Short Reminders on Indissolubility

A friend’s request for some background after reading a clumsily written attempt to muster a revisionist Latin Christian tradition on marriage reminded me of this book:


And led me to suggest the following:

Remember a few basic things when you talk to people who may not know what marriage really means but nonetheless enter disputes about the Catholic tradition concerning marriage.

Indissolubility is a property of a sacramental marriage, that is, of an actual marriage of two baptized persons. Indissolubility does not apply to natural marriages that do not have this character, though such marriages are permanent by their very nature. A “temporary marriage” is nonsense; but many things that are intrinsically permanent in character may possibly be dissolved by extrinsic forces.

For a marriage to be sacramental, both persons must be baptized; doubt about the baptism of either would also leave doubt about the indissolubility of the bond, though not of the permanent nature of marriage.

For a marriage to be sacramental, it must also actually be a marriage; doubt about the fact of the marriage would also leave doubt about the indissolubility of the bond (what doesn’t exist can’t be indissoluble), though not about the indissolubility of sacramental marriage as such.

Refusal of consent to the marriage, including rejection of any of the goods of marriage (so that I may be consenting to some sort of bond, but not to marriage), or lack of freedom to consent to marriage are, among others, grounds for concluding the nullity of the marriage–that is, they deny that there was any marriage, not that marriage is indissoluble.

The goods of marriage include fecundity and permanent sexual fidelity and exclusivity. Determining whether any of these has been rejected, or consent withheld or coerced, or consent at first withheld or coerced and later given freely, requires careful inquiry into complicated personal circumstances. Doing this may well be incredibly messy, and people may well express the terms of such an inquiry very badly indeed; this can lead to very badly worded rules and guidelines that need later correction or that require thorough familiarity with their immediate context.

Marriage, being a public act with civil consequences, has always had legal and juridical implications as well as ecclesial ones. Divorce, especially, is a civil act that is generally not an ecclesial act at all, especially in the West. (One reason for differences in the East is that the Caesaropapist tendency leads to a need to adapt ecclesial law to civil law, rather than use Church teaching as a foundation for the reform of unjust civil laws.) Ecclesial law, and even teaching, is often spoken toward and assumes the language of civil law as it is given; often we must read it against the customary, common, or statutory law of the place where the matter was discussed.

7 thoughts on “Short Reminders on Indissolubility”

  1. Alura

    First, I find it remarkably telling that you did not quote a single one of my arguments from my article nor the church canons that I cite. Two, your accusation of Caesaropapism reflects a historical knowledge that is both terribly out-of-date and uncharitable. That is all that I really need to say about this matter.

  2. pgepps Post Author

    Well, if I’d thought your post worth detailed interaction, I probably wouldn’t have called it “clumsy” in the first line of mine; and if I’d intended a prolonged discussion, I probably wouldn’t have called it “Short Reminders.”

    Metropolitan Kirill will get back to you about the timeliness of Caesaropapism when he’s done running errands for Putin. More to the point, a quick consultation of Joyce for background on the development of Christian marriage and the book I cite in the post for updating will tell you what you need to know about the history of the divergence before you try again.

  3. pgepps Post Author

    From my emails:

    Ugh, this author’s writing is a pain.

    His treatment of the Council of Arles might make sense if 20th-C
    Americans were writing the language in English and then translating it
    woodenly into Latin. The idea that the Council of Arles, made up of
    celibates, said “quantum possit” and meant “if he can keep it in his
    pants”? Hilarious.
    Also, regional councils don’t necessarily teach what “the Church”
    teaches without error, any more than any given bishop’s attempt to
    articulate the faith is necessarily irreformably true.


    Vanne and Soissons don’t help him.

    Compiegne is interesting, hard to read in modern language, possibly in
    error(?), BUT looks like part of the development of the ratum et
    consummatum standard for indissolubility. A “legal” wife might well
    be ratum but non consummatum.

    Verberie is weird, and requires study; murder in East & West is an
    unusual reason, and this more so.

    …………………….this whole list is a good example of why one
    ought *not* anachronistically interpret canons. The Church has
    already digested most of this, and the output is what we have received
    as the faith.

    And another:

    …and again, the Synod of Rome does not help him. His conclusion is
    risible, given that.

    I’m not going to bother to go on and deal with what looks like an
    obvious case of not understanding what constitutes genuine tradition
    and what “unanimous consent of the fathers” means, among other things.

    Arles, Vannes, Soissons, Rome–no help. he argues from silence.
    Compiegne–worth further study.
    Verberie–outlier, worth further study.

    None of these changes what has been taught always, everywhere, and by
    all; and none even authoritatively defines, much less outranks, a
    dominical saying.

  4. Alura

    The quibble about quantum posse doesn’t have grounds as far as I am concerned. The translation is quite acceptable and the phrase is explicitly acknowledged in medieval Latin dictionaries. See DMLBS #6: . However ridiculous the ruling might seem to the emailer, it doesn’t change the fact that the council ruled such.

    Furthermore, I never made any claims as to what “the Church” taught “officially” on the matter. I openly acknowledged that these were local synods and that there were other synods that contradicted them. I am not sure why the author of the first email is upset, but I somewhat suspect he or she did not read my entire blog post and thus misunderstood my intentions.

    In terms of the second email, well I would appreciate why they think that for Vanne and Soissons. He or she doesn’t give an argument, but only bald assertions. As for Compiegne, that’s a rather interesting take. I don’t necessarily follow it, but interesting nonetheless. I am well aware that arguments over consummation existed in the late 9th century. My question is whether or not they existed in the 8th. I am unaware of such, but it could be simple ignorance on my part. I am also curious what the Catholic Church’s treatment on these councils and penitentials are, which the second emailer mentions.

    As for the third email, the author presents no argument. He or she just makes claims with no counter analysis whatsoever. On what basis do they argue that I am making arguments for silence? And on what basis do they argue that the Synod of Rome doesn’t present a case for allowing remarriage after divorce? My understanding of these councils are on pretty sure ground to say the least. It falls in step with how academic historians have interpreted these canons and rulings. For more info on that scholarship, see:

    Jo-Ann McNamara and Suzanne F. Wemple, “Marriage and Divorce in the Frankish Kingdom,” in Women in Medieval Society, edited by Susan Mosher Stuard (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1976), 95-124.

  5. hospitalists

    Alura, to clear up any confusion, Peter is quoting from his own e-mails to me. He was providing me with rebuttals to your technical points to guide my own studies on this topic because I find it interesting and am totally unfamiliar with your particular argument and this sort of scholarship in general.

    In the other thread one of my points (probably completely obfuscated because I can’t type concisely) was that Craig misused your blog post because its contents could not support his assertion that it is disingenuous for RCs to criticize the current EOC handling of remarriage, as regardless of internal veracity, the entry did not demonstrate any sort of dramatic reversal of moral teaching (as you yourself pointed out). This is why I made the previous claim that he was maybe begging the question a little bit because what counts as Tradition was actually partly at issue.

    This is getting pretty convoluted. I’ve got to stop here. But I’ll follow the conversation if you two continue a discussion on councils. God bless.

    PS. is your banner on the SO blog Priscilla from Claymore?

  6. pgepps Post Author

    Obviously it matters that regional councils can be unclear or in error. If you find “a tradition” that differs from “the Tradition,” that is, “what the Church teaches,” you have not found an interesting complexity; you’ve just found an error the Church shed along the way.

    It is a Protestant, not to say an essentially and predictably heretical, method to sift through the less authoritative statements made by theologians and clergy along the way in search of “counterexamples” that “complicate” an issue that is, well, not actually as complicated as all that. Yes, the process of coming to understand the truth well enough to define it is often complicated; one has to be pretty specific to deal with Eutyches, after all. But there is nothing that remains complicated about the bare facts of orthodox Trinitarian and Christological formulae, and no number of citations from ante-Nicene fathers (heck, even Athanasius!) making what Nicene Christians know are technical theological errors changes the result we get when we look for the “unanimous consent of the fathers.” Jerome has a lot of sentences that we don’t hold; even Aquinas, or Maximos, or Augustine, or Basil, can be mined for tendentious phrases. Only would-be heresiarchs do so, though.

    On Arles, the translation is conclusory; it is therefore no more than an argument from silence, as you are saying “my translation is possible, word for word, and therefore I will use the translation that fits my argument.” It does not, however, make a whit of sense to smuggle an entire set of American speculations about what is morally possible–speculations conveniently tailored to your conclusion–into a bare concession to practicality.

    The same applies to all of your examples, though one should readily admit that Compiegne and Verbiere are outliers. Verbiere, especially, may well be applying a rule that was tested and later found to be wrong. Compiegne is probably worded oddly in an attempt to fit with civil law–a mistake the West abandoned, but which continued to distort the East’s view of marriage.

    The others quite simply do not contain anything that calls into question the indissolubility of an actual marriage of two baptized persons. Only by filling in the silence with speculative details could you draw such a conclusion–but then, we established from the first that your process is conclusory, not reasoned.

    And again, if I were wrong about every single piece of evidence you adduce, it would not matter. It would just mean that I was mistaken in my effort to charitably construe rulings & teachings that were wrong, that in the end made only a negative contribution to what is indubitable and irreformable teaching of the Church founded by Jesus Christ, a teaching expressed in a dominical saying, which only heretics resist.

  7. Alura

    hospitalists, my banner is someone’s rendition of Rakka, the main character of the anime Habane Renmei. The show is pretty lowkey and pleasant. It also has a strong Augustinian vibe on the nature of sin and salvation, so I found it very interesting for that. I think it should still be on Funimation.

    pgepps, history is always complicated. Any practicing historian would tell you that. As for the future of this conversation, I am afraid that I will have to cut it short. My translation of Arles is pretty spot on, actually. The fact that you won’t specify as to how it is wrong and offer your own translation of the Latin only reveals that you don’t know the language or its grammar. Which would in any other circumstances be quite fine and we could still debate. But that would require that you be honest about your own language skills. Therefore, I get the vibe that you are arguing from a sentiment that is less than charitable and more focused on branding me as a heretic rather than someone who is genuinely curious. Hence, why you would pose as someone with Latin knowledge, automatically assume I support Putin and Kirill, and use the derogatory term “Caesaropapism” to describe my faith.

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