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Catholic Divorce — Why Not? (Part 1 of 2)

Fr. Joel Being Catholic, Church meets World

The recent Synod on the Family has stirred speculations that the Catholic Church might relax her rules on divorce. Most Catholics are aware of three basic rules:

  • Catholics aren’t allowed to get divorced.
  • Catholics who want to remarry can go through the Annulment process which nullifies the first marriage and allows them to remarry just like anyone else.
  • Catholics who get remarried without first getting an Annulment aren’t allowed to receive Communion in the Catholic Church.

Many see these rules as old fashioned and arbitrary. Those who have dealt with the pain of divorce sometimes feel like the Church won’t let them move on to a healthy new relationship. The rules begin to make more sense when you understand where they came from and why. In fact, if you go back far enough you will find that the Church teaching on divorce started with something one person one said. And that person happens to be Jesus.

Every religion and culture that I know of has accepted some form of divorce. The Jews were allowed to get divorced. There were few stipulations related to divorce (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4), the primary one being that a divorce had to be put in writing (called a “bill of divorce”). There were debates over legitimate reasons for getting divorced. Some said your wife could be a terrible person, but if she didn’t commit adultery, you were stuck with the marriage. Some said any cause whatever was allowed. Their opponents joked that if your wife burned breakfast, you could get a new wife to cook you dinner. The Pharisees ask Jesus his opinion, and his answer is shocking:

Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘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 flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” (Mat 19:3-6)

Jesus does not say that divorce is an unfortunate but sometimes necessary evil. Jesus says that once the two have become one flesh, we shouldn’t separate them. Divorce is contrary to God’s intentions. This obviously contradicts the law of Moses, which is going to make Jesus’ position look un-Jewish.

They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?” He 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.” (Mat 19:7-9)

Jesus doesn’t back down. In fact, He goes further. Divorcing a woman and marrying a new one doesn’t give you a “do over”. Because marriage is permanent, the new ‘marriage’ is the same as adultery. Where this translation uses unlawful, other translations have unchastity or sexual immorality. The Greek word here is pornea. It doesn’t simply mean adultery, or their shock and dismay would make no sense. That position was neither new nor shocking. Perhaps it means that if the marriage is an offensively inappropriate relationship, you can’t stay in that kind of relationship.

Why Divorced-and-Remarried Catholics Shouldn’t Receive Communion

This is why a person who has been divorced, and then married outside the Catholic Church, should not receive Communion. We assume that the first marriage is still valid. The fact that a judge allows the person to end that marriage and enter a new legal marriage does not dissolve the sacramental bond. Jesus himself claims that a new marriage is adultery. Therefore, until proven otherwise, this relationship is treated as adultery. I know this sounds harsh, but this is what Jesus actually said.

There is no doubt that Jesus said these words. The same passage appears in the other gospels (Mathew 5:31-2, Mark 10:1-12, Luke 16:18). It also echoes sentiments in the Old Testament, particularly Malachi 2:13-16. The disciples would have had no reason to make this up, as it doesn’t fit with the Jewish or the Greek world. Their reaction is shock and puzzlement:

10 [His] disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. 12 Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” (Matthew 19:10-12)

Staying Faithful to Jesus’ Words

The Catholic Church takes Jesus’ words literally. It is not that the Church dislikes divorce or does not approve of divorce. Rather, the Church thinks that divorce is not possible. Once the two have become one, no human being has the power to separate them. It would be like trying to divide a child in half.

The same permanence applies to every sacrament. We do not have the power to “un-Baptize” or “un-Confirm” someone. An excommunicated Catholic is still baptized and still a Catholic, they are just forbidden to participate in the sacraments temporarily. Nor does the Church “un-Ordain.” A man who “leaves the priesthood” really is just given permission to stop living and working as a priest. His ordination is permanent and forever. In the same way, the Church has traditionally held that the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is not reversible; only death has the power to “un-Marry.”

What About Annulments? (see Part 2)