The Problem of Church History for Opponents of Divorce

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Change is afoot in the Catholic Church’s handling of divorced people who have sex within subsequent marriages. Long a point of lay dissent and inconsistent practice, at least in democratic capitalist societies, the teaching on divorce is facing renovation at hands no less magisterial than those of Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has suggested the possibility of procedures for the re-inclusion of sexually-active remarried people in the eucharist for consideration at a bishops’ synod this year.

Theological conservatives within the church have reacted with reassertions, some of them quite stinging, of the ancient and unchanging teaching on marriage and divorce: that marriage is an act of God that cannot be undone, that people who divorce are violating a direct judgment of Jesus, and that those who remarry are obliged to repent and refrain from sex with their new pretended spouse or be excommunicated. Any defection from this teaching, in theory or in practice, is evidence of the church’s surrender to modern mores. A new article by Robert Spaemann in First Things states this case again. “The beauty of the Church’s teaching can shine forth only when it’s not watered down,” Spaemann stipulates. The truth of his statement is laced with a cruel irony.

The need for unwatered teaching is perhaps why reality must be left out of all such arguments. And not the reality of our own rebellious and secular age, which can never be lamented too loudly or at too great a length; that much Spaemann freely acknowledges. Rather, it is the muddy reality of our own Christian past and its key figures that must be left to one side if the teaching is to be stated with such pure, forensic clarity. Without the dissolubility of marriage, Christianity would look very different indeed.

Two of our most prominent authorities were effectively divorced, one in life and the other in death. St. Augustine, the great theologian of late antiquity, had a concubine whom he loved and with whom he lived and produced a child. They were not married under Roman law and, though Christians should think twice before making Rome’s legal distinctions do much ethical work, that was grounds for scandal. To pursue his faith and his vocation meant putting the woman away and taking her son so that he could eventually serve as a priest, bishop of Hippo, and not coincidentally a major early authority on questions of marriage and sexual morality.

In the case of St. Peter’s wife, the dissolution took place after her death but was still more complete. Her mother was the recipient of one of Jesus’s first healings (Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-41, Matthew 8:14-15) and she accompanied Peter on his work (1 Corinthians 9:5); Eusebius, the fourth-century church historian, quotes an earlier source saying that she was martyred in Rome together with her husband. And yet she is excised completely from the history and iconography of her companion in ministry and martyrdom, known as the Prince of the Apostles and the first bishop of Rome. Karl Keating, editor of Catholic Answers, dumps her unceremoniously in the grave before Jesus even meets Peter. A bishop needs to be free to marry his church.

And so two divorces, one in life and one in posterity, help anchor the theory and the imagery of sexual purity on which arguments like Spaemann’s rest. A better church and a better world would have honored these women; as it is, their involuntary sacrifices underwrite the “beauty” of teaching to be asserted over and over through the centuries. Nameless, they linger awkwardly like the overlooked shoes of a Soviet general airbrushed out of a photograph.

“Has anyone even mentioned the victims? Is anyone talking about the woman whose husband has abandoned her and their four children?” Spaemann asks. The question is rhetorical, but the history of the church answers it all the same.

Benjamin J. Dueholm is the associate pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois. He has written on religion, culture, and politics for The Christian Century, The Washington Monthly, and The Pacific Standard.

  • DavidHarley

    Priscilla, the actual first leader of the Christians in Rome, was highly respected by Paul. When she and her husband were mentioned together, her name came first. By contrast, it is never stated in the New Testament or other early texts that Peter ever visited Rome.

    It was another thousand years until the Church started to take an interest in performing the marriage ceremony, albeit outside the church or in the unconsecrated narthex, and a monopoly was not asserted until the Council of Trent.

  • U Nderwater Glockenspiel

    Though the New Testament is not a hundred percent clear, taking a pastoral (case by case) approach, it seems that adultery and abandonment are valid causes for divorce, which is the historic reformed view.
    Today’s protestant churches of course have zero respect for New or Old Testament, law or rules and it’s everyone do what’s right in their own eyes.

  • cranefly

    According to the current doctrine, a priest literally does not know, when he marries two people, whether or not God actually joined them. Why should anyone be publicly shamed or prohibited from full fellowship over something that may or may not have happened?

  • DrDoctorDr

    St. Augustine abandoned his common-law wife, not in order to enter the priesthood, but rather because he became engaged to a girl who was more suitable to his station in life. Since she was too young to legally wed, he took up with a mistress to satisfy his sexual urge; THAT was the woman he abandoned after his conversion, again not in order to take up the priesthood, but because he overcame that dominance of lust in his life. We don’t hear about the breaking of the betrothal to the underage girl. It would be hard to cast Augustine’s presentation of any of this as approving of divorce, however, and in any case, it is not the divorce per-se, but the subsequent attempt at marriage that constitutes adultery, as the presumption is that the bond of the first marriage remains intact.

  • cken

    Really, there are still opponents of divorce remaining? Is there a church left that doesn’t have active adulterers or divorced people in their congregation? Should they be stoned to death as the Bible suggests or is to ignore their transgressions kind of like forgiving.

  • cken

    “Historic reformed” that is no only an oxymoron the two are antithetical. One has to be wrong and the other right. Maybe Napoleon was right that history is the set of lies most people agree upon at the time of its writing. Have we reformed the Bible and failed to print the reformed version? Oh well so much for the inerrant Holy Word of God.

  • BillStewart2012

    I think both Dueholm’s and Keating’s arguments about Peter’s wife are both wrong and are not relevant to the question that Dueholm originally asks. The fact that Peter, as a disciple and the first Pope, had a wife may be frustrating to people who think that priests should be single, but their attempts to avoid this problem by saying “well, maybe she was dead because she wasn’t mentioned much in the rest of the story” are stretching the point, and going beyond that to say that “the fact that some people don’t like it means the Church Tradition thinks Peter was divorced after the fact” is just hopeless. Widowed isn’t divorced, even if there is a tradition of dissing Peter’s wife.

    You folks know Augustine much better than I do, and I certainly couldn’t tell you which things he did in which order, and maybe it’s more directly relevant for how the Church should treat divorced-and-remarried people that somebody who was effectively that later became a saint, though a saint who was a convert and who wrote a lot about how he struggled with sin.

  • BillStewart2012

    Did you mean “reformed” or “Reformed”, referring to one specific set of Protestant tradition and theology? Jesus was pretty direct about anything he said on the subject of divorce; church practice has to figure out how to deal with that.

    Today’s Protestant churches, in spite of your antagonism, have a wide range of positions on the Bible, ranging from extreme literalism to serious searching for the meaning and context of the writing to fluffy disregard. Catholicism does less of the extreme literalism, but its traditions also include anything from Liberation Theology to syncretism with local pagan religions, with local gods and goddesses being adopted as “saints”. Nobody’s off the hook here.

    Some Protestant churches do take the view that previous marriages and divorces don’t count because they’re mistakes of the past that should be forgiven and it’s important to move on and do the right thing in your current marriage. Some take an opposite view that says the Catholic practice of “annulment” is a bogus legalistic attempt at accomplishing the same thing, and that remarriage is only acceptable for someone whose previous spouse committed adultery or abandoned them. Almost all of them are pretty consistent about whichever position they take.

  • Jim Reed

    In the Bible (both old and new testaments) I don’t think there was any penalty for stoning someone to death. At least if you were part of a group doing it. There was a lot of laws, but this wasn’t one of them, and it was common.

  • charlesrwilliams

    The author has a point but it is totally unsupported by his examples. St. Augustine severed his relationship with his concubine. Do we have any knowledge about whether she consented to this separation or whether St. Augustine provided for her support so that she would not be forced into a life of sin? The Church has always permitted married couples to enter the religious life by mutual consent, thus terminating conjugal life. And as for St. Peter, Karl Keating says one thing and Eusebius says another, perhaps both statements can be reconciled but really what is the relevance of St. Peter’s “posthumus divorce” to this issue at hand.

    There is a Catholic case that can be made for the Orthodox practice of permitting second marriages in some circumstances but the author doesn’t engage the issue at all seriously.

  • Joe F.

    Why didn’t the author reference Matthew 19 where Jesus discusses divorce?

  • CitizenWhy

    In the Bible Timothy clearly states that a bishop should be married. As for history, at one time Catholic bishops were regularly married in most places. Cardinal Wolseley was married, monogamously. Only two of the English bishops stood up to Henry VIII because all the others were married. Henry’s church allowed for clerical marriage. Rome’s church didn’t, making the children bastards.

  • CitizenWhy

    Augustine set the church on a very bad course.

  • CitizenWhy

    Catholic annulments are based on a number of tings, including no “full consent of the will.” It seems to me that there is no need for the annulment nonsense in cases where the married couple were too immature, or were lied to, or were too self-deluded to enter into a serious marriage commitment. Secular society has it right. Make divorce as easy as possible. Most second marriages succeed.

  • CitizenWhy

    In the Bible Timothy says that bishops should be married. Apparently he, Paul’s disciple, wasn’t embarrassed by the topic of married clergy.

  • http://fur-licity.blogspot.com/ Barbara

    Just think how the world would be if Christians put as much effort into observing Jesus teaching about violence, hatred, and love, as we do into making rules about sex.