11 April 2014, The Tablet

Scripture's not so clear on divorce

by Fr Tim Buckley

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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User comments (6)

Comment by: Anne
Posted: 17/04/2014 00:31:47

Thank you Fr. Buckley. What Jesus objected to was the hardened heart - I think this warning and concern about hardened hearts, also written about in the Psalms, throughout the Books of Moses, make up the true "unchangeable doctrine of Jesus Christ." There are many children being consigned to single parent homes by the Church which could instead extend warmth toward families both before and after traumatic break ups. Jews, Protestants, and Orthodox communities often work to help a single parent find a new spouse of faith out of concern for the children. Read what the Bible says about how important it is to NOT deny justice to fatherless children - Ezekiel 22:7, Zechariah 7:10, Deuteronomy 10:18, Deuteronomy 24:17, among other verses. Wishing a blessed Pascha to everyone and thanks again to Fr. Buckley.

Comment by: Contemplative
Posted: 16/04/2014 19:14:44

I applaud Fr Buckley's research and find much to agree with. It seems scripture isn't clear on many things. Take for example the nativity story. Each year we erect cribs (nothing wrong with that) in imitation of the nativity story. To suggest the nativity story isn't historical fact would upset many, in the same way as the suggestion to allow the divorced and remarried to receive communion does.

Marriages don't falter for convenience sake. A marriage breakdown can happen for many reasons. Even in the case of adultery I wonder why it precludes one from receiving the Eucharist when any priest in a so called state of mortal sin can validly celebrate the Eucharist !

I also find it strange that the church requires every act of sexual love to be open to new life, when in it's source and summit (the Eucharist) it places a barrier between the divorced and remarried and Christ, the life of the church. Jesus ate and drank with those considered outcasts. Not that I'm suggesting those divorced and remarried are outcasts - canon law does it's job there. Thankfully St Paul teaches "Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ."

Comment by: johnnycuredents
Posted: 16/04/2014 15:14:48

I too find this article deficient. It ignores 2000+ years of history and tradition to focus on some ambiguous sentences in Scripture. It also distorts the nature of declarations of nullity, a topic I know something about having gone through it over 35 years ago. (The evidence gathered back then left no doubt about the invalidity of the marriage.)

Beyond that, though, there is here the implication that it is the Church that abandons those who choose to remarry when reality is exactly the opposite: it is the individual who abandons the Church by this personal decision. If someone were to worship false idols, for example, would we then say the Church was "abandoning him" because she refused him the Eurcharist? Of course not. And were this idol worshiper to seek readmission to the sacrament, he would be told to stop worshiping the false idols, just as the remarried are told they must stop living in sin.

I really don't see how those like Fr. Buckley who militate for this change get around these historical and logical realities. All the textual analysis in the world isn't going to make four plus four equal seven.

Comment by: Chico889
Posted: 14/04/2014 18:23:39


You make a very good point.

It also needs to be borne in mind that "to put away" a wife in first century Palestine, typically meant to leave a woman destitute. She had to be taken back into the home of her father or brother. The alternative may well have been prostitution. In other words, the prohibition of divorce in that culture protected women. Our cultural milieu is, of course, very different.

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 13/04/2014 20:28:59

I would like the church to explore the prospect of our living much much longer than in New Testament's times. Indeed, the English life expectancy from 1900 to 2000 has nearly doubled - which is a miracle in itself that we should thank God for. What was an undertaking that lasts for a remaining life time of say thirty years, could well now last for sixty to seventy years. It's a very different prospect.

From another side of the story, to live alone for forty years after a marriage breakdown is much more demanding than to live alone for another few years.

Committed married life is beautiful: the couples and others around them should do all they can to nurture married life. This is more urgent as people are living longer. However, we should also be mindful not to use the same standards of bygone days for today - at the very least to judge whether a sin is "mortal" or not using such standards.

Comment by: MMC
Posted: 11/04/2014 17:35:48

Respectfully, this article is rubbish. Church Tradition which includes the Fathers, Doctors, Magisterium, and Saints of almost two millenia speak clearly and precisely on the matter of the impossibility of divorce. Please read the following link that lists countless texts which prove this point. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05054c.htm Any attempt to change the unchangeable doctrine of Jesus Christ will result in in dire consequences to our already evil and dying world. Wake up Catholics before it's too late. Our hierarchy is infected with wolves. Seek the truth found in Tradition and restore all things in Christ the King! Read the Remnant, Harvesting the Fruit with Louie Verrechio, Catholic Family News etc. God bless~

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