A Scriptural look at Jesus' teachings on marriage and divorce
The problem with discussing development and change in church teaching using the language of “conservatives” or “liberals” is not that differences among Catholics do not map broadly onto this template, but that it imports the political sense of a zero sum game: there are winners and losers and those with whom I disagree are my opponents. In the spirit of all of us belonging to one church, I want to offer some thoughts on how development has occured in church teaching, using examples from the New Testament.
This is offered as a response to some recent Ross Douthat columns, blog posts and Twitter discussions, particularly his requests that his interlocutors engage him in a discussion on the theological issues. One of the surprising aspects of Mr. Douthat's thought regarding the issues discussed at the recent Synod on the Family is that he seems to hold a fundamentalist view of Scripture, namely, that its sense is always plain. Scripture is not self-interpreting, though, but it requires the believing church. The positions taken by the Roman Catholic Church on divorce, remarriage and communion are not self-evident, but the product of numerous interpretive moves. Father Paul Keller gives excellent examples of these interpretive choices, so I will not cover a lot of the material he does but encourage you to read his post.
For instance, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have interpreted Jesus’ teaching differently in one significant practical matter. Mark Silk points out that the Orthodox Church does allow second and even third marriages, but that a penitential path has to be followed prior to a second marriage, and this is the case even if the person seeking a second marriage is a widow or a widower, since one, indissoluble marriage is the ideal. On the other hand, in the Catholic Church, if a spouse dies, one can marry again with no questions and no problems. But given Catholicism’s understanding of the indissolubility of marriage, why should this be? Why should the death of one spouse end this marriage? There are arguments to be made for both Orthodox and Catholic positions, but that is the point: arguments and interpretations of the evidence must be advanced and different churches, neither of whom consider the other to be heretical, have taken different positions. Fr. Paul Keller also points out that the supposed strict indissolubility of marriage in the Catholic context is also limited by the Petrine and Pauline privileges.
Jesus on Marriage
So what does Jesus say? This passage from Mark 10 is at the heart of all Christian teaching on marriage and divorce:
1He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. 2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3 He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4 They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." 5 But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female.' 7 "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
It’s clear: no divorce and no remarriage if you do divorce, unless you want to live in adultery! There is nothing here about communion, annulments, the Petrine privilege or the Pauline privilege. But as always with Scripture, it is fair to ask for the context of the teaching, which means at a minimum we should look at Jesus’ other teachings on marriage, divorce and celibacy, but also include the historical and theological contexts for Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus’ first teaching on marriage is embedded in his divorce sayings, in which Pharisees “test” Jesus on whether it is “lawful for a man to divorce his wife” (Mk 10:2; cf. Mt 19:3). In Mark 10:6-9, Jesus answers “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘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, let no one separate.” Matthew 19:4-6 offers a similar response from Jesus, adding, however, in 19:8 that divorce was only allowed due to hardness of heart, but “from the beginning it was not so.” It is important to note, though, that Matthew has already changed Jesus’ clear teaching on marriage and divorce, which will be discussed below. There is no question that Mark has the original statement of Jesus, with Matthew or the Matthean community already offering an “exception” for the case of porneia, itself a much contested word in this context, since moicheia (adultery) could have been used if that is what the author intended.
As numerous commentators note, Jesus’ answer takes us “back to the beginning,” that is, to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 and the creation of male and female. Marriage for Jesus is seen as a fulfillment of the Edenic realities of sexual differentiation and the unity of the male and the female prior to the primal disobedience. Yet, Jesus suggests that something has changed for humanity which allows them to return to the pre-lapsarian ideal now so that divorce is no longer necessary. What has softened the “hardness of heart” that necessitated divorce?
Ben F. Meyer has said that Jesus’ moral teaching in Matthew is a characteristic of “high, eschatological idealism,” in which a lustful thought can be equated with an act of adultery. For Jesus, the situation is not normal, as he understands the Torah “at this moment being made new…appointed and reserved for the end-time,” radicalizing even a foundational institution like marriage. Underlying Jesus’ radicalizing of marriage is that as Messiah, he will bring about the eschaton which will create the human perfection necessary to follow this new Torah.
The eschaton, the end of the world, is the context in which we must understand Jesus’ teaching on marriage, but this is also the context for understanding “the beginning.” In the two versions of the marriage saying, Jesus brings us back to the beginning three times: “from the beginning of creation;” “the one who made them at the beginning;” and “from the beginning it was not so.” Primal origins, however, are also about the end: Urzeit ist Endzeit, as we see in Jubilees and other Jewish writings of this period. Jesus proclaims the end of divorce because God’s kingdom is on the verge of breaking through and will soon be here. The eschatological orientation makes sense of the teaching on marriage, for now people will be able to fulfill their vows perfectly, in large part because marriage itself will soon come to an end.
For Jesus also says that there is no marriage in the Endzeit (Mk 12:18-25; Mt 22: 23-30; Lk 20:27-36). In reply to a question from the Sadducees regarding Levirate marriage in the world to come, Jesus rebuffs his questioners: “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mk. 12:25; cf. Mt.22:30). This would seem to be the earliest strata of the Jesus logion and the import of it is that in God’s kingdom marriage is not required since human beings are asexual and do not reproduce. Since people live eternally, the need for procreation, the prime purpose of marriage, has come to an end. And since the question concerns those who have been married to each other, it also indicates that marriages which were contracted here on earth have also come to an end. Why bring a marriage to an end through divorce when the eschaton will soon bring the institution of marriage itself to an end?
The Lukan version of this pericope is even more intriguing. Luke’s version indicates that marriage is for people tied to this world not the world to come, for “those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Lk. 20:34-35). It is possible to read v. 34 as arguing that marriage is only for those of this world, though it is not clear if v.35 means that those who marry now will not share in the world to come, or simply have to give up marriage in the kingdom of God. Luke 20:36 stresses the reason for the end of marriage, since “they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” The twofold use of children in this verse might also indicate the goal for which humanity is intended, namely, permanent childhood. Childlikeness is put forward as a criterion of a follower of Jesus to enter the kingdom (cf. Mt.18:3) and it is possible that the eschewal of marriage fits with the childlike and eternal nature of Jesus’ heavenly disciples.
Jesus on Celibacy
One of the passages just noted, Matthew 19:3-12, also has an important reference to celibacy. In response to Jesus’ claim that divorce is not possible in marriage, except for porneia, Jesus’ disciples say, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Mt 19:10). Jesus’ response to the disciples offers an enigmatic saying on eunuchs: “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Mt 19:11-12). Without question, this is an actual saying of Jesus. But what does it mean?
What does it mean that “not everyone can accept this teaching”? Does it mean there is a choice among Jesus’ followers to accept or reject the teaching? Does it mean that only those who can accept it can be Jesus’ followers? (That was the position of the early Syriac Christian Church who only baptized celibates for the first few centuries.) The second clause, “but only those to whom it is given,” might indicate that only some followers of Jesus can accept the teaching regarding marriage and divorce or that only those who have had this insight given to them - by God? - are fit to be Jesus’ followers. It is unclear whether all of Jesus’ disciples should be single or if some have a choice to be married. The linking of the eunuchs to the kingdom of heaven, though, clearly indicates that the ideal of the single and celibate state is the state of all disciples in the eschatological Kingdom of God.
Jesus on Divorce:
If the eschatological context is pervasive for Jesus’ teaching on marriage, this, too, is the proper context for Jesus’ understanding of divorce. Jesus does not offer conservative Jewish teaching, but radical teaching, intended to promote sexual asceticism, a form of “self-control in imminent expectation of the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ teaching on divorce is far more stringent than that of the rabbis, in which divorce was possible in most, even trivial, situations.
Jesus’ teaching is that marriage ought not be contracted more than once and divorce is not allowed, a form of the intensification of the Torah due to its messianic fulfillment and eschatological asceticism (Mk 10:2-12; Mt 5:31-32, 19:3-9; Lk 16:18). Matthew’s pericope, however, offers an exception clause, in which divorce is allowed if the wife commits porneia. This clause is not original to Jesus’ saying, and the basic outlines of Jesus’ teaching is modified: Jesus would prefer new marriages not be contracted, and existing marriages ought not to be ended, unless they were not truly marriages to begin.
I believe this exception clause was first concerned with marriages which ought not to have been contracted due to degrees of consanguinity outlawed by Leviticus and maintained later by the rabbis and does not concern adultery, though this is much disputed.  What we can say is that current Catholic Church teaching on annulments has moved much beyond any scholar’s interpretation of what porneia meant to the Matthean community in the first century, that is, technically incestuous marriages, adultery, or other sexual sins, to include numerous emotional and psychological conditions and situations. So the exception clause itself was a development of what Jesus said, namely, that since the eschaton is soon to arrive it is best not to divorce. But Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 say that marriages can end due to porneia andthat remarriage is possible if the divorce was due to porneia. And today the annulment process ends marriages even if porneia was not present and allows for remarriage.
Clearly, there has been development in teaching, practice, and interpetation. But Mr. Douthat raises a significant question: how do we know what is authentic development? The development which is in the New Testament is obviously authentic development, since it is part of the deposit of the faith. Yet, the Church teaches authoritatively, so development which takes place within the Magisterium also constitutes authentic development. Can there be no further development in teaching, practice, and interpetation regarding marriage and divorce?
Two Models of Evaluating Change or Development
I want to offer two models for examining development in church teaching. My model emerges from Acts 15, though it is best to examine all of Acts 10-15 to see the way in which the change develops organically in the early church. The other model is taken from the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Model 1: Acts 10-15
In Acts 10-15 a decision is recounted by which Gentiles were accepted into the church as full members without the need to follow all of the dictates of the Law of Moses. It is hard to imagine a more central aspect of Judaism than the 613 commands and prohibitions of the Law of Moses. There are hints in the Gospel tradition that Jesus is moving in the direction of the acceptance of Gentiles (cf. Mark 7:24-30), and hints, too, that Gentiles remained beyond Jesus' ministry (cf. Matthew 10:5), but it is clear that the Jerusalem church had continued to see its worship of Christ in the context of Torah- and Temple-centered Judaism. The acceptance of Gentiles into the church as Gentiles appears to be, as with the postexilic prophets of the Old Testament, something which would occur with the coming Day of the Lord. Certain events and experiences, however, begin to push the Apostles to an understanding that perhaps that time is now. How is this determination made? Is it simply the sense and experience of some individuals that the Spirit is moving amongst the Gentiles that leads to this change?
There are a number of elements in Acts 10-15 which lead to the church’s decision, none of which should be seen out of context, all of which are significant:
1. The manifestation of the Spirit in the life of Cornelius;
2. The visions of Peter, in which he comes to understand that all foods are now declared "clean";
3. The prayers of Peter and Cornelius;
4. The experience of Paul and Barnabas in their Gentile mission;
5. The discussion within the church of dissenting opinions;
6. The rejection of some biblical teachings;
7. The grounding of Gentile inclusion in the church on other biblical promises;
8. The authoritative decision and blessing of the apostles and the church, guided by the Holy Spirit.
The element which might strike us as most beyond the bounds of church order is the initial manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Cornelius, who is neither a Christian nor a Jew. He is, however, a devout man “who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:2). He receives a vision while in prayer one afternoon that he is to seek out Simon Peter (Acts 10:5). When the scene switches to Peter, he, too, is in prayer; while in prayer, he sees a vision of animals, clean and unclean, which he is instructed to eat, contrary to the clear teaching of the Law of Moses (Acts 10:9-16). While still puzzled by the vision and its meaning, emissaries arrive from Cornelius. Peter takes them in and then goes to Cornelius the next day. Peter begins to understand not only the meaning of his vision, but its import for the Church: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34). During Peter's speech to Cornelius and his household “the holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God” (Acts 10:44-46). Peter then baptizes Cornelius and the other Gentiles, or rather, “he ordered them to be baptized” (Acts 10:47-48).
The manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Cornelius and his compatriots leads Peter to the decision to offer them baptism as Gentiles. He does this, of course, without consultation with the whole of the Church and faces criticism for it when he returns to Jerusalem (Acts 11:2-3), though he appears to convince many when he explains what took place (Acts 11:18). Likewise, news of Gentile conversions filters from Antioch to the Church in Jerusalem, who had sent Barnabas to investigate (Acts 11:19-26). It appears that the decision to preach to and accept Gentiles into the Church without requiring the Gentile converts to follow the Torah was maintained by Barnabas and Paul, though there was not yet an official stance of the Jerusalem church (cf. Acts 13-14). It does seem, however, that Gentiles were being ministered to, baptized, and welcomed into the church.
Not everyone was in agreement with this decision, as some members of the church still insisted on the Law of Moses as a necessary requirement for Christian life (Acts 15: 1-5). Regardless of the practices of Peter and Paul, this was not a settled question as “the apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter” (Acts 15: 6). Peter, Barnabas, and Paul all spoke of God's activity amongst the Gentiles, particularly the manifestation of the Holy Spirit amongst them (Acts 15: 6-12).
James finally speaks on behalf of the “whole assembly” (Acts 15:12) and relates the mission to the Gentiles to a number of prophetic passages from scripture in which God calls the Gentiles to Himself (Acts 15: 16-18). James then states that Gentiles should be welcomed in if they maintain select dictates, which are similar to the Noachide laws (which Paul does not mention in Galatians 1-2) (Acts 15: 19-21) and, after “the apostles and the elders with the consent of the whole church” choose men to accompany Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:22), James sends a letter to this effect to the church in Antioch (Acts 15: 22-29).
It seems that, ultimately, personal, pastoral experiences (the manifestation of the Holy Spirit; visions; and prayer) coincide with the authority of the church (citation of scripture; the decision of the assembly; the role of Peter and Paul as apostles) to lead to a new decision. This is a fascinating decision, both because it gives us an example of the church making a practical decision about how Christians must live and because it is the decision that itself leads the Church to be less governed by prescriptions, in this case, the very Law of Moses. The fact that Christians need not be circumcised or keep the laws of Kashrut to live as Christian cements the fact that the authority for determining the content of the moral life rests with the authority of the church.
There are, however, a number of questions which arise from this passage: Do Peter and Paul (perhaps the whole of the Antioch mission) act beyond the dictates of the church by reaching out to Gentiles prior to the decision of the church? Is their authority to act in such away delimited by their authority as apostles? Is the recognition of the Holy Spirit active among the Gentiles prior to their membership in the church dependent upon Peter's position not only as an apostle, but as the “rock” of the church? Can this decision be looked upon by Christians today as a model, in any way, for development, especially those that challenge tradition and suggest a “new” path?
For, realistically, the clearest evidence of Scripture is on the side of the Christian Pharisees, who say in Acts 15:1, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” and Acts 15:5, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” These Christian Pharisees would certainly have recited Genesis 17 to the church council:
9 God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. 13 Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."
How do you argue against that sort of clear biblical evidence? What’s hard to understand about “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant”?
Peter’s decides, though, to baptize Gentiles without prior consultation with the church in Jerusalem. We might attribute this to the overwhelming sense of the Spirit that Peter experiences, as do Cornelius and the others, but one still wonders why he does not wait. It is possible, of course, that this decision also forms a part of the process by which the church comes to understand how it is to function authoritatively as a governing body discerning the will of the Spirit. That is, Peter does not tell the church that he, as an apostle, as "the Rock," has made his decision, but assents to explaining his decision to the whole Church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:6-11). Apart from Peter's individual authority as the chief apostle, he comes to understand the means by which this authority must be accepted in the church. The same, therefore, is true of Paul and Barnabas; Paul is in no doubt of his authority as an apostle, or of his commission by the risen Lord to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:1-9), but he, too, accedes to meet with the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-5; Gal. 2:1-2). Paul, as assured as a man could be in the truth of his revelation and the Gospel he preaches, nevertheless states that he went “in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain” (Gal. 2:2). He submits his Gospel to the church in Jerusalem because he accepts the authority of the church and explicitly acknowledges their authority to judge the validity or faithfulness of his mission. It is possible that in this new time of excitement the preaching came first, but when questions were raised about the validity of the preaching and practice all parties submitted to the authority of the church. The question was to be discussed with the “apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:2).
What was happening amongst the Christians was something new in the life of the church, in the life of the people of God, but it had also been prophesied: there would come a time when the Gentiles would be welcomed in to God's people. James cites or alludes to Amos 9:11-12, Jer. 12:14-17 and Isa.45: 20-23, but he could have easily cited Zech. 14:16-19 or Isa. 25:6-10 or any other of the numerous prophetic passages dealing with Gentile inclusion. The prophecy of Gentile inclusion they all knew; discerning that this was the time and the way it was to be enacted, and not at the eschaton, struck them like a thunderbolt.
Peter and Paul paved the way for the decision, responding to the reality of the experience of the Holy Spirit amongst the Gentiles, but regardless of their authority as apostles, it was necessary for them to argue their case before the church and to have the church assure them that they had not “run in vain.” It is also telling that this decision, as new and stunning a reversal as it is, runs counter to some of the clear Scriptural evidence, but makes sense of a wealth of passages dealing with Gentile inclusion in the Scriptures. Finally, the authority that the church has it has as the body of Christ: it is the Apostles and elders, together with the whole church, discerning the activity of the Holy Spirit, which allows the church to act authoritatively.
Model 2: Ratzinger’s Kern und Schale:
For Ratzinger’s model I am working with Aaron Pidel, S.J.’s article titled “Joseph Ratzinger on Biblical Inerrancy” (Nova et Vetera, English Edition, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2014): 307–30) to expound his “tests” for discerning proper understanding of biblical inerrancy. Ratzinger’s model is more focused on how we distinguish between matters that might change and matters that might not by distinguishing between what belongs to the Kern (or “core”) of biblical teaching and what belongs to the Schale (“husk” or “shell”). But, again, how to determine?
Ratzinger does not want to maintain that the Bible speaks truth just in matters of faith and not in science, such as history. For Ratzinger holds that “a God that cannot intervene in history and show himself in it is not the God of the Bible. For this reason, the reality of Jesus’ birth from the Virgin Mary, the real institution of the Last Supper by Jesus himself, his bodily Resurrection from the dead—the fact that the tomb was empty—are all an element of the faith itself that it can and must defend against supposedly better historical knowledge” (323). On the other hand, the Bible’s “manner of thought, even in respect to religious topics, has been determined by the world in which it arose, ” and Ratzinger points to “the stipulations of James, the veiling of women, marriage legislation of 1 Corinthians 7” as “ethical and religious directives” which “are subject to the same methodological scrutiny as historical and scientific claims” (324).
Pidel writes that “in each domain, then—science, history, religion and morality—a similar problem surfaces regarding the relationship between the perennial truth of revelation and the transitory thought world in which it is mediated. Quite simply, the former must be held as inerrant and binding, whereas the latter, the “mythology” of Scripture’s cultural container, may be left behind” (324). How we decide what belongs to “the transitory thought world in which it is mediated” is the task of the church, the People of God and theologians (324). This sort of discernment of the Scripture is the ongoing, never completed task for the church and theologians (325).
Ratzinger offers an example of how to determine what is essential using the example of the Devil. Herbert Haag, a German biblical scholar, argued “that the biblical motif of the ‘Devil’ is nothing other than the concept of ‘sin’ in mythological garb. Haag is arguing, in Ratzingerian terms, that the notion of personal evil represents a historically conditioned Schale, whose abiding Kern is reducible to personal and social sin” (326). Ratzinger disagrees with Haag, not that the process can be engaged, but he denies Haag’s conclusion, since he understands that the reality of the Devil is central to the Church’s teaching and theological core. Ratzinger believes that “Galileo’s call for the demythologization of Scripture’s geocentrism” offers a better example of the way in which understanding and interpretation can change (326).
Ratzinger offers four tests, with each of these tests taken from Pidel (326), to judge whether a teaching of the New Testament might belong to its “core” or its “husk”:
1. The relationship between the two Testaments with respect to the affirmation in question:
“Whereas preoccupation with cosmology shows a ‘movement of contraction’ from Old Testament to New, interest in the demonic shows a ‘movement of expansion’”(326). That is, the demonic becomes more not less significant in the New Testament, while cosmology becomes less significant.
2. The relationship of the affirmation to the inner shape of Christian existence:
“Ratzinger observes that Christ not only drives out demons but also hands this mission on to his disciples in such wise that it comes to belong to the way of discipleship itself. In other words, ‘The form of Jesus, its spiritual physiognomy, does not change, whether the sun revolves around the earth or the earth moves around the sun . . . but it changes decisively, if one cuts out of it the experience of struggle against the power of the demonic kingdom.’ If we can no longer affirm a reality so central to the self-understanding of Christ and his followers, then we cannot claim to share in the same faith” (326-27). Here we can say that the reality of the Evil One is too central to Jesus’ own life and that of his disciples to marginalize in our own understanding. Geocentrism is simply not that important.
3. The relationship of the affirmation to the church:
“Yet this same baptismal liturgy takes the Devil so much in earnest that the ‘exorcism and the renunciation of the devil belong to the core event (Kerngeschehen) of baptism; the latter, together with profession of Jesus Christ, forms the indispensable entryway into the sacrament.’ Among the signs related to the baptism, Ratzinger points also to the perfection of baptismal life—the witness of heroic sanctity” (327). The Church has always continued to affirm the reality of the Devil in the sacraments and life of the Church, but matters of geocentrism are not important for the core teachings of the Church.
4. The relationship to right reason:
“Any worldview incompatible with the ‘Devil’ is also incompatible with God, with human interiority, and ultimately with ‘sin’ in the Christian sense. Haag’s approach ends not in a subtle discrimination between Kern and Schale, but in a wholesale rejection of Kern and Schale alike” (328). The view of God and Satan are so central to how Christianity understands itself that to cast the Devil aside is to cast Christianity itself aside. The earth’s geocentrism, says Ratzinger, simply is not that significant to the worldview of Christianity. It need not be maintained, but the reality of the Devil must.
These four “tests” do not offer simple answers regarding scientific, historical, moral, or religious claims, and Ratzinger asks only that biblical claims be judged carefully according to these four criteria. Does a change in understanding fit with the Church’s perennial faith? Would a change in how we understand divorce, remarriage, and communion for the divorced fit into the category of the “Devil” or geocentrism?
As Pidel says of Ratzinger, “his approach to inerrancy, needless to say, does not align neatly with the approach taken by the biblical magisterium of the early twentieth century” (328). This very reality shows us that the church is not static, but that the ancient tradition grows and develops on a constant basis. As Ratzinger writes,
there are magisterial decisions which cannot be the final word in a given matter as such but, despite the permanent value of their principles, are chiefly also a signal for pastoral prudence, a sort of provisional policy. Their kernel remains valid, but the particulars determined by circumstances can stand in need of correction. (328; The Nature and Mission of Theology, 106)
Pidel says that “Ratzinger would not equate Scripture’s inerrant content (pace the antimodernist biblical encyclicals) with what individual, historical authors ‘intended to affirm,’ but instead with the requirements of the Church’s faith in Christ” (329). Scripture, Ratzinger says, makes inerrant claims but “these claims can be adjudicated by the faith of the Church” (330).
Development in teaching, development in interpretation, or change in teaching, change in interpretation – depending upon what word is preferred – has happened throughout Christian history, from the beginning of the Church. Acts 10-15 offers a practical model of change in teaching within the Church, and Joseph Ratzinger offered a model of four tests for distinguishing what belongs to the perennial teaching of the Church and what is just the “husk” in which it rests. Niether model offers easy answers, but both offer processes within the Church for discussing difficult matters.
I have written a lot– Mr. Douthat did ask, after all, for academics to respond—but there is much more to say than I have written here. This is my contribution to a conversation that, frankly, has been going on since the beginning of Christianity. But it is especially important to stress: nothing has happened in the Synod on the Family which alters current church teaching on the matters of remarriage and communion for divorced Catholics. Yet if it does, it will be important to recognize that teaching can and does change on important matters, including marriage and divorce, and already has, beginning with the Gospel of Matthew. The church is the locus for change. And as much sympathy as I have for the Christian Pharisees, who saw their tradition and scriptural understanding crumble in front of them, and who argued, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses,” the church decided it was not.
 On porneia see Kyle Harper’s From Sin to Shame.
 William Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 2012: 274-85. Dale Martin, Sex and the Single Savior, 2006: 132-34.
 Meyer, Five Speeches that Changed the World, 1994: 43
 Meyer 1994: 45.
 I have a forthcoming article on this in a collection of essays dealing with Roman late antiquity, “(Why) Was Jesus Single?”
 William Loader, Making Sense of Sex, 2013: 97-101; Martin 2006: 110-11.
 Martin 2006: 137-38.
 Loader 2013: 436-434; Raymond Collins, Accompanied by a Believing Wife, 2013: 100-06
 Martin 2006:131-32.
 Loader 2013: 244-53.
I want to make a few things clear, in case there is misunderstanding.
Someone sent me an excellent e-mail and asked me if I thought Jesus was mistaken, especially regarding the eschaton. I am completely a follower of my late teacher Ben F. Meyer on this score, as laid out in his essay “Jesus’ Scenario of the Future” in his book Christus Faber: The Master-Builder and the House of God. I am not citing him, just paraphrasing: No true prophet is mistaken, least of all the greatest of them. Jesus is the Messiah, Lord and the greatest of prophets, but Jesus’ scenario of the end was not a sort of blueprint giving us exact dates and timelines. Jesus sensed the imminence of the end. Jesus and his first disciples believed that the end was nearer than it was according to human measurement of time, but he was not wrong. “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” This is not a supposition to me; this is a promise. I believe it.
Do I think of "Matthew" putting words in Jesus' mouth? No. think the exception clause is inspired – it is a part of Scripture – but it was not, I would suggest, a part of Jesus’ earliest teaching, but a development on the part of the tradition of the earliest Church.
Do I think that Jesus’ teaching on marriage can be discarded because it was based on a false premise, i.e., that the end was nigh? I do not believe that. No passage of scripture can be discarded; it is the inspired word of God, but there is development in understanding and development in the tradition.
I think Jesus is correct (naturally) – that marriage is intended for a lifetime – but that situations can arise in marriages (including divorce) which must be addressed. The Church had to deal with these from very early on, as we see in Matthew (I would argue) and 1 Corinthians 7. But this point is important: Jesus’ teaching is not superseded.
Practically today we need to do more to support people, counsel people and to make certain they understand the nature of marriage before they enter in. For me it is a true joy! I love it!