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Matthew 19:9

I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.

On a simple examination, it seems to imply that sexual immorality, for example, adultery, constitutes grounds for divorce.

Yet this is not the Catholic interpretation; what is the Catholic interpretation of this?

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It's not just the Roman Catholics. Here's John Piper's position paper, where he elaborates on his belief that the Biblical teaching is that "all remarriage after divorce is prohibited while both spouses are alive." – Philip Schaff Aug 19 '14 at 1:55
Now in Matthew there is a possible loophole — an exception for cases of “sexual immorality” (depending on the translation) — that is often cited by those churches that have allowed divorce. But the present Catholic understanding, that the Matthean exception either referred to premarital behavior that would make the marriage invalid or else licensed separation but not remarriage, has the strongest claim to being the view of the early church. - Why I Am A Catholic | Ross Douthat. – FMS Oct 29 '14 at 19:56

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Good question! In the New American Bible (Revised Edition), which is the translation authorized by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops for use in the United States, Matt. 19:9 reads:

I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.

(Note: you don't specify which translation you're using; that would be helpful information.)

It would be interesting to know what the original Greek says; I may search for or post a question on Biblical Hermeneutics about that.

The NABRE has a note on the verse, referring to a note on Matt. 5:31–32. That note reads:

(Unless the marriage is unlawful): this “exceptive clause,” as it is often called, occurs also in Mt 19:9, where the Greek is slightly different. There are other sayings of Jesus about divorce that prohibit it absolutely (see Mk 10:11–12; Lk 16:18; cf. 1 Cor 7:10, 11b), and most scholars agree that they represent the stand of Jesus. Matthew’s "exceptive clauses" are understood by some as a modification of the absolute prohibition. It seems, however, that the unlawfulness that Matthew gives as a reason why a marriage must be broken refers to a situation peculiar to his community: the violation of Mosaic law forbidding marriage between persons of certain blood and/or legal relationship (Lv 18:6–18). Marriages of that sort were regarded as incest (porneia), but some rabbis allowed Gentile converts to Judaism who had contracted such marriages to remain in them. Matthew’s “exceptive clause” is against such permissiveness for Gentile converts to Christianity; cf. the similar prohibition of porneia in Acts 15:20, 29. In this interpretation, the clause constitutes no exception to the absolute prohibition of divorce when the marriage is lawful.

Thus, it appears that Catholic interpretation of this particular passage considers the statement in Matthew to refer to a specific situation present uniquely in Matthew's community at the time, and thus not applicable generally, and gives precedence to the alternate statements on divorce present in the other synoptic gospels.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees with this interpretation:

Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery:

If a husband, separated from his wife, approaches another woman, he is an adulterer because he makes that woman commit adultery; and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has drawn another’s husband to herself.

(CCC, paragraph 2384. The quoted section is cited as "St. Basil, Moralia 73, 1".)

This is why the Church is so forcefully against divorce.

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I asked that question on []… a while ago I was wondering how the apostles inferred where the parentheses begin and end. – Peter Turner Aug 19 '14 at 14:20

A catholic within the parameters set by the Magestarium can interpret this verse in the following ways:

  1. Sexual immorality can be a valid reason for civil divorce. But such divorced couples cannot remarry.
  2. The word used in Matthew 19:9 for sexual immorality is: porneia. This word can also mean marriage with close relatives. (Ordinary Greek word for adultery is moicheuō) So some interpret this verse as a reference to marriage between close blood relatives (siblings etc.,). Such people can get a divorce (Annulment in Catholic terminology). Such divorced couples can remarry. Here Christ's words except for sexual immorality is interpreted as except for cases where unlawful unions exist. Some do not accept this explanation as a marriage does not happen if there is a serious impediment (like being close blood relative).

Also note that civil divorce is not prohibited for Catholics:

If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense. (CCC 2383)

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thanks! I was looking for the point #2, many thanks for that reference! I think however, that you mix divorce and annulment, since there is no divorce in catholic church; so your point #1, I think is a little misleading to those who may not get your loose use of the word "divorce", which I think you mean to be synonymous with "annulment" – Greg Bala Aug 18 '14 at 15:50
You can't conflate divorce and annulment like that. A divorce is an ending of a marriage: you were married yesterday but now you're not. An annulment is a rewriting of history: because the marriage itself was invalid (e.g., because somebody was adopted and it's just been discovered that they married a close blood-relative), it is deemed that the marriage never actually happened. Yesterday, you thought you were married; today, you can't say "I was married yesterday". – David Richerby Aug 18 '14 at 17:29

This answer takes a different approach. That God cannot contradict himself, that there is scriptural coherency regarding the indissolubility of marriage, and from Church Teaching, the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage comes through Scripture and Tradition.

There is an actual example right there in the Gospel

cf. Mk 6:18 (RSVCE): “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

Please note that St. John the Baptist does not even apply the word 'marriage' to what Herod and Hero′di-as had entered into.

The valid marriage he recognizes is that between Herod's brother Philip and Hero′di-as.1 In the words of Our LORD, through his prophet John, Herod must then put aside Hero′di-as because continuing to have her would be continuing their adulterous affair.

God is the author of marriage from the very beginning, and by his laws, determines which marriages are valid and which are not.

1. If the understanding of Mt 19:9 is in case of sexual misconduct, it puzzles why St. John the Baptist is not 'exhorting' Herod's brother Philip to divorce Hero'dias because of her being in the state of continual sexual misconduct/unchastity of adultery - she is in a new marriage forbidden by the law.

Ending commentary:

  1. The question and this answer reveal the mistake and danger of interpreting or trying to understand scripture disjointly, which is coherent as a whole. MattGutting's answer argues in this line as well. Doing so, God would be contradicting himself by what he himself says, and what he says through his prophet. From Catholic Teaching, it is from [Holy] Tradition and Sacred Scripture which bound closely together, and communicating with each other, that we obtain the entire public revelation. [cf. CCC The Relationship Between Tradition and Sacred Scripture]. From them both, as answers have have pointed out, the Church has always upheld the indissolubility of marriage [cf. CCC The unity and indissolubility of marriage & On the indissolubility of marriage ... | Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller].
  2. We know of the resulting dire consequences: Herod followed through on an imprudent oath (was the insatiable beast he had created in himself now chasing after the daughter of the woman 'he loved'?) that had John beheaded, he regretfully could no longer listen to John, and he never got to hear the LORD's voice nor witness a miracle of His.

Further reading on the various Herods. The one here is Herod Antipas.

Prohibited Marriages and Illegitimate Children under Marriage | Jewish Virtual Library

The Torah sets forth a laundry list of prohibited relations. Such marriages are never valid. A man cannot marry certain close blood relatives, the ex-wives of certain close blood relatives, a woman who has not been validly divorced from her previous husband, the daughter or granddaughter of his ex-wife, or the sister of his ex-wife during the ex-wife's life time.

The offspring of such a marriage are mamzerim (bastards, illegitimate), and subject to a variety of restrictions; however it is important to note that only the offspring of these incestuous or forbidden marriages are mamzerim. Children born out of wedlock are not mamzerim in Jewish law and bear no stigma, unless the marriage would have been prohibited for the reasons above. Children of a married man and a woman who is not his wife are not mamzerim (because the marriage between the parents would not have been prohibited), although children of a married woman and a man who is not her husband are mamzerim (because she could not have married him).

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