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Catholic doctrine on marriage and divorce relies heavily on a supposed saying of Jesus, found in its most uncompromising form at Mark 10: 2-12. But how can we be sure that Jesus said any such thing?

There are serious reasons to question the dominical origin of a teaching which has dominated Christian thinking about marriage for the last two thousand years. Can the Church have been misled all these years?  Fr Diego Ignaz Cantacuzeno, Head of Biblical Exegesis at the Jesuit College in Cusco, Peru, thinks so.

‘The famous passage from Mark’s gospel is not the earliest attestation of the attribution of these sentiments to Jesus,’ says Cantacuzeno, ‘we first encounter the idea in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinithians, probably written some thirty years before Mark. There Paul claims to have Jesus’s authority for the marriage regulations he is giving to his new community:  To the husbands I order, not I but the Lord: the wife may not be separated from the husband, and if she separates, let her remain without remarrying or let her be reconciled with the husband, and the husband may not repudiate the wife (1 Cor 7:10-11)’.

‘I order, not I but the Lord is a familiar piece of Pauline rhetoric, frequently adopted to settle an argument. We are dealing’, says Catacuzeno ‘with Pauline overkill. Paul claims to have a special revelation from the Lord himself on every  subject about which he will broke no contradiction. But there is good reason to treat these Pauline claims to ultimate authority with grave suspicion. He famously uses the same ploy at I Cor 14: 33-40 to forbid women from speaking in the assembly, (where, it should be noted, there is no synoptic corroboration).’

‘Clearly what is happening here is that Paul is imposing his own, essentially Jewish, presuppositions on his gentile churches and claiming the authority of Jesus for them. We know, for instance, that the prohibition at 1 Cor 14 cannot have had a dominical origin, because, of course, we know that Jesus would have taught the equality and dignity of women. There is similar reason to doubt the origin of Paul’s attitude to divorce.

‘Of course, once this rigid, unyielding view was established in the Pauline churches – on the powerful but erroneous supposition that it emanated from Jesus himself – it was impossible for subsequent writers to go back on it. So they wrote it into the gospels, projecting Paul’s obsessions back into Jesus’s teaching.’

Fr Cantacuzeno is the author of a number of influential books, including Women Apostles of the Early Church,  Gender Reassignment in the Balkans 451 – 1453, and Marriage Rites of the Albigensians. He is currently an adviser to the recently formed Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life

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