I posted on this issue already, and took the post down because it was not stated with enough precision. But upon further consideration, I believe my essential contribution was correct, and wish to restate it more accurately.
In the context of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, there has been an attempt by some to characterize the position of those who support current Church teaching and practice on divorce and remarriage as “Pharisaical,” while associating those who wish to accommodate some form of ecclesiastical blessing of second marriages within the Church with the evangelical mercy and love of Jesus.
This is extremely ironic, because in point of fact, it was the Pharisees who were very open to divorce and remarriage, but Jesus who opposed it.
Let’s review the relevant texts:
Matt. 19:1 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; 2 and large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
Matt. 19:3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” 8 He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity (Gk porneia), and marries another, commits adultery.”
Let’s discuss the background for this text. First of all, divorce and remarriage were legally and morally permissible in Pharisaic Judaism. There were differences among different schools of Pharisees concerning what were considered valid grounds for divorce, however. The school of Shammai held that one could only divorce his wife for a serious offense, whereas the school of Hillel held that one could divorce for virtually any reason. This is why the Pharisees come to Jesus and pose the question. It was a debate within their own school of thought, and they wanted to know what the impressive young rabbi from Nazareth taught on the subject.
Jesus endorses neither school. His teaching on marriage is more conservative and more “restrictive” even then the school of Hillel. The only valid grounds for divorce in Jesus’ teaching is porneia, which Christian interpretation has understood as an “unlawful union.” Thus the Catholic understanding, based on the teaching of Jesus, is that marriage may not be dissolved unless it was never valid in the first place.
Of all the schools of thought among religious Israelites in the first century, Jesus’ teaching most closely resembles that of the Essenes, some or all of whom appear not to have countenanced divorce and remarriage, because they criticize other Jewish school(s) of thought (either or both of the Sadducees and Pharisees?) for violation of the principle of monogamy in the Damascus Document: “The ‘Shoddy-Wall-Builders’ are caught … in fornication, by taking two wives in their lifetimes, although the principle of creation is “male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27) [CD 4:20-21].
For the Pharisees, especially for the school of Hillel, divorce and remarriage were neither illegal nor immoral. There was nothing wrong with either practice at all. It was perfectly lawful according to the “command of Moses.”
In Catholic teaching, one must be in a state of grace to receive the Eucharist. A state of grace means, among other things, being essentially right with God and with the Church.
If the question were posed to the Pharisees, “Can a man who has divorced his wife and remarried be essentially right with God and with God’s human community?” they would have responded, “Yes, of course! Divorce is commanded by Moses!”
If the question were posed to Jesus, “Can a man who has divorced his wife and remarried be essentially right with God and God’s human community?” Our Lord’s response would be the same as above: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery,” which is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments, the summary of divine and natural law. Adultery is of a different, graver order than a violation of liturgical rubric or a local Church custom. It is not "legalistic" or "traditionalistic" to be opposed to adultery.
So I return to my point. Those who defend current Church practice and teaching on divorce and remarriage are formally aligned with the teaching of Jesus, whereas those proposing various relaxations of doctrine or practice on this issue are more alike, formally, to the teaching of the Pharisees. So there is no legitimacy at all, exegetically considered, for the attempted association of the position of, for example, Cardinal Burke with the Pharisees, and that of Cardinal Kasper with Jesus. It is, rather, inverted and ironic: precisely the opposite of the actual state of affairs.
[I am not commenting here on the merits of different pastoral proposals put forward by different synod participants. My colleague Jacob Wood has already written here with great precision to demonstrate that some proposals are impossible to reconcile with the Church’s doctrinal commitments. ]
Returning to the issue of the Pharisees, let us remember that Jesus elsewhere criticizes them for using convoluted or strained moral or legal reasoning to avoid the straightforward application of divine law.
Mark 7:9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God) — 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”
Here Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for using a legal ruse concerning the donation of property to the sanctuary to avoid supporting their own parents. The moral principles of the Ten Commandments—divine and natural law—should override cultic and ritual requirements developed within the community, not vice-versa.
Many within the Church already feel that the widespread ease with which decrees of nullity are granted by tribunals threatens to undermine the clear teaching of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage—how much more so if the validity of one’s previous marriage were to be left to the conscience of the individuals, as some are reported to have proposed! The great number of grounds upon which nullity can be established run the risk of appearing to be a new form of religious casuistry to avoid the challenge of divine law. It is not always clear to many of the faithful why Jesus would not direct the following words to the Church in the 21st century:
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting my commandments, in order to keep your tradition! For I said, “He who divorces his wife, except for porneia, and marries another commits adultery, but you say, ‘If a man obtains a decree of nullity from a tribunal—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his wife, and allow him to remarry, thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”
I am not affirming or denying anything about current Church practice, of course, but only pointing out that the frequent dispensation of decrees of nullity in the Church are causing doubts within the minds of the faithful concerning the Church’s commitment in practice to the principle of indissolubility. Although the Church formally acknowledges indissolubility, in practice annulments appear to function as “Catholic divorce,” and appear to be as easy to obtain as civil divorces. And proposals to make annulments even easier to obtain do nothing to allay the impression many have that the Church is not communally committed to living out Jesus’ radical call to discipleship in practice. This results in a degradation of the Church’s moral authority and a failure to take her teaching seriously, because many cannot recognize that teaching as coherent.
Finally, let us reflect for a moment on the fact that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord consistently raised the moral requirements of true discipleship vis-à-vis the Pharisees and contemporary Jewish practice, rather than lowering them.
He says clearly: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).
The Pharisees were content if one did not murder; Jesus forbids even unjust anger.
The Pharisees were content with avoidance of adultery; Jesus forbids even lustful glances.
The Pharisees were content if a certificate of divorce were legally issued; Jesus forbids divorce.
The Pharisees were content with keeping oaths; Jesus forbids oaths.
The Pharisees limited retaliation to the lex talionis; Jesus forbids personal retaliation.
The idea—which seems to be widespread—that Jesus’ morally teaching was somehow less demanding or more relaxed than that of the Pharisees is quite incorrect. It is true that Jesus did not endorse the plethora of ritual washings and other purity regulations practiced by the Pharisees, but on matters of moral law he was more, not less, stringent.