Reply to Dr. Ed Peters on the dogmas of the Council of Trent

Dr. Peters’ new post emphasizes the main point of the previous post, that a ratum et consummatum marriage, that is, a consummated Christian Sacrament of Matrimony, is not dissoluble except by death. True, but the problems with his previous post lie elsewhere.

Dr. Peters states that the Magisterium has not yet answered all of the relevant questions on the dissolution of a marriage which is not ratum et consummatum. My point was that the Magisterium has not yet answered all questions on the Old Testament divorce and remarriage as well as Old Testament polygamy.

I had hoped that this new post would correct the grave error of the previous post, his denial of the teaching of the Council of Trent that that a ratum tantum marriage is dissolved by the solemn profession of religion. Peters addresses the point only obliquely, but he maintains his heretical position.

“Everyone agrees, however, that, under the current law, popes, and only popes, are dissolving herein presumptively valid marriages at least some of which are sacraments.

But I pause to be clear: In neither Petrines, nor Paulines, nor any other dissolutions (such as the now-dormant dissolution of certain marriages by certain religious vows) do the parties themselves dissolve their own marriage. Rather, something “extrinsic” to these marriages dissolves them, be it the pope in Petrine cases, the second marriage in Pauline cases, or the law itself upon the ecclesiastical acceptance of certain vows. Indeed, to hold that the parties themselves can, by any act performed by themselves, dissolve their own marriages, is to contradict flatly well-settled Church teaching on the “intrinsic indissolubility” of all marriage.”

Dr. Peters’ position is that the dissolution of a ratum tantum marriage by the decision and act of either spouse to take religious vows is extrinsic, since it supposedly comes from “the law itself” and from the acceptance of the vows by the Church. He then declares this type of dissolution of marriage “now-dormant”, and claims that “everyone agrees” that ratum tantum marriages are only ever dissolved by something extrinsic, not by a decision or act of a spouse.

My response: the teaching of an Ecumenical Council cannot be nullified by the alleged agreement of “everyone”, nor can said teaching fall into dormancy. And though Peters portrays this point as something that is of the law, it is not found among the decisions of the Council of Trent on discipline, but in dogmatic Canons with an attached anathema. Here is the Canon (VI) in the context of two other Canons on the dissolution of the bond of holy matrimony:

CANON V — If anyone says that, because of heresy, or troublesome cohabitation, or the absence of affection from a spouse, the bond of matrimony is able to be dissolved: let him be anathema.

CANON VI — 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.

CANON VII — If anyone says that the Church has erred, in that She has taught and does teach, in accord with Evangelical and Apostolic doctrine: that the bond of matrimony is not able to be dissolved because of adultery by one of the spouses; and that both, even the innocent one who gave no cause to the adultery, are not able to contract another marriage, while the other spouse is living; and that he commits adultery who, having divorced an adulteress, will have married another, as also she who, having divorced an adulterer, will have married another: let him be anathema.

These are dogmatic Canons, and anyone who rejects their teaching falls under the anathema of the Council. The reason for the attached anathema is that the teaching is a formal dogma, requiring the full assent of faith (theological assent) under pain of heresy and excommunication.

Notice that the prior and subsequent Canons (V, VII) support the main thesis of Peters on the indissolubility of a ratum et consummatum marriage. And he rightly holds that those doctrines are infallible and irreformable. And yet the Canon between them, which is just as much a dogma on marriage as the others, and which also carries the same penalty of excommunication, Peters wrongly treats as if it were merely of the law, and now-dormant.

He also claims that this type of dissolution, which he implicitly admits at least had occurred in past times, is extrinsic, because it is supposedly of the law and because the Church supposedly accepts the vows. But that claim is mere sophistry, redefining words and giving a disingenuous explanation, in order to keep from admitting an error. Read the wording of the dogma! There is no requirement that the vows be accepted by Church authority, that is, by a Bishop or by the Holy See, and there is no mention of Church law. The Council places this Canon with the other dogmatic teachings on the Sacraments, since it is doctrine, not discipline.

Throughout most of the history of the Church, if you wished to undertake the solemn profession of religion, you did not ask a Bishop or write to the Holy See. If the Order accepts you, and you make your solemn vows, that is all that is required. So is Dr. Peters claiming that, alongside the Petrine and Pauline privileges to dissolve certain marriages, there is a similar privilege given to each religious order? If not, then the wording of the Council of Trent is correct, and that wording attributes the power to dissolve the marriage to the spouse who decides and acts, making solemn profession of religion. And so it fits Peters’ own definition of “intrinsic” and therefore contradicts his claim that his first three groups (types of marriage, not the full consummated Sacrament) are never intrinsically dissolved.

Is Peters’ newly-stated position heretical? Well, let’s see. He takes a dogmatic teaching of an Ecumenical Council and claims that it is not a teaching, but a now-dormant law. What if someone said the same about another teaching of the Council of Trent, such as the prior and subsequent Canons on marriage? Such a claim would be heresy. In fact, taking any teaching taught infallibly by any Ecumenical Council, and reducing it to a now-dormant law is always heresy. It is a clever way to nullify a dogma, but it is nevertheless an obstinate denial of a teaching that is to be believed with divine and catholic faith. So, yes, his position is still heresy.

Peters’ assertions that “everyone agrees” with him and that anything else “contradicts well-settled Church teaching” are baseless claims. Can he cite any infallible teaching under Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, or the ordinary and universal Magisterium? The agreement of a group of scholars is nothing compared to the dogmas of an Ecumenical Council with attach anathemas.

Peters does quote from a speech by Pope Pius XII to the Roman Rota in 1941:

“meanwhile other marriages, though they are intrinsically indissoluble, do not have an absolute extrinsic indissolubility”

The other marriages are ones that are not ratum et consummatum. He makes the general statement that they are intrinsically indissoluble, but this statement in a speech is not sufficient to nullify or contradict the teaching of an Ecumenical Council. Generally, most marriages are intrinsically indissoluble. That is a true general statement. However, the Pontiff did not speak specifically about dissolution by profession of solemn vows. He simply made an assertion that applies to the vast majority of marriages.

Does the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic dissolution of marriage make a difference to the heretical nature of Peters’ position? A mere error of categorization is not a heresy. But he claims that this dogma is merely of the law and is now-dormant. So his position is still heretical. If he were to admit that this type of dissolution is a dogma, not merely of the law (since the law can contain things which are not per se of the law, such as direct assertions of doctrine), and that it can never truly be dormant (even if it is not often used), then he would be free from heresy.

Finally, I will repeat my lesser complaint from the previous post. The Magisterium has not yet decided the question of whether the divorce and remarriage of the Old Testament, as well as the polygamy, were intrinsically evil sins tolerated by the law (a common opinion which seems to me hard to defend), or whether these marriages, being merely natural, not the Sacrament of holy Matrimony, allowed for divorce and remarriage, as well as polygamy, not without sin, but without the sin being intrinsically evil.

The former makes for a simpler position, theologically, and it makes it easier to support the indissolubility of the consummated Sacrament of Marriage. But then we are left with the implied conclusion that for some reason God permitted intrinsically evil and gravely immoral sins within divinely-revealed law. And that point makes me consider that perhaps a natural only marriage, at the time, by a dispensation from God, was intrinsically dissoluble. Even so, in the current economy of salvation, every human person has the higher calling to live a life of grace in Christ. So we are speaking only about a past situation.

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.

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2 Responses to Reply to Dr. Ed Peters on the dogmas of the Council of Trent

  1. Emanuel Costa says:

    Thanks for the article. It is always a joy reading your articles. If you don’t mind, I would like to ask your comment about this phase, “A bad attitude, being unmerciful or uncharitable, for instance, always makes a right or wrong behavior morally bad. A wrong behavior, however, engaging in a homosexual act, for instance, is not always morally bad if it is done with a good attitude”. Thanks a lot.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I’ll give the whole article a careful reading, and then…. Now I have read it, and it’s filled with errors. The authors do not base their argument on Catholic moral teaching, except superficially. It’s not worth my time to reply.

      Here, I will just say that a bad intention (first font) makes the overall act immoral, even if the font of object (which determines the moral nature of the act itself) is good. Example: giving to charity to lead someone into sin. So a bad first font (intention) always makes the overall act a sin, regardless of whether the second font (object) is good or bad. But if it is bad, then the act is more sinful, having two bad fonts, rather than one (assuming the one font in common is the same).

      Now, a wrong behavior means an act with an evil moral object, and the example given (a homosexual sexual act) is gravely immoral. Such an act is always objectively a grave sin. However, if the person has invincible ignorance about the act, he might not be culpable.

      On the other hand, certain sins cannot be committed with invincible ignorance. You cannot claim to think that your own attitude of malice or hatred was an expression of love of neighbor. So, in some cases, the bad attitude is always an actual sin, and the bad act is objectively a mortal sin, but not culpable, due to invincible ignorance or other factors that reduce culpability.

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