Thursday, October 2, 2014

Some Historical Reflections on Marriage, Divorce, Eucharist in the Catholic Tradition

The Catholic approach to marriage and the termination of marriages is a bit more complex than those who say that the 2000 year tradition of the Catholic Church has had a consistent theology of marriage and has never allowed for divorce.  Theologians often make this mistake because they look at the theological tracts which set an ideal but overlook the civil law tracts and the secular literature which portray a reality that only too often is different from that ideal.  John Boswell, the late Yale historian who wrote about same-sex marriage in the Middle Ages (and offers a strong but not convincing argument that such unions were blessed by the Church) somewhat cynically points out that in the ancient and medieval worlds marriages were arranged because of property, in the middle were about having children and ended up being about love and contrasts this with the modern experience where marriages are arranged because of love, in the middle are about having children and end up being about property.  Cynical, but far too often, true.  Divorce is a fact in modern life and we as Church are going to have to deal with it.  Much like the phenomenon of same-sex attraction, another feature of modern life with which many are too uncomfortable to acknowledge, marital breakup has always been a part of society and while often swept under polite society’s rug, cannot be denied and must no longer be ignored. 
Let’s begin with the obvious.  There is a clear and absolute prohibition of divorce in the New Testament.  Mark (10:2-12), the oldest gospel and presumably the most accurate in its relaying the original words of Jesus, declares without qualification that any man or woman who divorces and then marries another, commits adultery.   Luke (16:18) repeats this absolute and unqualified prohibition.  Matthew, (5:31-32; 19:3-12) repeats it but with a qualification that permits a man to divorce his wife for reasons of (presumably her) unchastity but warns that whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.  Matthew also states that a man who divorces his wife for reasons other than unchastity forces her to commit adultery since the woman in that society would be all but required to seek a new marriage for economic and sociological reasons.  There was simply no place in Near Eastern society of the time for an unmarried woman other than a widow whose sons were obligated to shelter and protect her.  A woman whose husband had divorced her was legally a non-person and had no means of support except remarriage, concubinage, or prostitution. 
In addition to the gospels, Paul in 1 Corinthians (7:12-15) makes it clear that when the marriage of two Christians fail, they must either remain single or be reconciled.  If, on the other hand, one partner or the other is not a Christian and leaves the Christian partner, then the marriage is dissolved leaving the Christian free to marry.  The Christian partner, however, must not be the one to leave the marriage.  Paul makes it clear that this is not divine law—indeed his is not an exception consistent with what Jesus said—but his judgment, and it is the foundation for the so-called Pauline Privilege or Privilege of the Faith that even today permits a non-sacramental marriage to be dissolved.   This linking of indissolubility to sacramental marriages (marriages between two Christians) rather than to marriage itself is a significant shift away from the Gospel Teaching found in Mark and Luke.   
The teaching of the New Testament is pretty clear and, except for Matthew’s fudging it in his gospel, pretty consistent.  Marriage, or at least the marriage of two Christians, is indissoluble.  But that does not mean there was a clear theology of marriage from the first days of the Church.  Most Catholics are surprised to learn that the Church did not require a Church ceremony or the blessing of a priest for sacramental validity until as late as 1917.  Marriage was officially enumerated among the Sacraments only at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215—though that does not mean that various theologians had not spoken of it as a sacrament or that marriages before 1215 were not sacramental.  It was only in the 1215 Council that the Church definitively listed which rites were sacraments.  But the history of Councils and papal decrees is much more complex than one would think from reading the Christian scriptures. Divorce and remarriage were common in the Graeco-Roman world in which ancient Christianity found itself transplanted from Judaism.  Divorce, for that matter, was not difficult in the Judaism of Jesus’ day which is what triggered Jesus insisting that the separation of spouses was not part of God’s original plan but a concession made by Moses because “of the hardness of your hearts.”  Christians in the pagan societies that comprised the Roman Empire strived to live by different moral standards than those set by the culture and marital fidelity was among the chief values they set for themselves.  Indeed adultery was one of only three sins that were judged sufficiently grave to require absolution before the sinner was reconciled to the community and could again partake of the Eucharist. Compared to their writing on Baptism and Eucharist, or even martyrdom for that matter, the Fathers wrote comparatively little on marriage.  Athenagoras of Athens (c.190) and Clement of Alexandria (c 215) give witness to the common belief of their time that not only was marriage indissoluble in this life, but also in eternity and thus second marriages—even for those who were widowed—were at the least to be discouraged if not outright banned.
Clement actually gives us a rare positive view of marriage where he sees the family as the domestic church, the two or three (husband, wife, child) gathered in Christ’s Name where Christ is present in their midst. Most of what one finds in the Fathers about marriage is negative.  It is certainly not as pleasing to God as is virginity and married life is filled with troubles that distract us from God and the work he has set before us.  Paul’s magnificent insight of the relationship of the husband and wife being a visible sign of the relationship of Christ and the Church is overlooked.  Probably because there was no liturgical rite associated with marriage in these early centuries—wedding customs more or less followed the cultural patterns of the times—most Christians lacked a consciousness of its sacramental nature. That is not to say that they did not value it or did not live it well, but they most likely were not as conscious of its sanctity in the same way we are today.  At its best it probably seemed to be a concession to the weakness of human nature—and that is certainly the way that much of the patristic literature portrayed it.  That did not mean, of course, that divorce and remarriage were sanctioned. 
One important voice, however, that does record some openness to the issue of divorce was Tertullian.  Writing against Marcion sometime around the year 200, Tertullian declared that since Jesus himself (in the Gospel of Matthew) had given the exception of unchastity as an allowable reason for divorce, that there was no absolute prohibition of divorce; and implies that since the prohibition is not absolute there might be other reasons as well.  I think we need to be careful with his argument, however, for several reasons.  First, of course, is that his argument ignores Mark and Luke where the prohibition is absolute.  Secondly Tertullian was not writing about divorce but about Marriage, which Marcion and his disciples condemned as a corruption of our human nature.  (No wonder that the sect died out.) Since Tertullian was opposed to second marriages for those who were widowed, one cannot extrapolate from his support for divorce that he argued to permit remarriage for the divorced.  
The mass influx of converts that resulted from the Barbarian invasions of the fourth through the tenth centuries brought the Western Church face to face with a variety of cultures that all but swamped the barque of Peter on a number of levels, not least of which were marriage and family customs.  The Germanic tribes represented by the Franks, the Goths, the Visigoths, the Lombards and others had their traditional marriage laws and customs and were slow to give them up.  Most disturbing was the ease in which their magnates set aside one wife in favor of another whose family connections were politically more advantageous.  This led to a period in the early Middle Ages (the 4th- 8th centuries) in which divorce and second, third, fourth and fifth marriages was just a factor of political life despite the Church’s efforts to introduce its moral code.  It would also lead in the central Middle Ages  (the 9-11th centuries) to the development of annulment processes which were more often a matter of politics than of remedying canonical irregularities. 
Pope Gregory II declared in 726:
You have asked what is a husband to do if his wife, having been afflicted with an infirmity, is unable to have sexual intercourse with her husband. It would be good if he could remain as he is and practice abstinence.  But since this requires great virtue, if he cannot live chastely, it is better if he marry.  Let him, however, not stop supporting her, since she is kept from married life by her infirmity and not by some detestable fault. 
This is a pretty dramatic departure from the New Testament standards for marriage and, to be fair, while it is a comparatively early statement, it is quite exceptional in the long list of papal decrees regarding marriage.  Certainly by the canon law reforms of the 12th century there was a consistent teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and there are any number of cases of matrimonial ruptures being referred to the Holy See for annulment.  The ill-fated marriage of Lothair II and Teutberga caused an annulment dispute from 857 until Lothair’s death in 869.  The fifteen-year marriage of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine was annulled (on pretty shaky grounds) by the Archbishops of Sens, Rouen, Bordeaux, and Reims with the blessing of Pope Eugenius III in 1152.  Annulments were the Catholic way around the prohibition of divorce and were the things of royalty and the upper nobility where marriage and politics were linked; common folk could not get annulments and did not seek them but simply changed beds. 
Before we continue on, we should also look at the medieval Irish Church.  Despite the beloved mythology, Saint Patrick did not bring Christianity to Ireland.  By the time Patrick arrived in Ireland in the mid-fifth century the nation was already well on the way to being Christianized.  Current thinking places the introduction of Christianity to Ireland in the fourth century with monks from Egypt seeking solitude and refuge at what was then the edge of the known world. Patrick, and his predecessor, Palladius, were sent a generation later by Popes anxious to snap the Egyptian connection and bring the Irish Christians into the mainstream of the western Church.  It was a highly unsuccessful effort.  Until the 12th century and the work of Saint Laurence O’Toole as Archbishop of Dublin, the Irish Church was all but independent of Rome and highly idiosyncratic in its practices.  It would take several postings to give an idea of just how much the Irish Church differed from the rest of Western Christendom but in regards to marriage suffice it to say that Brehon Law recognized ten different types of marriage between a man and a woman.  Moreover, polygamy was common and polyandry was not unknown. Divorce was acceptable by mutual consent and was not infrequent.  The Irish Church was not organized by dioceses but by the ancient clan system and authority was not exercised by bishops but by the familial abbot—or sometimes abbess—and thus it was not always easy for the Church to super-impose its ideals over the ancient clan traditions. Indeed, the social deviances of early and central medieval Ireland led to the Bull, Laudabiliter, the papal blessing for the English to come over and straighten things out in Ireland in 1171. 
As to what was happening in England and on the European continent during the early and central Middle Ages (c.350-1100), remember that the vast majority of people—98% of the population—were peasants who worked the land.  Their lives were simple and their education was nil.  Their priests were most often simply peasants themselves who had learned a little bit of Latin and who farmed their lands from Monday through Saturday in an effort to feed their own families. They had not gone to seminary.  They knew nothing of canon law.  Much of the time they did not even understand much of the Latin they read at the altar.  Marriage in this world was informal at best.  Church ceremonies were for the nobles.  In some cases, a blessing may have been given at the Church door upon a newly married couple, but formalities were, by and large, few.  We really don’t know what the success rate of marriages was for the working classes and no one bothered to keep records.  There does seem to have been considerable stability in the families but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a turnover in who was sleeping next to whom at night. Life-expectancy was low and women in particular often died very young, leaving their husbands to find a second or even a third wife.  In such cases where a man is noted as having a second or third wife we should not necessarily presume that he was widowed.  Where marriage was less than formal it is not unreasonable to think that partners at times simply up and left—or were thrown out for various reasons from adultery to infertility. 
Strange as it may seem to us, the question of admitting those in irregular unions to communion is an entirely separate question from divorce.  Most people, whether in sound marriages or second unions, did not go to communion.  Ever. Reception of Holy Communion by the laity, especially the peasantry, had all but died out between the seventh and the tenth centuries due to the rigorous fasts required, the profound sense of personal sinfulness that was inculcated in the faithful, and an extraordinarily “High Christology” that encouraged a superstitious fear of Christ in his Eucharistic Presence.  In 1215 the Church had to require that the faithful receive Holy Communion annually. The fact that you need a law to make that happen means that it is not happening and that is why you make the law.  So while divorce (at least informal divorce) and remarriage (at least informal remarriage) was probably not rare it did not impact the communion question, at least until the time for the person in an irregular union to summon the priest for viaticum.  The exclusion of people from Holy Communion was not an issue in the Medieval period.  It was not rare for Pope or Bishops to place entire cities under interdict and the complaint was not that the living could not receive Holy Communion but that the dead could not be buried and Masses could not be offered to free them from purgatory.  Nowadays things are very different, of course.  The regular and frequent communions desired by Pope Saint Pius X have radically changed our Catholic culture.  We cannot conceive of going to Mass and not receiving Holy Communion.  There are some in the Church today who think that frequent communion has lessened our appreciation for the Sacrament.  But the 20th and 21st centuries have seen the greatest number of Catholics receiving the Eucharist since the sixth century and the collapse of the ancient Christian world.  The problem with frequent communion, however, is that those who are not free to receive the Sacrament—whether for the need of absolution or because they are not in full Communion with the Catholic Church—experience themselves as excluded and even shunned. None of this provides an answer to the questions facing the upcoming Synod on the possibility of admitting those in non-canonical marriages to Holy Communion.  The Church has lived with divorce and remarriage before, but not had the face the challenge, at least on a general scale, of admitting the remarried to Holy Communion.  This much we can do, however, and in fact must do.  We need to stop pretending that the challenge of integrating the divorced and remarried into the life of the Church does not exist.  It has existed in the past.  In the recent past, at least, we have not done well with it, and we must design a future for the Church that permits all people to find a place in the family of God without judgment or condemnation by the clergy or by their peers. I think it also means that we need to be far more proactive in supporting programs that help Catholics develop and live sound familial lives.  Marriage Encounter has been one wonderful way of “forming” couples and families in the vocation of Christian Marriage. We need to give Marriage Encounter, Teams of Our Lady, and other couple-based programs strong encouragement in our parishes.  But we also need to do far more. And the problem is not limited to married couples.  We presume that once baptized as an infant and catechized for First Communion, a Christian has all the tools he or she needs to live a life of discipleship when in fact there is a need to bring the principle of a life-long ongoing formation in Christian living into the lives of all those who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday and then go about their lives through the week trying—or maybe not trying—to be Disciples.  I wish I could say that the clergy need to take this task as their own but my experience is that they are most in need of being called to discipleship.  It isn’t enough to read one’s Office and say one’s Mass—the fire needs to be rekindled from top to bottom in the Church today.  

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate the historical analysis of the Church's teachings about marriage, especially the admonition of the pope that the king should remarry.

    Unfortunately, as someone once said, Catholics believe in Tradition, but not history.