Divorce: Early Church Teaching

Thursday, March 15, 2007


From: "Mixed Marriages: A Theological Analysis," excerpt from Église et Théologie, I (1970), pp. 229-260.

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. (one of America's leading orthodox Catholic catechists)

The critical difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy on marriage is that the latter does not consider Christian matrimony indissoluble. Everything in the administration of the sacrament suggests a permanent union, and all the writing on the subject encourages the people to remain steadfast until death. But the history of Orthodoxy shows that divorce with the right to remarry goes back to at least the sixth century when the Eastern Emperors passed marriage laws without the approval of Rome.

The most significant early legislation is that of Novel XXII in 536 A.D. and Novel CXVII promulgated by Justinian I in 542 A.D. As a matter of record, Justinian accused Pope Vigilius of heresy and asserted that, as emperor, he could pass judgment even on matters of doctrine. Gradually ecclesiastics accepted the civil legislation. The first patriarch to give express canonical sanction to divorce and remarriage seems to have been Alexius, who held office in Constantinople from 1025 to 1043 A.D. Adultery was the only grounds recognized.

Since the fall of Constantinople (1453) a wide range of reasons is available. We get some idea of its scope from the currently acceptable grounds for complete divorce, with the right to remarry, as found in the patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow - the two largest bodies in Orthodoxy. Twenty-one distinct grounds are listed in Byzantine canon law . . .

In the Moscow Patriarchate there are ten canonical reasons for dissolving the marriage bond . . . The Muscovite legislation on divorce was passed by the national synod summoned just before the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917. Actual promulgation took place the following year. The more extensive Byzantine laws grew out of a millennium of practice but they also date, in their present form, from the 20th century . . .

Provisions are made for marriage ceremonies following a divorce. They are much different from the Crowning at a first nuptial, and reflect a clearly penitential note to emphasize that those who enter on a second union have failed to preserve the purity of their intention . . .

It is of more than historical interest to note that the Trullan Synod [692] was rejected by the Syrian Pope St. Sergius I (687-701); that the synod was held in the throne room (trullus) of the Emperor Justinian II; that the meeting is popularly called the Quinisext, or Fifth-Sixth Council to suggest that it completed the task of the previous two ecumenical assemblies; and that the disciplinary decrees of Trulla served to accentuate the growing division between Western and Eastern marital morality . . .

It was at Trulla that . . . the council also permitted husbands whose wives had been faithless to receive Communion in the Church [Mansi, vol. XI, c. 980]. Without expressly saying that divorce with remarriage was sanctioned, it is presumed that in actual practice no objection was raised.

Until recently, the Orthodox attitude toward contraception was strongly prohibitive. It was assumed that the practice was wrong and writers made only passing reference to the Eastern tradition which universally reprobated the practice. Already at Nicaea (325), men who had castrated themselves were not to be ordained or, if ordained, were to cease functioning as priests [Mansi, vol. II, c. 668]. Chrysostom [Homily on Romans, Patrologia Graeca 60, 626-7], Epiphanius [Panarion, 26], and Cyril of Alexandria [Adoration in Spirit and Truth, 15: PG 68, 690] among the Fathers were cited as witnesses of the Church's teaching.

Since the first World War, however, more and more writers defend contraception, with marked differences between the Russian and Greek segments. The Russians tend to be more liberal; the Greeks more strict. Thus the Church of Greece has come out against artificial birth control, and the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America has made a similar pronouncement. But even where the prevalent attitude is restrictive, the tendency is to condone contraception.

[As an interesting side note, Fr. Hardon noted that Conservative Judaism came out in favor of contraception in 1934, and Orthodox Judaism - the Rabbinical Alliance of America - gave its sanction in 1958]


 The Orthodox scholar, Fr. Stanley S. Harakas confirms the lateness of the tradition of divorce (some 500 years after Christ) in Eastern Christendom:

The Church is opposed to divorce in principle and sees it as a failure and an evil. However, . . . Jesus did not prohibit all divorces . . . In the year 541 a law was passed by the state (Novel 117) and was later made a ruling of both the Church and the state which recognized several reasons for divorce, all of which presupposed the breakdown of the unity of the couple, corresponding to physical death and adultery. These reasons have since become expanded somewhat, but it is always a sad and sorrowful thing for the Church to acknowledge the end of a marriage.

{The Orthodox Church: 455 Questions and Answers, Minneapolis: Light & Life Pub. Co., 1987, p. 107}

Orthodox Archbishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware explains the Orthodox position on divorce, which to Catholic ears sounds morally incoherent:

Certainly Orthodoxy regards the marriage bond as in principle lifelong and indissoluble, and it sees the breakdown of marriage as a tragedy due to human weakness and sin. But while condemning the sin, the Church still desires to help suffering humans and to allow them a second chance. When, therefore, a marriage has entirely ceased to be a reality, the Orthodox Church does not insist on the preservation of a legal fiction. Divorce is seen as an exceptional but unavoidable concession to our human brokenness, living as we do in a fallen world . . . the Orthodox Church knows that a second alliance cannot have exactly the same character as the first; and so in the service for a second marriage several of the joyful ceremonies are omitted, and replaced by penitential prayers. In practice, however, this second marriage service is scarcely ever used.

{The Orthodox Church, NY: Penguin Books, 1993 edition, p. 295}

Eminent Protestant historian Philip Schaff, describing the Christian view of marriage in the ante-Nicene period, asserts:

It was in its nature indissoluble except in case of adultery.

{History of the Christian Church, vol. 2: A.D. 100-325, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1910, p. 364}

Comment: Schaff may not be taking into account the Pauline privilege, the "separation of bed and board," and the distinction between annulment and divorce; however he regards divorce, he does confirm, however, that only one justification existed, not ten, or twenty-one, as in more modern Orthodox canon law.

Professor of History and Philosophy of Religion E. O. James (unstated religious persuasion) writes, in his Marriage Customs Through the Ages(NY: Collier Books, 1965, pp. 129-130, 132-133, 151-152):

Canonical legislation governing Christian marriage gradually became systematized to interpret and apply the divine law on the assumption that the sacramental contract validly made and consummated is dissoluble only by the death of one of the parties . . . . .

[the author cites the presence from the beginning of the "Pauline privilege" in terms basically synonymous with the Catholic notion of annulment - viz., that in such cases the marriage never existed]

As the Church established its position in the Empire, and eventually became the sole authority, it set to work to correct laxity of observance by the exercise of canon law through its matrimonial courts. In the Byzantine East, however, imperial control remained much more firmly entrenched and civil legislation had a stronger hold than in the West. Thus, between the time of Constantine (314) and that of Justinian (527) facilities began to be given not only for the putting away of a wife or husband for adultery (porneia) which was a generally accepted practice in the pre-Constantine period, but for remarriage after divorce, at any rate in the case of the innocent party . . .

. . . the Latin Church on the whole has maintained the most consistent and uncompromising attitude in Christendom to the indissolubilty of marriage . . . How deeply laid in Western Christendom was this conception of indissolubility is shown by the refusal of theologians to grant even to the Pope the right to dissolve a validly contracted and duly consummated marriage between two baptized persons . . .

In the Byzantine Empire . . . the Church made no attempt to determine the legal aspects of the constitution of marriage. It accepted the existing civil regulations including, as we have seen, the dissolution of the union a vinculo [dissolution of the marriage bond] under certain conditions . . . no conflict has arisen between the canonical legislation of the Orthodox Church and the secular authority since the civil order was reformed by the Byzantine emperors. Even when the decisions of the ecumenical synods, including those of Trullo, have been modified by later secular legislation no opposition has been encountered from the ecclesiastical authorities, so completely has marriage become regarded as subject to State regulation.

In the Latin West, on the other hand, the traditions of the indissolubility of Christian marriage were steadfastly maintained even before matrimonial causes were brought exclusively under spiritual jurisdiction. Papal decisions like those of Gregory II (726) communicated to St. Boniface, or of Alexander III to the bishop of Amiens, could be interpreted as declarations of nullity rather than permissions granted by the popes to the Frankish kings to dissolve a valid marriage.

Eastern Christendom was thus willing to forsake the advice of its own holy Fathers with regard to divorce; e.g., St. John Chrysostom:

Do not cite the civil law made by outsiders, which command that a bill be issued and a divorce granted. For it is not according to these laws that the Lord will judge thee on the Last Day, but according to those which He Himself has given.

{De. Lib. Rep., cited in Conway, Bertrand, The Question Box, NY: Paulist Press, 1961 edition, p. 204}

Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott summarizes the teaching of the Fathers:

The Fathers of the first centuries almost all expound the view that in the case of adultery the dismissal of the guilty party is permitted, but that a subsequent re-marriage is forbidden [he cites Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen] . . . St. Basil (Ep. 188 can. 9), St. Epiphanius (Haer. 59, 4) and Ambrosiaster (on 1 Cor 7,11) in view of Mt 5,32 and 19,9, and influenced by the state of legislation, allowed the man the right to the dissolution of the marriage and to marry again in the case of adultery of the woman. A defender of the absolute indissolubility of marriage, even in the case of adultery, is St. Augustine.

{Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1974 (orig. 1952), p. 464}

What we have seen so far is more than adequate to establish that the Catholic Church alone maintains the Tradition of the early undivided Church in the first five centuries with regard to marriage and divorce. Eastern Christendom, laboring (as is so often the case) under the false notion of caesaropapism, beginning in the 6th century, introduced innovations and corruptions of the biblical and patristic understanding of the indissolubility of the marriage bond. The Orthodox legatees of the Eastern Christian Tradition have unfortunately continued this unbiblical and untraditional practice, and expanded it - now allowing many more reasons than adultery for the dissolution of a validly-consummated marriage. The same thing holds for contraception, as briefly mentioned by Fr. Hardon above. These are two reasons why I am Catholic rather than Orthodox, because I want the entire and uncompromised teaching of the Bible and the Apostles.

Church Fathers on Divorce and the Indissolubility of Marriage

{Thanks to Catholic Answers and Joe Gallegos for the following information - and for saving my fingers from a ton of typing}

Shepherd of Hermas

"What then shall the husband do, if the wife continue in this disposition [adultery]? Let him divorce her, and let the husband remain single. But if he divorce his wife and marry another, he too commits adultery"

(The Shepherd 4:1:6 [A.D. 80]).

Ignatius of Antioch

" Flee wicked arts; but all the more discourse regarding them. Speak to my sisters, that they love in our Lord, and that their husbands be sufficient for them in the flesh and spirit. Then, again, charge my brethren in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they love their wives, as our Lord His Church. If any man is able in power to continue in purity, to the honour of the flesh of our Lord, let him continue so without boasting; if he boasts, he is undone; if he become known apart from the bishop, he has destroyed himself. It is becoming, therefore, to men and women who marry, that they marry with the counsel of the bishop, that the marriage may be in our Lord, and not in lust. Let everything, therefore, be [done] for the honour of God."

{To Polycarp, 5 (A.D. 110), in ANF, I:100}

Justin Martyr

"In regard to chastity, [Jesus] has-this to say: 'If anyone look with lust at a woman, he has already before God committed adultery in his heart.' And, 'Whoever marries a woman who has been divorced from another husband, commits adultery.' According to our Teacher, just as they are sinners who contract a second marriage, even though it be in accord with human law, so also are they sinners who look with lustful desire at a woman. He repudiates not only one who actually commits adultery, but even one who wishes to do so; for not only our actions are manifest to God, but even our thoughts"

(First Apology 15 [A.D. 151]).

Clement of Alexandria

"Now that the Scripture counsels marriage, and allows no release from the union, is expressly contained in the law, 'Thou shalt not put away thy wife, except for the cause of fornication;' and it regards as fornication, the marriage of those separated while the other is alive. Not to deck and adorn herself beyond what is becoming, renders a wife free of calumnious suspicion. while she devotes herself assiduously to prayers and supplications; avoiding frequent departures from the house, and shutting herself up as far as possible from the view of all not related to her, and deeming housekeeping of more consequence than impertinent trifling. 'He that taketh a woman that has been put away,' it is said, 'committeth adultery; and if one puts away his wife, he makes her an adulteress,' that is, compels her to commit adultery. And not only is he who puts her away guilty of this, but he who takes her, by giving to the woman the opportunity of sinning; for did he not take her, she would return to her husband."

{Stromata, 2:24 (A.D. 202), in ANF, II:379}


"Whence are we to find (words) enough fully to tell the happiness of that marriage which the Church cements, and the oblation confirms, and the benediction signs and seals; (which) angels carry back the news of (to heaven), (which) the Father holds for ratified? For even on earth children do not rightly and lawfully wed without their fathers' consent. What kind of yoke is that of two believers, (partakers) of one hope, one desire, one discipline, one and the same service? Both (are) brethren, both fellow servants, no difference of spirit or of flesh; nay, (they are) truly 'two in one flesh.'] Where the flesh is one, one is the spirit ton. Together they pray, together prostrate themselves, together perform their fasts; mutually teaching, mutually exhorting, mutually sustaining. Equally (are they) both (found) in the Church of God; equally at the banquet of God; equally in straits, in persecutions, in refreshments. Neither hides (ought) from the other; neither shuns the other; neither is troublesome to the other. The sick is visited, the indigent relieved, with freedom. Alms (are given) without (danger of ensuing) torment; sacrifices (attended) without scruple; daily diligence (discharged) without impediment: (there is) no stealthy signing, no trembling greeting, no mute benediction. Between the two echo psalms and hymns; and they mutually challenge each other which shall better chant to their Lord. Such things when Christ sees and hears, He joys. To these He sends His own I peace. Where two (are), there withal (is) He Himself. Where He (is), there the Evil One is not."

{To My Wife, 2,8:4 (A.D. 206), in ANF, IV:48}


"Then, describing what ought to be in the case of those who are joined together by God, so that they may be joined together in a manner worthy of God, the Saviour adds, 'So that they are no more twain;' and, wherever there is indeed concord, and unison, and harmony, between husband and wife, when he is as ruler and she is obedient to the word, 'He shall rule over thee,' then of such persons we may truly say, 'They are no more twain.' Then since it was necessary that for 'him who was joined to the Lord,' it should be reserved 'that he should become one spirit with Him,' in the case of those who are joined together by God, after the words, 'So that they are no more twain,' it is said, 'but one flesh.' And it is God who has joined together the two in one so that they are no more twain, from the time that the woman is married to the man. And, since God has joined them together, on this account in the case of those who are joined together by God, there is a 'gift'; and Paul knowing this, that marriage according to the Word of God was a 'gift,' like as holy celibacy was a gift, says, 'But I would that all men were like myself; howbeit, each man hath his own gift from God, one after this manner, and another after that.' And those who are joined together by God both mind and keep the precept, 'Husbands love your wives, as Christ also the church.' The Saviour then commanded, 'What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder,' but man wishes to put asunder what God hath joined together, when, "falling away from the sound faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, through the hypocrisy of men that speak lies, branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron, forbidding," not only to commit fornication, but 'to marry,' he dissolves even those who had been before joined together by the providence of God. Let these things then be said, keeping in view what is expressly said concerning the male and the female, and the man and the woman, as the Saviour taught in the answer to the Pharisees."

{Commentary on Matthew, 14:16 (post A.D. 244), in ANF,X:506}

"Just as a woman is an adulteress, even though she seem to be married to a man, while a former husband yet lives, so also the man who seems to marry her who has been divorced does not marry her, but, according to the declaration of our Savior, he commits adultery with her"

(Commentaries on Matthew 14:24 [A.D. 248]).

Council of Elvira

"Likewise, women who have left their husbands for no prior cause and have joined themselves with others, may not even at death receive communion"

(canon 8 [A.D. 300]).

"Likewise, a woman of the faith [i.e., a baptized person] who has left an adulterous husband of the faith and marries another, her marrying in this manner is prohibited. If she has so married, she may not at any more receive communion--unless he that she has left has since departed from this world"

(ibid., canon 9).

"If she whom a catechumen [an upbaptized person studying the faith] has left shall have married a husband, she is able to be admitted to the fountain of baptism. This shall also be observed in the instance where it is the woman who is the catechumen. But if a woman of the faithful is taken in marriage by a man who left an innocent wife, and if she knew that he had a wife whom he had left without cause, it is determined that communion is not to be given to her even at death"

(ibid., canon 10)


"Two reasons can be advanced to explain why the marriage was celebrated with external festivities in Cana of Galilee, and why the water was truly changed into wine:so that the tide of Bacchanalian frenetics in the world might be turned to chastity and dignity in marriage, and so that the rest might be directed aright to the enjoyment both of wine free of toil and of the favor that presented it; so that in every way it might stop the mouths of those aroused against the Lord, and so that it might show that He is God with the Father and His Holy Spirit."

{Panarion (Against All Heresies), 51:30 (A.D. 370), in JUR, II:72-73}

John Chrysostom

" 'What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.' See a teacher's wisdom. I mean, that being asked, Is it lawful? He did not at once say, It is not lawful, lest they should be disturbed and put in disorder, but before the decision by His argument He rendered this manifest, showing that it is itself too the commandment of His Father, and that not in opposition to Moses did He enjoin these things, but in full agreement with him. But mark Him arguing strongly not from the creation only, but also from His command. For He said not, that He made one man and one woman only, but that He also gave this command that the one man should be joined to the one woman. But if it had been His will that he should put this one away, and bring in another, when He had made one man, He would have formed many Women. But now both by the manner of the creation, and by the manner of lawgiving, He showed that one man must dwell with one woman continually, and never break off from her."

{On Matthew, 62:1 (A.D. 370), in NPNF1,X:382}

Basil the Great

"A man who marries after another man's wife has been taken away from him will be charged with adultery in the case of the first woman; but in the case of the second he will be guiltless"

(Second Canonical Letter to Amphilochius 199:37 [A.D. 375]).


" 'For this reason shall a man leave father and mother and cleave to his wife and they shall be two in one flesh.' To commend this unity he supplies an example of unity.Just as a man and a woman are one in nature so Christ and the Church are recognized as one through faith. 'This is a great mystery--I mean in reference to Christ and the Church.' He means that the great sign of this mystery is in the unity of man and woman....Just as a man forsakes his parents and cleaves to his wife,so too he forsakes every error and cleaves to the Church and subjects himself to her Head, which is Christ."

{In Ephesians 5:31 (ante A.D. 384), in JUR, II:178-179}


"There is hardly anything more deadly than being married to one who is a stranger to the faith,where the passions of lust and dissension and the evils of sacrilege are inflamed.Since the marriage ceremony ought to be sanctified by the priestly veiling and blessing,how can that be called a marriage ceremony where there is no agreement in faith?"

{To Vigilius, Letter 19:7 (A.D. 385), in FC, XXVI:176}

"No one is permitted to know a woman other than his wife. The marital right is given you for this reason: lest you fall into the snare and sin with a strange woman. 'If you are bound to a wife do not seek a divorce'; for you are not permitted, while your wife lives, to marry another."

(Abraham 1:7:59 [A.D. 387]).

"We do not say that marriage was not sanctified by Christ,since the Word of God says: 'The two shall become one flesh' and one spirit.But we are born before we are brought to our final goal,and the mystery of God's operation is more excellent than the remedy for human weakness. Quite rightly is a good wife praised,but a pious virgin is more rightly preferred."

{To Sircius, Letter 42:3 (A.D. 389), in FC, XXVI:225226}

"You dismiss your wife, therefore, as if by right and without being charged with wrongdoing; and you suppose it is proper for you to do so because no human law forbids it; but divine law forbids it. Anyone who obeys men ought to stand in awe of God. Hear the law of the Lord, which even they who propose our laws must obey: 'What God has joined together let no man put asunder"'

(Commentary on Luke 8:5 [A.D. 389]).


"And these are the nuptials of the Lord,so that like that great Sacrament they might become two in one flesh,Christ and the Church.From these nuptials a Christian people is born,when the Spirit of the Lord comes upon that people."

{Sermon on Baptism, 6 (ante A.D. 392), in JUR, II:144}


"Do not tell me about the violence of the ravisher, about the persuasiveness of a mother, about the authority of a father, about the influence of relatives, about the intrigues and insolence of servants, or about household [financial] losses. So long as a husband lives, be he adulterer, be he sodomite, be he addicted to every kind of vice, if she left him on account of his crimes he is still her husband still and she may not take another"

(Letters 55:3 [A.D. 396]).

"Wherever there is fornication and a suspicion of fornication a wife is freely dismissed. Because it is always possible that someone may calumniate the innocent and, for the sake of a second joining in marriage, act in criminal fashion against the first, it is commanded that when the first wife is dismissed a second may not be taken while the first lives"

(Commentaries on Matthew 3:19:9 [A.D. 398]).

Pope Innocent I

"[T]he practice is observed by all of regarding as an adulteress a woman who marries a second time while her husband yet lives, and permission to do penance is not granted her until one of them is dead"

(Letters 2:13:15 [A.D. 408]).


"Neither can it rightly be held that a husband who dismisses his wife because of fornication and marries another does not commit adultery. For there is also adultery on the part of those who, after the repudiation of their former wives because of fornication, marry others. This adultery, nevertheless, is certainly less serious than that of men who dismiss their wives for reasons other than fornication and take other wives. Therefore, when we say: 'Whoever marries a woman dismissed by her husband for reason other than fornication commits adultery,' undoubtedly we speak the truth. But we do not thereby acquit of this crime the man who marries a woman who was dismissed because of fornication. We do not doubt in the least that both are adulterers. We do indeed pronounce him an adulterer who dismissed his wife for cause other than fornication and marries another, nor do we thereby defend from the taint of this sin the man who dismissed his wife because of fornication and marries another. We recognize that both are adulterers, though the sin of one is more grave than that of the other. No one is so unreasonable to say that a man who marries a woman whose husband has dismissed her because of fornication is not an adulterer, while maintaining that a man who marries a woman dismissed without the ground of fornication is an adulterer. Both of these men are guilty of adultery"

(Adulterous Marriages 1:9:9 [A.D. 419]).

"A woman begins to be the wife of no later husband unless she has ceased to be the wife of a former one. She will cease to be the wife of a former one, however, if that husband should die, not if he commit fornication. A spouse, therefore, is lawfully dismissed for cause of fornication; but the bond of chastity remains. That is why a man is guilty of adultery if he marries a woman who has been dismissed even for this very reason of fornication"

(ibid., 2:4:4).

"It is certainly not fecundity only, the fruit of which consists of offspring, nor chastity only, whose bond is fidelity, but also a certain sacramental bond in marriage which is recommended to believers in wedlock. Accordingly it is en-joined by the apostle: 'Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church.' Of this bond the substance undoubtedly is this, that the man and the woman who are joined together in matrimony should remain inseparable as long as they live..."

{On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1,10 [11] (A.D. 420), in NPNF1,V:268}

"In marriage, however, let the blessings of marriage be loved: offspring, fidelity, and the sacramental bond. Offspring, not so much because it may be born, but because it can be reborn; for it is born to punishment unless it be reborn to life. Fidelity, but not such as even the unbelievers have among themselves, ardent as they are for the flesh. . . . The sacramental bond, which they lose neither through separation nor through adultery, this the -spouses should guard chastely and harmoniously"

(ibid., 1:17:19).

Cyril of Alexandria

"When the wedding was celebrated [at Cana] it is clear that it was entirely decorous:for indeed,the Mother of the Savior was there;and,invited along with His disciples,the Savior too was there,working miracles more than being entertained in feasting,and especially that He might sanctify the very beginning of human generation,which certainly is a matter concerning the flesh."

{Commentary on John, 2:1 (A.D. 429), in JUR, III:222}

Pope Leo the Great

"And so a wife is different from a concubine, even as a bondwoman from a freewoman. For which reason also the Apostle in order to show the difference of these persons quotes from Genesis, where it is said to Abraham, 'Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.' And hence, since the marriage tie was from the beginning so constituted as apart from the joining of the sexes to symbolize the mystic union of Christ and His Church, it is undoubted that that woman has no part in matrimony, in whose case it is shown that the mystery of marriage has not taken place."