What did Jesus mean when he said that a couple could not get a divorce, “except in the case of unchastity” (Mt 5:32; 19:9)?


This is a difficult passage at first, considering that the Church has always taught that a marriage entered into lawfully is indissoluble, or cannot be broken. But, we should not let difficult passages in Scripture sow doubt within us regarding the truth of Catholic teaching. Invariably, the error is not in what the Church teaches or in what Scripture says but in our own understanding.

In this case, the key to solving this riddle is in the meaning of the Greek word porneia, which the RSV translates as “unchastity.” What type of act does Jesus actually have in mind here that would allow a couple to no longer be married? Porneia is sort of a “catch-all” word that can be used to refer to many different kinds of illicit sexual unions: adultery, incest, sodomy, fornication, bestiality. However, it can also be used to refer to an unlawful marriage. In other words, only when a marriage was never lawfully entered into in the first place are the two individuals free to marry someone else. Jews considered a marriage to be unlawful if the two persons involved were too closely related by blood, or if one of them was a Gentile.

This is the only meaning that reconciles Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel with what He and the Apostles say elsewhere about divorce. In every other passage, their prohibition against divorce is absolute. They admit no exceptions. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” St. Paul says:

“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. [. . .] A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” (1 Cor 7:10-11, 39)

The model for marriage is always the relationship of Adam and Eve before the fall. Jesus says:

“For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8).
“Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning 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. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mt 19:4-6).

That is the teaching of Christ and of the Church.

Peace of Christ to you,

Nicholas Hardesty,
WIMM Board Member
Director of Religious Education, Blessed Mother Catholic Church
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