What Therefore God Has Joined Together: Divorce and the Sacrament of Marriage

Sep 22nd, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Articles

There are some ancient Christian doctrines that only the Catholic Church has retained. One such doctrine is her teaching on contraception, which was the unanimous teaching of the Church Fathers, and which all Christians shared for nineteen centuries until the Lambeth Conference of 1930. At that conference the Anglican Church decided to permit the use of contraceptives, and were soon followed by all other Protestant denominations. Another such doctrine is the Catholic Church’s teaching concerning the indissolubility of marriage, and thus the impossibility of remarriage while the spouse lives.1

Wedding at Cana
Duccio di Buoninsegna 1308-11

I. Introduction
II. New Testament Scripture on Marriage
III. Evidence from the Tradition and the Magisterium
A. First Millennium
B. Second Millennium
IV. The Porneia Clause
V. Objections to the Sacramentality and Indissolubility of Marriage
VI. Implications
VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction

According to the Catholic doctrine, a consummated marriage between two baptized persons is absolutely indissoluble so long as both persons live. Neither the Church nor the State has the power to dissolve the marriage; only the death of one of the spouses dissolves the marriage. And because marriage is exclusive to only one other person at a time, no person who is presently married can marry another person. Therefore, if a married couple acquires a civil divorce from a judge, that divorce is such only in the eyes of the State and its laws. The couple remains truly married before God, and before the Church until one spouse dies, even though the State declares it dissolved and no longer recognizes the marriage. So if upon obtaining a civil divorce one spouse goes before a judge or a Protestant pastor, and ‘marries’ a third party while the other spouse is alive, the new union is not a marriage, even if the State calls it a marriage and treats it like a marriage. Moreover, having sexual relations with a third party, while one’s spouse remains alive, is an act of adultery. For this reason, even if a judge grants a person a legal divorce from his spouse, and he then enters a civil marriage with a third party, every sexual act with that third party is an act of adultery and therefore a grave sin imperiling the souls of those engaged in that act.2 As the Catechism explains, no one in such a situation may receive the Eucharist:

Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ – “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.3

This doctrine is perceived by many people in our generation as scandalous, because divorce and remarriage have become so commonplace. The notion that divorce allows remarriage is rooted in a fundamental difference between the Protestant and Catholic doctrines concerning marriage. According to the Catholic Church, Christ raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament. This means, among other things, that Christ did not merely remove Moses’s permission of divorce (Mt. 19:7-8; Mk. 10:3-4) and restore the original order of marriage (Mt. 19:6), while leaving married couples with no additional grace to live the married life. Rather, under the New Covenant the marriage of two baptized persons is accompanied by special grace from God such that the spouses may fulfill their marital and parental responsibilities in union with Christ and His Body, the Church. In this way, Christian marriage is an efficacious sign, communicating to the couple the grace it signifies regarding the indissoluble union of Christ and His Bride, the Church. It also makes Christian marriage (i.e. marriage between two baptized persons) a matter subject to the Church, because sacraments belong fundamentally to the stewardship of the Church.

But one of the Catholic doctrines that the first Protestants rejected is precisely the Catholic teaching that Christ raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament. The inevitable consequence of this rejection is that in societies sufficiently influenced by Protestantism, marriage comes to be conceived and treated as merely a civil matter, and hence, by default, merely as a legal contract. As the Catholic Encyclopedia article on “Divorce” states regarding the practice and belief of the first Protestants, “Jurisdiction in matrimonial affairs was relegated, on principle, to the civil law, and only the blessing of marriage was assigned to the Church.”4 Of course many Protestant couples are wedded in a religious ceremony before a pastor in a church building, not before a judge. But because of the Protestant denial of the sacramental character of Christian marriage, what takes place during that ceremony, from the Protestant point of view, is still only the formation of a legal bond, one that the State has the authority to dissolve.5 Concerning this, Fr. Peter Elliot wrote,

This sacramental understanding of the papal policy is borne out by the Reformation when the rejection of the sacramentality of Marriage was at the same time a rejection of indissolubility [of marriage]. That the Reformers and their successors gave way to social and political pressure must be balanced by their loss of the sacramental understanding of man and woman. In their view of fallen human nature, male and female did not have the capacity or dignity to be able to signify and recapitulate the indissoluble bond of Christ the Bridegroom. This pessimism concerning our nature also struck out celibacy as “impossible.” It allowed for concessions towards divorce, surrendering to that “hardness of heart” which led Moses to grant the right of divorce (cf. Matthew 19:8).”6

But from a Catholic point of view, both the State and Protestant ecclesial communities, by treating marriages that are indissoluble as though they are dissoluble, are allowing and even sanctioning what is in fact adultery. And this is deeply harmful not only to the souls of those persons committing adultery in this way, but also to marriages, families, spouses, children, and society. Anyone concerned about recent State legislation regarding same-sex marriage ought to be much more concerned about State-sanctioned adultery through the rejection of the sacramental character of marriage, because as I will show below, the Protestant rejection of the sacramental character of marriage lies behind and makes possible the more recent same-sex legislation.

So why does the Catholic Church teach that a consummated marriage of two baptized persons is dissolved only by death? The answer is that this is what Christ and the Apostles handed down to us. To see this, we need to examine the evidence both from Scripture and from the Tradition.

II. New Testament Scripture on Marriage

Here I will very briefly set out the relevant passages from the New Testament concerning marriage. I will not discuss the two exception clauses (“except for fornication”) here in this section; I will discuss them in Section IV below. The reason for considering the patristic evidence first is so that we may approach Scripture in and with that very same living Tradition in which it was given, rather than interpreting Scripture within a man-made tradition of our own time.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, we find two passages relevant to this question. In the first, Jesus says:

It was also said, “Whoever divorces [ἀπολύσῃ] his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except for the reason of fornication [παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας], makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (St. Matthew 5:31-32)

I will discuss the exception clause below in Section IV, but here Jesus teaches two things. First, if anyone divorces his wife he makes her commit adultery insofar as he puts her in a position where she is for various reasons compelled to seek marriage with another man. Jesus is not saying that the wife, in that case, is not guilty of adultery when she marries another man. Rather, He is saying that the husband materially contributes to her sin of adultery, by placing her in a situation that requires her to choose between, say, starvation and adultery. Second, Jesus teaches here that if any man marries a divorced woman, that man commits adultery in doing so. Marrying a divorced person is an act of adultery when either a divorced woman marries another man or a man marries a divorced woman. This is because the sort of divorce Jesus is speaking about does not break the marriage bond, but is only a separation in bed and board (divorce a mensa et thoro). In both cases, ‘marrying’ a divorced person is an act of adultery because the divorced person is still married to the person from whom he or she is divorced, so long as both spouses are alive.

Later in St. Matthew’s Gospel we read:

And Pharisees came up to Him and tested Him by asking, “Is there any cause for which it is lawful for a man to divorce [ἀπολῦσαι] his wife?” He answered, “Have you not read that He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce [ἀποστασίου], and to put her away [ἀπολῦσαι]?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce [ἀπολῦσαι] your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces [ἀπολύσῃ] his wife, except for fornication [μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ] and marries another commits adultery. (St. Matthew 19:3-9)

Jesus here shows that the true nature of marriage was revealed in the Garden of Eden, when God made Adam and Eve, and disclosed that in marriage the man and woman become one, not merely having been brought together in physical proximity, but more deeply, having been divinely joined together for life in a one-flesh union. Hence Jesus says that whoever divorces his wife, except in the case of fornication, and marries another woman, commits adultery. Marrying another woman, in such a case, is an act of adultery, again because the man is still married.

In St. Mark’s gospel, Jesus says:

Whoever divorces [ἀπολύσῃ] his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces [ἀπολύσασα] her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” (St. Mark 10:11-12)

This is very straightforward. If a man divorces his wife, and remarries, he commits adultery against her, because he is still married to her. And if a woman divorces her husband, and marries another man, she also commits adultery, because she is still married to her husband.

In St. Luke’s gospel, Jesus says:

Anyone who divorces [ἀπολύων] his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced [ἀπολελυμένην] from a husband commits adultery. (St. Luke 16:18)

Jesus again speaks plainly here. The man who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery. And the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Again, in both cases what makes the man’s action adulterous is that divorce has not dissolved the marriage, and thus the third party is entering sexually into an existing marriage.

Another important passage is Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana, recorded in John 2:1-11. Concerning this event, St. Augustine writes, “And for this cause did the Lord, on being invited, come to the marriage, to confirm conjugal chastity, and to show forth the sacrament of marriage.” (On the Gospel of John, 9:2) And the Catechism states, “The Church attaches great importance to Jesus’ presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence.”7

In his letter to the Christians of Rome, St. Paul writes:

Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Romans 7:2-3)

The law St. Paul refers to is divine law, not Roman law. The divine law from Christ regarding marriage is that marriage is binding until one of the spouses dies. As long as the husband lives, the wife is bound to him by divine law. If the husband dies, the marriage is dissolved and only then is the woman free to remarry. If she “lives with another man” while her husband remains alive, she is an “adulteress.”8 And all this applies to the man as well. He is bound by law to his wife, as long as she lives. If he ‘remarries’ while his wife remains alive, he becomes an adulterer. But if his wife dies, he is free to remarry.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes:

But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord. A wife should not separate [χωρισθῆναι] from her husband. But if she does separate [χωρισθῇ] she must either remain single or become reconciled to her husband – and a husband should not divorce [ἀφιέναι] his wife. But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce [ἀφιέτω] her. (1 Corinthians 7:10-12)

Here again St. Paul indicates that his instruction concerning marriage comes from Christ. This divine instruction is that a wife should not separate from her husband, and a husband should not divorce his wife. If a wife separates from her husband, she must either remain single (i.e. not united to another man) or be reconciled to her husband. He remains her husband even when she is separated from him, and she remains his wife even when he is separated from her. Likewise, we may infer, if a husband divorces his wife, he must either remain sexually separated from all other women, or he must be reconciled to his wife. Divorce here is a separation that does not dissolve the marriage bond.

Later in this same chapter St. Paul writes:

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to marry whomever she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39)

Again St. Paul teaches that the marriage bond endures for life, so long as both spouses live. Only if one spouse dies is the other spouse free to remarry, because only when one spouse dies is the marriage bond dissolved.

III. Evidence from the Tradition and the Magisterium
A. First Millennium

Shepherd of Hermas (early second century)

And I said to him, Sir, if any one has a wife who trusts in the Lord, and if he detect her in adultery, does the man sin if he continue to live with her? And he said to me, As long as he remains ignorant of her sin, the husband commits no transgression in living with her. But if the husband know that his wife has gone astray, and if the woman does not repent, but persists in her fornication, and yet the husband continues to live with her, he also is guilty of her crime, and a sharer in her adultery. And I said to him, What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her vicious practices? And he said, The husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery. And I said to him, What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: shall she not be taken back by her husband? And he said to me, Assuredly. If the husband do not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented. But not frequently. For there is but one repentance to the servants of God. In case, therefore, that the divorced wife may repent, the husband ought not to marry another, when his wife has been put away. In this matter man and woman are to be treated exactly in the same way. (The Shepherd 2:4:1)

Here in the early part of the second century we find a teaching on the Christian understanding of marriage. Hermas first asks the angel whether a man who discovers that his wife is committing adultery sins if he continues to live with her. The angel’s answer is that if he lives with her, while knowing that she is committing adultery, he is cooperating with her sin.9 For that reason, he must separate himself from her in such a case. But the angel makes clear that in such a case if the husband re-marries (while his spouse is still living), he commits adultery, because she remains his wife. If she repents, he must take her back, again, because he is still married to her. The marriage bond is not broken by infidelity. And this is why, explains the angel, neither spouse may marry when the other commits adultery.

St. Justin Martyr (d. AD 165)

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.” (First Apology, 15)

When St. Justin writes, “Whoever marries a woman who has been divorced from another husband, commits adultery,” he is quoting Jesus, as can be seen in the quotations from the Gospels laid out in Section II above. St. Justin explains that according to Jesus, if one spouse has committed adultery, the spouse who then re-marries while the other spouse lives, commits adultery. Such a person commits adultery even if the “human law” (i.e. the civil law, or law of the State) permits such a re-marriage.

Theophilus, bishop of Antioch [c. AD 175]

He who marries a woman put away by her husband, commits adultery; and he who puts away his wife save for the case of fornication, makes her to commit adultery. (Ad Autolycum, III, 13)

Theophilus here echoes Jesus’ own words. Anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. And anyone who divorces his wife, except in the case of adultery, makes her to commit adultery. What I will show below, in Section IV is that the sort of ‘divorce’ allowed here that in which they separate from each other, so as not to participate in the adultery of the other, but neither are permitted to remarry so long as both spouses live.

Athenagoras of Athens [c. AD 177]

Athenagoras writes:

For we bestow our attention, not on the study of words, but on the exhibition and teaching of actions, — that a person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. For whosoever puts away his wife, says He, and marries another, commits adultery [Matthew 19:9]; not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to marry again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race. (Legatio pro Christianis 33)

The debate at this time was whether second marriages were allowed after one’s spouse had died. I included this quotation because it shows by an a fortiori argument that second marriages after divorce, while the other spouse was living, were out of the question for Christians of this time.

St. Clement of Alexandria (AD 202)

Now that the Scripture counsels marriage, and allows no release from the union, is expressly contained in the law, You shall not put away your wife, except for the cause of fornication; and it regards as fornication, the marriage of those separated while the other is alive. … He that takes a woman that has been put away, it is said, commits adultery; and if one puts away his wife, he makes her an adulteress, that is, compels her to commit adultery. And not only is he who puts her away guilty of this, but he who takes her, by giving to the woman the opportunity of sinning; for did he not take her, she would return to her husband. (Stromata 2, chapter 23, AD 202)

What is clear here in this quotation from St. Clement of Alexandria is that the sort of divorce permitted was not a divorce that dissolved the marriage bond, but only a separation of the spouses, anticipating eventual reconciliation. Such a separation was allowed only for fornication (i.e. adultery), and this separation did not then permit either spouse to remarry a third party.

In the following book of the Stromata, St. Clement notes that the Apostles asked Jesus “If the case of a wife be thus, it is not good for the man to marry.” (Matthew 19:10) Then, adds St. Clement, “They in making this enquiry sought to learn whether, when a wife has been found guilty on a charge of fornication, and has been put away, it is permitted to marry another.” (Stromata 3) St. Clement understood the Apostles as recognizing that Jesus was prohibiting remarriage after divorce, except if one spouse died, and that Jesus was teaching that those who re-marry, while both spouses live, commit adultery in doing so.


In a work titled “To My Wife,” written at or prior to AD 206, Tertullian says:

Whence are we to find (words) enough fully to tell the happiness of that marriage which the Church cements, and the oblation confirms, and the benediction signs and seals; (which) angels carry back the news of (to heaven), (which) the Father holds for ratified? For even on earth children do not rightly and lawfully wed without their fathers’ consent. (To My Wife, 2,8)

This passage does not directly address the question of divorce and remarriage, but it does show that for Tertullian, Christian marriage was not merely a civil affair. Christian Marriage was overseen by the Church, and ratified by God the Father, in very much the way pagan men and women would not wed without their father’s approval. Thus for Tertullian the Church’s approval of the Christian couple’s wedding is a sign of God the Father’s approval of the wedding. In this way we see implicitly the sacramental character of Christian marriage.

Around that same time, Tertullian wrote:

But, however, since Patience takes the lead in every species of salutary discipline, what wonder that she likewise ministers to Repentance, (accustomed as Repentance is to come to the rescue of such as have fallen,) when, on a disjunction of wedlock (for that cause, I mean, which makes it lawful, whether for husband or wife, to persist in the perpetual observance of widowhood), she waits for, she yearns for, she persuades by her entreaties, repentance in all who are one day to enter salvation? How great a blessing she confers on each! The one she prevents from becoming an adulterer; the other she amends. (On Patience, chapter 12) [c. AD 206]

Tertullian here speaks of patience as allowing a woman who has been separated from her spouse by “that cause … which makes it lawful … to persist in the perpetual observance of widowhood, to remain unmarried, so as to avoid adultery. It is possible that Tertullian is speaking of death, but if so, then a fortiori, this indicates that remarriage for the cause of divorce was seen as adultery.

In AD 207, Tertullian wrote the first edition of his work Against Marcion. In Book IV of this work, he writes:

But Christ prohibits divorce, saying, Whosoever puts away his wife, and marries another, commits adultery; and whosoever marries her that is put away from her husband, also commits adultery. (Luke 16:18) In order to forbid divorce, He makes it unlawful to marry a woman that has been put away. Moses, however, permitted repudiation in Deuteronomy: When a man has taken a wife, and has lived with her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he has found unchastity in her; then let him write her a bill of divorcement and give it in her hand, and send her away out of his house. (Deuteronomy 24:1) You see, therefore, that there is a difference between the law and the gospel — between Moses and Christ? To be sure there is! But then you have rejected that other gospel which witnesses to the same verity and the same Christ. There, while prohibiting divorce, He has given us a solution of this special question respecting it: Moses, says He, because of the hardness of your hearts, suffered you to give a bill of divorcement; but from the beginning it was not so (Matthew 19:8) — for this reason, indeed, because He who had made them male and female had likewise said, They two shall become one flesh; what therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder. (Matthew 19:4, 6) Now, by this answer of His (to the Pharisees), He both sanctioned the provision of Moses, who was His own (servant), and restored to its primitive purpose the institution of the Creator, whose Christ He was. Since, however, you are to be refuted out of the Scriptures which you have received, I will meet you on your own ground, as if your Christ were mine. When, therefore, He prohibited divorce, and yet at the same time represented the Father, even Him who united male and female, must He not have rather exculpated than abolished the enactment of Moses? But, observe, if this Christ be yours when he teaches contrary to Moses and the Creator, on the same principle must He be mine if I can show that His teaching is not contrary to them. I maintain, then, that there was a condition in the prohibition which He now made of divorce; the case supposed being, that a man put away his wife for the express purpose of marrying another. His words are: Whosoever puts away his wife, and marries another, commits adultery; and whosoever marries her that is put away from her husband, also commits adultery, Luke 16:18 — put away, that is, for the reason wherefore a woman ought not to be dismissed, that another wife may be obtained. For he who marries a woman who is unlawfully put away is as much of an adulterer as the man who marries one who is un-divorced. (Against Marcion, Bk IV. 34.)

Marcion had argued that Christ’s reversal of Moses’s permission of divorce indicated that the Father of Jesus is not the God of the Old Testament. Tertullian is arguing here in response that Christ’s prohibition on divorce is not contrary to Moses’s law, but perfects it, by showing that the only kind of divorce allowed is one that (a) is on grounds of adultery and (b) for which remarriage is not permitted [until one of the spouses dies].

Later in that same work, he writes:

Even Christ, however, when He here commands the wife not to depart from her husband, or if she depart, to remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband, (1 Corinthians 7:10-11) both permitted divorce, which indeed He never absolutely prohibited, and confirmed (the sanctity) of marriage, by first forbidding its dissolution; and, if separation had taken place, by wishing the nuptial bond to be resumed by reconciliation. (Against Marcion, Bk. V. 7.)

Here again he shows how Christ did not absolutely prohibit divorce, in that He allowed a separation of the spouses on grounds of infidelity. But, at the same time, Christ confirmed the sanctity of marriage by absolutely forbidding the dissolution of marriage. The marriage bond remains, even when the spouses are separated, until one of them dies. Tertullian saw that according to Christ’s teaching, the goal and hope when the spouses have been legitimately separated, is always the reconciliation of the spouses.

About five years later, then into his Montanist period, Tertullian wrote a work on monogamy. One of the beliefs of the Montantists is that remarriage is not permitted even after one of the spouses dies. But in these writings we can still find information about the general practice of Christians. For example, Tertullian writes:

They [the pagan Romans] enter into adulterous unions even when they do not put away their wives, we [Christians] are not allowed to marry even when we put our wives away.” (“De monogamia, chapter ix (c. AD 212) )

Tertullian contrasts the behavior of the pagan Romans, and the Christians. The pagans have extramarital affairs without even divorcing their spouses. The Christians, by contrast, are not allowed to marry even when they divorce. Again, this indicates that for Christians, the marriage bond remained, even after divorce. And this shows that the Christian way of understanding divorce (in marriages between Christians) is only as a separation, not as a dissolution of the marriage bond. In that same chapter he writes:

A divorced woman cannot even marry legitimately; and if she commit any such act without the name of marriage, does it not fall under the category of adultery, in that adultery is crime in the way of marriage? Such is God’s verdict, within straiter limits than men’s, that universally, whether through marriage or promiscuously, the admission of a second man (to intercourse) is pronounced adultery by Him. (De monogamia, chapter ix)

Here he shows that what makes an act an act of adultery is the existence of a marriage bond, whether or not the person calls himself or herself married. When Jesus teaches that the man who divorces his wife and then remarries commits adultery, and that the person who marries a divorced spouse commits adultery, this shows that men do not have the authority to remove the marriage bond by mere stipulation or civil law. The remarriage is adulterous in these cases precisely because the marriage bond has not been broken by the divorce. Man cannot untie or dissolve the marriage bond.

Origen (AD 248)

In his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Origen writes:

But now contrary to what was written, some even of the rulers of the church have permitted a woman to marry, even when her husband was living, doing contrary to what was written, where it is said, A wife is bound for so long time as her husband lives, and So then if while her husband lives, she shall be joined to another man she shall be called an adulteress, (Rom. 7:3) not indeed altogether without reason, for it is probable this concession was permitted in comparison with worse things, contrary to what was from the beginning ordained by law, and written. (Commentary on Matthew, Bk. 14, chapter 23)

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.” (Commentary on Matthew, Bk. 14, chapter 24) [c. AD 248]

Here Origen points out that even some rulers of the church, presumably leaders of a local church, have allowed a woman to marry, even while her husband is still living. Origen acknowledges that these rulers likely had the intention of preventing something worse. But nevertheless, he explains, her union with another man, while her husband still lives, makes her an adulteress, according to the word of Jesus and St. Paul. And this divine prohibition on remarriage while one’s spouse remains alive is not particular to women over men, or men over women; it applies equally to both spouses. Origen clearly believes that according to the Scriptures, the marriage bond remains until one of the spouses dies. Hence the woman who seems to be married to a [second] husband, is nevertheless an adulteress while her former husband lives. And likewise, the man who seems to be married to a divorced woman, is not actually married to her, but is living in adultery, so long as her former husband lives. In both cases the new ‘marriage’ is no marriage at all, but only an adulterous union.

St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (d. AD 258)

Concerning marriage, St. Cyprian quotes the Scripture, writing:

In the first Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: But to them that are married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not be separated from her husband; but if she should depart, that she remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and that the husband should not put away his wife. (Treatise 12, Bk. 3, chap. 90)

Council of Elvira (c. AD 300)

Around the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth, we find three relevant canons concerning marriage, in the Council of Elvira held in southeast Spain:

Likewise, women who have left their husbands for no prior cause and have joined themselves with others, may not even at death receive communion.” (Canon 8)

Likewise, a woman of the faith [i.e., a baptized person] who has left an adulterous husband of the faith and marries another, her marrying in this manner is prohibited. If she has so married, she may not at any more receive communion–unless he that she has left has since departed from this world. (Canon 9)

If she whom a catechumen [an upbaptized person studying the faith] has left shall have married a husband, she is able to be admitted to the fountain of baptism. This shall also be observed in the instance where it is the woman who is the catechumen. But if a woman of the faithful is taken in marriage by a man who left an innocent wife, and if she knew that he had a wife whom he had left without cause, it is determined that communion is not to be given to her even at death” (Canon 10)

Canons 8 and 9 are self-explanatory. Women who leave their husbands and join another man, may not receive the Eucharist even at death [unless they repent]. In the case of a married couple in which both spouses are Christian (i.e. baptized), and the husband commits adultery and the wife subsequently leaves him and marries another man, she may not receive the Eucharist until the man she left has died. She is not permitted to receive the Eucharist in that state because she is living in adultery. Only when her husband dies is the marriage bond broken, and then she may marry another man, and receive the Eucharist.

Canon 10 is an example of what is known as the Pauline privilege (discussion in Objection 7 below). When two persons who are not Christian marry, then if one of them seeks to become a Christian, and the other does not wish to remain with the person becoming a Christian, the marriage is dissolved and they are free to marry another person. This is based on 1 Corinthians 7, where St. Paul writes, “But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace.” (1 Cor. 7:15) Such a marriage is not a sacramental marriage, because it is not entered into by two baptized persons. A non-sacramental marriage may be dissolved through the Pauline privilege. But, in Canon 10 we see that if a Christian woman marries a man who left an innocent wife, she is not allowed to receive communion even at death, because she is living in adultery.

It is worth noting here that in the first three centuries of the Church, we find not a single Church Father or writer who teaches that the Church permits remarriage after the divorce of two Christians, so long as both spouses are living. In every case we find that among Christians, remarriage after divorce is prohibited, so long as both spouses remain alive. The evidence of the first three centuries unanimously testifies to the indissolubility of Christian marriage. Divorce in the sense of separation was permitted in cases of adultery, but not remarriage. The purpose of the permitted separation was to avoid participation in the other’s sin, and always with the aim and hope of eventual repentance and reconciliation of the couple, never to permit remarriage while both spouses lived.

Lactantius (AD 303-311)

Lactantius was a convert and a tutor to Constantine’s son. He writes:

Lest anyone think that he can circumscribe the divine precepts, there are added those that take away all calumny and occasion of fraud; he is an adulterer who marries a divorced spouse, and he who dismisses his wife commits adultery (Mt. 5:32) for God is unwilling to dissociate the body. (The Divine Institutes, Bk. 6, Chap. 23)

According to Lactantius, the person who marries a divorced spouse commits adultery, as does the person who divorces his spouse. God does not treat us as though what we do with our bodies is irrelevant. Because we are embodied beings our actions in our bodies, including our sexual relations, matter; evil done in the body corrupts the heart.

In his Epitome of the Divine Institutes, he writes:

Therefore let it be observed in all the duties of life, let it be observed in marriage. For it is not sufficient if you abstain from another’s bed, or from the brothel. Let him who has a wife seek nothing further, but, content with her alone, let him guard the mysteries of the marriage-bed chaste and undefiled. For he is equally an adulterer in the sight of God and impure, who, having thrown off the yoke, wantons in strange pleasure either with a free woman or a slave. But as a woman is bound by the bonds of chastity not to desire any other man, so let the husband be bound by the same law, since God has joined together the husband and the wife in the union of one body. On this account He has commanded that the wife shall not be put away unless convicted of adultery, and that the bond of the conjugal compact shall never be dissolved, unless unfaithfulness have broken it. (Epitome, 66)

Lactantius is the first Christian writer we know of to claim apparently that adultery breaks the marriage bond.

Council of Arles (AD 314)

In AD 314, the Council of Arles met to address the Donatist schism. Canon 10 of that council reads:

As regards those who find their wives to be guilty of adultery, and who being Christians are, though young men, forbidden to remarry, we decree that, so far as may be, counsel be given them not to take other wives while their own, though guilty of adultery, are yet living. (Canon 10)

This council was held under the patronage of Constantine, and it is worded in such a way so as gently to instruct young Christian men not to follow the practice of pagans who did remarry while their spouses remained alive. It takes as given that men who find their wives guilty of adultery are “forbidden to remarry,” as long as their wives live. This is additional evidence that these bishops understood the “except for porneia” clause not as allowing divorce-with-remarriage, but only as allowing separation of the spouses, the marriage bond remaining until one of the spouses died.

Council of Ancyra (between AD 313-319)

If any one have violated a married woman, or have broken the marriage bond, he must for seven years undergo the different degrees of penance, at the end of which he will be admitted into the communion of the Church.” (Canon 20)

Council of Nicea (AD 325)

Concerning those who call themselves Cathari, if they come over to the Catholic and Apostolic Church, the great and holy Synod decrees that they who are ordained shall continue as they are in the clergy. But it is before all things necessary that they should profess in writing that they will observe and follow the dogmas of the Catholic and Apostolic Church; in particular that they will communicate with persons who have been twice married, and with those who having lapsed in persecution have had a period [of penance] laid upon them, and a time [of restoration] fixed so that in all things they will follow the dogmas of the Catholic Church. (Canon 8)

One of the conditions imposed by the ecumenical Council of Nicea upon the Cathari (i.e.”puritans”) for re-entrance into the Catholic Church is that they will communicate (i.e. maintain fellowship) with those who have been twice married. The Cathari, like the Montanists, did not allow remarriage after one spouse died. So the Church here requires them to accept this, as a condition for restoration to full communion. There is no question here of remarriage after divorce; the prohibition of remarriage after divorce was understood as given.

St. Hilary, Bishop of Poietiers (d. AD 368)

St. Hilary writes:

For whereas the law had conceded the liberty of effecting divorce by the authority of instruments, now the Evangelical Faith has not only enjoined upon the husband the desire for concord, but has judged him guilty of compelling his wife to adultery, if she is married anew to another through the stress of his desertion, prescribing no other ground for ceasing from wedded life than the defilement of a husband by the society of a prostituted wife. (Commentary on St. Matthew 4:22)

This statement gives further clarity to the meaning of Jesus’ words when He says, “causes her to commit adultery.”

St. Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis (Cyprus) (c. AD 370)

St. Epiphanius died in AD 403-404, after nearly forty years as a bishop. In AD 370, in his Panarion, he wrote:

[I]t may be tolerated in the laity by reason of their weakness, and of their inability to remain constant to the first wife, that they should be connected with a second after the death of the first. Yet he who has had but one wife is held in greater praise and honour by all members of the Church, but [not] if he could not be content with the one wife, who had died. If there has been a divorce for some reason — whether fornication, or adultery, or an evil charge, and the man marries a second wife, or the woman marries a second husband, God’s Word does not censure them or bar them from the Church and life, but tolerates them because of their weakness. The holy Word and God’s holy Church show mercy to such a person, particularly if he is devout otherwise and lives by God’s law — not by letting him have two wives at once while the one is still alive, but [by letting] him marry a second wife lawfully if the opportunity arises, after being parted from the first. ….” (Against Heresies, Bk. II, Haer. 59.)

There is some controversy over both the translation and interpretation of this passage. Some take it to be permitting divorce with remarriage while the other spouse is still alive. But, I think it is more accurate to understand it as allowing remarriage after the death of the spouse, and thus addressing the erroneous tendency of rigorists like the Montanists and Cathari to forbid remarriage even after the death of the spouse. St. Epiphanius is saying that if a man has divorced his wife [in the sense of mensa et thoro], and then [after she dies] marries another woman, they are not censured or barred from the Church. Likewise, if a woman divorces her husband, and he then dies and she remarries, she is not censured or barred from the Church. The Church does not allow a man to have two wives at once while one wife is still alive. But, after being parted from the first wife for some cause, and then the opportunity arises (i.e. the first wife dies), the Scripture and the Church allow him to remarry, tolerating his weakness.

St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople (d. AD 407)

In his commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, St. Chrysostom writes:

“‘What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.’ See a teacher’s wisdom. I mean, that being asked, Is it lawful? He did not at once say, It is not lawful, lest they should be disturbed and put in disorder, but before the decision by His argument He rendered this manifest, showing that it is itself too the commandment of His Father, and that not in opposition to Moses did He enjoin these things, but in full agreement with him. But mark Him arguing strongly not from the creation only, but also from His command. For He said not, that He made one man and one woman only, but that He also gave this command that the one man should be joined to the one woman. But if it had been His will that he should put this one away, and bring in another, when He had made one man, He would have formed many Women. But now both by the manner of the creation, and by the manner of lawgiving, He showed that one man must dwell with one woman continually, and never break off from her.” (On the Gospel of Matthew, 62:1 [AD 370])

Here St. Chrysostom affirmed the divine purpose that marriage is a lifelong bond. In other words, he acknowledges that divorce (i.e. separation) is permitted in a case of adultery:

If he [i.e. the husband] have one who is a harlot and adulteress he is not forbidden to cast her out. For whosoever (saith He) shall put away his wife except for the cause of porneia maketh her to commit adultery. So that on account of porneia it is lawful to put away.” (Homily against those who fasted with the Jews)

But, when there has been such a separation, there cannot be remarriage so long as both spouses live. In his Treatise on Virginity, he writes that a wife who has separated from her husband cannot remarry so long as her husband remains alive:

[T]he husband, though he have a wife more intolerable than all besides, must needs be content with his bondage, and cannot find any release or escape from this arbitrary sway…. (Treatise on Virginity, 28)

Later in this same work he again addresses the question of remarriage after divorce:

Let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. … What then if he will never be reconciled? one may ask. Thou hast one more mode of release and deliverance. What is that? Await his death. For as the (consecrated) virgin may not marry because her Spouse liveth away, and is immortal; so to her who hath been married it is then only lawful when her husband is dead. (Treatise on Virginity, 40)

In his Homily on 1 Corinthians, St. Chrysostom writes:

Look at the propriety of the words which are used by Paul. He says that she is bound by the law as long as her husband lives, so that even though he gives her a write of separation, or leaves the house, or lives with another, she would still be an adulteress. And do not tell me that the civil law allows such practice. Because you will not be judged in accordance with the civil law, but according to those which the Lord Himself has established. (Homily on 1 Corinthians 7)

St. Basil the Great (c. AD 375)

In his Ethica, St. Basil writes:

The husband must not separate from the wife, nor the wife from the husband, except on detection in fornication (porneia), or hindrance of piety. … It is not lawful for him that hath put away his own wife to marry another, nor for her that is put away from a husband to be married to another.” (Ethica, 73)

That is the same understanding of the nature of divorce and the indissolubility of marriage we have seen all along in the Fathers. Elsewhere, he writes:

But if the man who has deserted his wife goes to another, he is himself an adulterer because he makes her commit adultery; and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has caused another woman’s husband to come over to her. (Letter 188)

If a man who has left his wife goes to another woman, then not only is he an adulterer, but so is the woman who joins him.

Concerning a woman who has been abandoned by her husband, St. Basil writes:

A woman whose husband has gone away and disappeared, and who marries another, before she has evidence of his death, commits adultery. … The woman who has been abandoned by her husband, ought, in my judgment, to remain as she is. The Lord said, If any one leave his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, he causes her to commit adultery; Matthew 5:22 thus, by calling her adulteress, He excludes her from intercourse with another man. For how can the man being guilty, as having caused adultery, and the woman, go without blame, when she is called adulteress by the Lord for having intercourse with another man? (Letter 199, To Amphiliochius)

The wife whose husband has departed may not remarry unless she has some evidence of his death, because if she ‘remarries’ while he still lives, the new union is not a marriage, but an adulterous union.

Concerning a woman who remarries while her husband is living, St. Basil writes:

If this marriage be thus manifest by witnesses and processions and in every way, but her husband be not, I say, dead; then such an one commits adultery, committing adultery thus throughout her life, if her husband continue to live; or rather abandonedly playing the harlot for the enjoyment of pleasure, but also, because her husband is living, committing adultery in transgression of the law. (On True Undefiledness in Virginity)

It is well known that the civil law, even of the Christian emperors, permitted in several cases a new marriage after the separation of the wife. Hence, without contradicting himself, St. Basil could say of the husband, “He is not condemned”, and “He is considered excusable,”10 because he is speaking distinctly of the milder treatment of the husband than of the wife with regard to the canonical penance imposed for adultery. Even though St. Basil puzzles over the lax and asymmetrical civil penalties for men and women pertaining to adultery, and he permits divorce (as separation) on grounds of adultery or hindrance to piety, he does not permit remarriage after divorce while the other spouse lives or show any sign that the Church permits remarriage after divorce so long as the other spouse lives.

Ambrosiaster (between AD 363 and 384)

The author referred to as Ambrosiaster, writes:

‘For this reason shall a man leave father and mother and cleave to his wife and they shall be two in one flesh.’ To commend this unity he supplies an example of unity. Just as a man and a woman are one in nature so Christ and the Church are recognized as one through faith. ‘This is a great mystery — I mean in reference to Christ and the Church.’ He means that the great sign of this mystery is in the unity of man and woman…. Just as a man forsakes his parents and cleaves to his wife, so too he forsakes every error and cleaves to the Church and subjects himself to her Head, which is Christ.” (In Ephesians 5:31 (before AD 384)

Ambrosiaster here explores the relationship between the sacramental nature of marriage and that of which it is a sign, namely, the union of Christ and His Bride, the Church.

Elsewhere, commenting on 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, this author [called Ambrosiaster] writes:

The husband may marry, if he have put away an offending wife; the husband not being bound by the law as the wife is; for the head of the woman is the man. It is not permitted to a woman to remarry, if she have sent away her husband by reason of fornication or apostasy … because the meaner part has not quite the same rule to abide by as the more dignified.

Ambrosiaster here recognizes that the wife who divorces her husband on account of his infidelity cannot remarry, but nevertheless allows the husband who divorces his wife for her infidelity to remarry. On this he seems to have been influenced by Roman law. In general, what we see in the Church Fathers is a strong reaction against the unequal treatment of women and men, in the laws concerning divorce. For Christians, infidelity on the part of the husband was no less adulterous than was infidelity on the part of the wife. Ambrosiaster stands out here as an anomaly, both for his affirmation of the inequality of the Roman law, and for his concession to the remarriage of the husband.

St. Gregory of Nazianzen, bishop of Sasima and Constantinople (AD 370-390)

For I think that the Word here seems to deprecate second marriage. For, if there were two Christs, there may be two husbands or two wives; but if Christ is One, one Head of the Church, let there be also one flesh, and let a second be rejected; and if it hinder the second what is to be said for a third? The first is law, the second is indulgence, the third is transgression, and anything beyond this is swinish, such as has not even many examples of its wickedness. Now the Law grants divorce for every cause; but Christ not for every cause; but He allows only separation from the whore; and in all other things He commands patience. He allows to put away the fornicatress, because she corrupts the offspring; but in all other matters let us be patient and endure; or rather be enduring and patient, as many as have received the yoke of matrimony. (Oration 37, 8)

Notice the purpose for separating from the adulterous wife: to prevent the children from being morally corrupted. The purpose is not to allow for remarriage. Moreover, the question is not whether there can be a second marriage while the spouse still lives, but whether it is good for a widow or widower to remarry.

St. Timothy of Alexandria Patriarch from 381-385

Asked whether, if a man’s wife becomes mad [i.e. insane] to the point of having to be put in irons, and the husband says, “I am not able to contain [myself], and desire to take another wife,” what should he do, St. Timothy replied:

In this matter, adultery comes in; and I have nothing and can find nothing, to reply concerning it. (Canonical answers)

St. Pacian (d. AD 390), bishop of Barcelona

St. Pacian writes:

And these are the nuptials of the Lord, so that like that great Sacrament they might become two in one flesh, Christ and the Church. From these nuptials a Christian people is born, when the Spirit of the Lord comes upon that people. (Sermon on Baptism, 6) [before AD 392]

Again here, we see an awareness of the sacramental character of marriage as a sign of one-flesh union of Christ and the Church, effected through the sacrament of baptism.

St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan (AD 340 – 397)

In his work On Abraham, St. Ambrose writes:

Every fornication [by a married man] is adultery; and it is not permitted to a man to do that which is forbidden to a woman. The same chastity is demanded of a man as of a woman. Everything committed with her who is not the legitimate spouse is condemned as the crime of adultery. (De Abraham Bk 1, chapter 4 [AD 387])

No one is permitted to know a woman other than his wife. The marital right is given you for this reason: lest you fall into the snare and sin with a strange woman. ‘If you are bound to a wife do not seek a divorce’; for you are not permitted, while your wife lives, to marry another. (De Abraham 1:7:59 [AD 387] )

First he shows that the sin forbidden to the wife is also forbidden to the husband. Any sexual act committed with one who is not one’s spouse is adultery. Then he enjoins his readers not to divorce, because Christians are not permitted to marry another person, while their spouse lives. In other words, don’t think about seeking divorce for the purpose of remarriage, because remarriage is not allowed while the spouse lives.

Two years later, in a letter he writes:

We do not say that marriage was not sanctified by Christ, since the Word of God says: ‘The two shall become one flesh’ and one spirit. But we are born before we are brought to our final goal, and the mystery of God’s operation is more excellent than the remedy for human weakness. Quite rightly is a good wife praised, but a pious virgin is more rightly preferred. (To Siricius, Ep. 42:3 (AD 389)

This statement is not about divorce and marriage, but it is an early witness among the Fathers concerning the notion that Christ sanctified marriage, elevating it far beyond a remedy for human weakness.

In his Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, St. Ambrose writes:

Anyone saying that one is free to marry a wife that has been put away is not a Christian; he is a Jew. (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 8)

In that same section, he writes:

You dismiss your wife, therefore, as if by right and without being charged with wrongdoing [by the civil law]; and you suppose it is proper for you to do so because no human law forbids it. But divine law forbids it. Anyone who obeys men ought to stand in awe of God. Hear the law of the Lord, which even they who propose our laws must obey: ‘What God has joined together let no man put asunder.” (Commentary on Luke 8:5 [AD 389])

I must first, I think, speak of the law of marriage so as to treat afterward the prohibition of divorce. Certain persons think, in fact, that every marriage is of God, especially since it is written, “What God has joined man must not separate.” So then, if every marriage is of God, it is not permitted to dissolve any marriage. Why then has the Apostle said, “If the unbelieving souse departs, let him depart?” His discernment here is admirable. He wanted no motive for divorce to remain available to Christians, but showed that not every marriage is of God. For it is not by God’s authority that Christians marry pagans, since the law forbids this. … In his wonderful way, he did not want the cause of divorce to lie with Christians; and at the same time he showed that not every marriage is from God. Christian women are not joined to pagans by the judgment of God, since the law forbids it. (Commentary on Luke, Book 8)

Here St. Ambrose shows the difference between the law of Christ, and the civil law. The civil law allowed for divorce and remarriage. But, says St. Ambrose, the divine law prohibits it. When he speaks of divine law he is referring to the law of Christ concerning marriage under the New Covenant. Then St. Ambrose speaks of non-Christian ‘marriages’ in which a Christian illicitly ‘marries’ a pagan. Since this is not allowed by the law of the Church, such a union is not a marriage.

Later in this same commentary he refers to Christ’s statement that “he who puts away his wife causes her to commit adultery,” and explains it by saying:

Because it not being lawful for her in her husband’s lifetime to contract a new marriage, sinful desire may gradually prevail against her. Suppose her to marry. The blame of the constraint she lay under is upon you: and what you account to be marriage is adultery. For what does it matter whether one commits that crime with open avowal of it, or as one who is an adulterer under the mask of a husband. Only that it is more grievous to have contrived a law to warrant crime than a secret perpetration of it. (Commentary on Luke 16:18)

That is, insofar as the husband, by divorcing his wife places her in a situation where in weakness or desperation she may give in to the sinful temptation to be united to another man, the husband bears some responsibility. But that the remarriage is in fact adultery, according to St. Ambrose, shows that the marriage bond remains, and is not broken by this divorce. Whether a husband openly commits adultery, or hides his act of adultery by divorcing his wife and seemingly marrying another woman, either way, teaches St. Ambrose, he is committing adultery.

St. Asterius of Amasea (c. 350 – c. 410 AD) was made Bishop of Amasea between 380 and 390 AD, after having been a lawyer. He writes:

These things were spoken to the Pharisees; but do you hear them now, you who do such things as these: you who change your wives as readily as your garments; who build bridal chambers as often and as easily as you build booths for feasts; who marry money, and deal in women; who if provoked a little immediately write a bill of divorcement; you who leave many widows while you are yet alive; believe me, marriage is terminated only by death or adultery. (Homily V, On Divorce)

St. Asterius recognizes that adultery is cause for divorce. But here at least, he does not clearly distinguish whether he is speaking of divorce a mensa et thoro (i.e. separation from bed and board) or the dissolution of the marriage that takes place at the death of one of the spouses.

St. Jerome (AD 346 – 420)

In 384 AD, St. Jerome wrote a letter to the priest Amandus, to answer certain questions, among which was the question, “whether a wife who has left her husband for adultery and unnatural crime, and has another forcibly imposed upon her, may without penance communicate with the Church during the lifetime of him whom she had before left.” This was an actual case, not a merely hypothetical case. St. Jerome answered:

Tell the sister, therefore, who thus enquires of me concerning her condition, not my sentence but that of the apostle. Do you not know, brethren (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman which has an husband is bound by the law to her husband, so long as he lives; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then, if, while her husband lives, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress. (Rom. 7:1-3) And in another place: the wife is bound by the law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:39) The apostle has thus cut away every plea and has clearly declared that, if a woman marries again while her husband is living, she is an adulteress. You must not speak to me of the violence of a ravisher, a mother’s pleading, a father’s bidding, the influence of relatives, the insolence and the intrigues of servants, household losses. A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another. The apostle does not promulgate this decree on his own authority but on that of Christ who speaks in him. For he has followed the words of Christ in the gospel: whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, commits adultery. (Mt. 5:32) Mark what he says: whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery. Whether she has put away her husband or her husband her, the man who marries her is still an adulterer. … Therefore if your sister, who, as she says, has been forced into a second union, wishes to receive the body of Christ and not to be accounted an adulteress, let her do penance; so far at least as from the time she begins to repent to have no farther intercourse with that second husband who ought to be called not a husband but an adulterer. (Letter 55, to Amandus:3,4 [AD 396]

St. Jerome grants that a wife is allowed to separate from her husband on account of adultery or sexual perversion (on his part) but taught that “he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another.” According go St. Jerome, if she divorced her husband and remarried, she and the new ‘spouse’ would be guilty of the sin of adultery. “They could not receive the Eucharist until they had done penance by agreeing to refrain from further sexual intercourse.” In order to receive the Eucharist, she would need to agree to relate to this man only as sister and brother, not sexually, at least until her husband had died.

In AD 393, he writes:

For he [i.e. St. Paul] ordains, according to the mind of the Lord, that excepting the cause of fornication, a wife must not be put away, and that a wife who has been put away, may not, so long as her husband lives, be married to another, or at all events that her duty is to be reconciled to her husband. (Against Jovianus, I.10)

Five years later, in his Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, specifically on St. Matthew 19:9 (i.e. containing the ‘except for porneia‘ clause) he writes:

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. (Commentaries on St. Matthew 3:19:9) [AD 398].

Clearly, according to St. Jerome, the nature of the divorce allowed in Matthew 19:9 is one of separation, since no remarriage is allowed, so long as the first spouse lives.

We learn more from St. Jerome in his correspondence with and about a woman named Fabiola. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on St. Fabiola says the following:

Fabiola belonged to the patrician Roman family of the Fabia. She had been married to a man who led so vicious a life that to live with him was impossible. She obtained a divorce from him according to Roman law, and, contrary to the ordinances of the Church, she entered upon a second union before the death of her first husband. On the day before Easter, following the death of her second consort, she appeared before the gates of the Lateran basilica, dressed in penitential garb, and did penance in public for her sin, an act which made a great impression upon the Christian population of Rome. The pope received her formally again into full communion with the Church.

Concerning her case, St. Jerome writes:

The laws of Cæsar are different, it is true, from the laws of Christ: Papinianus commands one thing; our own Paul another. Earthly laws give a free rein to the unchastity of men, merely condemning seduction and adultery; lust is allowed to range unrestrained among brothels and slave girls, as if the guilt were constituted by the rank of the person assailed and not by the purpose of the assailant. But with us Christians what is unlawful for women is equally unlawful for men, and as both serve the same God both are bound by the same obligations. … She [i.e. Fabiola] did not know the full force of the gospel in which every pretext for marriage is taken away from a wife so long as her husband is alive. (Epist. 77, To Oceanus, 3)[AD 399]

Fabiola had been justified in putting her husband away, but she had remarried, while her husband was still living. She did this, claims St. Jerome, not knowing the “full force of the gospel” regarding the prohibition on remarriage while one’s spouse is alive. But eventually she came to see the evil of her action, and made penance before the whole city of Rome, in the way described in the selection above, for the adultery she has committed in the form of her second ‘marriage’ while her husband still lived.

Apostolic Constitutions (c. AD 400)

If any layman put away his wife and marry another, or one who has been divorced by another man, let him by excommunicated. (Canon 47, [48])

Eleventh Council of Carthage (AD 407)

We decree that according to the evangelic and apostolic discipline neither a husband dismissed by his wife nor a wife dismissed by her husband may marry another; but they are to remain as they are or to be reconciled to one another. If they despise [this law] they are to be subjected to penance and on this subject an imperial law ought to be promulgated. (Canon 8)

Notice that this council teaches that the indissolubility of Christian marriage comes from Christ and the Apostles.

Pope Innocent I (pope from AD 401-417)

In a letter responding to an inquiry from Victricius, bishop of Rouen, in AD 404, Pope Innocent wrote:

The practice is observed by all of regarding as an adulteress a woman who marries a second time while her husband yet lives, and permission to do penance is not granted her until one of them is dead. (Epist. ad Vict. Rothom xiii, 15)

The reason why the wife was not allowed to do penance in such a case is because doing penance is allowed only to those who have purposed no longer to commit the sin. A wife who remained with a second man, while her husband was alive, had not ceased from the sin of adultery, and therefore was not allowed to do penance.

In another case, in AD 405, Exsuperius, bishop of Toulouse, had inquired of Pope Innocent, asking him about those who, “divorce intervening, have connected themselves with another in marriage.” Pope Innocent replied:

Your diligence has asked concerning those, also, who, by means of a deed of separation, have contracted another marriage. That these on both sides are adulterers, is evident. (Epist. ad Exsuper.”, c. vi, n. 12)

St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo (lived from AD 354 – 430)

St. Augustine recognizes that Christ allowed for a spouse to put away his or her spouse in the case of adultery.11 And St. Augustine also believed and taught that remarriage after divorce (while the other spouse remains alive) is prohibited. He derives this from St. Paul’s injunction that if the wife depart from her husband (on account of adultery), she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to him. In his “Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount,” composed between AD 393 and 396, he writes:

The inference from all this is, that, whether dismissed or dismissing, she ought to remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband. (Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, Bk 1. 48)

Around AD 401, in the fifth or sixth year of his episcopate, St. Augustine wrote his work “On the Good of Marriage.” Regarding Jesus’ statement in Matt. 5:32 that he who divorces his wife (except for the reason of fornication) makes her commit adultery, St. Augustine writes:

This we now say, that, according to this condition of being born and dying, which we know, and in which we have been created, the marriage of male and female is some good; the compact whereof divine Scripture so commends, as that neither is it allowed one put away by her husband to marry, so long as her husband lives: nor is it allowed one put away by his wife to marry another, unless she who have separated from him be dead. (On the Good of Marriage, c. 3)

According to St. Augustine, a wife cannot put away her husband to remarry, so long as he lives, nor can a husband put away his wife to remarry, so long as she lives. Here we see clearly that according to St. Augustine, the marriage bond is indissoluble, except by death. Three chapters later he writes:

To such a degree is that marriage compact entered upon a matter of a certain sacrament, that it is not made void even by separation itself, since, so long as her husband lives, even by whom she has been left, she commits adultery, in case she be married to another: and he who has left her, is the cause of this evil. (On the Good of Marriage, chapter 6)

In the succeeding chapter he writes:

And, this being the case, so strong is that bond of fellowship in married persons, that, although it be tied for the sake of begetting children, not even for the sake of begetting children is it loosed. … (On the Good of Marriage, chapter 7)

On this point John Calvin disagreed, since he treated impotence not only as an impediment to entering into marriage, but as a justifiable cause for divorce with remarriage. (See Objection 4 below.)

St. Augustine continues, locating the cause of the indissolubility of Christian marriage in its sacramental character:

[W]ho is there but it must make him attentive to learn, what is the meaning of this so great strength [i.e. indissolubility] of the marriage bond? Which I by no means think could have been of so great avail, unless some sacramentum of a much greater reality were at work in this fragile human mortality, a sacramentum which remains unbroken for the punishment of those who desert their marriages and wish to dissolve them. Seeing that the compact of marriage is not done away by divorce intervening; so that they continue wedded persons one to another, even after separation; and commit adultery with those, with whom they shall be joined, even after their own divorce, either the woman with a man, or the man with a woman. And yet, save in the City of our God, in His Holy Mount, the case is not such with the wife. But, that the laws of the [pagans] are otherwise, who is there that knows not; where, by the interposition of divorce, without any offense of which man takes cognizance, both the woman is married to whom she will, and the man marries whom he will. And something like this custom, on account of the hardness of the Israelites, Moses seems to have allowed, concerning a bill of divorcement. In which matter there appears rather a rebuke, than an approval, of divorce. (On the Good of Marriage, chapter 7)

We can see in this that for St. Augustine, non-Christian marriages do not have the same sacramental addition, and therefore are treated as dissoluble.

That marriage can take place of persons first ill joined, an honest decree following after, is manifest. But a marriage once for all entered upon in the City of our God, where, even from the first union of the two, the man and the woman, marriage bears a certain sacramental character, can no way be dissolved but by the death of one of them. For the bond of marriage remains, although a family, for the sake of which it was entered upon, do not follow through manifest barrenness; so that, when now married persons know that they shall not have children, yet it is not lawful for them to separate even for the very sake of children, and to join themselves unto others. And if they shall so do, they commit adultery with those unto whom they join themselves, but themselves remain husbands and wives. (On the Good of Marriage, chapter 17)

Here St. Augustine contrasts marriage that takes place outside the Church, and marriage that takes place inside the Church (i.e. inside the City of our God). Christian marriage bears a “certain sacramental character” and can in no way be dissolved except by the death of one of the spouses. That bond remains even if the marriage is barren. This is why when a married couple learns that one of them is sterile, it is not lawful for them to separate and remarry a third party unless one of them dies. If they remarry while the other spouse lives, they are in fact committing adultery, because the marriage bond remains, and no new marriage bond can be formed while the original marriage bond remains.

Therefore the good of marriage throughout all nations and all men stands in the occasion of begetting, and faith of chastity: but, so far as pertains unto the People of God, also in the sanctity of the Sacrament, by reason of which it is unlawful for one who leaves her husband, even when she has been put away, to be married to another, so long as her husband lives, no not even for the sake of bearing children: and, whereas this is the alone cause, wherefore marriage takes place, not even where that very thing, wherefore it takes place, follows not, is the marriage bond loosed, save by the death of the husband or wife. (On the Good of Marriage, Chapter 32)

Here again we see a sacramental conception of marriage, according to which Christian marriage is indissoluble while both spouses live.

In Sermon 392, preached in Hippo around this time, he said the following:

You must not have wives whose former husbands are living; nor may you, women, have husbands whose former wives are living. Such marriages are adulterous, not by the law of the courts, but by the law of Heaven. Nor may a woman who by divorce has withdrawn from her husband become your wife while her husband lives. Only because of fornication may one dismiss an adulterous wife; but in her lifetime you may not marry another. Neither to you, O women, is it granted to find husbands in those men whose wives have quitted them by divorce: such are adulterous, not marriages. (Sermon 392, c. 2)

In De Genesi ad litteram, written in the first fifteen years of the fifth century, he wrote:

This [good of marriage] is three-fold: fidelity, offspring, sacrament. Fidelity means that one avoids all sexual activity apart from one’s marriage. Offspring means that a child is accepted in love, is nurtured in affection, is brought up in religion. Sacrament means that the marriage is not severed nor the spouse abandoned, not even so that the abandoner or the abandoned may remarry for the sake of children. (De Genesi ad litteram, Bk 9, chapter 7)

The sacramental character of marriage, according to St. Augustine, makes it indisssoluble while both spouses live. The marriage bond remains even when one spouse abandons the other. Nor can it be broken if one of the spouses is infertile.

In “On the Good of Widowhood” (AD 414), he writes of “the sacrament (indissoluble, so long as both live) of matrimony.” Five years later, in 419, he wrote “On Marriage and Concupiscence.”

It is certainly not fecundity only, the fruit of which consists of offspring, nor chastity only, whose bond is fidelity, but also a certain sacramental bond in marriage which is recommended to believers in wedlock. Accordingly it is enjoined by the apostle: Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church. (Ephesians 5:25) Of this bond the substance undoubtedly is this, that the man and the woman who are joined together in matrimony should remain inseparable as long as they live; and that it should be unlawful for one consort to be parted from the other, except for the cause of fornication. (Matthew 5:32) For this is preserved in the case of Christ and the Church; so that, as a living one with a living one, there is no divorce, no separation for ever. And so complete is the observance of this bond in the city of our God, in His holy mountain — that is to say, in the Church of Christ — by all married believers, who are undoubtedly members of Christ, that, although women marry, and men take wives, for the purpose of procreating children, it is never permitted one to put away even an unfruitful wife for the sake of having another to bear children. And whosoever does this is held to be guilty of adultery by the law of the gospel; though not by this world’s rule, which allows a divorce between the parties, without even the allegation of guilt, and the contraction of other nuptial engagements, — a concession which, the Lord tells us, even the holy Moses extended to the people of Israel, because of the hardness of their hearts. (Matthew 19:8) The same condemnation applies to the woman, if she is married to another man. So enduring, indeed, are the rights of marriage between those who have contracted them, as long as they both live, that even they are looked on as man and wife still, who have separated from one another, rather than they between whom a new connection has been formed. For by this new connection they would not be guilty of adultery, if the previous matrimonial relation did not still continue. If the husband die, with whom a true marriage was made, a true marriage is now possible by a connection which would before have been adultery. Thus between the conjugal pair, as long as they live, the nuptial bond has a permanent obligation, and can be cancelled neither by separation nor by union with another. But this permanence avails, in such cases, only for injury from the sin, not for a bond of the covenant. In like manner the soul of an apostate, which renounces as it were its marriage union with Christ, does not, even though it has cast its faith away, lose the sacrament of its faith, which it received in the laver of regeneration. It would undoubtedly be given back to him if he were to return, although he lost it on his departure from Christ. He retains, however, the sacrament after his apostasy, to the aggravation of his punishment, not for meriting the reward. (On Marriage and Concupiscence, Bk 1, chapter 10 [11]) [AD 420]

The marriage bond remains even through separation of the spouses, so long as both remain alive, even if they join with other men or women. If remarrying by one spouse (while the other is still living) is adulterous, this entails that the marriage bond remains, which then entails that it is adulterous for the other spouse to remarry (so long as both spouses are alive).

St. Augustine is explaining both the Catholic practice of not remarrying while one’s spouse is alive, and the injunctions in the Gospels and in St. Paul prohibiting such remarriage. The explanation for both the Catholic practice and the teaching of Scripture is the sacramental character of Christian marriage, which signifies the indissolubility of the union of Christ with His Church.

In marriage, however, let the blessings of marriage be loved: offspring, fidelity, and the sacramental bond. Offspring, not so much because it may be born, but because it can be reborn; for it is born to punishment unless it be reborn to life. Fidelity, but not such as even the unbelievers have among themselves, ardent as they are for the flesh. . . . The sacramental bond, which they lose neither through separation nor through adultery, this the -spouses should guard chastely and harmoniously. (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1:17:19)

That same year, St. Augustine received an inquiry from a certain Pollentius. Pollentius believed that there were two types of divorce: that which was not justified by an act of adultery, and that which was justified by an act of adultery. According to Pollentius, if neither spouse committed adultery, then even though divorce could be allowed, neither spouse would be permitted to remarry a third party after the divorce. But if one spouse committed adultery, then remarriage could be allowed. St. Augustine wrote his work “Adulterous Unions” (De Conjugiis Adulterinis) in reply to Pollentius. In this work St. Augustine writes:

Neither can it rightly be held that a husband who dismisses his wife because of fornication and marries another does not commit adultery. For there is also adultery on the part of those who, after the repudiation of their former wives because of fornication, marry others. This adultery, nevertheless, is certainly less serious than that of men who dismiss their wives for reasons other than fornication and take other wives. Therefore, when we say: ‘Whoever marries a woman dismissed by her husband for reason other than fornication commits adultery,’ undoubtedly we speak the truth. But we do not thereby acquit of this crime the man who marries a woman who was dismissed because of fornication. We do not doubt in the least that both are adulterers. We do indeed pronounce him an adulterer who dismissed his wife for cause other than fornication and marries another, nor do we thereby defend from the taint of this sin the man who dismissed his wife because of fornication and marries another. We recognize that both are adulterers, though the sin of one is more grave than that of the other. No one is so unreasonable to say that a man who marries a woman whose husband has dismissed her because of fornication is not an adulterer, while maintaining that a man who marries a woman dismissed without the ground of fornication is an adulterer. Both of these men are guilty of adultery. (On Adulterous Marriages 1:9:9)

A woman begins to be the wife of no later husband unless she has ceased to be the wife of a former one. She will cease to be the wife of a former one, however, if that husband should die, not if he commit fornication. A spouse, therefore, is lawfully dismissed for cause of fornication; but the bond of chastity remains. That is why a man is guilty of adultery if he marries a woman who has been dismissed even for this very reason of fornication. (On Adulterous Marriages 2:4:4)

In short, according to St. Augustine, no matter what reason one spouse dismisses another, even for adultery, the marriage bond remains until death.12 And for that reason, for either spouse to remarry while the other spouse is alive, is adultery. A divorced Christian is still married to the other spouse. Yes, the sin of the man who remarries after divorcing his wife because she committed adultery is less serious than that of the man who remarries after divorcing his wife for some other reason less serious than adultery on her part. But in both cases, remarrying while the spouse is living is adultery. Adultery does not break the marriage bond.

In AD 426, only four years before his death, St. Augustine wrote:

Because of the sacrament of marriage, what God has joined man must not separate. (De peccato originali, Bk 2, chapter 39)

Again, for St. Augustine, marriage between Christians is a sacrament, and this means, for St. Augustine that man cannot sever this bond. A husband may divorce his wife if she commits adultery (and she may divorce her husband if he commits adultery), but if the one who has committed adultery repents, the other spouse should receive him or her back. Moreover, the marriage bond is indissoluble, so long as both spouses live. And therefore remarriage by either spouse, while both spouses live, is not actually marriage, but adultery.

Bishop Theodoret of Cyrrus (Syria) (d. 457)

Commenting on St. Paul’s statement “Let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband,” Theodoret writes:

And he [St. Paul] strives indeed to keep the bond of marriage unbroken, but condescending to men’s weakness, he puts the person separately himself under a law of continency, in this way forbidding the dissolution of marriage. For by barring connection with another he compels the party, whichever it be, to return to the former marriage. (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:10,11)

St. Cyril of Alexandria (AD 429)

When the wedding was celebrated [at Cana] it is clear that it was entirely decorous: for indeed, the Mother of the Savior was there; and, invited along with His disciples, the Savior too was there, working miracles more than being entertained in feasting, and especially that He might sanctify the very beginning of human generation, which certainly is a matter concerning the flesh. (Commentary on John, 2:1)

Here too we see that Christ’s presence at the wedding at Cana, is not seen as accidental, but as an indication that Christ sanctified marriage.

Pope St. Leo the Great (AD 440-461)

And so a wife is different from a concubine, even as a bondwoman from a freewoman. For which reason also the Apostle in order to show the difference of these persons quotes from Genesis, where it is said to Abraham, ‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.’ And hence, since the marriage tie was from the beginning so constituted as apart from the joining of the sexes to symbolize the mystic union of Christ and His Church, it is undoubted that that woman has no part in matrimony, in whose case it is shown that the mystery of marriage has not taken place. (To Rusticus, Epistle 167:4 (AD 459)

Here Pope Leo explains the distinction between a wife and a concubine. The marriage tie, which symbolizes the mystical union of Christ and His Church, is missing in the case of the concubine.

Pope Leo also wrote a letter to Nicetas, bishop of Aquileia, explaining that in cases where the husbands had been taken into exile by the barbarians under Atilla, and the wives had remarried (thinking their husbands to be dead), when the husband returns, in all cases the wife must return to her husband, since the second ‘marriage’ was no marriage at all. If she refused to return to her husband, and chose to remain with the man with whom she was living, she could no longer receive the Eucharist.

The indissolubility of Christian marriage was defended not only by Pope Innocent I, and Pope Leo the Great, but by other popes as well.13 In addition, just as the Synod of Arles (AD 314) had forbidden remarriage to Christians who divorced, while their spouse still lived, this same prohibition was repeated in other subsequent councils as well.14 In all the early Christian writers, we find only two who clearly permit remarriage after divorce, while both spouses live: Lactantius and Ambrosiaster. And they are not Church Fathers, not being saints. Among the Church Fathers, the only person with whom there is any question is St. Epiphanius. There is dispute over the proper interpretation of a paragraph in the writings of St. Epiphanius, but I have shown above that it can be understood in keeping with the traditional Catholic teaching on remarriage. So among all the Church Fathers and ecclesial writers, there is an overwhelming moral consensus regarding the prohibition for Christians of remarriage after divorce, so long as both spouses live. The Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes the matter as follows:

The doctrine of Scripture about the illicitness of divorce is fully confirmed by the constant tradition of the Church. The testimonies of the Fathers and the councils leave us no room for doubt. In numerous places they lay down the teaching that not even in the case of adultery can the marriage bond be dissolved or the innocent party proceed to a new marriage. They insist rather that the innocent party must remain unmarried after the dismissal of the guilty one, and can only enter upon new marriage in case death intervenes. (“Divorce (in moral theology)”)

In AD 673 an assembly of English bishops under Theodore of Tarsus, the archbishop of Canterbury decreed the following:

Regarding marriages: no one is to have any but a legally recognized marriage. No one is to commit incest. No one is to abandon his own spouse unless, as the holy Gospel teaches, he does so because of fornication. But if anyone dismisses a spouse joined to him legitimately in marriage, if he wishes truly to be a Christian, he is to be united to no one else, but is either to remain as he is or to be reconciled with his own spouse. (Canon 10)

Council of Trullo (AD 692)

At the Council of Trullo we read:

She who has left her husband is an adulteress if she has come to another, according to the holy and divine Basil, who has gathered this most excellently from the prophet Jeremiah: If a woman has become another man’s, her husband shall not return to her, but being defiled she shall remain defiled; and again, He who has an adulteress is senseless and impious. If therefore she appears to have departed from her husband without reason, he is deserving of pardon and she of punishment. And pardon shall be given to him that he may be in communion with the Church. But he who leaves the wife lawfully given him, and shall take another is guilty of adultery by the sentence of the Lord. And it has been decreed by our Fathers that they who are such must be weepers for a year, hearers for two years, prostrators for three years, and in the seventh year to stand with the faithful and thus be counted worthy of the Oblation [if with tears they do penance]. (Canon 87)

Council of Friuli (AD 791)

It was decreed that when the marriage bond is loosed because of fornication the husband may not lawfully take another wife so long as the adulteress lives, nor may she take another husband, whether he whom she hath shameless wronged be living or dead.

According to this council, the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 refers not to the permissibility of remarriage while one’s spouse is alive, but to the permissibility of putting away one’s spouse.

Synod of Paris (AD 829)

They who, when their wives have been dismissed for the cause of fornication, marry others are pronounced to be adulterers by the sentence of the Lord. (Concilium Parisiense VI.)

Benedict the Levite (AD 847)

In AD 847 Benedict the Levite examined and compiled the prior ecclesiastical canons concerning marriage, and sums up their teaching on the indissolubility of marriage as follows:

That during the lifetime of husband and wife neither of them be united in another marriage …. And if she have committed fornication, and her husband desire it, she is to be dismissed, but another wife may not be taken in marriage during her lifetime, because adulterers will not possess the kingdom of God, and her penitence is to be accepted. (Benedict the Levite, III.73)

B. Second Millennium

In the second millennium we find a continuity of the same teaching.

Gratian (ca. 1140)

Gratian, in his famous Decretum (written between 1139 and 1142) compiling the Church’s canon law, defends the indissolubility of the marriage bond, as a bond broken only by death:

The bond of marriage cannot be dissolved by fornication. … A marriage which, once entered into, is approved can in nowise be dissolved. … Whether the husband has departed from the wife, or the wife from the husband, for the cause of fornication, [the person so departing] is forbidden to cleave to another. … He commits adultery who presumes to marry one dismissed by her husband. … She is proved an adulteress who during the lifetime of her husband marries another. … By these authorities it is most evidently shewn that whoever shall have put away his wife for the cause of fornication cannot marry another during her lifetime, and if he shall have so married he is guilty of adultery. (Decretum c. 1, 2, 3, 6, 7)

Council of Verona (AD 1184)

All who, regarding the sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, or regarding baptism or the confession of sins, matrimony or the other ecclesiastical sacraments, do not fear to think or to teach otherwise than the most holy Roman Church teaches and observes … (Denz. 402)

In 1199 Pope Innocent III (pope from 1198-1216) wrote:

Although indeed true matrimony exists between unbelievers, yet it is not [divinely] ratified; between believers, however, a true and [divinely] ratified marriage exists, because the sacrament of faith, which once was admitted, is never lost, but makes the sacrament of marriage ratified so that it itself lasts between married persons as long as the sacrament of faith endures. (Quanto te magis, May 1, 1199)

Here Pope Innocent III makes a clear distinction between a non-sacramental marriage (i.e. between unbaptized persons), and a sacramental marriage (i.e. between baptized persons). Because baptism is never lost (and therefore never repeated), a marriage between two baptized persons is divinely ratified, such that once formed it necessarily exists until one spouse dies. And therefore, according to Pope Innocent III, in a Christian marriage, if one spouse deserts the other, or falls into heresy or apostasy, or commits adultery, neither spouse may remarry until one spouse dies.

Raymond of Penyafort (AD 1241)

Pope Gregory IX appointed Raymond of Penyafort to compile previous papal legal decisions. From this work, Raymond published what came to be called his Summa on Marriage. There he writes:

One of the effects of marriage is that once there is marriage or matrimony between two people, it never ceases to be even if one of the spouses becomes a heretic. … Although bodily separation sometimes occurs because of fornication or by mutual consent for prayer or religious life, sacramental separation is not possible unless the matrimonial bond ceases, which never happens between the faithful unless through entry into religious life before carnal copulation or, after carnal copulation through the death of both spouses or one of them. (Title II.9,12)

St. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1270)

In the Supplement of the Summa Theologica, there is an article addressing the following question: Whether the indissolubility of marriage is of the natural law?

Those things which were assigned to nature when it was well established in its beginning belong especially to the law of nature. Now the indissolubility of marriage is one of these things according to Matthew 19:4-6. Therefore it is of natural law.

Further, it is of natural law that man should not oppose himself to God. Yet man would, in a way, oppose himself to God if he were to sunder “what God hath joined together.” Since then the indissolubility of marriage is gathered from this passage (Matthew 19:6) it would seem that it is of natural law.

I answer that, By the intention of nature marriage is directed to the rearing of the offspring, not merely for a time, but throughout its whole life. Hence it is of natural law that parents should lay up for their children, and that children should be their parents’ heirs (2 Corinthians 12:14). Therefore, since the offspring is the common good of husband and wife, the dictate of the natural law requires the latter to live together for ever inseparably: and so the indissolubility of marriage is of natural law.

Indissolubility belongs to marriage in so far as the latter is a sign of the perpetual union of Christ with the Church, and in so far as it fulfills an office of nature that is directed to the good of the offspring, as stated above. But since divorce is more directly incompatible with the signification of the sacrament than with the good of the offspring, with which it is incompatible consequently, as stated above (65, 2, ad 5), the indissolubility of marriage is implied in the good of the sacrament rather than in the good of the offspring, although it may be connected with both. And in so far as it is connected with the good of the offspring, it is of the natural law, but not as connected with the good of the sacrament. (Supp. Q. 67 a.1)

In the reply we find two reasons given for the indissolubility of marriage. First is that indissolubility belongs to marriage by way of natural law. That is, the nature and purpose of the marital union itself, in the relation of parents to offspring, indicates that this union is indissoluble, and is to be treated as indissoluble. The permanence of the union of the parents in the children, and the relation of the children as the common good of husband and wife, show that the marital bond is to be entered into and treated as lifelong, and therefore as indissoluble.

The second reason given for the indissolubility of marriage is its sacramentality, in that it signifies the perpetual union of Christ and His Church. And divorce (as a dissolving of that bond) is contrary to the sacramental meaning of the marriage bond.

Second Council of Lyon (AD 1274)

The same holy Roman Church also holds and teaches that the ecclesiastical sacraments are seven: namely, one is baptism, concerning which we have spoken above; another is the sacrament of confirmation which the bishops confer through the imposition of hands when anointing the reborn; another is penance; another the Eucharist; another the sacrament of orders; another is matrimony; another extreme unction, which according to the doctrine of St. James is given to the sick. The same Roman Church prepares the sacrament of the Eucharist from unleavened bread, holding and teaching that in the same sacrament the bread is changed into the body, and the wine into the blood of Jesus Christ. But concerning matrimony it holds that neither one man is permitted to have many wives nor one woman many husbands at the same time. But she (the Church) says that second and third marriages successively are permissible for one freed from a legitimate marriage through the death of the other party, if another canonical impediment for some reason is not an obstacle. (Denz. 465)

Pope John XXII (AD 1318)

There are many other things which these very presumptuous men are said to babble against the venerable sacrament of matrimony … (Denz. 490)

Council of Florence (AD 1439)

The seventh [sacrament] is the sacrament of matrimony, which is the sign of the joining of Christ and the Church according to the Apostle who says: “This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church” [Eph. 5:32]. … Third, there is the indivisibility of marriage, because it signifies the indivisible union of Christ and the Church. Although, moreover, there may be a separation of the marriage couch by reason of fornication, nevertheless, it is not permitted to contract another marriage, since the bond of a marriage legitimately contracted is perpetual. (Denz. 702)

Council of Trent (AD 1563)

The twenty-fourth session of the Council of Trent addressed the subject of matrimony. The Council’s teaching concerning matrimony reads as follows:

The perpetual and indissoluble bond of matrimony was expressed by the first parent of the human race, when, under the influence of the divine Spirit, 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. But that by this bond two only are united and joined together, Christ the Lord taught more plainly when referring to those last words as having been spoken by God, He said: Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh, and immediately ratified the firmness of the bond so long ago proclaimed by Adam with these words: What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.

But the grace which was to perfect that natural love, and confirm that indissoluble union, and sanctify the persons married, Christ Himself, the instituter and perfecter of the venerable sacraments, merited for us by His passion, which Paul the Apostle intimates when he says: Husbands love your wives, as Christ also loved the Church, and delivered himself up for it; adding immediately: This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the Church.

Since therefore matrimony in the evangelical law surpasses in grace through Christ the ancient marriages, our holy Fathers, the councils, and the tradition of the universal Church, have with good reason always taught that it is to be numbered among the sacraments of the New Law; and since with regard to this teaching ungodly men of this age, raving madly, have not only formed false ideas concerning this venerable sacrament, but, introducing in conformity with their habit under the pretext of the Gospel a carnal liberty, have by word and writing asserted, not without great harm to the faithful of Christ, many things that are foreign to the teaching of the Catholic Church and to the usage approved of since the times of the Apostles, this holy and general council, desiring to restrain their boldness, has thought it proper, lest their pernicious contagion should attract more, that the principal heresies and errors of the aforesaid schismatics be destroyed by directing against those heretics and their errors the following anathemas. (Session 24)

The first paragraph teaches that by divine institution, no person can be married to two or more persons at the same time, and that the marriage bond is perpetual and indissoluble. The second paragraph indicates that Christ raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, meriting for us through His Passion and Cross the grace given to persons in Christian marriages, so that their union would signify the union of Christ and His Church. The third paragraph affirms the sacramental character of marriage under the New Law, and notes that because ungodly men have formed false ideas about marriage, introducing “under the pretext of the Gospel” a “carnal liberty” contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church and to “the usage approved since the times of the Apostles” [i.e. the Apostolic Tradition regarding marriage] the bishops of the Council have judged it necessary to destroy these heresies and errors by directing the following anathemas against them:

Canon 1. If anyone says that matrimony is not truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the evangelical law, instituted by Christ the Lord, but has been devised by men in the Church and does not confer grace, let him be anathema.

Can. 2. If anyone says that it is lawful for Christians to have several wives at the same time and that this is not forbidden by any divine law, let him be anathema.

Can. 3. If anyone says that only those degrees of consanguinity and affinity which are expressed in Leviticus can hinder matrimony from being contracted and dissolve it when contracted, and that the Church cannot dispense in some of them or declare that others hinder and dissolve it, let him be anathema.

Can. 4. If anyone says that the Church cannot establish impediments dissolving marriage, or that she has erred in establishing them, let him be anathema.

Can. 5. If anyone says that the bond of matrimony can be dissolved on account of heresy, or irksome cohabitation, or by reason of the voluntary absence of one of the parties, let him be anathema.

Can. 6. If anyone says that matrimony contracted but not consummated is not dissolved by the solemn religious profession of one of the parties, let him be anathema.

Can. 7. If anyone says that the Church errs in that she taught and teaches that in accordance with evangelical and apostolic doctrine the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved by reason of adultery on the part of one of the parties, and that both, or even the innocent party who gave no occasion for adultery, cannot contract another marriage during the lifetime of the other, and that he is guilty of adultery who, having put away the adulteress, shall marry another, and she also who, having put away the adulterer, shall marry another, let him be anathema.

Can. 8. If anyone says that the Church errs when she declares that for many reasons a separation may take place between husband and wife with regard to bed and with regard to cohabitation for a determinate or indeterminate period, let him be anathema.

Can. 9. If anyone says that clerics constituted in sacred orders or regulars who have made solemn profession of chastity can contract marriage, and that the one contracted is valid notwithstanding the ecclesiastical law or the vow, and that the contrary is nothing else than a condemnation of marriage, and that all who feel that they have not the gift of chastity, even though they have made such a vow, can contract marriage, let him be anathema, since God does not refuse that gift to those who ask for it rightly, neither does he suffer us to be tempted above that which we are able.

Can. 10 If anyone says that the married state excels the state of virginity or celibacy, and that it is better and happier to be united in matrimony than to remain in virginity or celibacy, let him be anathema.

Can. 11. If anyone says that the prohibition of the solemnization of marriages at certain times of the year is a tyrannical superstition derived from the superstition of the heathen, or condemns the blessings and other ceremonies which the Church makes use of therein, let him be anathema.

Can. 12. If anyone says that matrimonial causes do not belong to ecclesiastical judges, let him be anathema.

The first canon teaches infallibly that marriage is one of the seven sacraments of the evangelical law, instituted by Christ as a means of [sanctifying] grace. The second canon condemns polygamy. The third canon addresses consanguinity (marriage between relatives). The fourth canon condemns the notion that the Church does not have the authority to determine and establish what are impediments to marriage (i.e. conditions that prevent a marriage from being formed).15 The fifth canon condemns the notion that the marriage bond can be dissolved on account of heresy or “irksome cohabitation,” or desertion. The sixth canon condemns the notion that matrimony that has not been consummated cannot be dissolved by the solemn religious profession of one of the parties.

The seventh and eighth canons are the most relevant to this article. In the seventh canon, the Church infallibly condemns the notion that the Church has erred in her teaching that the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved by adultery, and that both parties, even the innocent party, cannot contract another marriage during the lifetime of the other, and that he is guilty of adultery who, having divorced his wife because she committed adultery, marries another while his spouse still lives. In the eighth canon, the Church condemns the claim that the Church has erred in allowing a separation between husband and wife with respect to bed and cohabitation. In other words, in these two canons the Church affirms both the permissibility of divorce-as-separation (mensa et thoro) and the unconditional indissolubility of the marriage bond until the death of one of the spouses.

The ninth canon condemns the claim that clerics who have made a solemn profession of celibacy can contract marriage or if they attempt to contract marriage, that their vow of celibacy is not an impediment to the formation of a marriage bond. The tenth canon condemns the claim that celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom does not excel the married state. The eleventh canon condemns the notion that it is wrong for the Church to prohibit weddings during certain periods of the liturgical year (e.g. Lent). And the twelfth canon condemns the notion that matrimonial causes (e.g. the administration of questions of marriage, impediments, annulment, divorce, remarriage) do not belong to ecclesiastical judges.

Pope Urban VIII (1623-44)

Also, that the bond of the Sacrament of Matrimony is indissoluble; and that, although a separation tori et cohabitationis can be made between the parties, for adultery, heresy, or other causes, yet it is not lawful for them to contract another marriage.

Profession of Faith which is prescribed for Orientals (i.e. Marionites) (Pope Benedict XIV, 1743)

Likewise, I profess that there are seven sacraments of the New Law instituted by Christ, our Lord, for the salvation of the human race, although not all of them are necessary for each individual: namely, baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders, and matrimony; and (I profess) that these confer grace, and that of these, baptism, confirmation, and orders cannot be repeated without sacrilege. Likewise (I profess) that baptism is necessary for salvation, and hence, if there is imminent danger of death, it should be conferred at once and without delay, and that it is valid if conferred with the right matter and form and intention by anyone, and at any time. Likewise (I profess) that the bond of the sacrament of matrimony is indissoluble, and that, although a separation of bed and board may be possible between the Spouses because of adultery, heresy, and some other causes, nevertheless it is not lawful for them to contract another marriage. (Denzinger, 1470)

Rescript. ad Episc. Agriens., Pope Pius VI, July 11, 1789.

Pope Pius VI was pope from 1775 to 1799. In 1789 he wrote the following:

Hence it is clear that marriage even in the state of nature, and certainly long before it was raised to the dignity of a sacrament, was divinely instituted in such a way that it should carry with it a perpetual and indissoluble bond which cannot therefore be dissolved by any civil law. Therefore although the sacramental element may be absent from a marriage as is the case among unbelievers, still in such a marriage, inasmuch as it is a true marriage there must remain and indeed there does remain that perpetual bond which by divine right is so bound up with matrimony from its first institution that it is not subject to any civil power. And so, whatever marriage is said to be contracted, either it is so contracted that it is really a true marriage, in which case it carries with it that enduring bond which by divine right is inherent in every true marriage; or it is thought to be contracted without that perpetual bond, and in that case there is no marriage, but an illicit union opposed of its very nature to the divine law, which therefore cannot be entered into or maintained.16

Even before Christ raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, in the state of nature marriage was divinely instituted to “carry with it” a perpetual and indissoluble bond. Hence, says Pope Pius VI, any concept of ‘marriage’ in which marriage was thought to be dissoluble by the State would not be a concept of marriage at all, but only a concept of an illicit union. When two unbaptized persons freely offer themselves to each other in a covenant they each intend to be lifelong, exclusive, and fruitful, and each party freely accepts the other’s offer, a true marriage bond is formed. This marriage bond is perpetual by divine law, and the State has not been given any power to dissolve it.

Brief to Charles of Dalberg, Archbishop of Mainz

The decision of lay tribunals and of Catholic assemblies by which the nullity of marriages is chiefly declared, and the dissolution of their bond attempted, can have no strength and absolutely no force in the sight of the Church. . . . Those pastors who would approve these nuptials by their presence and confirm them with their blessing would commit a very grave fault and would betray their sacred ministry. For they should not be called nuptials, but rather adulterous unions. . . . (Denzinger 1600-01)

Mirari Vos (Pope Gregory XVI, 1832)

In 1832, in a document titled Mirari Vos, Pope Gregory XVI wrote:

Now the honorable marriage of Christians, which Paul calls “a great sacrament in Christ and the Church,” (Heb. 13:4) demands our shared concern lest anything contrary to its sanctity and indissolubility is proposed. Our predecessor Pius VIII would recommend to you his own letters on the subject. However, troublesome efforts against this sacrament still continue to be made. The people therefore must be zealously taught that a marriage rightly entered upon cannot be dissolved; for those joined in matrimony God has ordained a perpetual companionship for life and a knot of necessity which cannot be loosed except by death. Recalling that matrimony is a sacrament and therefore subject to the Church, let them consider and observe the laws of the Church concerning it. Let them take care lest for any reason they permit that which is an obstruction to the teachings of the canons and the decrees of the councils. They should be aware that those marriages will have an unhappy end which are entered upon contrary to the discipline of the Church or without God’s favor or because of concupiscence alone, with no thought of the sacrament and of the mysteries signified by it. (Mirari Vos, 12)

Here Pope Gregory XVI teaches in continuity with the Tradition that marriage among Christians, rightly entered upon, cannot be dissolved, because God joins the spouses with a “knot of necessity” that cannot be loosed except by death.

Acerbissimum vobiscum (Pope Pius IX, 1852)

We say nothing about that other decree in which, after completely despising the mystery, dignity, and sanctity of the sacrament of matrimony; after utterly ignoring and distorting its institution and nature; and after completely spurning the power of the Church over the same sacrament, it was proposed, according to the already condemned errors of heretics, and against the teaching of the Catholic Church, that marriage should be considered as a civil contract only, and that divorce, strictly speaking, should be sanctioned in various cases; and that all matrimonial cases should be deferred to lay tribunals and be judged by them; because no Catholic is ignorant or cannot know that matrimony is truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the evangelical law, instituted by Christ the Lord, and that for that reason, there can be no marriage between the faithful without there being at one and the same time a sacrament, and that, therefore, any other union of man and woman among Christians, except the sacramental union, even if contracted under the power of any civil law, is nothing else than a disgraceful and death-bringing concubinage very frequently condemned by the Church, and, hence, that the sacrament can never be separated from the conjugal agreement, and that it pertains absolutely to the power of the Church to discern those things which can pertain in any way to the same matrimony. (Denzinger, 1640)

For Catholics, there can be no marriage between the faithful that is not sacramental. Hence, a merely civil ‘marriage’ between Catholics is not marriage at all, but only “death-bringing concubinage.”

Syllabus of Errors (Pope Pius IX, 1864)

VIII. Errors Concerning Christian Marriage
65. The doctrine that Christ has raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament cannot be at all tolerated. — Apostolic Letter “Ad Apostolicae,” Aug. 22, 1851.

66. The Sacrament of Marriage is only a something accessory to the contract and separate from it, and the sacrament itself consists in the nuptial benediction alone. — Ibid.

67. By the law of nature, the marriage tie is not indissoluble, and in many cases divorce properly so called may be decreed by the civil authority. — Ibid.; Allocution “Acerbissimum,” Sept. 27, 1852.

68. The Church has not the power of establishing diriment impediments of marriage, but such a power belongs to the civil authority by which existing impediments are to be removed. — Damnatio “Multiplices inter,” June 10, 1851.

69. In the dark ages the Church began to establish diriment impediments, not by her own right, but by using a power borrowed from the State. — Apostolic Letter “Ad Apostolicae,” Aug. 22, 1851.

70. The canons of the Council of Trent, which anathematize those who dare to deny to the Church the right of establishing diriment impediments, either are not dogmatic or must be understood as referring to such borrowed power. — Ibid.

71. The form of solemnizing marriage prescribed by the Council of Trent, under pain of nullity, does not bind in cases where the civil law lays down another form, and declares that when this new form is used the marriage shall be valid.

72. Boniface VIII was the first who declared that the vow of chastity taken at ordination renders marriage void. — Ibid.

73. In force of a merely civil contract there may exist between Christians a real marriage, and it is false to say either that the marriage contract between Christians is always a sacrament, or that there is no contract if the sacrament be excluded. — Ibid.; Letter to the King of Sardinia, Sept. 9, 1852; Allocutions “Acerbissimum,” Sept. 27, 1852, “Multis gravibusque,” Dec. 17, 1860.

74. Matrimonial causes and espousals belong by their nature to civil tribunals. — Encyclical “Qui pluribus,” Nov. 9 1846; Damnatio “Multiplices inter,” June 10, 1851, “Ad Apostolicae,” Aug. 22, 1851; Allocution “Acerbissimum,” Sept. 27, 1852.

Arcanum (Pope Leo XIII, 1880)

In February, 1880, Pope Leo XIII promulgated an encyclical titled Arcanum, on the topic of Christian marriage. The document is directly relevant to our topic, and is a rich theological resource concerning the Catholic doctrine of marriage.

Early in the document, Pope Leo writes:

And this union of man and woman, that it might answer more fittingly to the infinite wise counsels of God, even from the beginning manifested chiefly two most excellent properties – deeply sealed, as it were, and signed upon it-namely, unity and perpetuity. From the Gospel we see clearly that this doctrine was declared and openly confirmed by the divine authority of Jesus Christ. He bore witness to the Jews and to His Apostles that marriage, from its institution, should exist between two only, that is, between one man and one woman; that of two they are made, so to say, one flesh; and that the marriage bond is by the will of God so closely and strongly made fast that no man may dissolve it or render it asunder. (Arcanum, 5)

According to Pope Leo, Christ taught that the two most excellent properties of marriage are unity and perpetuity. Christ taught that in Christian marriage, God joins the couple in a bond “so closely and strongly made fast that no man may dissolve it or render it assunder.” Christ is not saying that although man has the power to dissolve the marriage bond, he ought not to do so. Rather, He is saying that man does not have the power to dissolve the marriage bond.

Pope Leo continues, relating the evils that took place after the Fall, as human society deviated from the original divine purpose of marriage, and then showing how Christ restored marriage to its original purpose, in part by proscribing divorce-with-remarriage:

So manifold being the vices and so great the ignominies with which marriage was defiled, an alleviation and a remedy were at length bestowed from on high. Jesus Christ, who restored our human dignity and who perfected the Mosaic law, applied early in His ministry no little solicitude to the question of marriage. He ennobled the marriage in Cana of Galilee by His presence, and made it memorable by the first of the miracles which he wrought; and for this reason, even from that day forth, it seemed as if the beginning of new holiness had been conferred on human marriages. Later on He brought back matrimony to the nobility of its primeval origin by condemning the customs of the Jews in their abuse of the plurality of wives and of the power of giving bills of divorce; and still more by commanding most strictly that no one should dare to dissolve that union which God Himself had sanctioned by a bond perpetual. (Arcanum, 8)

Then he explains that this Catholic understanding of marriage was handed down in the Apostolic Tradition, received and taught by the Church Fathers:

But what was decreed and constituted in respect to marriage by the authority of God has been more fully and more clearly handed down to us, by tradition and the written Word, through the Apostles, those heralds of the laws of God. To the Apostles, indeed, as our masters, are to be referred the doctrines which “our holy Fathers, the Councils, and the Tradition of the Universal Church have always taught,” namely, that Christ our Lord raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament; that to husband and wife, guarded and strengthened by the heavenly grace which His merits gained for them, He gave power to attain holiness in the married state; and that, in a wondrous way, making marriage an example of the mystical union between Himself and His Church, He not only perfected that love which is according to nature, but also made the naturally indivisible union of one man with one woman far more perfect through the bond of heavenly love. … In like manner from the teaching of the Apostles we learn that the unity of marriage and its perpetual indissolubility, the indispensable conditions of its very origin, must, according to the command of Christ, be holy and inviolable without exception. Paul says again: “To them that are married, not I, but the Lord commandeth that the wife depart not from her husband; and if she depart, that she remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.” And again: “A woman is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband die, she is at liberty.” (Arcanum, 9)

According to Pope Leo, the Church received from the Apostles the doctrines that she has always taught, among which are that Christ raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, and “made the naturally indivisible union of one man with one woman more perfect through the bond of heavenly love.” In other words, the very nature of the spousal love proper to humans is to bind oneself to another perpetually. The greater one’s love for the other, the more one wants to bind oneself to the other, for the rest of one’s life, and to the exclusion of all others. That love is a human love; it is proper to human nature, and hence faithful marriage is not uncommonly found among non-Christians. But through the grace that comes to us from Christ through baptism, we receive the supernatural love called agape, and this supernatural love perfects [i.e. elevates] the natural love in Christian marriage, making the Christian marriage not merely a sign of the unity of Christ and His Church, but a certain sort of participation in that divine union, through which the couple receives sanctifying grace. Pope Leo also affirms that the unity and perpetual indissolubility of Christian marriage is something the Church learned from the teaching of the Apostles.

A little later in the document he writes:

Yet, owing to the efforts of the archenemy of mankind, there are persons who, thanklessly casting away so many other blessings of redemption, despise also or utterly ignore the restoration of marriage to its original perfection. It is a reproach to some of the ancients that they showed themselves the enemies of marriage in many ways; but in our own age, much more pernicious is the sin of those who would fain pervert utterly the nature of marriage, perfect though it is, and complete in all its details and parts. The chief reason why they act in this way is because very many, imbued with the maxims of a false philosophy and corrupted in morals, judge nothing so unbearable as submission and obedience; and strive with all their might to bring about that not only individual men, but families, also-indeed, human society itself-may in haughty pride despise the sovereignty of God. (Arcanum, 16)

Here Pope Leo claims that owing to the efforts of Satan many people are rejecting the Catholic doctrine concerning marriage, because in imitation of Satan, they think nothing so unbearable as “submission and obedience.” So they wish to be ‘free’ to act however they wish in matters pertaining to sexuality.

He continues:

Now, since the family and human society at large spring from marriage, these men will on no account allow matrimony to be the subject of the jurisdiction of the Church. Nay, they endeavor to deprive it of all holiness, and so bring it within the contracted sphere of those rights which, having been instituted by man, are ruled and administered by the civil jurisprudence of the community. Wherefore it necessarily follows that they attribute all power over marriage to civil rulers, and allow none whatever to the Church; and, when the Church exercises any such power, they think that she acts either by favor of the civil authority or to its injury. Now is the time, they say, for the heads of the State to vindicate their rights unflinchingly, and to do their best to settle all that relates to marriage according as to them seems good.

Hence are owing civil marriages, commonly so called; ‘hence laws are framed which impose impediments to marriage; hence arise judicial sentences affecting the marriage contract, as to whether or not it have been rightly made. Lastly, all power of prescribing and passing judgment in this class of cases is, as we see, of set purpose denied to the Catholic Church, so that no regard is paid either to her divine power or to her prudent laws. Yet, under these, for so many centuries, have the nations lived on whom the light of civilization shone bright with the wisdom of Christ Jesus. (Arcanum, 17-18)

These men who resist the Church’s teaching on marriage do not want marriage to be subject to the jurisdiction of the Church. So they seek to strip marriage of its holiness. They do this in part by seeking to attribute all power over marriage to civil rulers (i.e. the State), and thus make marriage wholly a matter of civil law. Notice that attributing all power over marriage to civil rulers (rather than the Church) strips marriage of its holiness, reducing it purely to the level of nature. It thereby denies that Christ elevated marriage to the dignity of a sacrament. Because Christ elevated marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, the administration of marriage by baptized persons rightly belongs ultimately to the Church, since the administration of any sacrament belongs to the Church, not the State.

Pope Leo then speaks very strongly against such persons who seek to strip away the holiness of marriage by making it wholly subject to the State. He continues:

Nevertheless, the naturalists, as well as all who profess that they worship above all things the divinity of the State, and strive to disturb whole communities with such wicked doctrines, cannot escape the charge of delusion. Marriage has God for its Author, and was from the very beginning a kind of foreshadowing of the Incarnation of His Son; and therefore there abides in it a something holy and religious; not extraneous, but innate; not derived from men, but implanted by nature. Innocent III, therefore, and Honorius III, our predecessors, affirmed not falsely nor rashly that a sacrament of marriage existed ever amongst the faithful and unbelievers. We call to witness the monuments of antiquity, as also the manners and customs of those people who, being the most civilized, had the greatest knowledge of law and equity. In the minds of all of them it was a fixed and foregone conclusion that, when marriage was thought of, it was thought of as conjoined with religion and holiness. Hence, among those, marriages were commonly celebrated with religious ceremonies, under the authority of pontiffs, and with the ministry of priests. So mighty, even in the souls ignorant of heavenly doctrine, was the force of nature, of the remembrance of their origin, and of the conscience of the human race. As, then, marriage is holy by its own power, in its own nature, and of itself, it ought not to be regulated and administered by the will of civil rulers, but by the divine authority of the Church, which alone in sacred matters professes the office of teaching. (Arcanum, 19)

There is something holy in marriage, even marriage between non-Christians. That is because already in the Garden of Eden, marriage was a foreshadowing of the Incarnation of Christ. Marriage is not merely a biological or social institution; it was divinely instituted as typological in nature, and therefore marriage is not rightly treated as a merely biological and/or merely social institution. Intellectually advanced societies throughout history have recognized the religious dimension of marriage, conjoining it with religious ceremonies and sacredness. And because in this respect marriage is holy in its own nature, and of itself, it ought to be regulated by the divine authority of the Church, and not the State.

He continues:

Next, the dignity of the sacrament must be considered, for through addition of the sacrament the marriages of Christians have become far the noblest of all matrimonial unions. But to decree and ordain concerning the sacrament is, by the will of Christ Himself, so much a part of the power and duty of the Church that it is plainly absurd to maintain that even the very smallest fraction of such power has been transferred to the civil ruler. (Arcanum, 20)

Because Christian marriage is a sacrament, the duty concerning administrating this sacrament belongs to the Church by Christ’s institution, and cannot be handed over to the State.

Lastly should be borne in mind the great weight and crucial test of history, by which it is plainly proved that the legislative and judicial authority of which We are speaking has been freely and constantly used by the Church, even in times when some foolishly suppose the head of the State either to have consented to it or connived at it. It would, for instance, be incredible and altogether absurd to assume that Christ our Lord condemned the long-standing practice of polygamy and divorce by authority delegated to Him by the procurator of the province, or the principal ruler of the Jews. And it would be equally extravagant to think that, when the Apostle Paul taught that divorces and incestuous marriages were not lawful, it was because Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero agreed with him or secretly commanded him so to teach. No man in his senses could ever be persuaded that the Church made so many laws about the holiness and indissolubility of marriage, and the marriages of slaves with the free-born, by power received from Roman emperors, most hostile to the Christian name, whose strongest desire was to destroy by violence and murder the rising Church of Christ. Still less could anyone believe this to be the case, when the law of the Church was sometimes so divergent from the civil law that Ignatius the Martyr, Justin, Athenagoras, and Tertullian publicly denounced as unjust and adulterous certain marriages which had been sanctioned by imperial law. (Arcanum, 21)

Here Pope Leo continues laying out his case that the oversight of marriage belongs to the Church. He explains that when Christ and St. Paul condemned polygamy, incest and divorce, they did not do so through authority delegated to them from the State. Christ did so as God, and St. Paul did so with the divine authority received from Christ. Likewise, in the generations that followed the Apostles, the laws made by the Church concerning marriage were made by that same divine authority, not by authority derived from the State. That is made more evident by the fact that the marital laws made by the Church were in many ways opposed to the lax marital laws of the Roman empire.

Furthermore, after all power had devolved upon the Christian emperors, the supreme pontiffs and bishops assembled in council persisted with the same independence and consciousness of their right in commanding or forbidding in regard to marriage whatever they judged to be profitable or expedient for the time being, however much it might seem to be at variance with the laws of the State. It is well known that, with respect to the impediments arising from the marriage bond, through vow, disparity of worship, blood relationship, certain forms of crime, and from previously plighted troth, many decrees were issued by the rulers of the Church at the Councils of Granada, Arles, Chalcedon, the second of Milevum, and others, which were often widely different from the decrees sanctioned by the laws of the empire. Furthermore, so far were Christian princes from arrogating any power in the matter of Christian marriage that they on the contrary acknowledged and declared that it belonged exclusively in all its fullness to the Church. In fact, Honorius, the younger Theodosius, and Justinian, also, hesitated not to confess that the only power belonging to them in relation to marriage was that of acting as guardians and defenders of the holy canons. If at any time they enacted anything by their edicts concerning impediments of marriage, they voluntarily explained the reason, affirming that they took it upon themselves so to act, by leave and authority of the Church, whose judgment they were wont to appeal to and reverently to accept in all questions that concerned legitimacy and divorce; as also in all those points which in any way have a necessary connection with the marriage bond. The Council of Trent, therefore, had the clearest right to define that it is in the Church’s power “to establish diriment impediments of matrimony,” and that “matrimonial causes pertain to ecclesiastical judges.” (Arcanum, 22)

The Church did not give up her authority to make ecclesiastical laws concerning marriage when the Roman emperor became Christian. The Church continued to make such laws, even when those laws were contrary to the marriage laws of the Roman empire. And this practice and understanding continued unbroken even up through the Council of Trent.

Let no one, then, be deceived by the distinction which some civil jurists have so strongly insisted upon – the distinction, namely, by virtue of which they sever the matrimonial contract from the sacrament, with intent to hand over the contract to the power and will of the rulers of the State, while reserving questions concerning the sacrament of the Church. A distinction, or rather severance, of this kind cannot be approved; for certain it is that in Christian marriage the contract is inseparable from the sacrament, and that, for this reason, the contract cannot be true and legitimate without being a sacrament as well. For Christ our Lord added to marriage the dignity of a sacrament; but marriage is the contract itself, whenever that contract is lawfully concluded.

Marriage, moreover, is a sacrament, because it is a holy sign which gives grace, showing forth an image of the mystical nuptials of Christ with the Church. But the form and image of these nuptials is shown precisely by the very bond of that most close union in which man and woman are bound together in one; which bond is nothing else but the marriage itself. Hence it is clear that among Christians every true marriage is, in itself and by itself, a sacrament; and that nothing can be further from the truth than to say that the sacrament is a certain added ornament, or outward endowment, which can be separated and torn away from the contract at the caprice of man. Neither, therefore, by reasoning can it be shown, nor by any testimony of history be proved, that power over the marriages of Christians has ever lawfully been handed over to the rulers of the State. If, in this matter, the right of anyone else has ever been violated, no one can truly say that it has been violated by the Church. Would that the teaching of the naturalists, besides being full of falsehood and injustice, were not also the fertile source of much detriment and calamity! But it is easy to see at a glance the greatness of the evil which unhallowed marriages have brought, and ever will bring, on the whole of human society.
(Arcanum, 23-24)

Pope Leo here teaches something that seems quite radical to contemporary ears, namely, that for Christian marriages, the jurisdiction over the matrimonial contract cannot be given wholly over to the State, even with the intention of leaving the sacramental aspect of marriage to the Church. That is because for Christian marriages, the marriage is the contract, i.e. the mutual consent between the man and woman to give themselves to each other through the offering of their own lives. The sacramental asepect is not an added “ornament” or “outward endowment.” If the State were to claim jurisdiction over the matrimonial contract between Christians, this would be equivalent to the State claiming jurisdiction over marriage, even if the State were to make no judgment concerning the sacramental quality of the marriage bond. Hence for all Christians, oversight of the marriage contract belongs ultimately to the Church, not the State.

He continues:

But, now, there is a spreading wish to supplant natural and divine law by human law; and hence has begun a gradual extinction of that most excellent ideal of marriage which nature herself had impressed on the soul of man, and sealed, as it were, with her own seal; nay, more, even in Christian marriages this power, productive of so great good, has been weakened by the sinfulness of man. Of what advantage is it if a state can institute nuptials estranged from the Christian religion, which is the mother of all good, cherishing all sublime virtues, quickening and urging us to everything that is the glory of a lofty and generous soul? When the Christian religion is reflected and repudiated, marriage sinks of necessity into the slavery of man’s vicious nature and vile passions, and finds but little protection in the help of natural goodness. A very torrent of evil has flowed from this source, not only into private families, but also into States. For, the salutary fear of God being removed, and there being no longer that refreshment in toil which is nowhere more abounding than in the Christian religion, it very often happens, as indeed is natural, that the mutual services and duties of marriage seem almost unbearable; and thus very many yearn for the loosening of the tie which they believe to be woven by human law and of their own will, whenever incompatibility of temper, or quarrels, or the violation of the marriage vow, or mutual consent, or other reasons induce them to think that it would be well to be set free. Then, if they are hindered by law from carrying out this shameless desire, they contend that the laws are iniquitous, inhuman, and at variance with the rights of free citizens; adding that every effort should be made to repeal such enactments, and to introduce a more humane code sanctioning divorce. …

Truly, it is hardly possible to describe how great are the evils that flow from divorce. Matrimonial contracts are by it made variable; mutual kindness is weakened; deplorable inducements to unfaithfulness are supplied; harm is done to the education and training of children; occasion is afforded for the breaking up of homes; the seeds of dissension are sown among families; the dignity of womanhood is lessened and brought low, and women run the risk of being deserted after having ministered to the pleasures of men. Since, then, nothing has such power to lay waste families and destroy the mainstay of kingdoms as the corruption of morals, it is easily seen that divorces are in the highest degree hostile to the prosperity of families and States, springing as they do from the depraved morals of the people, and, as experience shows us, opening out a way to every kind of evil-doing in public and in private life.

Further still, if the matter be duly pondered, we shall clearly see these evils to be the more especially dangerous, because, divorce once being tolerated, there will be no restraint powerful enough to keep it within the bounds marked out or presurmised. Great indeed is the force of example, and even greater still the might of passion. With such incitements it must needs follow that the eagerness for divorce, daily spreading by devious ways, will seize upon the minds of many like a virulent contagious disease, or like a flood of water bursting through every barrier. (Arcanum, 27, 29-30)

Pope Leo was prophetically wise, foreseeing that as Christianity is repudiated, marriage “sinks of necessity into the slavery of man’s vicious nature and vile passions,” as men and women by repeatedly violating the marriage bond, produce a social mentality in which many young people no longer have any intention to marry. He describes the magnitude of the evils that flow from a society’s permission of divorce, and shows that repeated, widespread public violations of the marriage institution change the cultural perceptions and expectations surrounding marriage, and in this way damage the marriage institution in that society. The more couples expect marriages to ‘fail’ eventually, and believe in the dissolubility of marriage, the less incentive they have to pursue marriage. They come to see marriage as a restriction on their freedom, rather than as a free expression of the highest form of love, in which each spouse irrevocably binds himself/herself to the other through a vow of perpetual and exclusive self-giving.

Attempts by members of a Christian marriage to remarry another person, while both spouses are living, fall under the following paragraph:

In like manner, all ought to understand clearly that, if there be any union of a man and a woman among the faithful of Christ which is not a sacrament, such union has not the force and nature of a proper marriage; that, although contracted in accordance with the laws of the State, it cannot be more than a rite or custom introduced by the civil law. Further, the civil law can deal with and decide those matters alone which in the civil order spring from marriage, and which cannot possibly exist, as is evident, unless there be a true and lawful cause of them, that is to say, the nuptial bond.

In the great confusion of opinions, however, which day by day is spreading more and more widely, it should further be known that no power can dissolve the bond of Christian marriage whenever this has been ratified and consummated; and that, of a consequence, those husbands and wives are guilty of a manifest crime who plan, for whatever reason, to be united in a second marriage before the first one has been ended by death. When, indeed, matters have come to such a pitch that it seems impossible for them to live together any longer, then the Church allows them to live apart, and strives at the same time to soften the evils of this separation by such remedies and helps as are suited to their condition; yet she never ceases to endeavor to bring about a reconciliation, and never despairs of doing so. (Arcanum, 40-41)

Here Pope Leo teaches that if there is any non-sacramental union between a Christian man and a Christian woman (i.e. a baptized man and a baptized woman), this union is not marriage, even if it is treated as a marriage by the State. If, for example, in a Christian marriage, the husband commits adultery, and the two are divorced under the laws of the State, and then the wife attempts to marry another man, and this new union is treated by the State as a marriage, nevertheless, teaches Pope Leo, this new union is not a marriage at all. It remains an adulterous union. According to Pope Leo, the State has no power to dissolve the bond of Christian marriage. Therefore, the Christian husband or wife who, for whatever reason is united in a second marriage while the first spouse still lives, is guilty of a “manifest crime” [of adultery]. If there comes to be a situation in which it is impossible for them to live together, the Church may allow that kind of separation, but the marriage bond remains, and hence the Church never ceases to endeavor to bring about reconciliation, so long as the spouses live. The Church cannot sunder the marriage bond between two Christians, if that marriage has been consummated.

Casti Connubii (Pope Pius XI, 1930)

In December of 1930, fifty years after Pope Leo XIII promulgated the encyclical Arcanum discussed just above, Pope Pius XI promulgated Casti Connubii, again on the subject of Christian marriage. In this document he explains that because marriage was instituted by God, and raised to the dignity of a sacrament by Christ, the Church has proper jurisdiction over Christian marriages:

[L]et it be repeated as an immutable and inviolable fundamental doctrine that matrimony was not instituted or restored by man but by God; not by man were the laws made to strengthen and confirm and elevate it but by God, the Author of nature, and by Christ Our Lord by Whom nature was redeemed, and hence these laws cannot be subject to any human decrees or to any contrary pact even of the spouses themselves. This is the doctrine of Holy Scripture; this is the constant tradition of the Universal Church; this the solemn definition of the sacred Council of Trent, which declares and establishes from the words of Holy Writ itself that God is the Author of the perpetual stability of the marriage bond, its unity and its firmness. (Casti Connubii, 5)

Concerning the nature of the marital bond, he writes:

By matrimony, therefore, the souls of the contracting parties are joined and knit together more directly and more intimately than are their bodies, and that not by any passing affection of sense of spirit, but by a deliberate and firm act of the will; and from this union of souls by God’s decree, a sacred and inviolable bond arises. Hence the nature of this contract, which is proper and peculiar to it alone, makes it entirely different both from the union of animals entered into by the blind instinct of nature alone in which neither reason nor free will plays a part, and also from the haphazard unions of men, which are far removed from all true and honorable unions of will and enjoy none of the rights of family life. (Casti Connubii, 7)

The souls of the couple are knitted together by the bond of matrimony, even more so than are their bodies. This union is effected by an act of the will by both the bride and groom, in which they freely give themselves to each other for life. When a baptized bride and a baptized groom freely offer to give themselves irrevocably to the other, and each freely accepts this offer from the other, God effects a sacred and inviolable bond between the couple that remains until one of them dies.

Later in the document, Pope Pius XI, drawing from St. Augustine, explains the meaning of the sacramentality of Christian marriage with regard to its indissolubility and its being a means of sanctifying grace. He writes:

But this accumulation of benefits is completed and, as it were, crowned by that blessing of Christian marriage which in the words of St. Augustine we have called the sacrament, by which is denoted both the indissolubility of the bond and the raising and hallowing of the contract by Christ Himself, whereby He made it an efficacious sign of grace.

In the first place Christ Himself lays stress on the indissolubility and firmness of the marriage bond when He says: “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder,” and: “Everyone that putteth away his wife and marrieth another committeth adultery, and he that marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.”

And St. Augustine clearly places what he calls the blessing of matrimony in this indissolubility when he says: “In the sacrament it is provided that the marriage bond should not be broken, and that a husband or wife, if separated, should not be joined to another even for the sake of offspring.”

And this inviolable stability, although not in the same perfect measure in every case, belongs to every true marriage, for the word of the Lord: “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder,” must of necessity include all true marriages without exception, since it was spoken of the marriage of our first parents, the prototype of every future marriage. Therefore although before Christ the sublimeness and the severity of the primeval law was so tempered that Moses permitted to the chosen people of God on account of the hardness of their hearts that a bill of divorce might be given in certain circumstances, nevertheless, Christ, by virtue of His supreme legislative power, recalled this concession of greater liberty and restored the primeval law in its integrity by those words which must never be forgotten, “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” Wherefore, Our predecessor Pius VI of happy memory, writing to the Bishop of Agria, most wisely said: “Hence it is clear that marriage even in the state of nature, and certainly long before it was raised to the dignity of a sacrament, was divinely instituted in such a way that it should carry with it a perpetual and indissoluble bond which cannot therefore be dissolved by any civil law. Therefore although the sacramental element may be absent from a marriage as is the case among unbelievers, still in such a marriage, inasmuch as it is a true marriage there must remain and indeed there does remain that perpetual bond which by divine right is so bound up with matrimony from its first institution that it is not subject to any civil power. And so, whatever marriage is said to be contracted, either it is so contracted that it is really a true marriage, in which case it carries with it that enduring bond which by divine right is inherent in every true marriage; or it is thought to be contracted without that perpetual bond, and in that case there is no marriage, but an illicit union opposed of its very nature to the divine law, which therefore cannot be entered into or maintained.” (Casti Cannubii, 31-34)

Here Pope Pius reaffirms the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of the marriage bond. This was the “primeval law” given to our first parents. But by the time of Moses, the people had become so benighted that Moses permitted the Hebrews to give a bill of divorce. Christ, by His divine authority, restored the primeval law concerning marriage and its indissolubility. And this applies to all marriages, whether between baptized persons or unbaptized persons. The only two exceptions are the Pauline privilege and the Petrine privilege, discussed below. Concerning these two privileges, Pope Pius XI writes:

And if this stability seems to be open to exception, however rare the exception may be, as in the case of certain natural marriages between unbelievers, or amongst Christians in the case of those marriages which though valid have not been consummated, that exception does not depend on the will of men nor on that of any merely human power, but on divine law, of which the only guardian and interpreter is the Church of Christ. However, not even this power can ever affect for any cause whatsoever a Christian marriage which is valid and has been consummated, for as it is plain that here the marriage contract has its full completion, so, by the will of God, there is also the greatest firmness and indissolubility which may not be destroyed by any human authority. (Casti Connubii, 35. )

Why then, did Christ re-establish the indissolubility of marriage? According to Pope Pius XI, Christ’s purpose in restoring the indissolubility of marriage is to signify the indissolubility of His union with His Church.

If we wish with all reverence to inquire into the intimate reason of this divine decree, Venerable Brethren, we shall easily see it in the mystical signification of Christian marriage which is fully and perfectly verified in consummated marriage between Christians. (Casti Connubii, 36)

But, Christ’s restoration of the original law concerning marriage has practical benefits for families and societies. Pope Pius describes these benefits, writing:

Indeed, how many and how important are the benefits which flow from the indissolubility of matrimony cannot escape anyone who gives even a brief consideration either to the good of the married parties and the offspring or to the welfare of human society. First of all, both husband and wife possess a positive guarantee of the endurance of this stability which that generous yielding of their persons and the intimate fellowship of their hearts by their nature strongly require, since true love never falls away. Besides, a strong bulwark is set up in defense of a loyal chastity against incitements to infidelity, should any be encountered either from within or from without; any anxious fear lest in adversity or old age the other spouse would prove unfaithful is precluded and in its place there reigns a calm sense of security. Moreover, the dignity of both man and wife is maintained and mutual aid is most satisfactorily assured, while through the indissoluble bond, always enduring, the spouses are warned continuously that not for the sake of perishable things nor that they may serve their passions, but that they may procure one for the other high and lasting good have they entered into the nuptial partnership, to be dissolved only by death. In the training and education of children, which must extend over a period of many years, it plays a great part, since the grave and long enduring burdens of this office are best borne by the united efforts of the parents. Nor do lesser benefits accrue to human society as a whole. For experience has taught that unassailable stability in matrimony is a fruitful source of virtuous life and of habits of integrity. Where this order of things obtains, the happiness and well being of the nation is safely guarded; what the families and individuals are, so also is the State, for a body is determined by its parts. Wherefore, both for the private good of husband, wife and children, as likewise for the public good of human society, they indeed deserve well who strenuously defend the inviolable stability of matrimony. (Casti Connubii, 37)

The indissolubility of marriage provides both spouses with a positive guarantee of the endurance of the marriage, until one spouse dies. And this provides stability to the marriage and the family. When couples enter into marriage knowing its indissolubility, they do so in accordance with true love, writes Pope Pius, since true love never falls away. The very indissolubility of marriage known as such by the contracting parties teaches them what true love is, and beckons them to true love, not to the selfishness which joins another only while the experience is pleasant or gratifying. The indissolubility of marriage, known as such by the couple, fortifies the couple to endure through hardships, because each spouse knows that so long as the other spouse lives, leaving and marrying someone else is not an option. And this provides stability to the marriage, to the family, and hence gives greater security to the children to be raised by both their parents in marital unity. And these benefits to families and children in turn lead to greater health and stability of societies constituted by these families. And for Christians, the indissolubility of marriage also teaches them existentially the nature of Christ’s patient and unconditional love for His Church.

What “train of evils” falls upon a society if it makes divorce [civilly] legal?

To revert again to the expression of Our predecessor, it is hardly necessary to point out what an amount of good is involved in the absolute indissolubility of wedlock and what a train of evils follows upon divorce. Whenever the marriage bond remains intact, then we find marriages contracted with a sense of safety and security, while, when separations are considered and the dangers of divorce are present, the marriage contract itself becomes insecure, or at least gives ground for anxiety and surprises. On the one hand we see a wonderful strengthening of goodwill and cooperation in the daily life of husband and wife, while, on the other, both of these are miserably weakened by the presence of a facility for divorce. Here we have at a very opportune moment a source of help by which both parties are enabled to preserve their purity and loyalty; there we find harmful inducements to unfaithfulness. On this side we find the birth of children and their tuition and upbringing effectively promoted, many avenues of discord closed amongst families and relations, and the beginnings of rivalry and jealousy easily suppressed; on that, very great obstacles to the birth and rearing of children and their education, and many occasions of quarrels, and seeds of jealousy sown everywhere. Finally, but especially, the dignity and position of women in civil and domestic society is reinstated by the former; while by the latter it is shamefully lowered and the danger is incurred “of their being considered outcasts, slaves of the lust of men. … [O]nce divorce has been allowed, there will be no sufficient means of keeping it in check within any definite bounds. Great is the force of example, greater still that of lust; and with such incitements it cannot but happen that divorce and its consequent setting loose of the passions should spread daily and attack the souls of many like a contagious disease or a river bursting its banks and flooding the land.” (Casti Connubii, 90-91)

According to Pope Pius XI, if a society gives civil permission to divorce-and-remarriage-while-one’s-spouse-remains-alive, over time this will unleash a flood of evils, because there will be nothing to check fallen man’s indulgence in the primary temptation to divorce, namely, “the power of unbridled lust, which indeed is the most potent cause of sinning against the sacred laws of matrimony.”17 When a husband finds himself sexually attracted to another woman, nothing will prevent him from divorcing his spouse and ‘remarrying.’ But when this becomes the social conception of marriage, as something lasting only so long as both spouses encounter no other person toward whom they experience more sexual attraction than they do at that time toward their spouse, then at the marriage ceremony what is entered into is no longer marriage, which essentially involves an intention of lifelong commitment, but illicit sexual unions for mutual convenience lasting only so long as the romantic feeling remains, or at least remains stronger than it does toward a third party. And when ‘marriage’ comes to be viewed that way in a society, that social situation can be only temporary because when a farce becomes recognized as such by all, there is no more social incentive even to go through the farce. More specifically, when ‘marriage’ and the ‘marriage vows’ become known by all to be a meaningless or hypocritical farce, then young people especially come to recognize that simply foregoing marriage altogether, and engaging in unions of convenience, is more honest and emotionally safe. When that happens, marriage as a social institution is lost, and the result within a society is the complete breakdown of the family as an institution, i.e. the extinction of the family. And without families, children are not properly formed, loved, disciplined, educated or prepared to enter into society. The loss of the family is the loss of society. And this is the Pandora’s box opened by the civil sanction of divorce.

What is the source of the notion that civil divorce is morally and theologically acceptable? According to Pope Pius XI, it lies both in the atheistic/deistic notion that marriage was not instituted by God, and in the [Protestant] denial of the Catholic doctrine that Christ raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament:

To begin at the very source of these evils, their basic principle lies in this, that matrimony is repeatedly declared to be not instituted by the Author of nature nor raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a true sacrament, but invented by man. (Casti Connubii, 49)

When marriage comes to be conceived as though it were merely a civil affair such as a legal contract between business partners, it then comes to be conceived as something invented by man, and therefore subject to redefining by man. In this respect, what historically and theologically lies behind the contemporary effort to redefine marriage is the denial of the sacramentality of marriage. Pope Pius describes how this denial is at the root of the attempt to redefine marriage so as to allow divorce with remarriage while one’s spouse remains alive, and summarizes the arguments of those who propose that the State can and should make marriage dissoluble:

And now considering that the third blessing, which is that of the sacrament, far surpasses the other two, we should not be surprised to find that this, because of its outstanding excellence, is much more sharply attacked by the same people. They put forward in the first place that matrimony belongs entirely to the profane and purely civil sphere, that it is not to be committed to the religious society, the Church of Christ, but to civil society alone. They then add that the marriage contract is to be freed from any indissoluble bond, and that separation and divorce are not only to be tolerated but sanctioned by the law; from which it follows finally that, robbed of all its holiness, matrimony should be enumerated amongst the secular and civil institutions. …

The advocates of the neo-paganism of today have learned nothing from the sad state of affairs, but instead, day by day, more and more vehemently, they continue by legislation to attack the indissolubility of the marriage bond, proclaiming that the lawfulness of divorce must be recognized, and that the antiquated laws should give place to a new and more humane legislation. Many and varied are the grounds put forward for divorce, some arising from the wickedness and the guilt of the persons concerned, others arising from the circumstances of the case; the former they describe as subjective, the latter as objective; in a word, whatever might make married life hard or unpleasant. They strive to prove their contentions regarding these grounds for the divorce legislation they would bring about, by various arguments. Thus, in the first place, they maintain that it is for the good of either party that the one who is innocent should have the right to separate from the guilty, or that the guilty should be withdrawn from a union which is unpleasing to him and against his will. In the second place, they argue, the good of the child demands this, for either it will be deprived of a proper education or the natural fruits of it, and will too easily be affected by the discords and shortcomings of the parents, and drawn from the path of virtue. And thirdly the common good of society requires that these marriages should be completely dissolved, which are now incapable of producing their natural results, and that legal reparations should be allowed when crimes are to be feared as the result of the common habitation and intercourse of the parties. This last, they say must be admitted to avoid the crimes being committed purposely with a view to obtaining the desired sentence of divorce for which the judge can legally loose the marriage bond, as also to prevent people from coming before the courts when it is obvious from the state of the case that they are lying and perjuring themselves, – all of which brings the court and the lawful authority into contempt. Hence the civil laws, in their opinion, have to be reformed to meet these new requirements, to suit the changes of the times and the changes in men’s opinions, civil institutions and customs. Each of these reasons is considered by them as conclusive, so that all taken together offer a clear proof of the necessity of granting divorce in certain cases.

Others, taking a step further, simply state that marriage, being a private contract, is, like other private contracts, to be left to the consent and good pleasure of both parties, and so can be dissolved for any reason whatsoever. (Casti Connubii, 79, 85-86)

Pope Pius then explains what is wrong with those arguments:

Opposed to all these reckless opinions, Venerable Brethren, stands the unalterable law of God, fully confirmed by Christ, a law that can never be deprived of its force by the decrees of men, the ideas of a people or the will of any legislator: “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” And if any man, acting contrary to this law, shall have put asunder, his action is null and void, and the consequence remains, as Christ Himself has explicitly confirmed: “Everyone that putteth away his wife and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.” Moreover, these words refer to every kind of marriage, even that which is natural and legitimate only; for, as has already been observed, that indissolubility by which the loosening of the bond is once and for all removed from the whim of the parties and from every secular power, is a property of every true marriage.

Let that solemn pronouncement of the Council of Trent be recalled to mind in which, under the stigma of anathema, it condemned these errors: “If anyone should say that on account of heresy or the hardships of cohabitation or a deliberate abuse of one party by the other the marriage tie may be loosened, let him be anathema;” and again: “If anyone should say that the Church errs in having taught or in teaching that, according to the teaching of the Gospel and the Apostles, the bond of marriage cannot be loosed because of the sin of adultery of either party; or that neither party, even though he be innocent, having given no cause for the sin of adultery, can contract another marriage during the lifetime of the other; and that he commits adultery who marries another after putting away his adulterous wife, and likewise that she commits adultery who puts away her husband and marries another: let him be anathema.”

If therefore the Church has not erred and does not err in teaching this, and consequently it is certain that the bond of marriage cannot be loosed even on account of the sin of adultery, it is evident that all the other weaker excuses that can be, and are usually brought forward, are of no value whatsoever. And the objections brought against the firmness of the marriage bond are easily answered. For, in certain circumstances, imperfect separation of the parties is allowed, the bond not being severed. This separation, which the Church herself permits, and expressly mentions in her Canon Law in those canons which deal with the separation of the parties as to marital relationship and co-habitation, removes all the alleged inconveniences and dangers. It will be for the sacred law and, to some extent, also the civil law, in so far as civil matters are affected, to lay down the grounds, the conditions, the method and precautions to be taken in a case of this kind in order to safeguard the education of the children and the well-being of the family, and to remove all those evils which threaten the married persons, the children and the State. Now all those arguments that are brought forward to prove the indissolubility of the marriage tie, arguments which have already been touched upon, can equally be applied to excluding not only the necessity of divorce, but even the power to grant it; while for all the advantages that can be put forward for the former, there can be adduced as many disadvantages and evils which are a formidable menace to the whole of human society. (Casti Connubii, 87-89)

Pope Pius explains that what the Church teaches concerning the indissolubility of marriage is a divine law, instituted by Christ, and therefore unalterable by men, or by the Church. It applies to marriages between unbaptized persons as well as sacramental marriages.18 As the Council of Trent taught, not even heresy or hardships of cohabitation or even deliberate abuse of one party by the other can dissolve the marriage bond. Therefore none of the reasons offered by those who advocate the dissolubility of marriage are of any value, because those reasons are even weaker excuses than the ones address by the Council of Trent. Rather, those weaker reasons allow only, at most, a separation of the parties as to conjugal relations and co-habitation (divorce a mensa et thoro, i.e. ‘bed and board’).

One response to the Church’s dogma concerning the indissolubility of marriage is to think, as the disciples seemed to think, that if marriage is indissoluble, then it is too difficult a vocation, and that it is therefore better not to marry.19 If man is no less hard-hearted now than under Moses, then why shouldn’t contemporary man no less than the ancient Hebrews need Moses’s concession to divorce? The answer is that for all mankind, Christ has not only restored the original indissolubility of marriage as God instituted it in the Garden, but has also raised matrimony to the dignity of a New Covenant sacrament. When two baptized persons marry, or when two married but unbaptized persons both receive baptism, the marriage becomes, by that very fact and by the New Covenant sacramental economy Christ established through His Passion and Death on the cross, a sacrament.20 It thereby becomes a marriage “in the Lord.” The sacrament of marriage remains even when one or both spouses commit adultery, as the soul of a baptized person does not by apostasy lose the sacrament of faith (i.e. baptism), so as to need rebaptism upon return to the faith.21 Only death breaks the sacramental bond. But marriage under the New Covenant is not only a sign of Christ’s union with the Church. Marriage itself, through baptism, has been made an efficacious means of a unique internal grace in both spouses. This sacramental grace “perfects natural love, it confirms an indissoluble union, and sanctifies both man and wife.”22 Hence under the New Covenant Christ has not left man without a means of grace by which he can faithfully fulfill his marital duties, and uphold the original design of marriage as indissoluble. Pope Pius XI describes the grace received through the sacrament of marriage, explaining that when a baptized man and a baptized woman marry, they

open up for themselves a treasure of sacramental grace from which they draw supernatural power for the fulfilling of their rights and duties faithfully, holily, perseveringly even unto death. Hence this sacrament not only increases sanctifying grace, the permanent principle of the supernatural life, in those who, as the expression is, place no obstacle (obex) in its way, but also adds particular gifts, dispositions, seeds of grace, by elevating and perfecting the natural powers. By these gifts the parties are assisted not only in understanding, but in knowing intimately, in adhering to firmly, in willing effectively, and in successfully putting into practice, those things which pertain to the marriage state, its aims and duties, giving them in fine right to the actual assistance of grace, whensoever they need it for fulfilling the duties of their state.23

By this grace, they can, if they avail themselves of it, fulfill their marital duties.24 The grace provided through the sacrament of marriage fortifies couples to be faithful and endure difficulties and temptations. It softens hearts, and is precisely why in the New Covenant we do not need the allowance for divorce granted by Moses under the Old Covenant on account of the hardness of their hearts. In this respect Protestant sacramentology implies that the New Covenant is no greater than the Old Covenant, because, for example, in most Protestant sacramentology baptism accomplishes no more in the believer than circumcision did in the Old Covenant.25 Similarly, in most Protestant sacramentology the Supper is no greater than is the Passover meal or the manna from heaven, because intrinsically the Supper accomplishes nothing more than did they, and the New Covenant people are not expected to be more sanctified through it than were the faithful of the Old Covenant through eating the manna or the Passover meal. One could even say justifiably that in Protestant sacramentology, the Supper is lower than its Old Covenant type because the manna in the desert at least had a supernatural origin, while the bread in the Protestant Supper remains ordinary bread with a natural origin. Likewise, the Protestant notion that marriage is not sacramental, and that divorce-with-remarriage is permitted in the New Covenant, makes marriage under the New Covenant no greater than marriage under Moses. And this notion that the New Covenant is effectively no greater than the Old Covenant is a form of the error of the Galatian Judaizers. It is why St. Ambrose said “Anyone saying that one is free to marry a wife that has been put away is not a Christian; he is a Jew.” (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 8)26

Allocution to the Sacred Roman Rota (Pope Pius XII, 1940)

The seal of indissolubility is visibly stamped in the unity of the conjugal bond. Indeed it is a bond to which nature tends, but one which is not necessarily caused by the principles of nature, being instead brought about by the exercise of free will. But the mere will of the contracting parties, though it can form the bond, cannot dissolve it. This holds not only for Christian nuptials but for every valid marriage contracted on earth through the mutual consent of the partners ….

But if the will of the spouses having contracted the matrimonial bond cannot dissolve it, can the authority which is above them established by Christ for the religious life of man do so? The bond of Christian marriage is so strong that if it has reached full stability by the use of conjugal rights, no power on earth, not even our own, that is, that of the Vicar of Christ, is able to dissolve it. It is true that we may perceive and declare that a marriage contracted as a valid one was in reality void owing to some impediment or an essential flaw in consent or a substantial defect in form. We can also in certain cases and for serious reasons dissolve marriages not having a sacramental character. We can even dissolve the bonds of a Christian marriage, rescind the “yes” pronounced before the altar, if there is a just and proportionate cause, when it has been established that the marriage has not been brought to completion through realization of matrimonial cohabitation. But once that has taken place no human agency may interfere with the bond. For has not Christ led the matrimonial common life back to the fundamental dignity which the Creator had given it at the dawn of the human race in paradise, to the inviolable dignity of marriage, one and indissoluble. (Allocution to the Sacred Roman Rota)

Here Pope Pius XII teaches that the will of the contracting parties (i.e. the husband and wife) cannot dissolve the marriage bond, and that this is true not only for Christian marriages but for every valid marriage contracted through the mutual consent of the man and the woman. With regard to marriage, the Church has a greater authority than does the couple. And so for non-sacramental marriages and for Christian marriages that have not been consummated, the Church has authority to dissolve those marriages under only two conditions (see the Pauline privilege and the Petrine privilege, discussed below). But in the case of a valid and consummated marriage between two baptized persons, the Church has no authority or power to dissolve such a marriage, for Christ has restored to marriage its “inviolable dignity,” as “one and indissoluble.”

Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes, 1965)

The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent. Hence by that human act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other a relationship arises which by divine will and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one. For the good of the spouses and their off-springs as well as of society, the existence of the sacred bond no longer depends on human decisions alone. For, God Himself is the author of matrimony, endowed as it is with various benefits and purposes. All of these have a very decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family, and on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole. By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown. Thus a man and a woman, who by their compact of conjugal love “are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matt. 19:ff), render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions. Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them. (Gaudium et Spes, 48)

The mutual gift of two persons to each other, in the matrimonial union having as its purpose the procreation and education of children, by its very nature imposes upon the spouses total fidelity, and argues for an unbreakable oneness between them. The love required for entering this union is not that of mere expediency or contingency. It requires a total gift of self in which each irrevocably bonds himself/herself to the other until death.

Familiaris Consortio (1981)

Conjugal communion is characterized not only by its unity but also by its indissolubility: “As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union, as well as the good of children, imposes total fidelity on the spouses and argues for an unbreakable oneness between them.”

It is a fundamental duty of the Church to reaffirm strongly, as the Synod Fathers did, the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage. To all those who, in our times, consider it too difficult, or indeed impossible, to be bound to one person for the whole of life, and to those caught up in a culture that rejects the indissolubility of marriage and openly mocks the commitment of spouses to fidelity, it is necessary to reconfirm the good news of the definitive nature of that conjugal love that has in Christ its foundation and strength. (Familiaris Consortio, 20)

IV. The Porneia Clause

Recall that when we considered above the New Testament passages on marriage, we delayed our interpretation of two passages in particular, until we had examined the Church Fathers. We did this in order to approach Scripture within the Tradition, and as informed by the Tradition, rather than attempting to approach Scripture apart from the Tradition and then use our in vacuo interpretation as the standard against which to judge the teaching of the Church Fathers. The two passages in question are Matthew 5:31-32, and Matthew 19:3-9:

It was also said, “Whoever divorces [ἀπολύσῃ] his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except for the reason of fornication [παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας], makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (St. Matthew 5:31-32)

And Pharisees came up to Him and tested Him by asking, “Is there any cause for which it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered, “Have you not read that He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for fornication [μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ] and marries another commits adultery. (St. Matthew 19:3-9)

Some persons in recent times have proposed that in these two porneia clauses Jesus is referring to cases in which a person has attempted an illicit marriage, such as when a person attempts to marry a close relative. Because consanguinity is an impediment to marriage, then in such a case no marriage has been formed.27 Hence, according to these persons, the porneia clauses mean that when the incest is discovered, the other person may be put away (i.e. divorced), because there has been no marriage at all. And then both persons may marry someone else. (I say ‘marry’ rather than ‘remarry’ because in such a case it is not a remarriage, since the original union was not a marriage.) But, that interpretation of these porneia clauses is not what we find in the Church Fathers. When the Church Fathers discuss these verses, they unanimously take them to be referring to cases of actual marriage.

But even given that these passages are referring to actually married couples, there still remains a critical interpretive question. Do these two exception clauses refer to conditions under which it is both possible and permissible to sever the marriage bond and remarry while the other spouse lives, or do these two exception clauses refer to conditions under which it is only permissible for one spouse to separate from the other with respect to marital relations and cohabitation, the indissoluble marriage bond remaining until one spouse dies? The moral consensus among the Church Fathers, as shown above, is that in these two exception clauses Jesus is referring not to a condition under which the marriage bond may be severed, but only to the condition under which the couple may be separated, the marriage bond itself being indissoluble until death. Hence Haydock says:

A divorce or separation as to bed and board, may be permitted for some weighty causes in Christian marriages; but even then, he that marrieth her that is dismissed, commits adultery. As to this, there is no exception. The bond of marriage is perpetual; and what God hath joined, no power on earth can separate. (Haydock, Commentary on Matthew 5.)

And Ludwig Ott adds:

The so-called fornication clause (μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ), which in a somewhat different form is found in Mt. 5:32, also (παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας), but which does not appear in the parallel passages Mark 10:11, and Luke 16:18, does not, according to the context, imply an exception to the law of indissolubility: for it was Jesus’ intention to restore the original order, which did not know divorce, and to set up His new commandment in conscious antithesis to the lax Law of Moses (cf. Mt. 5:31 et seq.). Unless one wishes to destroy the antithesis and create a contradiction between St. Matthew on the one side and SS. Mark and Luke (such as 1 Cor. 7:10 et seq.) on the other side, one must either understand the clause in the traditional excluding sense, according to which it indeed permits, by way of exception, the putting away of the woman, but not subsequent re-marrying, that is, the so-called separation from bed and board, or in the including sense, according to which an exception from the prohibition of divorce is not laid down, but that the ground for divorce provided for in Deut. 24:1 (‘erwath dabar == something infamous) is drawn into the prohibition of divorce. (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 463-464.)

Ott shows that given Jesus’s purpose in restoring the original order with respect to marriage, the porneia clauses must either be taken in the traditional sense as giving the occasion under which a separation from bed and board is permitted, or as meaning that even in the case of adultery, divorce in the sense of dissolving the marriage bond is not permitted.

The patristic evidence convinced Anglican Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham that the porneia clauses in the Gospels should be understood as allowing only separation, not remarriage with a third party while one’s spouse remains alive. He writes:

Furthermore historians find it impossible to imagine how the early church could have come to this view, if Jesus had not forbidden divorce and remarriage to his disciples. Jews and Romans allowed divorce followed by remarriage in some circumstances. If Jesus did too, how on earth could the whole church throughout the Roman empire, within a few decades of the gospels being written, have come to the opposite conclusion? The practice of divorce and remarriage is not an erudite theological doctrine that mattered only to theologians: it potentially affected every Christian family in the church. Surely if earlier church practice had been more liberal allowing divorce and remarriage, somebody would have protested and said, ‘This is not what the apostles taught us’? But whereas there were furious controversies about some other doctrines, there is total unanimity among early Greek writers on the prohibition or remarriage after divorce. (“Jesus and Divorce: Did He permit it?“)

The universal belief among the early Christians that divorce-with-remarriage is not allowed can be explained in no other way than that it came from the Apostles themselves, and thus from Christ Himself. Concerning this patristic testimony, and the importance of interpreting Scripture within the Tradition handed down by the Church Fathers, Wenham writes in another article:

Modern Protestants have by and large forgotten that their forefathers, the magisterial reformers, placed great store by the interpretations of the early church. Postenlightenment scholarship has developed a great hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to reading the church fathers: the automatic assumption is that they have distorted the primitive gospel and its associated practices into a corrupt Frühkatholismus (early Catholicism). This was not the reformers’ view, nor of course that of the early Christian writers themselves. They believed in an essential continuity between the witness of the early church and the teaching of the New Testament. …

Among Greek-speaking fathers both pre- and post-Constantine there is total unanimity. Among the earlier group Hermas, Justin, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, all explicitly condemn remarriage after divorce or clearly presuppose this view. The Constantinian settlement, which made Christianity the official religion of the empire, might have encouraged Christian writers to identify imperial legal practice. which permitted divorce and remarriage, with Christian values, but there is no sign of that happening. Later Greek theologians such as Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, Apollinarius, Theodore of Mopsuestia and John Chrysostom all maintain the traditional Christian position that the Gospels do not permit remarriage after divorce. They regard the exception clause as authorizing or requiring separation, not permitting remarriage afterwards. That this interpretation was the way native Greek speakers understood our Lord’s teaching surely indicates that it is the most natural interpretation.

The evidence of the Latin fathers is equally impressive. It is also carefully and exhaustively analysed by Crouzel. Among those who condemn remarriage after divorce are Tertullian, Ambrose, Innocent, Pelagius, Jerome, and Augustine. There is only one dissenting voice in the West, who cannot be identified, but, because he was once identified with Ambrose, is known as Ambrosiaster. (“Does the New Testament Approve Remarriage After Divorce?“)28

If Jesus were saying that adultery dissolved the marriage bond, He would be contradicting His appeal to the original divine intention for marriage to justify rescinding the Mosaic permission of divorce. Christ’s teaching on marriage would be merely a continuation of that of Moses. Moreover, if one spouse wished to marry someone else, he would have an incentive to incite his spouse to commit adultery in order to provide a legitimate justification for severing the marriage bond to ‘free’ him to marry a third party while his spouse still lived. This is why killing one’s own spouse in order to marry someone else invalidates the attempt to enter into a new marriage:

Can. 1090 §1. Anyone who with a view to entering marriage with a certain person has brought about the death of that person’s spouse or of one’s own spouse invalidly attempts this marriage. (Can. 1090)

The moral consensus of the Church Fathers laid out above shows that these two porneia clauses should be understood as allowing separation as to bed and board, but not a severing of the marriage bond. And this matches the Catholic doctrine taught infallibly at the Council of Trent concerning the indissolubility of marriage. In the Church’s present canon law, only divorce understood as separation of bed and board is allowed either for adultery (Can. 1152) or “grave mental or physical danger to the other spouse” (Can. 1153).29

V. Objections to the Sacramentality and Indissolubility of Marriage

Objection 1: If marriage is a sacrament and thus a means of grace, then why do some Catholic marriages fail, such that the spouses end up living separately?

This is a more specific form of a broader objection, namely, if the sacraments are truly means of sanctifying grace, then why are many Catholics not holy people, even though they receive these sacraments? I have addressed that broader question in comment #22 of Tom’s “Sacramental Graces and Practical Apostasy” post. There I wrote the following:

The Seventh Session of the Council of Trent provides three relevant canons which must be taken together to be rightly understood:

Canon 6. If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify, or that they do not confer that grace on those who place no obstacles in its way, as though they were only outward signs of grace or justice received through faith and certain marks of Christian profession, whereby among men believers are distinguished from unbelievers, let him be anathema.

Canon 7. If anyone says that grace, so far as God’s part is concerned, is not imparted through the sacraments always and to all men even if they receive them rightly, but only sometimes and to some persons, let him be anathema.

Canon 8. If anyone says that by the sacraments of the New Law grace is not conferred ex opere operato, but that faith alone in the divine promise is sufficient to obtain grace, let him be anathema.

Some Protestants (and probably some Catholics) mistakenly conceive of ex opere operato as though the recipient necessarily receives grace by receiving the sacrament. In other words, they think that what is said in Canon 8 is incompatible with the the qualification “on those who place no obstacles in its way” in Canon 6. But that is a misunderstanding of of the meaning of ex opere operato. Ex opere operato does not entail that every recipient of the sacrament receives grace. It means that grace is always given in the sacrament, by an objective efficacy of the sacrament, as a genuine instrumental cause by divine ordination; but the grace that is given can be resisted or blocked, by the recipient who places an obstacle in the way.

The qualification “on those who place no obstacles in its way” had been previously taught by Pope Eugenius IV in his Decree for the Armenians in 1439, who explains that the sacraments contain grace and confer grace upon those who receive them worthily (i.e. do not place an obstacle in its way). (See Denzinger 695).

This general truth regarding the efficacy of the sacraments and the way in which we can place obstacles in the way of the sacrament that prevent us from receiving sanctifying grace applies also to the sacrament of marriage. Success in the marriage relationship is not guaranteed by both spouses being baptized, and thus by the marriage being sacramental. Married couples must strive to fulfill their marital duties, and in doing so, they will find the grace needed to fulfill those duties. Pope Pius XI explains:

[S]omething more is needed in addition to the education of the mind, namely a steadfast determination of the will, on the part of husband and wife, to observe the sacred laws of God and of nature in regard to marriage. … Yet in order that the grace of this sacrament may produce its full fruit, there is need, as we have already pointed out, of the cooperation of the married parties; which consists in their striving to fulfill their duties to the best of their ability and with unwearied effort. For just as in the natural order men must apply the powers given them by God with their own toil and diligence that these may exercise their full vigor, failing which, no profit is gained, so also men must diligently and unceasingly use the powers given them by the grace which is laid up in the soul by this sacrament. Let not, then, those who are joined in matrimony neglect the grace of the sacrament which is in them;[84] for, in applying themselves to the careful observance, however laborious, of their duties they will find the power of that grace becoming more effectual as time goes on. (Casti Connubii, 110-111)

Under the New Coveanant the promise for baptized married couples is that the grace they need to fulfill their marital duties faithfully is available to them through the sacrament of marriage, though they must diligently strive to make use of that grace. Those who do not strive to make use of the grace available to them, or who despair concerning the effort required to fulfill the duties of marriage, are not provided any divine guarantee of success. The grace one receives in the sacrament not only depends on not placing obstaces to the sacraments, but also on the disposition of the recipients of the sacraments. The greater the charity of the person receiving the sacrament, the greater the grace received through the sacrament. But those in a state of mortal sin (i.e. not in a state of grace) must first avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation. While in a state of mortal sin, one cannot grow in the grace needed for fulfilling marital duties. Hence the regular reception of the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance will aid a couple in the grace they receive through the sacrament of marriage.

Objection 2: What about validly married Catholics who subsequently obtain from the State a civil divorce, and then obtain from the State a civil ‘remarriage’ with a third party? Isn’t that the same as divorce?

When Catholic spouses seek a civil divorce from the State, and then, while their spouse is still living, enter into a civil ‘marriage’ with someone other than their spouse, they are in actuality entering into an adulterous relationship. The civil ‘divorce’ they have obtained from the State does not dissolve the marriage bond (because the State has no authority to dissolve the marriage bond). And under the New Covenant it is impossible to be validly married to two or more persons at the same time. Therefore, when two validly married persons enter into a civil ‘marriage’ with a third person after obtaining a civil divorce from the spouse to whom they are validly married, they are in fact entering into a State-sanctioned adulterous relationship with someone who is not their actual spouse. This adulterious relationship is a grave sin, and therefore such persons are not to receive the Eucharist until they are no longer in an adulterous relationship. That some Catholics knowingly live in adulterous relationships is in no way a justification for rejecting what the Tradition teaches concerning the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage.

Objection 3: What about annulments? Aren’t annulments just another form of divorce?

An annulment is not a divorce. An annulment does not break or sever any marriage bond. An annulment is a judgment by the Church that the requisite conditions for the formation of the marriage bond were never satisfied, and thus that the couple is not yet married. For example, if one of the parties did not consent freely but only under coercion, or if one of the parties intended something other than a lifelong union, or intended never to have children, then no marital union was formed. The Catechism states:

The [matrimonial] consent must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free of coercion or grave external fear. No human power can substitute for this consent. If this freedom is lacking the marriage is invalid. For this reason (or for other reasons that render the marriage null and void) the Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage, i.e., that the marriage never existed. In this case the contracting parties are free to marry, provided the natural obligations of a previous union are discharged. (CCC 1628-29)

Colin Donovan explains:

An annulment, properly called a Decree of Nullity, is a finding by a Church tribunal that on the day vows were exchanged at least some essential element for a valid marriage was lacking, such as, one of the parties did not intend lifelong fidelity to the other person or excluded children entirely. Another example would be that one of the parties was incapable of marriage (due to some constitutional weakness, such as mental illness or some psychological condition that prevented making the marital commitment – gross immaturity, homosexuality, etc.).

None of these conditions are assumed they must be proven. A Decree of Nullity does not dissolve the marriage, it cannot. It is a reasoned judgement that one never existed, and as such is capable of human error. If the tribunal is fastidious to Church law and theology and the couple and their witnesses are honest, the decision can be followed in good-faith, including a new marriage. If someone is abusing the process through deceit, however, it would be a very grave sin for that person. A person who innocently enters a second marriage would not be guilty of sin, but the person who abused the process to fraudulently obtain a decree in order to remarry would commit adultery by remarrying. (Annulment/Decree of Nullity)

Some Protestants misunderstand the Catholic teaching concerning annulment, thinking it to be the Church’s claim to have the power to dissolve a valid marriage. But that is not what an annulment is. The Church has the authority to dissolve a valid marriage in only two cases; see the paragraph below on the Pauline and Petrine privileges. The Church has no authority to dissolve a consummated sacramental marriage. Co-habitation or having children together or having joint bank accounts or even being ‘married’ in the eyes of the State do not make a couple to be truly married, if the necessary conditions for the forming of the marriage bond were never present (i.e. being available to be married, not being within the prohibited degree of consanguinity, giving free consent, having a lifelong intention, being open to children, etc.).

There have been abuses of the annulment process, both by the persons seeking an annulment and by members of the Church tribunals that decide annulment cases. But the old principle applies: abusus usum non tollit (abuse does not take away proper use). The fact that the annulment process has been abused in no way justifies revising the doctrine of marriage so as to treat marriage as dissoluble, or to reject the Church’s teaching rooted in Tradition concerning the sacramental character of Christian marriage. A decree of nullity cannot dissolve a sacramental marriage, nor is it an infallible decree. It does not change the ontological status of the couple; rather, it changes their status in relation to Church law (i.e. canon law), but divine law still applies.

For example, a husband who is validly married, and who then lies in his application for an annulment, and receives a decree of nullity based on that lie, would be committing adultery if he then ‘remarried,’ even though this adultery would be invisible from the point of view of canon law. But if a man or woman applying for an annulment believes that at least one of the requisite conditions for a valid marriage was not satisfied, and the Church tribunal determines that the requisite conditions for a valid marriage were not present, both parties can in good conscience believe that they have never been married, not only from the point of view of canon law, but also before God. And in such a case therefore they are each free either to remain single, to marry each other or to marry third parties, since they have not yet been married.

Objection 4: The doctrine that marriage is a sacrament is not in Scripture.

The primary Protestant objection to the Catholic teaching that marriage is a New Covenant sacrament is that no explicit statement that marriage is a sacrament can be found in the New Testament. Hence Martin Luther wrote:

We have said that in every sacrament there is a word of divine promise, to be believed by whoever receives the sign, and that the sign alone cannot be a sacrament. Nowhere do we read that the man who marries a wife receives any grace of God. There is not even a divinely instituted sign in marriage, nor do we read anywhere that marriage was instituted by God to be a sign of anything. To be sure, whatever takes place in a visible manner can be understood as a figure or allegory of something invisible. But figures or allegories are not sacraments, in the sense in which we use the term.”30

And because Luther did not find the sacramentality of marriage made explicit in the New Testament, he concluded that marriage is not a sacrament, and therefore should not be under the jurisdiction of the Church, but under that of the State:

Know therefore that marriage is an outward, bodily thing, like any other worldly undertaking.31

[M]arriage is outside the church, is a civil matter, and therefore should belong to the government.32

Similarly, John Calvin followed Luther in this same line of reasoning. Concerning marriage Calvin wrote:

Lastly, there is matrimony, which all admit was instituted by God, though no one before the time of (Pope) Gregory VII (AD 1073-1085) regarded it as a sacrament. And what sober man could so regard it? Marriage is a good and holy ordinance; so also are farming, building, shoemaking, hair-cutting legitimate ordinances of God, but they are not sacraments. For it is required that a sacrament be not only a work of God but an outward ceremony apointed by God to confirm a promise. Even children can discern that there is no such thing in matrimony.”33

He, like many Protestants after him, mistakenly inferred from the fact that the Church Fathers refer to many sacred rites (in addition to the seven sacraments) as ‘sacraments’ to the conclusion that the doctrine of sacramental marriage in the New Covenant is a Scholastic novelty. This inference is mistaken because it treats as a novelty what was in actuality an organic development. The Church was never unaware that marriage is a sacrament, but over time the Church came to a greater precision by conceptually and semantically distinguishing between the sacraments Christ had established in the New Covenant, and what are now called sacramentals.34

For Calvin, ‘refuting’ the Catholic doctrine that marriage is a sacrament was relatively easy (covering only a few pages in his Institutes), because one of his criteria for being a sacrament was an explicit statement in Scripture to that effect. He treated the Catholic case for the sacramentality of marriage as though it depended mostly on Scripture, and then showed that Scripture does not explicitly show that marriage is sacrament, at least not as Calvin himself had defined ‘sacrament.’

The fundamental mistake here, by Luther, Calvin and the other early Protestants, was not recognizing that the Apostolic Tradition was handed down not only in written form but also in the speech, training, liturgy, practice and life of each generation of the Church. The early Protestants generally assumed that the entirety of the Apostolic deposit was either contained explicitly in the Scripture, or was logically demonstrable from what was explicitly stated in Scripture. That assumption is itself neither contained explicitly in Scripture nor logically demonstrable from what is explicitly stated in Scripture. So according to its own criterion it is at best a man-made tradition. But Scripture can be rightly interpreted and understood only in the context of the Tradition within which it was transmitted. Apart from that Tradition, many things contained implicitly in Scripture are veiled, though in the light of that Tradition, they can be seen in Scripture. I have written about the Catholic understanding of the relation between Scripture and Tradition in the section titled “Scripture and Tradition” in my dialogue with Michael Horton.

In surveying that Patristic evidence regarding marriage, we find marriage elevated to something sacred and indissoluble, not, as Luther depicted it, a merely secular thing subject to dissolution by the State. Even at the end of the first century St. Ignatius of Antioch says the following regarding couples who wished to marry:

But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust.35

Already for Christians at the end of the first century, the Church, not the State, had ultimate jurisdiction over marriage, indicating as well that for Christians marriage was not a merely secular affair, but a sacred institution, in which husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church, and not reduce them to objects of lust or use. And in the early patristic evidence surveyed above, we see a continual difference between the Catholic conception of marriage with its attending ecclesial laws concerning the indissolubility of marriage, and the Roman civil laws concerning marriage, which allowed divorce and remarriage. The basis for that difference was not a mere stipulation by Christ or the Apostles concerning what may or may not be done by married couples, but a change in the very conception of marriage, as something elevated by Christ to represent explicitly in every family and to the whole world the union of Christ and His Church.

This understanding by the whole Church that marriage is a sacrament is the reason why the Eastern Orthodox also maintain marriage as one of the seven sacraments in the New Covenant. That marriage is a sacrament was never a point of contention between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church in the repeated attempts at reconciliation. And the Coptic Church, which separated from the Catholic Church in the fifth century after the Council of Chalcedon, also maintains that there are seven sacraments, and that marriage is a sacrament. The thesis that the notion that marriage is a sacrament is a Scholastic novelty of the Latin Church does not fit with these pieces of evidence. These pieces of evidence indicate that insofar as there was theological development during the Scholastic era with respect to the sacramental character of marriage, it was in organic continuity with the Tradition that had been received everywhere.

In addition, belief in seven sacraments, including the sacramentality of marriage, was both universal and explicit in the Catholic Church for four centuries prior to the rise of Protestantism. Whenever there is universal belief in a doctrine by the Church, this indicates that it has an Apostolic origin, either explicit or implicit. Tertullian explains:

Grant, then, that all have erred; that the apostle was mistaken in giving his testimony; that the Holy Ghost had no such respect to any one (church) as to lead it into truth, although sent with this view by Christ, John 14:26 and for this asked of the Father that He might be the teacher of truth; John 15:26 grant, also, that He, the Steward of God, the Vicar of Christ, neglected His office, permitting the churches for a time to understand differently, (and) to believe differently, what He Himself was preaching by the apostles—is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone astray into one and the same faith? No casualty distributed among many men issues in one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues. When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition. Can any one, then, be reckless enough to say that they were in error who handed on the tradition? (Prescription Against Heretics, 28)

And St. Augustine likewise writes:

Whatever is held by the whole Church, and was not introduced by any council, but has always been maintained, is rightly held to rest on the authority of the Apostles. (On Baptism, IV. 24)

The catholicity of the Church is itself part of the Tradition. See sections III and IV in the article titled “The Commonitory of St. Vincent of Lérins.” There are multiple aspects and implications of catholicity. Not only does catholicity mean that the Apostolic teaching goes out into every tribe, tongue, and nation; it also implies what is stated in the quotations just cited from Tertullian and St. Augustine, as well as by St. Vincent of Lérins, namely, that what has been accepted by the whole Church is “rightly held to rest on the authority of the Apostles.” And hence according to this criterion, not only the indissolubility of marriage but also its sacramentality, belongs to the Apostolic Tradition.

The sacramental nature of Christian marriage can be seen in St. Paul’s statement: “This is a great sacrament [mystery]; but I speak in Christ and in the church.”36 In the Church Fathers we find an awareness that what has been revealed by Christ is not only the mystery of the union of Christ and His Church, but the significance of marriage as a type of that mystery, and therefore elevated to a higher standard than what Moses allowed. In this way sacramental marriage as sacramental (rather than as merely natural) is also a divinely revealed mystery (i.e. sacramentum), along with baptism and the Eucharist and the other sacraments Christ instituted in the New Covenant. Jesus raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament not only by showing it to signify His union with His Church, but by making it a means of grace, such that the Mosaic concession concerning divorce could be rescinded, and Christian marriages could rightly signify the union of Christ and His Church through their manifest love, fidelity, perpetuity and indissolubility.

Objection 5: The notion that marriage is a sacrament presupposes that the sexual act is intrinsically sinful.

One mistaken notion among some Protestants is that the Catholic Church’s teaching that marriage is a sacrament is based on an assumption that the sexual act is intrinsically sinful, and therefore that God had to give grace through marriage in order to forgive married couples for the sin of lust during the sexual act. There is simply no truth to this notion. The sexual act is good; it is not a sin. Nor does being in sacramental marriage grant one forgiveness for any sin, including that of lust.37 The purpose of this sacrament, as well as that of the sacrament of Holy Orders, is grace for the service of others. The Catholic Catechism explains:

Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist are sacraments of Christian initiation. They ground the common vocation of all Christ’s disciples, a vocation to holiness and to the mission of evangelizing the world. They confer the graces needed for the life according to the Spirit during this life as pilgrims on the march towards the homeland. Two other sacraments, Holy Orders and Matrimony, are directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God. Through these sacraments those already consecrated by Baptism and Confirmation for the common priesthood of all the faithful can receive particular consecrations. Those who receive the sacrament of Holy Orders are consecrated in Christ’s name “to feed the Church by the word and grace of God.” On their part, “Christian spouses are fortified and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and dignity of their state by a special sacrament. (CCC 1533-35)

Objection 6: God would never give us something too difficult to bear. But the prohibition of divorce-with-remarriage while one’s spouse remains alive would be too difficult. Therefore, God must not have prohibited divorce-with-remarriage while one’s spouse remains alive.

For Martin Luther, not only adultery but also desertion and or irksome cohabitation were a sufficient ground for divorce-with-remarriage. Calvin, like Luther, believed that adultery justified divorce with remarriage to a third party. For Calvin, Jesus’ condemnation of remarriage as adultery applied only to “unlawful and frivolous divorces.” Regarding Jesus’s statement in Mark 10:11, “And whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery,” Calvin writes:

This clause has been very ill explained by many commentators; for they have thought that generally, and without exception, celibacy is enjoined in all cases when a divorce has taken place; and, therefore, if a husband should put away an adulteress, both would be laid under the necessity of remaining unmarried. As if this liberty of divorce meant only not to lie with his wife; and as if Christ did not evidently grant permission in this case to do what the Jews were wont indiscriminately to do at their pleasure. It was therefore a gross error; for, though Christ condemns as an adulterer the man who shall marry a wife that has been divorced, this is undoubtedly restricted to unlawful and frivolous divorces.38

Even though Jesus does not say that His prohibition on marrying a divorced person applies only to those divorces that were unlawful or frivolous, Calvin feels free to weaken Jesus’s prohibition by adding that qualifier. And in his “Ecclesiastical Ordinances” adopted by the Little and Large Councils of 1561, Calvin allowed three grounds (besides adultery) for divorce and remarriage: impotence, extreme religious incompatibility, and abandonment.39

The primary factor in Luther and Calvin’s reasoning concerning the permissibility of remarriage to a third party after divorce, is that God would not have given us something too difficult to bear. And because Jews were allowed to remarry after divorce, it couldn’t be that persons under the New Covenant would have less liberty than did the Jews under the Old Covenant. But notice that there are two assumptions at work in that line of reasoning. One is that the grace given under the New Covenant is not greater than that given to the Jews under the Old Covenant. I discussed this above at the end of my survey of Casti Connubii, where I pointed out the way in which this assumption is the error of the Galatian Judaizers. If under the Old Covenant there was not sufficient grace given to reconcile divorced couples, then, according to this assumption, there is not sufficient grace given to reconcile divorced couples under the New Covenant, and thus they too must be free to remarry third parties. But, in fact, whatever Christ requires of us, He provides the grace for us to accomplish. And in removing the Mosaic exception for divorce-with-remarriage, Christ has provided the grace by which our hearts are softened, and divorced couples are capable of remaining continent until their reconciliation. So the premise that God will never give us something too difficult to bear is true; the mistake in this objection is assuming that Christ has not provided mankind with additional grace under the New Covenant to remain continent when separated from one’s spouse in bed and board, until reconciliation or death, whichever comes first.

The second assumption in this line of reasoning is that freedom is fundamentally the power to choose between alternatives, not the power to choose virtuously. (See “Lawrence Feingold on Freedom of the Will.”) When more grace is given, so that we are empowered to do what is right, then our liberty is increased in the sense that we are more easily able to choose virtuously, even if some or many immoral options are closed off to us. So by giving us more grace under the New Covenant, our liberty has been increased, even though the exception Moses gave to the Jews has been removed by Christ.

Objection 7: If an unconsummated sacramental marriage is a marriage, and marriage is indissoluble then either the Petrine Privilege contradicts the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage, or sacramental marriage is not truly indissoluble. Otherwise, an unconsummated relationship is not yet a marriage, in which case Joseph and Mary were not truly married.

A contracted and consummated marriage between two baptized persons is absolutely indissoluble, since not only the State, but also the Church has no authority to dissolve it. But even non-sacramental marriages (i.e. marriage between two unbaptized persons, or between one unbaptized person and one baptized person) cannot be dissolved by any civil law or civil power. Such marriages are not absolutely indissoluble, however; there are two (and only two) cases in which such marriages can be dissolved. These cases are referred to as the Pauline privilege and the Petrine privilege. The Pauline privilege derives from 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. There, St. Paul writes:

But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Cor. 7:12-16)

The Pauline privilege is the Church’s authorization to dissolve a marriage contracted and even consummated between two unbaptized persons if one party of the marriage subsequently is baptized, and the other party refuses to continue to live with him or her peacefully in the married state. So the objection raises a preliminary question: If valid but non-sacramental marriages are intrinsically indissoluble, then how can there be such a thing as the Pauline privilege? The answer to this question involves an implication of the distinction between nature and grace. In the Supplement of St. Thomas’s Summa Theologica, in answer to the question “Whether there can be marriage between unbelievers?” we read:

Marriage was instituted chiefly for the good of the offspring, not only as to its begetting–since this can be effected even without marriage–but also as to its advancement to a perfect state, because everything intends naturally to bring its effect to perfection. Now a twofold perfection is to be considered in the offspring. One is the perfection of nature, not only as regards the body but also as regards the soul, by those means which are of the natural law. The other is the perfection of grace: and the former perfection is material and imperfect in relation to the latter. Consequently, since those things which are for the sake of the end are proportionate to the end, the marriage that tends to the first perfection is imperfect and material in comparison with that which tends to the second perfection. And since the first perfection can be common to unbelievers and believers, while the second belongs only to believers, it follows that between unbelievers there is marriage indeed, but not perfected by its ultimate perfection as there is between believers. (Summa Theologica Supp. Q.59 a.2.)

The natural end of marriage can be pursued by two unbaptized persons, and hence unbaptized persons can be married. But, if two unbaptized persons enter into marriage, and subsequently only one spouse receives baptism, the immediate result is a disparity of cult in which the couple is “unequally yoked.”40 In choosing to be baptized, he or she has, for God’s sake, at the same time freely rejected marriage-directed-only-to-a-natural-end. For the baptized spouse the marriage (as everything else he or she does) is now directed also but primarily to a supernatural end, while for the unbaptized spouse the marriage remains directed only to its natural end. Because grace does not destroy nature, the baptism of the one spouse does not remove the other spouse’s freedom to consent (or refuse consent) to union ordered to a supernatural end. If the unbaptized spouse consents (either by choosing to be baptized, or by being willing at least to live in peace with the baptized spouse and not prevent the education of the children in the faith), then the baptized spouse must not divorce him. But if he does not consent, then God dissolves the marriage for the good of the faith, and Church law considers the marriage to be dissolved when the believing spouse remarries. In sum, by the one spouse’s elevation to grace through baptism and the refusal of the other spouse to be baptized, the marriage has become one of disparity of cult, to which neither party freely consented when they initially exchanged vows. So the non-sacramental marriage is indissoluble in itself, but is dissoluble in relation to something higher than itself, namely, the authority of God for the good of the faith and the respect of the free consent of both parties to enter (or not enter) a marriage ordered by grace to man’s supernatural end.41

The Petrine privilege is the Church’s authorization to dissolve a marriage contracted but not yet consummated between (a) a baptized person and an unbaptized person, or (b) two baptized persons if one of the parties discerns a religious vocation (i.e. to become a monk or nun).42 Concerning this privilege canon law reads:

Can. 1142: For a just cause, the Roman Pontiff can dissolve a non-consummated marriage between baptized persons or between a baptized party and a non-baptized party at the request of both parties or of one of them, even if the other party is unwilling. (Can. 1142)

This brings us to the dilemma raised by the objection. If an unconsummated sacramental marriage is a marriage, and marriage is indissoluble how can it be dissolved by the Petrine Privilege? But if an unconsummated relationship is not yet a marriage, then how is it that Joseph and Mary were truly married?

St. Thomas addresses the question “Whether there was a true marriage between Mary and Joseph?” in his Summa Theologica, writing:

Marriage or wedlock is said to be true by reason of its attaining its perfection. Now perfection of anything is twofold; first, and second. The first perfection of a thing consists in its very form, from which it receives its species; while the second perfection of a thing consists in its operation, by which in some way a thing attains its end. Now the form of matrimony consists in a certain inseparable union of souls, by which husband and wife are pledged by a bond of mutual affection that cannot be sundered. And the end of matrimony is the begetting and upbringing of children: the first of which is attained by conjugal intercourse; the second by the other duties of husband and wife, by which they help one another in rearing their offspring.

Thus we may say, as to the first perfection, that the marriage of the Virgin Mother of God and Joseph was absolutely true: because both consented to the nuptial bond, but not expressly to the bond of the flesh, save on the condition that it was pleasing to God. For this reason the angel calls Mary the wife of Joseph, saying to him (Matthew 1:20): “Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife”: on which words Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): “She is called his wife from the first promise of her espousals, whom he had not known nor ever was to know by carnal intercourse.”

But as to the second perfection which is attained by the marriage act, if this be referred to carnal intercourse, by which children are begotten; thus this marriage was not consummated. Wherefore Ambrose says on Luke 1:26-27: “Be not surprised that Scripture calls Mary a wife. The fact of her marriage is declared, not to insinuate the loss of virginity, but to witness to the reality of the union.” Nevertheless, this marriage had the second perfection, as to upbringing of the child. Thus Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): “All the nuptial blessings are fulfilled in the marriage of Christ’s parents, offspring, faith and sacrament. The offspring we know to have been the Lord Jesus; faith, for there was no adultery: sacrament, since there was no divorce. Carnal intercourse alone there was none.”43

Here he explains that there are two perfections to a thing. The first perfection consists in its very essence, and the second perfection consists in its operation. Marriage in its essence is formed by the mutual giving and receiving of each party to the other irrevocably in order to live a covenant of faithful and fruitful love. The essence of marriage makes possible its second perfection, namely its operation, the begetting and raising of children. And the first act in the begetting and raising of children is the conjugal act by which the marriage is consummated.44 For this reason, even though Mary remained perpetually a virgin, she and Joseph were truly married.

Why then, is a consummated sacramental marriage absolutely indissoluble, while an unconsummated sacramental marriage is not absolutely indissoluble? Pope Pius XI explains why a consummated sacramental marriage is absolutely indissoluble:

If we wish with all reverence to inquire into the intimate reason of this divine decree, Venerable Brethren, we shall easily see it in the mystical signification of Christian marriage which is fully and perfectly verified in consummated marriage between Christians. For, as the Apostle says in his Epistle to the Ephesians, the marriage of Christians recalls that most perfect union which exists between Christ and the Church: “Sacramentum hoc magnum est, ego autem dico, in Christo et in ecclesia;” which union, as long as Christ shall live and the Church through Him, can never be dissolved by any separation. And this St. Augustine clearly declares in these words: “This is safeguarded in Christ and the Church, which, living with Christ who lives for ever may never be divorced from Him. The observance of this sacrament is such in the City of God . . . that is, in the Church of Christ, that when for the sake of begetting children, women marry or are taken to wife, it is wrong to leave a wife that is sterile in order to take another by whom children may be hand. (Casti Connubii, 36)

The absolute indissolubility of sacramental marriage is based in the absolute indissolubility of the union of Christ with His Church. The divine law concerning marriage is based, in other words on a Christological and ecclesiological truth entailing the utter falsehood of ecclesial deism. In the Supplement to St. Thomas’s Summa Theologica, in answer to the question “Whether before the marriage has been consummated one consort can enter religion without the other’s consent?” we read the following:

Before marital intercourse there is only a spiritual bond between husband and wife, but afterwards there is a carnal bond between them. Wherefore, just as after marital intercourse marriage is dissolved by carnal death, so by entering religion the bond which exists before the consummation of the marriage is dissolved, because religious life is a kind of spiritual death, whereby a man dies to the world and lives to God.

Before consummation marriage signifies the union of Christ with the soul by grace, which is dissolved by a contrary spiritual disposition, namely mortal sin. But after consummation it signifies the union of Christ with the Church, as regards the assumption of human nature into the unity of person, which union is altogether indissoluble.

Before consummation the body of one consort is not absolutely delivered into the power of the other, but conditionally, provided neither consort meanwhile seek the fruit of a better life. But by marital intercourse the aforesaid delivery is completed, because then each of them enters into bodily possession of the power transferred to him.45

The conjugal act is not only an operation following upon marriage, but is and effects an additional union, namely, the one flesh union of the spouses. After the marriage has been ratified but prior to its consummation, the couple are truly married, but the marriage is only a spiritual union, having been formed by their mutual free acts of the will, through which their hearts are joined. At that point, their marital unity is not yet a bodily union, because they have not yet become one flesh. Hence at that point the sacramental signification of their marriage is imperfect, because it does not yet reflect the incarnation [enfleshment] of Christ and His one flesh union with His Bride, the Church. The ratified but unconsummated marriage signifies the spiritual union of Christ with the soul by grace. But this union can be lost through mortal sin. Hence even a sacramental marriage in that stage (i.e. prior to consummation) is not absolutely indissoluble. By contrast, the one flesh union of Christ with His Bride and mystical Body, the Church, is absolutely indissoluble. Consummation of a sacramental marriage makes that marriage absolutely indissoluble because in a sacramental marriage the conjugal act signifies the irrevocable one-flesh union of Christ and His Church. Once the signification of the sacrament of matrimony is perfected through its consummation, the marriage thereby becomes absolutely indissoluble.46 This is why treating consummated sacramental marriages as though they are dissoluble is a typological denial of the indissolubility of the union of Christ with His Church, and with His human nature; it is a denial of Christ’s faithfulness and love for His Church. It is the error of ecclesial deism.

VI. Implications

The traditional patristic understanding of the indissolubility of marriage and divorce as separation in bed and board has many implications, both for understanding Scripture and for the reunion of Protestants and the Catholic Church. Once we understand that when Jesus says “whoever divorces [ἀπολύσῃ] …,” He is referring to a separation of bed and board, then we understand why it is true that “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt. 5:32) If by ‘divorce’ He were referring to a dissolution of the marriage bond, it would not make sense that to marry a divorced person is to commit adultery.47

But if the Tradition is right concerning the absolute indissolubility of sacramental marriage, then Protestantism need to recover this doctrine and revise its theology of marriage. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith claims the following concerning divorce and remarriage:

In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocence party to sue out a divorce, and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills and discretion in their own case. (WCF Chap. XXIV para. 5-6)

This notion that adultery allows for divorce with remarriage is contrary to the Tradition found in the moral consensus of the Church Fathers.

In 2009, when Neal and I argued that sola scriptura reduces to solo scriptura, one response we received is that the Reformed faith is not biblicism, because it recognizes the authority of tradition, even though it treats tradition as subordinate in authority to Scripture. One of our points had been that when a person picks his ecclesial leaders on the basis of their agreement with his own interpretation of Scripture, he has adopted only the appearance of being under their authority, because the ground for their ‘authority’ entails that he himself retains ultimate ecclesial authority. Similarly, however, when what gets to count as Tradition is only what agrees with one’s interpretation of Scripture, then Tradition is not acting as an authority, but only as a convenient accouterment to Scripture for supporting one’s own interpretation and ideology.

The Reformed faith represents itself as being in greater agreement with the Apostolic tradition than is the Catholic Church. But unless one holds some form of ecclesial deism, the claim to be in agreement with the Apostolic Tradition can be true only if one’s theology is in agreement with the consensus of the early Church Fathers. Otherwise the claim is a vacuous claim, because if one were in fact not in agreement with the Apostolic Tradition, the patristic data and one’s relation to it would be just the same.

How do we find the Apostolic tradition in the Church Fathers? Whenever the Church Fathers provide us with a moral consensus on a particular question, we can know that this belongs to the Apostolic Tradition.48 To reject the moral consensus of the Church Fathers is to undermine the very claim to be faithful to the Tradition. That is in part because rejecting the moral consensus of the Church Fathers is exactly what it would look like to reject absolutely the authority of Tradition.

This is why, for example, the Reformed rejection of the unanimous patristic consensus concerning baptismal regeneration is problematic for the Reformed claim to be faithful to the Tradition. But as our study above shows, the Church Fathers provide a moral consensus concerning the indissolubility of marriage. So just as in the case of baptismal regeneration, the Reformed (and Protestant) rejection of the moral consensus in the Church Fathers concerning the indissolubility of marriage between baptized persons is equally problematic, because it calls into question the Reformed claim to be following the early Church Tradition allegedly abandoned by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, and exposes Reformed confessionalism for the biblicism that it actually is. In addition, this deviation from the patristic teaching on this subject calls into question the correctness of the Protestant notion that marriage is not a sacrament. That is, if as I have shown, we cannot trust the Reformed claim that the dissolubility of Christian marriage is in keeping with the Apostolic Tradition known and practiced by the early Church, then the Reformed denial of the sacramentality of marriage is likewise called into question. The sacramentality of marriage is what grounds and guards its absolute indissolubility; rejecting the sacramentality of marriage opens the door to denying the absolute indissolubility of Christian marriage. As John Witte points out, “Because they [i.e. the early Protestants] rejected the sacramental concept of marriage as an eternal enduring bond, the reformers introduced divorce in the modern sense, on grounds of adultery, desertion, cruelty, or frigidity, with a subsequent right to remarry at least for the innocent party.”49

The second difficulty for the Reformed position with respect to marriage is that it is ad hoc. The Reformed tradition holds that in important respects the Catholic Church departed from the Apostles’ teaching present in Scripture and the early Church Fathers. But when present Catholic doctrine is shown to be the patristic teaching (as with baptismal regeneration and the indissolubility of marriage), defenders of the Reformed faith posit an apostasy from the Apostolic Tradition by the early Church. Then, when it is pointed out to them that Protestantism presupposes ecclesial deism, they deny it and claim to stand in the Tradition found in the Church Fathers. But then when it is pointed out that their position differs from the moral consensus of the Church Fathers, they posit an apostasy and heretical accretions. So what makes this position ad hoc is that it claims to recognize the authority of Tradition, but yet it posits an apostasy whenever it holds a position contrary to the moral consensus of the Church Fathers, while denying an apostasy whenever it holds a position that agrees with the moral consensus of the Church Fathers. And this reveals that the Reformed faith is not treating the Apostolic Tradition in the Church Fathers as an authority that governs its interpretation of Scripture, but only as a useful resource from which to locate proof-textual support for its own interpretation of Scripture.

VII. Conclusion

Why has the Catholic Church always taught that marriage is indissoluble, and thus that divorce is impossible? It is no accident that there is a correlation between believing in the possibility of divorce and remarriage, and believing some form of ecclesial deism. If the bond between Christ and His Church can be broken, then how much more can the sign of that bond be broken.50 Where we find ecclesial deism, there, undoubtedly, we should expect to find acceptance of divorce with remarriage. But where the indissolubility of Christian marriage is preserved, there we should expect to find a belief in the indefectibility of the Church. And so it is. The indissolubility of Christian marriage is a testimony to the world of Christ’s unfailing love for His Church, and therefore to the sure promise of eternal life in the world to come, for all those who believe and are baptized.51 The indissoluble union of Christ and His Church is a consequence of the indissoluble union of Christ and His human nature. Hence ecclesial deism’s rejection of the indissoluble union of Christ and His Church is an implicit denial of Christ’s resolve never to give up His humanity.52

Origen explains why the indissolubility of marriage makes ecclesial deism impossible, writing:

For because of her [i.e. the Church], He Himself also became flesh, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, (John 1:14) and they are no more two, but now they are one flesh, since it is said to the wife, Now you are the body of Christ, and members each in his part; (1 Cor. 12:27) for the body of Christ is not something apart different from the church, which is His body, and from the members each in his part. And God has joined together these who are not two, but have become one flesh, commanding that men should not separate the church from the Lord. And he who takes heed for himself so as not to be separated, is confident as one who will not possibly be separated and says, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? (Rom. 8:35) Here, therefore, the saying, What God has joined together, let not man put asunder, (Matt. 19:6) was written with relation to the Pharisees, but to those who are superior to the Pharisees, it could be said, What then God has joined together, let nothing put asunder, neither principality nor power; for God, who has joined together is stronger than all those which any one could conceive and name.53

Because the Church is the Bride of Christ, she is also one Body with Him. And what God has joined together, no man can separate. The union of Christ and the Church is an indissoluble union, to which every other marriage points by signification. In this way the indissolubility of marriage teaches man the true nature of love. In our present society, love is often confused with emotions and feelings and sexual desire. Not uncommonly we hear a spouse seek a divorce on the ground that he “no longer loves” his spouse, or is no longer “in love.” Statements of that sort reveal an egregious misunderstanding concerning the nature of love as a mere feeling, emotion, or passion. Love, in its essence, is an act of the will; it is a choice, whether or not it is accompanied by feelings of affection, romance, attraction, passion, or fulfillment. The complete giving of oneself in the exchange of vows on the wedding day is not an exchange of testimonies concerning the present state of one’s internal emotions or feelings. That would contradict the very words that are spoken, which offer onself irrevocably and receive the other person “for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death parts us.” Emotions and feelings are fickle, and can come and go, from year to year, or even day to day. Only an act of the will is that by which one can make the wedding vow; and only an act of the will, now aided by grace and the gift of agape, is that whereby such vows are kept. That is true love.

Of course love as an act of the will nurtures affection and joy in the other, seeking out and delighting in the goodness and beauty of the other. But love is not fundamentally feelings of affection or delight in the presence of the other person, or feelings of attraction to or longing for the other person. When love is conceived as a mere feeling, the other person is reduced to an object of one’s own pleasure. What is present in such a relation is only mutual egoism and self-gratification, not love. Hence the Church’s doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage preserves for society the true understanding of love, preventing society from mistaking the selfishness of mutual-use relations for love. When Protestant pastors oversee the ‘remarriage’ of divorced persons to third parties while their spouses are still living, or admit persons in such relations to the Lord’s Supper, they are complicit in the couple’s adultery, and in spreading the false doctrine that marriage is about one’s own gratification.

How do we as a society recover an awareness of the indissolubility of marriage? Christians need to return to the Apostolic Tradition concerning marriage and affirm with one voice the indissolubility of marriage, both in our personal lives and practice, and as institutions, denominations, and confessions. Recently a prominent Evangelical figure, Pat Robertson, claimed that if one’s spouse has Alzheimers, then divorce and remarriage are permissible. Robertson’s position is merely the logical extension of the exceptions allowed by Luther and Calvin; as justifications for divorce and remarriage, there is no principled difference between Alzheimers, and irksome cohabitation (Luther) and impotence (Calvin). The only solution to this problem is recovering a sacramental conception of marriage, because as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, only a sacramental conception of marriage can ensure the indissolubility of marriage:

Those who now endeavour to reform the civil statutes in the interest of honest trials, may succeed in abating some of the evils flowing from lax methods of administering the divorce statutes in some of the states, and in obtaining restrictive legislation in all of them, but it is not probable that the demoralization will be stopped until the majority of the people of the civilized nations return to the belief in the supernatural sanction of marriage and “that it is a sacramental union, productive of the graces necessary to bear with one another’s shortcomings; and indissoluble union as that of soul and body, which can be dissolved only in death. This means a return to the Catholic view of marriage, and this return alone can remove the national evil of divorce.” (Divorce (in civil jurisprudence)

The widespread rise of divorce with remarriage over the last century has destroyed millions of families and left a wake of victims: men, women, and children. It has distorted our social awareness of the family as an essential and natural institution, and led to attempts to redefine the legal definition of marriage and the family. Only by a recovery of the ancient Christian doctrine concerning marriage, a doctrine that only the Catholic Church has retained, can the evil of divorce be overcome.

  1. CCC 1614-1615, 1640. []
  2. (cf. 2384). []
  3. CCC 1650. []
  4. Catholic Encyclopedia article “Divorce (in moral theology).” []
  5. From the Protestant point of view, nothing more binding is formed during Christian weddings than during the weddings of non-Christians, nothing on the order of grace. That is also demonstrated by the fact that Protestant pastors almost always treat a civil divorce as a dissolution of the marriage bond (divorce a vinculo matrimonii).

    This is why Protestant ecclesial communities treat legally divorced persons as no longer married, and allow them to remarry other persons. They do this because in Protestantism, what marriage is, essentially, is a legal contract, not a sacrament. Whenever the State declares that legal contract to be dissolved, the Protestant ecclesial communities treat the marriage to be dissolved, and treat both spouses as free to remarry. That is true even if those couples divorced for reasons as minimal as “irreconcilable differences.” If the spouses remarry other persons, while both spouses remain alive, Protestant ecclesial communities treat those remarriages as actual marriages. And this shows that for Protestant ecclesial communities, the marriage bond is fundamentally a legal contract overseen fundamentally by the State, and that the State, not the Church, has fundamental and definitive authority to determine who is married and to whom.

    By denying the sacramental character of marriage, Protestantism takes marriage out of the domain of the Church, and makes it fundamentally a legal institution of the State, defined and governed by the laws of the State. And when marriage is conceived merely as a civil matter, it can be defined, formed and dissolved by the State. This allows divorce and ‘remarriage’ to be commonplace, especially in a society operating under the principles of political liberalism. Regarding the problems inherent in the presuppositions underlying political liberalism, see Pope Leo XIII’s Libertas Praestantissimum (On the Nature of Human Liberty). []

  6. What God has Joined …: The Sacramentality of Marriage, (Alba House, New York, 1990), p. 165. []
  7. CCC 1613. []
  8. Living with another man is what attempting to marry again, while her husband remains alive, would be. St. Paul uses this phrase [lives with another man] precisely because any remarriage while her husband remains alive would not be marriage at all, but would merely be living with another man. []
  9. An example of the justification of separation, to avoid sharing in the other spouse’s adultery can be found in St. Justin Martyr’s Second Apology, chapter 2. There, St. Justin describes the following account:

    A certain woman lived with an intemperate husband; she herself, too, having formerly been intemperate. But when she came to the knowledge of the teachings of Christ she became sober-minded, and endeavoured to persuade her husband likewise to be temperate, citing the teaching of Christ, and assuring him that there shall be punishment in eternal fire inflicted upon those who do not live temperately and conformably to right reason. But he, continuing in the same excesses, alienated his wife from him by his actions. For she, considering it wicked to live any longer as a wife with a husband who sought in every way means of indulging in pleasure contrary to the law of nature, and in violation of what is right, wished to be divorced from him. And when she was overpersuaded by her friends, who advised her still to continue with him, in the idea that some time or other her husband might give hope of amendment, she did violence to her own feeling and remained with him. But when her husband had gone into Alexandria, and was reported to be conducting himself worse than ever, she— that she might not, by continuing in matrimonial connection with him, and by sharing his table and his bed, become a partaker also in his wickednesses and impieties— gave him what you call a bill of divorce, and was separated from him. But this noble husband of hers—while he ought to have been rejoicing that those actions which formerly she unhesitatingly committed with the servants and hirelings, when she delighted in drunkenness and every vice, she had now given up, and desired that he too should give up the same—when she had gone from him without his desire, brought an accusation against her, affirming that she was a Christian.

    Also, Canon 70 of the Council of Elvira, in AD 306, reads as follows: “A husband who knows of his wife’s adultery and who remains with her may not commune [i.e. receive the Eucharist] even prior to death. If he lived with his wife for a period of time after her adultery and then left her, he may not commune for ten years.” See also the quotation from St. Gregory of Nazianzen in the body of this article, in which the moral corruption of the children is given as a reason for separating from the spouse committing adultery. In the Supplement of St. Thomas’s Summa Theologica we read, “For an innocent husband is free to remain with an adulterous wife in the hope of her amendment, but not if she be obstinate in her sin of adultery, lest he seem to approve of her disgrace.” (Summa Theologica Supp. Q.59 a.3.) []

  10. Ep. clxxxviii, can. ix, and Ep. cxcix, can. xxi, in P.G., XXXII, 678, 721. []
  11. See his “Exposition on the Sermon on the Mount,” Bk 1. []
  12. The exceptions here are the Pauline and Petrine privileges, discussed below. []
  13. The Catholic Encyclopedia article titled “Divorce” notes:

    In these cases, also, the popes pronounced decidedly for the indissolubility of marriage, e.g. Innocent I, “Epist. ad Probum”, in P.L. XX, 602; Leo I, “Epist. ad Nicetam Aquil.”, in P.L., LIV, 1136; Gregory I, “Epist. ad Urbicum Abb.”, in P.L., LXXVII, 833, and “Epist. ad Hadrian. notar.”, in P.L., LXXVII, 1169. This last passage, which is found in the “Decretum” of Gratian (C. xxvii, Q, ii, c. xxii), is as follows: “Although the civil law provides that, for the sake of conversion (i.e., for the purpose of choosing the religious life), a marriage may be dissolved, though either of parties be unwilling, yet the Divine law does not permit it to be done.”


  14. The Catholic Encylopedia article adds:

    The same declaration [that such persons are forbidden to marry] is to be found in the Second Council of Mileve (416), canon xvii (Labbe, IV, 331); the Council of Hereford (673), canon x (Labbe, VII, 554); the Council of Friuli (Forum Julii), in northern Italy (791), canon x (Labbe, IX, 46); all of these teach distinctly that the marriage bond remains even in case of dismissal for adultery, and that new marriage is therefore forbidden.


  15. Such conditions include: insufficient age, antecedent and perpetual impotence of either party, already being married to someone else, being a baptized Catholic attempting to marry an unbaptized person without a dispensation, having Holy Orders, having taking solemn religious vows of celibacy, abduction, crime [having murdered the other spouse], consanguinity, affinity (in-laws), spiritual relationship [e.g. god-parent, sponsor], legal relationship [adopted parent, etc.]. []
  16. Pius VI, Rescript. ad Episc. Agriens., 11 July 1789. As quoted by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii, 34. []
  17. Casti Connubii, 97. []
  18. Though see the discussion below concerning the Pauline and Petrine privileges. []
  19. Cf. Mt. 19:10. []
  20. Casti Connubii, 39. []
  21. Casti Connubii, 41. []
  22. Casti Connubii, 38. []
  23. Casti Connubii, 40. []
  24. Casti Connubii, 41. []
  25. See the opening line of The Church Fathers on Baptismal Regeneration.” []
  26. See the last paragraph in comment #106 of the “Solemnity of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven” thread. []
  27. The Council of Trent decreed:

    Moreover, the holy council, moved by the same and other very grave reasons, restricts the impediment which arises on account of the affinity contracted from fornication, and which dissolves the marriage afterward contracted,[25] to those only who are united in the first and second degree; in more remote degrees it ordains that affinity of this kind does not dissolve the marriage afterward contracted. (Council of Trent, Session XXIV, Decree Concerning the Reformed of Matrimony, Chapter IV)


  28. See also the book Wenham co-authored with William Heth titled Jesus and Divorce. []
  29. Code of Canon Law: Separation with the Bond Remaining. []
  30. LW: 36, p. 92. []
  31. LW: 45:25. []
  32. LW: 54: p. 363. []
  33. Institutes Bk. IV chap. 19. 34. []
  34. See the section titled “The number of the sacraments” in the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the sacraments. See also the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the sacramentals. []
  35. Epistle to St. Polycarp, c. 5. []
  36. Eph. 5:32. []
  37. Lust should not be conflated with sexual desire; lust is willfully entertained or engagement in disordered sexual pleasure. See the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on lust. []
  38. Harmony of the Evangelists, 384. []
  39. Ecclesiastical Ordinances, Corpus Reformatorum, x.10-14. []
  40. 2 Cor. 6:14. []
  41. For an Old Testament example of marriages dissolved by God for the good of the faith, see Ezra chapters 9-10. []
  42. Pope Alexander III (AD 1159-1181) writes of this in a letter to the Bishop of Brescia (see Denzinger, 395). See also the statement by Pope Innocent III in AD 1206, recorded in Denzinger 409. See also canon 6 of Session XXIV of the Council of Trent, listed above. []
  43. Summa Theologica III Q.29 a.2. []
  44. See also Summa Theologica Supp. Q.42 a.4. []
  45. Summa Theologica Supp. Q.61 a.2. []
  46. The sexual act without the spiritual union of marriage is not a consummation of anything. See the quotation from St. Leo the Great listed in the body of the article, regarding concubinage. []
  47. Similarly, when St. Joseph discovered that Mary was with child, he decided to divorce her privately [λάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν]. (Mt. 1:19) The verse explains that his righteousness lay behind his decision, but his righteousness is revealed in two ways. First, he did not want to shame Mary, and therefore he intended the divorce to be private. Second, he intended to divorce her, because to live voluntarily with a person who is committing fornication is to cooperate in their sin. (See footnote 9, above.) The purpose of the divorce was not to break the marriage bond so that he could remarry. []
  48. See my reply to Objection 4, above. []
  49. John Witte, “The Meaning of Marriage.” []
  50. Cf. Eph. 5:31-32. []
  51. See Apostolicam Actuositatem, 11. []
  52. See “Among You Stands One Whom You do not Know.” []
  53. Origen, Commentary on the Book of Matthew, Bk XIV.17. []
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  1. Overall, a fantastic article. One point I’d like to mention that I don’t believe had a fair hearing (nor any mention) was that about reading the pornea clause in light of Matthew’s own testimony of St Joseph. Only Matthew gives the ‘except’ clause, and only Matthew mentions St Joseph’s “predicament”.

    Matthew 1:18ff, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.
    When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

    Note the context, they were ‘betrothed’ but had not yet “lived together,” yet in the very next verse it says St Joseph sought to ‘divorce’. The answer here is that in Jewish times, engagement-marriage came in stages, with this situation being somewhat more elevated than modern engagement. In this case, “except for adultery” would mean some sort of problem came up during this phase, and the “super-engagement” could be broken without divorce. I wrote an article on the Indissolubility of Marriage on exegetical grounds, since Protestants generally only trust Scripture.

    As for your footnote #47 on St Joseph, some months ago I came to learn some in Catholic tradition (e.g. St Bernard, I think) have taught that St Joseph being “just” wanted to divorce Her “quietly” because he felt unworthy of being foster-father of Jesus – that’s because if the Blessed Virgin were really an adulterer, and St Joseph was just, then he rightfully could (even should) divorce Her publicly without any impunity whatsoever (rather than quietly). This has merit to me.

  2. Dear Bryan,

    Thank you for your tireless effort providing such robust resources (this one included) for the faithful and all those who might wonder “why” the Church teaches what she does. This article evidences that to dissent from the major premise is to truly reduce sola to solo, to operate in an ahistorical bubble, to be a man without tradition–what we might call the unsocial animal. Like “unless you eat my flesh”, this teaching truly is a hard saying, but by God’s grace we can believe.

    God bless you and yours,


  3. I would like to take exception to the first letter regarding Joseph and his decision to divorce Mary. A continued reading of Matthew notes that Joseph had a dream. In that dream the angel explained “because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit.” Mt 1:20-21

    Mary had not been unfaithful to Joseph, however I don’t believe that Joseph knew Whose Child Mary was carrying prior to that dream, other than knowing that the Child was not his. I believe that Joseph was unwilling to expose Mary to the pain of stoning if he could find another way out of this dilemma.

    Subsequent to that dream, “he took his wife to his home” (Mt 1:24) because God made it plain to Joseph just what was going on and Joseph responded to that grace.

    St. Joseph, Mary’s most chaste spouse, pray for us.


  4. I noticed in footnote 15 one of the reasons cited for a possible annulment is impotence. What is the reasoning behind this? If annulments aren’t granted for infertility, then why for impotence?

  5. Natalia,

    Let’s first distinguish the terms. Impotence refers to the inability to perform the conjugal act. Infertility (or sterility) means only the inability to generate offspring.

    Here’s the relevant canon:

    Can.  1084 §1. Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse, whether on the part of the man or the woman, whether absolute or relative, nullifies marriage by its very nature.

    §2. If the impediment of impotence is doubtful, whether by a doubt about the law or a doubt about a fact, a marriage must not be impeded nor, while the doubt remains, declared null.

    §3. Sterility neither prohibits nor nullifies marriage, without prejudice to the prescript of ⇒ can. 1098.

    If the impotence was both antecedent to the marriage vows, and perpetual, such that the conjugal act could not be performed, then the marriage could not be consummated, and this would be an impediment to the formation of the marriage bond. Marriage can be formed only between two persons capable of the conjugal act. (This is also why there can no such thing as marriage between two persons of the same sex.) But if the man or the woman (or both) became impotent only after entering into a valid marriage, this would not be a ground for annulment, because the marriage bond has already been formed, and at that point it is indissoluble. Sterility does not prohibit or nullify marriage, unless one party by malice deceives the other about it to obtain consent to marriage. The reason is because there is a relevant difference between impotence and sterility. In the formation of the marriage bond, God indissolubly joins together what the couple contract. But in procreation, God is the principal agent, and the couple become, if God graciously grants, procreators. In comment #46 of the contraception thread I wrote:

    One reason why this is true is because human procreation is synergistic, not monergistic. We cannot ‘play God’ and assume that because from our point of view the sexual act will not result in conception, therefore we can further thwart the sexual act. In other words, masturbation does not become morally permissible if a man discovers he is infertile. Same with homosexual acts or bestiality. The sexual act (man with woman) is intrinsically procreative in nature (even when unsuccessful in fulfilling the reproductive function), and therefore intentionally thwarting that procreative potentiality is intrinsically contrary to the nature of the act, even when the reproductive act would not have resulted in conception. Blocking the procreative potential of the sexual act does not become morally acceptable when the procreative potential of the act is, in another respect limited or nil, because the procreative potential of the sexual act isn’t reducible to the state of the reproductive organs per se, but is inherent in the very nature of the act itself, because divine cooperation is bound up with the procreative aspect of the sexual act. The sexual act remains ordered to the procreative function, no matter what the conditions of the reproductive organs, and therefore further thwarting that procreative function in the sexual act is contrary to the order of the act.

    The couple needs to be able to do their part, namely, the conjugal act in order to consummate the marriage. But having consummated the marriage, they can become procreators only by the gracious, free and providential generosity of God, who is the sovereign author of life. Because of this difference (between impotence and sterility), antecedent perpetual impotence is an impediment to the formation of a marriage bond. But being unable to conceive a child, is not. Actually conceiving children does not form the marriage bond or consummate the marriage, whereas engaging in the marital act does consummate the marriage. Hence not being able to have children does not nullify the marriage, while being unable to consummate the marriage does nullify the marriage.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  6. “There are some ancient Christian doctrines that only the Catholic Church has retained.”

    For me, this is the clincher. Recognizing this, one must enter the Catholic Church. There is really no other viable option assuming God will sustain his initial formation of the Church. Just my opinion, of course.

  7. […] at Called to Communion, Bryan Cross has an excellent article on the Sacrament of Marriage. Here’s a brief excerpt: This doctrine is perceived by many people in our generation as […]

  8. The Bride of Christ

    It really bothered me that the idea of “church” was so nebulous. The Church is described as the Bride of Christ, so why would that bride be such an amorphous blob? A bride knows her relationship to her husband, and at least in a good marriage, that relationship is defined. Furthermore, those on the outside can observe what that relationship is. So why would the prototype (the Church) be less definable than the copy (the bride)? I suppose this is why the claim by the Roman Catholic Church to be the Church instituted by Christ is so shocking. This claim gives shape to the blurred lines that those outside of the Church live with.

    That quote, by Nikki, is just what I was feeling some years ago while I was in a small-group study using “Experiencing God” and thinking the book used ‘church’ as 1) local congregation and 2) the set of all ‘true’ Christians whereas instead I resonated with the Lenny Bruce quip “The Catholic Church is the church we mean when we say The Church


  9. Re: Thomas (#6)

    I believe that quote was over reaching. It certainly does not give a Protestant a principaled reason to join the Catholic Church over the Eastern Orthodox (or even the Coptic Church for that matter) since each hold this same view.

  10. Salvador,

    The Eastern Orthodox and the Copts recognize marriage as a sacrament, but they allow remarriage after divorce while the spouse lives (see, for example here and here).

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  11. One other difference between East and West is that there are no vows exchanged in an Orthodox wedding (Byzantine Rite Catholic as well). The consent is “assumed” by the person’s presence at the altar. But up until recent times many marriages in Greece and parts of Asia Minor were arranged by the will of the parents. My own in-laws had an arranged marriage in Greece. They did not even know each other, but they were obedient to the wishes of their parents.

    So is there a difference between consent and obedience when it comes to validity?

    I suspect both are valid even if the will of the betrothed is not in the equation. Sort of like the god-parents standing in for a child’s baptism because the child cannot consent to it for himself.

  12. In the link Bryan listed in #10:

    “The [Orthodox[ Church grants “ecclesiastical divorces” on the basis of the exception given by Christ to his general prohibition of the practice. ”

    A few questions about this link:

    * I assume this means the Orthodox allow divorce in cases of adultery?
    * Do they interpret the word adultery like the Catholic Church interprets that word?
    * Is the only difference that they use the word divorce instead of the word annulment in cases of this exception?

    Interestingly, this article later says:

    “The possible exception to the above affirmation of continuity of teaching is the view of the Orthodox Church on the issue of contraception. ”

    Here the article acknowledges that the current teaching is not in continuity with tradition. And the reason for this is that earlier Christians didn’t understand biology.


  13. Re: Bryan (#10).

    Thanks, Bryan. I stand corrected. I had no idea. Can you recommend a resource that outlines these differences on other issues as well? The Papacy is the clear one, but where else is something critical to Catholic theology missing or contradicted in Eastern Orthodox theology (or any of their many versions)?

  14. Jonathan,

    In the article, Bryan mentions that there are at least two interpretations of the porneia clause that are consistent with the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage and divorce. The Orthodox churches, however, must interpret this clause in some other, non-traditional, way, since they allow for divorce and remarriage even in cases where there has been, in the eyes of the Church, a valid, sacramental marriage. So this difference between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches is not one of terminology alone, but a substantial difference on a matter of faith and morals.

    Of course the early Christians did not understand many aspects of biology, although they obviously had some understanding of how things work! But more importantly, regarding the right understanding of faith and morals (which is not fundamentally dependent upon scientific progress), they knew that artificial contraception is always a grave sin. This subject has been discussed on various threads at Called to Communion, including this one.

    There is another thread in which the question of the Church Fathers’ understanding of the nature of the male “seed” was addressed, but I can’t find it. In that thread, it was argued by Catholics (mainly Bryan, I think) that the testimony of the Fathers is not adequately accounted for by the notion that they objected to contraception on account of it being tantamount to homicide (based on the mis-understanding that the seed itself is in some way human). Additionally, the natural law arguments that have since been (successfully, in my opinion) adduced on behalf of the traditional prohibition of contraception also ground other traditional moral claims that some Protestant denominations and perhaps all Orthodox churches are still willing to uphold, e.g., that sodomy is always a grave sin.

  15. In my discussion above of Pope Leo XIII’s Arcanum, I wrote that:

    repeated, widespread public violations of the marriage institution change the cultural perceptions and expectations surrounding marriage, and in this way damage the marriage institution in that society. The more couples expect marriages to ‘fail’ eventually, and believe in the dissolubility of marriage, the less incentive they have to pursue marriage.

    My point is that divorce is not a merely localized self-harming sin; it harms the public in many ways, including changing the way young people and even children perceive of marriage. The sin of divorce-with-remarriage perpetuates divorce by leading young people to expect divorce-with-remarriage in their own marriages, and thus be less willing or capable of entering into valid marriage, on account of being less likely to grasp the necessary character of life-long commitment or less likely to intend to vow life-long commitment. So there is a conceptual harm that leads to practical harm in future generations. One illustration of the social dimension of the conceptual harm caused by divorce is a new toy called Detacho.

    The root problem, and the solution, are explained in the body of the article above.

    (Andrew, the post you were thinking of is Matt Yonke’s “Contraception and the Reformed Faith.”)

  16. As a presbyter in the United Methodist branch of Christ’s holy church, I think it is more than a bit polemical (even unfair) to assert that Protestant churhces not only allow but even “sanction” adultery by allowing divorced persons to remarry. Though, I wonder what you guys would say about the Orthodox Church’s allowing divorce and remarriage under some circumstances? See here:


    The position of the Orthodox Church seems to be 1) marriage is a sacrament, uphold the high ideal of life-long fidelity and growth in “agape” 2) because the world is fallen it will sometimes happen that estrangement and infidelity will enter into a marriage 3) Christ clearly allows divorce in certain circumstances (for unchastity/sexual immorality), so that the “let no one put assunder” teaching does not mean that divorce is an ontological impossibility but rather that it is contrary to the will and command of God 4) because the world is fallen even Christians may sometimes commit sins that lead to or include a divorce, and therefore 5) the Church (in particular the bishop), as part of a grace-filled response to past mistakes is able to recognize the divorce and even allow for a valid remarriage. There are limits (a 4th marriage is absolutely always forbidden for the Orthodox).

    Upon reading the article I’ve linked above, it does not seem to me that the Orthodox Church’s position is all that different from that of The United Methodist Church. We consider marriage a sacred covenant that reflects the baptismal covenant. While not a full Domincal sacrament, marriage (like confirmation, ordination, annointing with oil, etc) is a rite of the church that has a sacramental character and is a means of grace. We affirm that God’s intention is for marriage to be life-long and faithful and that anything (including divorce) contrary to this intention is sinful. However, we do recognize that people (including Christians) do sin. Some marriages do end in divorce (and in some situations this may be preferrable to continuing in the broken state, as in physically abusive situations that have not been reversed through therapy). When that has happened we do believe that it is possible, after a time of honest confession of previous sin and healing by God’s grace, for divorced persons to be remarried. It is because we are Christians that we believe in forgiveness and second chances. We do not permanently exclude such persons from Holy Communion.

  17. Daniel,

    If a man steals his neighbor’s car, he is not truly repentant if the car remains in his garage until the end of his days. When a person divorces, what will they repent of if they remarry? It certainly could not be divorce. The car (divorce) will always be in their garage. The fruit of their sin, always the raison d’etre of their “new” marriage.

    We do sin. That’s true. Christian forgiveness, though, is not a ticket to ride out of our obligations. That is cheap grace. I can’t keep my sin parked in my garage and hope that “grace is enough” and just close my eyes every time I leave the house. That is not polemical, just the price of the Gospel. It is truly a scandal that souls are led to believe the contrary, which as Bryan has articulated, in a certain sense “sanctions” sin–and in another more direct sense contradicts what has been the universal teaching of all Christians for most of history.

    Accommodation to permit divorce is one thing–to permit remarriage quite another.

  18. Hey Brent,
    I suppose the difference is that among some Protestants and (when the bishop has granted an ecclesiastical divorce) among the Orthodox as well (as I understand it, the bishop decides whether the “pornea” clause is satisfied, some taking more loose or more strict interpretations for theological or pastoral reasons), in these it is surely assumed that the marriage has actually ceased to exist because of the divorce, whereas the Roman Church’s position is that the marriage literally cannot cease to exist so long as both partners are alive. The Roman understanding, I guess, sees marriage subsisting more as an ontological reality all its own.

    Obviously we would all agree that, if the marriage still exists, then neither partner may remarry; whether they live together or apart or have obtained a civil divorce or whatever. This is the idea of Brent’s stolen car analogy. The difference between the various churches seems to be precisely on the question of whether a marriage can cease to exist while both partners live. If the marriage has died and ceased to exist (we might even say because it has been sinfully ‘murdered’) then surely the appropriate response for those involved is not to attempt to raise the dead but to seek God’s forgiveness, and seek to live from that time forward in ways more faithful to his call (looking forward to that day when he does indeed raise the dead and make all things new)? That seems to me the logic of the Orthodox article I cited above saying that remarriage could be understood as an opportunity to “correct a mistake.”

    The difference between the various churches it seems is not rooted in the sacramentality of marriage per se (as the Orthodox do consider it a sacrament, and of course Protestants do consider it sacred), unless the Roman Catholic wants to argue that the Orthodox are simply being profoundly inconsistent in their sacramental theology.

    As I’m writing this it occurs to me that there is an interesting parallel with the question of whether Christians can fall away from their relationship with God. Some (my Baptist friends in particular) say that if one is once saved, then one cannot fall away from salvation – if one is “married” to God, that an ontological change has occured with regeneration forming a relationship that can never be broken. Others, certainly this includes us non-Calvinist Methodist and I thought (though I could very well be wrong here) included Roman Catholics as well, believe that if one enters into a covenant relationship with G0d (through baptism) that one may nevertheless reject and fall away from that relationship that once was, even to the point of final damnation, so that in a very real sense the covenant relationship has died. Anyways that’s a random thought that was veering off of the original question (or…was it?)…

  19. Daniel,

    If “what God puts together, let no man put asunder”, then there is no edict of the Church capable of dissolving what God truly has put together. Note that the accommodation for divorce was not an accommodation for remarriage. The accommodation for the divorce removed the ordinary moral obligation of one spouse to the other due to the psychological burden of infidelity–this because of weakness.

    You asked a good question:

    “The difference between the various churches seems to be precisely on the question of whether a marriage can cease to exist while both partners live.”

    Marriage is–yes–an ontological reality. Yet marriage constitutes a thing ontologically dependent upon a man, a woman and God–if marriage is what God “puts together”. It, like all things, requires God to give it being for it “to be”. Thus, their existence would necessarily entail–excluding God’s divine intervention–its (the marriage) existence.

    Warmly in Christ,


  20. Hello,
    Very interesting article by Mr. Cross (though I must admit I did not read all of the historical references).
    I was wondering, in light of the natural and supernatural ends of marriage, what the apostle Paul means by “sanctifies” in 1 Corinthians 7:14, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.” In what way would an unbelieving spouse be sanctified by their believing spouse? (Simply by the children being holy?)

  21. Joy,

    St. Paul is speaking about a situation in which a pagan couple is already married, and then one spouse becomes a Christian and the other spouse consents to remain with the one who has become a Christian. In that situation, by consenting to live according to what the Christian spouse will and will not do (as he or she is informed in conscience by the law of Christ), the unbelieving spouse is already being sanctified, by already, in a way, freely conforming to the law of Christ. This voluntary agreement to conform to the Christian spouse’s Christian way of life, though without becoming a Christian him or herself, allows for the home to be Christian, and for the children to be raised Christian. Hence St. Paul’s “but as it is, they [i.e. your children] are holy.” The consent to conform to the Christian spouse’s way of life also opens the door to the possible conversion of the unbelieving spouse.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  22. Concerning the section:

    Another important passage is Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana, recorded in John 2:1-11. Concerning this event, St. Augustine writes, “And for this cause did the Lord, on being invited, come to the marriage, to confirm conjugal chastity, and to show forth the sacrament of marriage.” (On the Gospel of John, 9:2) And the Catechism states, “The Church attaches great importance to Jesus’ presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence.”7

    I do not understand the reference to “On the Gospel of John, 9:2”; could someone explain?

    Thanks in advance,


  23. Michael,

    I’m referring to his Tractates on the Gospel of John, in this case Tractate 9, paragraph 2.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  24. Hasn’t the Church allowed divorce and remarriage at certain times throughout history, e.g. the Council of Verberie in 752 or Compiegne in 757? In 826, Pope Eugenius presided over a synod in Rome which allowed divorce. Wouldn’t this mean the Church was a false Church for being contrary to apostolic doctrine?

  25. Al, (re: #24)

    The councils of Verberie and Compiegne were local councils, and they erred on this subject with respect to extreme cases, i.e. when the husband had traveled to another land, and had no hope of ever returning to his own country, and [seemingly] could not abstain, in which case he, first doing penance, was allowed to marry another woman. The Roman synod of 826 did not allow for divorce with remarriage, but the wording of the canon was unfortunately unclear. The wording is “No man, except for the cause of fornication, may leave the wife who is joined to him, and then unite with another. In other cases it is expedient that the transgressor be united in his former wedlock.” The exception is not intended to apply to the whole phrase “may leave the wife who is joined to him, and then unite with another;” it is intended to apply only to the phrase “may leave the wife who is joined to him.” The council was following the pattern in the gospel passages discussed above, and some of these contain the same ambiguity, also discussed above. This ambiguity had long been clarified in the councils and Fathers of the prior seven centuries, as I explain above.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  26. Michael Horton recently wrote an article titled “Marriage, Church Membership, and the Gnostic Spring.” In it he quotes a recent Pew study showing that in the US over the last fifty years the number of married persons has dropped dramatically. Fewer people are marrying. I have discussed above the way in which common conceptions of divorce contribute to the rejection of marriage. In addition, the prevalent notion of sex-as-mutual-use that necessarily accompanies the acceptance of contraception (see my reply to Mark Driscoll) transforms the conception of the sexual union from that of a perpetual union of self-giving commitment into a temporary union of mutual convenience. If we want to address the decline in marriage, we have to address the fundamentally disordered contemporary notions of sex and divorce. Those disordered notions are in large part responsible for the threat of a demographic winter:

    Horton continues by responding to a recent Washington Post article titled “Christianity 2.0.”  The gist of the Post article is much like the recent Barna study I discussed here. And Horton’s response is dead-on. He sees the contemporary rejection of the institutional Church and the contemporary rejection of the institution of marriage is symptoms of a common malady, namely, gnosticism. He writes:

    As we approach winter, it may not be too early to announce a Gnostic Spring. In many ways, we’ve been in it for a long while. America has long been the melting pot for various creeds and spiritualities. … So America has a long history of being anti-institutional, suspicious of anything with the adjective “old.” “Don’t fence me in,” says the rugged individualist who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. While skeptical “infidelity” (unbelief) was gaining the upper hand in Europe by rejecting the faith, fanatical “enthusiasm” (detachment from outward forms) fueled a lively industry of native-born spiritualities and movements in America. Every generation seems to have its own “great awakening.” On the heels of the Second Great Awakening, churches were split along the lines of what the victors would identify as “traditionalism” and “Spirit-led revival.” Promising unity, each enthusiastic movement only created further divisions, as anti-denominational circles of the “truly converted” eventually formed new denominations. Just think of the trail that leads from Methodism to Finney to the Jesus movement, the Shepherding movement, the charismatic movement, Pentecostalism, the church growth movement, the emergent movement, and now, it seems, the no-church movement where technology has made it possible to be more institutional than ever.

    So what does this have to do with marriage? Well, it too is an institution. While all of us human beings are born Pelagians, I think we Americans are basically Gnostic, too. Like the ancient heresy that swept through the second-century church, the new Gnostics pit the body against the soul. Obviously, it’s anti-creedal in substance, but also in form. Everything visible-institutions, an ordained ministry of public preaching and sacraments, church order and discipline-is the bodily prison-house of the spirit. Countless studies of American religion in recent decades emphasize the ways in which we prize the inner over the outer; the informal over the formal; the spontaneous over the ordered; the soul’s immediacy to the divine without requiring a Mediator, or at least means of grace, and so forth. “Spirituality” is fine, but “organized religion” is the problem. That’s been the growing refrain of Americans for at least two centuries. It’s not rank atheism, but Gnostic enthusiasm, that characterizes this trajectory.

    I agree with Horton here. Then he writes:

    The problem with this Gnostic impulse, from a Christian perspective, is that it is simply the opposite of biblical faith. The Bible affirms creation and the Creator who made everything, “visible and invisible”; that “the Word was made flesh,” not that we ascended away from the world and history to rediscover our oneness with divinity; that redemption is not the liberation of the soul from the body through inner enlightenment, but “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The Christian faith knows that there is more to reality than matter; more to the Christian life than visible forms, practices, and ordered structures; more to marriage and discipleship than institutional membership-but in every case, that it is more, not less, than these.

    It’s not surprising that Scripture draws such a close analogy between marriage and the relation of Christ to his body. Simply on the practical level, I suspect that many twenty-somethings (and their Boomer parents) who want the rewards of close relationships without the institutional commitment may rethink things in the actual struggles of life. The prospect of death has a way of shaking us up on that front. At some point, hopefully, many will wonder why their ever-cycling social network of informal relationships leaves them bereft of physical and spiritual support when they’re out of the social loop. And they may wonder why they’re alone, even though they participated regularly in the latest equivalent of Twitter-church and were “followers” and “friends” on some self-ordained life coach’s Facebook page. Maybe then they will realize that they are embodied, historical, and finite creatures after all. Maybe then they will be ready for a visible church that, in spite of their Gnostic defiance, still delivers a risen Christ to sinners through words, water, bread, and wine.

    I agree with that too.

    So what is the problem? The problem is that it is Protestantism that has de-sacramentalized marriage, as I explained in the article above. And it is Protestantism that has embraced and advanced the ‘Gnostic’ conception of Church as essentially invisible, by rejecting the Church’s essential visible unity. Horton himself does this by redefining ‘schism’ as heresy (see “Michael Horton on Schism as Heresy“). No one who defines away schism from the Church should be complaining about gnosticism and its de-institutionalized ecclesiology. Protestants like Horton, like pastor Terry Johnson, like pastor Mark Horne, want to talk about “the visible Church” as if they believe there is such a thing (and of course I think they are sincere in this belief); they do not want or agree with the explicit de-institutionalized conception of Church put forward by Barna, Emergents and the author of “Christianity 2.0.” But these and other Reformed leaders do not realize that even though their confessions give lip-service to a “visible Church,” their ecclesiology is fundamentally and essentially an invisible-Church ecclesiology, precisely because according to their ecclesiology visible catholic unity is non-essential, and therefore not only not necessary, but essentially superfluous, thus making local visible unity and hierarchy unnecessary and superfluous. (See “Christ Founded a Visible Church.”) This is why they are incapable of providing a principled distinction between a “schism from” the visible Church and a “branch within” it (see “Branches or Schisms?“). And in that Protestant ecclesiology no one has a greater authority to declare any group to be a schism from, and not a branch within.

    These Reformed leaders want real discipline and a real distinction between laity and clergy, but apparently they do not realize that the Reformation principle of the priesthood of all believers makes all attempts to construct a real distinction between laity and clergy chimerical, because without the sacrament of Holy Orders ordination is ultimately reduced to congregational permission, not divine authorization from Christ through the Apostles. In this theology any appearance of ‘discipline’ does not (and cannot) remove the ‘disciplined’ individual from the Church, but only from this ‘branch.’ The ‘excommunicated’ person is ipso facto a new branch, if he wants to be. Without a sacramental distinction between laity and clergy, anyone can ordain, or not bother to keep up the pretense of ordination — hence the Emergent mentality. Horton is right to point to a gnostic mentality as the culprit, but unknowingly he is thereby indicting the very tradition in which he presently stands.

    In the article above I explained the way in which marriage is a sacrament, because it signifies and thus also teaches us about Christ’s union with His Bride, the Church. Satan’s attack on marriage is not fundamentally because he wants to destroy natural human society, but because he wants to obscure and distort the sign of the Church, by which men receive eternal life. By allowing divorce-with-remarriage, Protestantism sacramentally adopts not only ecclesial deism, but also redefines ‘apostolicity‘ by divorcing the apostolic truth from the matter (i.e. the line of succession) into which the incarnate Christ placed it. And this gnostic (de-materialized) redefinition of ‘apostolicity’ Horton wrongly affirms, is at the root of the “Christianity 2.0” Horton rightly condemns. The notion of “close relationships without the institutional commitment” is precisely Protestantism’s justification for its existence as something separate from the institution out of which it came. (See “Trueman and Prolegomena to How Would Protestants Know When to Return.”) If marriage truly is “till death do us part,” and marriage is the sacrament signifying Christ’s union with His Church, then the Catholic Church is still the Bride of Christ. In that case the ever-cycling social network of Protestant denominations, congregations and movements offering to provide that “spiritual support” by way of a de-sacramentalized apostolicity is an empty gnostic allure. Rejecting gnostic conceptions of marriage and apostolicity leads to the following conclusion: The Apostolic truth is located in and through the very same institution Christ Himself founded, never abandoned, never divorced, and for which He will return in glory. This is the sacramental character of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Christ founded, and willed to be a light on a hill, for all the world to see.

    For our readers, I will be ‘offline’ for the next seven months. Please remember me in your prayers.

  27. Dear Bryan,

    Seven months? That is quite the bummer. It will be a long seven months, but I will be glad to pray for you and whatever good work I’m sure you will be doing while you are away.

    Looking forward to your return.

  28. C2C without Bryan Cross for months? The mind reels.
    God bless you in your coming endeavors.

  29. Bryan –

    You will be missed greatly. God bless your endeavors during this sabbatical. You will remain in my prayers.
    I suppose I could read the entire C2C archive in the meantime ; )


  30. If you have two baptized protestants and the wife cheats on the husband and then leaves the husband, is the husband guilty of adultery if he then remarries another baptized protestant? I know for a Catholic the answer is yes but what about for a protestant? Also, does this mean the protestant is guilty of mortal sin? If so, can they be saved if they continue in their new relationship? How does this work out if the husband has children, does that mean his children are illegitimate?

    Thanks for the help.

  31. Michael, (re: #30)

    If two validly baptized Protestants have a valid marriage, and the husband ‘remarries’ someone else while his wife is still alive (whether or not she has been faithful), that is adultery. And it would be adultery even if they were not baptized. Adultery is a grave sin, and if done with full knowledge and complete consent, it is mortal sin. A person cannot be saved so long as he lives in mortal sin. Yes, children conceived with a woman other than one’s wife are illegitimate.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  32. Hey Bryan,

    Thanks for the help, that is what I thought too. What if the protestant husband doesn’t really believe that what he is doing is wrong since the wife cheated on him, does that mean he is still in mortal sin? He doesn’t even believe in mortal sin so it is kind of confusing as to whether or not he is has full knowledge that what he is doing is adultery. What do you think?

  33. Michael (re: #32),

    Ignorance can attenuate the guilt of a sin, but objectively adultery is a grave sin, even if committed in some form of ignorance. To commit a mortal sin it is not necessary to believe in mortal sin. The “full knowledge” referred to is not about the theology of sin, but about the sinful character of the act.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  34. Hey Bryan,

    Yeah I agree mortal sin is mortal sin whether one believe it or not, but I guess to be more specific, can someone be saved if they are guilty of that mortal sin but do not believe it is a mortal sin because they are protestant?

  35. Michael, (re: #34),

    A person cannot be in a state of grace so long as he remains in mortal sin (i.e. has not repented of that mortal sin). That is true even if he, for whatever reason, does not believe his sin is a mortal sin. But again, a person in grave sin (i.e. “grave matter”) is not necessarily in mortal sin; two other conditions are necessary. That is explained in the Catechism here.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  36. Protestants can commit mortal sin. The harder question is how can they be restored if they don’t believe in sacramental confession? I know as a preacher’s kid that people would come to the pastor and talk about serious sins. That is they sensed that a private prayer was not enough. They needed to go to the pastor’s study even though their theology denied it.

    I also had some experience with altar calls, both as a councilor and as a “penitent.” I know that is often very similar in character to confession but it is not a sacrament.

    God is merciful and I tend to think He will forgive if they act on the felt need in ways like that. But we don’t know. Invincible ignorance is hard to judge. That is why sacraments are so valuable. We know how to make a good confession so we can have certainty about our forgiveness.

  37. Re: #31 – I’ve been told that the notion of “legitimacy” of children is not one that the Church trades on in the first place. For example, I’m divorced and have two children, and if I obtain a Decree of Nullity, this does not mean that my children were “illegitimate” in some important sense, even though technically they were conceived outside of a real marriage bond.

  38. Micah,

    Correct, because to the best of anyones knowledge *at the time* you were married – again as best as anyone knew. Your marriage is presumed valid until proven otherwise.

    You are also correct that the Church doesn’t make much of an issue about illegitimacy. I think that is really more an issue of civil law and property and inheritance than anything internal to the Church.

    Still I think Brian is correct that is a prior marriage is valid, the children of a second marriage are technically illegitimate, but I don’t think that really makes any difference in the Catholic Church.

  39. Please excuse me if this question has been answered somewhere else, and please feel free to move this post to a more germane article if I’m off-topic. I am wondering if anybody can help me answer the following: according to Catholic teaching, was there sex before the Fall?

    I am asking because I am reading up on Milton’s Paradise Lost, and I’ve run up against the following claim in a book I’m reading: “Centuries of Catholic doctrine had claimed that sexual union was a result of the Fall but the Puritan tradition went out of its way to claim that it existed before the Fall.”

    ad maiorem Dei gloriam,
    Paul Weinhold

  40. Thank you Mr. Cross for such an in depth article. It took me a few hours to read as I’m slow with heady stuff. The sacrament of marriage as I now understand it, including the Catholic Church’s stand on not recognizing divorce or allowing remarriage while spouses are alive is what has drawn me to the Church. Well before I began studying Catholicism, I was not convinced that I was free to remarry as I understood scripture (I was raised Presbyterian, received a bible degree at a protestant college and I am currently Anglican). My wife of 17 years left my daughter and I for an adulterous relationship. I obtained a civil divorce as she was unrepentant and continued to pursue other men. I’m now an RCIA candidate and in the process of applying for an annulment. This will be based on “prior” bond as my former wife was married before. I don’t think she was baptized before her first marriage and I don’t know about her first husband. If her first marriage was valid, I now understand that our marriage was actually 17 years of committed adultery. Another big one to add to first confession. If her first marriage was not valid due to not being baptized, then it seems like I should not be granted an annulment and will not be allowed to remarry until “death do us part”. By the way, I’m not in a romantic relationship or eager to start dating, I just want to understand all that I will be committing to at confirmation. I understand the ramifications of each scenario but I suppose my question boils down to this, which marriage does the Catholic Church recognize?
    Thanks in advance to anyone willing to shed some light on this.

  41. Hi Paul,

    are you the Paul Weinhold from Dallas? Hi there!

    Apparently some of the Church Fathers thought that sex was a result of the Fall, but in any case I think we can rest assured that they were wrong, as this doctrine make absolutely no sense. I don’t see it as a robust part of “Catholic tradition” because in any case there’s no hint of it in, for example, John Paul II’s teachings about sexuality.

    Hi Allen,

    you say “If her first marriage was not valid due to not being baptized, then it seems like I should not be granted an annulment and will not be allowed to remarry until “death do us part”.”

    This is in no way grounds for being denied an annulment; if anything, the opposite. The fact that your previous marriage was her second marriage MAY in fact (but I’m not sure about this) be regarded as part of grounds for annulment. In any case, keep in mind that grounds for annulment come from the manner into which the union was entered.

  42. Thanks for the response, Paul. I met with my parish’s Tribunal person and she similarly explained the nature of grounds for annulment. Although she couldn’t guarantee anything, she said the “Prior Bond” grounds in my case should be simple and the process will be quick. Apparently, the process for many can take a year or more when it comes to determining the “manner into which the union was entered.” Once I complete the petition it will be sent to our diocesan tribunal. Although I plan to respect their decision, I also want to understand this for myself. Does the “indissolubility of Christian marriage” assume that both husband and wife were baptized beforehand? If so, would that mean that my former wife’s first marriage was not a “Christian marriage” and in turn makes “Prior Bond” not applicable in my case?

  43. Hi Allen,

    if either of the man or woman was not baptized, this increases the chance that the marriage in question will be considered not a sacramental bond, and thus can be considered null. May not be open-and-shut like some cases, but it should be grounds for a decree of nullity, in any case.


  44. Thanks Micah. That’s my concern. My ex-wife was not baptized before her first marriage, which means that bond may not be considered sacramental. Since she was baptized between her first marriage and when I married her, our marriage may be considered sacramental. I think “Prior Bond” may only be applicable if that first marriage is considered valid or sacramental. Prior Bond or “ligamen” is considered an informal case but the application includes dates of both marriages and baptismal dates for my ex-wife and myself. Nothing specific is asked about her first husband other than his name. I understand that this will be decided by a Tribunal which is an ecclesiastical court but I want to be sure that I’m not getting off on a technicality as I ultimately stand before God. I need to let the process play out and trust God to give the Tribunal wisdom to know the truth.

    This “Nullity of Marriage” issue along with my anticipated confirmation into the Catholic Church is a huge deal for me. When I was married I didn’t have an understanding of all the sacraments, but I did make a vow before God and fully planned to be married to her for life. Over three years ago she left my daughter and I for another man. During that time I’ve left the PCA and have been confirmed into the Anglican Church. Now I feel that I have an even fuller understanding of the Church Jesus established and have found the Roman Catholic Church. Much of this process has centered around dealing with divorce and beginning to understand the sacrament of marriage. If I’m received by the Catholic Church and not granted an annulment, so be it. As long as my ex-wife is alive, I’ll have to honor our marriage bond. This certainly isn’t anything like changing from one Protestant denomination to another. It has everything to do with accepting truth and not trying to play silly church games with God.

  45. Micah (re:#41):

    Hi! Yes, we meet again. I hope and pray that you’re doing well. We have a good group of RCIA candidates ready to join the Church at STA in a few days! Shelly and I have been volunteering, but we miss your presence during the small group discussions!

    You wrote:

    Apparently some of the Church Fathers thought that sex was a result of the Fall, but in any case I think we can rest assured that they were wrong, as this doctrine make absolutely no sense. I don’t see it as a robust part of “Catholic tradition” because in any case there’s no hint of it in, for example, John Paul II’s teachings about sexuality.

    Follow-up question: Do you (or does anybody) know of any Catholic prior to the mid-seventeenth century who taught that there was sex before the Fall?

  46. Hi Allen and Micah,

    I’m no canon lawyer or theologian (so take everything with a grain of salt for now), but I thought that marriages between two unbaptized non-Christians are always presumed to be real and full marriages, and that this presumption stays unless and until further information suggests otherwise. The use of the word “sacramental” here is just a confusion of terms.

    If your ex-wife was married to someone else before you, then, whether or not she was a baptized Protestant Christian, she was married to someone else. And that means she wasn’t supposed to marry you, because marriage is supposed to be for life — not just for Christians, but for everyone! And that means that you and your ex-wife (though no fault of your own, I’m sure, but rather just out of ignorance) shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place.

    That this makes things easier for you now (regarding an annulment) is not something to feel guilty about.

    See the following Canon Law Blog for some more information about the presumption of validity in canon law, and how to respond to those who deny it:

    There are only three circumstances I know of that would imply that your ex-wife’s first marriage was actually invalid:

    (1) Her first husband had already contracted a valid marriage with someone else before “marrying” her.

    (2) She or her husband clearly (in writing, for instance) said that they didn’t really mean the promises they made when they got married (apparently this happens in Italy, as my spiritual director once informed me).

    (3) She or her husband _were_ already baptized into the _Catholic_ Church, and then got married without their _Catholic_ bishop’s approval. So, was your ex-wife a baptized _Catholic_ before she got married, or was her husband? And did they get married without their Bishop’s approval? If so, then their first marriage was probably not valid, as I understand it. If you are part of the body of Christ, the Catholic Church, then you can’t have a valid marriage without your bishop’s approval, as Ignatius of Antioch taught in 107AD while traveling to Rome for his martyrdom.

    Again, I’m not an expert on this, but given that you didn’t mention either (1), (2) or (3) as possibilities, I think your fears seem to be unfounded, and I think that if your parish representatives have not already eased your heart, then you should discuss this with a priest who is also a competent canon lawyer so that you can finally set your heart at ease!


    K. Doran

  47. I should also add that I think that the confusion here (about how Prior Bond works for the unbaptized) may stem from the fact that a marriage in which one of the participants is baptized and the other is unbaptized can sometimes be validly ended, specifically by the Pauline or Petrine privileges. But that just adds another way for ecclesiastical authority to end a marriage. It doesn’t take away a presumption that the marriage was real.

    In other words, unless your ex-wife’s first marriage was ended by Catholic ecclesiastical authorities exercising the Pauline or Petrine privileges, or unless she was listed in one of the three categories above (and you may have to prove that she wasn’t in one of those three categories), she was not free to marry you and you guys shouldn’t have gotten married. Therefore, in such a case, the Church will recognize this fact, and decree that your marriage to your ex-wife was not valid, and that you are therefore now free to marry.


    K. Doran

  48. Paul Weinhold (#45):

    Oh my, of course that statement about the Puritans being the first is laughable. There were a couple Greek Fathers (e.g., St. Gregory of Nyssa) who thought there was not to be procreation as we know it now before the Fall. He thought this because he had a certain theory about the meaning of Genesis 3:21 indicating that corporality is itself somehow a result of sin. This gets into Nyssa’s anthropology, perhaps beyond the point here.

    The majority were like St. Augustine, who certainly thought that there was to be procreation by intercourse before the Fall and was hard on those who thought otherwise. St. Augustine’s struggle was trying to figure out whether there would have been any sexual concupiscentia in Paradise moving the human person apart from the will. That’s a technical discussion and has a lot to do with Augustine’s polemic with the Pelagians, believe it or not. Nonetheless, Augustine argues for sexual intercourse prior to the Fall, and speaks of the union of the sexes for the sake of procreation as one of the natural goods of marriage. For starters, see his City of God XIV.21-24 and his ep. *6 to Atticus, bishop of Constantinople. Also see his Marriage and Desire and–if you dare to go down the rabbit hole–his various polemical works against Julian (Answer to Julian, opus imperfectum).

    And, like, a lot of other theologians before the 17th century held that there was to be sexual intercourse before the fall as the means by which the command to be fruitful and multiply would be fulfilled by the first couple. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae Ia.98.1-2 for one example. The shorter list would be of those who denied it, for the opinion is more common among heretics who deny the goodness of marriage.


  49. Barrett #48:

    Excellent. Thank you VERY much for doing that research. After reading around in City of God 14 and Summa 98, I think I see the broad outline of the argument, which I’ll now try on for size. Augustine and Aquinas, but especially Augustine, seem to be working with the following facts: 1) There’s no sin before the Fall; 2) Human sexuality after the fall involves lust, if only because our sexual organs are not subject to reason and will (Cf. City of God14.24); 3) God told Adam and Eve to procreate before the Fall; 4) Adam and Eve had no children before the Fall; 5) the purpose of sex is procreation. So, if God told Adam and Eve to procreate before the Fall (#3), then He must have given them some way to make babies without sinning (#2). Augustine then infers that it must have been possible to do the deed without lusting, which, by the way, is consonant with Milton’s view of pre-lapsarian sexuality. But, if the purpose of sex is procreation (#5), and if Adam and Eve had no children before the Fall (#4), then Augustine thinks we should infer that Adam and Eve did not actually have sex prior to the Fall.

    That’s the best I can do for now. It is still difficult for me to imagine how Adam and Eve’s procreative functions would have been subject to reason and will. And, concordantly, I can’t understand exactly why sex would necessarily be procreative in Eden. Augustine has an easy retort to those difficulties, of course, since he could simply point out that my difficulty is the result of the Fall. But, for reasons beyond my ability to articulate at the moment, I still wouldn’t find that answer satisfying.

    Does anyone have further thoughts?


  50. Paul,

    That “research” was just off the top of my head, which is why I found the statement about the Puritans ignorant. There is so much which falsifies it.

    St. Augustine’s view of the marital act and sexual desire in the state of innocence is fascinating territory, as is St. Thomas’s, but perhaps this discussion is off-topic for the OP. If you want to talk more, use the “Contact” form at the top of the page.


  51. Hello, everyone. Could you please recommend some books that I could gift to a brother on the sacrament of marriage? In particular, I would like something that helps him to understand what marriage in the Catholic Church really means and to discern if he is really called to that with his girlfriend. I really like her, but I am concerned that differences in family/sexual ethics could lead to problems down the road. I am hoping that a good book could give my brother some direction. Thanks!

  52. Brian –

    My favorite book that I have read so far is, The Human Person according to John Paul II, by Fr. Brian Bransfield. It’s on the theoretical side, as opposed to the practical side. It touches on most of the important ethical issues and has an excellent section on the role of the virtues in the Christian life – married or otherwise.

  53. @Brian Ortiz (#51)

    Hello, everyone. Could you please recommend some books that I could gift to a brother on the sacrament of marriage? In particular, I would like something that helps him to understand what marriage in the Catholic Church really means and to discern if he is really called to that with his girlfriend. I really like her, but I am concerned that differences in family/sexual ethics could lead to problems down the road. I am hoping that a good book could give my brother some direction. Thanks!

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the only thing distinctive about Catholic sexual ethics is the fact that marriage is a Sacrament – something that needed to be revealed. Everything else about sexual ethics, including the indissolubility of marriage, is, in my understanding (Father Bryan O. may correct me here) a mattter of natural law. I think sometimes people think that things like no divorce or no artificial contraception are something just for Catholics.

    I found this book very helpful relating sexual ethics to natural law.


  54. Brian O (post #51),

    A good priest I know told me about Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s book “Marriage, the Mystery of Faithful Love”


    It’s about 50 pages but it really packs a punch. He has excellent insights.

  55. Thank you for the recommendations, guys. I really care for my brother, so I appreciate the help. If anyone else has a book in mind, please let me know.


  56. “The Church of the Fathers rejected divorce and remarriage, and did so out of obedience to the Gospel. On this question, the Fathers’ testimony is unanimous.” – Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in “The Power of Grace.” (October 23, 2013)

  57. I discussed the question of Cardinal Kasper’s proposed “doctrinal development” that would allow for divorced Catholics who enter into a “civil ‘marriage” with another person while their spouse is still living, to receive the Eucharist, in comments #48-52 of the “A Response to Scott Clark and Robert Godfrey on “The Lure of Rome”” thread, and provided there some links to additional resources on this question.

  58. The holiness and indissolubility of Christian matrimony, often disintegrating under tremendous pressure from the secular world, must be deepened by clear doctrine and supported by the witness of committed married couples. Christian matrimony is a lifelong covenant of love between one man and one woman; it entails real sacrifices in order to turn away from illusory notions of sexual freedom and in order to foster conjugal fidelity.

    – Pope Francis, April 25, 2014 (source)

  59. The document Instrumentum Laboris from the synod of bishops was published yesterday. Here I want to focus only on the last line in paragraph 103. That paragraph in full reads:

    Pastoral charity impels the Church to assist people who have suffered the breakdown of their marriage and are living with their situation relying on the grace of Christ. A more painful wound results when these people remarry and enter a state of life which does not allow them to receive Holy Communion. Clearly, in these cases, the Church must not assume an attitude of a judge who condemns (cf. Pope Francis, Homily, 28 February 2014), but that of a mother who always receives her children and nurses their wounds so they may heal (cf. GE, 139-141). With great mercy, the Church is called to find forms of “accompaniment” which can support her children on the path of reconciliation. With patience and understanding, she must explain to these people that their not being able to celebrate the sacraments does not mean that they are excluded from the Christian life and a relationship with God.

    That last line is related to the following paragraph from Cardinal Kasper’s May 7, 2014 Commonweal interview titled “Merciful God, Merciful Church:”

    To those who say, “Well, they are in a sinful situation,” I would say: Pope Benedict XVI has already said that such Catholics can receive spiritual communion. Spiritual communion is to be one with Christ. But if I am one with Christ, I cannot be in a situation of grave sin. So if they can receive spiritual communion, why not also sacramental Communion? I think there are also problems in the traditional position, and Pope Benedict reflected a lot about this, and he said that they must have means of salvation and spiritual communion. But spiritual communion goes very far: it’s being one with Christ. Why should these people be excluded from the other Communion? Being in spiritual communion with Christ means God has forgiven this person. So the church, though the sacrament of forgiveness, should also be able to forgive if God does it. Otherwise there is an opposition between God and church—and that would be a great problem.

    Here’s what Pope Benedict said in 2007, and to which Cardinal Kasper is referring:

    Even in cases where it is not possible to receive sacramental communion, participation at Mass remains necessary, important, meaningful and fruitful. In such circumstances it is beneficial to cultivate a desire for full union with Christ through the practice of spiritual communion, praised by Pope John Paul II and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life. (Sacramentum Caritatis, 55)

    In a homily on June 22, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said:

    Moreover, those who cannot receive Communion because of their situation will find a saving power and effectiveness in a Communion of desire and from participation at the Eucharist.

    And in 2003, Pope St. John Paul II said:

    Precisely for this reason it is good to cultivate in our hearts a constant desire for the sacrament of the Eucharist. This was the origin of the practice of “spiritual communion”, which has happily been established in the Church for centuries and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life. Saint Teresa of Jesus wrote: “When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you.” (Ecclesia De Eucharistia, 34)

    There are two ways of receiving the Eucharist: spiritually and sacramentally. We receive the Eucharist sacramentally when we eat the Host and drink the Precious Blood. But spiritual communion for those in a state of grace is not the same as spiritual communion (or communion of desire) for those not in a state of grace. Spiritual communion for those in a state of grace involves the immediate reception of sanctifying grace and the supernatural virtue of charity. But for those not in a state of grace, spiritual communion involves the immediate reception only of actual grace, by which they may come to be moved to contrition and justification through the reception of sanctifying grace and the supernatural virtue of charity. (On the distinction between actual grace and sanctifying grace, see here.)

    Because the person having sanctifying grace has the virtue of charity, and the person not having sanctifying grace does not have the virtue of charity, and because spiritual communion is rooted in charity, therefore the spiritual communion of the one in a state of grace is not the same as the spiritual communion of the one not in a state of grace. The spiritual communion of the one in a state of grace is that of friendship with God, with love for Him above all other things. But the person who is not in a state of grace remains in mortal sin, and therefore his spiritual communion is the divine movement of actual grace in his heart, and his cry to God for help, but not from a state of friendship with God or love for Him above all other things. Such a person is as was St. Augustine prior to his conversion, when he said to God, “Give me chastity, but not yet.”

    A person who commits a sin whose object is grave, and commits it with full knowledge and deliberate consent is in a condition of mortal sin until he repents. Adultery is one of the grave sins. (See CCC 1857-59) So a Catholic who with full knowledge and deliberate consent remains in a state of adultery, and is unwilling to repent is not in a state of grace. The person who with full knowledge and deliberate consent is living in the grave sin of adultery, and not sufficiently contrite to repent, can benefit from communion of desire whereby he receives additional actual grace by which he may repent. But such a person does not receive sanctifying grace and the virtue of charity, unless he is brought to contrition in which he turns from mortal sin and its occasion.

    The problem in the paragraph from Cardinal Kasper’s interview quoted above is treating these two kinds of spiritual communion as though they are identical, and thus equivocating on the term “spiritual communion.” He says “spiritual communion is to be one with Christ.” That’s true for the person in a state of grace, but not true for the person still in mortal sin. Then he says, “Being in spiritual communion with Christ means God has forgiven this person. So the church, through the sacrament of forgiveness, should also be able to forgive if God does.” That’s true too, but the spiritual communion that means God has forgiven this person is only the spiritual communion of the person in a state of grace, not the spiritual communion of the person remaining in mortal sin. The person who, with full knowledge and deliberate consent is unwilling to depart from grave sin is not yet forgiven, because it is impossible to be simultaneously in mortal sin (unwilling to repent) and forgiven. (See the links in comment #81 of “St. Paul on Justification.”) So the problem in what Cardinal Kasper says in that paragraph is that under the ambiguity of the term ‘spiritual communion’ there is a conflation of the spiritual communion possible for a person in a state of grace with the spiritual communion possible for a person in mortal sin.

    This takes us back to the last sentence in paragraph #103 of Instrumentum Laboris, which reads:

    With patience and understanding, she must explain to these people that their not being able to celebrate the sacraments does not mean that they are excluded from the Christian life and a relationship with God.

    It is important to be clear here. The person who, because he is with full knowledge and deliberate consent unwilling to repent of grave sin but wills instead to remain in that sin, is not able to receive the Eucharist sacramentally, in some sense is not excluded from the Christian life and a relationship with God, but in some sense is excluded from the Christian life and a relationship with God. If this person is in a state of mortal sin, and does not have the supernatural virtue of charity, the way of Christ and the way to Christ still remain open to him so long as he has breath. He may, with the aid of actual grace, seek to draw near to God, and by that actual grace come to repentance and reconciliation with God and the Church, just as St. Augustine eventually did. That’s the sense in which the Christian life and a relationship with God remain open to him. But the person unwilling to repent of grave sin committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent, is in an important sense truly excluded from the Christian life and a relationship with God, because while in mortal sin he does not have the very essence of Christian life, which is sanctifying grace, i.e. a participation in the divine life. Nor does he enjoy friendship with God, though not because God is not reaching out in friendship toward him, but rather because by this person’s choice to remain in sin, he has cut himself off from friendship with God, and does not have the supernatural virtue of charity without which there is no friendship with God.

    Of course we should not overlook the possibility that a person may choose to remain in the grave sin of adultery without either full knowledge or deliberate consent, and so not be in a state of mortal sin, and hence still in a state of grace. If a person were in this condition, he would have spiritual communion in the sense of shared friendship with God. But as soon as he came to know with full knowledge the gravity of the sin of adultery, and with deliberate consent chose to remain in that sin, he would no longer have spiritual communion in the sense of shared friendship with God or love for God above all things, but only in the sense of receiving the divine movement of actual grace in his heart, and lifting up his heart to God for help.

    If I have written here anything erroneous, I submit it to the judgment and correction of the magisterium of the holy Catholic Church.

    Update: Fr. Cummings’ “What Cardinal Kasper Really Said About Divorce” shows the importance of the distinction between absolute certitude and moral certitude regarding whether a person is or is not in a state of grace. See also Pope Benedict’s answer to this question (about communion for the divorced and ‘remarried’ and spiritual communion) in his 2005 meeting with the diocesan clergy of Aosta, his 1998 article (as Cardinal Ratzinger) “Concerning some objections to the Church’s teaching on the reception of Holy Communion by divorced and remarried members of the faithful,” reprinted in the November 30, 2011 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, and paragraph 29 of his 2007 Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis. Pope Benedict has republished (in November of 2014) his 1972 article, but revised his original conclusion (see here and here). The English translation of the revised concluding section of that article can be read here.

    Update 2: Cardinal Kasper’s errors in other areas of theology (see also here) ought to give us more pause regarding his proposed development in the area of communion for the divorced. And as Cardinal Kasper recently clarified, Pope Francis has not endorsed Cardinal Kasper’s proposal concerning communion for Catholics divorced and ‘remarried’ under civil law.

  60. In “Cardinal Kasper and the Church Fathers,” Adam G. Cooper, senior lecturer at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage & Family in Melbourne, Australia, examines Cardinal Kasper’s appeal to Origin, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, and the Council of Nicea, regarding the question of the reception of Eucharist by those who divorce and remarry while their spouse is still living. Cooper’s analysis of these patristic and conciliar sources is in agreement with what I have written in the body of the article above.

    Update: Robert Spaemann’s “Divorce and Remarriage” explains why time does not itself right a disorder that requires repentance and either continence or reconciliation with one’s spouse.

    And David Schütz helpfully explains what is wrong with Cardinal Kasper’s argument in his Sept. 15, 2014 article titled “The Message of Mercy.”

  61. This “reading all things Catholic” I’ve been doing over the past few months has made me come to realize that I’ve always been much more of a Catholic thinker than a Protestant one, and this article is one of those instances where I keep nodding my head in agreement. I’ve never understood how the majority of Protestants can read ALL the scriptures on divorce and separation and not come to the conclusion that remarriage after a divorce is forbidden.

    I can’t tell you the number of my Protestant friends who are remarried and not necessarily based due to adultery on behalf of their spouse either, but this is never questioned. Granted this is more common in some Protestant denominations than others, but it is certainly becoming more and more common in all of them. There is a woman in my Presbyterian congregation who claimed an abusive husband (some sort of sexual deviancy) and who separated from him. Part of her separation agreement has been that she gets his pension payment from his workplace for as long as she remains separated/single. So, because she doesn’t want to give up this money, she’s not divorcing her husband, and is just dating this other fellow who she has been bringing to church. The hand-holding and affection are quite open and nobody says a word. My son who is 24 found out about it, walked up to the minister and said, “We need to talk NOW”. :/

    Somehow this article has increased my understanding not just about marriage, but about the nature of Christ and His Bride, the Church. Once again, there are a few more nails in my Protestant coffin; and a little more panic in my heart as I stand at this crossroad called Rome. How can I, a faithful Protestant Christian for 35 years, actually be contemplating becoming a Catholic? Me? I’ve been to Mass three times now and have been on the verge of getting panicky thinking about this. And yet I seem driven, impelled, compelled to keep on reading and reading, sometimes for up to 4 hours a night. Pray for me that my heart would have the courage to do what my mind seems already to understand.

  62. Oh I forgot to mention; what is the difference in understanding between the words that are translated as either divorce or separated in Scripture? Is there a reason why they are translated differently? Are they different in the original languages? Is there a difference in the way the Catholic church understands those terms? For instance, in the Gospels Jesus uses the term divorce, but in Corinthians 7, Paul uses the term separates.

  63. Jennifer,

    I think all of us here can relate to that “panic” sense you describe, upon realizing that you may have to make a major change. It is unsettling. But at the same time, if I may speak as one who has walked this path, all that is good and true is preserved in the shift. The Scriptures, for example, are retained and now opened up more fully by way of the Tradition. And that is comforting. What is most difficult is leaving a beloved community. That separation is painful, and is one of the primary reasons we do what we do here, namely, to help bring an end to the schism, and reconcile presently divided communities.

    Regarding your question, Jesus uses the word [ἀπολύω] and its cognates in speaking of divorce, as can be seen in the section above on the relevant New Testament passages. St. Paul in 1 Cor. 7:10-12 uses two terms. He says that a wife should not separate [χωρισθῆναι] from her husband, and also says that a husband should not divorce [ἀφιέναι] his wife. So he uses the terms [χωρίζω] and [ἀφίημι]. Lexically these three terms have different nuances, but doctrinally, the Catholic Church does not treat these as referring to different types of divorce, or different types of separation.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  64. Ok. Could it be then that the term used for the husband “divorcing” his wife is used because legally only a husband could do that, whereas a wife could only separate in a non-binding sense? Just curious.

    My son is also feeling the panic as I explain to him what I’ve been finding out, and my one daughter is also feeling slightly strained. I think my oldest will feel worst of all, but I haven’t had the courage to tell her what I’m thinking yet. I will have to soon enough.

    Thank you for all you do here, and at other places like EWTN, Journey Home, New Advent etc. I have found them all very, very friendly, encouraging, accurate and helpful. As much as it panics and distresses me, and all of us here on this earth who love God, it must have broken Christ’s heart to see his people torn into thousands of pieces; His very Body torn apart and cast into the wind.

  65. Jennifer,
    This is not on the topic of the blog post, but I just want to encourage you in your journey. My husband and I were received into the church at this year’s Easter vigil. When we came to the realization through our readings that because our consciences were already bound to Scripture and Christ Himself, that we must be in full communion with the Catholic Church, we panicked as well. I have always been a people-pleaser and I was so worried about what others would think of me and what they would say about me. I won’t pretend that it’s all been easy, but it has been well worth it. May the Lord bless you and keep you!

  66. Jennifer, (re: #64)

    Could it be then that the term used for the husband “divorcing” his wife is used because legally only a husband could do that, whereas a wife could only separate in a non-binding sense?

    That doesn’t seem to be the case at least for the term Jesus uses [ἀπολύω], because in Mark 10:12 He uses the same term for the wife divorcing her husband: “and if she herself divorces [ἀπολύσασα] her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  67. Nova et Vetera just published an article titled “Recent Proposals for the Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried: A Theological Assessment.” Vol. 12, No. 3 (2014): 601-630. It is authored by seven Dominicans and a canon lawyer. The article includes a section explaining the equivocation resting on the ambiguity in Cardinal Kasper’s use of the term “spiritual communion,” which I described in comment #59 above. The pdf of the article is available here. See also the Summer 2014 issue of Communio, which is focused on the question of marriage.

  68. Bryan, thank you for clarifying my question on the two separate terms, divorce and separate. Also thank you for the link to the pdf in #67. The article was fantastic and rock solid! I highly recommend it for anyone with questions on the sanctity of marriage and the issue of divorce and remarriage. It is very clearly written.

    As a Protestant who is currently 6 years separated from my abusive husband (3 1/2 months in a women’s shelter and 3 1/2 years in counselling), and whose “christian” husband is now in an adulterous relationship with a divorcee and both of them attending another Protestant church, (my point being that if anyone could bring about an emotional plea and argument for divorce and remarriage, I could), I unequivocally agree with everything that article says. I always have deep down, but it is so hugely relieving to me to see it written out with the authority of the Church thrown behind it. I know some people chafe at the idea of the authority of the Catholic Church, but believe me, it is better than flailing under the lack of authority under Protestantism.

  69. Jennifer (re: #68)

    I’m glad you found the article in #67 helpful. I’m also sorry to hear about the suffering you have been through, at the hands of others who at some point claimed to love you. May the Lord give you strength, healing, and true peace.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  70. Thank you, and He has already, very much so! And I think even more of that will come as I further grow in understanding of His Church.

  71. Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller recently gave an interview titled “The True Dimension of God’s Mercy” on the subject of marriage and divorce. There he says:

    Not even an ecumenical council can change the doctrine of the Church, because its founder, Jesus Christ, has entrusted the faithful custody of his teachings and his doctrine to the apostles and their successors. We have a well-developed and structured doctrine on marriage, based on the word of Jesus, which must be offered in its integrity. The absolute indissolubility of a valid marriage is not a mere doctrine, but rather a divine dogma that has been defined by the Church.

  72. Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, October 7, 2014)

    In this volume five Cardinals of the Church, and four other scholars, respond to the call issued by Cardinal Walter Kasper for the Church to harmonize “fidelity and mercy in its pastoral practice with civilly remarried, divorced people”.

    Beginning with a concise introduction, the first part of the book is dedicated to the primary biblical texts pertaining to divorce and remarriage, and the second part is an examination of the teaching and practice prevalent in the early Church. In neither of these cases, biblical or patristic, do these scholars find support for the kind of “toleration” of civil marriages following divorce advocated by Cardinal Kasper. This book also examines the Eastern Orthodox practice of oikonomia (understood as “mercy” implying “toleration”) in cases of remarriage after divorce and in the context of the vexed question of Eucharistic communion. It traces the centuries long history of Catholic resistance to this convention, revealing serious theological and canonical difficulties inherent in past and current Orthodox Church practice.

    Thus, in the second part of the book, the authors argue in favor of retaining the theological and canonical rationale for the intrinsic connection between traditional Catholic doctrine and sacramental discipline concerning marriage and communion.

    The various studies in this book lead to the conclusion that the Church’s longstanding fidelity to the truth of marriage constitutes the irrevocable foundation of its merciful and loving response to the individual who is civilly divorced and remarried. The book therefore challenges the premise that traditional Catholic doctrine and contemporary pastoral practice are in contradiction.

  73. Some resources on the question of marriage and divorce:

    In March of 2014, Cardinal Burke discussed this question with Raymond Arroyo:

    See also the interview with Cardinal Caffarra, the comments by Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the comments by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, the article titled “The Remarried Divorcees and the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance” by Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, Cardinal O’Malley’s “The Church Will Not Change Her Teaching on Marriage,” and Cardinal Collins “Toronto Cardinal: Catholic Teaching on Divorce ‘Not Open to Change.’”

    Also see Bishop Philip Egan’s comments, the comments on this topic by Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D. professor of systematic theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI. See also the piece by Juan José Perez Soba titled “Renowned Theology Scholar Issues Strong Critique of Cardinal Kasper’s Speech on Marriage.” See also Prof. John Rist’s “Remarriage, Divorce and Communion: Patristic Light on a Recent Problem.” See also Msgr. Pope’s “The Church Cannot Change Her Doctrine on Marriage and Divorce. Concerns for the Upcoming Synod.” See also “The Merciful Gift of Indissolubility and the Question of Pastoral Care for Civilly Divorced and Remarried Catholics” by Nicholas J. Healy, assistant professor of philosophy and culture at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

    Cardinal Burke also recently discussed this question with Thomas McKenna:

    And again with Raymond Arroyo:

    And again, Cardinal Burke gave a talk on this subject on November 4, 2014:

  74. The Humanum Interreligious Colloquium on The Complementarity of Man and Woman has produced the following beautiful video series on marriage:

    The Destiny of Humanity: On the Meaning of Marriage

    The Cradle of Life & Love: A Mother & Father for the World’s Children

    Understanding Man & Woman | Part 3 of 6 of The Humanum Series

    A Hidden Sweetness: The Power of Marriage Amid Hardship

    Challenge & Hope for a New Generation

    Marriage, Culture, & Civil Society

  75. In comment #59 above, I wrote about the importance of distinguishing between ‘spiritual communion’ for those in a state of grace, and ‘spiritual communion’ for those not in a state of grace. I pointed out that Cardinal Kasper’s argument depended on a conflation of these two senses of the term ‘spiritual communion.’ Recently Paul Keller O.P. has published an article titled “Is Spiritual Communion for Everyone?” in Nova et Vetera, in which he explains this distinction in more detail. See especially the section titled “Who May Make a Spiritual Communion?” that begins on page 642 and ends on page 645.

  76. I just wanted to express my gratitude for this great article bringing together so completely the teaching of the Fathers and of the whole development of Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce. I am presently writing a study on the Cardinal Kasper “proposal” for a graduate theology class, and your article has been very helpful in my research. I will of course reference your link in my paper.

  77. E. Christian Brugger, the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology, at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado, recently wrote the following essay, titled “But This the Catholic Church Cannot Do.”

    Dear Archbishop,

    In anticipation of the coming assembly of the synod of bishops in October, I write to address a disputed point concerning the Council of Trent’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

    Some are arguing that the Catholic Church can adopt a limited practice of divorce and remarriage on grounds similar to the Orthodox pastoral principle of “oikonomia”, and do so without denying the Catholic doctrine of indissolubility. They argue that the Council of Trent, in one of its canons on indissolubility (Canon 7), implicitly taught that the Greek practice was not erroneous, and so the council left open the possibility of a “pastoral” compromise permitting some who are in sacramental marriages to remarry while their first spouses still live.

    The view both misunderstands the Catholic doctrine of indissolubility and badly misrepresents the intentions of the Council of Trent.

    In August 1563, the Council granted a petition to a delegation from the Republic of Venice to speak on the most recent formulation of the canon, which directly condemned anyone who says that marriage can be dissolved on account of adultery.

    The Venetian legates explained that in certain territories under Venice’s political jurisdiction, the majority of inhabitants, who were Greek Christians, live in singular but fragile unity with the Roman Church. The Venetian government permits the Greek archpriests to exercise limited rule over Greek clergy and liturgy, while the Greek inhabitants submit to the loosely defined jurisdiction of the territories’ Roman appointed bishops and periodically profess acknowledgement of the authority of Rome. And while subject and obedient to Roman authority, the Greeks maintain a “most ancient ‘ritus’ of their fathers” which permits them to dismiss an adulterous wife and marry another, a tradition known to and tolerated by the Roman Church. Publishing an anathema now would burden the Greeks, confuse them, and incite their rebellion against Rome. The delegation entreated the Council to moderate the language of the canon to relieve the Greeks of the burden of falling under an anathema.

    In response the Council adopted a revised formulation for Canon 7. It reads:

    “If anyone says the church errs, when she taught and teaches, in accordance with the evangelical and apostolic doctrine, that the bond of marriage cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of a spouse, and that neither spouse, even the innocent one, who gave no cause for adultery, can contract another marriage while the other spouse is living, and that he commits adultery who dismisses an adulterous wife and marries another, and she commits adultery who dismisses an adulterous husband and marries another: let him be anathema.”

    We see that Trent adopted an indirect formulation for the canon. Rather than condemning anyone who says that marriage isn’t indissoluble in cases of adultery, it condemns anyone who says “the Church errs” when she taught and teaches that marriage is indissoluble in cases of adultery.

    The turn to an indirect formulation has occasioned much dispute over the centuries about the precise meaning of the canon. I would like to offer some insights that became clear to me while researching and writing a coming book entitled, “Till Death Do Us Part: The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent.”

    Canon 7 dogmatically defines that the Church is inerrant when she taught and teaches that marriage is indissoluble in cases of adultery. This means that the Catholic Church’s teaching is certainly true. The implications of this are very significant for the Greek practice. Adultery was the primary ground to which both Protestants and Greeks appealed at the time of Trent to justify divorce and remarriage (“adultery” being the common 16th century understanding of the biblical Greek term “porneia” as used by Matthew in the so-called “exceptive clause” – “except in cases of adultery” – in Mt. 5:32 and 19:19). In teaching the inerrancy of the Church in teaching that proposition, Canon 7 teaches that Matthew does not establish a real exception to the indissolubility of marriage. The clear implication for Protestants and Greeks alike is that if Matthew does not teach a real exception, then the indissolubility of a consummated Christian marriage is absolute.

    This conclusion is supported by the fact that in the doctrinal introduction to the treatise on marriage (the “Doctrina”), which immediately precedes the dogmatic canons, the Council asserts twice that the perpetual and indissoluble character of the marriage bond is a truth of divine revelation. Because the scope of indissolubility is not specified in the Doctrina to cases of adultery, or qualified by any circumstance, but rather taught in an unqualified way, we know that Trent means to refer to absolute indissolubility. Moreover, Trent’s own teaching in the “Doctrina” is an instance of the Church’s teaching that Canon 7 solemnly defines to be inerrant.

    But what did Trent concede in adopting an indirect formulation for Canon 7? To answer this we need to look more closely at what the Venetian delegation’s intervention implied.

    It implied the following:

    1) When the Venetians, who were Catholic, took control of the relevant territorial possessions, people there were Greek Orthodox and they practiced divorce and remarriage;

    2) bishops named by the pope were installed to govern those churches;

    3) the Greek priests and people accepted the bishops and acknowledged papal primacy;

    4) some of the priests and people did not give up practicing divorce and remarriage;

    5) and the bishops were tolerating that practice.

    Doesn’t this show that the Catholic Church admits that divorce and remarriage are possible and that marriage is dissoluble? No. The way the Council defined the truth of the Catholic Church’s teaching, which it took great care to set out in the “Doctrina,” Canon 5 and Canon 7, makes clear that the Council did not accept the truth of the necessary presupposition of the Greek Orthodox practice, and thus did not admit that the practice was sound.

    Had the Council kept the direct formulation, the anathema would have ended that toleration. The petitioners claimed doing so would result in ending those Christians’ acceptance of papal authority. Thus, by agreeing to the indirect formulation, the Council accepted divorce and remarriage within those particular churches united imperfectly as they were with the Catholic Church. Still, what Trent did makes it clear that the Catholic Church can accept the practice of divorce and remarriage by some of its members who do not believe that marriage is indissoluble.

    Doesn’t this show, that the Catholic Church, as Walter Kasper argues, can adopt a pastoral principle similar to “oikonomia”, where in the “economy” of salvation the church permits spouses in consummated sacramental marriages to divorce and remarry as a way “to accompany people when they make their incremental approach to life’s goal”, and do so without denying the doctrine of indissolubility? No. All it shows is that some particular churches can be in partial but not complete communion with the Catholic Church, and that the Catholic Church can welcome their communion such as it is while tolerating their residual schism despite its presupposition of a proposition that contradicts a truth that the Catholic Church holds to be divinely revealed.

    The Council of Florence (1445), where a short-lived reunion with the Greeks was effected, established a precedent for what Trent is doing in Canon 7. The fathers at Florence knew that the Greeks practiced divorce and remarriage. But the Council did not require as a condition for reunion that they profess what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage. The council fathers at Trent believed that if the bishops of the Greek churches declared their faith in the primacy of the pope, but continued allowing divorce and remarriage, the Catholic Church could welcome the improved relationship with those particular churches even though communion with them remained imperfect.

    But the proposal to adopt “oikonomia” means that the Catholic Church itself could adopt a practice that presupposes the falsity of its belief that the absolute indissolubility of marriage is divinely revealed. This the Catholic Church cannot do. Vatican II adopted a similar approach when it addressed ecumenism. It did not focus upon elements of disunity between Catholics and Orthodox, but elements of residual communion. It referred to the Eastern Orthodox as real churches, with real sacraments and holy orders. It avoided statements on the defects in the Eastern positions that make communion imperfect. By not condemning those defects, Vatican II does not mean the Catholic Church believes those positions are not false and contrary to the faith, and that the practices founded upon them are not contrary to the moral order. It means the beliefs and practices are not incompatible with partial communion. It means the Catholic Church and Orthodox churches are not completely out of communion.

    Pope Paul VI’s act of raising the anathema against the Orthodox Church of Constantinople during Vatican II in November 1965 has a meaning similar to Trent’s decision not to impose the anathema in Canon 7. In neither case did the actions imply that all obstacles to full communion had been overcome. Yet both showed that real but imperfect communion exists.

    Whatever pastoral solutions the Church adopts for dealing with the global crisis of divorced and “remarried” Catholics, it cannot approve the Greek Orthodox principle of “oikonomia” or any other form of divorce and “remarriage” without being unfaithful to the teaching of Jesus, reaffirmed by the Council of Trent, that consummated sacramental marriages are absolutely indissoluble.

    Faithfully yours in Jesus,

    E. Christian Brugger
    J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology
    St. John Vianney Theological Seminary
    Denver, Colorado

    August 15, 2015
    Feast of the Assumption

  78. The Final Report of the Synod of Bishops to the Holy Father, Pope Francis,” October 24, 2015.

  79. Hi Bryan,
    I find the letter of E. Christian Brugger to be very curious for dwelling on the example of the Greeks under Venetian rule. I think there are more complicated examples that deserve a mention. Firstly, the Greeks, Bulgarians, Syrians, Georgians before the schism (1054) practiced divorce and were in communion with Rome. How was this allowed?
    Secondly, the Ukrainian Catholic Church allowed divorce well into the 19th century, 3 centuries into its union with Rome. Again, how was this allowed to continue for so long?

  80. Hi Bryan,
    I was checking some of your patristics quotes against my translations that I own. I have a copy of the Panarion of St. Epiphanies of Salamis, Volume 2 (translated by Frank Williams), Brill: Leiden, 2013 (revised second edition). On pages 107-8 in his section against the Cathari (or Novatianists) is the quote about marriage and divorce. It says
    “But can be tolerated the laity as a concession to weakness – even remarriage after the first wife’s death by those who cannot stop with the first wife. And the husband of [only] one wife is more highly respected and honoured by all members of the church. But if the man could not be content with one wife, who had died, if there has been a divorce for some reason – fornication, adultery or something else – and the man marries a second wife or the woman a second husband , God’s word does not censure them or bar them from the church and life, but tolerates them because of their weakness. The holy word and God’s holy church show mercy to such a person, particularly if he is devout otherwise and lives by God’s law – not by letting him have two wives at once while the one is still alive, but him marry a second wife lawfully if the opportunity arises, after being parted from the first.”
    This is close to what you quoted but it is clear that Epiphanius is not just talking about remarriage after a first wife has died but also if she is still alive (it says so clearly). The translator has a note to the effect that Epiphanius’s leniency is surprising. Epiphanius then spends the next page discussing forgiveness, which seems to fit the context of allowing a second marriage after a divorce. Since this is about the Novatianists it means their rejection of second marriages (which Epiphanius notes) is about divorce as well as remarriage after a spouse has died.
    I was wondering which author states that the Novatianists rejected second marriages other than Nicaea Canon 8 and Epiphanius? Do any of these clearly state that this rejection was a second marriage of a widow or widower?

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