As I am not a Roman Catholic, I cannot pretend to have any stake in—or, for that matter, any particular right to an opinion regarding—the controversy surrounding Amoris laetitia. From the vantage of Eastern Orthodoxy, there is nothing particularly scandalous in the document—certainly nothing repugnant to the Eastern Christian tradition’s understanding of Scripture, ecclesial law, or pastoral practice—but that is an observation of only the most boringly incidental kind. I do, however, know enough about the development of Christian tradition, both East and West, to note that many of the claims made by Catholic traditionalists have been wildly inaccurate. Not that this is surprising. It is always the “traditionalists” (Orthodox no less than Catholic) who tend to have the most tenuous and idealized concept of the actual traditions of their churches, and necessarily so. The one thing they cannot tolerate is ambiguity. But, alas, history is nothing but ambiguity, and the actual historical record is very rarely the traditionalist’s friend.
Not that I would dismiss the dissenters from Amoris laetitia simply on historical grounds. I merely insist that their dissent, if it is grounded in theological principles they believe to be indubitable, should not be diluted by association with easily discredited fictions about the Christian past. I have no doubt, for instance, that Ross Douthat’s alarm at the apparent leanings of the current pontificate on these issues is sincere and prompted by genuine spiritual concerns. But when it becomes clear that he imagines that current Roman Catholic practice regarding divorce and remarriage—especially permanent exclusion from the Eucharist for the remarried—has been the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church from the earliest centuries, and that this is the inarguably correct interpretation of Scripture, and that it is clearly the Orthodox Church that has deviated from the ancient rule of the faith, it becomes difficult not to reject everything he has to say on the matter out of hand. The problem is not simply that he is wrong on the facts; it is that he obviously has a concept of the early centuries of Christianity that borders on fantasy.
Then again, I suppose that most of us do, at least at certain times. It is natural to think that what seems urgently important to Christians now must have occupied at least as prominent a place in the Christian self-understanding of earlier ages. And so, where documentary evidence to that effect is lacking, we are all too ready to supply the deficiency with our own fond imaginings. We speak with ardent earnestness today of the “Christian family,” for instance, largely unaware that the very concept is scarcely two centuries old, and is more a relic of nineteenth-century sentimental bourgeois piety than an expression of the ethos of the Gospel. Christ’s indifference to the special claims of familial loyalty seems to have been almost perfect (see, for example, Matthew 12:47–50 or Mark 3:32–35). Nor, in the early centuries, was there any distinct concept of “Christian marriage,” or of the moral merits of connubial happiness. Paul, for instance, grudgingly allowed that the married state was a licit concession to the irrepressible carnal appetites of the morally feeble (1 Corinthians 7:9), but he certainly didn’t see it as encompassing some special sphere of sanctity.
Neither, for several centuries after the Apostolic Age, did any Christian theological authority think of marriage as a sacrament in our sense. Augustine (354–430) thought it might be described as a sacramentum in the proper acceptation of the Latin word: a solemn and binding oath before God. But even then, although he took the term chiefly from Jerome’s rendering of Ephesians 5:32, he certainly did not number matrimony among the saving “mysteries” of the church, alongside baptism and the Eucharist. Neither did anyone else, for many, many years. Even the great Church Fathers tended to treat marriage as little more than a civil institution, no different in kind for Christians than for non-Christians. One need only look, for example, at John Chrysostom’s fifty-sixth homily (on the second chapter of Genesis) to see how unacquainted even a late-fourth-century theologian of the highest eminence was with any concept of “holy” matrimony. And, inasmuch as they thought of marriage chiefly as a natural fact rather than as a sacred vocation, the Christians of late antiquity did not treat it as a theological topic.
They did, however, treat it as an issue of moral discipline. But here, it turns out, they tended to take a surprisingly pragmatic approach both to the frequent dissolution of marriages and to the frequent remarriage of divorced spouses. Obviously, they regarded both as sinful in some sense. But neither Orthodox nor Catholic tradition (which in the first millennium were of course one and the same) treated divorce and remarriage as the equivalent of apostasy. Not only were the remarried as a class not excluded from communion for life, or required to abstain from sexual union in order to gain readmission to the sacraments; it was actually inscribed in some synodal canons that they should not be permanently excommunicated (see below). Moreover, precisely because marriage was not regarded as a worthy object of theological reflection, the practices of the early church were far more fluid and ad hoc than we might like to believe.
In his Commentary on Matthew, for example, Origen (ca. 184–253) notes that many of the bishops of his time permitted both divorce and remarriage among the faithful. Canon 11 of the Council of Arles (314) recommends that a divorced man not remarry so long as his former wife still lives, but also grants that, for healthy young men incapable of the continence this would require of them, remarriage may prove necessary. Basil the Great (ca. 330–379) instructed Amphilochius of Iconium to allow men abandoned by their wives to remarry without penalty. It was he, also, who apparently first established an official penitential discipline for remarried laity: a second marriage, after either bereavement or divorce, requires one to two years of abstinence from the Eucharist, while a third marriage requires three to five. These rules remained canonical at least as late as the days of Theodore the Studite (759–826) and Patriarch Nicephorus I of Constantinople (c. 758–828). Incidental remarks of Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315–403) show that remarriage for the divorced was not in his day regarded as an eternal bar to sacramental life. The Council of Carthage (407) proclaimed that abandoned spouses should, ideally, refrain from second marriage, but that, if they could not, they should undergo penance before being readmitted to communion. Even Augustine, while firmly convinced that marriage should as a rule be indissoluble, nonetheless confessed in his Retractiones that he had no final answer on the issue.
The most crucial pronouncements on the matter, however, were promulgated in 692 in the canons attached to the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III) of 680–681 by the Council in Trullo. Canon 87, which largely reprises the rule of Basil, prescribes that a man abandoned by his wife be allowed to remarry without any penitential sequel. But if it is he who is the truant spouse, he must endure seven years of penance—the first as a “shedder of tears,” the next two as a “listener,” like a catechumen, the next three as a “maker of prostrations”—before he may take the Eucharist again (without any obligation to dissolve his second marriage).
Now, it is true that the Council in Trullo was accepted as fully part of the ecumenical deposit only by the Eastern patriarchs, but that should not distract us from what is most significant here. Rome demurred as to the ecumenical status of the council principally because no properly certified Roman legate was present and because, in consequence, certain of the ritual practices enshrined in the council’s canons differed from Western usages. The actual doctrinal and moral contents of the canons, however, including the eighty-seventh, were offensive to no one. Certainly the council was no cause of division among the patriarchates. Pope Hadrian I (r. 772–795) praised its canons, in fact, and even now its ninety-first canon is routinely cited by Catholic apologists as proof of the church’s dogmas regarding abortion.
To be honest, many modern believers would be shocked to learn how late in Christian history a clear concept of marriage as a religious institution evolved, and how long it took for it to be absolutely distinguished from what would come to be thought of as common-law unions, or for the church to insist on its solemnization in all cases. They would be even more disturbed, I imagine (as much on democratic principles as religious), to discover that throughout much of the Middle Ages the whole issue of wedlock certified by the church concerned mostly the aristocracy, inasmuch as marriage was chiefly a matter of property, inheritance, and politics. As far as we can tell, among the peasantry of many lands, and for many centuries, marital union was a remarkably mercurial sort of arrangement, one that coalesced and dissolved with considerable informality, as circumstances dictated. And the clergy did not, for the most part, give a damn.
Nevertheless, as the patristic Christian world yielded to the medieval, East and West did begin to grow apart in the severity with which they dealt with divorce and remarriage among the enfranchised classes. To some extent, it would not be unfair to say that the former fell too much under the sway of Byzantine civil law; and perhaps a militant Newmanian would claim that the latter was being led by the Spirit toward an ever fuller understanding of its own doctrinal inheritance. But the fact remains that neither East nor West, in the early centuries, promoted or practiced anything remotely as strict as modern Roman Catholic teaching prescribes. And, indeed, for almost all the premodern period, the differences between East and West were nowhere near so pronounced as modern Catholic traditionalists imagine. In the West, divorces became harder to obtain, but not impossible. One of the best attested in the historical record was that of the Earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare, and his wife Alice de Lusignan: the formal dissolution of their wedding vows was requested in 1271, but was not granted by the pope until 1285. But it was granted. Nor was their case unique. Later Catholic historians, out of embarrassment, tend to characterize these rare but real ecclesially dissolved marriages as annulments, identical in kind to those so easily obtained today. But no one at the time took them as such.