Hünermann’s “Way Forward” is a Dead End

The aged German theologian, Peter Hünermann, is no stranger to ecclesial conflict. His name has arisen once again, now in regard to the recent Vatican media scandal, where Monsignor Dario Edoardo Viganò publicized a fragment of a personal and confidential letter by Benedict XVI to Pope Francis in such a way as to falsely suggest that Benedict supported the content of “eleven books” (one by Hünermann) that had been presented to him by the pope. In fact, Benedict was surprised to learn that Hünermann was one of the authors given that during his pontificate the German theologian “put himself in the spotlight by heading anti-papal initiatives.”

Since the theological ideas of Hünermann have exercised considerable influence over Pope Francis, it is worth looking at what the German theologian thinks about the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage, on which he claims to have advised the pope.

In an interview in 2016 published in Commonweal, Hünermann replied to the following question related to the indissolubility of marriage: “Can you say something about how you understand the theology of marriage, as you conveyed it to the pope?”

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By way of answer, Hünermann turns his sights on the great papal encyclical of Pope Pius XI, On Christian Marriage (Casti Connubii, 1930). He says the encyclical’s account of marriage was “not informed by systematic theology” and so “could not deal satisfactorily with the complexities of the situation we face today.” And then responding to those “complexities” he proposes as “a way forward” a rejection of the doctrine of the absolute indissolubility of a consummated Christian marriage.

Hünermann’s account, however, is problematic in three ways: (1) it misconstrues Catholic tradition on marriage and the sacrament; (2) it badly misreads and so misrepresents Casti Connubii; and (3) it proposes a false (indeed a heretical) “pastoral solution.”

A mature sacramental understanding of marriage, as Hünermann rightly notes, did not develop until the Middle Ages. But (pace Hünermann) this had little influence on the Church’s ancient understanding of marriage’s indissolubility. The Catholic Church taught from apostolic times that all marriages, natural and sacramental, are indissoluble. The Fathers of East and West affirmed this unanimously, as the great patristic historian Henri Crouzel showed. And Trent infallibly defined the absolute indissolubility of sacramental marriage as an irreformable dogma of faith, as I show in my book on the The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent. The Eastern Church formally denied the doctrine of indissolubility in the ninth century; and Luther and Calvin denied it for Protestant Christianity in the sixteenth century. But the Catholic Church has maintained its teaching uninterrupted till today.

Hünermann claims that the author of Casti Connubii did not know that the indissolubility of marriage comes from its nature, that marriage, as Jesus teaches, was indissoluble “from the beginning” (Matt. 19:8-9). Hünermann says Casti teaches that marriage is made indissoluble by the sacrament: “marriage is transformed in sacramental reality in that it becomes indissoluble.” This is a misrepresentation. Casti does no more than affirm the correlation between marriage’s sacramentality and its indissolubility. Casti nowhere denies that the natural covenant is indissoluble, and even suggests it in paragraph numbers 8-10. Indeed, how could it deny it? Jesus explicitly taught the indissolubility of natural marriage in the Gospels, and the Church authoritatively affirmed it for twenty centuries.

But it is true that Pius reaffirms only the absolute indissolubility of consummated sacramental marriages. (After all, his encyclical was on Christian marriage.) The pope was no doubt aware of the fact that at Trent, some fathers, although a minority, believed that natural, non-sacramental marriage was only indissoluble to the couple themselves, but that the Church could dissolve their marriages. In order not to definitively resolve this question, the Council chose only to resolve the question of whether consummated Christian marriages were absolutely indissoluble; and in Canons 5 and 7 of its teaching on the Sacrament of Matrimony, Trent did precisely this.

The text of Casti Connubii illustrates that Pius knew well the theology of the sacrament of marriage; and that he knew too that the early Church’s use of the term “sacrament” was as yet undeveloped. In Casti’s discussion of Augustine’s three “boni”—three goods—of marriage (CC, no. 31-36), Pius carefully avoids implying that Augustine’s use of the term “sacramentum” is coextensive with the Church’s later developed understanding of the same term. In fact, when Pius refers to Augustine’s use of the term “sacramentum” (e.g., CC, no. 31), Pius uses capitals (“SACRAMENTUM”) to indicate it is Augustine’s and not the Church’s developed sense by which the term should be construed at that point in his text. Unfortunately, the English translation confusingly drops the capitals.

The upshot of Hünermann’s account is to say that because Pius misunderstood the history and nature of the sacrament of marriage, the Church can now finally acknowledge that marriage is dissoluble. Hünermann writes:

So there is a way forward… If indissolubility refers to the nature of marriage, it is quite clear that [due to a failure of human cooperation] it can break down. Situations can arise where it is impossible to continue in marriage. If there are children and so on, one has to deal with the individual situation and attempt to find a pastoral solution.

But Hünermann’s “way forward” is a dead end. Because although it is true that the society of a marriage (i.e., the community of married life) can and often does break down, the Catholic Church at Trent infallibly rejected the claim that the bond (the “vinculum”) of a consummated sacramental marriage can break down. So what is “quite clear” is quite the opposite of what Hünermann claims. Nothing but the death of one of the spouses can dissolve (“break down”) a consummated sacramental marriage.

It follows, that any attempt by a validly married Catholic to “marry” again while his or her spouse still lives is not only illicit, but—as the Fathers at Trent and Vatican II insisted—impossible.

Further, if he or she engages in sexual intercourse with anyone other than a valid spouse, he or she commits adultery. And any “pastoral solution” that proposes the contrary is inconsistent with Catholic faith and morals.


  • E. Christian Brugger

    E. Christian Brugger is a senior research fellow of ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, D.C. In 2016 he was a theological consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine. He has served as dean of the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Australia, and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Professor of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. He is the author of The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent (Catholic University of America Press, 2017). He lives in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, with his wife and five children.

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