Letters | Divorce and remarriage in the early church

I read David Bentley Hart’s most recent contribution to Commonweal (“Divorce, Annulment & Communion,” September) with a mixture of astonishment and dismay. Dismay because Hart, a writer with a real gift for derision, has in this article turned his sneer on the historic mainstream of Christian thought and practice. Astonishment because he has mischaracterized that history in a way unbefitting of a professional scholar.

In a word, Hart has told half the story. For instance, he can say that St. Paul “certainly didn’t see [the married state] as encompassing some special sphere of sanctity” only by excluding from consideration the theology of the family in the Haustafeln (House-Tables) of Ephesians and Colossians. (To be fair, Hart explains in his translation of the New Testament that he does not consider these epistles to be authentic productions of Paul.) Less defensible is Hart’s misreading of St. John Chrysostom. Hart cites one of Chrysostom’s homilies on Genesis and marvels at “how unacquainted even a late-fourth-century theologian of the highest eminence was with any concept of ‘holy’ matrimony.” Can he really be unaware of Chrysostom’s extensive treatment of marriage and the family in his New Testament exegesis? That treatment was lately made the subject of an entry in St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics series, fittingly titled St. John Chrysostom: On Marriage and Family Life (2015)? Can the Chrysostom Hart describes really be the same one who said, “Marriage is a type of the presence of Christ” (Hom. Col.[1]  4:12–13)?

Hart’s précis of the tradition is similarly one-sided. He gestures at a few patristic and conciliar data only to conclude that “neither East nor West, in the early centuries, promoted or practiced anything remotely as strict as modern Roman Catholic teaching prescribes.” This is a gross oversimplification of a very complicated subject. It is true that the texts he mentions have been taken by some as tolerating or even approving of remarriage after divorce. But every single one of the texts he cites has been read by others as actually supporting modern Roman Catholic teaching. For instance, the eminent patrologist Henri Crouzel, SJ, in L'Église primitive face au divorce : du premier au cinquième siècle (1971) reveals the serious text-critical problems besetting Hart’s citations from St. Epiphanius and the Synod of Arles (314). Your readers would never suspect these problems from Hart’s article. In the end, Crouzel concludes that the only unambiguous approval of remarriage after divorce in the church’s early centuries comes from Ambrosiaster. Many have differed with Crouzel on these points, but Hart has done a disservice to your readers in disregarding the debate.

What’s more, he has totally excluded from view all texts running counter to his thesis. To mention just a few: the Synod of Elvira (c. 300), Canon 9: “If a believing woman has left her believing, adulterous husband and [wishes to] marry another, let her be forbidden to marry; if she does marry, she may not receive communion unless [the husband] she abandoned has previously departed this world” (the canon goes on to allow the woman the viaticum on her deathbed). Another example: Pope St. Innocent I (401–417) writes, “Whoever marries another man while her husband is still alive must be held to be an adulteress and must be granted no leave to do penance unless one of the men shall have died” (Ep. 2.13.15, PL 20.479)[2] . Innocent again: “Concerning those who, by means of a deed of separation, have contracted another marriage: it is manifest that they are adulterers on both sides” (Ep. 6.6.12, PL 20.500). These rulings of Pope Innocent are far from obscure; in both instances I’ve drawn the translation from the old Catholic Encyclopedia entry on “Divorce (in Moral Theology).” These sources alone suffice to explode Hart’s sweeping claim that “the remarried as a class [were] not excluded from communion for life.”

What will be the upshot of Hart’s article? Those readers on their second or third marriages will find nothing there to trouble their consciences. Readers who already approve of remarriage will no doubt find it gratifying to discover that a scholar like Hart agrees with them. Undecided readers may well be deceived by Hart’s historical prestidigitations into believing that the testimony of Scripture and Tradition is a settled matter in favor of remarriage. Will the average reader have the wherewithal to track down the text Hart mentions in Origen’s Commentary on Matthew about some bishops permitting the divorced to remarry (it’s 14.23), to find that Origen condemns the practice (three times!) as “contrary to the Scriptures”? I doubt it. Hart’s glib dismissals serve more to hide the truth than to illuminate it.

Theodore G. Janiszewski
Rochester, N.Y.

 

David Bentley Hart replies:

Theodore Janiszewski should read more carefully. For one thing, whatever sneering or dismissive tone he detected in my article is one he has imagined. For another, he should learn the difference between the “mainstream” of Christianity and “Western Catholic tradition.” More to the point, none of his complaints are actually germane to what I said. In order:

Even if Ephesians and Colossians are authentically Pauline, the House-Tables have nothing to do with either a sacramental or a fully theological concept of matrimony. Nor do they negate Paul’s attempts to discourage matrimony whenever possible. All my remarks on the New Testament were meant only to explain why early Christians did not all arrive at the same conclusions regarding the scriptural evidence.

Chrysostom and the fathers of the East are often very positive in their description of matrimony, much more so than their Western counterparts. And, yes, Chrysostom on more than one occasion, following Scripture, uses marriage as a type (that is, an image) of Christ’s presence—as he does many things drawn from nature, such as fire, water, family, polis, wine, fruits, etc. I never said he disliked marriage. It is still clear from all his writings on the matter that he saw it as a natural institution, no different in kind for Christians than for pagans, and not sacramental in the sense we would recognize now.

Crouzel’s book has been torn apart so often that its present scholarly status is nil. A pious work, but absurd. The documents are quite clear. The evidence is unambiguous. No good church historian regards Crouzel’s argument as worthy of serious attention.

I never said that there were not Christian sources from antiquity that forbade divorce and remarriage. What I said was that there was no universal and consistent practice, and no single authoritative dogmatic of theological consensus on the matter. Hence the point of producing those canonical sources that permitted it.

I also never said Origen approved of divorce and remarriage. I said that he reports that many bishops in his time did allow it. Which is to make the same point as directly above.

If Janiszewski had bothered to read my concluding remarks with care, he would have seen that, far from celebrating the contradictions of the past or recommending any particular course of ecclesial action, I in fact somewhat lament the laxity of both East and West in this matter.

In a sense, the exaggerated response of many traditionalist Catholics to my really very tentative article is instructive. The sane response of anyone who sees current Catholic teaching as correct should be along the lines of: “Of course the historical evidence from the church’s early centuries is diverse and contradictory, as with so many aspects of Christian doctrine. But the Holy Spirit has guided the development of church teaching to its present form and thus vindicated certain ancient bishops and theologians and scriptural exegetes while consigning others to the history of error.” But traditionalist Catholics all too often—like their Orthodox counterparts—insist that their beliefs come wrapped in comforting fictions that every good historian knows to be false. And yet there is nothing in their doctrinal commitments that should require such fictions. A faith that demands dishonesty is, by definition, not faith.

Published in the November 2019 issue: 
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