Monday, 30 March 2015
Christ On Divorce by REV. HERBERT J. RICHARDS, S.T.L., L.S.S, part 1
“WHY is your Church so strict about divorce? If a marriage has turned out a failure, why not dissolve it? Surely you will do more harm than good otherwise. People are human, and if they have made a mistake they ought to be given a second chance. What right have you to be stricter than Christ, who admitted that unfaithfulness could be a ground for divorce?”
The objection may not be put in so many words, but it is implicit in the minds of many people, who are frankly puzzled and even shocked by the Catholic Church’s attitude to divorce, and who cannot see in Christ’s words, as St Matthew reports them, anything other than a permission, at least for the innocent party in a divorce to remarry.
In actual fact the meaning of the phrase except it be for fornication is not nearly as obvious as people think. That it should have given rise to a great variety of interpretations is sufficient indication that it is an ambiguous phrase. About the only thing that scholars agree on is that it cannot be taken to mean that Christ gave any sort of permission for divorce and remarriage: it simply will not fit the context or the rest of the New Testament teaching on marriage.
It will be useful to look into that general New Testament teaching before discussing the possible meaning of the words which St Matthew has put on Christ’s lips. It forms the necessary background for the understanding of that enigmatic phrase.
1. ST PAUL ON MARRIAGE
IT may seem odd to approach the teaching of Christ by way of the occasional letters written by St Paul to his converts twenty or thirty years later. It will seem less odd when it is is remembered that these letters introduce us into the life of communities who were practising the teaching of Christ long before it was ever written down in the Gospels. If we wish to know what Christ taught, we can have no safer guide than the practice of the first Christian churches.
TO THE CHURCH AT CORINTH
About the year A.D. 55 St. Paul wrote his first letter to Corinth, a church which he had founded on his second missionary journey five years earlier. In common with the rest of the first generation of Christians, his converts there lived in the fixed hope that they would remain alive to see Christ’s second coming, and they had written to ask whether, in view of this transportation into heaven, “where there wilt be no more marrying or being married” (Mt. 22: 30), it might not be better to remain celibates, whether in fact it might not even be advisable to break up existing marriages. Paul wrote:
“ In reply to the questions you asked me to answer:
(1) Yes, you are quite right in supposing that celibacy is a good thing. But that does not mean that marriage is something evil. In fact, in a background like that of Corinth, where there is such constant danger of immorality, it is better for a man to have a wife, and for a woman to have a husband.
(2) No, you are wrong in supposing that husband and wife should live as brother and sister. In fact, by the marriage contract the wife has given over to her husband the right to her body, as the husband has to his wife, and you have no business to deny this right to each other. You may both agree to abstain from the use of marriage for some spiritual reason, but this should only be for a short period at a time. To refuse to come together again would leave both of you wide open to temptation. (What I have said here about the advisability of marriage is of course not to be taken as a command. As far as my own preferences in the matter go, I would personally advise anyone to follow the greater perfection of the celibate life I lead myself. But this demands a gift from God, and if God has not given you this gift, then celibacy is not for you. For you he has a different gift in store. So, I repeat, any unmarried person, widow or widower would do well to Mt. 19: 9 “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery.’ (Douay version). The saying is repeated in a slightly different form in Mt. 5: 32. remain celibate as I do, but only if they can exercise self-control. If they are constantly being overcome by the flames of passion, they should marry)
(3) You are equally wrong in suggesting that existing marriages should be broken up, And here it is not merely a question of my own personal preferences: Christ himself has forbidden wives to leave their husbands, and husbands to divorce their wives. Consequently, if they have separated from each other, they must either remain single or else be reconciled” (1 Cor. 7: 1–11).
ST PAUL HARD ON MARRIAGE?
This page of St Paul has been paraphrased in order to suggest the answer to some of the objections which it has aroused. What sort of a view of marriage is this, people ask, which makes it a poor second-best to celibacy, a concession allowed to those who cannot exercise self-control? The objection is fair enough, if it is presumed that St Paul set out in this letter to present the full Christian doctrine on marriage. But he did not. He set out to answer the twisted questions of some very twisted people.
The Corinthians had moulded their newly found Christianity on the Greek model, with the Greek assumption that religion concerned the soul alone. Salvation was a matter of intellectual appreciation in which the body played no part, to which in fact the body could only be a hindrance. The mentality can be read between every line of the letter which St. Paul wrote to counteract it, from the first chapter’s castigation of Corinth’s intellectual cliques, to the last chapter’s impassioned appeal to the Corinthians to understand that Christianity involves a bodily resurrection, not a merely spiritual one. It is this mentality that has coloured the chapter on marriage too, and allowance must be made for it if St Paul’s thought is not to be misrepresented. It is in answer to the soulless asceticism of the Corinthians that he admits the superiority of Christian celibacy, only to express his doubts about whether they are spiritually mature enough to practise it. It is in answer to the suggestion that marriage is intrinsically evil that he insists on its sacred character (he is not afraid to call it, in v.7, a charisma on the same title as the “spiritual gifts” that are to be outlined in ch. 12–14). It is on the command of Christ (who gave it this sacred character), and not on Paul’s preference, that Christian marriage is to be regarded as unbreakable. As far as the teaching of Christ went, the first generation of Christians knew of no exception to the indissolubility of Christian marriage.
TO THE CHURCHES IN ASIA
If we want a more balanced and a more complete picture of St Paul’s teaching on marriage, we will go to the epistles he wrote later in life, when the heat of controversy was over, when the heresies which threatened to corrupt Christianity from within-Greek intellectualism on the one hand (cf. Thess. and Cor.) and Jewish legalism on the other (cf. Gal., Rom. and Phil.)-had been finally defeated, and when he could set forth his concept of Christianity ex professo instead of merely using it to illustrate a debating point.
From his prison in Rome, about the year 62, Paul wrote a letter to the Christian communities which he and his fellow missionaries had founded from Ephesus, the headquarters of his third journey eight or nine years earlier. The epistle is known to us as “Ephesians,” but with its lack of the usual personal greetings it was probably designed as an encyclical letter to all the churches in the Roman Province of Asia of which Ephesus was the capital. It is the calmest of all Paul’s writings. Not that he had no errors to deal with: between the lines of this epistle he is clearly referring to an incipient form of the Gnosticism which was to give so much trouble to the Christian writers of the second century. But Paul does not write with any of his former anxiety. He is content here to put forward, quite positively, a synthesis of the Christian mystery as it has matured in his mind, convinced that this will satisfy all the searchings of Asia for a philosophy of life. And the sum content of this mystery is Christ, a Christ who possesses from eternity all the fullness of the Godhead, a Christ in whose incarnation God has become present to us, a Christ who has already returned to the earth in the Church, which is his Body, filled at every moment with his fullness. In the Church, the Christian is “in Christ” (the phrase is repeated again and again) and has already entered heaven. For St Paul, this sublime concept of Christianity is not simply the concern of the speculative theologian. It is the guiding principle which must govern the attitude of each Christian to such everyday matters as honesty, patience, humility and purity. It is the reality which must form the background to the everyday relationship between a slave and his master, between a child and its parents . . . and between a wife and her husband.
“The wife should be subject to her husband as if to Christ, since he is her head, just as Christ is the head and saviour of his Body, the Church. Just as the Church is subject to Christ, so should the wife be subject in all things to her husband.
The husband, for his part, should love his wife in the way that Christ loved the Church. It was for the Church that he gave himself up in order to bring it to God . . . It is in this way that the husband should love his wife, as if she were his own body . . . which he takes such care to keep fed and free from harm. For this is precisely how Christ loves us, the limbs that make up his Body, the Church. Genesis spoke of a man leaving his father and mother in order to be united to his wife in one flesh. Those words contain a great mystery, a mystery which has now been revealed in the union between Christ and his Church” (Eph. 5:22–32).
MARRIAGE A METAPHOR
The text again needs to be opened out to reveal the depth of its meaning. The use of the marriage metaphor to describe the union between Christ and the Church is not new. The Old Testament had frequently referred to the Covenant between God and his People in these terms (Deut. 4:24, Isa. 1:21–26, 50:1, 54:6–7, Jer. 2:2, 3:1–12, Ez. 16 and 23, Os. 1–2, Ps. 44, God and his People in these terms (Deut. 4:24, Isa. 1:21–26, 50:1, 54:6–7, Jer. 2:2, 3:1–12, Ez. 16 and 23, Os. 1–2, Ps. 44, 13). What is new is the light that St Paul has thrown on it by turning it back to front. It is not God’s union with man that is something like human marriage. It is human marriage that is the metaphor, an imperfect copy of that other union which is the true reality. And that union between God and man, first echoed in the union between Adam and Eve, and echoed down the ages by the union into one flesh of every human marriage, has received its final seal in the incarnation, where God has become one flesh with mankind. The marriage of which Genesis spoke, itself already an image of God’s marriage with man, was, in St Paul’s mind, a mystical foreshadowing of a more sublime reality still, the marriage between Christ and his Church. And this in its turn becomes the model for Christian marriage, in which two Christians present a replica of that action of Christ and make real again his presence upon the earth. It is, in the last analysis, this sacramental nature of Christian marriage which makes it absolutely indissoluble. It can no more be broken than can the new and eternal covenant into which Christ has entered with his Church.
THE OTHER EPISTLES
There are not many other references to marriage in the rest of the New Testament epistles. What references there are all reflect this same conviction that Christian marriage is something more than a merely human contract, because Christ’s coming has raised the world on to a superhuman level, and marriage with it. Writing to his converts in Salonika, St Paul is anxious to point the contrast between the pagan attitude to marriage and that which must inspire the Christian who is a member of Christ’s Body and a temple of Christ’s Spirit (1 Thess. 4: 4–8). In his epistle to the disciple who is to take over his work in Ephesus, he returns to the Greek heresy against which he had to battle in Corinth ten years earlier, which would maintain that the body is irredeemably evil and the marriage act hopelessly sinful. He insists that everything that God created is good (1 Tim. 4: 1–11), and that in fact it is in the very relationship of marriage that the wife is to win her salvation (2: 15). The epistle to the Hebrews similarly stresses the sacred character of marriage (Heb. 13: 4).
Perhaps the closest parallel to the sublime ideal outlined in Eph. 5 is to be found in the encyclical letter written by St Peter only a year or two later. With the ease and confidence which marks the first Christian exegesis of the Old Testament, St Peter finds the model of the Christian wife in Sara, who addressed Abraham as her “Lord” (Gen. 18: 12, Septuagint), as every wife is to see the figure of Christ the Lord in her husband.
These quotations from the writings of the Apostles are sufficient to give some indication of the light in which Christian marriage was seen by the first generation of Christians. If they do not at first seem to have much relevance to the subject under discussion, the teaching of Christ on divorce, they form its essential background and express something of the spirit in which we must approach the words of Christ as the Gospels have recorded them.