

How much did Christ elaborate and explain how and why they should not separate? And I agree, it is a divine mandate, but unfortunately for many people in this post-modern culture that's simply not enough. They want to know the why.

expertscolumn profile image

expertscolumn 3 years ago from New York

I'd type out the verses but to make clarity check out this link: http://bible.cc/hebrews/13-4.htm and see the cross-references on the side, from Old Testament (God the father) to New Testament (Jesus Christ and additionally speaking through his disciples and apostles emphasizes the importance of being one. It is from that understanding and definition of marriage that Christ himself models what our relationship to him should be like..so if we can't be one with our earthly partner, how the hell do we even plan on being united with Christ? That's the most clearest cut example of why. We have to stick with our partner for our own good, family's good and if we ever plan to strut into heaven, we can't go there without having made things right on this earth.

Jesus: "I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one--as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me." John 17:21

"I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me." John 17:23

"Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him." John 6:56

Then he literally says in Mark 10:5-12 the most basic clearest definition.

rdlang05 profile image

rdlang05 3 years ago from Minnesota Author

I don't disagree with you. I think marriage should be extremely Christ focused.

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