What does Jesus really say about marriage and divorce?

In the aftermath of this month's synod, I find myself wondering whether Matthew 19:1-9, the Scripture passage most often cited by opponents of Cardinal Walter Kasper's proposal on divorce and remarriage, is as clear-cut as it appears.

First of all, the Pharisees ask whether divorce is licit "for any and every reason." Jesus is not addressing pastorally complicated situations, but "no fault divorce," which none of the synod's progressives were trying to defend.

Second, Jesus speaks of the decision to remarry but says nothing of what to do later on, after contrition has run its course, children have been born, love has grown, and abandoning the second marriage would become an act of violence itself.

Third, Jesus doesn't answer the Pharisees' question with a clear yes or no; he adverts not to the law but to the spiritual meaning of marriage, derived from Scripture. His pastoral approach invites us to set legalism aside and consider the vision of the human person that underlies the Gospels' whole moral praxis.

Fourth, Jesus makes an exception for marriages that are "unlawful." This seems to provide the basis for the Catholic idea of the annulment -- although Jesus has in mind cases of porneia (sexual immorality), which is generally not among the reasons the church allows for annulment. It is the traditionalists, then, who have already gone beyond Jesus' (ambiguous) specifications, not progressives.

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Yet it is a fifth and final observation that has really held my attention.

After Jesus asks the disciples what Moses taught, they have the presence of mind to ask why Moses taught it: It is because of the "hardness" of the Israelites' hearts, Jesus says. We too should ask why Jesus answers as he does. Besides divorce, is hardness of heart an implicit target of Jesus' instruction here?

The other day, I saw a bizarre recruitment video for the diocesan priesthood in which athletic seminarians compare the toughness of professional athletes with the heroism required of priests. The video strains this improbable analogy to the point of self-parody. Would any of us really want our pastors looking at us like the seminarian does here?

(On the other hand, this lovely homage to the priesthood produced by the Boston archdiocese seems to get it right.)

The basketball video reminds me of a conversation I had with a marvelous priest overflowing with warmth, sincerity and hospitality. He said just one thing that bewildered me so much, I didn't have the wherewithal to question it.

"Our next generation of priests," he said, "must be manly priests. We want real men. We want John Wayne in a clerical collar."

There are other images of the priesthood, like that of Kasper, known as "the smiling cardinal" for his omnipresent grin. (Although the cardinal has been known to quip, "Believe me, I am not smiling at everything!") Why, then, valorize machismo, which so often goes hand in hand with intransigency regarding doctrine (and which underlies the homosexuality taboo Kasper observed, rightly or wrongly, in Africa)?

I don't doubt the sincerity of people's beliefs, but all beliefs are tied up with desires, and I think that some conservative Catholics truly desire heroism. They want to prove they are strong enough to shoulder the demands of faith, and when they see other people getting away with what looks like moral laxity, it threatens the meaning and value of their own self-sacrificing rigors.

Yet these fears reveal a misunderstanding of what it means to be strong. Christianity is about paradox, and Christian toughness, paradoxically, is about softness, about sensitivity. For it is actually very hard to get through life without becoming calloused by the blows and violence of the world. It is actually very hard to deal with moral ambiguities.

In the words of Archbishop Bruno Forte, the primary author of the controversial passages on homosexuality last week: "Rejecting something is easy, but recognizing and giving value to all that is positive, even when dealing with [ambiguous] experiences, is an exercise in intellectual honesty and spiritual charity."

Perhaps Moses allowed divorce because people were too tough to try gentleness with their spouses, to face the fate of infertility, to accept the decline of physical beauty, to imagine after so many obstacles that their marriages still held hope of flourishing. In a culture riven by divorce, and where separation may not be a mutual decision, married people may long for the church to affirm the possibility and worth of lifelong commitment -- to decry the hardness of hearts. This is the church, and the Gospel, that I love.

But life is complex, and it also takes heroic humility to admit that not everything is black and white. It takes heroic compassion to share the pain of people whose marriages, despite their best efforts, have fallen out of sync with our own great ideals. It takes heroic sensitivity to get over the narrow vision of masculinity and femininity our culture enforces, and to excavate whatever it is in our psyche that makes us uncomfortable with alternative sexualities.

This, at least, is what comes to mind as I reflect on Jesus' words about hardness of heart. Readers, what emerges in your prayer?


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