In today’s world we experience daily the tragedy of divorce and its effects on the family and our culture. With a few rare exceptions among various small Christian communities, the Catholic Church is the only church which refuses to accept divorce under any circumstances. The Catechism reminds us;
The Lord Jesus insisted on the original intention of the Creator who willed that marriage be indissoluble.174 He abrogates the accommodations that had slipped into the old Law.175
Between the baptized, "a ratified and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death."176 (CCC 2382)
Particularly in some Protestant groups, the apparent “exception clause” given by Jesus in Matthew 19:9 is cited as justification for divorce and the freedom to remarry; “And I say to you: ‘whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery’” (RSV-CE). The Catholic NAB Bible translates this, “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery” (NAB). What is Jesus saying here? Is he intending to allow an ‘exception’ allowing divorce?
First we need to examine the context of these verses. In this gospel narrative the Pharisees approach Jesus with a question to “test” him. “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’” (RSV-CE Mt 19:3; cf. Mk 10:2)
There were two main Pharisaic schools at the time of Jesus and they differed in their interpretation of the Mosaic Law on divorce as found in Deut 24:1-4:
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if she then finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and become another man’s wife . . . then the former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife . . .”
Rabbinic interpretations apparently turned on the ambiguous phrase in Deut 24:1 translated “some indecency.” The Hillel school interpreted “indecency” so loosely that a man could put his wife away for virtually any reason, even for burning his dinner. The school of Shammai interpreted the verse much more strictly--limiting the legitimate reasons for divorce to sexual impurity on the part of the wife.
Responding to this dilemma Jesus 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”? So they are no longer two, but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’” (Mt 19:4-6; cf. Mk 10:6-9)
Jesus does not agree with either ‘school’ of interpretation but directs the discussion back to the fundamental nature of the human person created in the ‘image of God’ “in the beginning.” God’s original intension in creating man and woman in the image and likeness of God are ‘normative’ for our understanding of marriage. From this foundation Jesus draws the decisive conclusion, “what God has joined let no man put asunder.” Pope John Paul II states, “In the light of these words of Christ, Genesis 2:24 sets forth the principle of the unity and indissolubility of marriage as the very content of the Word of God, expressed in the most ancient revelation.”
Following in the footsteps of Christ, the Church understands marriage as indissoluble. The Church interprets Christ’s words as upholding “the original intention of the Creator who willed that marriage be indissoluble” and as abrogating the accommodations that had slipped into the old Law” (CCC 2382). Such accommodations would include those suggested by the Pharisees which parallel modern views of many Christian communities.
What then do we make of the apparent exception clause? “And I say to you: ‘whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery’” (Mt 19:9).
The Greek word translated as “unchastity” in the RSV is porneia. There are three possible meanings of porneia.
1. “fornication (or perhaps better sexual impropriety of any kind hence “unchastity”)
The NAB Bible translates Matthew 19:9, “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” In translating “(unless the marriage is unlawful)” the text of the NAB is interpreting the word porneia along the lines incest. Gentile marriages in the first century Palestine did not necessarily follow the strict Jewish laws regarding the prohibition of marriage to a relative which would be considered invalid or unlawful under Jewish law.
It is also possible that what was in mind is the discovery of unfaithfulness or ‘unchastity’ during the protracted betrothal or engagement. We must remember that the first century customs for marriage were quite different than our own. The English words ‘engaged’ and ‘betrothed’ do not convey the same meaning today as they would have in the New Testament. Joseph was ‘betrothed’ to Mary, and when he mistakenly suspected unfaithfulness on her part when she was discovered to be with child, “he decided to divorce her quietly” (Matt 1:19). Divorce was necessary to break off the betrothal. The couple was already considered married after the betrothal but typically waited a year before completing the marriage by consummating their relationship.
In both of these cases we are dealing with an unlawful or incomplete marriages which are not exceptions to the divorce rule but circumstances under which the marriage may in fact not have taken place lawfully or completely. A judgment by the Church that a marriage has not occurred is called an annulment.
To me its seems most likely that Jesus had in mind the idea of unchastity referring to the pre-marital engagement period during which in Jewish custom the couple are actually married but have not yet consummated the marriage. Under these circumstances and before consummation occurred if one of the couple was found to have committed “unchastity” then divorce is possible since no real marriage had taken place. A valid marriage requires both an exchange of consent and consummation with a human act that is open to life.
Although the Greek porneia has also been translated as “adultery” (or “fornication” which is sometimes interpreted as adultery), it is important to realize that there is a distinct Greek word for “adultery,” moicheia, used twice in that same verse. Note the verse with the Greek words shown; “And I say to you: ‘whoever divorces his wife, except for porneia, and marries another, commits moicheia; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits moicheia’” (Mt 19:9). If we translate porneia as ‘adultery’ Jesus would appear to be saying something odd, “whoever divorces his wife, except for adultery, and marries another, commits adultery.” Why would adultery break the bounds of an indissoluble marriage such that you can freely remarry without committing adultery?
It should also be pointed out that Christian tradition records Jesus as unequivocally opposed to divorce. Neither Luke nor Mark records any exception;
“Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18).
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11-12).
The liberal attitude towards divorce and remarriage we see today is a very modern conception in Christian tradition. Against this view, the Church has consistently urged us to recognize marriage as indissoluble and that a marriage between a baptized man and woman which has been ratified and consummated “cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death” (CCC 2382).