On Divorce and Remarriage

By: Tom Jensen


"The result of frivolous divorce, will be frivolous marriage." – G.K. Chesterton




In order for a valid marriage to occur, there are three basic requirements: 1) competent parties; 2) sufficient knowledge; and 3) full consent. If one or more of these is missing, a valid marriage doesn't occur even if the ceremony takes place. For example, a drunk man cannot validly take wedding vows because he is not a competent party. That is what the "annulment" process investigates; was there a valid sacramental marriage or not.


If the finding of the Church is that a valid marriage didn't occur due to a particular defect, then the person is free to marry again, although they will certainly have to face the damage done by a broken "marriage."


It may be necessary in a particular circumstance for a couple to separate for the safety and/or well being of one or both persons. Divorce, per se, then is not necessarily a mortal sin as it may be a necessary course of action (although it is certainly damaging to all involved). The problem comes in if one attempts to marry again.


If the first marriage was in fact valid, then it is not possible to dissolve, and the couple is still married until death, even if the situation demands that they separate for the safety and/or well being of one or both persons. Such a person would need to be reconciled to their spouse, or if that is not possible, live contently (see 1 Corinthians 7:10-11).


The reason is that Christ elevated marriage back to its original status before the fall of Adam and Eve (see Matthew 19:8 and Genesis 2:24). Since the "two become one flesh," divorce is not like breaking two people apart, but like tearing one person in half. The New Testament clearly teaches that the dissolution of a valid marriage is not possible (see Luke 16:18; Mark 10:11-12; Matthew 5:32; Romans 7:2-3). In 1 Corinthians 7:10-15, St. Paul addresses the marriage of "unbelievers." Since those who are not baptized cannot have a sacramental (e.g. supernatural) marriage but only a natural marriage, St. Paul is illustrating that a merely natural marriage is dissoluble, but a sacramental one is not. (St. Paul tells us that 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 are "not from me but the Lord," and verses 12-15 are "I say, not the Lord.") In Matthew 5:32, there is the "exception" clause: ". . . everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress . . ." (emphasis mine).


There are some who would argue that this verse allows divorce in the case of adultery or sexual sin, but this is not the case for several reasons:


At the time of Christ, there were two Jewish schools of thought on the subject of divorce: the Hillel and Shammai. The Hillel side argued that divorce could be for any reason; the Shammai side said that it could be only for adultery. So wasn’t Jesus just siding with the Shammai camp? Matthew 19:3 states that the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus into a dilemma. Simply asking which side of the Hillel/Shammai debate he falls on would hardly constitute a dilemma. Furthermore, Matthew 19:10 tells us that Jesus’ words scandalized the disciples such that they remarked that it was better not to marry. Once again, merely siding with the Shammai camp would hardly have caused this type of scandal.


If Jesus was not allowing divorce in the case of adultery, what was he saying? First of all, it must be pointed out that St. Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, is the only one to record the "exception clause." None of the other passages of scripture that deal with this issue record any exception (See scripture references above). Why is Matthew - writing to Jews - the only one to record a provision that would have been more important to convey to the Roman-Greco audience of the other authors? There are several possibilities:

He may be saying that divorcing an adulterous wife is not what makes her adulterous because she is so already. Another possibility is that Jesus is referring to marriages that are not possible to begin with due to an insurmountable defect like incest. In Matthew 19:9, Jesus uses the word "Porneia," which has a broader range of meaning than "Moicheia," which means adultery. In other words, he says, "Whoever divorces his wife, except for porneia, commits moicheia." If He was giving an exception for adultery, He could have used the more specific "moicheia" instead of porneia. It is argued by some that porneia here refers to incest and is used by St. Matthew to inform those who may be converting to Judaism/Christianity that they are obligated to discontinue marriage arrangements contrary to Jewish law in Levitians 17-18. This argument seems to be supported by the fact that porneia is used to refer to incest in 1 Corinthians 15:11.


The argument that I personally find most appealing is that the exception clause in Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:9, is offered by Matthew as a justification of Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary quietly (Matthew 1:18-20). But this is again affirming that marriage is indissoluble unless a valid marriage never really occurred in the first place. In the culture that St. Matthew is addressing, the custom was to be "betrothed" (married) before living together and consummating the marriage by sexual intercourse (see Matthew 1:18-20). In the time before the sexual consummation of the marriage, it could be dissolved because it hadn't actually taken place yet (Sexual intercourse is the point at which the marriage takes place).


Aside from all of the above arguments, there is a further argument from the point of view of simple practicality. If it were true, as some Protestant exegetes claim, that Jesus is allowing for divorce after adultery, then that would lead to some very strange church discipline. Anyone wanting out of a marriage could do so on the technicality of having to commit adultery first. They could always assure themselves of forgiveness later and could thereby rationalize following their whims and desires. Certainly the Church ought to defend marriage, not rationalize ways to undercut it!


As Chesterton said, we must expect a soldier in battle to keep his vow at the very time it is least convenient to do so.


Printed with permission from Catholic Defense.

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December 21, 2014


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Mt 21:23-27


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