Saturday, May 29, 2010

Reflections on Divorce, Remarriage and the Church (Part II): The Patristic Problem

In my first article, I dealt with the appeal to the so-called Matthew Exception regarding Divorce and Remarriage, showing that to claim that it allowed the victim of adultery to remarry is to read the Scriptures selectively. Now I turn to the appeal to the Patristic authors. Some who hold to “The Bible Alone” may find this article irrelevant but for those who recognize the authority of Sacred Tradition, the issue of how the Scriptures were interpreted by the early Christians can demonstrate whether an interpretation is authentic or not.

Why This is Important

The reason this is important to consider the writings of the early Christians is that it bears witness to their practices and beliefs. If we find no mention of a practice, or indeed see the opposite asserted, by the Church Fathers then it demonstrates that the alleged practice was a later change. So in terms of the “adultery exception” permitting remarriage, to claim that the Catholic teaching goes against the ancient practice, we would need to look and see how they handled the concept of divorce and remarriage.

Distinguishing Between Doctrine and Discipline

We also need to be aware of the difference between the moral teachings Christ demanded we follow and the disciplines the Church has decreed for the good of the faithful. For example, the Church will never abandon the belief that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. It may at times decree reception on the tongue or in the hand, and may decree reception of both kinds is permissible or denied depending on the needs of the people and whether any errors of understanding need to be combated.

Sometimes Disciplines are mistakenly viewed as Doctrines by some individuals, and when the Church changes a discipline, she stands accused of changing a doctrinal matter. Because of this, the Church recognizes it is the magisterium which has the power to bind and to loose and can interpret how the beliefs of the Church are to be understood.

The Perspective of the Patristics on Divorce and Remarriage

One interesting thing about the view of the Patristics was over the concern that the one who divorced his or her unfaithful spouse over adultery was guilty of causing her or him to commit adultery regardless of whether the innocent spouse remarried. We forget this today, because the Church has decreed what is and is not allowed. Unfortunately this view tends to be forgotten in the reading of the texts, and a reading of the texts tends to be given modern applications inserted instead of the original intent.

Also we need to recognize that the patristic writings are acting on the assumption a marriage is valid.  An invalid marriage does not exist in fact though it may be assumed in law.

Did Divorce force the guilty spouse to be an adulterer/adulteress?

For the Patristics, there was a question as to whether the separation of spouses itself was a sin which made the other spouse an adulterer/adulteress. Generally the recognition was that at some times a unfaithful spouse may behave in such a way that made it necessary for the innocent spouse to separate for his or her spiritual good. However, in no case did they recognize that this allowed remarriage on the part of the innocent spouse. They strongly take the position of St. Paul as laid out in the first article: If they separate, they must either remain single or reconcile. Here are a few samples of what some of the Patristics have written. This is hardly an exhaustive list and many more examples exist that are not cited.

St. John Chrysostom (AD 347-407) for example wrote in his Homilies on 1 Corinthians:

Now what is that which “to the married the Lord commanded? That the wife depart not from her husband: (v. 11.) but if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled unto her husband.” Here, seeing that both on the score of continence and other pretexts, and because of infirmities of temper, (μικροψυκιας.) it fell out that separations took place: it were better, he says, that such things should not be at all; but however if they take place, let the wife remain with her husband, if not to cohabit with him, yet so as not to introduce any other to be her husband.

Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. XII. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians. (106).

I figured I would start with him, because he is sometimes wrongly cited as a justification for remarriage after adultery. We see here that he is not permitting remarriage, but pointing out that Christ has forbidden it.

Another interesting work is St. Augustine’s (AD 354-430) On the Good of Marriage, where he writes as follows:

3. This we now say, that, according to this condition of being born and dying, which we know, and in which we have been created, the marriage of male and female is some good; the compact; whereof divide Scripture so commends, as that neither is it allowed one put away by her husband to marry, so long as her husband lives: nor is it allowed one put away by his wife to marry another, unless she who have separated from him be dead.

Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. III. St. Augustine on the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises. (400).

Note here that the sole case where remarriage is recognized by Augustine is the death of one spouse.

Lest someone accuse us of only focusing on the fourth and fifth centuries (claiming earlier writers would allow for it), we can also look back to the work known as The Shepherd of Hermas (sometimes just known as The Shepherd) was written sometime between AD 88 and AD 157, and has this to say about divorce and adultery:

And I said to him, “What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her vicious practices? [Arnobius’ note. “Vicious” in this case refers to the practice of vice, not cruelty] ”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.” And I said to him, “What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: shall she not be taken back by her husband?” And he said to me, “Assuredly. If the husband do not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented.

Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (1997). The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. II : Translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Fathers of the second century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire) (21).

Marrying another would of course preclude taking back the repenting spouse.  So remarriage after divorce for infidelity seems to be excluded as a valid interpretation of Matthew 5 or Matthew 19.

So here is the problem with the claim that the Catholic view is a later view: While the Patristics authors do acknowledge that one might have a need to separate from their spouse, but not a single one of them sanctions remarriage while the sinning spouse still lives. Those who discuss the issue say it is forbidden.

So the question is when [Not A] becomes [A] and who had the authority to make such a decree?  If the Patristics rejected it, one either has to argue the Patristics were wrong, bringing up the question "On whose authority can we judge this?" or else admit such a view is an innovation.

What about St. Basil the Great?

I’ve noticed certain groups [I don’t intend to say all groups] of Eastern Orthodox try to invoke St. Basil the Great to justify their position (they permit a second and third marriage, but no more, with a brief period of excommunication in between). These groups cite St. Basil the Great claiming he “referred not to a rule but to usage” and through him claim that a person wronged by infidelity may remarry. The claim invokes The Second Canonical Letter to Amphilocius though it seems they mean the First letter, where it says:

IV. In the case of trigamy and polygamy they laid down the same rule, in proportion, as in the case of digamy; namely one year for digamy (some authorities say two years); for trigamy men are separated for three and often for four years; but this is no longer described as marriage at all, but as polygamy; nay rather as limited fornication. It is for this reason that the Lord said to the woman of Samaria, who had five husbands, "he whom thou now hast is not thy husband." He does not reckon those who had exceeded the limits of a second marriage as worthy of the title of husband or wife. In cases of trigamy we have accepted a seclusion of five years, not by the canons, but following the precept of our predecessors. Such offenders ought not to be altogether prohibited from the privileges of the Church; they should be considered deserving of hearing after two or three years, and afterwards of being permitted to stand in their place; but they must be kept from the communion of the good gift, and only restored to the place of communion after showing some fruit of repentance.

But it doesn’t work. Restoration requires repentance,and repentance is to "feel or express sincere regret or remorse."  To feel regret or remorse indicates a wrongful action which one wishes to make amends for.

Indeed the Orthodox toleration of a third marriage, even if their interpretation of St. Basil were correct (which I do not concede), runs afoul of St. Basil who calls a third marriage "limited fornication."  If it is fornication, and "no longer described as marriage at all" it cannot be sanctioned.

As a matter of fact, reading the first letter brings us to section IX, where it says:

Here then the wife, if she leaves her husband and goes to another, is an adulteress. But the man who has been abandoned is pardonable, and the woman who lives with such a man is not condemned. But if the man who has deserted his wife goes to another, he is himself an adulterer because he makes her commit adultery; and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has caused another woman's husband to come over to her.

Note it says absolutely nothing about the wronged spouse remarrying. It only says he is not to blame for his wife’s infidelity. In other words this is an explanation of Matthew, stating that the man who puts his wife away for sexual immorality does not make her an adulteress. It does not justify remarriage.

When it comes to sanctioning remarriage after divorce in the case of adultery, we can see St. Basil did not intend what is attributed to him. Note what he says in his second letter:

XLVIII. The woman who has been abandoned by her husband, ought, in my judgment, to remain as she is. The Lord said, "If any one leave his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, he causeth her to commit adultery;" thus, by calling her adulteress, He excludes her from intercourse with another man. For how can the man being guilty, as having caused adultery, and the woman, go without blame, when she is called adulteress by the Lord for having intercourse with another man?

Such a statement makes it seem very unlikely that St. Basil sanctioned remarriage for the innocent spouse. He says exactly the opposite… that she would be an adulteress if she did remarry.

Understanding "Digamy"

In response to the claim that St. Basil proposed certain tolerations of Digamy as meaning he permitted remarriage after divorce for infidelity, we need to first look at what Digamy was for the early Christian.  We need to realize that among some early Christians, there was a belief held by a few that the widow or widower ought not to remarry at all. Those who did were accused of digamy (remarrying after the death of a spouse) by those who held this belief. (The Catholic Church holds this to be a misinterpretation of Paul).

However, there is an interpretation which is consistent with the Catholic teaching, which holds that while a married man might enter the priesthood [The Latin Rite practice of ordaining only celibate men to the priesthood is a discipline and not a doctrine], a man ordained to the priesthood may not marry.  Hence Patristic writings against clergy who committed digamy.

The reason the distinction of widows was made is due to Paul's teaching in 1 Timothy 5:

9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years old, married only once,

10 with a reputation for good works, namely, that she has raised children, practiced hospitality, washed the feet of the holy ones, helped those in distress, involved herself in every good work.

11 But exclude younger widows, for when their sensuality estranges them from Christ, they want to marry

12 and will incur condemnation for breaking their first pledge.

Digamy is not divorce and remarriage (that is a modern interpretation. The Church called divorce and remarriage serial polygamy). Digamy is remarriage after the death of a spouse. In ancient times, if the woman was enrolled in an order of widows or if the man had entered the monastic life after the death of a spouse, a remarriage was digamy. This is what St. Basil was referring to this in his Second Letter when he wrote:

XXIV. A widow whose name is in the list of widows, that is, who is supported by the Church, is ordered by the Apostle to be supported no longer when she marries.

There is no special rule for a widower. The punishment appointed for digamy may suffice. If a widow who is sixty years of age chooses again to live with a husband, she shall be held unworthy of the communion of the good gift until she be moved no longer by her impure desire. If we reckon her before sixty years, the blame rests with us, and not with the woman.

Note here, we see that a widow (one whose husband is dead) is considered guilty of digamy if she remarries.  See the section on Digamy below.  St. Basil is speaking, in the case of women under 60, that a woman under 60 ought not to be enrolled in an order of widows according to the teaching of St. Paul.

Because the context of what digamy is is different than how later interpretations applied it, it cannot be said such texts can justify remarriage after divorce.

Conclusion: Where is the Evidence to Justify Remarriage after Divorce?

To justify remarriage after divorce on Christian grounds requires an authoritative source and an authoritative interpretation. The Catholic Church rejects the idea that a valid, sacramental marriage can be broken at all so long as both spouses live.  Only if the marriage is invalid may the partners marry someone else.

Those who seek to justify divorce after remarriage through the Patristics must necessarily choose the a limited and isolated selection of passages, which seems to require ignoring contrary claims.  Does it really seem credible to claim that outright condemnation of divorce and remarriage is merely a non-binding opinion, but the interpretation of St. Basil, which he did not himself say, is doctrinal?

In the first article I have demonstrated that the citation of Matthew as an exception for adultery has no basis either in the Scriptures themselves. In this second I have shown the weakness of the appeals to the Patristic writings commonly cited on the subject.

A claim that divorce and remarriage after infidelity was accepted as valid by the Christian Church requires proof.  Therefore any challenge to the Catholic teaching by appealing to the Eastern Orthodox claim requires us to ask for the evidence.

Since neither the Scripture nor tradition can be used to prove this, any challenge must say that the whole of Christian belief was wrong and only now can we understand what our Lord really meant.

This is a view which cannot be justified.

1 comment:

  1. So often the popular image is the Orthodox know the fathers better than anyone, but if you dig beyond the slick PR, they are selective about whom they utilize and whom they discard when it comes to certain "Romanisms".