The curious case of Matthew 19:9
March 8, 2013 § 21 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).