Tag Archives: normalization of divorce

Suffer the Little Children: Aquinas on Divorce

In Mark 10, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees (“to test him”) whether divorce was lawful.  As he responded, the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 24 and elsewhere) permitted divorce under some conditions.  But Jesus argues more broadly, basing his words on the second chapter of Genesis, “the two will become one flesh.” Therefore, Jesus says, “what God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

The Mosaic Law on divorce is complex (to say the least; for one thing, it permitted polygamy), but the overriding sense is that it is at best a necessary evil caused by unnecessary (and worse) evils.  Adultery and abuse were the commonly accepted justifications.  Remarriage of divorced persons was permitted in some cases and prohibited in others.

Throughout the Pentateuch (indeed, the entire Bible), many aspects of divorce are addressed, but one omission is glaring: there is not a word about child custody.  The impact on the children receives no more consideration than it does in a modern American courtroom.

In biblical times, the concept of family meant a father, a mother, and their children.  The idea of an intentionally childless married couple did not exist; at least I have not seen any indication of one. Effective contraception did not exist.  Children were valued as workers in support of the family.   Children were valued as caretakers in parental old age. Many other reasons probably factored into what was in all likelihood not a conscious decision (to procreate) at all.

St. Thomas Aquinas comes at the divorce issue from an interesting tack:  the natural law.  The natural law is our fundamental understanding of right and wrong (sometimes called the First Grace, followed by the Mosaic Law and finally Jesus’ Law of Love.) It is the law that Paul ascribes to all, even the gentiles, as innate in our humanity. Here is Thomas:

“By the intention of nature, marriage is directed to the rearing of offspring, not merely for a time, but throughout its whole life…  Therefore since the offspring is the common good of husband and wife, the dictate of the natural law requires the latter [husband and wife] to live together forever inseparably; and so the indissolubility of marriage is of natural law.” (“I answer that”,Q67. Art. 1 Suppl)(emphasis added)

In response to the (very modern-sounding) objection that some couples are infertile, and therefore marriage cannot be directed primarily to offspring, Thomas patiently explains:

“Marriage is chiefly directed to the common good in respect of its principal end, which is the good of the offspring; although in respect of its secondary end it is directed to the good of the parties…Hence marriage laws consider what is expedient for all rather than what may be suitable for one.” (Reply to Obj. 4)

It is worth noting that this is from his Summa Theologiae, which is based on both revelation and reason. He could have based the indissolubility of marriage first and foremost on biblical grounds: Genesis and Matthew/Mark. But instead, he bases his answer on natural law.

One would expect this non-theological approach in his Summa Contra Gentiles, in which he argues from reason and nature, without divine revelation, to attain truth; and one is not disappointed:

“Hence, as law is instituted for the common good, the function of procreation ought to be regulated by laws divine and human. Now the laws laid down ought to proceed on the basis of the dictate of nature…Since then there is in the human species a natural exigency for the union of male and female to be one and indivisible, such unity and indissolubility must needs be ordained by human law. To that ordinance the divine law adds a supernatural reason, derived from the significancy of marriage as a type of the inseparable union of Christ with His Church…” (Chapter CXXIII)

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