5th Sunday of Lent (B)
March 16, 2018
Don’t say it – pray it
March 16, 2018

The indissolubility of marriage

The Church recognises the marriage of non-Catholics, whether baptised or not. Source: caritasetveritas.com

by Fr Derek Anton

In the February 18 CN issue, Msgr Michael de Verteuil wrote the following letter to the Editor: “Recently the Catholic News has carried letters referring to Amoris Laetitia and the need for clarity on a point which the writers feel contradicts the teaching of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage. But, in fact, Jesus allows for dissolution in certain cases (Mt 19:9) as does St Paul (1 Cor 7:10–15). The Church also allows the ‘Petrine Privilege’ in favour of dissolution of some marriages.” Chaguanas parish priest Fr Derek Anton comments.

I would like to offer a different perspective specifically in relation to the Biblical reference to Mt 19:9. In the Jerusalem Bible (JB), which we use in the Lectionary at Mass, the text for Mt 19:9 says: “Now I say this to you: the man who divorces his wifeI am not speaking of fornicationand marries another, is guilty of adultery.” Without doubt, it is the phrase “I am not speaking of fornication” that is taken as suggesting an ‘exception’ to the indissolubility of marriage. This seems even clearer in a similar statement in Mt 5:32 (JB) when Jesus says: “…except for the case of fornication…”

The Navarre Bible: The Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, with a commentary (Reader’s Edition, Four Courts & Scepter, Second Edition, 2008), uses the translation of the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (RSVCE) which quotes Jesus in Mt 5:32 thus: “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife , except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress…”

The Navarre Bible commentary says in part, in relation to Mt 5:31–32: “The RSVCE carries a note which reads: ‘unchastity’: The Greek word used here appears to refer to marriages which were not legally marriages, because they were either within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity (Lev 18:6–16)”—that is, too close blood relations— “or contracted with a Gentile”.

The phrase ‘except on the ground of unchastity’ does not occur in the parallel passage in Lk 16:18. See also Mt 19:9 (Mk 10: 11–12), and especially 1 Cor 7:10–11, which shows that the prohibition is unconditional.”  It should be noted that Mt 19:9 does include the clause ‘except for unchastity’ (RSVCE), but Mk 10:11 does not.

The Navarre commentary continues: “The phrase ‘except on the ground of unchastity’ should not be taken as indicating an exception to the principle of the absolute indissolubility of marriage that Jesus has just re-established.

It is almost certain that the phrase refers to unions accepted as marriage among some pagan peoples, but prohibited as incestuous in the Mosaic Law (cf Lev 18) and in rabbinical tradition. The reference, then, is to unions radically invalid because of some impediment.

When persons in this position were converted to the true faith, it was not that their union could be dissolved; it was declared that they had never in fact been joined in true marriage. Therefore, this phrase does not go against the indissolubility of marriage…” (p 83, emphases mine.)

Readers should note, however, that just because a marriage takes place outside of the Catholic Church, it does not mean it is automatically invalid. In fact, in the case of two non-Catholics, there is no obligation to come to the Catholic Church to get married.

The Church recognises the marriage of non-Catholics, whether baptised or not, and if they have a (valid) marriage and convert and become Catholics, they do not need to rectify their marital status in the Church.

The Navarre position seems supported by The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (© 1968 and 1990 by Prentice Hall, Inc, reprinted 2000). In its favoured ‘solution’ to the issue of the ‘exception clause’ in Mt 5:32, and without any reference to converts to the faith, it states that: “In the ‘rabbinic’ solution also the clause does not contain a real exception to the prohibition of divorce because the key term porneia is understood as translating the Hebr zenut, ’prostitution,’ understood in the sense of an incestuous union due to marriage within forbidden degrees of kinship (Lev 18:6–18). Such a union would not be true marriage at all and would not require a divorce but a decree of nullity or an annulment.” (p 643)

We could consider a more ‘everyday’ example of a case of a Catholic party (or two Catholic parties) who gets married ‘outside the Church’, whether just civilly or even in a religious ceremony, but without any reference to the Catholic Church. The Church will not recognise the union as valid. If the parties divorce, they can get a Decree of Nullity that says the marriage was not valid in the first place, and they would be free to get married in the Catholic Church.