Marriage and divorce, justice and mercy in Gospel (summary in 6 pages)

Synod about the Family                                                         2015-08-19 Work in progress !

 About questions of marriage and repudiation (or divorce)

in the light of Jesus’ words.

Agathe Dupont (* Read the following text an introductory note)

« Say a Word of Truth and Hope » §11 based on the word of Christ, the source of the practice of the Church. This is the direction that is determined for us by the Synod of Bishops. Because « every time we return to the source of the Christian experience, new roads and unimaginable possibilities open up. » Pope Francis quoted §12.

Following this call, the author offers her observations which could contribute to a renewed viewpoint on the situation of divorced and remarried people.

Her study aimed at a more careful reading of the word of Christ – focuses on three points:

 1 the meaning of the Greek word porneia

 2 the identification of a grammatical error distorting the message of Jesus

 3 the consistency of the seven sentences of Jesus[1] about marriage.


  1. Meaning of the Greek term porneia

In Jesus’time,  separation (divorce by agreement), and repudiation (imposed divorce) are allowed and even common: the use is based on Dt 24.1-4 which simply points out that a husband wanting to divorce his wife ( even for a vague or trivial reason) must have handed to her a booklet divorce certificate. Theoretically men and women could break their couple by mutual agreement and all ex-spouses could then remarry, but the woman could/would rarely divorce because she could not actually live alone in that society, for lack of means. Moreover, in the absence of comprehensive and detailed legislation, many (men !) had deduced from the text of Deuteronomy that only the men had the right to divorce and not the women, and abused the text itself.

Jesus denies any value to such practice, except in case of porneia (Mt 5.32a and 19.9).

In Greek, the term porneia belongs to a family of words evoking trade, transactions, contracts. In the OT translated into Greek, this word usually refers to a breach of contract: Israel’s breach of the law of God and at the human level, failure of any kind of/to keep an alliance, or a commitment. In Jesus’ time, regarding spouses, porneia is used to describe serious breach of a husband to the promises made to his wife during the marriage.


The meaning of porneia therefore goes beyond adultery (moichos in Greek) – while including it of course – to mean an act or a series of acts that prove to injure or break the bond of alliance.

This clarification on the meaning of porneia is important as we will see below when it comes to distinguishing who causes the breach of alliance and “who” is the victim.


  1. Evidence of a grammatical error

The translation of Mt 5, 32a  is usually admitted as follows: « Whoever divorces his wife – apart from the case of porneia – makes her (or pushes her) commit adultery (in the future). » (Given the societal context, revoked woman being almost forced to remarry). This translation of the verb at the end of this sentence led to think that – even innocent – any woman who is forced to divorce commits adultery by remarrying. The Church deduced that marriage, according to the so supposed will of Jesus, would be indissoluble. So anyone who would remarry after a divorce is said to be  in a state of grave sin, a sin which lasting as long as the new contracted union, cannot be absolved, and therefore prevents access to communion or baptism for divorced remarried catechumens, or simply people having married a divorced person.

Yet – grammatically – the Greek text has a quite different meaning. Mt uses for this verb a passive form in a tense (aorist in Greek) always indicating a brief act finished  : the meaning is thus reversed : it is no longer « to deceive, to commit adultery » but rather « to be deceived, to suffer adultery by spouse… ». Aorist in an infinitive may indicate past or present or future according to the context. The Translation to Greek, is then : « one who divorces his wife – apart from the case of her porneia – makes/made her to be deceived, to be  a victim of adultery (from her husband) ».

Saying that, Jesus clearly responds to his interlocutors. The ticket granted by Moses changes nothing: there is indeed a fault and a victim. Repudiating his innocent wife, the husband subjected her to a betrayal, a unilateral breach of promise. His repudiation initiative shows that his sinfulness is in his heart, i.e. at the source of his act.

Considered from the outside, it appears to be the same situation : after divorce, there is a real breaking of the link, consummated in the fact that one and the other ex-spouse will perhaps start a new life, to each on his own side, with a new partner. In fact if we consider the act in its source, there is on one side a culprit who conceived and decided a behavior affecting the marriage bond. And on the other side a victim who has suffered the attack. Considered from the standpoint of the act, the situation of the former spouses is not to put on the same level.

As we know, in reality, the wrongs are often shared. Jesus does not address here the multitude of intermediate situations. He establishes a principle from the « plan of God » on man. This principle can then allow to enlighten less clear-cut situations so as to move towards a fair deal.


  1. Consistency of the seven words of Jesus about marriage.

1st sentence – Mt 5:32 « I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife except in the case of porneia, makes her a victim of adultery. »

Indeed, evidently, for Jesus, a woman victim, in law and Justice, does not have to carry the weight of breaking their bond.

This marital failure is as serious as an effective adultery. « Committing adultery » translates a verb which means « to make injury, to misbehave towards his spouse » but also « to be unfaithful to God. » It is a psychological consequence which shows the wrong of the husband.

If the woman is guilty of porneia, then Jesus appears to accept that in this case her husband had the right to repudiate her[2].

In Jewish law, for example, any divorced person could / can remarry : Jesus does not refuse it, but there the verb shows indirectly indeed that the guilty person has to reconcile with God and his or her victim.    


2nd sentence: Mt 19.9 « I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife without it being due to porneia on her part, and marries another, commits adultery ».

Here « and marries another » may amount to  » in order to marry another ».


3rd and 4th sentences :  Mk 10,11 « And he said (to his disciples at home): « Whoever divorces his wife (unjustly) and marries another woman, commits adultery against his wife, and she who divorces her husband (unjustly) and marries another man, commits adultery. »

Between man and woman, Jesus here advocates equal rights and duties.


5th sentence : Luke 16:18 « Whoever divorces his wife (unjustly) and marries another woman, commits adultery. »

Precept almost identical to the previous one. Adultery lies in the act of severing the bond of marriage, more than in the remarriage itself. It lies in the inner being, in the heart of the guilty, and not so much at the level of sexual life: that’s where we see how it breaks the covenant with God.


6th sentence  (immediately after the first): 5.32 Mt « And whoever marries (guiltily or by guilty means) a woman who has left her husband or a divorced woman, commits adultery”.

This sentence finds an explanation when put back in its context[3]: at the beginning of this paragraph, Jesus reminds one of the great commandments of the Decalogue : « You have heard that it was said : ‘You shall not commit adultery », a commitment we find in Exodus and in Deuteronomy, and which is followed some lines later by the commitment which forbids to covet something belonging to a neighbor, amongst them his spouse[4]. Between the two texts, there is a light improvement of the condition of the wives.

Jesus is going to improve still more her situation and refine the law. Indeed, he is going to explain that the commitment about lust towards somebody’s wife is a sin which is quite different of the lust towards an object, an animal or even about a servant which can be bought, and he places this sin of lust at the level of the adultery  done in the heart :  he makes deeper the law : “ But I say to you that whoever looks at a wife [5] with lust for her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart  » (Matthew 5.28) :  since this woman is not his wife grace to an alliance, but the wife of somebody else ; and he explains ( 29-32) the importance of this sin, which, indirectly, shows the importance he gives to marriage. Immediately after, he attacks those who make unfair use of the book of divorce to repudiate women: therefore the words refer then to a man who has committed adultery with a married woman (or had sexual desire for a married woman ) waiting to marry her when she would be divorced with the divorce booklet advocated by the Pharisees who emptied hypocritically the law of its meaning.


7th sentence (immediately following the 5th): Luke 16:18 « and whoever marries (guiltily or by guilty means) a woman who left her husband’s home or was repudiated commits adultery. »

This sentence is similar to the previous one, in a similar context, though more concise.


The last two sentences specifically deal with a legal process that has disappeared (the booklet that made it easier for men to repudiate) but fit in perfectly with the others. Both the sentence do not specify if the woman herself is guilty or innocent, because they goal the person who, before marrying her,  has desired this woman, in an adultery  way,  and who uses legal ways to succeed, bad ways in reality.

There is a remarkable consistency and complementarity between these teachings, even coming from different contexts; there is no contradiction between them, neither with the rest of the Gospel, nor with Jesus’ attitude.

There is equality of rights and duties between men and women.

Jesus did not specifically speak according to the Roman or Greek or Jewish societies, but depending on the Kingdom, according to the Plan of God (ie based on what is good and desirable for human beings).

That is why his word keeps its relevance throughout time.


Conclusion: everlasting novelty and relevance of Jesus’ teaching on marriage.

  • Jesus is targeting the source of the act, and calls adultery the sin of he or she who is at the origin of the divorce (his or her spouse being innocent). This qualification shows where is the sin so that the sinner can change.

  • Jesus explicitly gives the non-offending divorced person the status of victim. His silence (about the ban of a new covenant) appears to accept that, as the innocent had not committed porneia, his or her remarriage would by no means be a situation of adultery [6].

  • Jesus never says that a re-marriage is forbidden, but indicates principles (justice, distinction between victim and responsible, consciousness, love of the truth…).

  • Finally Jesus struggles against a hypocritical legalism and shows that the Mosaic concession to limit the power of sclerotic hearts, is actually a practice that contravenes both the plan of God and the innocent’s spouse : this concession does not absolve the guilty of porneia.

Marriage is for Jesus the relationship between two people who have made a covenant in the light of God’s plan (i.e. for the  best for all men and women ), and it is the bottom of the heart which makes the quality of this relationship, not the formal appearance.


To compensate for the hardly acceptable harshness of the distorted and misinterpreted text, the pastoral care of the family tried to guide the Church on casuistic adjustments, including via the recognition of nullity of some marriages which have been broken. (Not to mention the absurd proposition, if a new union occurs, to live as « brother and sister »!)


It would be clarifying and more courageous to first recognize frankly that there was an error of translation and semantics, and that the doctrine built on this erroneous interpretation should be reconsidered, especially since it is a homecoming to Sources and even to Tradition, such argument no doubt being acceptable by some [7]. This reconsideration may indeed require courage on the part of Church leaders who, in good faith, have held on the issue of « remarriage of divorcees » rigid and unsubtle positions, condemning indifferently the offender and the victim, while believing to be true to Jesus’positions despite their being foreign to the Good News.


But Jesus said in St. John 3:21, « he who does the truth comes to the light. » It is when making truth in welcoming the Word of Jesus  » that new roads and unimaginable possibilities (will) open » Pope Francis §12.

Among other new paths, it will then appear that victimized divorced persons do not require Mercy (they have not sinned) but Compassion, and that even if Jesus calls upon them to give their forgiveness, they are entitled to Law and Justice and have a right to hope that their wrongdoers will ask for their forgiveness, and will even offer reparation.

Regarding the offending (and who feels pure and 100% without fault ? ), he or she does need God’s and any one’s Mercy. Does not the whole Gospel show in fact that a merciful forgiveness path can be open to every sinner? Under certain conditions of course. Especially if they recognize the harm done to the other so as to ask his or her forgiveness.


It is clear from this reading of the words of the Gospel about marriage that God’s plan is not changed  : Jesus’exhortation : « Let no man separate what God has joined » remains the law of love illuminating each family and the Pastors of the Church.


Marguerite Champeaux-Rousselot is the author – a practicing Catholic – qualified in the study of ancient Greek texts by her profession (Professor of Classic Literature) and her subsequent studies (PhD in History of Religions of antiquity and religious anthropology). She is French.

A more complete text can be requested.

You will find different points more detailed on this web site.


[1] Jesus or Christ = Jesus or Christ as the evangelists have transmitted.

[2] The Church admits it also :

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2383: If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of children or the defense of heritage, it can be tolerated without constituting a moral fault.

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2386: It may be that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; then it does not violate the moral law.

[3] At the first reading, and if we cut the words out of context, one might think, because of the term « repudiated », that  Jesus says that remarriage with any divorced woman is forbidden because it would be an adultery to the first husband of woman: it is what has been gradually applied from about the ninth century. As it seems to be contrary to the Gospel, to convict a single class, women, and whether they are innocent or blameworthy (or guilty), we could want to assume in a way that may assume in a seemingly fairer manner, that this prohibition could apply only to a wrongdoing wife (divorced for porneia): « and whoever marries a woman who left her husband’s home (although she had no serious complaints about him) or divorced (because of porneia ) commits adultery (towards her ex-husband).”  At first glance, it would look like symmetrical to  what happens to the man and woman repudiating unjustly in the preceding words above: the offending divorced woman would not be legally free to make alliance with a new husband. However, there would be an important addition : her fault, if she remarries, would reflect on the new spouse, so that God could not unite the new couple. However, upon reflection, this addition fits neither with the fact that Jesus is always opposed to the fact that the fault of one falls on the other ( innocent) nor with his desire to always distinguish individual responsibility and never condemn in one  block a class of persons. Moreover, as one has to insert the phrase in its context which  attacks the divorce booklet that allowed hypocritically to abusively repudiate the woman, it is, according to Jesus, the man himself who does wrong by marrying. Then the meaning becomes consistent with the rest of other words, including the first one, which defined the innocent divorced woman as a victim, and free to remarry.

[4] In Exodus, 20,14 à 17, there are two verses : the first  Ex, 20, 14 : “You shall not commit adultery”, speaks about the man who commits sexual adultery  with somebody’s wife  and call him adultery ; the second, Ex., 20, 17  give the definition for another sin not to commit: to covet something which belongs to a neighbor  or to a next person :  in a decreasing order and depending of the same verb  told two times to insist, but the woman is in the second place and in the second group.   :  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

In Deuteronomy, there are  also two verses  : the first, Deut 5 18,  is exactly similar to Ex,20,14, but in the second  Deut 5,21, the sin of coveting what is belonging to another is more nuanced than in Exodus, 20,17  : « the woman of another man  » is placed in head, probably because it is more important, and the verb is the same as in the verse of Exodus 20,17 , but the other things, although put with the wife, come after in a decreasing  order, and above all, depend from a different verb : Deut 5, 21 « You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. »

[5] In Greek, the word γυνη means « woman » or «  wife » : which  does Jesus mean ? We can think here it is “wife”  since 1°) since  he alludes to the commandment which speaks about somebody’s wife and 2°) Jesus does not forbids anywhere marriage. So, he does not mean  here that the desire of a man towards a virgin, a widow,  a divorced woman  or a woman free to marry, is adulterous, but speaks of the desire of a man for a married woman, a wife.

[6] The barrel-item-1141 opposes by declaring, in the absence of any Gospel text, that the/a religious marriage validly contracted cannot be broken during the lifetime of those concerned.

[7] While recalling the excellence of God’s plan regarding marriage, the practice in the Church about divorce / separation was understood and practiced by many as the one described here until probably around the second century, with reluctance among many. From the third century, the verb is poorly understood (eg  Basile misquoted Jesus’ Greek text  ) and, probably after Victorin de Poetovio who made the first translation into Latin, Jerome in the Vulgate translates by a Latin verb meaning active sense the passive voice, and by a present which was at a past time. As Greek declines and as the clergy does not know anything else than Latin,  the Vulgate dominates and spreads everywhere, gradually this misinterpretation prevails, and yet in the ninth century, divorce and remarriage because of porneia are still accepted and are the subject of conciliar texts. From the ninth century, it is no longer accepted at all, the aorist is understood as if it was a future lasting as long as spouse’s life and from the twelfth century the theology of marriage, as we will know it, starts to settle in.