Divorce and Remarriage in the Church Fathers and Patristic Era Writers

This is the first part of our video “Divorce and Remarriage in the Church Fathers,” which can be found here.

Catholic apologists have repeatedly made the accusation that the Orthodox Church, despite its staunch conservatism in regard to liturgy, fasting, and social issues, has caved on the topic of remarriage after divorce. They argue that the Church Fathers have always, or at least almost always taught that remarriage after a divorce, even in a narrow range of cases, is forbidden. Those Catholic apologists come armed with quote mines meant to defend that view and such quote mines are ubiquitous on the internet. Yet, these collections typically contain the same core quotations with little meaningful analysis.  

In this video, we will respond to two of these quote mines. The first is by Erick Ybarra and can be found at his blog, which is linked in the video description. The second, which is more comprehensive than Mr. Ybarra’s, is from the blog “Called to Communion,” a website founded by Brian Cross. We will not necessarily be following the order that either of these blog posts use in presenting the quotations, but, throughout our video, we will dispute their interpretations of specific passages they quote in their collections.   

The first video in this two-part series will be analyzing quotations from those quote mines as well as presenting mostly unknown patristic commentary supporting the Orthodox position. The second video in this series will discuss the theology of marriage, the practice of annulments, whether or not there is a link between the Eucharist and marriage, and other topics related to the argument over remarriage after divorce and why we allow it.  

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The Matthean “Exceptive Clause”   

The argument starts with Matthew 19:8-9:  

“He saith to them: Because Moses by reason of the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away [απολυση] his wife, except it be for fornication [πορνεια], and shall marry another, committeth adultery [μοιχαται]: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery [μοιχαται].

Matthew 19:8-9, trans. Douay-Rheims 

Now, at first appearance, the verse is saying that if a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery unless his reason for divorce was adultery on the part of his first wife. The Catholic argument, though has three main versions. The most common argument used by Catholic apologists hinges upon the meaning of the term “πορνεία,”. As Fr. Kevin Schembri, a Catholic priest and lecturer in canon law at the University of Malta, points out: 

“An extremely important point for any study of the Matthean clauses concerns the meaning of the term <<porneia>>, which according to Wall, is <<the heart of the matter>> in any debate of divorce and remarriage.”

“Oikonomia, Divorce and Remarriage” Schembri, p. 178  

Shortly thereafter, Fr. Schembri elucidates this point stating: 

“While the Catholic tradition has interpreted porneia as a diriment factor that leads to an invalid matrimonial bond, the Orthodox tradition has understood porneia as <<sexual misconduct>>.”

“Oikonomia, Divorce and Remarriage” Schembri, p. 178 

In other words, the Catholic argument claims that the term “πορνεία,” means “fornication,” which they interpret to mean sex between two persons, neither of whom are married to anyone. Therefore, the argument goes, the exception is speaking of an invalid marriage meaning a union that is not actually a marriage. In other words, in that version of the argument, the exceptive clause is actually stating that one may only divorce their wife if that woman is not already their wife. This argument attempts to interpret the πορνεία clause as supporting annulments. 

There’s just one problem with that argument, though: the Greek terms here used for “fornication” and “to commit adultery,” which in Greek are πορνεία and μοιχάομαι, are used interchangeably in the patristic texts discussing the exceptive clause. This means that the Church Fathers did not see a sharp distinction, if any at all, between the two concepts, at least when discussing this verse. In fact, scholarship generally indicates that among Jews during the inter-Testament period and Apostolic Fathers, “πορνεία” referred to general sexual immorality, whether that be homosexuality, sodomy, bestiality, adultery, or any other deviant sexual practice forbidden by God’s law while “μοιχάομαι” referred specifically to adultery. Furthermore, the term “πορνεία,” when used among Jews, occasionally also referred to idolatry.   

It is significant to note that the three most prolific pre-Nicaean authors: St. Cyprian of Carthage, Tertullian, and Lactantius translated πορνεία with the Latin “adulterium” – literally “adultery.” It appears St. Jerome departed from this translating it instead as “fornicatio” In the Vulgate, he translated the Greek term “πορνείαwith the Latin “fornicatio” and the Greek “μοιχάομαι” with the Latinized “moechor.” Though “fornicatio” is narrower in meaning, it is still broader than the English “fornication” and includes “promiscuity” and “prostitution.” Considering prostitutes were notorious for their willingness to engage in whatever their clients were willing to pay for, it is not a stretch to say “fornicatio,” to the ears of those who were hearing it, would have conveyed the same idea of broad sexual deviancy that πορνεία did to the ears of Greek speakers.    

Supporters of this first Catholic argument, though will point to places like Mark 7:21 and Galatians 5:19 in which πορνεία and μοιχάομαι are placed next to one another thereby showing they are different but this can be explained by adultery being such a widespread practice, especially among the gentiles, as to warrant being mentioned on its own simply for the sake of reiteration. But in other places, such as 1 Corinthians 5:1; 7:2 and Revelations 2:22-23, πορνεία is used as a synonym for μοιχάομαι.  

But as Fr. Schembri admits:  

“While the Catholic tradition has interpreted porneia as a diriment factor that leads to an invalid matrimonial bond, the Orthodox tradition has understood porneia as <<sexual misconduct>>. Vasil observes that this understanding of the term porneia is very similar to that of the early Christians, for whom adultery was a great sin that brought about a separation of the spouses and dissolution of the bond.”  

“Oikonomia, Divorce and Remarriage” Schembri, p. 178

But concerning simply the New Testament, in most occurrences, πορνεία only really makes sense in terms of general sexual immorality and not simply banning sexual activity between two persons who are not married to anyone. This is especially true in Acts 15:20, 15:29, and 21:25 in which the term “fornication” is far too narrow for what is being conveyed as the converts are being enjoined to follow Jewish sexual morality in general, not simply a ban on sex between two persons not married to anyone. If it were merely banning sex between two persons not married to anyone, then adultery and deviant sexual practices within marriage would not be covered. But as long as πορνεία means sexual immorality in general, all of Jewish sexual morality is being enforced. 

The second Catholic argument jettisons the first argument by tacitly admitting “porneia” here refers to adultery or sexual immorality in general and instead attempts to argue that Matthew 19:9 is actually stating that a man can separate from an adulterous wife but cannot remarry until her death.    

“And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery […]” 

Matthew 19:9

This argument hinges on the false assumption that because the porneia clause comes after the prohibition on divorce, it can only be linked to that prohibition on divorce.

This then begs the question: from the Catholic point of view, if Christ wanted to convey the idea that a man could divorce his adulterous wife and then remarry, where else could the porneia clause be placed? It appears that for that purpose, the clearest placement is where it already is in Matthew 19:9.    

The third Catholic argument, and one that appears in more recent works as it draws from some Protestant sources, is to claim that the exceptive clause is an interpolation and not original to the Gospel of Matthew. Such an argument, though is one that has accepted the reality of what the exceptive clause actually means and accepted that it undermines Catholic teachings on divorce and remarriage. It, therefore, attempts to undermine the Scriptures themselves in order to protect Catholic teaching. But as with all questions of exegesis and theology, we first have to look at how the Church Fathers understood the Bible.

Were the Church Fathers Against Remarriage After Divorce?  

One ubiquitous quotation parroted incessantly is from the Shepherd of Hermas. Though non-canonical and preaching heretical views on the forgiveness of sins post-baptism, it is the earliest text that explicitly forbids remarriage after divorce for any reason whatsoever while the first spouse is living. It states: 

“And I said to him, Sir, if anyone has a wife who trusts in the Lord, and if he detect her in adultery, does the man sin if he continue to live with her? And he said to me, As long as he remains ignorant of her sin, the husband commits no transgression in living with her. But if the husband know that his wife has gone astray, and if the woman does not repent, but persists in her fornication [πορνεἱᾳ], and yet the husband continues to live with her, he also is guilty of her crime, and a sharer in her adultery [μοιχείας]. And I said to him, What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her vicious practices? And he said, The husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery [μοιχᾶται]. And I said to him, What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: shall she not be taken back by her husband? And he said to me, Assuredly. If the husband does not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented. But not frequently. For there is but one repentance to the servants of God. In case, therefore, that the divorced wife may repent, the husband ought not to marry another, when his wife has been put away. In this matter man and woman are to be treated exactly in the same way.”

“The Shepherd of Hermas” 2:4:1 

There is something notable and worthwhile about this quotation, though and that is the terms for “adultery” and “fornication” are used interchangeably. This is significant because, as mentioned earlier, the standard Catholic defense against the exceptive clause found in Matthew 19:9 is to claim the Greek term πορνεία refers to an illicit marriage but if the terms πορνεία and μοιχάομαι are being used interchangeably, that disqualifies the Catholic argument. 

Another quotation supporting the Catholic position and therefore oft-cited is from St. Justin Martyr, who writing in the mid-second century states:  

“Concerning chastity, He [Jesus] uttered such sentiments as these: Whosoever looks upon a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery with her already in his heart before God. And, If your right eye offend you, cut it out; for it is better for you to enter into the kingdom of heaven with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into everlasting fire. And, Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced from another husband, commits adultery. And, There are some who have been made eunuchs of men, and some who were born eunuchs, and some who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake; but all cannot receive this saying. So that all who, by human law, are twice married, are in the eye of our Master sinners, and those who look upon a woman to lust after her.”

St. Justin Martyr “First Apology” Ch. 15 

The problem is that, taken literally, it rules against the current practice of allowing a partner to remarry after the death of their spouse as they would then be “twice married.” St. Clement of Alexandria, who died in the year 215, likewise states remarriage is forbidden: 

“Now that the Scripture counsels marriage, and allows no release from the union, is expressly contained in the law, You shall not put away your wife, except for the cause of fornication; and it regards as fornication, the marriage of those separated while the other is alive. […] He that takes a woman that has been put away, it is said, commits 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.” St. Clement of Alexandria, “Stromata” Book 2, Ch. 23 

Here, again, we see πορνεία and μοιχάομαι used interchangeably. Further, Clement, who status as a saint in both the Catholic and Orthodox Church is not entirely clear, states there is no release from marriage. St. Cyprian, martyred in 258, was the bishop of Carthage in modern-day Tunisia and he states:  

“In the first Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: But to them that are married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not be separated from her husband; but if she should depart, that she remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and that the husband should not put away his wife.” St.   

Cyprian of Carthage, Treatise 12, Book 3, Ch. 90

It should be noted he doesn’t mention the Matthean exceptive clause. He also says nothing about the husband being prohibited from remarrying, mentioning only the wife. Concerning the husband, St. Cyprian simply states that the husband should not divorce his wife but he mentions nothing about what the husband should do if the wife leaves him and she find another man to marry. The influential late fourth or early fifth century Syrian collection, commonly known as the “Apostolic Constitutions” states: 

“If a layman divorces his own wife, and takes another, or one divorced by another, let him be suspended.”

Apostolic Constitutions, Canon 48 

This simply says he should be suspended from communion but remains silent as to whether or not he must repudiate her. As we move and progress through this video, what becomes clear is suspension from communion is often used as a “fine” or “user fee” to enter into a second marriage – even after the death of a spouse – and does not require repudiation. Such examples will be noted. 

Perhaps because they are short on quotations to prove the Catholic position, both quote mines cut off the branch they’re sitting on – and even admit they are – by including this quotation from St. Athenagoras of Athens, who died in 190. The quotation states that remarriage is never allowed, even after the death of a spouse.   

“For we bestow our attention, not on the study of words, but on the exhibition and teaching of actions, — that a person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. For whosoever puts away his wife, says He, and marries another, commits adultery [Matthew 19:9]; not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to marry again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race.” St. Athenagoras of Athens, “A Plea for the Christians” Ch. 33 

There are also various quotations from St. John Chrysostom and St. Jerome and requoting them here in full would belabor the point due to their length but they definitely appear to present those two saints as standing firmly against remarriage after divorce for any reason whatsoever while the first spouse is living.  

Those quotations from St. John Chrysostom and St. Jerome make up the main bulk of quotations used by those arguing for the Catholic position and, for the most part, we do not disagree that they indeed ban remarriage, but it appears they are stricter than the Catholic position as they both only hesitantly and begrudgingly approve of remarriage after the death of a spouse.


The Western Fathers 

One often sees this first quotation from the Latin Christian author Lactantius, who died in 325, used in support of the indissolubility of marriage:  

“Lest anyone think that he can circumscribe the divine precepts, there are added those that take away all calumny and occasion of fraud; he is an adulterer who marries a divorced spouse, and he who dismisses his wife commits adultery for God is unwilling to dissociate the body.”

Lactantius, “The Divine Institutes” Bk. 6, Chap. 23

We see this type of language throughout quotations in Catholic quote mines on remarriage and divorce but as we will see, using such language does not mean one thinks remarriage after divorce in the case of sexual immorality is forbidden while the first spouse lives. Lactantius is also on record as stating adultery actually breaks the marital bond.   

“Therefore let it be observed in all the duties of life, let it be observed in marriage. For it is not sufficient if you abstain from another’s bed, or from the brothel. Let him who has a wife seek nothing further, but, content with her alone, let him guard the mysteries of the marriage-bed chaste and undefiled. For he is equally an adulterer in the sight of God and impure, who, having thrown off the yoke, wantons in strange pleasure either with a free woman or a slave. But as a woman is bound by the bonds of chastity not to desire any other man, so let the husband be bound by the same law, since God has joined together the husband and the wife in the union of one body. On this account He has commanded that the wife shall not be put away unless convicted of adultery, and that the bond of the conjugal compact shall never be dissolved, unless unfaithfulness have broken it.”  

Lactantius, “Epitome” 66

This is stronger language than in the first quotation and it speaks of “dissolving” a marriage, as in, a valid marriage, under certain circumstances, is dissoluble. But one might, out of desperation, argue that though adultery does dissolve the marital bond, Lactantius gives no license to remarry while the first spouse is living – such an argument, though ignores what “dissolve” means. As we will see in the next quotation, though, that argument is patently false. 
Further, notice that in place of “fornication,” he uses the term “adultery” – showing yet again the patristic writers did not differentiate strictly between “fornication” and “adultery” when exegeting Matthew 19:9. He does this again in the next quotation. Despite these two initial quotations, Lactantius comes out in favor of remarriage after divorce in the case of a husband who had an adulterous wife:  

“Whoever marries a woman who has been divorced by her husband is an adulterer, as is the man who divorces his wife in order to marry another woman, except if she is guilty of adultery. For God does not want the body to be separated and torn apart.”  

Lactantius, “The Divine Institutes” 6.23 (CSEL 19:569-570)

Recall the language in the first two quotations – the same type of language is used in numerous quotations deployed by Catholic apologists’ quote mines and, so they argue, these authors stand against remarriage after divorce when the first spouse is living yet we can see here that Lactantius is using that type of language while simultaneously allowing for remarriage after divorce from an adulteress while she is living. This should be kept in mind and will be referred back to as we analyze later quotations.  
One might point out, though that Lactantius is not a saint but they would be ignoring that he was praised by many western saints, especially St. Jerome, and was a favorite of the Latin Church Fathers due to his education, erudition, and eloquent Latin. He is therefore known as the “Christian Cicero” because of his beautiful, flowing, and nuanced Latin. But being that he was so highly educated, he is likely to have known what was considered acceptable within the Christian milieus in which he was writing.  

St. Augustine is frequently quoted in both quote mines. The problem with the collections of Mr. Ybarra and Mr. Cross is they ignore key passages in the later works of St. Augustine in which the saint contradicts or openly calls into question his earlier exegesis on remarriage after divorce. Case in point, in 413, he wrote “On Faith and Works” in which he states he does not think a husband with an adulterous wife would be committing a serious sin were he to remarry:   

“Nor is it clear from Scripture whether a man who has left his wife because of adultery, which he is certainly permitted to do, is himself an adulterer if he marries again. And if he should, I do not think that he would commit a grave sin.”  

St. Augustine “On Faith and Works” Ch. 19:35

First, were this merely referring to remarriage after the death of the adulterous wife, there would be no question about it from the Catholic point of view as it would not be considered sinful so this is not justification for the Catholic practice. Rather, it must be referring to remarriage while the first wife is alive. Second, notice that just like Lactantius, just like St. Clement of Alexandria, just like Shepherd of Hermas, St. Augustine uses “adultery” and “fornication” interchangeably when commenting on the exceptive clause. He will do this repeatedly. As the Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Kentucky, Prof. David G. Hunter points out in his article “Did the Early Church Absolutely Forbid Remarriage After Divorce?” St. Augustine, at the end of his life, disassociates himself from his earlier exegesis on the indissolubility of marriage:  

“In a very thorough study of the evolution of Augustine’s thought on divorce, Marie-François Berrouard has demonstrated that Augustine was always reticent to state a definitive view on the question of whether a man who divorced his wife because of her adultery might be free to marry again. In a more recent examination of Augustine’s Retractationes Goulven Madec has observed that Augustine acknowledged his dissatisfaction with his own solution to the problems posed by the biblical texts on divorce and remarriage.”

Hunter, “Did the Early Church” p. 54 

Hunter then provides two interesting quotations from St. Augustine’s later works. The first, from “De Adulterinis Coniugiis,” which was written in 421, or about nine years before St. Augustine died, states:  

“After dealing with these points and discussing them in this way to the best of my ability, I am not unaware that the whole question of marriage is still very unclear and most complex (quaestionem… obscurissimam et inplicatissimam). I would not be so bold as to claim that I have yet unraveled it fully, either in this work or any other, or even that I could do so now if pressed.

De adulterinis coniugiis 1.25.32 trans. Kearney 

Later, “Retractationes,” which was composed between 426 and 427, he reiterates his uncertainty about his earlier position:  

I wrote two books on adulterous marriages, following the Scriptures as closely as possible, with the intention of solving a very difficult problem I do not know whether I was able to do this in a very clear way. Quite the contrary, I do not think that I concluded the matter, although I shed light on many of its obscurities. An intelligent reader will be able to judge it.”  

St. Augustine, “Retractationes” 2.57 in Hunter’s “Did the Early Church” p. 55

Hunter then segways into how this affects another commentator on the topic of divorce and remarriage in the West: Ambrosiaster: 

“For the purpose of my argument here, the significance of Augustine’s doubts is that they stand in marked contrast to the apparent certainty that Ambrosiaster expressed about his teaching on remarriage. As Philip Lyndon Reynolds has observed in his extensive study of Western legislation on marriage in the patristic and medieval periods, Ambrosiaster gave no indication that he was conscious of advocating an unusual position: ‘Rather, he aims merely to explain why the position is what he assumes it to be.‘”   

Hunter, “Did the Early Church” p. 55

Ambrosiaster, it should be noted, was an anonymous writer but judging by internal evidence in his writings, it is believed he was a priest in the city of Rome under Pope St. Damasus, who ruled from 366 to 384. Ambrosiaster is most famous for his commentaries on the letters of St. Paul that even St. Augustine of Hippo quoted approvingly. In his commentary, Ambrosiaster makes this comment: 

“And a husband should not divorce his wife. He says that a husband should not divorce his wife. But the following words are to be understood: Except on account of fornication. He did not add the words that he wrote concerning the woman: But if she separates, she should remain as she is, because it is lawful for a man to marry another woman, if he divorces a wife who sins. For a man is not bound by the law in the same way as a woman is, for the man is the head of the woman”  

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 found in Hunter, “Did the Early Church” p. 51

Ambrosiaster does not state what offense it is which a wife could commit to see herself divorced, but we are clued into it by the fact he immediately thereafter states a wife could not remarry if she had left her husband for “fornication or apostasy.” This is important because the term “πορνεία” is used repeatedly throughout the Septuagint and New Testament to describe sexual immorality or apostasy – as fidelity to God was regularly couched in terms of marital fidelity. Now, Catholic scholarship has, until recently, attempted to posit Ambrosiaster as an outlier and unrepresentative of the Western position in regard to divorce and remarriage, we can see this most notably with the Catholic priest and patristics scholar Fr. Henri Crouzel, but Professor Hunter argues to the contrary based on other factors: 

“Recent scholarship on Ambrosiaster has revealed that he was a careful thinker and well informed about contemporary church practices. For example, he provides important evidence about Christian marriage customs at Rome, including some of the earliest testimony to the bestowal of nuptial blessings; he had reflected a great deal on the nature of the offices of bishop and presbyter; he even provides some of the very earliest evidence of the discipline of permanent sexual continence imposed on the higher ranks of the clergy, evidence that is contemporary with the canonical decrees of Popes Damasus and Siricius. No one doubts that Ambrosiaster reflects contemporary church practice in these matters; the same consideration, I suggest, should be extended to his account of divorce and remarriage.

Hunter, “Did the Early Church” p. 53  

Bridging the timespan between Ambrosiaster and St. Augustine of Hippo is the Italian St. Chromatus of Aquileia who died in either 406 or 407. He condemns men who divorce their wives and remarry when no adultery was involved: 

“Wherefore let those men be well aware what a heavy sentence of condemnation they incur in God’s sight, who for unbridled lust dismiss their wives without cause of fornication, and then seek to pass to another marriage. They believe they do so with impunity, because it seems permitted by the laws of man and of the world; not knowing that hereby they aggravate their fault, in that they prefer human laws to divine; in believing that lawful, which God hath ordained to be unlawful, because it is freely allowed by man. But as it is impiety to put away a wife who is living in chastity and purity, so also it is permitted to put away an adulteress, because she hath made herself unfit for the society of a husband, who by sinning against her own body hath dared to profane the temple of God.”

St. Chromatus of Aquileia; found in Kingdon p. 67 

He does not appear to be condemning remarriage but rather remarriage when no valid reason was given for the breakup of the first marriage.   

Arles, a city so significant to Roman Gaul that it was regularly referred to as “the Rome of Gaul” hosted the Council of Arles in 314 and though many canons are ascribed to it that are dubious, this following canon, that being canon 10, is regularly cited in support of the Catholic position is genuine. It reads:  

“As regards those who find their wives to be guilty of adultery, and who being Christians are, though young men, forbidden to remarry, we decree that, so far as may be [quantum possit], counsel be given them not to take other wives while their own, though guilty of adultery, are yet living.”

Canon 10 Kingdon p. 28

First, it is relegated simply to counsel, not a demand and that is where both Mr. Cross and Mr. Ybarra’s arguments fail. Mr. Ybarra then compounds this by bringing in a canon, known as canon 24, of dubious origin that even Migne believed was not from the same Synod of Arles but, at best, a later one.  

Second, what this canon is likely demonstrating, and what scholarship is increasingly coming to agree on, is that it allows remarriage for those young men who found their wives in adultery despite their wives still living but it simply prefers they stay single as long as possible. Hunter comments on it stating: 

“This canon makes it clear that the bishops assembled at Arles wished to discourage the remarriage of men who divorced their wives for adultery. Nevertheless, this was put on the level of a “counsel” (consilium), not a prohibition. In the case of young men, it seems that a pastoral exception was being made: they were urged not to remarry quantum possit.”  

Hunter, “Did the Early Church” p. 61

“Quantum possit” meaning “as much as possible” or “as long as possible.” Lest we be accused of bias, the renowned Catholic historian, scholar, and bishop Karl Yozef von Hefele has this to say about canon 10 of Arles: 

“If a man repudiated his wife because of adultery and married another, this was disapproved of, yet was not visited with ecclesiastical penance by the Synod of Arles, A.D. 314.”

Hefele, “History of the Councils Vol 4” p. 22 

Earlier, he had stated:  

“But there is the noteworthy difference, that the right of remarrying is forbidden to the woman, under penalty of permanent excommunication (can. 9 of Elvira); while the man is only strongly advised (in quantum possit consilium iis detur) not to marry again. Even in this case marriage is not allowed, as is shown by the expression et prohibentur nubere. This Synod will not allow that which has been forbidden, but only abstains from imposing ecclesiastical penance.

Hefele, “History of the Councils Vol 1” p. 161 

But Hefele here is essentially making a distinction without a difference: if young men who found their wives committing adultery were forbidden to remarry but faced no consequences for doing so, could the Church really be said to be against remarriage as opposed to tolerating it?   

In fact, Hefele, in Vol. 1 p. 60 of his work “History of the Councils of the Church” mentions that this council was ratified by the papal legates: the priests Claudinn and Vitus yet we have no record of Rome repudiating or correcting this council. Later on, we will encounter synods of Rome that actually allowed remarriage after divorce while the other spouse was living.  

It is not clear exactly when the so-called “Synod of St. Patrick” was held, but the internal evidence from the collection indicates that it was compiled when Christianization was progressing at a decent rate, which means these date either to the lifetime of St. Patrick, who died in 461 or shortly thereafter.  

“Hear the Lord saying, He that is joined to a harlot is one body: Again, Let the adulteress be stoned – that is, let her die for this offence – that she may fail to increase, who does not fail to commit adultery: again, If the woman has become an adulteress, is there any return to her first husband? Again, It is not lawful to dismiss a wife except for fornication, as if He would say he may do it for this, therefore if a man marries a second wife as if the first were dead, let them not forbid it.”

Canon 26; Kingdon p. 39 

The same synod also states:  

“If a Christian woman leaves her husband and marries another, she is thereby excommunicated.”

Canon 19, Hefele “History of the Councils” Vol. 4 p. 15 

What this demonstrates is that a council can condemn one type of remarriage while the first spouse is living while still wholly allowing remarriage while the first spouse lives in other circumstances. This becomes exceptionally important when we analyze other councils because most of them speak specifically to banning remarriage for a specific group and under specific circumstances yet are used by Catholic apologists as comprehensive judgments.  

Take for example the council of Elvira in Spain. Elvira, close to modern-day Granada, was in the most important and most densely populated part of Roman Spain. The date is disputed, but it is commonly believed to have been held in the 305 or 306. Though there are several dozen canons attributed to this council, only the first 21 or so are undisputed and of these initial 21 canons, three speak to the situation of remarriage after divorce. Canon eight states: 

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

ibid., Canon 8 

Notice that it condemns not a wife who leaves her husband and remarries but one who does so for “no prior cause.” In his analysis, Mr. Cross simply ignores this as if he did not even see it. The next canon, number 9 states: 

“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

Again, notice how specific this is: a woman who leaves a husband for the cause of adultery. This also escape’s Mr. Cross’s notice. What this implies is there are credible causes for a wife to leave her husband but adultery by the husband is not one of them. Professor Hunter makes a keen observation in regard to this:  

“Canons 8 and 9 of this collection deal only with the remarriage of women who have divorced their husbands. Canon 8 states that if they have remarried after divorcing their husbands for no reason, they should be excluded from communion for life. Canon 9 states that if they have remarried after divorcing their husbands because of adultery, they should abstain from communion until the first husband has died, although communion may be given in case of illness. It is noteworthy that there are no equivalent canons in the collection regarding the remarriage of men who have divorced their wives for adultery. This absence may suggest that the restrictions placed on women who remarried did not exist in the same form for men, a fact that would support Ambrosiaster’s position.

Hunter, “Did the Early Church” p. 62 

The 10th canon of Elvira does speak of men, but it speaks of how it affects the second wife: 

“If she whom a catechumen 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 [i.e. baptized] 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

The canon could not be clearer: a husband commits adultery when he remarries after leaving an innocent wife but a husband who remarries after leaving a wife who had committed some grievous fault is the innocent party who may remarry. The canon does not stipulate what it means by “without cause” but we can, with relative certainty, assume that adultery was at least on that list. That adultery is not mentioned by name hints at the likelihood that adultery was simply one of multiple causes that the council considered as breaking apart a marriage and it was therefore left to the discretion of the bishop to decide if actions met the definition of “grievous fault.” 

Despite all these three canons, in the current form of his florilegium, Mr. Ybarra only cites the 9th one and does not even bother mentioning the 8th and 10th that are less favorable to the Catholic position. Mr. Cross mentions all three of them but tries to interpret the entirety of the 10th canon through the lens of the Pauline privilege instead of realizing that is only in the first part of the canon.     

In 465, St. Perpetuus headed the Council of Vannes in the northwestern French region of Brittany. In its second canon, it decreed: 

“Those also who have abandoned their wives, except for the cause of fornication, as the Gospel says, without proof of adultery, and have married others, we decree are to be excommunicated, lest the sins overlooked through our indulgence entice others to the license of error.”  

Canon 2 Kingdon p. 32

So according to this synod, what is condemned is remarriage only when no proof of adultery is forthcoming therefore indicating that remarriage for the husband was fine if credible proof of the wife’s adultery could be presented. Notice also that “fornication” and “adultery” are used interchangeably, which, as mentioned earlier which shows that the use of πορνεία in Matthew 19:9 is not referring to an invalid marriage but to sexual immorality, specifically adultery. 

Council of Agde, held in 506 and headed by none other than St. Caesarius of Arles and consisted of about 35 bishops from all over the southwestern quarter of France. Its ruling even seems to imply the bishop would issue a divorce:  

“These laymen who, by some grievous fault, are dismissing, or even have dismissed, their wives, and without credibly declaring any cause for divorce, are getting rid of their own marriages in order to venture upon unlawful or strange connections; if they have cast away their wives before they have stated their causes for divorce before the Bishops of their Province, and their wives are judicially condemned, let them be excluded from the communion of the Church, and the holy congregation of the people, because they are bringing stains upon their own truth and marriage.”

Canon 25, Kingdon p. 32 

Hunter has this to say on the matter: 

“In a similar vein, the Council of Agde, which took place in 506 under Caesarius of Arles, specified that men who wished to divorce and remarry had to prove the charges against their wives in an episcopal court. Men who divorced their wives and contracted other marriages were to be excluded from communion, but only in cases where they have not previously indicated the reasons for the breakup of the marriage and secured a judgment against the guilty wife ‘apud episcopos comprovinciales.’ It is evident from these canonical texts that in some parts of the western church the position represented by Ambrosiaster persisted long after Augustine had articulated his stricter view on the matter. It would appear that a woman’s adultery constituted a dissolution of the marriage and justified the remarriage of her husband, as long as the offense was properly proven before church authorities.”

Hunter, “Did the Early Church” p. 62-3 

Council of Compiegne held in northeastern France in 757 was important enough to be attended and approved by the papal legate, Bishop George. It rules in favor of remarriage while the spouse is living in two situations:  

“If a man have divorced his wife, and have given her leave to enter a monastery for the sake of religion, or to take the veil outside a monastery for the sake of God, the man may take a lawful wife. Similarly in the case of a woman. George consented.”     

ibid., Canon 13

“If a leper have a healthy wife, if he is willing to give her leave to take (another) husband, the woman may take another if she wishes. Similarly in the case of a woman.”  

Council of Compiegne, Canon 16. Kingdon p. 36

Part of the reason could be a sort of “death to the world” motif. Lepers were considered dead and this is testified to in the fact that from the mid-7th century onward a practice known as the “separatio leprosorum” or “severing of the lepers” existed in the West in which a leper would go through a mock burial and actual funeral before being exiled from their communities. They were also considered dead in terms of inheritance laws. Likewise, when one takes monastic vows, it is commonly described that their old self is “dead” and they are a new person.   

As we saw earlier with the canon from the Synod of St. Patrick, it speaks of adulteresses as deserving death according to Old Testament laws so she would be treated as one who had already died and it thereby uses that logic to grant the privilege of remarriage to a husband. We will come back to this in the second video when we discuss marriage being a eucharistic union and adultery being an act of apostasy.  

Up until this point, it could be argued that despite the pope having legates at some of these councils, that Rome itself had never validated any of these decrees. But by the 9th century, we have two Roman councils that allow for remarriage after divorce. The Roman council of 826, headed by Pope Eugenius II, issued this canon:  

“No man may leave his acknowledged wife, except for the cause of fornication, and then marry another: otherwise it behooves the transgressor to be joined to the first marriage.”  

Canon 36; Kingdon p. 37

This same canon was then renewed at the Roman Council of 853 headed by Pope Leo IV. The importance in this is that in order for a council to be a Roman synod, it must be ratified by the sitting pope. Lest anyone claim this is vague or that it does not allow for remarriage, there is a statement by Pope Gregory II, who died in 731, stating that if a wife is not able to fulfill her conjugal duties, a husband may marry another so long as he financially supports his first wife: 

“As regards your question what a husband is to do, if his wife has been attacked by illness, so that she is incapable of conjugal intercourse, it were best if he could continue as he is and practice self-restraint. But since this demands exceptional virtue, the man who cannot live in continence, had better marry. But let him not fail to furnish her with support, since she is kept from married life by sickness, not debarred from it by some abominable offence.”  

Pope Gregory II “Pope Gregory II on Divorce and Remarriage” p. 22

An entire book was actually written on this single quotation and it can be found in the video description. The author, a Catholic priest, admits the passage is legitimate but is at pains to offer as many alternative interpretations as he possibly can. Even the Roman Catholic saint, Robert Bellarmine, was so stunned by this that he even stated: 

“It cannot be said that this error of Gregory is manifest heresy against the Gospel. For Gregory did not teach that a wife might be divorced and another married; which is expressly against the Gospel and the law of nature; but he taught that in a certain case, with permission of the wife, a man might marry a second wife, so as to have two wives, as Abraham did. Which is indeed false, and is so defined in the Council of Trent, Sess. 24, can. 2. But it does not seem then to have been an ascertained error…”

Robert Bellarmine, De Rom. Pont. iv. 12.  

In 735, the Council of Verberie decreed: 

“If a woman plots the death of her husband with other men, and in self-defense he kills one, and can prove it, he may divorce his wife, and, if he will, he may marry another.

Canon 5, Kingdon p. 35 

Here we have the principle that an attempt on the life of a spouse is a cause for divorce and allows for remarriage. Another canon, also from Verberie allows a husband to remarry while his wife is alive if she refuses to follow him on legitimate duties: 

“If a man from some inevitable necessity has fled to another duchy or province, or has followed his leader to whom he owes fealty, and his wife, though able, refuses to follow him, she shall remain unmarried so long as her husband, whom she has not followed, is alive: but her husband may take another wife, but do penance for it.

Canon 11, Kingdon p. 35 

One of the counterarguments Catholic apologists bring against us is that if a person must do penance for a second or third marriage, it naturally means they must send away the second or third spouse or live in continence with them, but here, not only is there no mention of repudiating the new wife, but it is understood that the husband will do a penance as a sort of “price” or “fee” for taking a new wife. 

In his collection “Divorce and Remarriage Historical Evidence,” Hollingworth Tully Kingdon, who, it should be noted, was defending the Catholic position that marriage in indissoluble and remarriage forbidden until the death of a spouse, points out that a canon of dubious origin but ascribed to the Council of Worms in 868 allows for remarriage while the first spouse is living:   

“Canon 63 deals with certain gross cases of incest and adultery. But only the first forty-four Canons are certain to belong to this Council. Still, this Canon permits remarriage to the woman in a gross case of incestuous adultery by her husband before his marriage with her. It implies that the wife must leave her husband because of his antenuptial incest with two who were not related to her.”   

Kingdon p. 40

Likewise, we have a quotation ascribed to Pope Zachary who died in 752 but is most likely from the Penitential of Bishop Burchard of Worms, which dates to 1006. This quotation is much the same as the canons from the Council of Worms:  

“Have you lain with your wife’s sister? If you have, you must have neither the one nor the other; and if she who was your wife, was not conscious of your wickedness, if she cannot contain, let her marry in the Lord whom she will.”  

Attributed to Pope Zachary but most likely from the “Penitential of Bishop Burchard of Worms” c. 1006; Kingdon p. 70

Here we have the wife being able to remarry if the husband slept with her sister. In 1031, the Council of Bourges, located in central France, ruled that:   

“Those who send away their lawful wives without the cause of fornication, may not take others while the former live, nor wives husbands; but let them be reconciled.”  

ibid., Canon 16; Kingdon p. 41

This was later reaffirmed at the Council of Limoges in 1031 – which was no small council. In fact, the Council of Limoges is famous because the “Truce of God” movement was proclaimed – a movement that sought to systematically limit the endemic warfare that plagued Western Europe. Even Kingdon, though, admits that these two previous canons seem to imply an acceptance of remarriage after divorce  

St. Theodore of Canterbury was a Greek who became the archbishop of Canterbury and thereby the highest official in the Church in England before his death in 698 but the penitential itself seems to date from sometime between 820 and 847 and appears to have its source in the Frankish kingdoms. The penitential has a variety of editions and is arranged into chapters that are subdivided into headings. Kingdon utilized an edition in which chapter 12 had to do with marriage. It states:   

“If a man’s wife commit fornication, he may dismiss her and marry another … She (if she is willing to do penance for her sins) after five years may marry another husband.”

“The Penitential of St. Theodore of Canterbury” xii. #5;  Kingdon p. 84  

This ruling, surprisingly, allows both the innocent and the guilty parties in case of adultery. It does not end there, though. The Penitential states that whether male or female, one is allowed to remarry when their spouse becomes a monastic: 

One may give the other leave to serve God in a monastery, and then marry again, if they are in a first marriage, according to the Greeks, yet it is not according to the Canons; if, however, they are in a second marriage, they may not marry again so long as husband and wife are alive. If the husband makes himself a slave on account of theft and fornication, or any sin, the wife, if she had not been married before, may after a year take another husband; If she have been twice married, she may not.”

“The Penitential of St. Theodore of Canterbury” xii. #8; Kingdon p. 84-5  

So here, we see the preference for keeping the number of marriages low. When we move to the section on the Greek patristic tradition, we will see that while a second marriage is often allowed, a third is extremely difficult to obtain and looked down upon even when it is granted. 

“If a woman leaves her husband because she despises him, and will not return and be reconciled to her husband, after five years, with the Bishop’s consent, he may marry another.   

“The Penitential of St. Theodore of Canterbury” xii. #19; Kingdon p. 85 

Here, remarriage is allowed for the husband in the case of abandonment by the wife, which may be an implicit admission of adultery on her part as it would be difficult at that time for a woman to support herself apart from a family unit unless she were willing to return to her parents. Then, there is the truly tragic and heart-wrenching case of a wife being carried off into captivity.  

“If a wife is carried away captive and cannot be redeemed, the husband may marry another after a year”     

“The Penitential of St. Theodore of Canterbury”, xii. #20 

“If a man’s wife have been carried off by the enemy, and he cannot get her back, he may take another; for this is better than fornication.”  

“The Penitential of St. Theodore of Canterbury”, xii. #23

“If afterward his wife returns, he must not take her, if he have another, but she may take another husband to herself if she had one before.”     

“The Penitential of St. Theodore of Canterbury”, xii. #24; Kingdon p. 85

Such rulings seem heartless to us but it should be noted that in an age in which warfare was endemic, slavery was the norm, and large families were the standard, those large families were oftentimes left fatherless, motherless, or, worse yet, completely orphaned by said warfare, such a ruling is not unrealistic in the least. Now, one might say that this was a random find, but the manuscript history of this shows it was copied copiously and such copious copying and reorganizations could only be due to widespread use. If the English and Frankish Churches had been firmly against remarriage after divorce while the other spouse was living, it would seem odd they would be so willing to repeatedly copy and utilize a penitential that, so far, has been the most liberal in its allowance for remarriage.  

Archbishop Egbert of York is a fascinating figure in medieval England. Educated and ordained a deacon in Rome and later made bishop of York, Egbert is known to have established the institute at York where he taught Alcuin of York, the great scholar who immigrated to the Frankish court and became an intellectual powerhouse during the Carolingian Rennaissance. Attributed to Archbishop Egbert are the “Exceptions of Egbert and date to the mid-8th century. Number 122 states:  

“A Canon says: If a woman depart from her husband with a contempt of him, refusing to return and be reconciled to him, he may take another wife after five or seven years, with the Bishop’s consent, if he cannot contain. But let him do penance for three years, or even so long as he lives, because he is convicted of adultery by the sentence of the Lord.”    

“The Excerptions of Egbert, Archbishop of York”, #122, Kingdon, p. 85

Here, just as in canon 11 of the Council of Verberie, remarriage is allowed but a penance is issued almost as a “fee” and without requiring the husband to put away the new wife. This appears in several other places, most explicitly in the Tome of Reunion of 920.  

It might be comparable to the Catholic practice of buying indulgences if one were incapable of doing the penance imposed by the priest. Likewise, if someone had an inordinately difficult time following the fast but gave 25% of their income to the Church, that extra giving would, one would imagine, quote “make up for” the sinful state one was in.   

Having up until this point focused our argument on the witness of the Western Fathers, the Eastern Fathers are surveyed in the second half of this article which is available in video form to our patrons.

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Works Cited and Bibliography 

Unless otherwise stated: 

1) all Biblical passages are taken from Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition  

2) All patristic quotations from “Ante-Nicene Fathers” and “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers” edited by Schaff and found here.  

3) All citations from canon law are taken from the Code of Canon Law found at the Vatican’s official website http://www.vatican.va and are current as of the making of this video and can be found here.

Erick Ybarra’s blog post is found here.

Called to Communion’s blog post is found here.

Patristic Sources Not From Schaff:  
St. Augustine: “On Faith and Works” trans. and annotated by Gregory J. Lombardo, CSC 1988 

St. Augustine: “On Marriage and Virginity” R. Kearney CSEL 

The Venerable Bede “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” trans. by Bertram Colgrave and R.A. B. Mynors. Oxford Clarendon Press 1992 

St. Epiphanius of Salamis “The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis” trans. Frank Williams Germany, Brill, 2008.  

St. Nicholas Mystikos “Nicholas I Patriarch of Constantinople Miscellaneous Writings – Greek Text and English Translations” by translation and commentary by L. G. Westerlink. Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies Washington DC 1981 

“The Canons of the Quinisext Council (691/2)” translation and commentary by Richard Price. LUP THT 2020  

Pope Nicholas of Rome to Khan Boris of Bulgaria translated by W. L. North. Found here.

Secondary Literature: 

“Marriage, An Orthodox Perspective” Fr. John Meyendorff 

“Mixed Marriages, An Orthodox History” Fr. Anthony Roeber 

“Oikonomia, Divorce and Remarriage in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition” Fr. Kevin Schembri 

“Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church” Pat Harrel 

“Pope Gregory II on Divorce and Remarriage” By William Kelly S.J. 1976 Quod Proposuisti” Found here.

“Can a Man Commit Porneia With His Wife?” David Wheeler-Reed, Jennifer W. Knust and Dale B. MartinJournal of Biblical Literature Vol. 137, No. 2 (Summer 2018), pp. 383-398 (16 pages) Published By: The Society of Biblical Literature. Found here.

M. Anastos, Aspects of the Mind of Byzantium (Political Theory, Theology, and Ecclesiastical Relations with the See of Rome), Ashgate Publications, Variorum Collected Studies Series, 2001. The section we used can be found here.

Materials Arguing for the Catholic Position:  
“Divorce and Re-marriage Historical Evidence” by Kingdon, Hollingworth Tully, 1835-1907 (Was written as a response to the Anglican Fr. Pusey) Found here.

A variety of counter-examples to Chrysostom, Basil, Origen, and Tertullian are found here.

Henry Crouzel “Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church: Some Reflections on Historical Methodology” p. 489-90. Published as “Divorce et remariage dans l’Église primitive,” Nouvelle Revue Théologique 98, no. 10 (1976): 891–917.  

A large florilegium supporting the Roman Catholic position is found here:

“Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church?” by Antonio Grappone found here.  

Materials Arguing for Other Positions

Prof. David G. Hunter “Did the Early Church Absolutely Forbid Remarriage After Divorce?” 

“A History of the Councils of the Church, From the Original Documents” By the Right Rev. Charles Joseph Hefele D.D. Late Bishop Of Rottenburg, Formerly Professor Of Theology In The University Of Tubingen. VOLUME 1 & 4. A.D. 451 TO A.D. 680. Translated from the German, with the Author’s approbation, and Edited by WILLIAM R. CLARK, M.A., HON. LL.D., D.C.L., F.R.S.C., Professor Of Philosophy In Trinity College, Toronto; Hon. Professor In Hobart College, Geneva, N.Y Books For The Ages AGES Software • Albany, OR USA Version 1.0 © 1997 

Wilkins, Henry John. The History of Divorce and Re-marriage for English Churchmen. United Kingdom, Longmans, Green, 1910. Found here.

USCCB’s “What Is an Annulment?” found here.

Law Code of Justinian can be found here.

“Economia and Pastoral Guidance” Bishop Athenagoras of Sinope found here

Online version of the Pedalion/”The Rudder” in three parts: 1, 2, and 3.  

. . .


9 thoughts on “Divorce and Remarriage in the Church Fathers and Patristic Era Writers

  1. Simeon

    There is a fourth Catholic argument though, which I find the most plausible: The gospel of Matthew is written for a primarily jewish audience. In accordance with jewish customs, there was a period of time between the official marriage, and the consummation when the pair moved together. This is why Mattew 1:19 states that Joseph planned to “divorce [Mary] quietly” upon learning of her pregnancy, when the two had not moved together yet. In the case of adultery in this period, before the marriage was consummated and thus complete, it would be right and just to divorce. This is exatly what Joseph, the greatest of the patriarchs, and a “just man” (Matt 1:19) plans to do in such a (percieved) situation.


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  5. Austin

    Not sure this is a big deal but should this article say posted in 2022 and 2020? Check the article date. I only point this out so people can more easily find this connected with the Youtube video and for clarification. Not a big deal.


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