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Marriage and Divorce in the Teaching of Jesus

CATHOLIC: Any thoughtful person today has to be concerned about the state of marriage in our country and in the Western world at large. Marriage seems to be on the rocks, and it’s not clear what the future holds.

OBJECTOR: I agree. We need more stable families to buttress the foundations of society. Divorce has become too easy to obtain, and it’s having detrimental effects on our world. We ought to return to an earlier state in our country when divorce could be obtained only for adultery.

CATHOLIC: That would be an improvement over the no-fault divorce we have today, but I am curious as to why you mention adultery as a legitimate reason for divorce. As I understand it, the reasons for a legal divorce could vary from state to state in America. Why have you mentioned adultery as the only valid reason?

OBJECTOR: Because that is specifically mentioned in the Bible. Matthew 5:31–32 states, “It was said, whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you, everyone who divorces his wife—except for fornication—causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 19:9 has it like this: “Whoever divorces his wife except for fornication and marries another woman commits adultery.”

CATHOLIC: If those are the proper translations of those verses, your case for adultery as a legitimate reason for divorce seems clear. I am surprised, though, that you didn’t mention 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul implies that irreconcilable desertion also may be a reason. Some Christians have taken Paul’s words in verse 15 (“If the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound”) to mean that divorce is legitimate in that case, too.

OBJECTOR: I am familiar with those verses, but I think a closer reading of 1 Corinthians 7 will show that Paul is not giving permission for divorce in the case of desertion but is only telling Christians that they are not bound to live with an unbelieving spouse under the adverse conditions he is considering. In any case, I would like to concentrate on the biblical passages having to do with adultery.

CATHOLIC: If you want to focus on the issue of adultery, that’s fine with me. I don’t see Jesus’ words as giving permission to divorce the way you do.

OBJECTOR: But, as you yourself said, these verses are very clear. How could you deny Jesus’ teaching if you really believe the Bible, as Catholics claim?

CATHOLIC: One reason is that, until the time of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Church held with a practical uniformity that a validly enacted marriage could not be dissolved by a civil authority. The early Fathers and medieval teachers of the Church knew these verses in Matthew as well as we do, and yet they did not believe them to be legitimating divorce.

OBJECTOR: Maybe these earlier Christians simply misunderstood Matthew. After all, didn’t you say these verses were clear?

CATHOLIC: Not exactly. I said that the case for adultery as a legitimate reason for divorce is clear if the translations you cited are correct.

OBJECTOR: All the versions I know use the words fornicationsexual immorality, or unchastity.

CATHOLIC: Most Protestant versions of the Bible translate the Greek word porneia with the terms you mentioned. Porneia can mean any kind of sexual immorality. The specific word for “adultery” used in 5:32 and 19:9 is moichaomai when it says, “he commits adultery.” Your interpretation requires thatporneia and moichaomai are synonyms, but I don’t think that is the case.

OBJECTOR: Not really. I recognize that there is a difference in meaning between the Greek words, just as there is a difference between sexual immorality in general and adultery in particular. But in the context of a marriage, any sexual engagement outside the marriage constitutes adultery. In essence, then, Jesus is saying that adultery is a legitimate reason for divorce.

CATHOLIC: The word porneia does mean any kind of sexual immortality in general, but it doesn’t have to be specifically intercourse. It may refer, for example, to sexual perversion associated with pagan worship in the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament.

OBJECTOR: If porneia has such a broad meaning, then the verses would be saying that it is possible to divorce one’s spouse for any kind of sexual misconduct. That goes against what I understand the Catholic Church to teach. Doesn’t the church forbid divorce for any reason whatsoever?

CATHOLIC: It’s more accurate to say that the Church does not recognize a civil divorce as being legitimate. A Catholic couple who divorces in a civil court is still married in the eyes of God and the Church. Marriage is permanent, and the only way to “end a marriage” is through a decree of nullity, which means that the marriage was never valid in the first place.

OBJECTOR: Why should the Church have the power to give this decree of nullity?

CATHOLIC: Scripture gives no reasons at all to end a marriage in divorce, but these verses in Matthew do show reasons that a marriage may be considered invalid.

OBJECTOR: If the Protestant translations of these disputed verses are correct, then there are legitimate reasons for divorce.

CATHOLIC: Let’s look at Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 more closely. These are the only two verses in the New Testament that have an exception clause. Luke 16:18 is an exact parallel except for the missing exception clause. It simply says, “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” In the same way Mark 10:11–12 allows no exception: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

OBJECTOR: Even though these parallel verses don’t have the exception clause as Matthew does, divorce is still biblical if the clause occurs in one text of the New Testament. Here in Matthew, of course, Scripture has it twice.

CATHOLIC: So how do you reconcile Matthew’s exception clause with the lack of such a phrase in Mark and Luke?

OBJECTOR: If we put Mark’s version together with Matthew’s, we come away with this teaching. Mark is stressing the importance of marriage and the wrong of divorce. But Matthew’s version also recognizes the pain of this world we live in, where the ideal of marriage is not always lived up to. In all three Gospel passages, Jesus stresses the importance of fighting to hold a marriage together, but he also allows for divorce in the case where a marriage simply cannot be saved.

CATHOLIC: Catholic teaching and pastoral practice recognizes that there may be cases where a marriage cannot continue in an active way. Sometimes, out of tragic necessity, a civil divorce is the only “solution.” In such cases the Church desires to minister to broken people, and so a divorce does not necessarily prevent a Catholic from receiving Holy Communion. It’s only when Catholics remarry in a civil setting without resolving the issue with the Church that the Eucharist cannot be given to them, because they are living in an objectively adulterous relationship. There may be many reasons that a man and woman cannot continue in an active marriage relationship. The Church requires that such a person not remarry without a full investigation by the Church, which may lead to a declaration of nullity of the marriage. You argue that Jesus singles out sexual immorality as the only reason for divorce. Why does Jesus single out adultery, assuming that your translation is correct?

OBJECTOR: Because adultery is the ultimate betrayal of a marriage. It is the only thing that can break the marriage covenant. The covenant of marriage is built on faithfulness, so marital infidelity is a betrayal of the meaning of marriage. The Catholic view to me is problematic because it does not allow remarriage for any reason. Am I right? If so, that view seems to me to deny the explicit teachings in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.

CATHOLIC: It does not deny these verses at all. The Catholic interpretation sees Matthew as teaching something different. Mark’s and Luke’s versions of Jesus’ words give us the general principle that under the New Covenant the exceptions allowed under the Old Covenant are no longer tolerated, because God’s intention for man and woman “from the beginning” (Matt. 19:8) was a lifelong union. If you examine Matthew 19:3–9 carefully, you will see that Jesus clearly says that under the New Covenant there will be a return to the original creation intention of a lifelong marriage to one person. Mark’s and Luke’s versions confirm this intention.

OBJECTOR: So then how do you see Matthew’s exceptions?

CATHOLIC: The issue behind Matthew’s version is slightly different from that in Mark and Luke. We know that various Jewish rabbis interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1–4 (the main passage in the Old Testament regarding divorce) differently. Matthew’s version reads like a rabbinic dispute when the Pharisees come to test Jesus. They wanted to know where Jesus stood on this issue vis-à-vis other rabbis. Now Deuteronomy 24:1–4 explicitly allowed remarriage after a divorce, so the question facing Jesus was under what conditions remarriage could take place. Read Matthew 19:3–9 carefully, and I think you will see how Jesus goes right back to the beginning of creation. He is reminding his audience (both then and now) that God’s original intention in marriage was lifelong commitment.

OBJECTOR: I can agree that that was God’s intention in creation, but we still live in a fallen world, and Matthew 19:9 is making provision for that. There still can be divorce in the limited case of adultery.

CATHOLIC: It makes more sense to understand Jesus in Matthew as affirming the original intention of lifelong marriage—the overwhelming evidence in the passage points to that interpretation. Then, because we do still live in a fallen world, as you say, where even the most intimate relationship of marriage sometimes fails, verse 9 mentions in passing a circumstance (“except for porneia“) that would allow a marriage to be declared non-existent. In this case, the parties would be allowed to enter into “another” marriage. Porneia, being a general word, may refer to some kind of inherent sexual problem that would constitute a serious impediment to a valid marriage.

OBJECTOR: Well, I don’t see any difference between an annulment and a divorce. In both cases, the parties separate and can remarry.

CATHOLIC: The crucial practical difference is whether “remarriage” is taking place. In your interpretation there is a true remarriage. In this case, Jesus is not really affirming the original ideal of lifelong marriage. According to your reading of Matthew 19:3–9, Jesus only takes us back closer to the original intention. He still is permitting divorce for the case of porneia, which you say is equivalent to adultery. In the Catholic understanding, Jesus actually and truly reaffirms the original intention of the created order. On this reading, the exception clause in Matthew is giving an example of when that original intention was not met and therefore a valid marriage has not taken place. Finally, notice that Jesus never actually says that remarriage is permitted. He says that any second marriage is in fact adultery, provided the first marriage is valid. That’s why the Catholic interpretation is preferable.


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