by Prof. John Lamont
Sandro Magister, the respected Vatican correspondent for the Italian paper 'L'Espresso', recently published an article with the shock title; 'When the Church of Rome Forgave Second Marriages'. Magister describes the current push to abandon the discipline of the Church and permit those who have been divorced and civilly remarried to receive communion in Catholic churches. The justification of his title is his claim that new historical research has demonstrated that this practice was approved of in the early Church. Here is the key section of his article:
'The proponents of the change, when they make their position explicit, ultimately rely on the conviction of the individual conscience. But is conscience the only means of solving the problem of the divorced and remarried? According to what happened during the first centuries of Christianity, it is not. Back then there was another solution. 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. ...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.' (Sandro Magister, 'When the Church of Rome Forgave Second Marriages').
The initial reaction of any theologian with an interest in this question is likely to be extreme surprise. The First Council of Nicaea was the most important and venerable council in the history of the Catholic Church, since it was responsible for solemnly defining the full divinity of Christ. How could its admission of the remarried to communion have gone unnoticed at both the time and in subsequent ages – since the Church discipline before, during and after this council was for those who had married after parting with their previous spouse to be condemned as adulterers and excluded from communion?
This surprise is quickly dispelled by a closer look at Cereti's case. Magister asserts that attention has 'recently' been called to this issue by Cereti's work – while admitting that the work in question is simply a republication of a book originally published in 1977. Even the uninitiated might ask why Cereti's thesis has not come to be generally accepted, if it is in fact well established and has been around since 1977. The answer to this question can be discovered by looking at the criticisms of Cereti's book by the great patristic scholar Henri Crouzel S.J. Fr. Crouzel was the author of the standard work on the position of the early church on divorce;  it should be noted that he himself supported the idea of a relaxation of Church discipline with respect to the admission of the divorced and "remarried" to the sacraments, and hence was not trying to make a historical case for his own theological position. In two review articles in the journal Augustinianum, Crouzel showed that Cereti's position was a travesty of the facts.
As Magister asserts, the centrepiece of Cereti's study is canon 8 of the council of Nicaea, which was directed against the Novationists, and required them to accept into communion those who contracted second marriages. Cereti's whole case in connection with this canon depends on understanding it as referring to people who marry again while their first spouse is still alive. In fact, however, the canon is talking about those who claim that remarriage after the death of one's first spouse is forbidden. This claim was made by the heretical Montanists and even by some rigorists among the Fathers of the Church, such as Athenagoras. Crouzel establishes that the Novationists made precisely this claim, which means that the condemnation of canon 8 must be understood as directed against excommunication of those who marry after being widowed.
Even this condemnation must be modified if its context is examined; it was understood in the early Church that priests who are widowed must not remarry, so the condemnation is only of those who would excommunicate the laity who marry again after the death of their spouse. This understanding of the canon is in fact the only one that can make sense, in the light of the universal condemnation of remarriage after divorce by all the other Fathers and canons of the early Church. We do therefore see a mean between rigour and laxity in the discipline of the early Church, as Magister claims, but it is not a mean between holding marriage to be indissoluble and permitting it to be dissolved under easy conditions. It is a mean between the rigour of insisting - for the laity - that only one marriage is permitted in one's lifetime, regardless of whether or not one's spouse is still living, and the laxity of permitting remarriage during the lifetime of one's previous spouse.
Magister mentions Crouzel as an opponent of Cereti, but does not give Crouzel's refutation of Cereti's claim about the Council of Nicaea. Crouzel also demonstrates the falsity of many of Cereti's other claims, while remarking that it is impossible for him to address all of Cereti's mistakes, since there are several on every page of his more than 400-page work. Cereti's error about the Council of Nicaea – an easily verifiable mistake that destroys his strongest argument – is a sufficient demonstration of the accuracy of Crouzel's condemnation of him as a historian. In an earlier article in 1976, Crouzel had looked at other historians who had tried to establish the same thesis as Cereti. He had identified eight methodological errors in these scholars, and he concluded that Cereti was also guilty of them. They are the following:
1) Beginning the discussion from zero, without taking into account the work that has already been done on an issue.2) Drawing conclusions that lack any support.3) Arguing in a vicious circle.4) Using working hypotheses that guide one's research, but are then presented as emerging from that research.5) Arguments from silence.6) Preferring obscure allusions to clear affirmations in one's historical sources.7) Mistaken readings of texts.8) Insufficient historical analysis.
These flaws are worth keeping in mind by everyone who examines historical debates that bear on theological questions; they are the characteristics of every author who seeks to prostitute the historical evidence in order to promote a favoured cause.
The relaunch of Cereti's book is an interesting sign of the times. In one way it is a characteristic feature of the current pontificate; old radicals from the 1970s judge that their hour has come at last, and go on to the offensive again. The antiquity of their positions can even be an advantage, because the refutations offered when they were first put forward have long been forgotten – who now knows about Crouzel and his criticisms? But their views are not simply the revival of a past age. Their success has been prepared by a long campaign aimed at softening up their opponents, by the classic methods of constant propaganda and successful framing of the issue. One basic victory has been the very introduction of the term 'remarriage' into the debate. In the case of people who marry civilly when they have a spouse alive, it is not a case of remarriage; it is a case of bigamy. Once Catholics can be made to face up to the fact that the current debate is about allowing bigamists to receive communion, a proper resolution of it can be hoped for. Until that happens, though, we are fated to endure more recycling of dated bogus scholarship like that of Cereti.
1. Henri Crouzel S.J., L'Eglise primitive face au divorce (Paris: Beauchesne, 1971).
2. See Henri Crouzel, 'Les "digamoi" visés par le concile de Nicee dans son canon 8', Augustinianum, Dec. 1978, p. 566.
3. Henri Crouzel, 'Un nouvel essai pour prouver l'acceptation des secondes noces après divorce dans l'Eglise primitive", Augustinianum, Dec. 1977: 'Les "digamoi" visés par le concile de Nicee dans son canon 8', Augustinianum, Dec. 1978; these build upon an earlier paper, 'Divorce et remariage dans l'Eglise primitive: quelques reflexions de methodologie historique', Nouvelle Revue Theologique, Dec. 1976.
4. Henri Crouzel, 'Divorce et remariage dans l'Eglise primitive: quelques reflexions de methodologie historique', Nouvelle Revue Theologique, Dec. 1976.