Indissoluble Marriage? Yes, But For the Chosen Few
Not only the doctrine of the Church, but the very words of Jesus on marriage are now reinterpreted in the most varied of ways. According to the biblicist Silvio Barbaglia, in the Gospels absolute indissolubility applies only to couples living as brother and sister “for the kingdom of heaven”
by Sandro Magister
ROME, April 25, 2016 – Among the almost 60,000 words of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, the words “indissoluble” or “indissolubility” occur only 11 times. And not even once in the extensive and crucial eighth chapter, the one on “so-called irregular” couples:
But there is nothing written clearly and explicitly there that would affect the dogma of the indissolubility of Christian marriage.
In fact, according to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn – the official exegete of the exhortation by the mandate of Pope Francis – the exceptions that pop up here or there concern only the “personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases,” but do not affect doctrine in any way, much less do they bring into question the permanent absoluteness of Jesus’ words against divorce: “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6).
In reality, on this specific point, neither dogma nor the Gospels turn out to be sheltered today from contestation and reinterpretation, at the various levels of the Church and even after the publication of “Amoris Lætitia.”
As for the doctrine of indissolubility, in fact, there are now many who theorize that spousal love can “die” and that the sacramental bond can be dissolved along with it. Not to mention the widespread practice of giving communion to the divorced and remarried, this too a de facto denial of the indissolubility of marriage.
Only a very few exegetes, however, have gone so far as to reinterpret the Gospels themselves in a radically new way on this point, maintaining that not even for Jesus was the indissolubility of marriage an absolute.
One of these is the Camaldolese monk Guido Innocenzo Gargano, an esteemed scholar of the Fathers of the Church, former prior of the Roman monastery of San Gregorio al Celio, professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and at the Pontifical Urban University, according to whom Jesus did not in any way revoke the Mosaic concession of repudiation, nor did he ever exclude from the kingdom of heaven those who resort to it “out of hardness of heart”:
Another is the biblicist Silvio Barbaglia, priest of the diocese of Novara and professor of Sacred Scripture at the theological faculty of northern Italy, in an essay that came to bookstores a few days ago:
His exegesis blazes a trail different from that of Fr. Gargano. In his judgment, Jesus indeed spoke unmistakable words on the indissolubility of marriage. But he said them not for everyone, but for a restricted circle of his disciples, the married couples who had left everything – relatives, property, habits – to follow him on the itinerant mission, in absolute matrimonial fidelity, from them on, in perfect sexual continence, as “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.”
And the other disciples, many more numerous, who did not follow Jesus on mission but remained in their cities and villages and within families of a patriarchal kind? Of these – Barbaglia explains – Jesus did not ask immediate detachment from the Mosaic traditions, including the “writ of repudiation.” They, however, were able to see in missionary couples living in chastity as brother and sister the prophetic anticipation of the risen life, “where they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:20), and were able to take it as a spur for “a way of purification” of their own marital models, still marked by features not in keeping – repudiation, polygamy, etc. – with “how it was in the beginning,” with Adam and Eve before sin.
Paul as well – Barbaglia continues – did the same. To some, to the couples going on mission, like Aquila and Priscilla, he proposed the prophetic choice: “The time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none” (1 Corinthians 7:29). But of the others, the bulk, he did not ask sexual abstinence, but a relationship as stable and faithful as possible.
And the Church of today should do the same, according to Barbaglia. Not “universalize” for all the dogma of indissolubility, in every condition of space and time, but distinguish between two levels of marital life: that of the few who are called to a particular spousal vocation “for the kingdom of heaven,” and that of the multitude.
For the multitude the marital bond would simply be founded on baptism, and to celebrate it as Christian marriage a simple blessing would suffice.
While the genuine sacrament of marriage would be reserved only for the few who embrace it “for the kingdom of heaven,” perhaps after years as ordinary Christian spouses and after having children. The sacrament would mark the beginning of a new poor and missionary life, with renunciation of the exercise of sexuality and with indissoluble fidelity even after the death of one of the spouses.
Indissolubility would therefore apply in an absolute way only to these few, while for the many – Barbaglia writes – it would have “a relative form, albeit tensional with respect to the absolute one.” And this situation, “which is the common and ordinary one for the majority of Christians, could also allow the positive resolution of the age-old problem of communion for the baptized, divorced but remarried, who in the Church are asking to start over with a new life of fidelity,” with or without a preliminary journey of penitence according to the responsibilities of each one in the rupture of the previous bond.
Barbaglia presents this twofold level of marriage as a “classroom exercise,” theoretical for now, derived from the aforementioned exegesis of the Gospels. To which he adds another “hypothesis,” relative to a married clergy.
Just as in the primitive Church married priests and bishops exercised their ministry while abstaining from sexual relations with their wives, so also, according to Barbaglia, could it be once again in tomorrow’s Catholic Church.
Deacons, priests, bishops would exercise the ministry in their respective celibate or marital states, “but both characterized by being ‘eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven,’ as in the apostolic group of Jesus and in the original Church.”
A “classroom exercise,” this last, that certainly would not find much favor among those who are campaigning for the advent of a married clergy, but that also does not imagine them in perfect sexual continence.
Silvio Barbaglia is an exegete not devoid of originality. His penultimate book is the following:
In the age-old dispute between those who maintain that the last supper was a Passover supper and those who instead – following the chronology of John – move it back to the previous evening, Barbaglia takes a position demonstrating full agreement among the four Gospels. In his judgment the last supper of Jesus was a “fasting supper” on the evening of Passover, in order to be among his disciples as “the one who serves.”
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.