On Matrimony – Part 17 (The Bible and Catholic Teaching on Divorce)

Part 17

Where can one find the Catholic teaching against divorce? Is it Biblical or not? Has the Catholic Church strayed? Does she place burdens and not carry them? Is she Pharisaical? She is not. She is the Lord’s truthful servant. The teaching is Biblical. It is also the constant Tradition. It is the Word of our Lord.

Jesus teaches, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Mt 5:31f).

Here we see Jesus proscribe divorce. His words are the source of Tradition and Scripture, and the Catholic Church takes them at face value.

Some will however raise a question: “Didn’t Jesus make an exception… unchastity?” Good question.

The Catholic response to that question is as follows:

First, we must see that Jesus’ work was to restore marriage to its original state. About that state, Jesus declares that “The two are made one.” He adds in consequence, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” categorically (Mt 19:6). The first state involved a joining by God, and no man can break what God joined. The exceptions allowed under Mosaic Law were granted on account of human sinfulness, human weakness in the face of the great demand entailed in the bond. But Jesus came with “grace and truth” (Jn 1:17); therefore, I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Phil 4:13).

Second, in the context of this passage (Mt 5:31f), Jesus is overturning the Mosaic permission, just as he is Promulgating a Divine Law more exacting than the Mosaic Law. Thus, the “stress” of this passage is on the proscription of divorce.

Third, note that in every passage in which this “exception” clause occurs, Jesus immediately follows with an absolute proscription of marrying a divorced woman. “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” This is a blanket proscription. It is in contrast to Deut 24:1-4, in which a man may marry a divorced woman. Jesus prohibits anyone marrying a “divorced” woman. Why? Because it would be adultery! That means that “divorce” is a pure fiction if by divorce you mean the “breaking of what God has joined.” Luke discloses even more of Jesus words: “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Lk 16:18). Once again, if I commit adultery by getting married after being “divorced,” then I must still be married. Divorce is pure fiction. See also Mk 10:11-12; Mt 19:9; and 1 Cor 7:10-11. Observe that Mk unpacks the implication: “And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:12). Mark’s unpacking of this implication is crucial because of the Roman Law which allowed a woman to file for divorce. Mark had a Roman audience in mind.

Fourth, observe that in some of these texts just referenced there is no mention of an exception clause. See, e.g., Mk 10:11-12 and 1 Cor 7:10-11. See also Rom 7:1-3. Paul is categorical that the bond of marriage, and the legal obligations it entails, last for either spouse until the death of the other spouse (Rom 7:1-3).

This raises the question, “What did Jesus mean by this ‘exception’”? I will treat that tomorrow.