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By Prof. Michael Ogunu

“The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptised persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament” [Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1601]. Thus, any valid marriage between two baptised people is a sacramental marriage and, once consummated, cannot be dissolved except by death. Jesus, therefore, taught that if anyone so married divorces and remarries, that person is living in perpetual adultery, a state of mortal sin.

He said, “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who mar­ries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18; cf. Mark 10:11-12).

Most protestants often quote those other words of Christ in the same chapter, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery” as justification for divorce; but it is plain that Christ’s statement in this context permits not a divorce but a separation. It is not a dissolution of the marriage bond, but a putting away of the guilty party; for elsewhere our Lord declares that “He that marries her that is put away from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16). Saint Paul commands that the wife shall not depart from her husband, “and if she departs, she should remain unmarried, or be reconciled with her husband” (1 Corinthians 7).

Paul also declared that “a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives. . . . Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive” (Rom. 7:2-3).

This applied, of course, only to sacramental mar­riages—those between baptised people. For mar­riages involving an unbaptised party, a different rule applied (1 Cor. 7:12-15).

In the midst of the Greco-Roman culture, which allowed for easy divorce and remarriage, the early Church Fathers proclaimed Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage—just as the Catholic Church does today in our modern, secular, easy-divorce culture (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1614-1615). Other denominations have modified their teachings to accommodate the pro-divorce ethos that dominates modern culture, but the Cath­olic Church preserves the teaching of Jesus and the early Christians.

While their ex-spouses are alive, the only time that a baptised couple can remarry after divorce is when a valid sacramental marriage never existed in the first place. For example, for a marriage to be contracted, the two parties must exchange valid matrimonial consent. If they do not, the marriage is null. If the competent authority (a diocesan marriage tribunal) establishes this fact, a decree of nullity (commonly called an annulment) can be granted, and the parties are free to remarry (CCC 1629). In this case there is no divorce followed by remarriage in God’s eyes because there was no marriage before God in the first place, merely a marriage in the eyes of men.

If, however, the parties are genuinely and sacramentally married, then, while in some cases there may be good reasons for them to live apart and even to obtain a legal separation, in God’s eyes they are not free to remarry (CCC 1649).

This is not a commandment of men, but one that comes directly from Jesus Christ. As Paul said, “To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10-11).

Fortunately, God will ensure that the sacramentally married have the grace necessary to live out their marriage vows and either stay married or live continently. The sacrament of matrimony itself gives this grace. Whenever we face a trial, God ensures that we will have the grace we need. As Paul elsewhere says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).

As the following quotations from the early Church Fathers illustrate, they also recognised the seriousness of Christ’s teaching regarding the indissolubility of marriage.

Council of Elvira: “Likewise, women who have left their husbands for no prior cause and have joined themselves with others, may not even at death receive Communion” (Canon 8 [A.D. 300]).

“Likewise, a woman of the faith [i.e., a baptized person] who has left an adulterous husband of the faith and marries another, her marrying in this manner is prohibited. If she has so married, she may not receive Communion—unless he that she has left has since departed from this world” (Canon 9).

Basil the Great: “A man who marries after another man’s wife has been taken away from him will be charged with adultery in the case of the first woman; but in the case of the second he will be guiltless” (Second Ca­nonical Letter to Amphilochius199:37 [A.D. 375]).

Ambrose of Milan: “No one is permitted to know a woman other than his wife. The marital right is given you for this reason: lest you fall into the snare and sin with a strange woman. ‘If you are bound to a wife, do not seek a divorce’; for you are not permitted, while your wife lives, to marry another” (Abraham 1:7:59 [A.D. 387]).

“You dismiss your wife, therefore, as if by right and without being charged with wrongdoing; and you suppose it is proper for you to do so because no human law forbids it; but divine law forbids it. Anyone who obeys men ought to stand in awe of God. Hear the law of the Lord, which even they who propose our laws must obey: ‘What God has joined together let no man put asunder’ ” (Commentary on Luke 8:5 [A.D. 389]).

Pope Innocent I: “The practice is observed by all of regarding as an adulteress a woman who marries a second time while her husband yet lives, and permission to do penance is not granted her until one of them is dead” (Letters 2:13:15 [A.D. 408]).

Christian marriage, to be stable and permanent, needs to be built upon the foundation of an unconditional, mutual covenant commitment that will not allow anything or anyone “to put asunder” the marital union established by God. To accept this Biblical view of marriage as a sacred covenant means to be willing to make total, exclusive, continuing, and growing commitments to our marriage partners. Such commitments are not easy or trouble free. Just as our covenantal commitment to God requires obedience to the principles embodied in the Ten Commandments, so our covenantal commitments to our marriage partners demand obedience to the principles of the Ten Commandments which are applicable to our marriage relationships.   There is no other way to enter into the joys of Christian marriage than by assuming its covenantal obligations. When we commit ourselves to honour our marriage covenants of mutual faithfulness “till death do us part”, then we experience how God is able mysteriously to unite two lives into “one flesh”. Honouring our marriage covenant is fundamental to the stability of our family, church and society. 


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