First, Jesus broadens our idea of what constitutes adultery to include lust.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:27-28 NIV)
And then he follows up by showing the adulterous nature of remarriage after divorce.
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt 5:31-32 NIV)
While difficult to follow, the teaching that it is sinful to look at a woman lustfully is fairly easy to understand. The more difficult and divisive words are found in Matthew 32. Our understanding of what Jesus meant by “except for sexual immorality” can lead us in a variety of directions.
The Protestant Understanding
Protestants are very divided over this issue. How serious is divorce? When is it acceptable? When is remarriage an option? So, I will have to deal with generalities based on my experience, and it cannot be assumed that this applies to all Protestant groups.
What I have found to be common, is a line of reasoning something like this:
According to my reading, Jesus says we can divorce and remarry, if our spouse has committed adultery. If this is true, then if our spouse violates our wedding vows in other serious ways, such as abusive behavior, this would also be valid grounds for divorce and remarriage.
Certain translations of the Bible seem to assume this is what was meant, and in an attempt at clarity, alter the words of Christ to fit this understanding.
“... if a man divorces his wife for any cause other than her unfaithfulness...” (Matt 5:32 GNT)
“But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful...” (Matt 5:32 NLT)
But this leaves us with several questions. Where do we draw the line on what constitutes a violation of wedding vows which is grounds for divorce? Didn't Jesus just say that lust was adultery, and if so, isn't this grounds for almost any woman to divorce her husband and remarry? And if this is the case, then what purpose is served by warning us against divorce in the first place? And, why doesn't the parallel verse in Luke 16:18 give us exceptions to the inviolable nature of marriage?
The Catholic Understanding
I always favored the Catholic understanding because it seems clear to me that Jesus regards divorce as a very serious matter, and he warns severely against remarriage. Even as a Protestant I had an understanding of the inviolable sacramental nature of marriage. But Catholics are not allowed to remarry after a divorce, unless they can show that their marriage was invalid (I'm not getting into the issue of what many Catholics do, or whether the Church grants too many annulments. I'm looking at the actual teaching of the Church). This seems to go against the exception provided by Christ. Didn't Jesus say that we could remarry if our wives committed adultery?
Let's look for a clue in another Protestant Bible translation. The Contemporary English Version records the verse like this:
“But I tell you not to divorce your wife unless she has committed some terrible sexual sin. If you divorce her, you will cause her to be unfaithful, just as any man who marries her is guilty of taking another man's wife.” (Matt 5:32 CEV)
This isn't very different from the other versions, but this version includes a footnote saying, “some terrible sexual sin: This probably refers to the laws about the wrong kinds of marriages that are forbidden in Leviticus 18.6-18 or to some serious sexual sin.”
Discovering this greatly alleviated my confusion on this matter. If the first meaning is correct, that this “refers to the laws about the wrong kind of marriages that are forbidden,” then this verse is entirely consistent with the Catholic teaching. A man's wedding vows are rendered null if it turns out that their marriage was a “forbidden” kind of marriage, not valid from the start. In this case, the sexual sin was not an extramarital affair as suggested by many translations, rather it was the false marriage which was “unchaste” by its own failing, having been improperly established.
If the marriage was not valid to begin with, then it would not be adultery to remarry after such a divorce. This is the Catholic teaching on the matter, and it is the one teaching that does justice to all the relevant scriptures. The Catholic teaching is consistent, and follows the teaching of our Lord, properly professing the gravity of divorce and remarriage.
“Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384).