Rorate Caeli

Catholic Teaching on Marriage and Divorce - the Bible, Our Lord, and the Constant Teaching, simple and to the point

Catholic teaching on marriage – theological background

a guest-post by John Lamont

The subject of Catholic marriage is now being hotly debated at the current session of the Synod on the Family. It is thus helpful to have available an account of the essentials of Scriptural teaching on this subject, which this article will attempt to provide.

The starting point for this account is the text of Deuteronomy 24;1-4:

If a man take a wife, and have her, and she find not favour in his eyes, for some uncleanness: he shall write a bill of divorce, and shall give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed, and marrieth another husband, and he also hateth her, and hath given her a bill of divorce, and hath sent her out of his house or is dead: the former husband cannot take her again to wife: because she is defiled, and is become abominable before the Lord: lest thou cause thy land to sin, which the Lord thy God shall give thee to possess.

This text is the basis of Jewish law on marriage and divorce. It does not explain or justify divorce, but assumes its existence as a social practice. It permits husbands, not wives, to initiate divorce, and requires the husband to possess a reason for the divorce. The Hebrew term ‘erwâ dabar’, which means ‘uncleanness’ or ‘something that causes shame’, does not have a precise meaning. Its interpretation was the basis of disputes among rabbis about the nature of the grounds needed for divorce. Around the time of Christ, three views on this subject were current among Jews. The school of Shammai, generally laxist on questions of observance of the law, was in this case stricter; it held that only adultery (or perhaps sexual immorality more generally) could justify divorce. The school of Hillel, generally rigorist, was in this case laxist; it held that almost any cause – such as the wife’s burning a meal – could serve as grounds for divorce. The Jewish community at Qumran, which was linked to the rigorist Essenes, held that remarriage in the life of a man’s wife was forbidden. In the ‘Temple Scroll’, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls produced by that community, we find this passage:

LXVI ... 1 5... and he shall not take a wife from the daughters of the nations, but from his father’s house he shall take unto himself a wife, from the family of his father. And he shall not take upon her another wife, for she alone shall be with him all the days of her life. But should she die, he may take unto himself another (wife) from the home of his father, from his family.

Roman law on divorce at the time of Christ is worth describing to provide some context for Christ’s teaching. Divorce in Roman law was an act of the couple concerned, not of the state. Two forms of divorce were admitted; divorce by mutual consent, communi consensu, with no claim of fault, and repudiation on the grounds of fault. The law described the faults which justified this latter form of divorce. The relevant faults were more numerous for the husband than for the wife, but it was possible for the wife to initiate a divorce on the grounds of fault in a limited number of cases. For some of the graver categories of fault, the law not only permitted but required divorce. The Lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis, promulgated by the emperor Augustus in 18 B.C., required a husband who found his wife to be guilty of adultery to denounce her to the magistrate and divorce her. Failure to do this made the husband guilty of lenocinium, a crime punishable by death.

The debates between Jewish schools provide the context for Christ’s words on the subject of marriage and divorce. These words are the following:

Luke 16:18.
Every one that putteth away his wife and marrieth another committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.

Mark 10:2-12.
And the Pharisees coming to him asked him, tempting him: Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? But he answering, saith to them: What did Moses command you? Who said: Moses permitted to write a bill of divorce and to put her away. To whom Jesus answering, said: Because of the hardness of your heart, he wrote you that precept. But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. For this cause, a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife. And they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. And in the house again his disciples asked him concerning the same thing. And he saith to them: Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another committeth adultery against her. And if the wife shall put away her husband and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

Matthew 5:31-2.
And it hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, excepting the cause of fornication, maketh her to commit adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery.

Matthew 19:2-12.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" He said to them, "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery." The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry." But he said to them, "Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it."

St. Paul repeats this teaching of Christ’s in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11:

To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband) --and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

The liberal and skeptical biblical critic E. P. Sanders describes these statements on divorce as the best-attested teaching of Christ in the Gospels. He considers it to be historically established that Jesus simply forbade divorce, with no exceptions. He notes that ‘in forbidding divorce, Jesus did not directly defy the Mosaic law. It is a general principle that greater stringency than the law requires is not illegal. … In the New Testament passages, Jesus forbids divorce. He cannot be said here to be refusing to deal with the law as statute. In fact, it seems that he introduces a statute where there was none: he forbids divorce.’ Sanders comes to this conclusion on the basis of purely secular historical reasoning, that refuses to admit theological or ecclesiastical considerations as grounds for historical conclusions.

We should distinguish between the doctrine about marriage that the Church has taught on the basis of these texts and the precise interpretation of them. On the basis of Christ’s words, the Church has infallibly taught that a consummated sacramental marriage between Christians cannot be dissolved except by the death of one of the spouses. This infallible teaching is found in the universal teaching of Catholic bishops and in the twenty-fourth session of the council of Trent, which teaches:

Canon 5.-If any one saith, that on account of heresy, or irksome cohabitation, or the affected absence of one of the parties, the bond of matrimony may be dissolved; let him be anathema.
Canon 7.-If any one saith, that the Church has erred, in that she hath taught, and doth teach, in accordance with the evangelical and apostolical doctrine, that the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of one of the married parties; and that both, or even the innocent one who gave not occasion to the adultery, cannot contract another marriage, during the life-time of the other; and, that he is guilty of adultery, who, having put away the adulteress, shall take another wife, as also she, who, having put away the adulterer, shall take another husband; let him be anathema.

The question of interpretation turns on the term ‘adultery’ in the texts of Matthew. This word translates the Greek term ‘porneia’ (porneia), which in fact is not the Greek word for adultery, but is a general term meaning some sort of sexual immorality. The first Protestants claimed that this term was meant by Christ as a real exception to the forbidding of divorce, and hence that divorce could in fact be permitted in cases covered by this exception. This interpretation is however implausible, for the following reasons:

- Teachings absolutely forbidding divorce are to be found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul, but the clause on ‘porneia’ is only to be found in Matthew. Reading this clause as giving a grounds for divorce requires holding the Matthew contradicts the other Scriptural texts. This is incredible both theologically and in secular historical terms.

- It does not explain why the Pharisees are described as putting Jesus to the test in Matt. 19; according to this interpretation, Christ expresses a view that is legitimate for one of their schools.

- It does not explain the shock of the disciple in Matt. 19:10. Their dismay would be exaggerated if Christ was simply repeating the position of the school of Shammai.

- It does not explain Christ’s statement about eunuchs, which would be difficult to account for if there was a real possibility of divorce.

- Elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew (5:31-2, 19:3-12 and other texts), the noun ‘moicheia’ (moiceia) is used for adultery, and the verb ‘moicheio’ (moiceuw) is used for the action of committing adultery. Why would Matthew use a different word for adultery in this text?

- All the other antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount reject the positions of Pharisees on the Law. It is implausible that Matthew 5:32 would be an exception, upholding the view of a Pharisaical school.

Two different explanations of the seeming exception have been given by Catholic exegetes. One older interpretation, given by Sts. Jerome and Augustine, holds that it gives adultery as a grounds not for dissolution of a marriage but for separation from bed and board. A more recent interpretation, advanced by J. Bonsirven and J. Meier, holds that the word ‘porneia’ in Matthew refers to marriages to close relatives within the prohibited degrees of affinity. Such marriages were common among Gentiles in the Eastern Mediterranean, and were likely to have been contracted by Gentiles prior to their conversion to Christianity. The New Testament forbade these marriages in Acts 15:29 and 1 Cor. 5:1. Both these texts use the term ‘porneia’ to describe such marriages. The use of this term in the discussions of divorce in Matthew would thus mean that marriages within the prohibited degrees of affinity are not subject to Christ’s prohibition of divorce. This interpretation seems to be the best one; of course accepting it does not mean rejecting the teaching that adultery is grounds for separation from bed and board, a separation alluded to in 1 Cor. 7:10-11.

There are three points to take away from this discussion. The first is of course that Catholic doctrine on marriage and divorce was taught directly by Christ himself, and it cannot be repudiated in theory or in practice without rejecting Christ and his teaching. The second is that the current debate does not capture Christ’s teaching. He did not say ‘Do not divorce and then remarry’; he said ‘Do not get divorced’. His statements about ‘remarriage’ after divorce were intended to explain and expand on this teaching; they were not the core of the teaching itself. The third thing is that this teaching is established not only by Catholic tradition, but also by secular historical studies. If we reject it, we not only reject the doctrinal authority of the Catholic Church, as the first Protestants did; we have to reject the personal authority of Christ’s words while on earth. This in turn means rejecting the Incarnation, and holding that Christ was a merely human 1st century rabbi, whose teaching was often new and inspiring but was not of divine origin and did not have divine authority. This is in fact what most of the bishops and theologians who are attempting to overturn Catholic theology of marriage at the Synod do believe. This rejection of the divinity of Christ is not new to those acquainted with modern Catholic theology, but it is not realized by the broader Catholic faithful, and is not acknowledged and addressed by the Roman authorities who should be correcting it. This failure to acknowledge disbelief in Christ’s divinity did not begin with Pope Francis; it was the policy under Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We are now paying part of the price for this policy at the Synod on the Family.
Yigael Yadin ed., The Temple Scroll (Israel Exploration Society: Jerusalem, 1983), vol. II, p. 258.
E. P Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985) pp. 256-260.
Sanders (1985), pp. 256, 257.
Joseph Bonsirven S.J., Le divorce dans le nouveau testament (Tournai: Desclée & cie, 1948).
John P. Meier, The Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church and Morality in the First Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 1991).