Unlawful Marriage? Matthew 5:32


Hi quick question;
Trying to explain Matthew 5:32 to a Protestant. The verse states:
“But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Protestant Bibles tent to render the words “unlawful marriage” as “adultery”.

Now I have done a little research and I see that the word in greek is “porneia” which does appear to have many meanings, but one of those* is* adultery. It seems to mean general sexual sin though.
But one explanation I have read states that an unlawful marriage or “porneia” was when two close relatives married, or when the woman was not a virgin before the marriage.

How should I understand this verse as a Catholic?


The Church does not speak on every single scripture, but on this one it clearly does.

So, to answer your question, “How should I understand this verse as a Catholic?”, you should understand it as the Magisterium teaches it, which is that any marriage that is valid in the eyes of the Church cannot be dissolved, except if through an investigation by the Church is found to have been invalid in the first place, or made invalid for other reasons approved by the Church.

Peace and all Good!


As an elder Catholic, I am viewing the changes regarding divorce and the Church as positive, minus judgement based views and attempting to keep divorced Catholics included following a divorce. I see this as a good move. Making the process of annulling a marriage less political and more affordable, is also a step in the right direction.

When a marriage dissolves, this is when a fervent Catholic needs to be uplifted. Not thrown out or judged. Are we here for one another, or are we to be judge and jury of what transpires within a marriage? For myself, it’s not my place to judge anyone. It is my place to be charitable and helpful to anyone who’s experiencing a life crisis. This is when they need God most. This is when they need fellow Catholics to be there to help or listen.

Someone who wishes to remain in good standing with the Church should be welcomed and allowed to worship God as a fully functioning member.


So was God wrong to divorce Israel for her spiritual adulteries (see Isaiah 50:1 and Jeremiah 3:8), or could it be that if one spouse continually commits adultery, the other spouse, even though he/she forgives the offending partner, has a right before God to divorce the unfaithful spouse? And what version reads, “(unless the marriage is unlawful)”? Even the DR reads, “except for the cause of fornication”.


There certainly is very little evidence if any that the fathers understood the passage to refer to “unlawful marriage.” In fact I’ve never seen any patristic statements indicating that is the proper understanding.


Any more thoughts from some knowledgeable Catholics?:slight_smile:


So my take on this is that pornea is a singular concept. Now this singular greek concept means many different concepts in our language. Fornication, unlawful marriage, sexual immorality, etc. These, to most, would indicate different reasons for a divorce. So what is a marriage? When two become one flesh. So fornication is when two become one and are married, yet neither honors the marriage. It was unlawful to not honor it. That is sexually immoral. adultery still fits this as well as one whom is married to another, and dishonors (or breaks) the union by forming another marriage; dishonors one and intends to dishonor the new marriage. Now are both still married? Both the cheater and the spouse when s/he is married to another? What about the cheater and the mister or mistress?

Now look at this with the above in mind: "“But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife”
So divorces/break the marriage

"(unless the marriage is unlawful) "
Read above

‘‘causes her to commit adultery’’
Why would he cause her to commit adultery? What about the divorce causes the adultery for this woman?



Original sin had terrible consequences even in regards to marriage (bold CCC and Scripture below mine).

CCC 1607 According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations;[96] their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust;[97] and the beautiful vocation of man and woman to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth was burdened by the pain of childbirth and the toil of work.[98]

Divorce was permitted for “hardness of heart” (without the graces of Jesus work, if men couldn’t get a new wife, until the first one died, what do you think would have happened to many wives?).

In the New Covenant, Jesus elevates marriage back to what was always intended which was broken by original sin. This means Jesus also gives us the graces for such.

CCC 2382 The Lord Jesus insisted on the original intention of the Creator who willed that marriage be indissoluble.174 He abrogates the accommodations that had slipped into the old Law.175

Between the baptized, "a ratified and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death."176

MATTHEW 19:8 8 He said to them, "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

Marriage is a Sacrament and is thus indissoluble.

In the context of marriage, this means just what Jesus said it did two verses earlier: “what God has brought together, let no man put asunder”.

MATTHEW 19:6 6 So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."

In other words, man cannot break the marital bond. Only God can do that. He does that when we die.

That’s why in Heaven no one will be married or given in marriage (Matthew 22:30, Mark 12:25).

(I am not saying there isn’t something special in Heaven when a husband and wife are both in Heaven. It just won’t be earthly marriage)

But upon this earth, the marital bond is indissoluble among Christians.

The people desiring intimate relations with different people MUST come up with reasons to rationalize this behavior. But you won’t find Christian divorce and re-marriage taught in the New Covenant sense . . . except by the Protestant “fathers” (Read the Church Fathers then go read “Table Talk” and ask yourself who you think teaches classic authentic Christianity.).

The deniers of this will show you verses that talk of divorce. But his does NOT break the marital bond.

Ask them where it talks of divorce and RE-MARRIAGE in the New Covenant sense.

Even Matthew 5:32 asserts against divorce and re-marriage (all caps mine):

MATTHEW 5:32a 32 But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; AND . . . .

OK. St. Matthew talks of divorcing here. But what about re-marriage? Fortunately he tells us in the very next words.

MATTHEW 5:32b . . . . AND whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

The whole verse. . . . .

MATTHEW 5:32 32 But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

The early Church saw it this way too.

ST. JEROME “Wherever there is fornication and a suspicion of fornication a wife is freely dismissed. Because it is always possible that someone may calumniate the innocent and, for the sake of a second joining in marriage, act in criminal fashion against the first,
it is commanded that when the first wife is dismissed a second may not be taken while the first lives.
St. Jerome. Commentaries on Matthew. 3:19:9 A.D. 398.

ST. JUSTIN THE MARTYR “In regard to chastity, (Jesus) has this to say:
‘If anyone look with lust at a woman, he has already before God committed adultery in his heart.’ And, ‘Whoever marries a woman who has been divorced from another husband,
commits adultery
.’ According to our Teacher, just as they are sinners who contract a second marriage, even though it be in accord with human law, so also are they sinners who look with lustful desire at a woman.
He repudiates not only one who actually commits adultery, but even one who wishes to do so; for not only our actions are manifest to God, but even our thoughts”

  • St. Justin the Martyr. First Apology 15 A.D. 148:155.

ST. CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA "That Scripture counsels marriage, however, and never allows any release from the union, is expressly contained in the law: ‘You shall not divorce a wife, except for reason of immorality.’ And it regards as adultery the marriage of a spouse, while the one from whom a separation was made is still alive. ‘Whoever takes a divorced woman as wife commits adultery,’

  • St. Clement of Alexandria. Stromatesis 2:23:145:3 (post A.D. 202).

ORIGEN “Just as a woman is an adulteress, even though she seem to be married to a man, while a former husband yet lives, so also the man who seems to marry her who has been divorced does not marry her, but, according to the declaration of our Savior, he commits adultery with her

  • Origen Commentaries on Matthew. 14:24 A.D. 244.



Continued from the last post . . . .

But this was not a new teaching when St. Jerome and the other Fathers matter of factly talked about this. Rather, St. Jerome and the Fathers were echoing classic Christianity.

Listen to St. Paul give the same teachings . . . .

1st CORINTHIANS 7:39 39 **A wife is BOUND to her husband as long as he lives. **If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.

This is WHY St. Luke can say . . . .

LUKE 16:18 18 "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

And St. Mark the same thing . . . .

MARK 10:10-12 10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And 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.”

The testimony of (even Old Testament) marriage was WHY St. John the Baptist was arrested and eventually beheaded.

St. Matthew makes it clear WHY John was arrested and eventually beheaded!

MATTHEW 14:3 3 For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison, for the sake of Herodias, his brother Phillip’s wife; 4 because . . . (WHY) . . .

MATTHEW 14:3-4 3 For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison, for the sake of Herodias, his brother Phillip’s wife; 4 because John said to him, "It is not lawful for you to have her."

These are the kinds of things I would tell your Protestant friend civilwar.

These are tough things. That is why the Apostles went to Jesus in Matthew 19:10 and said: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, then it is not expedient (advisable) to marry!”

And Jesus DIDN’T say: “Hey relax guys. You are over blowing My teachings here.”

This is precisely WHY the Apostles were nonplussed. This is a hard teaching.

I once spent a portion of an afternoon discussing this teaching with a Protestant minister friend at my home. He just kept denying these verses and finally I challenged him to go home and tell his wife that their marriage is NOT Sacramental. That if he goes out and fornicates, that it breaks the Sacramental marital bond. That if he has relations with another woman, he will then be “free” to marry his hypothetical girl friend and by the way . . . . tell your wife this is “Biblical” teaching.

After denying the verses left and right, I was amazed that he could see the practical application of this and said he couldn’t do this. Unfortunately he couldn’t bring himself to preach this truth either.

But we in our Catholic faith have had these teachings preserved and safeguarded throughout the ages by the Holy Spirit! Thanks be to God.

I hope this helps you in your dialogue with your Protestant friend civilwar.

God bless.



Waow thanks so much Cathoholic, you’ve certainly answered my question, and thoroughly!
It’s great to be informed on such topics so we can enter into rational dialogue with non-Catholics, but whether or not they will see the truth is not up to us.
Thanks again.


Of course no one has taken the time to quote the saints who allowed for remarriage in the case of adultery. Still no one has addressed your actual question from patristic writings. We need to see a father interpret porneia to mean “unlawful marriage.” Does anyone have those quotes?


Porneia literally means “selling oneself for sex; harlotry, prostitution, fornication.” Figuratively, it means “sexual sinning,” but there were other words for that too. So if you’re in an incestuous marriage, it’s definitely porneia and it’s definitely unlawful marriage (among other things).

Here’s a patristics quote about “porneia” vs. “moicheia,” which meant adultery or taking a woman’s sexual honor, including by rape:

"There is this division among those sins which come about through desire and pleasure: what is called µοιχεία (moicheia, adultery) and what is called πορνεία (porneia, fornication). For some who are more exacting, it is held that the sin pertaining to porneia
is also moicheia, since there is only one legitimate (lawful) union, for both the wife with her husband and the husband with his wife. Everything, therefore, which is not legitimate is completely illegitimate, and he who has what is not his own clearly has what is another’s…

“But since the Fathers have allowed some indulgence toward those who are weaker, the sin is judged within this categorical division: a sin of desire which is accomplished without injustice to someone else is called porneia, but that which entails injury and injustice toward another is moicheia.” - St. Gregory of Nyssa, Ep. can. ad Letoium, 3.

Apparently the worldly/classical Greek definition of the term was that moicheia was extramarital sex with a previously respectable wife, widow, or virgin (done by a man against the man they were attached to - the woman might not have anything to do with it happening; as I said, moicheia included rape), whereas porneia was extramarital sex with a prostitute, and was an action “done” by the prostitute selling herself/himself. (We see it the opposite way in our culture; it’s adultery if either of the persons engaged in it is married, and fornication if both people are unmarried.) The pagan Greeks and Romans didn’t see any problem with men sleeping around with prostitutes, so it wasn’t a “bad” word for them.

But the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament into Greek sees pretty much all sexual sins as “porneia,” and associates it with idolatry - Israel worshipping idols was being like a prostitute, even though she was married to God through the Covenant. And since pretty much all sexual sins were associated with pagan rituals and customs, and vice versa – that wasn’t unfair. The Septuagint also made it clear that men and women could both be guilty of porneia, and that literal prostitutes didn’t have to be involved. Sirach in translation warns men against committing porneia in front of their mother and father. The Book of Tobit thinks marrying non-Jews is porneia, and it’s safest to marry inside your own tribe and kindred. So that seems to be more about the Law.

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, an early Christian or Jewish text, talks a lot about OT sexual sins in terms of porneia.

So does the Book of Jubilees, another Jewish text from way back when. Marrying against Jewish marriage laws is regarded as porneia, as well as polygamy and remarriage after divorce.

Philo, a Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, believed that not only was prostitution forbidden by Moses as porneia and that marriage against Jewish law was porneia, but that men having premarital sex was porneia, and that sex solely for pleasure inside marriage was porneia. You can see how this relates to Christian/Catholic teaching.

So yeah, it’s a pretty broad word. But you aren’t supposed to be doing any of it.


Here’s an interesting academic article about porneia in the NT, from which I drew most of the background info above.

The article says that the language used in the “except for porneia” verse and in Matthew 19:9 is related to Deut. 24:1: “If a man take a wife and have her, and she find not favor in his eyes because of some indecency he finds in her, he shall write a bill of divorce, and he shall give it in her hand and send her out of his house.”

The article also points out, “It is revealing that, whereas authors of the Roman period saw sex with prostitutes or slaves as the solution to adultery, Paul saw marriage as the solution to the temptations of easy [porneia]” (This is in 1 Corinthians.)

There’s a bunch of patristics quotations:

Didache 2.2 - “Do not commit moicheia. Do not violate children. Do not commit porneia.”

The Letter of Barnabas, another early Christian text, also forbids these three sins, because they were popular practices in the Greco-Roman world.

The Shepherd of Hermas has a passage that says if the wife is having sex with another man, and the husband knows she is persisting in this porneia after he finds out, the husband is also guilty of porneia for putting up with it:

Mandate 4:29:1-6, Lightfoot translation:
“I charge thee,” saith [the Shepherd, to Hermas], “to keep purity, and let not a thought enter into thy heart concerning another’s wife, or concerning fornication [porneia], or concerning any such like evil deeds; for in so doing thou committest a great sin. But remember thine own wife always, and thou shalt never go wrong. For should this desire enter into thine heart, thou wilt go wrong, and should any other as evil as this, thou committest sin. For this desire in a servant of God is a great sin; and if any man doth this evil deed, he worketh out death for himself. Look to it therefore. Abstain from this desire; for, where holiness dwelleth, there lawlessness ought not to enter into the heart of a righteous man.”

I say to him, “Sir, permit me to ask thee a few more questions”

“Say on,” saith he.

“Sir,” say I, “if a man who has a wife that is faithful in the Lord detect her in adultery, doth the husband sin in living with her?”

“So long as he is ignorant,” saith he, “he sinneth not; but if the husband know of her sin, and the wife repent not, but continue in her fornication [porneia], and her husband live with her, he makes himself responsible for her sin and an accomplice in her adultery.”

“What then, sir,” say I, “shall the husband do, if the wife continue in this case?”

“Let him divorce her,” saith he, “and let the husband abide alone: but if after divorcing his wife he shall marry another, he likewise committeth adultery.”

So yeah, that’s a little bit different than what we’d say today. It’s not an authoritative text, but the Shepherd of Hermas was pretty important back in the day.


The article starts to say stupid things somewhere around this point, as if Christians disliked sexual immorality only as a marker of pagans being outside of Christianity. So just be warned.

Anyway, St. Clement of Alexandria ends up talking a lot about porneia, because he was both dealing with the incredible bad stuff going on in pagan Alexandria, and the Encratite heresy that taught that all marriage was porneia.

Clement says that “The distance between marriage and porneia is as great as that between God and the devil.” - Stromata, 3.12.84. He also taught, “…if anyone dares to say that marriage is porneia, it is blasphemy.” - Stromata 3.12.89. He discusses 1 Cor. 6: "And to show that with ‘porneia’ [Paul] is not saying ‘marriage,’ he adds, ‘Do you not know that the one who cleaves to a porne [prostitute] becomes one body?’ Would anyone say that an unwed virgin is a porne?” - Stromata 3.18.107.

So then the article talks about some Church teachers preserving the porneia/moicheia distinction as primarily determined by the woman’s profession, while others wanted to erase the distinction and/or lean harder on men to be faithful to their wives.

Then there’s a nice quotation from St. John Chrysostom:

"Therefore, there is one purpose for marriage: to avoid porneia… and it is not the same thing to commit porneia without having a wife and to do it while having one. For in the latter instance, it is rather moicheia, not porneia. And even if what I am saying is a paradox, it is true.

“I am not unaware that many believe it is moicheia only when one violates a woman with a husband. But I say that a man with a wife wickedly and licentiously commits moicheia if he should use a public whore, a slavegirl, or any other woman without a husband.” - “Propter fornicationes” 3–4; Patrologia Graeca 51:213.


Anyway, it would seem that since moicheia is to have sex and/or rape a non-prostitute woman in such a way as make her husband dishonored (from the worldly Greek point of view), it would seem that the Bible verse isn’t so much saying that the woman commits a sin of adultery, as that the husband who divorces her commits moicheia against her, and hence dishonors himself. (Unless she had previously committed porneia so bad the husband couldn’t stay married to her.)

“Moicheuthenai” is a passive verb, it says here, so the poor divorced woman’s not doing it.

Likewise, whoever marries the divorced woman does not “commit adultery,” but has moicheia committed against him by the man who divorced the woman; it’s another passive form, “moichatai.”


I’ve pretty much settled with interpreting porniea as ‘porn’ as it is understood today minus the mass marketing. Sex for the sake of having sex with no strings attached. Another commodity to be had when desired. This mindset makes a Christian marriage impossible.

It’s interesting to me that ‘whore’ is the word used to translate ‘porniea’ in the book of Revelations. Which, for me, renders the Whore of Babylon more as a widespread phenomena than a predicted person. Which is why, again for me, end times scenarios that have figured out for us the identity of the W of B are drivel. But I digress…



Seraphim73. You said:

Of course no one has taken the time to quote the saints who allowed for remarriage in the case of adultery.

St. Ambrose (in the late 300’s A.D.) said . . . “None of the fathers recommends remarriage or even approves of it.” (here)

Which . . . . “saints who allowed for remarriage in the case of adultery” . . . . are you referring to?


I don’t get it? Unlike Luke 16:18 which mentions remarriage Matthew 5:32 only talks about divorce causing a wife to be and adulteress. How does divorce only make her an adulteress?


Even though it only says divorce I think remarriage is understood to follow. Luke may have been adding clarity.

I think part of it has to do with the fact that at that time most woman would need to marry to avoid abject poverty. Few had the means to go it on their own. A good portion of the financially independent women came into wealth by surviving their husbands in death. Wealth realized independent of marriage was reserved for those women of royal bloodlines for the most part.

So in the above setting, divorcing the ‘average’ women would indeed cause her to seek out a new husband. Its wrong to account her an adulteress in this setting. I think that is implied by the phrase “causes her to commit adultery”. What she is doing fits the outward description of adultery. That’s what it looks like for sure. However, she never wanted it that way. She was forced, so the sin belongs to the first husband.



Augustine3. You said:

I don’t get it? Unlike Luke 16:18 which mentions remarriage Matthew 5:32 only talks about divorce causing a wife to be and adulteress. How does divorce only make her an adulteress?

(Remember St. Luke is writing to a Gentile audience)

PeterK replied:

Even though it only says divorce I think remarriage is understood to follow.

PeterK is correct.

Matthew 5:32 is what caused your question.

MATTHEW 5:32 32 But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

To answer your question if we back up a verse we see . . . .

MATTHEW 5:31-32 31 "It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Now to get the larger context we must ask about . . . “"It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’”.

Where was “it was also said” and WHAT is the context of “it was also said”?

When Jesus preludes the discussion of divorce and adultery here with “it was also said” what would this “hearken back to” in the Jewish listeners minds?

Recall Matthew was written primarily with the Jews in mind St. Irenaeus tells us (“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect” . . . Adv. Haer. 3.1.1).

“A certificate of divorce” is a quote from Deuteronomy 24. It is a quote that isn’t merely referring to “divorce” alone, but divorce and becoming “another man’s wife”.

The Jews of Jesus day knew this. Especially when Jesus said: “You have heard it said” . . . “It was also said” . . . then discussed this in the context of a “certificate of divorce”.

Instantly the people knew Jesus was contextually referring to Deuteronomy 24:2-4.

And what did Deuteronomy 24:2-4 say?

DEUTERONOMY 24:2-4 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter husband dislikes her and writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt upon the land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance.

A much easier way to see it would be for us to turn to the CCC.

The CCC also sees “divorce” in Matthew 5:32 in the context of “marital infidelity”. Footnote 172 in CCC 2380 cites Matthew 5:32 (among other verses).

CCC 2380 Adultery refers to marital infidelity. When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations - even transient ones - they commit adultery. Christ condemns even adultery of mere desire.171 The sixth commandment and the New Testament forbid adultery absolutely.172 The prophets denounce the gravity of adultery; they see it as an image of the sin of idolatry.173

Hope this helps.

God bless.


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