It is sadly evident that the Church is currently divided into two camps over the question of divorce and remarriage, this in the aftermath (confusion) of the recent synod in Rome and in the rampup to the synod this coming October. Please pray a lot!
If you read the blog here often, you know that I am strongly opposed to any notions that would seek to set aside what I regard as the ipsissima verba Jesu (the very words of Jesus) in this matter, words that are, to my mind, not at all unclear or in any way ambiguous. His teaching in Matt 19, Matt 5, Mark 10, and other places is that those who leave valid marriages (“what God has joined”) and enter another union are in a state of ongoing adultery. These are Jesus’ words, not mine. We must often deal, with pastoral solicitude, with many who are in this situation (sometimes before they met Christ), and we must hold them as close to the Church and Christ as possible. But cancelling Jesus’ teaching (a teaching that was objected to on the very day that He said it) is not an option.
Sadly, there are many of great influence who are advancing theories and interpretations suggesting that Jesus’ very clear and oft-repeated teaching is in fact not clear and can give way to newer interpretations that they claim are more merciful. Among these are some bishops and theologians of considerable influence. Let us consider an example.
In the latest issue of the theology quarterly “Urbaniana University Journal,” Fr. Guido Innocenzo Gargano says that Jesus’ words about marriage must be understood by what God says through Hosea: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” Fr. Gargano is professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Pontifical Urbaniana University. As such, he is a highly influential biblical scholar and patrologist. He is also a Camaldolese monk, and former prior of the Roman monastery of San Gregorio al Celio.
So we are not dealing with an obscure article by an obscure author. And I, though out of my league as a lowly Monsignor and pastor, have unfortunately found myself opposing the views of some bishops and scholars who outrank me. Yet, emboldened by the Pope’s invitation to a vigorous discussion (an invitation about which I have reservations), I would like to present brief excerpts from Fr. Gargano’s article. It is a lengthy article and more of it can be viewed at Sandro Magister’s site. You have to be able to read Italian to read the whole thing, though.
In responding, I make it clear that I disagree with Father Gargano. I do so publicly because I consider this debate a very serious matter. Frankly, I think it is going to be necessary to develop a mechanism through which ordinary priests like me can weigh in together with our strong belief that the Church’s teaching and discipline in this matter must be upheld unchanged. Perhaps, before the synod, a statement can be developed (à la the Manhattan Declaration) that priests and bishops can officially “sign.” In the meantime, it’s just little ol’ me and a few others up against some pretty influential people on “the other side.”
As usual when I comment, I present the article by Fr. Gargano is in bold black ink and my comments in plain red text. These are excerpts; the fuller article is available here: Chiesa Espresso – Fr. Gargano Speaks
Fr. Guido Innocenzo Gargano writes,
What interpretation should be given to the expression of Jesus in Mt 5:17: “I have come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them”? How should we understand the reference to hardness of heart in Mt 19:8ab: “For the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to repudiate your wives”? What force should accompany the observation of Jesus in Mt 19:8c: “In the beginning it was not so”?
In order to attempt a step forward in the reflection on this series of questions, let us recall first of all […] what Jesus himself said in Mt 5:19: Therefore, he who transgresses even one of the least of these precepts and teaches others to do so will be considered least in the kingdom of heaven. But he who observes and teaches these commandments will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.
The first observation that asserts itself in this regard is that in Mt 5:19 Jesus is not talking about “exclusion” from the kingdom of heaven, but only about the situation of “least” or “great” in the kingdom of heaven.
I guess St. John Chrysostom never got the memo that Jesus wasn’t excluding. Chrysostom writes, But when you hear the “least in the Kingdom of Heaven,” you are to think nothing but hell and punishment. … Think of the one who calls a brother a fool. That one transgresses only one commandment, maybe even the slightest one, and falls into Hell. … Jesus means that the one who transgresses only the one of the commands will on the final day be the least, that is, cast out, and last, and will fall into Hell (Gospel of Matthew, Homily 16.4).
Cyril and Jerome have similar views.
I will concede that St. John Chrysostom is not the last or only word on this, but Fr. Gargano is stepping away from both the tradition and the rather plain meaning of this text. Jesus is not trying to find room in the Kingdom for those who would do the least. The whole thrust of the Sermon on the Mount is that we exceed the bare minimum of the written law, not fall into minimalism and mediocrity.
No commentary I have ever read considered being “least” in the Kingdom as a good or even acceptable goal. At a bare minimum, the least in the Kingdom will likely have a lot of purgatory. But the more common opinion is that Jesus uses the word “least” as a play on words: those who break the least commandment will be least in the Kingdom. But the traditional teaching is that the least are the Hell-bound (if they do not repent), as stated by Chrysostom above.
The observation has its importance because Jesus says immediately afterward and with a certain solemnity, in Mt 5:20, “I say to you in fact: if your justice does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven,” in this latter case explicitly excluding from the kingdom of heaven those who simply stop at the justice pursued by the Pharisees and are unable to go on to the point of discovering mercy and acting accordingly.
No, not at all. Jesus is plainly affirming the law and surely not opposing it to mercy as Fr. Gargano says. Rather, Jesus is saying that on account of grace we must do more than what the old law said or permitted. Jesus came to fulfill the law, not replace it; he is calling us to “fill it full” in terms of its most solemn principles.
If Jesus is opposing a matter of law at all in this matter, it is on account of the minimalism of some of the Scribes and Pharisees He sees them and others as setting aside or minimizing God’s vision for marriage because they have hard hearts. In no way is Jesus simply reacting to legalism. He is affirming God’s plan for marriage without exceptions—legal, social, or cultural.
Here, too, St. John Chrysostom says, Jesus does not find fault with the old Law but makes it more strict. Had the Old Law been evil Jesus would not have accentuated it. Instead he would have discarded it.
Chrysostom goes on to say regarding marriage and the following of God’s plan: After the coming of Christ we are favored with a greater strength and … are bound to strive for greater things (Gospel of Matthew Homily 16.4).
So, according to Chrysostom, Jesus is not watering down; he is building up and insisting on greater adherence to the true nature of marriage.
[…] Now, however, we must also ask ourselves which precepts Jesus is talking about and understand if this is a matter only of the observance of the written/oral Torah under the aspect of the fence of what are called the “mitzvòt”; or if the teacher of Nazareth also intends to include certain precepts understood instead as concessions, like that of making use of the permission to repudiate one’s wife, on the condition that the act of repudiation be written down as prescribed by the text of Dt 24:1.
No, actually we don’t need to do this nor should we. We ought rather listen to what Jesus is clearly saying and not engage in speculative theories about what sort of Jewish precepts He had in mind or what their sources were or weren’t. None of our speculations change what Jesus clearly says: we are not to divorce and remarry, and those who do so (where a valid marriage is concerned) commit adultery.
Jesus seems to rule out the idea that in the case of divorce one may speak of entrance into the kingdom, with the explicit reference to the text of Gen 2:24 that refers to the Law inscribed in the stars: “Let man not divide what God has joined” (Mt 19:6). But when those who are speaking with him ask, “Why, then, did Moses order the act of repudiation and to repudiate her” (Mt 19:7), Jesus, seeking the fundamental motivation of that first principle, realizes that in fact the Mosaic prescription manifested a leniency that is characteristic of God.
Why does Father say “seems”? Jesus is quite clear to describe that divorce from a valid marriage (what God has joined) followed by entering a second union is adultery. There’s no “seems” about His teaching; it is quite clear.
And as for the Mosaic practice manifesting leniency, fine. But Jesus says no more of that sort of leniency in the era of grace. As Chrysostom says above, we are bound on account of grace to strive for greater things. Having hardened hearts is not an option or excuse for divorce in the order of grace.
Finally, saying that Jesus “realizes” something seems ignoble to this reader. It suggests that Jesus is somehow struggling to find the best answer or is “thinking on His feet.” I see no evidence that Jesus, based on a dialogue with these ancient Jews, suddenly “realizes” that Moses somehow had it right after all. Rather, Jesus is acknowledging that God, for a time, was lenient in this matter, but that time has now passed.
The result: on the one hand the observation that “for the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to repudiate your wives” (Mt 19:8); on the other the absence of any decision to eliminate this Mosaic prescription, in keeping with what he solemnly declared in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not believe that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17). Two attitudes that rule out the possibility of reading our pericope from a solely juridical or, even worse, compulsory perspective, as it tends to be considered in the Western Christian tradition and in that of Catholicism in particular.
But, of course, Fr. is absolutizing Jesus’ statement about not abolishing the law. Clearly Jesus did set aside some interpretive precepts (especially related to the Sabbath) and other things like Kosher laws (Mk 7:19). Father Gargano surely knows better than to absolutize like this.
Fr. also describes his opponents as reading the passage from a “solely juridical” point of view and describes our view as impossible. I expect better than this from a reputable scholar.
I am a pastor and consider the indissolubility of marriage to be an eminently pastoral and merciful framework. The person who wants to divorce and remarry is not the only one deserving of mercy, so are the discarded spouse and the children who have to grow up in a world of broken families.
The preservation of marriage and the sanctity of Holy Communion ARE pastoral and merciful teachings from Jesus and the Apostles, not just juridical “uptightness.”
In this case, in fact, we would be looking at an interpretation of the text that would dispense completely with the global context of the life and teachings of Jesus as they appear in the New Testament and from the cultural and religious context in which the teacher of Nazareth acted and taught, as emerges from the language analogous to that which is used by Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, including the stereotyped phrase “but I say to you” (Mt 19:9). It also cannot be denied that it is precisely leniency, and therefore the primacy of mercy, that characterized the teaching of Jesus and distinguished it from that of all, or almost all, the teachers among his contemporaries.
Now this is a common hermeneutic of many who have wished to set aside rather clear biblical teaching about homosexuality. And now it would seem that many want to apply this to divorce and remarriage as well.
Put colloquially, the interpretation is, Jesus was merciful and lenient so we should largely downplay any passages in which he seems angry or demanding. This was not like the “Jesus I know.”
Of course such a hermeneutic must discard hundreds of verses in which Jesus demands that we take up our cross, verses that say we are not worthy to be His disciples unless we renounce all our possessions, that say we must prefer nothing and no one to Him, etc. Such a view must ignore Jesus’ consistent warnings about judgment and Hell, His reminders that we will be accountable for our neglect of the poor, our impure acts and thoughts, our calling a brother “Raqa,” and even our idle words.
While many today oppose clear moral teaching from the love and mercy of God, they set up a false dichotomy to do so. God does not command us except in love, neither does He warn us except in love. In the Church, too, well-ordered love and mercy must be rooted in truth. The greatest mercy is to keep people out of Hell and to save them from all the suffering that precedes and comes from sin. Further, there must be a balance between concern for individual needs and the common good. Every false dichotomy in these matters must be avoided. Love without truth is not love at all, neither is it mercy. Seeking to cancel clear moral mandates from Jesus by an a appeal to a “God is love” principle or a “Mercy uber alles” standard is a false dichotomy. It is not love; it is not mercy; it is not authentic to the true Jesus of Scripture, who holds all these in balance and does not pick one and throw away the other.
Please remember to pray diligently for the Church in this hour. If any age is ill-equipped to teach on marriage, family, and sexuality, it is ours. The Church cannot afford to take cues from a confused and darkened culture. Jesus must always be our light, He and none other, speaking through Scripture and Tradition. Pray!
Our Lady of Cana, pray for us!