When I read today’s gospel passage from Mark (10:2-16), I can’t help but think back on the years of ministry in which I have been engaged. Specifically, I can’t help but think about all the people I have encountered who have approached me for help in securing an annulment. Most of those people shared stories of very difficult struggles in their marriages which ultimately led to divorce. Some were non-Catholics who had divorced and were planning on marrying a Catholic. Some were people who were divorced and who were looking to set everything “right,” so to speak, as they were looking to become Catholic. Some were born and raised Catholic. I’m happy to be able to say that I can’t remember all these people individually, because their numbers have been great, yet I was able to help virtually all of them in their respective needs. In all this time, I have always worked to uphold the Church’s understanding of the Sacrament of Marriage, while working with individuals and couples to arrive at a place of peace and resolution for themselves within the context of our faith.
I’m struck by today’s gospel with how Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees who are intent on catching him out with legal questions. They were champions of the law. But they could have learned something from Church law as we have it today, based on the disposition of Jesus himself. In the last canon of the Code of Canon Law we find a principle articulated: “Curae animarum, suprema lex,” or “care (salvation) of souls is the supreme law.” Put another way, the law is intended to serve the good of God’s people. In another dispute where the Pharisees had tried to catch Jesus up, recounted earlier in Mark’s gospel (2:27), Jesus reminds them and us, that “the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The point that Jesus makes repeatedly, when confronting the challenges of the Pharisees, is that the dignity of the human person comes first. It is the fundamental principle upon which all other principles are constructed. His reference to the Genesis narrative where he quotes, “God made them male and female,” serves to remind us that we are fashioned in the image and likeness of God’s own self, and it is from this truth that our dignity as persons is derived and unequivocally established.
Jesus goes way beyond the immediate legal question the Pharisees are using to trip him up. He sees through their dissembling, and speaks to the radical equality of men and women. In an age where women were seen as little more than property of the man, it can be difficult for our modern minds to grasp Jesus’ response as one that reveals a commitment to the radical equality of men and women in the world, grounded in their God-given, fundamental dignity. When questioned about his stance by his disciples in private later, Jesus doubles down on the original and radical equality of men and women. He is committed wholeheartedly to the biblical understanding of the dignity of the human person, a dignity that cannot be superseded by circumstance or exigency.
It is this very principle of the dignity of the human person that is set as the bedrock of so much of the Church’s teaching concerning the human person. In this month of October, traditionally one in which we Catholics lift up and celebrate the sanctity of life, getting in touch again with this principle is vital. Our understanding of the dignity of the person underpins our approach to abortion, capital punishment, immigration, the dignity of human labor and work, and so many areas of what we collectively refer to as Catholic Social Teaching. The Gospel of Jesus calls us to understand that no life, neither before birth nor after birth, is dispensable. All people, whether unborn, a child, disgruntled spouse, a refugee, even a criminal, all people bear the divine image, and as such have a dignity all believers are called upon to uphold and respect.