On Natural Marriage, Polygamy, and Indissolubility

This article presents my theological opinion on certain open questions concerning natural marriage and polygamy. How we should we regard three things:

1. the difference between natural marriage and the Sacrament as concerns indissolubility
2. polygamy in the Old Testament and in natural marriages for the unbaptized
3. divorce and remarriage under the Mosaic Law and for any unbaptized persons

First of all, a consummated Sacrament of holy Matrimony (ratum et consummatum) is absolutely indissoluble by anything in this life; it is dissolved only by death. A ratum tantum (ratified only, not consummated) Sacrament is dissolved by the solemn profession of religion by either spouse (per the dogma of Trent, Marriage, Canon VI), or by the Petrine privilege (the authority of the Pope) “for a just cause” [Canon 1142]. A just reason, not solely a grave reason, is sufficient. This proves that not every type of marriage is absolutely indissoluble.

Secondly, natural marriage, that is, a marriage between two unbaptized persons, or between one baptized and one unbaptized person, and one which is consummated, is a perpetual lifelong bond, and so it has the inherent character of indissolubility. However, a natural marriage can be dissolved by the Pauline or Petrine privileges. So we see that the indissolubility of natural marriage differs from that of a sacramental marriage.

I came across an interesting passage in ‘The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent’ by E. Christian Brugger:

“Some fathers at Trent thought that marriage was absolutely indissoluble as a natural reality, others that sacramentality makes it so…. Trent leaves the question open.”

So far as I have been able to find, no magisterial document closes that open question, as of yet.

Certainly, the Sacrament of Marriage, ratum et consummatum, is indissoluble, except by death. But the Magisterium teaches that the Sacrament of Marriage raises natural marriage to a higher form. And this must affect the bond of matrimony, since the bond is essential to the very nature of marriage. A ratum et consummatum Sacrament of Marriage is only dissolved by death. But a natural marriage, even when one of the parties is baptized, is dissoluble by the Pauline privilege. Therefore, the Sacrament confirms (strengthens) the indissoluble character of natural marriage.

Even so, the bond of a natural-only marriage is intended by God to be dissolved only by death. Thus, when He created mankind, He created Adam and Eve as husband and wife. And since they were not joined carnally until after the fall from grace, their marriage began in a manner analogous to a ratum tantum marriage, which is consummated at a later time. Yet the plan of God, from the beginning, was for a lifelong bond, and this plan is present in every true natural marriage as well as in the Sacrament. [See Casti Connubii 16, 34; Trent, Matrimony, introduction.]

But fallen man is sinful, and so, apart from the Sacrament, even today, God permits a natural-only marriage (as between two non-baptized persons, or one baptized and the other non-baptized) to be dissolved in some cases other than death. The Church and Her laws do not treat the indissoluble bond of natural marriage the same as the bond of the Sacrament. The latter is absolutely indissoluble except by death. The former is generally dissolved only by death, but some exceptions are permitted. For the Sacrament strengthens the union of husband and wife, making the intention of God of a lifelong union more readily attainable by fallen sinners and bringing it to perfection. Natural marriage, established by God, is imperfect, and it looked forward to its perfection in the Sacrament, just as the Old Covenant looked forward to its perfection in the New Covenant.

The first point of my thesis is that the bond of a natural-only marriage is not absolutely indissoluble, as is the bond of the consummated Sacrament. For the Sacrament raises marriage to a higher state, perfecting the plan of God that husband and wife be joined until death. Even so, natural marriage inherently has a bond that is ordered toward lifelong union. The bond is dissolved only for a grave reason, and not any grave reason.

Thus, my position is the second one cited by Brugger, found among the fathers of Trent — that raising marriage to the dignity of a Sacrament is what makes it now absolutely indissoluble (i.e. dissolved by nothing in this life).

2) Polygamy in the Old Testament

The Sacrament of Marriage is only between one man and one woman. Polygamy is never permitted, and would be nothing other than a valid marriage with one spouse, followed by a number of adulterous unions. So for the Sacrament, polygamy is intrinsically evil. But natural marriage is not the same as the Sacrament.

Consider this surprising Canon:

Can. 1148 §1. When he receives baptism in the Catholic Church, a non-baptized man who has several non-baptized wives at the same time can retain one of them after the others have been dismissed, if it is hard for him to remain with the first one. The same is valid for a non-baptized woman who has several non-baptized husbands at the same time.

A man with several wives (all the parties being unbaptized) can choose to remain with any one of the several wives, after he is baptized, “if it is hard for him” (not a very strict standard). If she is not also baptized, their marriage is natural only, and not the Sacrament of Marriage. So why can he choose any of the wives to remain as his spouse?

If polygamy in a natural marriage is intrinsically evil, then the first marriage is the valid natural marriage, and the subsequent unions are adulterous. The Church can’t permit a man to leave his valid natural marriage, to remain in an adulterous union, nor can She dissolve a valid marriage in favor of adultery. But if polygamy in natural marriage is not intrinsically evil, though certainly it is not the plan of God from the beginning, then Canon 1148 makes sense. And so does the Old Testament cases of polygamy, especially for the Patriarch, Israel.

If polygamy in natural-only marriages were intrinsically evil, then why would God permit the 12 tribes of Israel, the chosen people, to be founded by the polygamy of Jacob (Israel himself)? Our holy God does not found his plans upon intrinsically evil grave sins.

The same thinking applies to the distinction between incestuous marriages that are in the direct line (parent/child, grandparent/grandchild) versus the collateral line (siblings, cousins). The former type of incest is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. The latter type is a matter of degree. You may marry your second or third cousin, with a dispensation, or a fourth cousin or more distantly related person without a dispensation. Marriages with siblings and first cousins are not permitted, as such marriages are gravely immoral due to the circumstances. However, collateral marriages in the first and second degrees (siblings, first cousins) are a type of incest which is not intrinsically evil. Therefore, when the children of Adam and Eve needed to marry, in order to propagate the human race, their marriages were permitted by a dispensation from God.

God is perfect infinite goodness, by His very nature. So He never permits acts which are inherently evil. However, He can permit acts whose morality depends on the circumstances, as He is Lord over all things. Thus, God permitted the children of Adam and Eve to marry one another. But He was unable to permit them to marry their parents. For God never contradicts Himself by approving of inherently immoral acts.

Similarly, God cannot permit polygamy, or divorce and remarriage (given a valid first marriage, with a living spouse) when the marriages in question are the full Sacrament. But God can permit these things for a natural marriage, where polygamy and divorce with remarriage are generally prohibited as grave sins due to the circumstances, but are not intrinsically evil.

Polygamy in the Mosaic Law was permitted under an Old Testament dispensation, which passed away when Christ arrived. So polygamy, even in natural-only marriages, is gravely immoral in the present economy of salvation.

The second point of my thesis is that polygamy is not intrinsically evil for natural-only marriages, but it is intrinsically evil for the Sacrament of Marriage. That’s not to say that polygamy for the unbaptized is generally moral. It is as immoral as marrying a sibling or first cousin. But it’s morality depends on the circumstances, not on the moral object of the act.

3) Divorce and remarriage

For persons married in the full Sacrament (ratum et consummatum), divorce with the bond remaining is permissible for a grave reason. Remarriage is not permissible, being an adulterous union, which is therefore intrinsically evil. Polygamy is also intrinsically evil and gravely immoral for baptized persons, because the full Sacrament has an absolute indissolubility and is only between one man and one woman.

For persons in a natural-only marriage, divorce and remarriage is contrary to the plan of God from the beginning, and is a grave sin due to the circumstances. However, it is not intrinsically evil, because the marriage is not the Sacrament. Therefore, divorce and remarriage is permissible, if one or both spouses is unbaptized, for example, in the case of the Pauline Privilege. This case establishes that divorce and remarriage is not intrinsically evil for a natural only marriage. If it were intrinsically evil, then the Church would not be able to dissolve the first natural marriage, in favor of a subsequent marriage — which doesn’t have to be the Sacrament of Marriage, as Canon 1147 states. The second marriage can be natural only also. This proves that the Old Testament divorce and remarriage was not intrinsically evil, and was permitted by the authority of God, which even today permits divorce and remarriage, rarely, through the Church.

It makes sense to interpret the Old Testament divorce and remarriage similarly. For a time, God permitted, by a divine dispensation through the law of Moses, a similar type of divorce and remarriage as is currently in force in Canon law, though somewhat more broad, whereby the first natural marriage is dissolved — by the authority of God through the law given to the Israelites — in favor of a second marriage, for a grave reason.

The Old Testament divorce and remarriage was probably much abused and misapplied. Some Jewish scholars argued that a husband could divorce his wife for any reason, and others argued that he needed a grave reason. But then the reasons which qualified as grave began to multiply as the years passed. The plan and will of God was to permit divorce and remarriage only for a grave reason, only in natural marriages, under a dispensation, for a limited time. For the Israelites lacked the graces of the Seven Sacraments, and their spouses lacked the special graces of holy Matrimony. Thus, due to their sinfulness and hardness of heart, the Creator permitted divorce and remarriage, for a grave reason only, limited to that time and to the people under the law.

But this permission was only possible because divorce and remarriage is not intrinsically evil for a natural only marriage. It is generally gravely immoral due to the circumstances. For certainly, natural marriage is inherently a lifelong union. And so, divorce and remarriage is not something which civil law can institute or administer. The Church today permits a natural marriage to be dissolved, and a second marriage (natural or the Sacrament) to follow while the first spouse is still alive, in few cases. But civil society has no such authority over marriage. For, in most cases, divorce and remarriage for unbaptized persons is a grave sin, though not an intrinsically evil sin.

The Summa Theologica states:

“Now the Old Law mentions plurality of wives without any prohibition thereof, as appears from Deuteronomy 21:15, “If a man have two wives,” etc. Therefore they were not transgressors through having two wives; and so it was lawful.

Further, this is confirmed by the example of the holy patriarchs, who are stated to have had several wives, and yet were most pleasing to God, for instance Jacob, David, and several others. Therefore at one time it was lawful.” [Summa]

This opinion confirms that polygamy is not intrinsically evil when the marriage is natural only, for persons under the Old Testament law (i.e. under that limited dispensation).

“I answer that, As stated above (Article 1, Replies to 7 and 8), plurality of wives is said to be against the natural law, not as regards its first precepts, but as regards the secondary precepts, which like conclusions are drawn from its first precepts.”

In other words, a plurality of wives is not intrinsically evil (when the marriages are natural only), but is usually gravely immoral due to the circumstances.

“In a Decretal (De divortiis, cap. Gaudemus) it is asserted that is was never lawful to have several wives without having a dispensation received through Divine inspiration. Nor is the dispensation thus granted a contradiction to the principles which God has implanted in nature, but an exception to them, because those principles are not intended to apply to all cases but to the majority, as stated.”

This text, too, supports my position that polygamy for natural marriages is not intrinsically evil, but is gravely immoral due to the circumstances. Hence, a dispensation from God was possible, which is not the case for any intrinsically evil act. Moreover, the Old Testament law, given by divine revelation, required a man to take his brother’s wife as his wife, after his brother died without heirs, regardless of whether the man was already married. God’s law does not command intrinsically evil acts, and so polygamy, regarding natural marriage, is not intrinsically evil, but would be gravely immoral by the circumstances except for the dispensation given to the Israelites, (a dispensation which ended when Christ arrived, offering the greater good of the Sacrament of Marriage).

I know that some readers will object to the above theological opinion, as it is not the majority view. But following the majority opinion is not how theology is done.

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

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1 Response to On Natural Marriage, Polygamy, and Indissolubility

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    A man with several wives (all the parties being unbaptized) can choose to remain with any one of the several wives, after he is baptized, “if it is hard for him” (not a very strict standard).

    I can see why it is phrased in that way. On the one hand, you do not want to forbid him to thus choose, in the case of an extremely difficult situation, but on the other hand you can hardly say “If the difficulty is equal or greater than 12.7 on the Mazanec Scale”.

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