A Defence of the Catholic Doctrine Against Divorce
— A (Paraphrased) Script
Among the three major Christian denominations, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Catholicism, the Catholic faith has the strictest view concerning remarriage and divorce. I should say, that in this episode I will not be giving any advice about what people in any relationship should do. That’s something that should be handled by a priest. Any citations I make will be either scripture, the catechism, or references to canon law. Links to the script with citations will be found on our blog. I am merely going over the church’s rules. And before we begin getting into the Church’s position, or defending it, let us go over some definitions.
First, there is a difference between the natural marriage and matrimony (or the sacramental marriage); matrimony takes place within the church, it happens when two baptized believers come together, and under oath of God, commit themselves to one another. This means Catholics recognize the sacramental nature of Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox who undergo their marriages to other validly baptized persons, regardless of the person who is ministering the marriage. However, in the Catholic church, barring some extraordinary circumstance, your marriage must be ministered by a priest (and in some cases by a deacon).
Natural marriages take place when at least one spouse is not a validly baptized Christian. These marriages can result in divorce under two privileges, the Petrine privilege and the Pauline privilege. The Pauline privilege holds that the church may recognize the divorce of a believer to a non-believer on the supposition the unbelieving spouse departed from the believing spouse, and that the two were married before the baptism of the believing spouse. The Biblical justification for the Pauline privilege, as well as the distinction between natural and sacramental marriage, comes from Saint Paul’s words 1 Corinthians 7:10–16,
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.
To the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace. Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?
Without the distinction between natural and sacramental marriage, Paul would be inconsistent in his application. Christians are called to retain their marriages to unbelievers because through our natural marriages we can witness to them and save them (per verse 16).
Before moving onto the Petrine privilege, I want to make one thing clear. When Paul says we consecrate them — that is “make them holy” — he does not mean the non-believer is saved by dint for their marriage. If that were the case, there would be no need to convert them.
Rather, Paul is saying that unlike the Old Testament, the marriage to a non-believer is not unclean. Compare Paul’s words to the words of Moses,
and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters play the harlot after their gods and make your sons play the harlot after their gods.
Moses makes it clear that, under the Old Covenant, your child being a member of the tribe of Israel does not mean the pagan is any less a harlot just because they marry. In fact, it means they will make your child impure as well. Paul is affirming, against the Judaizers — who were heretics in the early church who demanded Christians needed to follow the Law of Moses — that our non-believing spouses do not make us harlots, but we have made them (and our children) holy in the sense they are made pure to marriage through our own conversion.
Now, onto the Petrine privilege. The Petrine privilege (named after the apostle Peter) holds that the Pope, his successor, has the power to dissolve a natural marriage at the request of both parties (or one of them) even if the other party is unwilling. This power also extends to Catholic marriage where the parties have not consummated marriage at both of their request, however, we will get to that issue later.
The Petrine privilege is justified under only a just cause. What such a cause is, I leave it to Canon lawyers to figure out. However, what gives the Pope the Power to do this is that bestowed to Saint Peter. Saint Peter (and the Popes through him) are given the ability in the supernatural order to bind and loose through the Keys of Heaven. We read in Matthew 16:18–19
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Now, this also raises the question of “why doesn’t the Pope just divorce anyone he sees fit?”, and that is another objection I will get to later. First, we need to understand the Biblical argument against the divorce within a sacramental marriage.
Divorce, as it pertains to matrimony, is not allowed in the Catholic faith under any circumstances. According to the Catechism of the Catholic faith, we read,
The Lord Jesus insisted on the original intention of the Creator who willed that marriage be indissoluble. He abrogates the accommodations that had slipped into the old Law.174
Between the baptized, “a ratified and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death.”
The separation of spouses while maintaining the marriage bond can be legitimate in certain cases provided for by canon law. If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense.
Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery:
If a husband, separated from his wife, approaches another woman, he is an adulterer because he makes that woman commit adultery, and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has drawn another’s husband to herself.
Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.
It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage.
The first paragraph, concerning the position Christ himself held, is that any reason granted for divorce under the old covenant (that is during the time between Moses instituting God’s commandments a top of mount Sinai, and Christ establishing the new covenant) is to be considered null and void. Divorce is a violation of natural law because the institution of marriage exists to maintain the solidarity of the husband and wife. Divorce, by its very definition, is sinful because it breaks this solidarity and is only permissible both when the marriage is not sacramental and has a just and pastoral cause like the one God allowed for Israel, as we will see, or under the Petrine privilege, as we have and will discuss.
Sacramental marriages cannot be dissolved, because scripture itself is very clear that the vision of marriage, as we are called to practice, is unbreakable. I will be making two arguments, one from the analogy made between marriage and the New Covenant, and the other from Jesus’ words in Mark and Matthew.
Let us recall the fact that scripture refers to the union between Christ and the Church to be a marriage. In the Book of Revelation, we read in chapter 21, verses 2 and 9–10,
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God
Furthermore, we read in from Saint Paul the following in Ephesians 5:25,
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
Christ loves the church in a way that is unbreakable. In Revelation chapter 21, at the apocalypse, God will persevere with the church until the end. As husbands we are called to love our wives in this way, that is until the very end, since we are called to love her as Christ loved the church. This applies to the wife as well. We also read in Ephesians 5:22–23
Wives be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.
Notice the words “as to the Lord”, meaning “as to Jesus Christ”. Even if the husband himself wants a divorce, a wife is to retain her martial relationship with him. Not because her husband’s imitation of Christ is worthy, but because her submission to Christ is worth imitating. While obtaining a civil divorce would be fine in certain cases where the wife is in danger for her life in an abusive situation, the marriage in the eyes of the Church should not end because it is meant to be an image of Christ’s relationship to the Church. Usually we think of the analogy of marriage to the church as only one way, but if the relationship of Christ to the Church is analogous in nature to marriage between believers, then it stands to reason the nature of marriage between believers is also analogous to the relationship with Christ and the Church and we should take our cues from relationship.
This only applies to sacramental marriages and not natural marriage because we are united to Christ by our baptism. As we read in Galatians 3:27 “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ”. Since the female non-believer is not baptised, she cannot be a manifestation of the Church. We, the church, are commanded to be baptised. Since the male is not baptized, he cannot be a manifestation of Christ because he has not put on Christ through baptism.
A potential objector might say “Ephesians 6:5 also calls on Christian slaves to obey their masters as Christ, does this mean the master must be baptized for this command to hold?”, but here is the following answers one can give. The first is that since slavery is not a sacrament instituted by God through the Church, it follows that God has not himself put it together, unlike both the New Covenant and the Matrimony existing between believers. The second answer is that the relationship between the slave and master is not founded on the sort of love Jesus has for the Church, whereas the husband is called to love his spouse as Christ loves the Church, and the wife is called to respond to the husband based on that love, the slave is called to obey his master as a show that one is “rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men”. This is merely duty for duty’s sake.
Now, let us move onto the stronger of the two arguments against the divorce of a sacramental marriage. Jesus himself says, in two places, that divorce and remarriage is to be considered sinful. We read in Mark 10:2–12,
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.’ So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
There is no room for dispute from these verses, initiating a divorce is always sinful (even in a natural marriage), turning one into an adulterer, as well as those who you remarry. This does not make it permissible to remarry if your spouse separates. Jesus is clear, let no one pull asunder. Going along with a divorce, even if it’s not initiating the action, is still being complicit in allowing the sin.
If Jesus says divorce is never permitted, why do Catholics and Paul permit divorce under certain exceptions?
The same reason God permitted Moses to allow for divorce, it was because of the hardness of people’s hearts. Therefore, under the Pauline privilege, marriages can be dissolved. Since the unbelieving spouse is either under natural law (morality we know without revelation), or the Jewish law, God still makes an exception given the hardness of their heart. Christians, given the revelation of the New covenant, are not given that privilege.
If the Pope can divorce whomever he wills based on the request of one spouse in a natural marriage, why not sacramental marriages?
The Pope does not have the power to render the Christ’s relationship to the Church null and void, since he is the head of the Church on earth and derives his power from Christ’s union with that church. If the analogy between sacramental marriage and Christ’s relationship hold, he does not have the power to end sacramental marriages either.
Why does the Pope have the Power to end sacramental marriages which are not yet consummated if they are indeed sacramental?
In such a marriage, the two have not yet “become one” as Jesus says. This phrase is in reference to the act of sex, hence, God has yet to join them together. To understand the sexual nature of the passage, we can look to the words saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:15–17,
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one flesh.” But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him
In Ephesians 5:31 we read the same thing,
For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.
This is specifically in relation to the act of consummating a marriage. Without this act, the marriage never goes beyond the betrothal stage.
Even if the marriage was never consummated, isn’t it still a marriage in the sense of how Christ loved the church? If so, the Pope cannot divorce.
No, our union to Christ by his resurrection is bounded by our baptism (see Galatians 3:27). This is analogous to the act of consummating a marriage. A married couple who has yet to go through with their act of consummation is like a catechumen who is yet baptised. While they do not receive the benefit of the sacraments, like being able to receive communion, they also do not have the same set of obligations to them either.
As a side note to Protestant and Orthodox listeners, while a lot of my responses presume Catholic doctrine I am not fully defending here, like the regeneration of baptism, and the Papal supremacy, this is done out of constraints of time. These topics will hopefully be covered in future episodes. Even if you end up disagreeing with the Petrine privilege, the Pauline privilege is still available, and Jesus’ words are no less absolute.
In Matthew 19:9, Jesus makes an exception for those who divorce their spouse given an act of unchastity. We read, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery”.
Jesus is speaking to a Jewish audience, and what did Jews do to adulterous spouses — or those who committed other forbidden sexual acts covered under “unchastity”? They subjected them to the death penalty (see, Leviticus 20:10–21). Jesus is saying that putting them away — submitting such a spouse to judgment — does not entail a divorce (making you or them adulators), because you don’t need to subject a dead person to a certificate of divorce, they’re dead. In the New Covenant, we are not under these laws. We cannot rid ourselves of our spouse through subjecting them to the Jewish law of the Old Covenant. This explains why the Gospel of Mark does not contain the exception clause, since it was not written specifically with a Jewish population in mind. However, the Gospel written by Matthew, for a Jewish-Christian community.
 Code of Canon Law — Chapter 9, Article 1, Can. 1143 (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P44.HTM)
 1 Cor. 7:10–16 RSVCE
 Exodus 34:16 RSVCE
 Matthew 16:18–19
 See Online Catechism — http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_P87.HTM
 Revelation 21:2,9–10 RSVCE
 Ephesians 5:25 RSVCE
 Ephesians 5:22–23 RSVCE
 Galatians 3:27 RSVCE
 Ephesians 6:5 RSVCE
 Ephesians 6:7 RSVCE
 Mark 10:2–12
 1 Corinthians 6:15–17 RSVCE
 Matthew 19:9 RSVCE