What Would Jesus Say about Redefining Marriage?

The District of Columbia City Council against the wishes of the majority of citizens today imposed a new definition of Marriage. Refusing to put the important issue to vote, 11 of the 13  Council members have used legislative fiat to force this redefinition of marriage.

It occurred to me to wonder what Jesus would say about the redefining of Marriage that is happening in this country of the last number of years? Many today insist that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality or so-called Gay Marriage. Such a remark of course distorts the understanding that the same Holy Spirit who inspired and authored the four Gospels also authored all the epistles and there is plenty of teaching against homosexual activity there.

However, even if we accept the limit imposed that we should find Jesus himself saying something, we are not without any text. In Matthew 19 Jesus does actually address himself to the confused understanding of marriage among the Gentiles. Let me first give the text and then some background and interpretation. I am using here the Catholic NAB translation:

[Jesus said] whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”  (Matt 19:9)

Now the phrase, “unless the marriage is unlawful” translates a Greek word πορνείᾳ (porneia). The usual meaning of the word is “fornication” (i.e. sex between two unmarried people). However, depending on context porneia can refer to other forms of sexual contact which are illicit or irregular by biblical standards. For example many Greek lexicons (e.g. Strongs and also Thayer & Smith) define  porneia broadly as “illicit sexual intercourse” and then go  on to define porneia  more generally to include,  fornication, homosexual activitity, lesbian activity, intercourse with animals, sexual intercourse with close relatives ( as spelled out in Leviticus 18), or sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman. Protestants tend to include adultery in the definition of porneia more than Catholics. We do not since there is another Greek word (μοιχᾶται – moichatai) for adultery. We therefore do not consider adultery to be grounds for divorce based on either Matt 19 or Mat 5.

So, fundamentally porneia most often means fornication (pre-marital sex) but it can mean other illicit things as well. Why then does Jesus utter this “exception” to the otherwise air-tight prohibition of divorce? The answer would seem to lie in the mission to the Gentiles. As the Gospel left the Jewish-only  world and reached out to the Gentile world it encountered a very sexually confused, even depraved world. All sorts of strange sexual practices were tolerated and even tied into some of the pagan religious practices. Gentile notions of marriage were often at wide variance from Jewish ones. Gentiles often called “marriage” what the Judeo-Christians would call incest. There were also difficulties encountered with  homosexual unions and other arrangements that the Christian Church could not and would not recognize. (The most thorough discussion of this background that you will find is in the Navarre Biblical Commentary).

So, in effect Jesus is declaring that certain so-called marriages that featured porneia (some form of illicit sexual union) were not marriages at all and that his forbiddance of divorce should not be seen as applying to these illicit unions. The implication is that since such unions were not conisdered marriage at all,  one could and should leave them without being guilty of divorce and they were free to enter a licit marriage. The bottom line is this: there was a defined understanding of Marriage which Jesus insisted on and he freely declared that just because someone called something marriage didn’t make it marriage.

We seem to have come full circle in our own day. Many have wanted to redefine marriage into something other than a man and a women in a fruitful (child-bearing) relationship until death do them part. I have little doubt, based on biblical evidence alone that Jesus would call such redefinitions “not marriage at all.” I also have no doubt what Jesus would say based on the fact that he still speaks through the living Tradition and Magisterium of the Church. Jesus said to the first Apostles, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16).  Hence, by faith, I have no doubt what Jesus would say since he speaks a resounding “NO” through his Church which stands so clearly against this attempt to redefine marriage.

Bottom line: Jesus would say “No” I have it on the best of authority: Scripture and Tradition speaking through the Magisterium.

24 Replies to “What Would Jesus Say about Redefining Marriage?”

  1. “…Council members have used judicial fiat…”

    I think you mean “legislative fiat.” Judicial fiat would be an action of a part of the judiciary. The Council is a legislative body.

  2. It’s difficult to raise children in an age when we’re “supposed to be tolerant.” So many have a confused and muddled idea of what that means. I encourage poeple to think forward- to their grandchildren’s generation. What seems right as a norm in 20 years? I don’t think many are looking too far in advance when they consider their support of the “PC-a-fied” human rights issues. I hope people will think about what their support will mean in real life down the road.

    1. It was with similar conviction and “logic” that those in previous decades argued against the rights of blacks and women.

      1. Alright Cynthia but you are not addressing the issue. The issue isn’t the “logic” as you call it. Rather the issue is what is right and wrong, sinful and not sinful. That some one has used scripture in a bad way in the past does not mean Scripture can never be used in the future. That some one has misapplied logic in the past does not mean that the logic is wrong now. I am not responsible for what people in the past have done either with Scripture or logic. The fact is that scripture is very clear and consistent in this matter as is the consistent moral teaching of the Catholic Church. It’s about the data Cynthia, it’s about what the Church and God have always taught. The tactic of trying to bring other issues into this discussion is old and tired. It’s not about misogyny, racism or slavery. It’s about a clear and consistent moral teaching on human sexuality.

      2. Fine point, Father. But anon was off the mark as well. If we are going to complain about a general spirit of tolerance, as “anon” did, you are amalgamating misogyny and racism along with these other issues. That is why I say I am a pacificst in the culture wars. There is too much of choosing one of two sides. Each proposal and initiative should be considered on its own merits. General assertions that we have too much “tolerance” or “political correctness” or “we need a return to traditional values” are either meaningless, dangeruous or designed to serve a secular political agenda.

      3. Anon wasn’t making a scriptural argument, as you have been, Msgr. Pope. He or she was talking about the state of the world today and that is the argument to which I was responding. Neither of us was discussing scripture. Also I have to respectfully chuckle at the invocation of what the Church has always taught being held up as a paragon of virtue. I think we can both surely agree that the Church has taught some pretty heinous things in its history.

        On a separate note I have to say I welcome the robust dialogue occurring in this forum. What a great idea for a blog!

      4. Cynthia,

        Can you provide some examples, with historical reference and a good understanding of cultural context, of “the pretty heinous things” that supposedly the Church has taught?

      5. Going to shortcut it, as I want to go play in the snow: The Crusades and The Inquisition. Dying to hear how this wasn’t the Catholic Church at its worst in history…

      6. Someone (Msgr. Pope?) tell me if I’m wrong here, but there is a difference between things that happened during the Crusades and the Inquisition and the enduring body of the Church’s doctrinal teaching on faith and morals accumulated over the centuries. I say this not to ignore repellent things that happened during those periods in history, but it is a distinction that one should understand. The Church has never denied that it is comprised of sinners who have done sinful or scandalous things, often tragically in the name of Christ or His Church. Pope John Paul II made a number of apologies for wrongdoings of Catholics over the couse of history. But let me ask you, Cynthia, since you have raised the matter –have you studied much on the historical periods of the Crusades or the Inquisition? Do you understand much of the context of what was happening at those times in history?

        Although history is a great interest of mine, I cannot say that I’m an expert on the history here. However, I think that just a few historical issues that it would be important to understand or investigate, if you’re going to insert this into an argument, include the following: the Church’s role in holding together Western civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire, the roles of Church and state during the events in question and who did what, the extent to which Muslim expansionism or heretical movements posed real threats, and any differences (?) between what people did and what a particular pope, or the Church as a whole, taught or warranted.

        I raise this point because I think it’s easy for a 21st Century person, if he or she hasn’t studied history extensively, to assume a morally superior posture to people of these earlier ages because they didn’t share the assumptions of good post-Enlightenment people who, in a live-and-let-live manner, defend religious liberty or believe that religion is a private affair or that all religions are just different paths to the same God. Cynthia, If anything I’ve said in this last statement does not reflect your own level of knowledge, or attitude, or beliefs, then please correct me.

  3. “a man and a women in a fruitful (child-bearing) relationship until death do them part.”

    So under this definition St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary should never have been married because they were not a child-bearing relationship.

    1. Ah yes, Dennis, the exception that proofs the rule! I think this is an instance were we can only say that we are bound by the order of the sacraments but God is not. For example, a man must be born of water and the spirit or he cannot see the kingdom of Heaven (John 3). But on the cross Jesus Jesus is able to save the good thief without water. This would probably also be the case wherein God is able to save those who are never formally baptized but demonstrate a baptism of desire that was precluded by invincible ignorance. But it is God alone who can work outside the sacraments. We on the other are bound to follow their matter and form. So it would seem God alone is able to exempt Joseph and Mary from the requirement of a consumated and fruitful relationship. For the rest of us ratum sed non consumatum would be invalidating.

      1. Thank you for your response. I have two more questions:

        1) Does the Church then not marry couples who are infertile?

        2) Doesn’t the Church’s focus on the governmental defintion of marriage detract from its own belief of th supremacy of the sacraments? There is no Act of Congress declaring that the Eucharist is the True Body and Blood of Christ and we don’t need state issued baptismal licenses, why then worry about state issued marriage contracts? I am sure that your argument will include something about the danger to children in seeing these married couples with their state issued marriage licenses – but isn’t that arguement a bit absurd? Can the the Church not use its own power to teach them? Divorce is legal and the Church does not lobby legislatures to fix it, that sacrament of marriage has perserved nonetheless. Somehow the notion that state recognized same-sex marriages do anything to hetrosexual marriages is beyond me and also unproven. Massachusetts has had same-sex marriage on its books for over 5 years, and it still remains the state with the lowest divorce rate.

      2. 1. If a couple is physically prevented from engaging in the marital act, that is an impediment to marriage. Infertility of itself is not since nature (usually due to age and sometimes other organinc reasons) may supply an infertility. However if a couple were to say, we are not open to the possibility of having children. We are going to contracept and/or sterilize to make sure we never have children, then I cannot marry them. So what is required is that a couple be open to possibility of having children. If infertility is naturally occuring then it is not an obstacle. However if the infertility of the couple results from an obstiante refusal of some aspect of the moral law that is necessary to supply fertility (i.e. in the case of artificial contraception, sterilization or same-sex union) then the couple is excluded from marriage.

        2. Why the Church should care about Government definition of marriage? Well basically because marriage is a pillar of civilization. The basic unit of any socieity is the family. The Church opposed no-fault (easy) divorce laws as they emerged in the 1970s for the same reason. THings like this stab at thte heart of marriage and family, destabilize families. It is not unresonable to assume that when anything goes, the basic nuclear family is threatened and every child’s right to live in a stable, heterosexual family is threatened. To legaly allow things is to get more of them, this is not so hard to understand is it? The allowance of alterntive marriages will cause more of them to take place and thus make it more likely that Children will be placed within them. Children are best served by the complimentary example of a mother and father. As we continue to allow easy divorce and all sorts of other unions to be sanctioned the children to be born are far less likely to inherit the best family situation. Increasingly they are born into irregular situatons which is an actual loss to them. The Church has every intrest in the State upholding and encouraging traditional marriage because that is what is best for children.

    2. St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary had the capacity to have children. They could have had children together if they chose to do so. On the other hand, if Joseph had gone and “married” Zechariah, while Mary went and “married” Elizabeth, neither of those unions had the capacity to bear children and, hence, could not in any way, shape, or form be a marriage.

      By their very nature, a man and a woman have the capacity to bear children, even if in individual cases they do not have them, for whatever reason. On the other hand, by their very nature, a man and a man cannot ever bear children, and a woman and a woman cannot.

      Even if there is some small percentage of male-female marriages that are not capable of a “fruitful (child-bearing) relationship,” 100 percent of male-male and female-female unions are incapable. The existence of that small percentage of defective male-female marriages does not validate the 100 percent of male-male and female-female unions that can never be fruitful (child-bearing).

      1. So because the infertile hetrosexual marriages resemble fertile unions – they are fine?

        And infertility is fine becuase “nature” supplies the infertility. By its own teachings, doesn’t the church teach that homosexuals are orientated that way due to their own nature? It escapes me how if God created homosexuals, why their love for one another somehow turns evil simply because they can not bear children, but the love of an infertile couple is something to be affirmed by God?

      2. Well look Dennis your questions are becoming merely rhetorical at this point. You don’t seem to really want to know the answers. But here’s the deal: No one can enter into a marriage that is infertile if the reason for that infertility is an intentional breaking of the moral law. Those who intend to contracept or sterilize to ensure they never have children cannot contract valid marriage. Further those who break the moral and divine law against homosexual relations (ipso facto sterile) can contract valid marriage, not only because they are sterile but also because they violate God’s norms for marriage and morality. You may wish to claim all you want that homosexual activity is just fine and that so-called homosexual marriages are just the same as hetero-sexual marriages. But deep down you know that both claims are wrong. Homosexual activity is forbidden by God, and in your conscience you know this. You may engage in all sorts of intellectual machinations to try and deny it but deep down inside you know better.

        As for your other statements, I cannot stipulate to them. The Church does not teach that homosexuals are oriented “that way due to their own nature.” The Church has no definitive teaching as the origin of the homosexual orientation. Neither will I stipulate that God “creates homosexuals” Neither I or the Church claim to know or have resolved the nature/nurture debate. But on the face of I would find it absurd to claim God made me in a way that I “had” to act or behave a certain way sexually. Take anger as an example, it is also a passion. Did create anger? I don’t know. Let’s just say he did. BNut then, did God make all anger? For example what if I were to conclude that God created righteous anger. OK Fine, But then does that mean he created unrighteous anger? Woud I simply be able to conclude that because I unrighteously attack my brother in anger punching him in the face that everything is really OK becuase afterall, didn’t God create me with anger? That would be absurd. But what if I went further and said, OK but this is the way that God created ME. I have anger issues, but since God created me this way it is OK for me to act this way. After all God made me this way. Again, absurd. Thus, even if you insist that God made you homosexual (which I do not necessary accept as a premise) that does not entitle you to just act on it sinfully as you please.Homosexual activity is a sin and you do not have some God given right to act out on it. Even if God allows you to be tempted in this way for whatever reason you can’t just do as you please and then claim “God made me this way.” Some people are more tempted to anger than others. That does not make it OK that they act out on it. And to claim that God is somehow repsonsible for the whole thing is really an arrogant and unfounded claim. God does make anybody do what is wrong. The Book of James Chapter 1 says, “13When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” So I would strongly advise dragging God into your argument and avoid making arguments that suggest that God creates certain individuals in such a way as to make it necessary or good that they sin.

      3. I agree with the point that Msgr. Pope makes above, but perhaps I can offer something that may be helpful (?) in expressing more aspects of the positive vision of Church teaching on sexuality.

        As Msgr. Pope states, the Church makes no definitive assertion about the origins of unchosen same-sex attractions, although I believe that developmental psychology can offer some degree of insight. Although the Catechism exhorts compassion and sensitivity for persons who deal with these attractions, which are not understood as sinful in and of themselves, I think such persons may frequently feel like (whether it’s true or not) that they’re viewed by other Catholics with a dismissive platitude of “Well, that’s the cross God gave you. Best of luck in bearing it.” It is true that all of us have crosses that, even despite the best experiences of human compassion, solidarity, or empathy (if we are blessed enough to experience them), still can be completely understood only by the God who, in Jesus, bears our sufferings in himself and, through the Holy Spirit, intercedes for us with “inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26). We would do well to be gentle with one another, as we often have no knowledge of what another is going through internally.

        Whatever the truth may be regarding the origins of same-sex attractions, it seems that fundamental questions concerning what constitutes manhood/masculinity or womanhood/femininity, and related questions concerning the experience of relational intimacy within the human family, are certainly involved. Indeed, these are questions that all people deal with. The Church teaches that men and women are equal in dignity before God as bearers of His image, but that they bear that image in different and complementary ways. We are invited by the Church to understand ourselves as a unity of body and soul and not simply a “ghost in a machine.” This understanding undergirds the Church teaching on sexual intimacy, for only within the monogamous, lifelong union of one man and one woman can sexual intimacy embody a truly complementary self-giving according to the male or female dignity that God has bestowed on a person. Because sexual intimacy between two persons of the same sex cannot embody this complementary self-giving, such physical expression would be a diminishment, or in some degree, a negation, of the male or female dignity that God has bestowed. Even though the capacity of the marital union to bring forth new life is the most powerful testament to its sacramental character, the marital union of infertile or older husbands and wives still has the capacity to embody self-giving in a manner that reveals the complementary goodness of fatherhood and motherhood together. In how such couples choose to reach out to those around them, this might take the form of adopting children, giving of themselves to adult children, grandchildren, or extended family, and giving of themselves in other ways to their parish or community.

        To be sure, love between persons of the same sex, as with all important non-marital relationships, can point to God and reflect dimensions of God’s love. My understanding, though, is that the Church would view this love to be of a fatherly/brotherly or motherly/sisterly nature, with everything good that may be entailed in those kinds of connections. Scripture and the history of the Church provide examples of such love. However, I think that because our sexualized culture finds it difficult to disentangle understandings of intimacy with the physical act of sex, the goodness to be found in this kind of love, and what it also can offer for understanding male or female dignity in relation to others, can be lost on many people.

        But regarding how to understand male or female dignity, or the spiritual dimensions of masculinity and femininity, there is so much to examine here (i.e. “the theology of the body”) that a post like this is certainly inadequate to that task. I think that learning to understand Christ as our Elder Brother who leads us to the love of our Heavenly Father, and learning to understand Mary as our Blessed Mother, are good starting points for trying to understand these matters. As for the matter of finding human connectedness in a society that seems intimacy-starved, I don’t have easy answers as to how to find it, but I’ll just conclude with two Scripture passages that convey something of what such connections may look like. The Book of Proverbs tells us that “He who is a friend is always a friend, and a brother [or sister] is born for the time of stress” (Proverbs 17:17). In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul enjoins those in the body of Christ to “love one another with mutual affection” and to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:9-15). Of course, this kind of connectedness is rare if one cannot find others in the family of God with whom to reveal and share the sorrows of our particular crosses or joys of resurrected life in Christ.

  4. We are living in a world of individuals that have become conditioned to having what they want, whatever that may be. Add to that a society based on instant gratification. People have come to believe that they are entitled to satisfy any cravings, and in doing so, redefine “rights” to give those cravings validity. It becomes cyclical when society in general accepts those wants of others as legitimate, for then, they too may have their own “rights” or cravings validated and protected. If I give allowances for the wants of others, then they must give allowances for me. People accept this philosophy as fair and call it tolerance.

    Our changing definition of tolerance has created many changes over the last few generations. Society has changed as a result of its liberal tolerance for others’ behavior. The slow and steady erosion of our morality has had harsh consequences. Millions of babies have been aborted, generations of children are growing up without fathers, the divorce rate skyrocketed, our welfare system is swollen to the breaking point. So, what will be the lasting mark of legalizing same sex marriage?

    I wonder if my future grandchildren look at our traditional beliefs about marriage as ridiculously archaic? With theirs be a more “evolved” society that pushes away from faith I favor of personal choice? I wonder- what will be the lasting mark of tolerating same sex marriage….

  5. Same sex marriage, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia – May God have mercy on us all! Get the Ark ready…

  6. When seeking to define what a marriage is, I rarely hear reference to Matthew 19:4-5 (He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘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 flesh’?).

    Jesus told us what a marriage is before he even gave the prohibition on divorce.

    1. Very intelligent argument Anonymous. Hope you don’t mind that I had to edit your profanity. By the wa, I am not attracted to little boys or even to males at all. I have been sucessfully celibate for 20 years. It is a fine and fulfilling life and I recommend celibacy highly for those who are not capable of marriage.

      1. Monsignor, the denigration of chastity (not just for celibate priests, but for everybody) seems to be a prevailing theme nowadays. Even marriage is now often ridiculed as being a perversion of nature. Do you have a post on the subject?

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