By Fr John Flader
In my Bible in Chapter 19 of St Matthew’s Gospel it says that whoever divorces his wife, except in the case of adultery, and marries another, commits adultery. Does this mean that adultery is a ground for divorce and remarriage?
The text you cite has been a cause of confusion and misunderstanding for a long time. The phrase “except in the case of adultery” is translated differently in different versions of the Bible. For example, the Knox version reads “not for any unfaithfulness of hers”, and the Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition has “except for unchastity”. So while the wording varies, the idea remains the same.
Before we venture into the meaning of the text, however, we should say two things. First, only Matthew includes this phrase. The parallel passages in Mark and Luke omit it and read more succinctly: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her” (Mk 10:11, Lk 16:18). Here the meaning is very clear: there are no grounds that would allow for divorce and remarriage.
Second, even though the Gospel of Matthew seems to allow for a situation in which it would be permissible to divorce and remarry, this must always be interpreted in light of the living tradition of the Church. And the tradition has been constant from the beginning: the Church has never allowed divorce and remarriage for any reason. While many Protestant denominations have used this passage to justify divorce and remarriage, the Catholic Church has always maintained the indissolubility of marriage.
Pope Pius XI affirmed it clearly in his encyclical Casti connubii (1930): “This is the teaching of Sacred Scripture; it is the constant and universal Tradition of the Church; it is the solemnly defined doctrine of the Council of Trent, which uses the words of Holy Scripture to proclaim and establish that the perpetual indissolubility of the marriage bond, its unity and its stability, derive from God himself.”
What then is the meaning of the phrase “except for unchastity”? Scott Hahn, in his Ignatius Catholic Study Bible explains that there are three possible meanings, all of which exclude divorce and remarriage.
First, several Fathers of the Church interpret this as meaning that when there has been adultery or unfaithfulness on the part of one of the spouses, the couple can separate, or “divorce”, but the marriage bond remains intact and the spouses are not free to marry again. In this case the Greek word for “unchastity”, porneia, would mean adultery, which is one of its various meanings. St Paul confirms this: “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” (1 Cor 7:10). Likewise, the Code of Canon Law mentions adultery as a grounds for separation at the same time as it earnestly recommends the other spouse to forgive the adulterous partner (cf. Can. 1152). But in no way does it authorise divorce.
The second interpretation is that “unchastity” refers to invalid unions, where the “spouses” are living together in a relationship prohibited by law, for example where they are closely related by family ties. In this case porneia would refer to the unchaste relations of persons living together who are not validly married, and who can therefore separate and remarry validly. This view is supported by two passages in the New Testament where porneia refers to incest (cf. Acts 15:20, 29; 1 Cor 5:1-2). The Old Testament background for this interpretation refers to prohibited marriages between closely related persons (cf. Lev 18:6-18).
The third interpretation is that “except for unchastity” means “regardless of the Old Testament grounds for divorce”, of which one was unchastity on the part of the wife (cf. Deut 24:1). According to this interpretation Jesus is abolishing the Old Testament permission of divorce in certain circumstances and does not want even to discuss it. He is not clarifying or reaffirming Moses’ permission but doing away with it altogether.
By this teaching, Christ is taking marriage back to the way it was “in the beginning”, before the fall of Adam and Eve, when it was a lifelong commitment and a mirror of God’s faithful love for his people.