Category Archives: Divorce

The Second Step in the Re-Definition of Marriage


Yesterday I posted on the implications of the teaching Luther in beginning the change of the mindest of what Marriage fundamentally was up until that time.    Today, we speak of the next logical implication to that changing mindset.

If Marriage is a contract, and more importantly is not a Sacrament, then the idea of an indivisible unity between the individuals is greatly weakened, if not broken entirely.   Instead of that undissolvable bond being a very real thing, it is instead a symbolic thing.  The strength of the bond is not the bond itself, but the vow representing the bond.   This may seem close enough, but it is actually very different.  And there are natural implications that can come with it if humans start to walk down that path.   And, of course, we did.

To our credit somewhat, it took quite a while for the embracing of this to occur in either civil law or religious law, even among those who broke away from Catholicism.   The history of the reluctance to allow divorce may be read by some as a poor reflection on the rights of women (and this isn’t an altogether incorrect argument, in that given the allowance of divorce women had to work from a much stricter standard than men).   But the very reluctance to grant divorce, even with the precedent set by Henry VIII and the new theology of Luther is an indication that natural reason still rang true in the hearts of men.   There was something about ending a marriage that was very difficult for lawmakers and religious leaders to embrace as something favorable to society, or even the persons involved.

This reluctance is telling, especially in light of the case of Henry VIII.  The argument started in 1527 with Pope Clement VII.   Henry wanted an annulment because his wife was not providing an heir to the throne.   Clement declined.   In 1533, the King broke from Rome, declared himself the head of the Church of England, and married Anne Boylan.   One has to wonder if what transpired next was divine retribution, as Anne provided one still-birth, and within 3 years was accused of treason, adultery, incest, and ultimately beheaded.   All that religious upheaval for absolutely nothing.

Interestingly, divorce was not embraced after this, but it was clearly the next step in the process.   The next known divorce in England was in 1552, and there is no record of anything again until 1670.   By that time, only an act of Parliament could grant a divorce.   By the time divorce law was relaxed in 1857 in England, only 324 divorces were recorded in the history of England.

In the meantime, in the U.S., the Protestant mindset seemed to move things along a bit more quickly.   This is not to say it was taken lightly at all – it wasn’t.   It’s to say that the natural implications of the new theology progressed a bit more quickly.

By 1629, Legislative Tribunals allowed divorce for major offenses (adultery, desertion, bigamy, impotence).   Divorce was greatly discouraged, but allowed under these circumstances.   In 1776, divorce came under the authority of the courts.  In general the same standards applied, though by the end of the century some states had realized they could use relaxed divorce laws as a commerce opportunity, and thus these states had less strict standards of qualification.

Back to England, in 1857 divorce moved out of parliament but still maintained strict standards.    In 1937, standards were relaxed further, and in 1969 no-fault became the law of the land (though minimum periods of separation were required).

In the U.S., divorce moved from judicial court to family court in the 1950s.   The first no-fault divorce law was signed in California.  Governor Ronald Reagan would later call this one of his greatest errors. In the next 15 years, nearly every state followed California’s lead.

As civil laws relaxed, so did the religious standards.    With the new theology of Luther, there really wasn’t much chance this evolution wouldn’t happen.  Obviously, the Church of England was established almost entirely because the King wanted a divorce.   The Church of England itself actually tightened up its view on marriage after that, however.   Baptists, even today, while not necessarily believing in the Sacramental nature of marriage, have at least held steadfast in the belief that this is a vow God does not want broken, and have not changed their position much.   Other mainline Protestant denominations have readily accepted divorce, and this is now commonplace in most Christian denominations.   In 1976, the United Methodist Church explicitly recognized the right of divorced persons to remarry.

The Catholic Church has remained constant in its teaching of Marriage.   The bond is real, and the only way a person who has been married can remarry is if the marriage was only valid in the civil sense and not the Sacramental sense.    Thus, the annulment process is meant to discover whether there was any impeding factor at the time of the wedding that in any way made the Sacrament invalid due to a violation in form or in substance.    Many – including the Pope himself –  would argue that even in the Catholic sense, the annulment process has been liberalized.   Well-meaning people want to help get an annulment rather than strictly viewing the case on its merits.   But even if this is the case, if the Church rules for nullity, then its ruling stands, and no Sacramental marriage is deemed to have existed.   There is then no pain of sin to the person if they want to remarry.    Even if the process could use some help, the Theology is constant and the view of what Marriage is remains the same.

We cannot look at the current state of marriage in this country without a view of the history of divorce.    It is almost remarkable that it took hundreds of years after that first step of Luther’s and the second step of Henry VIII’s for even relatively strict divorce law to be applied.    But we can clearly see the progression in speed here.   Once the relaxation started, it continued, and each step came successively faster until there was no more relaxation to be had.   No-fault became the law of the land in a 15 year period, and from the beginning of that time to 20 years later the percentage of people who were divorced went from 11% to 50%.

The implications of this are staggering on many levels, including the fact that the poor and less educated are hardest hit.    Children are growing up in broken homes.   The sociological effects of this fills books.

But for the point at hand, it fundamentally changed marriage.    This created a very real shift in attitude about what the entire purpose of marriage actually is.   It’s a shift towards self-fulfillment as the ultimate goal.    That fundamental shift has its roots in Luther and Henry VIII’s views of the marriage arrangement, but it took quite some time for a more self-centered view of marriage to take root and grow.    This was aided along by a few other things that I’ll post about later.   All these things brought us to where we are today, and it starts to show us that the very thing we are now lamenting (redefinition of marriage as something other than a man-woman institution) is possible entirely because of all the previous things we’ve allowed to degrade the idea of what marriage fundamentally is.