Scripture's not so clear on divorce

11 April 2014 | by Fr Tim Buckley | Comments: 6

The debate about whether those in so-called “irregular marriages” should be readmitted to Holy Communion is a hot topic. People, including some of the cardinals, are weighing in on all sides and if we are not careful, it could become a singularly unedifying spectacle. We would do well to heed Paul’s warning about the dangers of forming factions (1 Corinthians 11:18) when we come to the Eucharist. My own involvement with the discussion dates back to the early 1990s when I produced a report for the Marriage and Family Life Committee of the Bishops’ Conference, before going on to complete my PhD at Heythrop College on the question of pastoral care in this field.

I am greatly encouraged that Pope Francis has invited the whole Church to prepare for and contribute to the synod in the autumn. Surely this requires that we listen to one another in charity and try to discern what the Lord wants? The fact that Cardinal Walter Kasper was invited to address the College of Cardinals at the recent consistory is significant, because he has long advocated that we ask ourselves whether the present discipline is a true reflection of what the Gospel envisages. Using scriptural quotations out of context to back up established positions – technically called proof-texting – is one of the pitfalls that awaits anyone who enters into theological dialogue, and that’s why I sincerely hope that eminent Scripture scholars play a significant role at the synod in October.

When I was undertaking my research I met those who condemned the bishops of England and Wales for inviting me to undertake the work, arguing that the Scriptures and the Church’s unbroken tradition were unambiguous.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, Matthew (5:32 and 19:3-9), Mark (10:1-12), Luke (16:18) and Paul (1 Corinthians 7:10-16), all make it clear that Jesus clearly taught that divorce was not part of the Father’s plan. However, in Mark 10 and in Matthew 19, the teaching is a response to the Pharisees’ challenge over the fact that Moses allowed divorce, so Jesus is offering guidance relating to all marriages of all time, not just what later came to be defined as Christian marriage.

It is worth noting this because much of the debate and some of the uncertainty comes from the so-called “exception clauses”. They occur in both of the references in Matthew and in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Matthew's Greek word, porneia, is variously translated in English as “fornication”, “adultery” or even “unchastity”, but there is no agreement among the scholars as to the particular group of people for whom Matthew is seeking to interpret Jesus' teaching.

On the other hand there is no doubt at all about the situation Paul has in mind when writing to the Corinthians: those for whom the conversion to Christianity of one of the partners is the cause of an irreparable breakdown. It came to be know as the Pauline Privilege and was ultimately extended to embrace any marriage in which one of the partners was not a baptised Christian (this is now known as the Petrine Privilege).

Therefore in practice the Church has found and can find ways of dissolving any marriage bond which is not between two baptised people – in other words the majority of marriage bonds in human history.

Add to this the Church’s willingness to adopt Roman jurisprudence and annul even supposedly indissoluble sacramental bonds when there is deemed to be sufficient evidence to suggest that there was something defective in the consent of the couple – and you have an added complication in trying to present to the wider world an uncompromising position on the consequences of marital breakdown.

Many Catholics are dismayed and confused by the Church’s teaching and pastoral practice and in some cases they feel abandoned by the Church and therefore rejected by Christ. How does this square with the fact that throughout his public ministry Jesus sought out and dined with all the wrong people, especially those who had been rejected by the religious leaders of his day? The teaching Church has much to ponder at the forthcoming synod. I hope and pray that the Holy Spirit will enable us reverently to listen to one another and discern a way forward.

Fr Timothy J Buckley is a Redemptorist and parish priest of Our Lady of the Annunciation (Bishop Eton) and St Mary’s, Woolton, Liverpool. An edited version of Fr Buckley’s thesis – What binds marriage? Roman Catholic theology in practice – is available here. He has recently sent a copy to Pope Francis.

Subscribers can read an excerpt from Cardinal Kasper's address here.

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