Friday, April 23, 2010

No Divorce ... Unless?

What did Jesus mean when he said that a couple could not get a divorce, “except in the case of unchastity” (Mt 5:32; 19:9)?

This is a difficult passage at first, considering that the Church has always taught that a marriage entered into lawfully is indissoluble, or cannot be broken. But, we should not let difficult passages in Scripture sow doubt within us regarding the truth of Catholic teaching. Invariably, the error is not in what the Church teaches or in what Scripture says but in our own understanding.

In this case, the key to solving this riddle is in the meaning of the Greek word porneia, which the RSV translates as “unchastity.” What type of act does Jesus actually have in mind here that would allow a couple to no longer be married? Porneia is sort of a “catch-all” word that can be used to refer to many different kinds of illicit sexual unions: adultery, incest, sodomy, fornication, bestiality. However, it can also be used to refer to an unlawful marriage. In other words, only when a marriage was never lawfully entered into in the first place are the two individuals free to marry someone else. Jews considered a marriage to be unlawful if the two persons involved were too closely related by blood, or if one of them was a Gentile.

This is the only meaning that reconciles Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel with what He and the Apostles say elsewhere about divorce. In every other passage, their prohibition against divorce is absolute. They admit no exceptions. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”

St. Paul says:
“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. [. . .] A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” (1 Cor 7:10-11, 39)
The model for marriage is always the relationship of Adam and Eve before the fall. Jesus says:
“For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8).

“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 no man put asunder" (Mt 19:4-6).
That is the teaching of Christ and of the Church. Of course, at this point, further questions are usually raised: What if one of the spouses is abusive, or commits adultery? Am I really called to stay with such a person?

I invite correction on this point, but as I understand it, in extreme cases such as these, one is allowed (and perhaps, with the case of abuse, even encouraged) to separate, or move out, or what have you. No one is asking a woman to sit back and get pounded in the face her whole life. Seek the help and the safety you need. But, as far as the Church is concerned, there's no such thing as a "divorce", in which two people, lawfully married, suddenly become "not married." Once married, always married. That's the teaching of Jesus Christ and the Church.

So, you can call a lawyer, file the papers, and get a "divorce" but it is only in the eyes of the state that you would be free to marry someone else. In the eyes of Christ and of the Church, you are still married, and if you marry someone else you commit adultery. The only time you cease to be married is when your spouse dies, or when it is discovered, through the annulment process, that the Sacrament of Matrimony was not lawfully received.

I realize that this sounds harsh, I really do. But, the Church is not so willing to give up on marriage as the world so often is. Even something like infidelity can be overcome through hard work and a renewed commitment to what you promised to each other when you stood before God and the Christian community and you promised yourselves to each other forever. It is no small thing to make such a promise. We should FIGHT for our marriages, and never let them go.

I hope that helps.

Pax Christi,


Nick said...

I recently wrote a short article that really gets to the heart of this and removes any potential objections using an air tight Scriptural case.

phatcatholic said...

Well done, Nick! Thanks!

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