Divorce II: What did St Paul have to say on the subject?
We saw yesterday that the teaching on divorce presented in the gospels (a) is ambiguous, and (b) doesn't seem to address some important issues, like domestic violence or mental cruelty.
Fear not! We can look elsewhere in scripture, and particularly at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16...
"To the married, however, I give this instruction (not I, but the Lord): a wife should not separate from her husband — and if she does separate she must either remain single or become reconciled to her husband — and a husband should not divorce his wife.
This is interesting. A couple of points should be made about it.
First, Paul probably wrote 1 Corinthians without ever having seen Mark, Matthew, or Luke. Nevertheless he knows that Christ prohibited divorce, and he says so in the first paragraph quoted above. (Presumably he learned this through the same oral tradition which also gave rise, in time, to Mark, Matthew and Luke.)
Secondly, although he knows that Christ prohibited divorce, he feels able to go on and offer his own teaching (which, he says clearly, is not Jesus' teaching) allowing divorce where one of the spouses is not a Christian, and is not willing to live with the Christian spouse. This can only mean that he didn't regard Jesus's teaching on this subject as complete or definitive. He felt that he (and, by extension, the church) could "round it out", addressing situations that he thought Jesus had not addressed.
And, thirdly, Paul makes a clear distinction (in a way that Jesus does not) between separation and divorce. Paul's distinction is not our distinction; in Paul, women separate from their husbands but men divorce their wives. Nevertheless, the distinction is made, and we will see it again.
Christians and Divorce
So what have Christians made of this? There's a diversity of attitudes to divorce within Christianity, and it is instructive to explore them. I'll look today at Catholic views, and over the next couple of days at Protestant and Orthodox views.
Divorce - A Catholic View
What Paul fairly clearly says in 1 Corinthians is that, if your unbelieving spouse leaves the marriage, you can divorce (if a man) or accept a divorce (if a woman). And, by implication, you can marry again.
Pretty well all stripes of Christianity, including Catholics, accept this — in Catholicism it's called the "Pauline privilege". But Christians differ in how they understand and apply it in practice. And the differences mostly come down to two points. First, what is an "unbelieving spouse"? Secondly, what is "leaving a marriage"?
The Catholic view is a strict one; an "unbeliever" means an unbaptised person. So if your spouse was baptised (in any Christian denomination) he or she is not an "unbeliever", even if now a Hindu, or a militant atheist. So far as the Catholic church is concerned your marriage cannot be dissolved under the Pauline privilege.
So the Pauline privilege has very limited application for Catholics, and really offers no basis for an approach to problems like violence or cruelty.
Instead, Catholics historically dealt with the situation by looking at Paul's distinction between separation and divorce. The battered wife can separate from her husband and regularise her affairs (including, if appropriate, by obtaining a civil divorce). What she cannot do is remarry. Her husband's conduct, appalling though it may be, does not in itself invalidate her marriage.
More recently, Catholic understanding of marriage has moved towards an acceptance that, while something like violence or cruelty cannot itself dissolve a marriage, it can be evidence or a manifestation of some underlying problem — usually psychological or developmental — which is inconsistent with Christian marriage. Thus violence, cruelty, persistent infidelity, etc., offer a basis for examining whether one (or both) of the spouses suffers from some psychological or emotional incapacity which is so great as to make the marriage, in Matthew's terms, "unlawful", and allow it to be annulled.
I could write more about annulment (and maybe I will in another commentary), but here I want to compare Christian approaches specifically to divorce, so I won't just now. Tomorrow and the next day I will look at how Protestant and Orthodox Christians understand and apply the scriptural teachings on divorce.
Photo Credit: Animations by Brian Coyne.
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