The Church has been 'discerning' about Christ's teaching for two millennia. There is only one possible conclusion

When Fr Arturo Marcelino Sosa Abascal SJ, the Superior General of the Jesuits, speaks, people listen. He heads the Church’s largest and in some ways most influential order, and is said to be close to the Holy Father. So in the current debates about marriage and divorce, he has an important voice.

However, the lengthy interview which Fr Sosa has just given is rather opaque. It is clear that the interviewer, Italian journalist Giuseppe Rusconi, is flummoxed by what the Jesuit General is saying. When we dig down into Fr Sosa’s words, something worrying emerges.

The discussion centres on the words of Jesus: “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Fr Sosa comments: “There would have to be a lot of reflection on what Jesus really said. At that time, no one had a recorder to take down his words. What is known is that the words of Jesus must be contextualized, they are expressed in a language, in a specific setting, they are addressed to someone in particular.”

Fr Sosa goes on: “The word is relative, the Gospel is written by human beings, it is accepted by the Church which is made up of human persons … So it is true that no one can change the word of Jesus, but one must know what it was!”

The language is vague, but the implication seems to be that we cannot read Jesus’ words as simply a prohibition on divorce.

It is worth examining the whole passage, because the last sentence seems to apply directly to Fr Sosa:

Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ 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’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss (her)?” He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” [His] disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted.”

Fr Sosa is of course right to suggest that we need to reflect on every verse of Scripture. No one disputes this. For that very reason, the verses have been interpreted by the tradition of the Church, expressed in the Magisterium, in a way that is completely coherent, for many centuries. The teaching is well expressed, for example, in Pope St John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio.

Fr Sosa invites “reflection” on “Not the word of Jesus, but the word of Jesus as we have interpreted it. Discernment does not select among different hypotheses, but listens to the Holy Spirit.”

Well, we have been discerning, and we have been doing so for centuries. One is left wondering whether Fr Sosa’s call for continuing discernment is, in fact, a call to keep at it until we come up with a different answer?

Fr Sosa says that there were no tape recorders in those days. This is presumably an attempt at humour. But if the implication is that we cannot be sure that these words were actually said by Jesus, that implication is utterly false. The consensus of the Church has long been that this passage represents the ipsissima verba of Our Lord. There are several reasons for this, and it might be worthwhile, even in an article as short as this, to spell them out.

First of all, in this passage Jesus says something very unusual. He says something that breaks with Jewish tradition, and implicitly rebukes Moses, who, of course, made provision for divorce. It is not what you would expect a Jew of the first century to say, and it goes against the grain of many of the things that Jesus says elsewhere, where it is made clear that He esteems Moses and the Law greatly. This means that the passage is not invented by Jesus’ followers. It is a hard saying (as the passage itself makes clear) and thus one that no one would ever make up. It represents a shocking departure from tradition; ergo, it is only in the Gospel because it must have been from the lips of the Lord. No one would have dared to make this up; nor would it occur to anyone to imagine it.

Secondly, this passage has parallels in Mark and Luke, and thus represents what we call “triple tradition”. That we have three witnesses to the words of Jesus surely increases the likelihood that they are his words, not words put into his mouth.

Thirdly, the writings of Saint Paul, which predate the Gospels, and the “Catholic epistles”, which may well predate the Gospels too, in no way contradict Jesus’ words. On the contrary – as you will find if you look up all uses of the word “marriage” in the New Testament – they form a seamless continuity. The Letter to the Hebrews was probably written in the mid-sixties of the first century. At that time, the Gospels had probably not been written, and the words of Jesus existed in oral form only. But Hebrews, in perfect keeping with Jesus’ recorded words, says:

“Let marriage be honoured among all and the marriage bed be kept undefiled, for God will judge the immoral and adulterers.”

And what about the decree of the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15: “to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right”?

If there is any doubt over what “unlawful marriage” means, look at the first Letter to the Corinthians (written, again, before the Gospels). St Paul talks of the various bad practices that the Christians have now put away, and in the same chapter quotes the tag about the “two becoming one flesh”. I think this is a sign that Paul was familiar with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew.

Moreover, there is nowhere in the New Testament any sign of a counter-tradition, that is, any hint that there was another way of interpreting Jesus’ words.

I suppose we should be grateful to Fr Sosa for allowing us to restate the traditional doctrine of the Church, one, incidentally, that I was taught at a Jesuit university in Rome. We were told very plainly that no power on heaven or earth could dissolve a marriage consummatum et ratum. Those words, enunciated with huge emphasis, came from the lips of Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda SJ. I note that Fr Ghirlanda is still teaching in Rome. I hope he has not changed his tune. Perhaps he and Fr Sosa should have a little talk?