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Divorce-and-Remarriage

The official catechism for the Roman Catholic Church forbids that Eucharistic communion be given to those who have divorced and remarried and are living in this second marriage as man and wife:

In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ—“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”—the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.

Toward Christians who live in this situation, and who often keep the faith and desire to bring up their children in a Christian manner, priests and the whole community must manifest an attentive solicitude, so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptized persons:

They should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace.

The Catholic Synod of Bishops recently debated this issue, with liberal bishops arguing that exceptions to this rule should be made on a pastoral, case-by-case basis. The synod functions not as a decision-making body within the Church but rather provides the Pope with reflections and counsel through their deliberations and final report. While Pope Francis seems to be with the liberal bishops on this, it’s unclear to me (as an outside Protestant observer) that there will be any change to the Church’s doctrine or practice.

Evangelicals are divided on the question of what exceptions, if any, allow for divorce and then for remarriage. They tend to be united, however, against the Catholic view that a sinful remarriage should also be broken.

In his book This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 170-71, John Piper offers three reasons for this view. I’ve reprinted the relevant section below.


 

I do not think that a person who remarries against God’s will, and thus commits adultery in this way [Luke 16:18], should later break the second marriage. The marriage should not have been done, but now that it is done, it should not be undone by man. It is a real marriage. Real covenant vows have been made. And that real covenant of marriage may be purified by the blood of Jesus and set apart for God. In other words, I don’t think that a couple who repents and seeks God’s forgiveness and receives his cleansing should think of their lives as ongoing adultery, even though, in the eyes of Jesus, that’s how the relationship started. There are several reasons why I believe this.

1. Deuteronomy 24:4 speaks against going back to a first husband after marrying a second.

First, in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where the permission for divorce was given in the law of Moses, it speaks of the divorced woman being “defiled” in the second marriage so that it would be an abomination for her to return to her first husband, even if her second husband died. This language of defilement is similar to Jesus’ language of adultery. And yet the second marriage stood. It was defiling in some sense, yet it was valid.

2. Jesus seemed to regard multiple marriages as wrong but real.

Another reason I think remarried couples should stay together is that when Jesus met the woman of Samaria, he said to her, “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband” (John 4:18). When Jesus says, “The one you have now is not your husband,” he seems to imply that the other five were. Not that it’s right to divorce and marry five times. But the way Jesus speaks of it sounds as though he saw them as real marriages. Illicit. Adulterous to enter into, but real. Valid.

3. Even vows that should not be made should generally be kept.

The third reason I think remarried couples should stay together is that even vows that should not be made, once they are made, should generally be kept. I don’t want to make that absolute for every conceivable situation, but there are passages in the Bible that speak of vows being made that should not have been made, but they were right to keep (like Joshua’s vow to the Gibeonites in Joshua 9). God puts a very high value on keeping our word, even when it gets us in trouble (“[The godly man] swears to his own hurt and does not change,” Ps. 15:4). In other words, it would have been more in keeping with God’s revealed will not to remarry, but adding the sin of another covenant-breaking does not please God more.

There are marriages in the church I serve that are second marriages for one or both partners, which, in my view, should not have happened, but are today godly marriages—marriages that are clean and holy, and in which forgiven, justified husbands and wives please God by the way they relate to each other. As forgiven, cleansed, Spirit-led followers of Jesus, they are not committing adultery in their marriages. These marriages began as they should not have but have become holy.

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