Did the Church Treat the Divorced and Remarried More Leniently in Antiquity Than Today?

Author: Fr Gilles Pelland, SJ


Fr Gilles Pelland, SJ
Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome

The principle of the indissolubility of marriage was never disputed in the ancient Church. Countless witnesses reaffirm the very explicit teaching of the Gospels, as particularly found in Mark "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mk 10:11-12). That having been said, did the Church sometimes allow exceptions to the general rule? An example is already found in the New Testament, if Matthew's parenthetical clauses were to permit the husband to marry again after divorcing an adulterous wife. Exegetes, who have been arguing over the interpretation of this text for centuries, have never reached a consensus! In any case, the problem is raised today in more general terms. The question instead is what was the Church's attitude in practice towards the divorced and remarried—regardless of the reason for the divorce. Before the "fait accompli", we can presume that Pastors would have reminded the couple of what St Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife" (II Cor 7:10-11). But after the "fait accompli", were Pastors always intransigent? Along with or despite a "strict tradition" was there also a more "lenient" practice? On this precise point we have very few witnesses. The majority of them refer, directly or otherwise, to the Matthean version of Jesus' logion. It is not surprising that their interpretation involves the same problem. There is no indication that the ancient authors wanted, on this basis, to lessen the rigour of the principle and introduce a certain flexibility in its application. They only wanted to adhere as closely as possible to what they read in the Gospels, as they understood them.

Some texts are more frequently cited: those of Hermas and Tertullian in the second century; that of Origen regarding a group of Eastern Bishops at the beginning of the third; the canons of a few Councils: especially Arles (314) and Nicaea (325); the testimony of St Basil in Cappadocia sometime later. These texts were fiercely debated at the time of the Reformation and the Council of Trent. In the years following Vatican II, modern criticism has again devoted so much "precious scholarship" to the topic that one might think that everything has been said and can now only be repeated. Despite everything, the question is raised again and again, sometimes as if it had never been studied before, or as if we should continually start from zero. Is it still a useful exercise?

Actually, contrary to what is said over and over, the documentation we have at hand does not allow us to ignore or to minimize the great number of witnesses that confirm the Church's constant attitude on the indissolubility of marriage. Thus one cannot affirm as an indisputable fact the existence of an ancient "practice" that was less severe or restrictive than the Church's attitude today towards the "divorced and remarried".

We will not discuss practices that have prevailed among the Orientals separated from Rome: this is an issue that arose after the separation of the Churches andthus much later than the "ancient" period properly so called.

First let us recall a few general principles.

1) In order to speak of a "tradition" or "practice" of the Church, it is not enough to point out a certain number of cases spread over a period of four or five centuries. One would have to show, insofar as onecan, that these cases correspond to a practice accepted by the Church at the time. Otherwise, we would only have the opinion of a theologian (however prestigious), or information about a local tradition at a certain moment in its history—which obviously does not have the same weight.

2) Methodologically it would not be right to propose hypotheses and then forget that they are merely hypotheses, especially when the great number of documents for the opposite position are taken into consideration.

3) One should be very wary of appeals to the argument "ex silentio" (for example: "the author does not say this or that, but there are reasons to believe that he thought so... "; "the silence of the documents should be interpreted in the sense that was obvious for the mentality, the laws and the [pagan] customs of the time", etc.). This could be a way of making the texts say what one wants them to say.

4) One should not facilely conclude that an author is contradicting what he maintains elsewhere.

5) The context should always be closely examined. There are some ancient documents that at first sight actually seem to permit the dissolution of the bond. Tertullian thinks that divorce "dissolves the marriage in the same way as death", but in a treatise from his Montanist period which rules out a new marriage under any circumstances.1 Asterius says that marriage is ended by death and by adultery, but in a homily where he rules out the remarriage even of the widowed.2 Chrysostom holds that .. an adulteress is no longer anyone's wife", but in the same text he says over and over that, no matter what she does, a wife remains bound to her husband for as long she lives".3 Elsewhere he says that the lot of an adulteress is less enviable than a slave's, since the slave can change masters, while a wife remains bound to her husband for as long as he lives. In reality, such statements in Christian antiquity did not per se imply the strict sense that they would have for canonists today. They must be evaluated case by case.

6) Principles that are far from being proved (or even provable!) should not be considered unquestionable. For example: "Christians could not do what the civil law did not require"; "there was no Christian legislation (in what sense?) on marriage in the first centuries"; "divorce implied permission for a new marriage"; etc.

7) It should be remembered that the early Church showed herself extremely severe with certain grave sins—a severity that today would no doubt seem "excessive", such as the penitential discipline that sometimes obligedmarried couples living together to observe total and prolonged continence!

More recently it has been maintained that the Church gave absolution to the divorced and remarried, acknowledging at the same time that their (second) union was adulterous. It would be anachronistic to look in the early centuries for an ordo canonicus in the modern sense of the term. But how can anyone think that those living in a union considered illegitimate by the Church could sometimes (or even often!) be regarded as married solely by virtue of a fait accompli (provided they do penance)? The attitude of some Bishops mentioned by Origen is cited in this regard: "Contrary to Scripture, some Church leaders have allowed a woman whose husband is still living to remarry.... And yet they have not acted completely without reason. This weakness was probably allowed in view of greater evils, contrary to the original law stated in the Scriptures".4 First of all, we note that it concerns a group of Bishops who have acted in an "unusual" way, in a given region—and not a "general" practice of the time. On the other hand, even if the "permission" of these Bishops was not "completely without reason", since they wanted to avoid "greater evils", Origen remarks three times that it was contrary to the Scriptures. He adds: "Just as the woman is adulterous, even though she is apparently married to a man while her first husband is still alive, so the man who apparently marries a divorced woman is not married according to the Lord's answer: he is only committing adultery...5 Origen does not speak as a canonist, but clearly sees the difference between an apparent marriage (a "legamen") and a real one. To cite another example, St Basil also makes a clear distinction between the two cases: "Porneia is not marriage, not even the beginning of marriage...6 It is true that in another text Basil mentions practices in Cappadocia in which "the woman who leaves her husband is an adulteress, if she has another man, while the husband who is left by his wife is excusable and the woman who lives with him is not condemned ...7 This text, debated for centuries, is not as clear as it seems at first sight! To avoid a "hasty" reading, we must take account of the penitential context, of the coherence of the disciplinary canons set forth, and of what Basil himself—already so strict about the second marriage of the widowed—formally says elsewhere: "A man who has put his wife away is not allowed to marry another, nor is a woman who has been divorced by her husband allowed to marry another man".8 The phrasing of canon 10 of the Council of Arles (314) is surprising: "As for those who have caught their wives in the act of adultery—it is a question of young Christian men and they are forbidden to remarry—it has been decided that, as much as possible, they will be counseled not to take another wife as long as their spouses are alive, even though they are adulteresses". The first part of the text seems to contradict the second: if these young men are forbidden to remarry, how could the Council restrict itself to "counseling" them not to take another wife? The historian is presented with two possibilities: 1) to correct the manuscript tradition by adding a negative in the first part ("they are not forbidden..."), but this is simply an arbitrary move to be used only as a last resort; 2) to look for a satisfactory interpretation of the Latin phrase "consilium eis detur". As one can imagine, both methods have their supporters. But, since analysis of the manuscript tradition confirms the text we have (without the negative), preference should be given to the second approach, preserving the "lectio difficilior".

A great fuss has been made about canon 8 of the Council of Nicaea, which enjoined "accepting and following the teachings of the catholic and apostolic Church ... and being in communion with those who have entered into a second marriage (the digamoi)". Who are these digamoi? The divorced and remarried? The meaning of the Council's statement can only be clarified on the basis of other texts, particularly a statement of Epiphanius, whose meaning is also much discussed. The least that can be said is that, on the basis of a careful reading of the text, there are very good reasons for holding that Epiphanius was speaking of the widowed and remarried.

Within the limits of an article like this which must be brief, we cannot enter into the details of the discussions. We ask whether the ancient Church showed herself more "liberal" (1) than the contemporary Magisterium towards the very serious (and very painful) question of the divorced and remarried. It is our opinion that this hypothesis (at best or at worst, depending on one's viewpoint!) rests on a very "weak" foundation. Should there be convincing arguments to support a change in the current discipline, they would have to be sought elsewhere!


1 Tertullian, De Monog., 9, 1-8.

2 Asterius, Horn. 5 in Mt 19.

3 Chrysostom, De lib. repudii, 3.

4 Origen, Corn. in Mt., 14, 23.

5 Origen, Corn. in Mt., 14, 24.

6 Basil, Letter 199, canon 26.

7 Basil, Letter 188, canon 9.

8 Basil, Moralia, Rule 73 2

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 February 2000, page 9

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