Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

October 2, 2021 | By Bishop Edward Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:

“This is my worst nightmare!”

When I was a young priest, I was in an ecumenical sermon preparation group with Protestant ministers and Catholic priests. We met on Mondays to discuss drafts of our sermons for the following Sunday. One Monday, the gospel we discussed was the same as this morning’s text, Mark, 10, 2-12, the clear teaching of Jesus Christ on marriage and divorce. Pastor Jinkins from New Hope Baptist Church, said, “Every year when we have to preach on this scripture passage in which Jesus condemns divorce so definitively, it is my worst nightmare. I feel I can’t win, no matter what I say, since I, myself, am divorced and since I know that a number of people in my congregation are divorced; no matter what I say, I am bound to alienate many of them.” Then, Fr. Baranowski, the Associate Pastor of St. Mary Parish said, “Pastor Jinkins, I know exactly how you feel. Preaching on this text is also my worst nightmare. My parishioners, some of whom are divorced, look at me, a Catholic priest who is not married, never will be married, has no children, and no firsthand experience of the joys of married life or of the emotional stress, and difficult problems many married people face. I think some members of the congregation may feel like saying, “Sit down, Father, you can’t tell us divorce is always wrong, when you haven’t lived through the pain and suffering of a bad marriage.”

That was 45 years ago. Today, Mark 10, 2-12 is even harder for a minister or priest to preach on because American culture has changed so radically and has become so secular that there is no longer even a consensus about what it means to be married. Or what is the nature of marriage? More and more people live together and have children without ever getting married. Of those who do marry, the number of marriages that end in divorce increases every year. Even second marriages end in divorce. Many people marry 3 or 4 times. The Supreme Court has ruled that two men and two women have the constitutional right to a civil non-sacramental marriage. Sociologists have argued that marriage is not a permanent, unchanging social institution established by God. It is an ever-evolving social structure, shaped by a patriarchal society and economic factors, that will continue to change in the future based on changing ideas that people have about love, intimacy, children, commitment, social stability, human sexuality, the human life span, the role of women, population control, religion in general and Christianity in particular. Social scientists predict that, since permanent commitment is no longer an ideal, in the next 50 years the number of people who will participate in monogamous, permanent unions between one man and one woman with the goal of raising families will decline dramatically. Even today every Bishop knows that, in the United States, the number of Catholics who chose to celebrate the Sacrament of Christian marriage is steadily declining. I know many Catholics find it difficult to understand the Church’s distinction between a Church annulment, which concludes that a valid sacramental marriage never existed, and a civil divorce which, concludes that the civil contract of a marriage has been dissolved.

Perhaps the most important thing I as a Catholic Bishop can say to married couples and widows who hear Jesus’s words about marriage and divorce, when they come together for the celebration of the Eucharist and to be nurtured by the spiritual food of Body and Blood is simply: Thank you! Thank you for your wonderful fidelity to the Christian commitment you made on your wedding day. Thank you for persevering through your own unique challenges, hardships, and difficulties. Thank you for being a lasting example of what love is to your children, your grandchildren, your friends, your neighbors and to the Church. Your words were true when you said, “I take you to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. What God has joined together; let no man put asunder.”


      While the teaching of the Church about the indissolubility of a valid sacramental marriage is clear and unchanging, the most important thing I, a Catholic Bishop, can say to Catholics whose valid marriage ended with the pain of a civil divorce is that the Church, like Christ Himself, brings a heart of compassionate understanding to you and to the difficult situation in which you find yourselves. The Church certainly continues to love and care for you throughout your journey.


Let us now turn to Mark 10, 2-12. “And Pharisees, seeking to trap Jesus asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Like a good rabbi, Jesus answered their question with His own question, “What did Moses command you?”  They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send his wife away.”  Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses wrote you this commandment.  But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So, they are no longer two but one.  Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The Pharisees’ question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” is a trap because they knew the Jewish rabbis had long debated under what circumstance a man could write a certificate of divorce from his wife. At the time of Jesus, the Jewish law looked at marriage and divorce strictly from the point of view of the husband here. There were two schools of thought. One was the teaching of Rabbi Hillel:  Moses, in Deuteronomy 24, had said that a man could divorce his wife if he found any indecency in her. Hillel interpreted that to mean that anything, no matter how insignificant, which displeased the husband, was grounds for divorce. This was the easy path to  divorce at that time. However, Rabbi Shammai taught that divorce was to be strictly limited, that only under the most rigidly defined conditions could divorce ever be granted. So, the Jewish people were split between these two opposing positions. No matter which side Jesus took, some people would turn against Him, which is what the Pharisees wanted. Jesus avoids the trap by reminding the Pharisees of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So, they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Jesus is challenging their views concerning divorce by reminding them that the foundation of marriage is not mere religious or civil law, the foundation of marriage is in the complimentary physical and spiritual nature God has given to the human race. Jesus is saying that, if we recognize that God is the foundation of marriage and that the covenant union between wife and husband is the result of God’s unifying power, God’s unifying love, then divorce seeks to undo what God has established.  This is why people should not enter marriage casually or hastily.

Jesus concludes his teaching on marriage by boldly departing from Jewish tradition and applying his teaching equally to husbands and wives, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

The fundamental source of the crisis facing marriage and family life in the United States today is the fact that civil society, many in the media, and a growing number of Christians themselves no longer view marriage as a spiritual bond of divine origin. Marriage is a mere human civil contract that can be ended with the stroke of a pen because of irreconcilable differences. Marriage can be whatever you want it to be. As the saying goes, “Marry whomever you love!” More and more Americans believe that  “What God has joined together, men must not separate” has become “What man has joined together man is free to separate whenever man wants to.


Yesterday,  the Catholic Church honored Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin (born January 2, 1873, died September 30, 1897), known as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, or St. Therese of the Child Jesus.  A French Catholic Discalced Carmelite nun, she is popularly called “The Little Flower of Jesus”, or simply “The Little Flower.” Did you know that her parents, St. Marie-Azélie Guérin and St. Louis Martin, who were devout Catholics and faithful husband and wife, were the first and only married couple canonized together when Pope Francis canonized them in 2015. This evening as we pray about the great gift of Christian marriage and the many challenges to fidelity in marriage, we turn to the example of these humble, obscure saints for inspiration and encouragement to persevere in our life commitments.

St. Marie-Azélie Guérin and St. Louis Martin, Pray for us.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, Pray for us.

Praise be Jesus Christ. Both now and forever. AMEN!

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