By John S. Grabowski, Ph.D.
The issue of divorce and remarriage has a long and somewhat complicated history in the Bible. Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 allows a man to divorce his wife if he “finds in her something indecent” (Dt. 24: 1c).
Some of the prophets linked this open-ended permission to infidelity in marriage (e.g., Hos. 1-4; Ez. 16, 23), while others flatly rejected it (cf. Mal. 2:14-16). In Jesus’ own day Rabbis continued to debate the text with some restricting divorce to cases of infidelity (the school of Shammai), while others (such as the followers of Rabbi Hillel) allowed divorce for much more trivial reasons (such as a wife’s inability to cook).
The NT adds further complexity with multiple versions of Jesus’ teaching on the subject, all of which have been subjected to highly technical debates over their translation, context, and meaning by scholars. This complexity leads some people to conclude that the NT offers little helpful guidance for the matter in our own rather different cultural context. Still others find in the NT texts a pattern of adaptation by early Christian communities so that the exceptions become the rule and Jesus’ teaching on the permanence of marriage must always be adapted to new historical situations and circumstances.
But these conclusions are premature. A close look reveals that the NT offers a consistent, although not totally uncomplicated, teaching on the question of divorce which serves as the foundation for the current teaching and practice of the Church.
The oldest NT text dealing with the issue is found in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (written c. 55 A.D.). In a brief statement in Chapter 7 (verses 10-11) Paul discourages separation (christhenai) and forbids divorce (aphienai) on the basis of the teaching of Jesus that will later be recorded in the Gospels. He then deals with a new situation which had emerged in the community not treated by Jesus’ teaching – what to do if one spouse had converted to Christianity and the other had not (7:12-16). Paul addresses this new case on the basis of his own authority as an apostle, allowing the unbelieving spouse to separate if he or she could not live with the believer in peace. It is not clear whether the believing spouse could then remarry. Written some ten years later, Mark’s Gospel contains the earliest written version of Jesus’ words on the topic. In response to the Pharisees’ challenge, Jesus rejects the teaching of Deuteronomy 24 as a concession to human “hardheartedness” (sklerokardia) caused by sin (cf. Mk. 10:5). Jesus sees this as a violation of God’s original intention for marriage disclosed in the
Genesis creation accounts which he now prophetically restates. When questioned about this teaching by his disciples, Jesus goes even further, equating divorce and remarriage with adultery(mocheia—cf. Mk. 10:11-12). The fact that Mark also applies this teaching to women divorcing their husbands (10:12), reflects the practice of Roman law (though there were a limited number of cases in which women could initiate divorce in OT law— e.g., Ex. 21:7-11).
The later Synoptic Gospels of Matthew and Luke share a similar short saying of Jesus which again forbids men to divorce their wives and equates remarriage with adultery (cf. Mt. 5:31- 32; Lk. 16:18). The net effect of this rejection of divorce as a largely male prerogative coupled with the NT rejection of the double standard for sexual morality was to elevate the status of women and to open the way for an understanding of marriage as a genuine partnership.
However, both Matthew 5:32 and the longer parallel of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees later in the Gospel (Matthew 19: 1-12), contain what is often taken to be an exception to this strong rejection of divorce in cases of “porneia” (Mt. 5:32d; 19: 9c). The exact translation of the term is the subject of some dispute.
Some translate the word in a way which equates it with some form of sexual infidelity. Hence it is sometimes rendered “adultery” (“marital unfaithfulness” in the NIV), “fornication” (NRSV) or “unchastity” (NASB). But if Matthew meant to name adultery as an exception to this prohibition why did he not use the word mocheia as he does elsewhere in the same verses? Furthermore, how would such a position be any different than that of Hosea,
Ezekiel or the followers of Rabbi Shammai? How would this qualify as a revolutionary restatement of God’s intention for marriage by Jesus whom Matthew portrays as the New Moses?
For these reasons the Catholic scholars who have produced some of the best available English translations of the NT have translated the term as “unlawful marriage” (NAB, Jerusalem Bible) – that is, a marriage between two people too closely related by blood. Such a practice, common in the Gentile world, would have been abhorrent to Jews or Jewish Christians because of the incest taboos of Leviticus 18 which were understood to apply to all people. This is exactly what the term porneia indicates when it is used to forbid such marriage in the letter to
Gentile converts to Christianity in Acts (see Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25). Given that we know Matthew’s Gospel was written for a community of both Jewish and Gentile Christians, this translation fits the Gospel’s context. In this case, these clauses in Matthew are not so much an “exception” to the thrust of
Jesus’ prohibition of divorce, but a recognition that a particular OT law still had binding force for Christians. Thus while the teaching of the NT on divorce and remarriage is not without some complexity, it is not inconsistent or incoherent. Based on this teaching the Church sees the tragedy of divorce as an evil and something contrary to God’s plan for marriage. In fidelity to this teaching the Church holds that it cannot undo a sacramental marriage that is validly concluded and physically consummated (see
Canon 1061). Civil divorce does not undo sacramental marriage, hence the divorced are called to remain unmarried in fidelity to this bond. This is why persons who are divorced and remarried cannot receive the sacraments with the exception of three cases: 1) they are in danger of death; 2) they are living “as brother and sister;” or, 3) they have received an annulment for the previous marriage. Most annulments are declarations that a sacramental marriage never took place between a couple because of some impediment to their consent (e.g., deceit) or situation (e.g., too close of a blood relationship). Those annulment cases in which a marriage is actually dissolved involve natural marriages (marriages where at least one party is not baptized as in 1 Cor. 7) or cases where a marriage is not consummated (and hence not fully sacramental). This is not to ignore the fact that there are many people who find themselves in the painful situation of being divorced and (civilly) remarried. These persons are still members of the Church. They are not excommunicated and can still participate in the Church’s life – albeit not through reception of the sacraments (except in the three cases mentioned above). The Church and its members can certainly do more to support these brothers and sisters, but this support cannot take the form of compromising or ignoring the teaching of Jesus. As Pope Benedict XVI has recently reminded us, Christian charity must always be founded upon and lived in truth (cf. Caritas in veritate, nos. 1-2).
John S. Grabowski, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America.