Marriage and Divorce

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife(unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.’His disciples said to him, ‘If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’” (Mt 19: 9-10)

The moment that has always stood out to me in Matthew’s 19th chapter is when the disciples respond to Jesus that if divorce and remarriage is wrong, then it is better not to marry at all. They clearly understand what Jesus has just said and what it means. There is no ambiguity, nothing to quibble with (except that clause, “unless the marriage is unlawful,” from which we get annulment cases, but I digress). Marriage is for life.

The disciples’ reactions to teachings are not always provided by the authors of the gospels—but when they are, the reactions seem to highlight the challenge of that particular teaching. Consider the reaction of the disciples after the Bread of Life discourse (John 6): “Then many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’… As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” Following this, we have Peter’s declaration of faith, and a question that resounds through the centuries, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter seems to acknowledge that the apostles cannot understand what Jesus has just said, but they will stick with Him nonetheless. They have seen too much, experienced too much, to walk away now.[1]

I had coffee with a friend recently who recounted those words to me, words that I said often to myself in the midst of the clergy abuse crisis. The day that he and I met up, I was in one of my periodic bouts of, “What if all this is nonsense? What if none of it is true?” and was thankful that there was someone in my life who was not scandalized by that and who shared his own experiences of how he has seen too much, experienced too much, to doubt that Jesus is who He says He is. In the midst of confusion or ambiguity coming from parts of the Church on earth, Christ himself stands firm. His Word – which is Himself—still speaks through Holy Scripture.

This brings me back to Matthew 19 and the prohibition of divorce. The seeming ambiguity in Amoris Laetitia, for example, cannot negate scripture, and scripture is clear on this point. If you divorce your wife/husband and marry another, it is adultery, full stop. If Jesus had been less clear, his teaching less of a challenge, then the disciples would not have balked at it. You can practically hear the laughing tone of a male voice saying, “If that’s the case, then it’s better not to marry!” I can so easily picture the scene (especially after watching Chosen!)—the disciples all gathered around after the Pharisees who had asked the question in the first place have left, joshing each other about being stuck with the old ball and chain for life. It’s a hard saying. People don’t like it. It’s interesting that the comment is not ascribed to a single one of the disciples, but to all.

Because the teaching is such a challenge, and one that affects the most intimate part of people’s lives, I will do what the proponents of a change in teaching always resort to instead of arguments: point to experience.

I have a friend who is not engaged right now. She is not engaged because the man that she hopes and plans to marry is waiting to hear back from a tribunal about an annulment. He is not Catholic—not baptized, even. Before he met my friend, he probably didn’t know what an annulment was, and even now, I suspect he is still a bit confused about why he has to go through this process. But many years ago, he stood before another woman and promised to be her husband. She was Catholic, but she didn’t want to have children, and she had other struggles. They were young, and it didn’t last long. Fast forward some years, he meets my friend, and they hit it off. They start getting serious. She brings up annulment; he says he would not want to hurt the other woman, but eventually he accepts that it is the only way forward with my friend.

It is the only way forward not because the Church arbitrarily decided so, but because of what Jesus says here in Matthew 19. My friend needs to know that this man, whom she loves, is not already married. She needs to know that what happened all those years ago was not the same thing that she and he hope to do; that this wedding will be a very different wedding from that one. They want to exchange consent and contract marriage for life, blessed by the Church, and they intend to do what the Church means by marriage. There will be no quibbling; there will be no way out. That is what they both want.

And that’s the awesome thing, actually, about what Jesus says in Matthew 19: “There is no way out” is precisely what love wants anyway, even though it is hard. Love wants to commit fully. “I love you, for now” is not something that we say to each other.

[1] There’s a passage in Luigi Giussani’s At The Origin of the Christian Claim that captures this well: “Peter’s attitude is profoundly reasonable. Because they shared their lives with the exceptionality of Jesus’ being and his attitudes, that small group of men could only have trusted his words… By sharing his life, by constantly experiencing the sensation that Jesus was exceptional, it became highly reasonable to trust in him” (p. 58). Elsewhere, Giussani notes, “When [Jesus] said something scandalous, because people didn’t understand it, usually he didn’t explain, but repeated it” (Is It Possible to Live This Way? Vol. 1, p. 37).


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