The Catholic Church of today does not teach that marriage is forever; at least in its most literal sense. But she does teach, in harmony with two millennia of unbroken Church tradition, that the bond of marriage is until death, without exception, for the good of the spouses and any children that are brought into the fold. Thus in the event of a fully valid, consummated marriage a divorce is not possible.
But wait! What about Jesus words regarding divorce in St. Matthew’s Gospel?
As you’ll recall he says:
“It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”
Jesus speaks similar words in Matthew 5:32:
“I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
It is clear that Jesus is condemning divorce between spouses. But does he leave “unchastity” as a loophole? No. There are not loopholes. Defining terms is essential here. What then did Jesus mean by “unchastity”?
Here are three possibilities:
1. Jesus is permitting the separation of spouses on grounds of serious sexual sin. This might be similar to a civil divorce. Although the sacramental aspect of the marriage remains intact – and does so until death – the possibility of living apart remains licitly in the case of serious sexual sin such as adultery.
The Greek word Jesus uses for unchastity is porneia which could also mean “adultery”. This understanding of Jesus’ words gives St. Paul’s words context in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
“To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.” (1 Cor 7:10-11)
2. Jesus is referring to unlawful “marriages”. If a true marriage never existed in the first place then divorce would be possible (essentially an annulment). Consider the example of a union where the man and woman were too closely related (porneia refers to incest twice in the New Testament – see Acts 15:20, 29). This type of sexual union is condemned in the Old Testament law (Lev 18:6-18).
3. Jesus is brushing the Old Testament grounds for divorce aside. As Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch suggest in the Ignatius Press Study Bible in an essay titled “Jesus On Marriage and Divorce”:
“Because Jesus is revoking the OT concession on divorce, he brackets the whole issue and sets it off to the side as irrelevant. Thus, “except for unchastity” (Mt 19:9) means”regardless of the Old Testament grounds for divorce” (p. 41).
Indeed, as Hahn and Mitch point out, we find Jesus instituting marriage as a New Covenant sacrament in this definitive chapter in Matthew’s Gospel. Divorce between spouses is not possible due to the nature of the covenant formed between spouses: a permanent kinship bond only dissoluble by death itself. For more on all three interpretations discussed here, I highly recommend the Hahn/Mitch essay mentioned above.
All three of these interpretations are reasonable, though none of them are official Church teaching. They are subject to debate and even refutation. Nonetheless, divorce is not. The Catholic Church, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is committed to seeing things as they really are – including divorce – and making its members see things in such a way also. The Church is committed to clarity; even when what is clear to the Church is not to there rest of the world. Indeed “fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions”, as G.K. Chesterton remarked.
Some things are just not negotiable due to “the nature of things”. For example, must all triangles have three sides? They must. To argue against this is an absurdity. Why? Because it is the irrevocable nature of a triangle to have three sides. It is necessary; otherwise there is no triangle at all. Try to imagine two-sided or four-sided triangles and all you’ll get are lines and squares; but a triangle is neither a line or a square – it is a triangle.
The same principle applies to marriage. A marriage freely consented to before God is necessarily permanent; it cannot be otherwise. It is, by nature, a comprehensive, exclusive and permanent union of a man and a woman till death do them part; and it is ordered towards the procreation and raising of children.
A mother cannot take back her ovum once her child has been conceived, for an inseparable one flesh union has occurred – a permanent new life has emerged. And so it is with marriage. Once sexual intercourse has occurred – and the marriage has thus been consummated – a new life springs forth from that “one flesh union”. What God has joined, no man can separate (see Matt 19:6).
Frank Sheed writes:
A man and a woman are free either to make or not to make the agreement to marry. But if they make it, then God attaches certain consequences to their act….They have stated their will to be husband and wife: God makes them so. This is the sense, and the only sense, of the phrase “marriages are made in heaven”.
“Fidelity expresses constancy in keeping one’s given word”, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (CCC 2365). Faithfulness of spouses is an image of God’s faithfulness. St. Paul saw marriage as “a great mystery” that corresponds to Christ, the eternal Bridegroom, and the Church, His bride (see Eph 5). As Christ loves us unconditionally and forever without ceasing (even when we are unfaithful), so also should spouses strive to love one another.
Extraordinarily high standards for marriage, yes. But the Catholic Church holds men and woman to such high standards because she understands that man is made for greatness. Marriage, like life in general, is supposed to be hard; and in both man is supposed to triumph. We’ve been given all the equipment we need: a body empowered by a will and intellect, upon which grace can work and even perfect (see 2 Pet 1:4).
I’ll leave you with the words of St. John Chrysostom, as quoted in the Catechism. St. John suggests that young husbands should say to their wives:
“I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us. . . . I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you.” (CCC 2365)
101 Quick Questions: Divorce, Marriage & Annulment by Jim Blackburn