Tuesday, February 4, 2014

When the church of Rome forgave second marriages

Sandro Magister
January 31, 2014


Attention to how the Church of the first centuries addressed the question of the divorced and remarried has been called back recently by a priest of Genoa, Giovanni Cereti, a scholar of patristics and ecumenism as well as being for more than thirty years an assistant of the movement of conjugal spirituality of the Equipes Notre-Dame.

A few months ago Cereti republished a scholarly study he published for the first time in 1977 and then again in 1998, entitled: "Divorce, new marriages, and penance in the primitive Church."

The centerpiece of this study - replete with references to the Fathers of the Church at grips with the problem of second marriages - is canon 8 of the Council of Nicaea of 325, the first of the great ecumenical councils of the Church, the authority of which has always been recognized by all Christians.

Canon 8 of the Council of Nicaea says:

"As for those who call themselves pure, if they should wish to enter the catholic Church, this holy and great council establishes [. . .] before all else that they should declare openly, in writing, that they accept and follow the teachings of the catholic Church: and that is that they will enter into communion both with those who have gone on to second marriages and with those who have lapsed in the persecutions, for whom the time and circumstances of penance have been established, so as to follow in everything the decisions of the catholic and apostolic Church."

The "pure" to whom the canon refers are the Novatianists, the rigorists of the time, intransigent to the point of definitive rupture both with remarried adulterers and with those who had apostatized to save their lives, even if afterward they had repented, been subjected to penance, and been absolved of their sin.

In demanding of the Novatianists, in order to be readmitted into the Church, that they "enter into communion" with these categories of persons, the Council of Nicaea was therefore reiterating the power of the Church to forgive any sin whatsoever and to receive into full communion again even the "digami," meaning remarried adulterers and apostates.

Since then, two tendencies with regard to the divorced and remarried have coexisted in Christianity, one more rigorist and one more inclined to forgiveness. During the second millennium, the former came to hold sway in the Church of Rome. But before that there was room for the practice of forgiveness in the West as well.

The newly created cardinal Müller, in his note in "L'Osservatore Romano," writes that "in patristic times, divorced members of the faithful who had civilly remarried could not even be readmitted to the sacraments after a period of penance." But immediately after that he recognizes that "from time to time pastoral solutions were sought for very rare borderline cases."

Ratzinger adhered more closely to the historical reality, in a text from 1998 republished on November 30, 2011 in multiple languages in "L'Osservatore Romano," which sums up as follows the status of the question according to the most recent studies:

"It is claimed that the current magisterium relies on only one strand of the patristic tradition, and not on the whole legacy of the ancient Church. Although the Fathers clearly held fast to the doctrinal principle of the indissolubility of marriage, some of them tolerated a certain flexibility on the pastoral level with regard to difficult individual cases. On this basis Eastern Churches separated from Rome later developed alongside the principle of akribia , fidelity to revealed truth, that of oikonomia , benevolent leniency in difficult situations. Without renouncing the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage, in some cases they permit a second and even a third marriage, which is distinct, however, from the sacramental first marriage and is marked by a penitential character. Some say that this practice has never been explicitly condemned by the Catholic Church. They claim that the 1980 Synod of Bishops proposed to study this tradition thoroughly, in order to allow the mercy of God to be more resplendent."

Further on, in the same text, Ratzinger points to Saint Leo the Great and other Fathers of the Church as those who "sought pastoral solutions for rare borderline cases" and recognizes that "in the Imperial Church after Constantine a greater flexibility and readiness for compromise in difficult marital situations was sought."

The ecumenical council of Nicaea was in fact convened by Constantine himself and its canon 8 expressed precisely this orientation.

It must also be specified that in that period those who went on to a second marriage and were readmitted into communion with the Church remained with their new spouses.

Over the following centuries in the West, the penitential period that preceded readmission to the Eucharist, initially brief, was gradually extended until it became permanent, while in the East this did not happen.

It was the ecclesiastical tribunals in the West in the second millennium that addressed and resolved the "borderline cases" of second marriages, verifying the nullity of the previous marriage. But in doing so they eliminated conversion and penance.

Those like Giovanni Cereti who today are calling attention back to the practice of the Church of the first centuries are proposing the return to a penitential system similar to the one adopted at the time, and still maintained in a certain form in the Eastern Churches.

By extending the power of the Church to absolve all sins, even for those who have broken their first marriage and entered into a second union, the way would be opened - they maintain - to "a greater appreciation of the sacrament of reconciliation" and to "a return to the faith by many who today feel excluded from ecclesial communion."

Perhaps this was what Pope Francis was thinking about when, in the interview on the return flight from Rio de Janeiro on July 28, 2013, he opened and closed "a parenthesis" - his words - on the Orthodox, who "follow the theology of what they call oikonomia, and they give a second chance [of marriage]."

Adding immediately afterward:

"I believe that this problem [of communion for persons in a second marriage] must be studied within the context of the pastoral care of marriage."

full article at Chiesa

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