Dr. Ed Peters: his heresy on the Dissolubility of Marriage

UPDATE: Dr. Peters has now responded to my post by writing a new article on the topic on January 15th, 2018: Is the Petrine Privilege an exception to Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage?. I’ll consider its assertions and then give my reply in a new post.

My original article follows:

Dr. Peters writes the following on January 10th, 2018:

“Canonically, there are four kinds of marriage, namely, marriage:
(I) between two non-baptized parties (e.g., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons);
(II) between a baptized party and a non-baptized party (e.g., a Catholic-Jewish marriage);
(III) between two baptized parties (e.g., Catholics, Protestants) that has not been consummated; and,
(IV) between two baptized parties that has been consummated.”


I think a marriage between two Jews, in Old Testament times, is substantially different than a marriage, in the same time, between two pagans. And the Jewish faith does have a category analogous to a ratum tantum marriage. A betrothed virgin was considered the spouse of her betrothed husband by the Law (e.g. Deut. 22). Thus, Joseph and Mary were married under Jewish religious law, even though Mary was perpetually a betrothed virgin.

So I don’t think the above categorization is inarguable. But it’s not false, just inaccurate.

Then Dr. Peters asserts the following error:

The Church regards all four kinds of marriage as being, by natural law (and not by Catholic theology), “intrinsically indissoluble”, that is, she holds that no spouse or couple (say, by invoking civil laws of divorce, and regardless of religious affiliation) can, by their own will or action, break or dissolve their marriage.

There are some serious problems with that claim.

First and foremost, his assertion implies that the third type of marriage (ratum tantum) cannot be dissolved by the will or action of one of the spouses, such as the act of making a solemn profession of religion. Such a profession is an act by a spouse, therefore “intrinsic”, not “extrinsic”. The Church teaches that a marriage which is ratified, but not consummated, is dissolved by the solemn profession of religion by either spouse. To assert the contrary is abject heresy.

“If anyone says that matrimony ratified, but not consummated, is not dissolved by the solemn profession of Religion by either spouse: let him be anathema.” [Council of Trent, 24th Session, Matrimony, Canon VI]

Second, it is still an open question in theology as to how we should regard the Old Testament laws permitting divorce and remarriage. The Magisterium has not decided the question definitively, as far as I am aware. But there are two common theological opinions. The first is stated in the old Catholic Encyclopedia:

“The monogamic and indissoluble properties of marriage were for a time dispensed by Divine permission…. Christ revoked the dispensation granted in the Mosaic law. He promulgated the original Divine law of monogamic and indissoluble marriage; in addition, He raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament” [Source

In this view, the properties natural to marriage, by Divine plan from the beginning, include monogamy and the indissolubility of a consummated marriage. But God issued a dispensation, which could only possibly apply to natural-only marriage (not to the Sacrament of Matrimony, which is of both the natural and supernatural orders). Therefore, in Old Testament times, faithful Jews did not sin gravely by polygamy, nor by divorce and remarriage. But this implies that the marriages in question were intrinsically dissoluble, since a husband could give his wife a bill of divorce.

Jesus says that this type of divorce, at the time, was permitted by Moses due to the hardness of your hearts — i.e. meaning that we are all fallen sinners, but also that the Old Covenant did not offer the Sacraments to provide ample graces to overcome our failings. Therefore, the Old Testament divorces were not grave sins, being done under a dispensation granted by the law of the Lord.

The other theological opinion is that divorce and polygamy were grave sins and intrinsically evil, but God did not impute the punishment to those who committed the offenses. See the explanation in the Summa Theologica, Supplement, Question 67. The bill of divorce. (However, the Supplement was not written by St. Thomas, and it shows.)

The second opinion above is compatible with Dr. Peters’ position. But it has the problem of God permitting a bill of divorce (in Sacred Scripture) despite the supposed intrinsic indissolubility of natural marriage and the intrinsic evil of divorce and remarriage. My own opinion favors the first point of view.

However, the issue in this article is not which opinion is correct, but rather the claim by Dr. Peters that this issue is not an open theological question, but a definitive teaching of the Church. What theological argument does Peters give to support this claim? None. He just states it as if he were a Pope issuing a papal bull. Does he present some citations to which we might refer, so as to see the support for this bare claim? He offers none. He cites Canon law, but that source does not decide the issue concerning Old Testament marriage and divorce. He cites Sacred Scripture on the indissolubility of the Sacrament of Marriage, but that is not the question.

Essentially, Dr. Peters makes a series of claims on what the Church “holds” or “regards” or “sees”. But in fact some of his claims about Church teaching are simply not true. The Church has not decided the question of how we should regard Old Testament divorce and remarriage. So the all-encompassing claim by Peters that even the natural marriages of the Old Testament were intrinsically indissoluble is opinion, not doctrine.

Worse still is his claim that a ratum tantum marriage is not intrinsically dissoluble, not by any act of either spouse. That assertion directly contradicts Church teaching.

Finally, his generally correct assertion that a ratum et consummatum Sacrament of Matrimony is dissoluble only by death has an eschatological exception. The faithful who still remain on earth at the time of the general Resurrection and general Judgment do not seem to die and then rise. They receive the benefits of the Resurrection without dying and rising (1 Thess 4:16-17). Therefore, as a point of speculative theology, the marriage faithful at that time experience the dissolution of their ratum et consummatum marriages, without dying.

Dr. Ed Peters is a pretty good canon lawyer and a terrible theologian. You can’t write good theology by basing your arguments mainly on canon law. And while canon law expresses many definitive decisions by the Church, theology has many open questions. Peters should stick to canon law, and not try to delve into moral or dogmatic theology.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

This entry was posted in doctrine. Bookmark the permalink.