Divorce: Early Church vs. Eastern Orthodoxy

From: "Mixed Marriages: A Theological Analysis," excerpt from Église et Théologie, I (1970), pp. 229-260.

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. (one of America's leading orthodox Catholic catechists)

[As an interesting side note, Fr. Hardon noted that Conservative Judaism came out in favor of contraception in 1934, and Orthodox Judaism - the Rabbinical Alliance of America - gave its sanction in 1958]

The Orthodox scholar, Fr. Stanley S. Harakas confirms the lateness of the tradition of divorce (some 500 years after Christ) in Eastern Christendom:

{The Orthodox Church: 455 Questions and Answers, Minneapolis: Light & Life Pub. Co., 1987, p. 107}

Orthodox Archbishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware explains the Orthodox position on divorce, which to Catholic ears sounds morally incoherent:

{The Orthodox Church, NY: Penguin Books, 1993 edition, p. 295}

Eminent Protestant historian Philip Schaff, describing the Christian view of marriage in the ante-Nicene period, asserts:

{History of the Christian Church, vol. 2: A.D. 100-325, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1910, p. 364}

Comment: Schaff may not be taking into account the Pauline privilege, the "separation of bed and board," and the distinction between annulment and divorce; however he regards divorce, he does confirm, however, that only one justification existed, not ten, or twenty-one, as in more modern Orthodox canon law.

Professor of History and Philosophy of Religion E. O. James (unstated religious persuasion) writes, in his Marriage Customs Through the Ages (NY: Collier Books, 1965, pp. 129-130, 132-133, 151-152):

Eastern Christendom was thus willing to forsake the advice of its own holy Fathers with regard to divorce; e.g., St. John Chrysostom:

{De. Lib. Rep., cited in Conway, Bertrand, The Question Box, NY: Paulist Press, 1961 edition, p. 204}

Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott summarizes the teaching of the Fathers:

{Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1974 (orig. 1952), p. 464}

What we have seen so far is more than adequate to establish that the Catholic Church alone maintains the Tradition of the early undivided Church in the first five centuries with regard to marriage and divorce. Eastern Christendom, laboring (as is so often the case) under the false notion of caesaropapism, beginning in the 6th century, introduced innovations and corruptions of the biblical and patristic understanding of the indissolubility of the marriage bond. The Orthodox legatees of the Eastern Christian Tradition have unfortunately continued this unbiblical and untraditional practice, and expanded it - now allowing many more reasons than adultery for the dissolution of a validly-consummated marriage. The same thing holds for contraception, as briefly mentioned by Fr. Hardon above. These are two reasons why I am Catholic rather than Orthodox, because I want the entire and uncompromised teaching of the Bible and the Apostles.

Church Fathers on Divorce and the Indissolubility of Marriage

{Thanks to Catholic Answers and Joe Gallegos for the following information - and for saving my fingers from a ton of typing. LOLOL}

"What then shall the husband do, if the wife continue in this disposition [adultery]? Let him divorce her, and let the husband remain single. But if he divorce his wife and marry another, he too commits adultery"

(The Shepherd 4:1:6 [A.D. 80]).

" Flee wicked arts; but all the more discourse regarding them. Speak to my sisters, that they love in our Lord, and that their husbands be sufficient for them in the flesh and spirit. Then, again, charge my brethren in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they love their wives, as our Lord His Church. If any man is able in power to continue in purity, to the honour of the flesh of our Lord, let him continue so without boasting; if he boasts, he is undone; if he become known apart from the bishop, he has destroyed himself. It is becoming, therefore, to men and women who marry, that they marry with the counsel of the bishop, that the marriage may be in our Lord, and not in lust. Let everything, therefore, be [done] for the honour of God."

{To Polycarp, 5 (A.D. 110), in ANF, I:100}

"In regard to chastity, [Jesus] has-this to say: 'If anyone look with lust at a woman, he has already before God committed adultery in his heart.' And, 'Whoever marries a woman who has been divorced from another husband, commits adultery.' According to our Teacher, just as they are sinners who contract a second marriage, even though it be in accord with human law, so also are they sinners who look with lustful desire at a woman. He repudiates not only one who actually commits adultery, but even one who wishes to do so; for not only our actions are manifest to God, but even our thoughts"

(First Apology 15 [A.D. 151]).

"Now that the Scripture counsels marriage, and allows no release from the union, is expressly contained in the law, 'Thou shalt not put away thy wife, except for the cause of fornication;' and it regards as fornication, the marriage of those separated while the other is alive. Not to deck and adorn herself beyond what is becoming, renders a wife free of calumnious suspicion. while she devotes herself assiduously to prayers and supplications; avoiding frequent departures from the house, and shutting herself up as far as possible from the view of all not related to her, and deeming housekeeping of more consequence than impertinent trifling. 'He that taketh a woman that has been put away,' it is said, 'committeth adultery; and if one puts away his wife, he makes her an adulteress,' that is, compels her to commit adultery. And not only is he who puts her away guilty of this, but he who takes her, by giving to the woman the opportunity of sinning; for did he not take her, she would return to her husband."

{Stromata, 2:24 (A.D. 202), in ANF, II:379}

"Whence are we to find (words) enough fully to tell the happiness of that marriage which the Church cements, and the oblation confirms, and the benediction signs and seals; (which) angels carry back the news of (to heaven), (which) the Father holds for ratified? For even on earth children do not rightly and lawfully wed without their fathers' consent. What kind of yoke is that of two believers, (partakers) of one hope, one desire, one discipline, one and the same service? Both (are) brethren, both fellow servants, no difference of spirit or of flesh; nay, (they are) truly 'two in one flesh.'] Where the flesh is one, one is the spirit ton. Together they pray, together prostrate themselves, together perform their fasts; mutually teaching, mutually exhorting, mutually sustaining. Equally (are they) both (found) in the Church of God; equally at the banquet of God; equally in straits, in persecutions, in refreshments. Neither hides (ought) from the other; neither shuns the other; neither is troublesome to the other. The sick is visited, the indigent relieved, with freedom. Alms (are given) without (danger of ensuing) torment; sacrifices (attended) without scruple; daily diligence (discharged) without impediment: (there is) no stealthy signing, no trembling greeting, no mute benediction. Between the two echo psalms and hymns; and they mutually challenge each other which shall better chant to their Lord. Such things when Christ sees and hears, He joys. To these He sends His own I peace. Where two (are), there withal (is) He Himself. Where He (is), there the Evil One is not."

{To My Wife, 2,8:4 (A.D. 206), in ANF, IV:48}

"Then, describing what ought to be in the case of those who are joined together by God, so that they may be joined together in a manner worthy of God, the Saviour adds, 'So that they are no more twain;' and, wherever there is indeed concord, and unison, and harmony, between husband and wife, when he is as ruler and she is obedient to the word, 'He shall rule over thee,' then of such persons we may truly say, 'They are no more twain.' Then since it was necessary that for 'him who was joined to the Lord,' it should be reserved 'that he should become one spirit with Him,' in the case of those who are joined together by God, after the words, 'So that they are no more twain,' it is said, 'but one flesh.' And it is God who has joined together the two in one so that they are no more twain, from the time that the woman is married to the man. And, since God has joined them together, on this account in the case of those who are joined together by God, there is a 'gift'; and Paul knowing this, that marriage according to the Word of God was a 'gift,' like as holy celibacy was a gift, says, 'But I would that all men were like myself; howbeit, each man hath his own gift from God, one after this manner, and another after that.' And those who are joined together by God both mind and keep the precept, 'Husbands love your wives, as Christ also the church.' The Saviour then commanded, 'What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder,' but man wishes to put asunder what God hath joined together, when, "falling away from the sound faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, through the hypocrisy of men that speak lies, branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron, forbidding," not only to commit fornication, but 'to marry,' he dissolves even those who had been before joined together by the providence of God. Let these things then be said, keeping in view what is expressly said concerning the male and the female, and the man and the woman, as the Saviour taught in the answer to the Pharisees."

{Commentary on Matthew, 14:16 (post A.D. 244), in ANF,X:506}

"Just as a woman is an adulteress, even though she seem to be married to a man, while a former husband yet lives, so also the man who seems to marry her who has been divorced does not marry her, but, according to the declaration of our Savior, he commits adultery with her"

(Commentaries on Matthew 14:24 [A.D. 248]).

"Likewise, women who have left their husbands for no prior cause and have joined themselves with others, may not even at death receive communion"

(canon 8 [A.D. 300]).

"Likewise, a woman of the faith [i.e., a baptized person] who has left an adulterous husband of the faith and marries another, her marrying in this manner is prohibited. If she has so married, she may not at any more receive communion--unless he that she has left has since departed from this world"

(ibid., canon 9).

"If she whom a catechumen [an upbaptized person studying the faith] has left shall have married a husband, she is able to be admitted to the fountain of baptism. This shall also be observed in the instance where it is the woman who is the catechumen. But if a woman of the faithful is taken in marriage by a man who left an innocent wife, and if she knew that he had a wife whom he had left without cause, it is determined that communion is not to be given to her even at death"

(ibid., canon 10)

"Two reasons can be advanced to explain why the marriage was celebrated with external festivities in Cana of Galilee, and why the water was truly changed into wine:so that the tide of Bacchanalian frenetics in the world might be turned to chastity and dignity in marriage, and so that the rest might be directed aright to the enjoyment both of wine free of toil and of the favor that presented it; so that in every way it might stop the mouths of those aroused against the Lord, and so that it might show that He is God with the Father and His Holy Spirit."

{Panarion (Against All Heresies), 51:30 (A.D. 370), in JUR, II:72-73}

" 'What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.' See a teacher's wisdom. I mean, that being asked, Is it lawful? He did not at once say, It is not lawful, lest they should be disturbed and put in disorder, but before the decision by His argument He rendered this manifest, showing that it is itself too the commandment of His Father, and that not in opposition to Moses did He enjoin these things, but in full agreement with him. But mark Him arguing strongly not from the creation only, but also from His command. For He said not, that He made one man and one woman only, but that He also gave this command that the one man should be joined to the one woman. But if it had been His will that he should put this one away, and bring in another, when He had made one man, He would have formed many Women. But now both by the manner of the creation, and by the manner of lawgiving, He showed that one man must dwell with one woman continually, and never break off from her."

{On Matthew, 62:1 (A.D. 370), in NPNF1,X:382}

"A man who marries after another man's wife has been taken away from him will be charged with adultery in the case of the first woman; but in the case of the second he will be guiltless"

(Second Canonical Letter to Amphilochius 199:37 [A.D. 375]).

" 'For this reason shall a man leave father and mother and cleave to his wife and they shall be two in one flesh.' To commend this unity he supplies an example of unity.Just as a man and a woman are one in nature so Christ and the Church are recognized as one through faith. 'This is a great mystery--I mean in reference to Christ and the Church.' He means that the great sign of this mystery is in the unity of man and woman....Just as a man forsakes his parents and cleaves to his wife,so too he forsakes every error and cleaves to the Church and subjects himself to her Head, which is Christ."

{In Ephesians 5:31 (ante A.D. 384), in JUR, II:178-179}

"There is hardly anything more deadly than being married to one who is a stranger to the faith,where the passions of lust and dissension and the evils of sacrilege are inflamed.Since the marriage ceremony ought to be sanctified by the priestly veiling and blessing,how can that be called a marriage ceremony where there is no agreement in faith?"

{To Vigilius, Letter 19:7 (A.D. 385), in FC, XXVI:176}

"No one is permitted to know a woman other than his wife. The marital right is given you for this reason: lest you fall into the snare and sin with a strange woman. 'If you are bound to a wife do not seek a divorce'; for you are not permitted, while your wife lives, to marry another."

(Abraham 1:7:59 [A.D. 387]).

"We do not say that marriage was not sanctified by Christ,since the Word of God says: 'The two shall become one flesh' and one spirit.But we are born before we are brought to our final goal,and the mystery of God's operation is more excellent than the remedy for human weakness. Quite rightly is a good wife praised,but a pious virgin is more rightly preferred."

{To Sircius, Letter 42:3 (A.D. 389), in FC, XXVI:225226}

"You dismiss your wife, therefore, as if by right and without being charged with wrongdoing; and you suppose it is proper for you to do so because no human law forbids it; but divine law forbids it. Anyone who obeys men ought to stand in awe of God. Hear the law of the Lord, which even they who propose our laws must obey: 'What God has joined together let no man put asunder"'

(Commentary on Luke 8:5 [A.D. 389]).

"And these are the nuptials of the Lord,so that like that great Sacrament they might become two in one flesh,Christ and the Church.From these nuptials a Christian people is born,when the Spirit of the Lord comes upon that people."

{Sermon on Baptism, 6 (ante A.D. 392), in JUR, II:144}

"Do not tell me about the violence of the ravisher, about the persuasiveness of a mother, about the authority of a father, about the influence of relatives, about the intrigues and insolence of servants, or about household [financial] losses. So long as a husband lives, be he adulterer, be he sodomite, be he addicted to every kind of vice, if she left him on account of his crimes he is still her husband still and she may not take another"

(Letters 55:3 [A.D. 396]).

"Wherever there is fornication and a suspicion of fornication a wife is freely dismissed. Because it is always possible that someone may calumniate the innocent and, for the sake of a second joining in marriage, act in criminal fashion against the first, it is commanded that when the first wife is dismissed a second may not be taken while the first lives"

(Commentaries on Matthew 3:19:9 [A.D. 398]).

"[T]he practice is observed by all of regarding as an adulteress a woman who marries a second time while her husband yet lives, and permission to do penance is not granted her until one of them is dead"

(Letters 2:13:15 [A.D. 408]).

"Neither can it rightly be held that a husband who dismisses his wife because of fornication and marries another does not commit adultery. For there is also adultery on the part of those who, after the repudiation of their former wives because of fornication, marry others. This adultery, nevertheless, is certainly less serious than that of men who dismiss their wives for reasons other than fornication and take other wives. Therefore, when we say: 'Whoever marries a woman dismissed by her husband for reason other than fornication commits adultery,' undoubtedly we speak the truth. But we do not thereby acquit of this crime the man who marries a woman who was dismissed because of fornication. We do not doubt in the least that both are adulterers. We do indeed pronounce him an adulterer who dismissed his wife for cause other than fornication and marries another, nor do we thereby defend from the taint of this sin the man who dismissed his wife because of fornication and marries another. We recognize that both are adulterers, though the sin of one is more grave than that of the other. No one is so unreasonable to say that a man who marries a woman whose husband has dismissed her because of fornication is not an adulterer, while maintaining that a man who marries a woman dismissed without the ground of fornication is an adulterer. Both of these men are guilty of adultery"

(Adulterous Marriages 1:9:9 [A.D. 419]).

"A woman begins to be the wife of no later husband unless she has ceased to be the wife of a former one. She will cease to be the wife of a former one, however, if that husband should die, not if he commit fornication. A spouse, therefore, is lawfully dismissed for cause of fornication; but the bond of chastity remains. That is why a man is guilty of adultery if he marries a woman who has been dismissed even for this very reason of fornication"

(ibid., 2:4:4).

"It is certainly not fecundity only, the fruit of which consists of offspring, nor chastity only, whose bond is fidelity, but also a certain sacramental bond in marriage which is recommended to believers in wedlock. Accordingly it is en-joined by the apostle: 'Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church.' Of this bond the substance undoubtedly is this, that the man and the woman who are joined together in matrimony should remain inseparable as long as they live..."

{On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1,10 [11] (A.D. 420), in NPNF1,V:268}

"In marriage, however, let the blessings of marriage be loved: offspring, fidelity, and the sacramental bond. Offspring, not so much because it may be born, but because it can be reborn; for it is born to punishment unless it be reborn to life. Fidelity, but not such as even the unbelievers have among themselves, ardent as they are for the flesh. . . . The sacramental bond, which they lose neither through separation nor through adultery, this the -spouses should guard chastely and harmoniously"

(ibid., 1:17:19).

"When the wedding was celebrated [at Cana] it is clear that it was entirely decorous:for indeed,the Mother of the Savior was there;and,invited along with His disciples,the Savior too was there,working miracles more than being entertained in feasting,and especially that He might sanctify the very beginning of human generation,which certainly is a matter concerning the flesh."

{Commentary on John, 2:1 (A.D. 429), in JUR, III:222}

"And so a wife is different from a concubine, even as a bondwoman from a freewoman. For which reason also the Apostle in order to show the difference of these persons quotes from Genesis, where it is said to Abraham, 'Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.' And hence, since the marriage tie was from the beginning so constituted as apart from the joining of the sexes to symbolize the mystic union of Christ and His Church, it is undoubted that that woman has no part in matrimony, in whose case it is shown that the mystery of marriage has not taken place."

{To Rusticus, Epistle 167:4 (A.D. 459), in NPNF2, XII:110}

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Edited by Dave Armstrong, with additional commentary, October 1998.