The Tradition Speaks With One Voice on Divorce & Remarriage

The vocation of the Church historian and historical theologian is similar to that of the Catholic philosopher: to serve as a handmaid to theology, the queen of the sciences. Church history is distinct from secular academic history in that—as a subset of theology—it has the ability to incorporate the insights of revelation. In Church history we are able to witness the unfolding of providence and are privileged to study the action of God in human affairs. Unlike postmodern, secular history, Church historians ought not be transfixed on the zeitgeist or on present problems. Indeed they have the benefit of being able to share a sliver of the eternal “now” of God, demonstrating to the Church the perennial tradition which connects contemporary Christians to the communion of saints in an unbroken line back to the Incarnation of God himself.

In recent days many statements of concern have been issued, particularly by theologians, philosophers, and pastors regarding the interpretations and implications of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Many of these are focused on the challenges presented by the document to recent magisterial statements, particularly those of St. John Paul II. Others are rightly concerned about the document’s ramifications for anthropology and philosophy. I should like to provide a perspective from historical theology.

Far too often men and women in the contemporary Church are infected with a vice of presentism, a prioritization of the recent over the perennial. Indeed on both right and left, many ignore the chorus of tradition that sings in marvelous harmony to us, communicating without dissonance (especially in this case) the voice of Faith from the earliest days of the Church. To value tradition is to reject the magisterial positivism seen today on all sides of the issue, and to realize that the living teaching office of the Church has not only a horizontal aspect (all the pastors of the faith currently living), but also a vertical one incorporating the voices of the Fathers, the Councils, the popes, the saints, and the lived cultural expressions of the Christian faith, undergirded by the experiences and contributions of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem.

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In Orthodoxy, Chesterton aptly remarked, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

In light of this I want to offer representative sampling of that tradition as it bears on communion for the remarried, which is the neuralgic issue of this present, gravely unclear document. For to see the weight of tradition, especially as it refers to clear exegesis, theology, and philosophy, is to provide a vision which, the more one peers into it, the more it becomes clear that such a small “change in practice” is no genuine development of doctrine in the virile sense of Newman, but rather a wholesale denial of the embedded content of the Christian faith, whose manifestation in this case is none other than the blazing standard that avers to the teaching of Christ in the gospels

What should be particularly noted in the following examples is the solicitude of the Roman Church for the maintenance of the bond. (Italics are mine.)

  • Indissolubility is presumed throughout the entirety of the subapostolic Fathers. The Shepherd of Hermas, St. Justin Martyr, and Athenagoras clearly reaffirm Christ’s command that marriage be indissoluble. Hermas is representative: “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.”
  • The subapostolic Church was so concerned for the indissolubility and sanctity of the marriage bond, that doubts were raised as to whether a second marriage was possible, even after the first spouse died. Indeed even in the Post Nicene period, penance was still imposed upon men who remarried after their wife’s death. (St. Basil ep. 188.4, PG 32, 673a) While the Church gradually discerned the liceity of such marriages, it offers startling testimony to the early Church’s commitment to the bond. Not only that, but such second marriages were distinguished from those who divorced and civilly remarried, who were never permitted to be readmitted to communion.
  • The great theologian Origen mentioned that he had heard that some bishops allowed communion after remarriage, and then proceeds to condemn the practice no fewer than three times (In evang. Mt. 14:23-24). Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, and Augustine too mention such practices, and denounce them in no uncertain terms.
  • Pope Callistus I (r. 218-222) effectively made an ecclesiastical “declaration of independence” regarding marriage and, in contravention to civil law, determined that Christians were free to marry across social classes. This established the principle that the laws of God were above those of the state, especially those that contradicted the divine law regarding marriage.
  • Before the legalization of Christianity, the Council of Elvira made several declarations in AD 309. It declared in its eighth canon that women who leave their husbands and live with another are not to be given communion, even at the end of their lives. Canon 9 further comments that a woman who leaves her adulterous husband may not receive communion while he lives. Such a one may however be given last rites. These decisions appear repeatedly in the local councils of the first millennium.
  • Canon 8 of the Ecumenical council of Nicea refers to receiving “bigamis” (διγἁμοις) in the Church. This manifestly does not refer to second marriages while the original spouse was living; indeed it is the same Greek word used by Basil to identify those who had married after being widowed. This Nicene canon is concerned with the reconciliation of rigorist heretics who did not admit such marriages to be valid, and is in no way an argument in favor of communion for adulterers.
  • Pope Siricius (r. 384-399) took indissolubility so seriously that he prohibited even those who were solemnly betrothed to marry someone other than their intended. (Epist. Ad Himerium, 5)
  • Innocent I (r. 401-417) was most clear “In respect to all cases the rule is kept that whoever marries another man, while her husband is still alive, must be held to be an adulteress, and must be granted no leave to do penance unless one of the men shall have died.” (Ep. ad Victricius, bishop of Rouen, PL 20, 479) Innocent agreed with St. Basil, that women who were remarried were not even to be given permission to do public penance, because in the Church permission for penance was always intended to come after the renunciation of the sin to be atoned.
  • Gregory the Great (r. 590-604) spoke of the dissolution of marriage for the ostensibly good reason to enter the religious life. He wrote to his friend Theoctista, the sister of the Byzantine emperor: “And such both I, and all Catholic bishops, and the universal Church, anathematize, because they think what is contrary to the truth, and speak what is contrary. For, if they say that marriages should be dissolved for the sake of religion, be it known that, though human law has conceded this, yet divine law has forbidden it. For the Truth in person says, ‘What God has joined together let not man put asunder’ (Mt. 19:6). He says also, ‘It is not lawful for a man to put away his wife saving for the cause of fornication (Mt. 16:9).’ Who then may contradict this heavenly legislator?” (PL 77, 1161, Epistolae, Bk. 11, Ep. 45) Even for the sake of entering religious life, no one could leave their spouse. This became the common teaching in the west. A couple could mutually choose to enter the religious life, but they were still married to one another, they simply chose a life of celibacy.
  • The Church had to confront new challenges in the period of the barbarian migrations. These new groups brought with them laxer customs regarding marriage, so the papacy had to reinforce indissolubility in a new context, knowing that the moral commands of God transcend cultural differences. Pope Zachary I declared to Pepin in 747 “If any layman shall put away his own wife and marry another, or if he shall marry a woman who has been put away by another man, let him be deprived of communion.” (MGH ep. III. Ep. Merov. Et. Karol. Aevi I, 482) Adrian I reinforced this in a letter to the Spanish bishops in the 780s.
  • Even with such fulminations the successor states continued to do much as they pleased. A salient example was the defense of Theutberga by Pope St. Nicholas the Great (r. 859-867). Lothair II decided he did not like his new wife, and decided to put her away to marry his mistress Waldrada. Nicholas contradicted this, and held out even under threat of invasion from Lothair, all to maintain the rights of the wife Theutberga. At length in 865, Nicholas triumphed, and Theutberga was returned to Lothair, and he was deprived of his bigamous second wife. It was a sterling example of the defense of the popes in favor of the indissolubility of marriage.
  • When Gratian completed his mighty compilation of Canon Law in the 1140s, the Decretum (destined to remain the book of Church law until 1917), he was absolutely certain on the normative and infallible dogma of indissolubility. Indeed the canonical praxis of the Middle Ages was so fixed that women could (and did) sue in Church courts for their husbands to be forcibly remanded to their common home, there ordered by the Church to treat their legitimate wives with “marital affection.”
  • Following the Decretum the popes continued to add laws to strengthen and undergird the tradition (called Decretals). Alexander III (r. 1159-1181) interprets the “fornication” exception of Matthew 19 as one of permission to separate, not remarry. He further specifies that “perfect divorce,” which is the dissolution of an existing bond, can only be of a ratified, non-consummated marriage, that is, one in which the vows have been exchanged, but has not yet resulted in sexual union, and only with the express permission of the pope himself. By Alexander’s time, it had become the prevalent opinion that the exchange of vows plus sex made a marriage absolutely indivisible, no power on earth, not even the pope’s could dissolve it. (Liber Extra, 32.2, 32.7)
  • Innocent III (r. 1198-1216) one of the most innovative pontiffs in history, not only wrote a beautiful book on marriage, but also canonized the first non-royal married saint, Omobono of Cremona. He too makes clear the absolute indissolubility of marriage in his profession of faith for Waldensian heretics. In his reconciliation of Durand of Huesca, the Waldensian was compelled to confess that, “We do not deny that carnal marriage may be contracted as the Apostle says, and we utterly forbid that those united in lawful fashion shall separate.” (PL 216, 289ff)
  • Innocent III put his words into action when the powerful French King Philip II attempted to put away his Danish wife Ingeborg. Philip ignored papal commands and attempted to marry again. So concerned with the bond of marriage was Innocent, that in 1200 he placed the entire French kingdom under an interdict (i.e. the Church was shut for business, except baptism and last rites in emergencies). After 13 years of resisting, Philip finally relented and Innocent had the pleasure of seeing Ingeborg restored to her proper rights. The papacy had again sacrificed much for the defense of marriage.
  • At the ecumenical council of Florence in 1439, the first of a series of reunions were decreed between the Roman church and various separated Churches of the east. The Armenians were required to confess the Augustinian goods of marriage: offspring, faith, and indissolubility. They were required to hold that, while a separation may be effected for causes of sexual immorality, remarriage was never to be permitted as long as the spouse lived. (Mansi, 31, 1054ff) Such a profession was required in nearly every case of eastern Christians returning to communion. (See Benedict XIV’s reconciliation of the Maronites in 1743.)
  • The tragic division with the Anglican Church has been rehearsed many times, and the decision of the Holy See was the same as it had been in Nicholas’ and Innocent’s times. “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” Especially to be mentioned however are the great martyrs More and Fisher, who literally died in defense of this dogma.
  • Of special importance are the dogmatic decrees of the Ecumenical council of Trent, absolutely binding on all Catholics. In light of the declension in marriage practices and in respect for the sacrament among the Reformers, the Council declared, with no uncertainty: “the first parent of the human race … pronounced the bond of matrimony perpetual and indissoluble… But the grace which might perfect that natural love, and confirm that indissoluble union, and sanctify the married, Christ Himself, the institutor and perfector of the venerable sacraments, merited for us by His passion.” It continues: “impious men of this age raging, have not only had false notions touching this venerable sacrament [marriage], but, introducing according to their wont, under the pretext of the Gospel, a carnal liberty, they have by word and writing asserted, not without great injury to the faithful of Christ, many things alien from the sentiment of the Catholic Church, and from the usage approved of since the times of the apostles.” Under penalty of heresy, the Council declared, “If anyone says that on account of heresy, or troublesome cohabitation, or the affected absence of one of the parties, the bond of matrimony may be dissolved, let him be anathema.” Summing up the whole tradition in Canon 7, the Council states, “If anyone says that the Church has erred, in that she has taught, and does teach, in accordance with the evangelical and apostolical doctrine, that the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of one of the married parties; and that both, or even the innocent one who gave not occasion to the 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 take another wife, as also she, who, having put away the adulterer, shall take another husband; let him be anathema.”
  • The Church repeatedly stood up to modernizing influences and claims of civil states regarding the nature of marriage, and the Church’s right of supervision. Repeatedly she denied the right of the state to make unjust laws regarding divorce and remarriage. See the response of the Holy Office on Civil divorce from 1886.
  • The popes have been tireless over the last century in repeatedly denouncing challenges to indissolubility and reaffirming the ancient and perpetual practice (intimately tied together with orthodoxy itself) that the civilly remarried cannot receive communion. One only need read Leo XIII’s Arcanum, Pius XI’s masterful Casti Connubii, and John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio. One need not mention the repeated assertions of the CDF regarding this issue in the last two decades alone.

I stress that this is an informal checklist. It could be multiplied into a virtual “catena” of historical and theological evidence. It omits the massive contribution of the later Fathers, Augustine, Ambrose, Basil, John Chrysostom and others, which evince a unanimity that is itself a theological authority. It does not list the medieval scholastics, united in heart and mind on this issue, nor does it provide the evidence of the saints. It is merely the start of an historical-theological argument, meant to present authorities, but also to demonstrate the astonishing unity of a doctrine that truly has been taught always, everywhere, and by all.

In light of these, I invite other faithful academic Church historians and historical theologians to augment and deepen this list, with a view to providing a public, signed statement of faith from yet another branch of the Catholic academy. For not only do we share in the universal right of the faithful to make our representations known (CIC 212.3) but as academic and professional members of the Church we also have a further duty to Truth, and to confirm those who are defending it within the hierarchy.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Great Matter” depicting Henry VIII flirting with Anne Boleyn as they walk behind Queen Catherine. It was painted by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in 1846.


  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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