The Question of Porneia and Divorce

Msgr. Charles Pope does a great job at giving a quick and concise explanation concerning the Greek word porneia, which is the root word for pornography. Properly understanding this word, especially in the context of Matthew 19:9 and the validity of divorce. And for those interested the remainder of Msgr. Pope’s post goes into a pet peeve of his concerning biblical translations, the New American Bible in particular.




A reader recently sent the following question to the “Ask a Question” page of this blog:

Msgr. Pope: Why did the Catholic Church recently alter the language of the New American Catholic Bible in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 19 by replacing the word “fornication” with the word “illegal” in regard to marriages impacted by adultery?

I want to answer this question. But I would also like to lead by expressing a pet peeve when it comes to the New American Bible and it’s handling of the Greek word πορνείᾳ (porneia). For it is the meaning of  this Greek word that underlies the question of the change from “fornication” to “illegal” in the New American Bible.

The Greek word πορνείᾳ (porneia) generally includes any notion of illicit sexual union or activity. Depending on the context of the passage it can include any of the following: fornication (premarital sex), incest, homosexual activity, bestiality, prostitution, indulgence of sexual passion, and in some cases adultery. Adultery however has another word more proper to it (and this will factor in with the answer later) which is μοιχάω (moichaó).

Now although the Greek word πορνείᾳ (porneia) has a wide meaning, it is clearly related to sexual immorality, to some form of illicit sexual union. This Greek word is the likely root of the English words “porn” and “pornography.” It was traditionally translated “fornication” but many modern English translations now render it “sexual immorality” or “illicit sexual union”.



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