Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 65(3) August 2015



Charlie O'DonnellAs doctors we need to have a reasoned defence of marriage “up our sleeves” so as we can give a sensible explanation for the joy that is in our hearts due to knowing Jesus Christ and His Gospel. It is particularly pertinent in the context of the forthcoming Synod on the Family.

This article is a transcript of a little book designed for young people and couples attending Marriage Preparation Classes made freely available to the CMQ. The author is involved in the Catechesis of the young and Marriage Preparation Courses for engaged couples.


There are many uses of the word culture in both common day to day language and in social scientific circles. One meaning of the word is “that which is commonly understood in a given society.” Thus for example it is part of our English culture to know that Fish goes with Chips. Indeed any person of normal intelligence growing up in England who did not know that Fish and Chips are complimentary dishes would be considered either stupid or an impostor.

Until fairly recently the word Marriage was also part of the English culture. If you asked an English person say in 1930 regardless of any religious belief they would know marriage is a man and a woman living together for the whole of their lives, sexually exclusive and being open to procreating and rearing children.

(Similarly, it was just part of the culture that dating was designed to answer a question “is this person a potential husband/wife?” If the answer was yes then a period of chaste (no sex) getting to know the potential spouse occurred, then engagement, then marriage and only then move in together.)

But this understanding of what Marriage (and Dating) is all about is no longer part of our culture. The widespread adoption of pre-marital “moving-in” and acceptance of this as a normal part of life is one obvious way that the dating culture has changed. As regards marriage, the massive change in the culture was made very clear to me as a Marriage Preparation Instructor when a confidential questionnaire was given to a group of Engaged couples asking them 3 questions about the marriage vows.

These questions were:

  1. What do you understand by the marriage vow for better or worse?
  2. What do you understand by the marriage vow until death do us part?
  3. What do understand by the marriage vow forsaking all others?

These vows are fancy ways of asking the couple three essential components of Marriage:
Unconditionality (love come what may),
Exclusivity (no adultery) and
Indissolubility (no divorce and re-marriage until death.)

The answers to the questions from a reasonable number of the respondents included such things as “Love until our relationship dies (i.e not the person dies)” “Try your best to keep on loving your husband/wife (i.e but there are conditions where love stops)” and one that I even initially found surprising forsaking all others could be summarised as “usually no cheating but sometimes depending on circumstances a fling, thing or swing may be OK!!!”

Actually on reflection one should not be surprised at these answers. The traditional understanding of Marriage is undermined in many ways in our society in ways that are just casually spoken about as being normal. So for example Divorce and Remarriage are so common it should not be surprising that a concept of no divorce (i.e indissolubility) is poorly recognised. Similarly, our newspapers and magazines speak openly about “Pre-Nups” i.e. public statements of conditions placed upon a “marriage” so why be surprised at Unconditionality of love being debatable?

Also, on a similar note in terms of having children not an eye would be raised if a couple approached a Registry Office saying that they never want to have children even if they are able and resourced to do so. An intended childless marriage in a society that upholds contraception as an absolute moral good is not even questioned as being possibly an impediment to a true understanding of Marriage. “It is their choice; it is their marriage full stop!”

But Christian Marriage is not like all of this!

So what is Christian Marriage?

Christ clearly taught that marriage is for life come what may. Jesus Christ was God made man so Christians believe in a loving God so Marriage the way God intended is what is best for our happiness as human beings.

However, we all feel an intense sadness when we hear of stories that are sadly all too common of the pain felt by the innocent partner who is left (the husband running off with the young secretary phenomenon.)

It can be thought “I married a different man” - this is true but we are all subject to change in one way or other, some change for the better and some for the worse. This is the “better or worse” vow in the marriage ceremony! Marriage is a promise to deal with change in a united way - that is what the vow for better or worse means. Betrayal by adultery is understandably seen as the worst of the worse but even this betrayal can be redeemed albeit with a life time’s work of repairing the immense damage done.

It can seem very, very, hard to expect a young woman as the innocent party deserted by her husband and left with say 3 children to live a life without the intimate support of a man. Is this really the will of a loving compassionate God? Jesus was faced with this very question. The story went like this: “After leaving Capharnaum, Jesus came into the territory of Judea and Transjordan. And again crowds gathered round him, and he taught them, as his custom was. Some Pharisees approached him and asked, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?' They were putting him to the test. He answered them, 'What did Moses command you?' They replied, 'Moses allowed us to draw up a writ of dismissal in cases of divorce.' Then Jesus said to them, 'It was because you were so hard hearted that he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female. This is why a man leaves his father and mother, and the two become one flesh. They are no longer two, therefore, but one flesh. So then, what God has united, human beings must not divide.’ Back in the house the disciples questioned him again about this, and he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she is guilty of adultery too.”

Hardness of heart means people whose orientation towards good is missing. Moses was faced with a group of men who were prepared to leave women completely unsupported and destitute and ridiculed as single mothers. As such he permitted a legal document to provide some safeguard to women. The society did not enforce husbands to support their wives when they left them. His was a choice between two evils, he chose the lesser evil.

It is noteworthy that even the Disciples of Jesus were amazed at how challenging the teaching of Christ was. First century Palestine was certainly a conservative Jewish society. However there was a highly sexualized occupying power namely the Romans. For example, our Christmas Day was Roman Saturnalia, the worship of the pagan God Saturn, a time of unlimited sexual activity! Also sexual unfaithfulness was not unheard of. Consequently there were “innocent” victims around. Perhaps the best proof of this is the (false) claim of Celsus (a Roman historian) that Jesus was not born from a Virgin but was actually an illegitimate child of a certain Roman soldier named Panthera. Mary was then justly turned out by her “innocent” husband Joseph because she was convicted of unfaithfulness in marriage. The existence of such claims implies they were credible i.e. these things were going in society. Indeed other ancient writings say that the Jewish authorities told Pontius Pilate a lie at the trial of Jesus, that Jesus was an illegitimate child of an unfaithful mother because children born illegitimately were considered (unjustly) to be of bad stock and thus more likely to be a criminal.

But Christ came into the world to provide us with the example of true love, the example of a heart truly orientated towards good and the means to do good by giving supernatural power to the married couple to fulfill their vows irrespective of the price. This is what we mean by the Sacrament of Marriage - a sign strengthened by God. Jesus said men and women are equal, neither a man or a woman can ask for a divorce and the right to re-marry, that is how God made marriage from the time of the first man and woman.

The price can be very high and for those that fail the test and divorce and re-marry the attitude from those around them should be non-judgmental support and every effort to bring the heart back into line as God wills.

Sometimes to be virtuous (loving good) demands sacrifice. The end can never justify the means. Apart from our duties toward God to use marriage in the way He intended, there is one other very good reason that even those who do not share a belief in God can understand. In anything that we do if we are really interested in justice we should try to protect the common good. The common good is that situation that protects the rights of the most vulnerable in society over and above our own rights. If a society accepts the principle that marriage can be dissolved and a second, third, fourth (etc…) marriage entered into then serious threats to the common good ensue. We have a society where children are left completely confused about the role of parents and the cycle of marital instability, with all the unhappiness that entails, passes from one generation to the next. It is reasonable to expect adults who really want to love those around them to set an example for others to follow. Sadly separation may at times be necessary as the best option available at the time; but not remarriage.

What are the marriage vows?

The marriage vows are the promises made by the couple getting married. Given the misunderstanding of the rather old and imprecise English they need a bit of explanation. Many people would like to see for example rather than “for better or worse…..sickness and in health……forsaking all others….etc etc” a clearer set of questions so as the couple truly understand what they are agreeing to.

It is possible that a couple could be carried away by the combination of the excitement of the day, poor pre-marital instruction and a culture that leads to confusion about what is marriage so that the words are not truly understood. Indeed this is the basis of many cases of Annulment where the Church judges what the couple believed was marriage at the time of the ceremony was not actually a marriage in reality.

For example if “forsaking all others” meant to the husband or the wife at the time of taking the vows “a fling, a thing or a swing may be ok” then no true vow of permanence was actually taken so no marriage.

 Fundamentally there are thirteen promises which are things written in our hearts as something good, just like air, food and water. We were made to love marriage! Ask yourself and your boyfriend/girlfriend the thirteen questions. If you say No to any of them then Christian marriage is not for you at the moment! To demonstrate just how fundamental marriage is to our nature the answer “No” to the questions is written in the question and answer table below as a means to demonstrate just how preposterous it is.


1. Do you want him/her to be with you forever?

Yes, obviously or
No, a few months is fine!

2. Do you want him/her to be intimate with you only?

Yes, obviously or
No, I hope he/she also has other intimate relationships with others as well as with me

3. Do you want him/her to love everything about you?

Yes, obviously or
No, I hope he/she just loves my body!

4. Do you want him/her to freely invite you into a relationship?

Yes, obviously or
No, I hope I am forced into it!

5. Do you want your love for him/her to grow?

Yes, obviously or
No, I hope our love gets less over time!

6. Do you want him/her to be proud to announce to all his/her love for you?

Yes, obviously or
No, I hope he/she loves me only in private

7. Do you want him/her to desire to see children coming into the world as a living sign of your love?

Yes, obviously or
No, I hope he/she does not want to see any children born from our sexual union

8. Do you want him/her to be willing and able to express love for you in sex?

Yes, obviously or
No, I hope he/she is unwilling to have sex with me and/or is unable to have sex with me

9. Do you want him/her to love you even when you fail to love as you should?

Yes, obviously or
No, I hope he/she leaves me when I mess up

10. Do you want him/her to love you even when life is not going well?

Yes, obviously or
No, I hope our love is conditional upon life going well with money, health and work

11. Do you want him/her to ask God to bless your relationship?

Yes, obviously or
No, I hope God stays out of the
important areas of my life

12. Do you want him/her to be the opposite sex?

Yes, obviously or
No, I hope he/she is the same sex as me

13. Do you want just one spouse?

Yes, obviously or
No, I would like more than 2 people in our marriage!



1. Do you want him/her to be with you forever?

(No divorce and remarriage)

2. Do you want him/her to be intimate with you only?

(No adultery)

3. Do you want him/her to love everything about you?

(Love all of me not just my body)

4. Do you want him/her to freely invite you into a relationship?

(My choice)

5. Do you want your love for him/her to grow?

(Love that grows)

6. Do you want him/her to be proud to announce to all his/her love for you?

(Love for all the world to hear about)

7. Do you want him/her to desire to see children coming into the world as a living sign of your love?

(Have children with you)

8. Do you want him/her to be willing and able to express love for you in sex?

(To have sex with you)

9. Do you want him/her to love you even when you fail to love as you should?

(Pardon and repair the harm)

10. Do you want him/her to love you even when life is not going well?

(No strings attached)

11. Do you want him/her to ask God to bless your relationship?

(You, me and God working

12. Do you want him/her to be the opposite sex?

( Man and Woman)

13. Do you want just one spouse?

(Union of two people)


What is wrong with living together/moving-in?

Both long-term cohabitation and a period of “moving in” prior to marriage have their problems!

Firstly, there is a commonly held belief that "living together" or "trial marriages" or “moving in” or “cohabitation” prior to marriage is a good idea. The argument goes "we will live together, avoid having children by using contraception and if we are happy then we will get married; by doing this our marriage will be more stable, divorce will be less likely and therefore our children will stand a better chance of growing up in a home with loving parents." Sounds sensible? Now consider the evidence (be scientific!).

The evidence stretching back as far as about twenty years is that marriages with children following a period where the couple "live together" are twice as likely to end in divorce by the time children are 16 years old compared to those who did not "live together". What is more the scientists who studied these trends were very careful to ensure that there were no so called confounding factors (other reasons) to explain these findings like different social classes or cultural backgrounds. (Source: Premarital cohabitation and the probability of subsequent divorce: Analysis using data from the General Household Survey, John Haskey, Population Trends 68: OPCS, HMSO, London 1992.)

More recently the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study data set, Understanding Society, published by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex 2009 allows for a more complete, accurate and nuanced analysis of cohabitation trends in the UK over the last 30 years – something that is vital for a well-informed discussion about the subject.

The findings are that those who cohabit are still more prone to divorce than those that do not live together but the available evidence says there is less difference in outcomes between those couples who live together before marriage and those that do not as the years go on.

This may sound like evolving scientific proof that as living together becomes more common and acceptable marriage with no “moving-in” is no longer the better choice.

But actually this is scientific nonsense. The fact that marriage with or without a “move-in” period is becoming equally unstable is just a reflection of the undermining of the marriage commitment or a weakening of the understanding of what marriage really is.

The fact that more and more couples choose to “move-in” and “move-in” for longer prior to marriage is not strengthening the stability of their relationships it is just undermining the relationships of those who marry without moving in first. This is because such behaviour causes a culture of acceptance of separation, be it premarriage splitting up or post-marriage divorce.

This is what is happening. Human beings are social animals and we are all influenced in one way or another by the behaviour of those around us. For example, nobody disputes that the stigma of divorce or “living in sin” has almost disappeared from our society. These actions are just part of life and the consequences for the couple themselves (the pain of separation), society as a whole such as massive welfare payments or most importantly the well documented detrimental effects on any children involved in the separation are conveniently disregarded.

Is being anti moving-in right wing extremist?

Just to make it very clear, these statistics are not just the belief of right-wing people listening to the Socialists!! Even as long ago as 1988 after only 20 or so years of the sexual revolution Professor A H Halsey Professor of Social Policy at Oxford University and co-author of English Ethical Socialism, 1988 said: "No one can deny that divorce, separation, birth outside marriage and one-parent families as well as cohabitation and extra-marital sexual intercourse have increased rapidly. Many applaud these freedoms. But what should be universally acknowledged is that the children of parents who do not follow the traditional norm (i.e. taking on personal, active and long-term responsibility for the social upbringing of the children they generate) are thereby disadvantaged in many major aspects of their chances of living a successful life. On the evidence available, such children tend to die earlier, to have more illness, to do less well at school, to exist at a lower level of nutrition, comfort and conviviality, to suffer more unemployment, to be more prone to deviance and crime, and finally to repeat the cycle of unstable parenting from which they themselves have suffered... The evidence all points in the same direction, is formidable, and tallies with common sense." That was 30 years ago and it is clear to us all the same is true today but sadly on an even greater scale.

Why does living together increase the chance of separation over the long-term?

It may be related to the nature of love within the two relationships. It is actually impossible to have such a thing as a trial marriage because living together and marriage are actually at two opposite ends of the relationship spectrum. One is a relationship based on conditions: "conditional love" i.e. I love you and we will stay together if we are happy, we have enough money, if I still find you physically attractive or whatever the conditions are; marriage on the other hand is a relationship free of conditions: "unconditional love" i.e. come what may I will love you. To jump from one extreme of the relationship spectrum to another without the "get out clause" may be just too much for some to cope with. If you are contemplating marriage and you are living together, even if you forget about the religious reasons, do you yourself a favour, look at the evidence and move out, so that you can have time apart to safeguard your future happiness.

If one truly loves another person surely it is reasonable for the couple to shout it out publicly for all to hear “Come what may, I will love you and our children.” In simple terms that is what the Church means by a marriage celebration. (For Catholics to be sincere it has to be shouted in front of a nominated representative of the Church i.e. a priest or a deacon because it is the belief of Catholics that three get married the woman, the man and God.)

Leaving aside our obligations towards God, for those who refuse to shout it loud and shout it proud there is a serious and real risk of deception. Many women and children believe they have a man who will be there come what may, even if problems come along, only to find that this is not what he meant by the word love. Those who believe that they are loved (and the children that may come along) deserve to know this is true love; a public announcement of this commitment goes some considerable way to safeguard their trust

But what is the difference between marriage and long-term partnership?

There is a very important point to be made about couples who live together as a long-term option. There are many such couples who are the victims of a culture that really convinces them to say what is the big difference anyway between marriage and long term partnership and this is very understandable.

This is because we live in a society which does not see marriage in the same terms as the Church. Marriage in society generally is not necessarily for life, i.e. if things get “too worse, too sick, too poor” I will leave you. Therefore modern marriage which can easily be dissolved through divorce does appear similar to a long-term relationship that you can just walk away from when it gets too tough.

But marriage in the Catholic Church means I will love you – no matter how hard it gets, no matter “how worse, how sick or how poor you may be”. The Church knows that it is in our nature to want to be loved, not just when we are good, young, beautiful, fit, rich, but even more when we mess up, when we lose our looks, age, have major issues with finances and work. As human persons we need “unconditional love” to flourish. If we want it, if we expect it, we also have to be prepared to give it and all of this is what is required of a Catholic marriage

Why does living together increase the chance of separation over the long-term?

Child abuse sadly occurs in all areas of society including seemingly happily married couples. But it does have well defined risk factors making children much more likely to suffer this appalling crime.

One of the largest reports on the subject of child abuse risk factors was published in the USA in 2010. The National Incidence Study of Abuse and Neglect, which examined all reported incidences of abuse and neglect to children found that maltreatment rates differed profoundly according to family structure. Children living with their married biological parents had the lowest rate of abuse and neglect, whereas those living with a single parent who had a partner living in the household had the highest rate.

Compared to children living with married biological parents, those whose single parent had a live-in partner were 10 times more likely to experience abuse and 8 times more likely to experience neglect (Sedlak AJ, Mettenburg J, Basena M, et al. Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4): Report to Congress. 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families)

If our society really put the needs of children first then “live-in” partners would carry an immense stigma and be discouraged in every reasonable way possible.

Isn’t marriage just out of date?

Over the last 50 years with the onset of the Sexual Revolution marriage started to be presented as a less brave or exciting way of living than the much more adventurous alternatives. Marriage, indeed, came to be seen as being for tradition-bound people who had not succeeded in ‘breaking free’ from the constraints that traditional society had put on them. Marriage was a crutch for people who needed one; the bold needed no such ‘artificial’ supports. If a relationship was strong, it would support itself. If it was weak, then no ‘structure’ could or should save it. But this judgement has been shown clearly to be wrong. Marriage actually gives us a stability that we all need to make our most important relationship work long-term. Marriage has a much, much, better record than co-habitation.

Isn’t living together easier to get out of when things go wrong?

Is it? Somehow, in the public view, the ‘freedom’ of just living together is an advantage. If it doesn’t work, you can opt out, without all the pain of an actual divorce. However, in practice, is the pain of splitting up really so greatly lessened? Does the sense of rejection or abandonment really cut less deep? And what of the cumulative sense of failure that comes from having had a number of relationships that ended badly?

What marriage obviously does is that it sets the bar higher; it makes the step of marrying a major step to take. It calls for a clear decision. And that is the point: we actually get to decide. There is an institution, which is public and which is ‘for life’, and which requires perhaps the highest quality decision of our life.

And the problem with the alternatives is that, because the bar is set so much lower, it is too easy to drift in and out, avoiding real decisions. If the consequences of failure really were minor, then a “try it and see” attitude might make sense. But in fact huge hurt comes from intimacy broken and rejected. Marriage alone provides a safe context for intimacy so that you can let your heart lead you without fear of being wounded in the process. Commitment is safety. Without that safe context, we are potentially setting ourselves (and our partners) up for a fall. A series of falls can sadly very easily lead to bitterness and depression.

The institution that enshrines commitment is marriage. It makes you legally one; it makes your children legally the offspring of that secure partnership; and it is a public declaration, to be honoured by all people, that these two people are no longer available for anyone else.

If marriage is so great why are so many living together instead?

One of the big factors here is fear of failure, which has been fanned by the experience of family breakdown over the last two generations. In particular, those who have witnessed the breakdown of their parents’ relationship will often carry a wound, which creates a deep nervousness about committing.

Others will be influenced by the family breakdown they have seen amongst their circle of friends or within their extended family. Because family breakdown is so commonplace, the fear will have joined with the reality to make us doubly anxious.

What is required here is a cultural shift. Our contemporary culture has done us all a great disservice by taking the problem of unstable relationships, which is real, and compounding it by making marriage – the best answer to that instability – unfashionable. The truth of the issue needs to be exposed and highlighted, again and again. Free though we will remain to make our choices, it is imperative that our choices should be made with full understanding.

What is the big difference between a cohabiting couple that have lived together happily for twenty years and intend to stay together vs. a married couple of twenty years (apart from a £20,000 bill for the wedding)?

Whilst both the twenty year married couple and twenty year living together couple can legitimately lay some claim to the “right” of acknowledgement that they love each other, only the married couple can legitimately claim that they have fulfilled their “responsibility” to protect their love for each other and their children to the maximum and set a standard so that other young lovers and children in our society can be protected as well.

So is a pre-nup an answer?

pRENUPThe honest answer to the question about pre-nups is that in any society that does not uphold in its civil law the indissolubility of marriage (no splitting up) then a ceremony that says we will stay together but with the following strings attached is possibly at best a step in the right direction (more commitment than previously), sometimes a legitimate confusion on the part of the couple who have had a false description of marriage sold to them and occasionally I guess frank hypocrisy. Pre-nups do not happen in the Catholic Church - women and men deserve better!

So shall I just jump into marriage?

NO, you need a Marriage Prep Card and talk through the M and M’s with your prospective spouse before you get married!