The Problem of Church History for Opponents of Divorce

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.