In anticipation of the coming assembly of the synod of bishops in October, I write to address a disputed point concerning the Council of Trent's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
Some are arguing that the Catholic Church can adopt a limited practice of divorce and remarriage on grounds similar to the Orthodox pastoral principle of "oikonomia", and do so without denying the Catholic doctrine of indissolubility. They argue that the Council of Trent, in one of its canons on indissolubility (Canon 7), implicitly taught that the Greek practice was not erroneous, and so the council left open the possibility of a "pastoral" compromise permitting some who are in sacramental marriages to remarry while their first spouses still live.
The view both misunderstands the Catholic doctrine of indissolubility and badly misrepresents the intentions of the Council of Trent.
In August 1563, the Council granted a petition to a delegation from the Republic of Venice to speak on the most recent formulation of the canon, which directly condemned anyone who says that marriage can be dissolved on account of adultery.
The Venetian legates explained that in certain territories under Venice's political jurisdiction, the majority of inhabitants, who were Greek Christians, live in singular but fragile unity with the Roman Church. The Venetian government permits the Greek archpriests to exercise limited rule over Greek clergy and liturgy, while the Greek inhabitants submit to the loosely defined jurisdiction of the territories' Roman appointed bishops and periodically profess acknowledgement of the authority of Rome. And while subject and obedient to Roman authority, the Greeks maintain a "most ancient 'ritus' of their fathers" which permits them to dismiss an adulterous wife and marry another, a tradition known to and tolerated by the Roman Church. Publishing an anathema now would burden the Greeks, confuse them, and incite their rebellion against Rome. The delegation entreated the Council to moderate the language of the canon to relieve the Greeks of the burden of falling under an anathema.
In response the Council adopted a revised formulation for Canon 7. It reads:
"If anyone says the church errs, when she taught and teaches, in accordance with the evangelical and apostolic doctrine, that the bond of marriage cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of a spouse, and that neither spouse, even the innocent one, who gave no cause for adultery, can contract another marriage while the other spouse is living, and that he commits adultery who dismisses an adulterous wife and marries another, and she commits adultery who dismisses an adulterous husband and marries another: let him be anathema."
We see that Trent adopted an indirect formulation for the canon. Rather than condemning anyone who says that marriage isn't indissoluble in cases of adultery, it condemns anyone who says "the Church errs" when she taught and teaches that marriage is indissoluble in cases of adultery.
The turn to an indirect formulation has occasioned much dispute over the centuries about the precise meaning of the canon. I would like to offer some insights that became clear to me while researching and writing a coming book entitled, "Till Death Do Us Part: The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent."
Canon 7 dogmatically defines that the Church is inerrant when she taught and teaches that marriage is indissoluble in cases of adultery. This means that the Catholic Church's teaching is certainly true. The implications of this are very significant for the Greek practice. Adultery was the primary ground to which both Protestants and Greeks appealed at the time of Trent to justify divorce and remarriage ("adultery" being the common 16th century understanding of the biblical Greek term "porneia" as used by Matthew in the so-called "exceptive clause" - "except in cases of adultery" - in Mt. 5:32 and 19:19). In teaching the inerrancy of the Church in teaching that proposition, Canon 7 teaches that Matthew does not establish a real exception to the indissolubility of marriage. The clear implication for Protestants and Greeks alike is that if Matthew does not teach a real exception, then the indissolubility of a consummated Christian marriage is absolute.
This conclusion is supported by the fact that in the doctrinal introduction to the treatise on marriage (the "Doctrina"), which immediately precedes the dogmatic canons, the Council asserts twice that the perpetual and indissoluble character of the marriage bond is a truth of divine revelation. Because the scope of indissolubility is not specified in the Doctrina to cases of adultery, or qualified by any circumstance, but rather taught in an unqualified way, we know that Trent means to refer to absolute indissolubility. Moreover, Trent's own teaching in the "Doctrina" is an instance of the Church's teaching that Canon 7 solemnly defines to be inerrant.
But what did Trent concede in adopting an indirect formulation for Canon 7? To answer this we need to look more closely at what the Venetian delegation's intervention implied.
It implied the following:
1) When the Venetians, who were Catholic, took control of the relevant territorial possessions, people there were Greek Orthodox and they practiced divorce and remarriage;
2) bishops named by the pope were installed to govern those churches;
3) the Greek priests and people accepted the bishops and acknowledged papal primacy;
4) some of the priests and people did not give up practicing divorce and remarriage;
5) and the bishops were tolerating that practice.
Doesn't this show that the Catholic Church admits that divorce and remarriage are possible and that marriage is dissoluble? No. The way the Council defined the truth of the Catholic Church's teaching, which it took great care to set out in the "Doctrina," Canon 5 and Canon 7, makes clear that the Council did not accept the truth of the necessary presupposition of the Greek Orthodox practice, and thus did not admit that the practice was sound.
Had the Council kept the direct formulation, the anathema would have ended that toleration. The petitioners claimed doing so would result in ending those Christians' acceptance of papal authority. Thus, by agreeing to the indirect formulation, the Council accepted divorce and remarriage within those particular churches united imperfectly as they were with the Catholic Church. Still, what Trent did makes it clear that the Catholic Church can accept the practice of divorce and remarriage by some of its members who do not believe that marriage is indissoluble.
Doesn't this show, that the Catholic Church, as Walter Kasper argues, can adopt a pastoral principle similar to "oikonomia", where in the "economy" of salvation the church permits spouses in consummated sacramental marriages to divorce and remarry as a way "to accompany people when they make their incremental approach to life's goal", and do so without denying the doctrine of indissolubility? No. All it shows is that some particular churches can be in partial but not complete communion with the Catholic Church, and that the Catholic Church can welcome their communion such as it is while tolerating their residual schism despite its presupposition of a proposition that contradicts a truth that the Catholic Church holds to be divinely revealed.
The Council of Florence (1445), where a short-lived reunion with the Greeks was effected, established a precedent for what Trent is doing in Canon 7. The fathers at Florence knew that the Greeks practiced divorce and remarriage. But the Council did not require as a condition for reunion that they profess what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage. The council fathers at Trent believed that if the bishops of the Greek churches declared their faith in the primacy of the pope, but continued allowing divorce and remarriage, the Catholic Church could welcome the improved relationship with those particular churches even though communion with them remained imperfect.
But the proposal to adopt "oikonomia" means that the Catholic Church itself could adopt a practice that presupposes the falsity of its belief that the absolute indissolubility of marriage is divinely revealed. This the Catholic Church cannot do. Vatican II adopted a similar approach when it addressed ecumenism. It did not focus upon elements of disunity between Catholics and Orthodox, but elements of residual communion. It referred to the Eastern Orthodox as real churches, with real sacraments and holy orders. It avoided statements on the defects in the Eastern positions that make communion imperfect. By not condemning those defects, Vatican II does not mean the Catholic Church believes those positions are not false and contrary to the faith, and that the practices founded upon them are not contrary to the moral order. It means the beliefs and practices are not incompatible with partial communion. It means the Catholic Church and Orthodox churches are not completely out of communion.
Pope Paul VI's act of raising the anathema against the Orthodox Church of Constantinople during Vatican II in November 1965 has a meaning similar to Trent's decision not to impose the anathema in Canon 7. In neither case did the actions imply that all obstacles to full communion had been overcome. Yet both showed that real but imperfect communion exists.
Whatever pastoral solutions the Church adopts for dealing with the global crisis of divorced and "remarried" Catholics, it cannot approve the Greek Orthodox principle of "oikonomia" or any other form of divorce and "remarriage" without being unfaithful to the teaching of Jesus, reaffirmed by the Council of Trent, that consummated sacramental marriages are absolutely indissoluble.
Faithfully yours in Jesus,
E. Christian Brugger
J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology
St. John Vianney Theological Seminary
August 15, 2015
Feast of the Assumption