What Jesus Said About Divorce

Pope Francis concluded his homily during the Canonization Mass of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II by invoking the intercession of the two new saints as the Church journeys towards the upcoming Synod on the Family. He finished his homily with the beautiful words, “May both of them teach us not to be scandalized by the wounds of Christ and to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of divine mercy, which always hopes and always forgives, because it always loves.”

The Church is called during this time in preparation for the Synod, to reflect ever more deeply on the teaching of Jesus Christ with regard to marriage, a teaching that is full of mercy: hoping, forgiving, and loving to the end. We see Christ exercise his pastoral teaching on marriage in various places throughout the Gospels: during the wedding at Cana, in conversation with the woman at the well, and in his response to the woman caught in adultery. In this article, I wish to focus primarily on Christ’s teaching on marriage in Matthew Chapter 19:3-11, a teaching that is echoed in each of the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus’ teaching, though sometimes difficult for us to accept, is always full of love, mercy, and compassion.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 19, we read the account where the Pharisees approached Jesus to test him, and offered him a challenge.

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“Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” (Mt 19:3)

Notice, the Pharisees were not asking whether or not divorce is lawful, but rather they were asking Jesus about the appropriate grounds for divorce of which he considers to be lawful. This question was proposed to Christ by two different schools of the Pharisees. On one hand was the Hillel School which claimed that any number of reasons could be grounds for divorce as long as the man gave the woman a bill of divorce. On the other hand, the Shammai School claimed that a man could divorce his wife only for very serious reasons, such as infidelity. So, this question was proposed to Jesus to test him on his interpretation of the Mosaic Law found in the Book of Deuteronomy, “When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and therefore he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house” (Deuteronomy 24:1).

The Pharisees question is one of a subjective vs. objective interpretation of this passage from Deuteronomy. The Hillel School took a more subjective approach to its interpretation, emphasizing that it is the man who “finds in her” something indecent. While the Shammai School took a more objective approach, claiming that there are certain definitive criteria to determine what is “indecent.” The Pharisees question is also this: Should the Mosaic Law with regard to divorce be interpreted in the man’s favor (Hillel) or in the woman’s favor (Shammai)? It is a question which places a specific interpretation of the man’s rights under Mosaic Law against the compassion and fidelity that is owed to a faithful wife.

If Jesus answered that divorce was only lawful for serious reasons such as infidelity, those in the Hillel School would claim that he was not honoring a man’s rights in the law handed down from Moses. On the other hand, if Jesus answered that a man could divorce his wife for any number of reasons; those in the Shammai School would claim that Jesus has little or no compassion for women. This question of the Pharisees is one that continues to resound to this day. It could be summed up as a question of the law vs. love, doctrine vs. compassion, theology vs. pastoral charity.

It is striking that Jesus does not enter this debate on the grounds that it was proposed. But, rather his answer reveals that according to the Divine plan, there is no opposition between the law and love, between doctrine and compassion, between theology and pastoral charity. Christ’s answer to the Pharisees demonstrates that God’s law is a law of love, that His doctrine on marriage is full of compassion, and that theology and pastoral charity are always united.

“Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘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. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19:4-6).

Christ’s doctrine on marriage is one that is full of love, because it reveals the very essence of love. Love by its very nature is faithful, forever, and fruitful. Love is always grounded on truth, as it does not permit lies or deception. A temporary agreement could rightly be called a legal contract, but love knows no end. And love is never selfish or self-seeking but rather always expands in service to another. Christ reveals that a husband and wife are called to the Law of Love that is inscribed in our nature by the Creator “from the beginning.” Yet, the Pharisees continue to argue on the grounds of the Mosaic Law.

“[The Pharisees] said to him, ‘Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?’ [Jesus] said to them, ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so’ ” (Mt 19:7-8).

The Pharisees response to the Divine teaching about the indissolubility of marriage is to again invoke the Law of Moses. Christ again responds by revealing the truth about marriage “from the beginning.” The concession that Moses granted which allowed for divorce was not an act of mercy, but rather an explicit recognition of the need for a savior. The people, on their own accord, were simply incapable of loving one another as God loves. Their “hearts” had become “hardened” and darkened by sin. Moses could not save the people from their sin. In the hardness of their hearts, the law of God had become burdensome, and so Moses permitted divorce for a time, awaiting a redeemer who could turn their hearts of stone into natural hearts, hearts capable of love. (See Ezekiel 11:19.)

It is important to note that Moses was not acting out of mercy, but out of obligation when he permitted divorce. Mercy always recognizes the full weight of sin, a weight that demands the punishment of death. Christ is the One capable of exercising mercy, because as the sinless One, he accepted the just punishment for our sins and offered the forgiveness of God. Our works of mercy, the mercy that we show to others, are only true mercy if these works are connected to the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Mercy always recognizes the full evil of sin, but Christ’s mercy allows sinners a new opportunity to reform their lives and live according to the truth that will set us free. (See John 8:32.)

The mercy of Christ with regard to the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is demonstrated most poignantly in John Chapter 8, the passage of the woman caught in adultery. We see here how the law and love, doctrine and compassion, theology and pastoral charity, are perfectly compatible in Christ’s great act of mercy towards the woman. Again, the Pharisees try to trap Jesus. But, Jesus answers in a way that is full of mercy as he clearly recognizes the truth of the reality of sin while forgiving the sinner. Christ always meets people where they are, but he never leaves them where they are. One who encounters Christ is always changed, as we can presume that the woman caught in adultery did not later return to her sinful ways following a brief period of penance.

Cardinal Carlo Caffarra in his March 14, 2014 interview in Il Foglio, beautifully described the Mercy of Christ given to the woman caught in adultery.

“For a woman caught in the very act, the demands of the Mosaic Law were clear: she should be stoned to death. In fact the Pharisees asked Jesus what he thought precisely in order to draw him into their perspective. If he had said “stone her” they would have replied: “Look, He preaches mercy and eats with sinners but when it comes to it even he says “stone her.” If he had said “don’t stone her” they would have replied: “And this is where mercy leads us: it destroys the Law and every legal and moral bond.” This is the typical view of casuistic morality which takes you into a blind alley where you have to choose between the person and upholding the norm. The Pharisees try to trap Jesus in this blind alley. But Jesus doesn’t accept their perspective at all; he says that adultery is a great evil and that it destroys humanity, also of the person who commits this act. Jesus, in order to overcome this evil, doesn’t condemn the person who has committed this act; rather he cures the person of this great evil and commands her not to enter into this evil again. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and do not sin again.” This is the mercy of which only the Lord is capable. This is the mercy which the Church, from one generation to the next, announces.”

In the beautiful passage of Christ’s response to the woman caught in adultery, Jesus demonstrates the truth about mercy, love, and forgiveness. And, this truth about love and mercy is our hope as Christians. Christ offers us the capacity and the ability to change, “relying not on our own strength, but on the help and grace of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 1817) Christ calls us to love in a way that we are not capable of on our own. In his Incarnation, Christ does not destroy our human nature but elevates it, revealing our true calling to live as sons and daughters of God.

Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage may seem outdated in modern times or difficult to accept, but his teaching is clear and unequivocal, held by the Church for nearly 2,000 years.

“I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery” (Mt 19:9).

Jesus clearly demonstrates the truth about marriage, that it is ordained by God to last “until death.” Marriage reveals the truth about God’s love, a love that is faithful to the end. Truth and love, theology and pastoral charity, are perfectly united in this teaching of Christ.

There are some in the Church today who are proposing various “solutions” whereby someone who is divorced and civilly remarried can be admitted to Holy Communion. These “solutions” claim that we can somehow separate Christian doctrine from pastoral charity. This is a claim that is absurd for a Christian, as it would in effect be living as if Christ’s teaching no longer applies. We must be clear that any “solution” that does not honor the explicit teaching of Christ, a teaching that is full of love and hope, would in turn not be merciful. Such a “solution” would instead be the very negation of mercy. It would be the equivalent to Christ saying to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you, so you are now free to continue your adulterous union.”

Such a “solution” would not be Christian but would be an attempt to move “beyond Jesus” to what we perceive to be more compassionate. It would not only negate Christ’s teaching on marriage, but would also negate his teaching on love and mercy. It would in effect be a claim that we now know better than Jesus, and that one can be saved while disregarding his teachings that we find to be too difficult.

Unless they were willing to agree to live perpetually “as brother and sister,” we simply cannot admit those who are divorced and civilly remarried to the Sacraments and still remain faithful to the teaching of Christ. But the questions still remain … How does the Church exercise charity towards those in this situation? How does the Church call those living in an objective state of adultery to the heights of holiness to which all the baptized are called?

Let us return again to the words of Pope Francis during his homily at the Canonization Mass, “May both [Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II] teach us not to be scandalized by the wounds of Christ.” Certainly there are many people in the Church today who have been divorced and civilly remarried. The pastoral solution for the Church is that we must more deeply enter into their wounds, helping them to carry their daily cross. Faithful to the words of Jesus, certainly the Church can do a better job of providing the support and encouragement necessary to help these couples live in complete continence. This is certainly not easy, but it is filled with the hope that comes from Christ, a hope that does not rely on our own strength, but on the power of the Holy Spirit. Trusting in the Lord’s promise and frequently receiving the grace of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist, these couples faithfully committed to live in complete continence can reach the heights of sanctity to which all the baptized are called.

Many today will complain that this is too hard, who can accept it? (See John 6:60.) Wasn’t this the very attitude of the disciples when Christ gave his teaching on marriage in Matthew 19?

“[His] disciples said to him, ‘If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Mt 19:10).  

The disciples clearly understand human nature and rightly discern that the teaching of Christ is extremely difficult if not impossible to fulfill on our own. But, unlike Moses, who was pressured to give in to the demands of human nature out of obligation, Christ offers something new. The path to living the truth about marriage, the ability to accept the words of Christ, requires that we be granted something, or rather Someone, as a Gift from God. It is only when a person is granted the Gift of the Holy Spirit that they can live the truth of their sexuality according to their state in life. This is the hope that comes not from our own power, but from God.

“Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted” (Mt 19:11).

Allowing the divorced and civilly remarried to be admitted to Holy Communion, does not represent a docility or openness to the Holy Spirit, but rather the very denial of the power of the Holy Spirit to heal us and transform our lives. So, the proposed “solution” allowing for Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, would ultimately be based on a false understanding of love and mercy, and a denial of hope. Certainly, those who are divorced and civilly remarried deserve better than this.

The proper pastoral solution for those who are divorced and civilly remarried, a solution founded on the very words of Christ in Sacred Scripture, can be found in St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio #84. Every Catholic should take this time leading up to the Synod as an opportunity to read or re-read the wisdom and pastoral insight found in Familiars Corsortio.     

The Synod will certainly have the challenge of discussing how to effectively evangelize and catechize those Catholics who have been divorced and civilly remarried. Perhaps for many of these couples, the Church could encourage them to look into the annulment process, in order to lawfully determine the validity of any previous unions. For those for whom this is not a possibility, the Church must find pastoral ways to encourage these couples to live separately or at the very least “as brother and sister.” This is a cross that is difficult, though certainly not impossible, with the grace of God and the assistance of the Church.

In addition to finding pastoral solutions to help those who are divorced and civilly remarried carry their cross, the Synod will also need to address the root causes of divorce. Not the least among the root causes of divorce is a widespread grave lack of understanding and acceptance of God’s design for marriage, a lifelong union of man and woman which is ordered to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. To this end the Church as a whole could certainly look to more widely incorporating St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body throughout the entire catechetical process.

With the great crisis affecting marriage and family life in today’s culture, the Synod Fathers will certainly have much to discuss at the upcoming Synod.  It would not be charitable to those who are divorced and civilly remarried to disregard 2,000 years of fidelity to Christ’s teaching in an effort to be seemingly compassionate or pastoral. To do so would be to deny the truth about love, mercy, and forgiveness, and to give way to hopelessness.

Editor’s note: The image above depicting Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well was painted by Francesco Fernandi (1679-1740).


  • Daniel Thimons

    Daniel Thimons is Director of the Office for Marriage and Family Life in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He previously held the same position for the Diocese of Columbus. The views expressed in his articles are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

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