The curious case of Matthew 19:9

March 8, 2013 § 9 Comments

And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery. – Matthew 19:9

In the comments below, Proph asks:

I’d be interested, Zippy, in your thoughts on the passage commonly cited by Prots (in Matt. 19:9) suggesting that Jesus OKs divorce in cases of adultery. It’s an oddly worded passage and I cannot accept this interpretation since it conflicts with so many other, less ambiguous passages (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:10-11, Romans 7:2-3, Luke 16:18, Mark 10:2-12), but I’m not sure how to properly read it.

At the outset I need to be very clear that I address this question thinking (to the best of my limited ability) like a Catholic. The Apostolic Church which actually collected and brought us the Scriptures, testifying as to which particular documents, out of the large body of them floating around in early Christianity, are authentically inspired – and which are not – is an absolute necessity in order to extract consistent, definite, unequivocal doctrinal meaning from the Scriptures at all. It isn’t my intention here to argue against sola scriptura; but I take it as a given that sola scriptura is false in what follows. The Church has had to solve all sorts of detailed problems with respect to marriage which are not addressed in Scripture: e.g., what to do in the case of a pagan barbarian who has seven wives in a remote land, converts to Christianity and is baptized, and is unable to return to his homeland without being beheaded; or what precisely constitutes valid consummation of marriage in the case of men who have been involuntarily sterilized by some tyrannical authority. Good luck finding definite, unequivocal, inarguable answers to those questions in the text of canonical Scripture and only the text of canonical Scripture.

Moving on to Proph’s question, we note that Church teaching on whether divorce and remarriage is possible when a spouse commits adultery is very clear, at the highest level of Magisterial authority:

If anyone says that the Church is in error for having taught and for still teaching that in accordance with the evangelical and apostolic doctrine [cf. Mt. 5:32; 19:9; Mk 10:11f.; Lk 16:18; 1 Cor 7:11], the marriage bond cannot be dissolved because of adultery on the part of one of the spouses and that neither of the two, not even the innocent one who has given no cause for infidelity, can contract another marriage during the lifetime of the other; and that the husband who dismisses an adulterous wife and marries again and the wife who dismisses an adulterous husband and marries again are both guilty of adultery, let him be anathema. – Canon 7, Council of Trent, Session 24, November 11, 1563 (Denzinger)

However, it is important to note that in the taxonomy of marriage, sacramental Christian marriage between baptized followers of Christ is not the only kind of marriage. Marriages among pagans are also true marriages; they are in fact not dissoluble by the civil power (as a morally licit act under natural law), but in certain cases they are dissoluble by ecclesial power (an obvious case here is a pagan with multiple wives who wants to become a baptized Christian). They are not, however, sacramental marriages, because the sacraments apply to the baptized. Therefore Divine law with respect to ‘natural’ marriages differs from Divine law with respect to sacramental marriages:

We, therefore, responding to your inquiry, in conformity with the advice of Our brothers, even though one of Our predecessors [Celestine III] seems to have thought otherwise, make a distinction between two cases: when there are two unbelievers and one converts to the Catholic faith, or when there are two believers and one lapses into heresy or falls into the error of the heathens. For if, indeed, one of the two unbelieving spouses converts to the Catholic faith, and the other does not wish to live together in any manner, or at least not without blaspheming the divine name or leading the other into mortal sin, the one who is abandoned, if wishing to, may enter into a second marriage, and in this case, We understand what was said by the apostle: “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so: in such cases, the brother or sister is not bound” [1 Cor 7:15]. And likewise, the canon that says: “The insult to the Creator dissolves the juridical bond of marriage for the one who is thus abandoned.” [Cf. Gratian, Decretum, P. II, cs. 28, q. 2, c. 2 (Frdb 1:1090]

But if one of the believing spouses either falls into heresy or lapses into the error of the heathens, we do not believe that in this case the abandoned one can enter into a second marriage while the other spouse is living, even though in this case a greater insult to the Creator may be evident. For even if, in fact, a true marriage exists between unbelievers, it is still not ratified. Between believers, however, a true and ratified marriage exists, because the sacrament of faith (baptism) once conferred is never lost, and indeed it makes the sacrament of marriage ratified so that the marriage itself endures in the spouses as long as the baptism endures. – Pope Innocent III, Quanto te magis, letter to Bishop Ugo of Ferrara, May 1, 1199 (Denzinger)

And for good measure:

And if this stability seems to be open to exception, however rare the exception may be, as in the case of certain natural marriages between unbelievers, or amongst Christians in the case of those marriages which though valid have not been consummated, that exception does not depend on the will of men nor on that of any merely human power, but on divine law, of which the only guardian and interpreter is the Church of Christ. However, not even this power can ever affect for any cause whatsoever a Christian marriage which is valid and has been consummated, for as it is plain that here the marriage contract has its full completion, so, by the will of God, there is also the greatest firmness and indissolubility which may not be destroyed by any human authority. – Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubi

In conclusion: there is an awful lot to say about marriage – both as sacrament and as natural law bond between a man and a woman – which is not recorded explicitly and in detail in the Gospels. And there are certainly places within the permutation space of true statements about marriage where that one seemingly innocuous clause in the Gospel of Matthew might legitimately apply, without casting the slightest doubt upon the exceptionless indissolubility of valid sacramental Christian marriages.

(NOTE: This is a useful resource on the nuts and bolts of the question).

§ 9 Responses to The curious case of Matthew 19:9

  • Proph says:

    Good luck finding definite, unequivocal, inarguable answers to those questions in the text of canonical Scripture and only the text of canonical Scripture.

    Right; in other words, sola scriptura is a handy little convenience for people for whom the difficult questions have already been answered by their historical betters!

    In conclusion: there is an awful lot to say about marriage – both as sacrament and as natural law bond between a man and a woman – which is not recorded explicitly and in detail in the Gospels. And there are certainly places within the permutation space of true statements about marriage where that one seemingly innocuous clause in the Gospel of Matthew might legitimately apply, without casting the slightest doubt upon the exceptionless indissolubility of valid sacramental Christian marriages.

    Right, and it’s difficult relaying this sensibility to nuance to most Prots, sadly.

    One interesting hypothesis I’ve heard was that Jesus was speaking not of legitimately married wives but of concubines, the conflation of concubinage and marriage being a feature of Judaean society in those days. In other words, the “fornication” bit doesn’t describe the reason for divorce but the nature of the relation of man to “wife” being set aside and, by extension, he’s not saying “Divorce with a clear conscience if your wife cheats on you” but “Set aside your concubine with a clear conscience, because it’s not a marriage” (hence it’s not adultery). We’re naturally insensible to this distinction, formal concubinage having long since been consigned to the historical round file.

  • Samson J. says:

    Good luck finding definite, unequivocal, inarguable answers to those questions in the text of canonical Scripture and only the text of canonical Scripture.

    Well, how did your “Church” (as you conceive of it) decide on these questions, either, without in a certain sense “making up” the answer based on the best information available? Good grief, man, sola scriptura doesn’t mean one is allowed to turn off one’s brain and not take the benefit of expert opinion and consensus.

    in other words, sola scriptura is a handy little convenience for people for whom the difficult questions have already been answered by their historical betters!

    Terribly uncharitable misrepesentation, Proph. You are fueling the enmity.

  • Zippy says:

    Samson J:
    Well, how did your “Church” (as you conceive of it) decide on these questions, either, without in a certain sense “making up” the answer based on the best information available?

    By drawing on information, tradition, and reason external to and not explicit in Scripture.

  • Paul H. says:

    Zippy,

    Have you read Cornelius de Lapide’s commentary on Mt. 19:9?

    http://www.catholicapologetics.info/scripture/newtestament/19matth.htm

    If you’ve never read through his commentaries before, I highly recommend them. I never study a passage of Scripture without reading his commentaries as supplement. His commentary on Mt. 19:9 is particularly helpful.

  • Zippy says:

    Paul H:
    Great commentary! I wasn’t familiar.

    I elected not to include commentaries in the original post for conciseness, and also because it is not necessary to commit to some particular view of what “except for fornication” means in context to make my point. But this comment box is a great place for, uh, commentaries.

    Thanks for pointing out what looks to be a very helpful resource.

  • Bruce says:

    I actually think the Catholic understanding is likely correct in that it has an overwhelming advantage in the number of arguments to back it up. My only concern is that it might be too permissive with the Pauline privilege. It isn’t clear to me if the 1 Cor 7:16 verses referring to the person not being under servitude grant the permission to marry another. It seems like it could mean that one simply shouldn’t be dragged out of the Church by a non-believing Pagan spouse that isn’t content to dwell in a marriage with a Christian. Paul, in other places, makes the permission to remarry explicit subject to the condition that it is “in the Lord” so I don’t see why he wouldn’t prevent confusion here.
    I assume the Protestant argument would center around the idea that a wife’s sexual immorality would destroy the basis of the family in that a man couldn’t even have moral certitude that the children from the marriage are his. I guess they could argue that this is why the husband is granted this exception but the wife is granted no such exception.
    Of course, a faithful Catholic will accept the teaching of the magisterium.

  • Zippy says:

    Bruce:
    The Pauline Privilege (as I understand it) depends upon the distinction between two baptized Christians sacramentally marrying and marriage to (or between two) unbaptized pagans, which is not a sacrament but is merely natural marriage. Absolute indissolubility is concomitant to the sacrament, not to merely natural marriage. Dissolving a sacramental marriage in effect would be like ‘reversing’ baptism or ‘unconsecrating’ the Eucharist: it literally cannot be done, because the sacrament is God’s act not man’s natural act. The sacramental bond joins two Christian spouses through their baptism, if you will; whereas natural marriage when one or both spouses are not baptized do not obtain this sacramental bond.

    (Two baptized Christians are literally incapable of contracting merely natural marriage, however: every valid marriage when both spouses have been baptized is necessarily and always a sacramental marriage).

    Merely natural marriages are therefore dissoluble in certain conditions, as Paul hints and the Church elaborates. If nothing else these things indicate that the Church takes the sacraments seriously qua sacraments.

    It is true though that many folks would argue that sacraments in general are not exactly perspicuous in Scripture; and I am inclined to agree with them, though perhaps disagree about what follows from that observation.

  • Bruce says:

    I agree that the bond of marriage is an objectively real thing, what I guess Catholics call an ontological reality. I think further proof of this is in Jesus’ treatment of the “put away” wife. Without reference to a wife that is put away for “valid” or “invalid” reasons, the divorced woman is treated as unmarriageable.. She can’t be married without committing adultery.

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