In today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus issues a strict prohibition of divorce that lacks the exceptions included in Matthew’s Gospel. (Mt. 5:32) There are three distinct sets of background data required to understand Mark’s teaching on divorce.
The first set of background data is about the rituals surrounding marriage and divorce in the ancient world. Among Jews in antiquity, marriage was arranged by the families of the two prospective spouses, a practice unknown in western culture today. The marriage arrangements were made by the mothers of the future spouses and, often, these arrangements were made well before the two individuals reached their teen years. In ancient Roman culture, there were three forms of marriage: by contract between the groom and the father of the bride, by contract between bride and groom, or by cohabitation. Of these various forms of marriage, only the second (and perhaps, the third) Roman form bears any resemblance to marriage today.
Divorce in the ancient world bore some similarities to divorce today, but it also differed from modern divorce in some significant ways. In ancient Judaism, only men had the authority to issue a decree of divorce, and there were three distinct schools of thought about the legitimate grounds for divorce. The Pharisees in today’s Gospel embraced the most permissive of the three schools; the controversy in today’s reading reflects the Pharisees’ position that a man could divorce his wife for no more cause than being attracted to another woman. The “bill of divorce” mentioned in today’s Gospel reading was a written instrument that allowed the woman to remarry without being accused of adultery. (Mk. 10:4) In ancient Roman culture, both men and women had legal authority to initiate divorce proceedings.
Perhaps, the closest similarity between ancient and modern divorce is the extremely high rate of its occurrence. At the time Mark’s Gospel was written, divorce was at least as common as it is today. The Roman philosopher Seneca (a contemporary of the author of Mark’s Gospel), lamented that Roman citizens had begun to count time in terms of the number of their marriages rather than the number of Consuls elected to lead the government; Consuls served a term of one-year in office.
The second set of background data comes from Jesus’ teaching about the proximity of the kingdom of God. The “kingdom” preached by Jesus amounted to a reformed way of life that led to normal, healthy relationships between people and a normal, healthy relationship with God. Serial marriage and divorce mitigates against normal, healthy relationships.
The third set of background data has to do with the Catholic Church’s position on divorce. Firstly, it is important to note that the Church’s position on divorce is not necessarily equivalent to the assumptions made by individual Catholics regarding the Church’s position. Secondly, Church law about divorce is case law rather than predicate law. This means that it is not as organized and coherent as many people assume it to be. Thirdly, the Church’s position on divorce tries to balance competing values: a.) the family is the foundational structure upon which wider society stands or falls, b.) happiness in marriage determines the quality of family life, c.) not all marriages are created equal, d.) no one deserves to be in a destructive relationship.
Faced with this large and disparate collection of data, there are a few judgments that can be made with confidence about divorce. First, divorce is to be avoided if possible. This is of particular importance for couples approaching marriage. There are many bad reasons to marry and only one good reason to marry; the only good reason is the desire to be together for life. Second, divorce is often unavoidable due to human weakness. Not even the best of intentions can overcome the lack of ability to fulfill those intentions. Third, when divorce happens, the goal of the (former) couple and the goal of the Church ought to be to bring healing to a tragic situation. Fourth, all the above needs to be seen in the light of the overarching value of family life.
The fourth conclusion above is the reason that Jesus’ teaching about divorce appears in the Gospels. Theological virtues depend on the foundation of human virtues. With regard to marriage and family life, a normal, healthy relationship with God is possible only to the extent that one has learned to be in normal, healthy relationships with people. Jesus warned against divorce because a disrupted family life provides little foundation for hearing the Gospel message. He said as much in the parable of the seed and the sower. (Mk. 4:1-20)
It has become fashionable in the Catholic Church to scapegoat divorced Catholics; this serves only to add to the disruption in the lives of Catholic families and wider society. A real remedy for divorce might come from an approach similar to unwinding a tangled internet cable or phone charging cable: start at the end you hold now and work backward until you get to the other end. For the divorced, the beginning of a remedy will be found in the present situation of divorce. For those who scapegoat, the beginning of a remedy will be found in repentance from the sin of blaming.