Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church?

Understanding Canon 8 of the Council of Nicea

Rome, (Zenit.org) | 2010 hits

By Antonio Grappone

Recently, in the discussion about the possible readmission of divorced and remarried people to the sacraments, many have appealed to the practice of the early Church, which, according to some, regularly allowed the faithful in that situation to return after a period of public penance. In fact, this is a thesis that is completely rejected by certain authorities in the field and has been refuted by them in the past. But, as often happens, some historical theses that seemed to have been cast aside, periodically make a return and are used in support of arguments in contemporary debates.

Not a few commentators have noted how the argument relies principally on canon 8 of the Council of Nicea, an obviously authoritative text. The canon deals with the readmission of the so-called “kataroi” (pure), which in the early Church was a term for the “Novatianists,” a sect with rigorist tendencies that developed from the schism of Novation, a Roman priest who in the middle of the 3rd century broke communion with Cornelius, the Bishop of Rome, had himself ordained a bishop and justified his actions by indicating problems with [Church] discipline, which are are indirectly suggested by canon 8. Novation refused readmission of apostates and adulterers to the Church even after public penance. So, the Nicean canon prescribes that the Novationists, to be readmitted, must “promise in writing that they will accept and follow the decrees of the catholic and apostolic Church, that is, they will maintain communion with those who have been married twice (“digamos” in Greek) and with those who have fled during persecution but who have observed the time and circumstances of penance.”

According to the interpretation that we are dicussing, the early Church readmitted the divorced and remarried to the sacraments after a period of penance, a practice that the Novation rigorists did not accept, but a practice that was common in the Church generally at the time – so much so that it is mentioned in the first ecumenical council – and was destined to survive in the Eastern Church. In the West, however, the rigorist tendencies condemned by the canon prevailed.

The first observation that should be made is of a general character. The understanding that the early Church had of marriage at the time was evolving and the perception of marriage as a sacrament was slowly growing. The general coordinates of reflection moved, on the one hand, from the Lord’s statement about marriage’s indissolubility, to the social perception, ratified by Roman law, that there was no problem with divorce, on the other. The position of all the Fathers, although with varying emphases, is unquestionably the defense and promotion of the indissolubility of marriage, despite the doctrine being in a state of progressive clarification. We find the first systematic and unequivocal formulations in the direction of recognizing marriage’s sacramentality in Augustine at the beginning of the 5th century, almost a century after Nicea. Already these obvious considerations should suffice for people to avoid hastily drawing conclusions for today.

The second observation regards the literal sense of the text in question. The canon proposes two catergories of persons with whom the Novationists must be prepared to live in communion: those married twice (“digamos”) and those who fled persecution, that is, apostates, but who have all done penance. Let us first consider this second case, which is not subject to interpretive problems. The great persecutions of the 3rd century, culminating in that of Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century, began suddenly and lasted for a relatively short period of time.

These circumstances were a severe trial for Christians, and a large number of them, overwhelmed by the events, apostasized in a more or less manifest way. Once the persecutions ceased, many of these apostates asked to reenter the Church. Their readmission after public penance at the beginning of the 4th century was a common practice in the Church, but rigorist groups such as the Novatians, would never have accepted such a practice. Now, obviously, ecclesiastical discipline specified that the apostates must give up their apostasy, renounce idols publicly and go through some years of penance to strengthen their conversion and show the community that they have truly reformed.

Essentially, to be readmitted, the penitents had to remove the cause of their separation from the community. This case is seen by some interpreters as parallel in canon 8 to those who have been married twice. If we are dealing with divorced people who have remarried and have been required to do penance (and, as we shall soon see, this is not at all clear), how can we suppose that they were readmitted, even if after the period of penance, without having removed the cause of their separation, that is, without having given up their second marriage? The logic of the text, if read according to a strict parallelism, would impose this interpretation.

Nevertheless, such a conclusion is purely hypothetical. In fact, the text of the canon never speaks of a period of penance for the “diagomi”; it only speaks of this penance for the apostates. The reading that assimilates the two cases is probably tendentious and, above all, forces the text. The canon never says that those who have been married twice did public penance and simply reentered the Church. So, did the early Church just readmit divorced people without blinking an eye?

A third observation should be made about the meaning of the Greek term “digamos.” The first meaning of the term is identical with that of the English term “bigamy”: one man who has two wives at the same time. But, obviously here the second meaning is the appropriate one, which, moreover, is frequent in the Christian authors of the first centuries: a man entering into a second marriage after the first has ended. The discussion of the legitimacy of the second marriage, in fact, goes from the second to the fifth century and beyond, but it has nothing to do with divorced and remarried people. The term “digamos” (and “digamia”), together with the opposite term “monogamos” (and “monogamia”) soon became the technical terms that were employed in the lengthy debate over the second marriages of widowers.

The importance of the question evidently derives from the fact that, on the one hand, the words of the Lord about the “one flesh” formed by the spouses seemed to exclude this possibility, while, on the other hand, the median life expectancy at the time, much shorter than today’s, and the young age of the girls who married, led to the presence in the community of a signficant number of widowers and, above all, widows of a marriageable age. This last fact was taken into thorough consideration on the basis of scriptural teaching, so much so that widows, as is well-known, constituted an institutional “ordo.”

Only slowly did the Church recognize the complete legitimacy of the second marriage of widows. This did not occur until at least the end of the 4th century. Before that these marriages were permitted but not at all encouraged. The rigorists considered remarried widows to be similar to adulterers. Athenagoras, an apologist of the 2nd century, spoke of a “presentable adultery” (“A Plea for Christians,” 33, 2) and he is not even considered a rigorist.

There are numerous texts that testify to the use of the term “digamos” or “monogamos” to indicate the state of widows or widowers in relation to a second marriage. An example, closer to the 5th century, from the letters of St. Jerome witnesses to the technical meaning of the terms (left in the original Greek) with reference to the state of widows and widowers: “Why does a priest, who must be a monogamist (‘monogamia’), urge a widow to marry again (‘digamos’)?” (Letter 52, 16).

Often the meaning of the terms is taken for granted by the author and so there is the danger of misinterpretation. But in some cases the meaning is entirely plain, for example, in the “Apostolic Consititions” (in 2 places: 3, 2, 2, and 6, 17, 1), a canonical collection in which “mongamos” is defined as a person who does not remarry. Origen, in the 3rd century, is very clear witness to the technical meaning of “digamos.” He speaks of the state of a widow in relation to a second marriage in a homily on Jeremiah (20, 4). In regard to this text we should point out the different interpretations of modern scholars. Pierre Nautin, the great patrologist who is responsible for the “Sources Chrétiennes” edition of Origen’s homilies on Jeremiah, accurately indicates that it is a matter of the second marriage of a widow (SC 238, pp. 268-269, notes 1 and 2). But Luciana Mortari, the translator of the “Studi Patristici” collection, states, on the contrary, that it is a matter of divorced people who remarry, offering the penitential practice of the Eastern Church (more precisely, it is the Orthodox Church) as evidence (‘Collana di Studi Patristici” 123, p. 265, note 43). Finally, in her “Dizionario di Origene,” Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, who is one of the major experts in the area, explains in the entry on “marriage” that the text from the homily on Jeremiah is to be understood as referring to the marriage of widows (p. 269).

Tertullian’s “De monogamia,” which was written during his Montanist peirod, is a paradigmatic text on the question. In this treatise Tertullian completely rejects the possibility of a second marriage for a widow. This text permits us to return to our discussion of the meaning of canon 8 of the Council of Nicea. In fact, Socrates Scholasticus, a well-documented Church historian who wrote around the turn of the 5th century, who manifests clear sympathy for the Novatianists, states that the Novatianists “about Phrygia” did not accept the “diagami” (“History of the Church,” 5, 22, 60), which was precisely the question dealt with in the Nicean canon. The Montanists (also called Phrygians or Kataphrygians after their place of origin) and the Novatians were, in fact, joined in a single rigorist movement and were called the “pure,” as we see in canon 8.

How, then, should the canon be interpreted? The “pure,” to reenter the Catholic Church had to be prepared to live in communion with the remarried widows and widowers (who were not at all required to do public penance) and with the apostates who reconciled with the Church after sutiable penance. “Digamos,” when used without any particular qualification, is a technical term for remarried widows or widowers. The misinterpretation of the term comes from the presumption of a certain practice of toleration for divorced and remarried people in the early Church that is preserved in the current practice of the Orthodox Church. The latter is an interesting hypothesis but its truth, it seems to me, has not been demonstrated. In reality, as we saw with the widows and widowers, the prevalent tendency of the early Church with respect to marriage was nearer to rigorism than to positions of “tolerance.”

Personally, I do not know what to say about whether or how divorced and remarried people today could be readmitted to the sacraments. It is a complex question in which the indissoluablity of marriage and the welcoming of all are factors. It is not, therefore, merely a disciplinary question, as the Pope has recently noted. What seems clear to me is that if you wish to make arguments in favor of the readmission of divorced and remarried people to the sacraments, you certainly cannot appeal to the practice of the early Church for support.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]