What is often referred to as the marriage contract is not of the same nature as a business contract that can be dissolved by mutual agreement or by the decision of a court.
The essence of marriage is an exchange of vows between a man and a woman.
A vow is a solemn promise, a solemn commitment, made before God. In the case of marriage the commitment is to remain together ‘till “death do us part.” In other words, it is a commitment on the part of the spouses to remain married to each other, and to belong to each other exclusively, for their entire lives.
This is, or should be, emphasised and clearly understood before the commitment is made.
The marriage, furthermore, is witnessed by the State and usually by the Church. So, it is a solemn commitment made in the presence of God, the Church and the State.
Divorce, then, is not just the breaking of a legal contract. It is the breaking of a solemn commitment. As such, it diminishes the very concept of a solemn promise or commitment. And if it diminishes a solemn commitment, all lesser promises and commitments are necessarily diminished in its wake.
A vote for divorce, or for making it easier to obtain, is an assertion that promises and commitments are really not that serious; that we really don’t have to keep our promises; and that our word is of little value.
Similarly, the official witnesses of marriage – of the solemn vows that were taken – who then approve of divorce show a marked lack of consistency and integrity. The State that approves of divorce finds itself in this category.
At stake are truth and integrity.
And the question arises: Can we, or should we, take seriously the word, the promises or the commitments of a person or party that doesn’t take seriously the very concept of a promise or a commitment?
Applying that to the pro-divorce State, its credibility and that of its agents lies open to question and doubt.
If the State infers that a solemn commitment that it witnessed is of no value, why should we respect any of the pronouncements of the same State? Should we even respect its laws?
Indeed, marriage is not a creature of the State – it is antecedent to the State. The State, therefore, can only serve as a witness to it and has no power to change or to dissolve it.
Here an objection might be – and has been – raised. Those who want to remove restrictions on divorce from Bunreacht na hÉireann claim that since divorce already exists, the debate is not about whether or not divorce should exist, but only about some details.
It is a sly objection. Slyer still is the framing of the debate itself. The debate should be about the nature of divorce and whether or not it should exist. To place the debate entirely within the paradigm of the irrepressibility of divorce attempts to make opponents of divorce appear to accept it.
Rather than a choice between easy divorce and difficult divorce, this could be an occasion to examine the effects of twenty-two years of divorce legislation on our country. Are we a happier people as a result of it? Are we really more free?
Are there any indicators that things might not be all well in Ireland since divorce became available? Suicide rates, for example?
It could also be an occasion to recall why the four year waiting period was inserted into the Constitution, instead of leaving it to the Oireachtas to decide. In hindsight it appears as a cynical ploy to ensure that divorce got a “foot in the door,” so to speak.
Another objection that is often raised against those who defend the indissolubility of marriage is that they lack compassion.
Where is the compassion, one might ask, in our argument that divorce undermines truth, integrity and commitment?
It is touching to hear of the great compassion that Josepha Madigan and other advocates of more liberal divorce laws express towards the spouses in broken or strained marriages. But where is their compassion for the children, the principal casualties of divorce?
If Ms. Madigan has so much compassion for spouses in difficult marriages, why doesn’t she use her power and influence as a minister of the current administration to get the State to support marriages instead of undermining them? Why doesn’t she try to coax her colleagues in government to alleviate the pressures on families instead of piling them on?
Does the State do anything to support and sustain life-long marriage? Or is divorce its only focus?
Where is our compassion, then?
Firstly, we desire the eternal salvation of every person. Faithful, life-long marriage is a huge commitment that entails huge sacrifices. As such, it is a path of sanctification and salvation for a great number of people. Happiness in this life, although a good in itself, is fleeting and inconsistent, and therefore nothing compared to eternal happiness in Heaven.
Secondly, the loss of self-respect and of confidence that can accompany the breaking of vows can have a devastating effect on its victims. It is difficult – indeed it may be impossible – for spouses under the extreme duress of a crumbling marriage to clearly see everything that is at stake in the debate, even things directly pertaining to their own good.
Voters, on the other hand, have no such excuse. If they dispassionately pronounce marriage vows to be not worth the rubber stamp applied by the State, they are certainly culpable of the sin and the folly involved.