Indissolubility Called Into Question

Father Christian Thouvenot, Secretary General of the Society of St. Pius X, comments on the the indissolubility of marriage called into question by the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia released on April 8, 2016.

Marriage is one of the seven sacraments instituted by Christ and entrusted to the care of the Church He founded.[1]

Throughout its history, the Church has constantly recalled the grandeur and holiness of Christian marriage, a true sacrament that gives divine grace and sanctifies the spouses throughout their entire lives.[2] Sacramental grace aids them to carry out their duties faithfully and to take the necessary means to accomplish the two ends of marriage:

  • The procreation and education of children;
  • Mutual support through conjugal love.


1. Unity and Indissolubility

The Church teaches that there are two essential properties of marriage. The first is unity: the marriage bond is only contracted between one man and one woman, and confers on each spouse an exclusive right to the fidelity of the other. The second is indissolubility, required by the permanent character of the conjugal bond. These two essential properties make the beauty of marriage and ensure its solidity.

Nothing and no one, no authority on earth, can dissolve or conclude the conjugal bond. The Church, when it investigates a case of annulment, seeks only to establish whether the spouses’ consent was valid, and if there was therefore truly a marriage. But it cannot annul or render nonexistent a validly contracted bond:

What God therefore hath joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mt. 19:6).

Faced with attacks on the inviolability of the matrimonial bond, especially from modern civil legislatures, which have spread the practice of divorce for the last two centuries, the Church, through the voice of the Sovereign Pontiffs, has constantly insisted on the indissolubility of marriage.[3]

The Natural and Divine Grounds for Indissolubility

By virtue of the natural law, marriage is indissoluble because divorce is gravely opposed to the two ends of the spouses’ union: on one hand, the children are the first victims of a divorce, and their education always suffers; on the other hand, both fidelity and mutual support are necessarily jeopardized. Moreover, the evil consequences of divorce affect the whole of society: broken families, social maladjustment, financial ruin.

By virtue of divine law, marriage is indissoluble according to the original institution that Christ came to restore. The episode reported by St. Matthew and St. Mark is well-known:

And there came to him the Pharisees tempting him, and saying: Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? Who answering, said to them: Have ye not read, that he who made man from the beginning, Made them male and female? And he said: For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.  They say to him: Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorce, and to put away? He saith to them: Because Moses by reason of the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery” (Mt. 19:4-9).

If then physical separation is permitted, any new union is nonetheless adultery. This is the meaning of Our Lord’s answer to the Samaritan woman who admits she is not truly married:

Thou hast said well, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands: and he whom thou now hast, is not thy husband. This thou hast said truly” (Jn. 4:17-18).

A Perpetual Bond

This teaching is hard for inconstant man, too often unfaithful to his promises, to hear. Such is nonetheless the perfect matrimonial contract that Christ came to reestablish.[4] For it was the contract of our first parents, whose marriage was the prototype for every future marriage.[5] The Council of Trent taught that Adam, “under the influence of the divine Spirit,” proclaimed the perpetual and indissoluble bond of marriage when he said, “This now is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).[6]

As indissolubility is by divine law, nothing can outweigh or prevail over this property of the matrimonial bond. Neither heresy, nor adultery, nor any other difficulty can dissolve this bond where extant,[7] and it ceases only at the death of one of the spouses:

The bond of legally contracted marriage is perpetual.”[8]


2. The Synod on the Family

The XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops gathered in October 2015 to discuss “the vocation and the mission of the family in the Church and today’s world”. Each participant had an opportunity to examine the Instrumentum Laboris that the Synod’s general secretariat published on June 21, 2015. The document was supposed to deal with the indissolubility of marriage.

The Instrumentum Laboris touches on indissolubility in the second part (“the discernment of the family vocation”). It affirms that the “indissoluble union between a man and a woman” corresponds to “the original plan of the human couple” (¶41) that Jesus came to reaffirm.

For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (Mt. 19:8).

Making it possible to “restore the original divine plan,” Christ, through His meetings with the Samaritan woman and the woman taken in adultery, put into practice the doctrine He taught. “By looking at the sinner with love,” Jesus “leads the person to repentance and conversion (“Go and sin no more”[9]), which is the basis for forgiveness” (¶41).

However, the inter-synodal document is loath to have indissolubility understood “as a 'yoke' imposed on persons but as a ‘gift’ to a husband and wife united in marriage” (ibid.). It is nonetheless known that conjugal union means sharing the same yoke (as in the word’s etymology). But the intent is to be positive, to avoid speaking of the duties contracted by the consent of the spouses, and to present the bond of indissolubility in the end as a mutual gift, ordered toward individual happiness:

Indissolubility represents a personal response to the profound desire for mutual and enduring love: a 'never-ending' love which becomes a choice and a gift of one’s self” (¶42).

We find here the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which in the name of pastoral practice, innovates using new terms, expressions, and concepts, and avoids the use of the established, traditional terminology, setting forth a vision centered on the good of individuals rather than on the good of the family unit. Yet through their union, married persons are oriented towards a superior common good, that of the society they have founded: the family.

Presented thus as a mutual “gift”, indissolubility is essentially oriented towards the good of individuals and their achievement of happiness through love (the second end of marriage), at the risk of reducing it to their fidelity alone. But this is not exact. Even if the spouses are unfaithful to one another, even if they take back this mutual “gift”, the marriage bond that unites them remains indissoluble. And when this bond is trampled underfoot by a new, extra-marital union—as in the case of divorced persons wrongly known as “remarried”—it remains nonetheless constant, lifelong, and perennial.


3. The Exhortation Amoris Laetitia

On April 8, 2016, Pope Francis published the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. While within its pages can be found profound and spiritual considerations on marriage, the possibilities opened up by the Instrumentum Laboris of June 21, 2015, are present.

From the very first chapter the Pope considers the family in the light of the Bible, of the “domestic church” it represents, and of the analogies with the Triune God, Creator and Savior, that can be drawn (¶11 – 30). But the family is not defined other than as “a communion of persons in the image of the union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (¶29).

It is only when discussing the challenges faced by the family in the contemporary world, in the second chapter, that the exhortation affirms that the family is a “natural  society  founded  on marriage” where “only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit  in  new  life” (¶52). The “characteristics of exclusivity, indissolubility, and openness to life,” are then mentioned as distinctive signs of sacramental marriage (¶53).[10] Likewise, in the chapter on “Love in Marriage” (ch. 4), Pope Francis insists on adding to the love of friendship in which conjugal love consists, the element of “indissoluble exclusivity” which requires fidelity (¶ 123). Even without children, “marriage still retains its character of being a whole manner and communion of life, and preserves its value and indissolubility” (¶ 178).

However, the papal document is at pains to clarify that indissolubility “should not be viewed as a ‘yoke’ imposed on humanity, but as a ‘gift’ granted to those who are joined in marriage” (¶ 62). This is emphasized:

Marital love is not defended primarily by presenting indissolubility as a duty, or by repeating doctrine, but by helping it to grow ever stronger under the impulse of grace" (¶ 134).

Doubtless this is the ideal, but how can it be applied to situations of failure or breakup? It is there that seemingly a dichotomy is slipped in between doctrine and pastoral practice, the latter circumventing the former to open up a dangerous breach.

A Pastoral Perspective for Circumventing Doctrine

The sixth chapter, on “Some Pastoral Perspectives,” indeed takes up the situation of “the divorced who have entered a new union”. As they are still part of the Church and are not excommunicated, the Sovereign Pontiff explains, their situations require “careful discernment” and “respectful accompaniment. Language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided, and they should be encouraged to participate in the life of the community. The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity (¶ 243).[11] Here is the difficulty: to avoid calling into question testimony to indissolubility, while welcoming those who provide testimony to the opposite!

But it was of course Pope Francis’ handling of the issue of Eucharistic communion of divorced persons in a new union that was anticipated on all sides. Attention centered on Chapter 8, which the Pope himself considered was likely to challenge everyone (¶ 7). He was not wrong.

Firstly, this chapter deals with irregular situations (civil unions and cohabitation), presented as intermediary situations called to orient themselves gradually towards Christian marriage. The latter,

a reflection of the union between  Christ  and  his  Church,  is  fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who  give  themselves  to  each  other  in  a  free,  faithful  and  exclusive  love,  who  belong  to  each other  until  death  and  are  open  to  the  transmission  of   life,  and  are  consecrated  by  the  sacrament, which grants them the grace to become a domestic church and a leaven of  new life for society” (¶ 292).

The inversion of the ends of marriage is worthy of remark, where the procreation and the education of children seem eliminated in favor of the love of individuals. As for unions that realize this aspect of Christian marriage “in at least a partial and  analogous  way,” “the  Synod  Fathers stated that  the  Church  does  not  disregard  the  constructive  elements  in  those  situations  which  do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage” (ibid.). This comes down to closing one’s eyes on the sinful nature of these extra-marital relations, in order to tolerate them in hopes that the partners will journey towards “the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel” (¶ 294). The Pope believes that “respect also can be shown for those signs of love which in some way reflect God’s own love” (ibid.). Never has the Vicar of Christ shown such complaisance towards situations so opposed to Catholic morality and Christian marriage. How is it possible that baptized persons in civil unions or simply cohabiting, otherwise known as living in sin, can reflect the love of God? God, whose sanctity is offended by such behavior where the flesh dominates the spirit? Is this love worthy of the children of God, worthy of an eternal crown from Him?

The second part finally examines the issue of divorced people who have “remarried”. Here again “it is a matter of reaching out to everyone,” finding for them a “way of taking part in the life of community” (¶ 297), “while avoiding any occasion of scandal” (¶ 299). But how can public sinners “live and grow in the Church”, if not by separating to end the scandal, or at the very least, if there are children, living as brother and sister? But this is not stated. Worse, in concluding a consideration that excuses them from all personal wrongdoing (see ¶s 300 – 305), the Pope even affirms that

because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin –which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also  grow  in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end” (¶ 305).[12]

This help, according to footnote 351, includes the confessional and access to the Eucharist. The Pope is therefore saying that the divorced and remarried can receive the sacraments in some cases. If they lived in perpetual continence and no longer sinned, this could be considered, every risk of scandal having been avoided; but this is neither said nor even considered: the Pope is speaking of irregular situations to which the moral law cannot apply as they are (¶ 305).

Worse yet, the decision is left either to the pastor, who is encouraged to show mercy, that is not to be petty or reductive (¶ 304), not to have a closed heart (¶ 305), and not to make the confessional into a “torture chamber” (footnote 351)—what pastor will still have the courage to refuse sacramental absolution to the unrepentant sinner, or the Eucharist to the public sinner?—or to the discernment of the individual who “may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’”… (¶ 301). The door is open to moral subjectivism. On the contrary, the Church is faithful to its mission when it defends the sanctity of marriage, its unity and its indissolubility, and when it explains to the sinner that in taking his neighbor’s wife, he commits adultery. What the Law already taught (see Ex. 20:17, Lev. 20:10, Prov. 6:29), Christ confirmed: “Every one that putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her that is put away from her husband, committeth adultery” (Luke 16:18). For refusing to weaken on this point, St. John the Baptist paid with his life.



As at the Second Vatican Council, in the name of new pastoral practice, the doctrine of the Church is circumvented in practice, and finally changed.

The exhortation certainly contains many high points, as well as indisputable encouragement for families:

With inner joy and deep comfort, the Church looks to the families who remain faithful to the teachings of the Gospel, encouraging them and thanking them for the testimony they offer. For they bear witness, in a credible way, to the beauty of marriage as indissoluble and perpetually faithful” (¶86).

Unfortunately, as soon as he enters into the “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,”[13] Pope Francis seems to set aside doctrine—along with its corresponding discipline—in favor of a deleterious praxis.

Already on December 8, 2015, the new canonical procedures intended to relax the rules on recognizing cases of marriage nullity (motu proprio Mitis Iudex Dominus Jesus and Mitis et Misericors Jesus, August 15, 2015). The post-synodal apostolic exhortation calls for bishops to take them seriously and put them into practice (¶ 244).

Today, the divorced and “remarried,” as well as cohabiting couples, whether or not they have engaged in a civil union, are the objects of solicitude of a lax pastoral approach that strongly risks encouraging them to remain in their openly sinful situations—to the great scandal of faithful Catholics, ever more disoriented by the new conciliar religion.

What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).

In accordance with the law of God, the Church is bound to defend the sanctity of marriage, whatever the cost. This is a beautiful proof of love for its Divine Master, who told His Apostles, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15).

Source: SSPX/MG – DICI no. 334, 22/04/16

[1] Second Council of Lyon, July 6, 1274, profession of faith of the Emperor Michael Palaiologos to Pope Gregory X; Council of Florence, November 22, 1439, Bull Exultate Deo for the Armenians; Council of Trent, 24th session, 11 November 1563 on the doctrine of the sacrament of marriage.

[2] Leo XIII, encyclical Arcanum divinae sapientiae, February 10, 1880; Pius XI, Encyclical Casti Connubii, December 31, 1930.

[3] Pius IX, Syllabus, December 8, 1864, no. 67; Pius XI, Encyclical Casti Connubii, December 31, 1930.

[4] See Mark 10:6-9

[5] Pius XI, Casti Connubii, DS 3711

[6] Council of Trent, decree of November 11, 1563, DS 1797

[7] Council of Elvira, verse 306, canon 9, DS 117

[8] Council of Florence, 1439, DS 1327. Numerous other sources could be cited, such as the Church Fathers, the Councils, and the writings of the popes.

[9] John 8:11

[10] ¶77 adds unity, fidelity, and mutual support.

[11] The same argument is presented and developed in ¶ 246, in the name of the children’s good: “Christian communities must not abandon divorced parents who have entered a new union, but should include and support them in their efforts to bring up their children." How can we encourage those parents to do everything possible to raise their children in the Christian life, to give them an example of committed and practical faith, if we keep them at arm’s length from the life of the community, as if they were somehow excommunicated? We must keep from acting in a way that adds even more to the burdens that children in these situations already have to bear!”  Helping heal the wounds of parents and supporting them spiritually is also beneficial for children, who need the familiar face of the Church to see them through this traumatic experience. Divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling.” It is a feat that in one single paragraph the Pope manages to condemn divorce as an evil while treating divorced parents as completely Christian, anxious to set the example of “committed and practical faith”.

[12] It is not only ignorance or misunderstanding of the moral law, natural or divine, that is at stake: “Hence it is can [sic] no longer simply be said that all those in any  “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule” (¶ 301).

[13] The title of the Instrumentum Laboris of the first session of the Synod on the Family, published on June 24, 2014.