The Catholic Church bases its teaching about the indissolubility of marriage on the teaching of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus said that remarriage after divorce is wrong, so that is what we believe (CCC 1614). However, if we take a closer look at our Church’s teaching on this matter, things are not quite so simple. See, the Church does not actually say that no marriages can ever be dissolved. Instead, for a marriage to be 100% indissoluble, it must be both sacramental and consummated (CCC 1640). In other words, for divorce and remarriage to be absolutely impossible, two conditions have to apply:
- 1) The marriage has to be sacramental, and only marriages between two baptized Christians (they don’t have to be Catholic, but they do have to be Christian) are sacramental (1617, 1660). If one (or both) of the spouses is not baptized, then the marriage is valid, but it is not sacramental.
- 2) The marriage must also be consummated. If a couple goes through the wedding ceremony but never has sex, they are truly married, and their marriage is sacramental (if they are both baptized), but it is not consummated.
In some (very limited) cases, the Church can dissolve a marriage if one of these conditions isn’t met (Code of Canon Law, Canons 1142-1143), and this raises a very serious question for us: why are some marriages absolutely indissoluble but others are not? Is the Church contradicting Jesus’ clear teaching on the matter when she says that she can dissolve some marriages?
Not at all. As paradoxical as it may seem, this teaching is actually rooted in the logic of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and remarriage. To see how, let’s start with the case of marriages in which one of the spouses is not baptized. The key here is to understand what Jesus was actually doing when he taught about matters of morality. He was not just giving timeless ethical norms that all people in all times and places should follow. Granted, all people in all times and places should follow most of his teachings, but that was not his immediate purpose. Instead, he was teaching people how they should behave if they are to be citizens of the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:20), and the Church is the kingdom of God on earth (CCC 567).
As a result, it is possible that some of Jesus’ teachings apply only to members of the Church and not to outsiders, and the magisterium of the Church, basing itself on the words of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 7:12-15), has come to the conclusion that his absolute prohibition of divorce and remarriage is one such teaching. It applies only to the baptized (the relationship between Catholics and other Christians is complicated, but suffice it to say that if you are baptized, you are a member of the Church at least in some sense), so it excludes marriages in which at least one member is unbaptized.
In fact, Jesus’ teaching about divorce actually confirms this for us. He accepted that marriages under the Law of Moses could rightly be dissolved (Matthew 19:7-8). He said it was a concession for the people’s hardness of heart, but he nevertheless accepted the possibility of divorce and remarriage before his coming. This means that he never intended to teach that all marriages are 100% indissoluble, so the Church is simply following his lead when she says that some non-sacramental marriages can in fact be dissolved.
That was fairly straightforward, but the case of unconsummated marriages is a bit more complicated. Nothing in Jesus’ teaching seems to imply that consummation has any bearing on whether or not it can be dissolved, so to understand this one, we need to begin by looking at something St. Paul says. In one of his letters, he discusses the immorality of visiting prostitutes, and he tells his readers:
“Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two shall become one.’” (1 Corinthians 6:16)
Here, Paul tells us that when someone has sex with a prostitute, they unite and become “one body.” Interestingly, when he says this, he quotes Genesis 2:24 (“The two shall become one”), the same verse that Jesus quoted as part of the basis of his prohibition of divorce and remarriage. Jesus said:
“Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning 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’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
When we compare these two passages, we can see that the indissoluble bond of marriage is related to the physical bond that any two people, even unmarried couples, form when they have sex. Granted, this doesn’t mean that every couple that has sex is irreversibly bonded to each other, but it does mean that sex is a key part of what makes a marriage indissoluble.
More specifically, since Jesus based his prohibition of divorce and remarriage on a verse that refers in particular to the physical bond that a couple forms when they have sex, the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage must be based on more than just the spouses’ consent given at the wedding ceremony. It is also based on the bond they form when they consummate their marriage. Consequently, if a couple hasn’t had sex yet, they do not have everything that makes their bond indissoluble, so Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce and remarriage does not apply to them.
From all this, we can see that the Church’s teaching that some marriages can be dissolved does not contradict Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and remarriage. Instead, if we carefully examine the logic of Jesus’ teaching on the matter, we can see that non-sacramental and non-consummated marriages are implicitly excluded from his absolute prohibition. There is good reason to believe that he didn’t intend to cover these cases, so there is no contradiction between Jesus and the Church on this important question.