Divorce and ‘the case of fornication’

Fornication is usually defined as sexual relations between two persons who are unmarried (CCC, n. 2353). Using this definition, adultery would be distinct from fornication. Jesus uses the term fornication, in other passages of the Gospels, with this usual definition

{15:19} For from the heart go out evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies.

In the above verse, fornication is distinct from adultery. But Jesus also used the term when discussing grave sins within marriage, sins so grave that the innocent spouse would be justified in separating from the offending spouse, even though they have the bond of the Sacrament of Marriage.

{5:31} And it has been said: ‘Whoever would dismiss his wife, let him give her a bill of divorce.’
{5:32} But I say to you, that anyone who will have dismissed his wife, except in the case of fornication, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever will have married her who has been dismissed commits adultery.

{19:9} And I say to you, that whoever will have separated from his wife, except because of fornication, and who will have married another, commits adultery, and whoever will have married her who has been separated, commits adultery.”

It is not true, as some assume and others assert, that the same word has the same meaning in every passage of Sacred Scripture. Words vary in meaning, depending on their context. In the above passage, since the context is grave sin within marriage, the term fornication is not used specifically for sexual relations between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. But the term cannot merely refer to adultery, for in verse 19:9 the word fornication is used with the word adultery.

Which grave sins, committed by a married man or married woman, constitute a type of fornication, and therefore justify the separation of a married couple with the bond of the Sacrament remaining?

Certainly, if one spouse commits adultery, especially if the sin is repeated, or if the spouse is unrepentant, or if the adultery is in some way more severe, adultery could be grounds for separating from your spouse, despite having a valid marriage in the Church. However, if adultery were the only sin, Jesus would have said ‘adultery’, since He uses the word repeatedly elsewhere in the same sentence.

Other grave sexual sins can possibly be committed by a married person. If a spouse were committing the sin of using pornography, especially repeatedly and without repentance, then separation would be justified. If a spouse were committing the sin of masturbation, especially repeatedly and without repentance, then separation would be justified.

If the offending spouse were insistent that the innocent spouse commit unnatural sexual acts (such as oral, anal, or manipulative sexual acts), and the innocent spouse is unable to dissuade him or her, then separation would be justified. If the offending spouse rapes the innocent spouse, then separation would be justified.

All of these grave sexual sins are not only mortal sins deserving of eternal punishment in Hell, but also a sin of sacrilege against the holy Sacrament of Marriage.

Do you doubt that sexual sins committed in the Sacrament of Marriage are also the sin of sacrilege? Consider that if the wife of a married permanent deacon dies, he is required by the moral law to remain single; he cannot remarry because he has received Holy Orders. If he remarries, he commits the sin of sacrilege, even though marital relations is not itself a sin. A deacon commits a sacrilege by having sexual relations within marriage (a second marriage after the first spouse has died), due to the conflict between his remarriage and the Sacrament of Orders.

How much more sinful, then is the sacrilege committed when one or both spouses commit a grave sexual sin within the Sacrament of Marriage! For sexual relations is inherently ordered toward the marital and unitive and procreative meanings of sexual acts. To commit a sexual sin within marriage is to offend God not only on the basis of the particular sin, but also on the basis of the holy gift to humanity of marriage as a Sacrament, of marriage raised from the natural to the supernatural.

Returning to a discussion of separation with the bond of the Sacrament remaining, there is another type of fornication that justifies separation. Fornication can be literal or figurative. The literal fornication that would justify separation of the spouses is any grave sexual sin, especially on a continuous basis and without repentance. Figurative (or spiritual) fornication is the grave sin of idolatry or any similarly grave sin against religion (e.g. schism, heresy, apostasy). If the offending spouse is unrepentant from such a grave sin of spiritual fornication, the innocent spouse may separate with the bond of the Sacrament remaining, without sin.

[1 Corinthians]
{7:12} Concerning the rest, I am speaking, not the Lord. If any brother has an unbelieving wife, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.
{7:13} And if any woman has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce her husband.
{7:14} For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through the believing wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through the believing husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, whereas instead they are holy.
{7:15} But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart. For a brother or sister cannot be made subject to servitude in this way. For God has called us to peace.

If the one spouse refuses to believe in the Faith, and is not willing to allow the believing spouse to practice the Faith, separation is justified.

But if spouses separate without grave cause, the spouse who compels the separation, or both spouses if they agree to separate, are guilty of grave sin.

{10:6} But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.
{10:7} Because of this, a man shall leave behind his father and mother, and he shall cling to his wife.
{10:8} And these two shall be one in flesh. And so, they are now, not two, but one flesh.
{10:9} Therefore, what God has joined together, let no man separate.”

But if one spouse compels the other spouse to separate, not because of fornication, then this act of separation is formal cooperation with adultery. For the spouse who is innocent is compelled to live in the danger of sexual relations outside of marriage. This innocent spouse, who was not willing to divorce or separate, is placed by the other spouse in what is for many persons a possible occasion of grave sin.

{5:32} But I say to you, that anyone who will have dismissed his wife, except in the case of fornication, causes her to commit adultery….

Even if the innocent separated spouse avoids any grave sexual sins, the offending spouse (who divorced the other without a case of fornication) still sins by putting the innocent spouse in danger of adultery or other grave sexual sins.

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