In Defense of Pope Celestine on a Spouse returning from a second marriage

In the Old Testament law:

[Deuteronomy 24]
{24:1} “If a man takes a wife, and he has her, and she does not find favor before his eyes because of some vileness, then he shall write a bill of divorce, and he shall give it to her hand, and he shall dismiss her from his house.
{24:2} And when, having departed, she has married another,
{24:3} and if he likewise hates her, and has given her a bill of divorce, and has dismissed her from his house, or if indeed he has died,
{24:4} then the former husband cannot take her back as a wife. For she has been polluted and has become abominable in the sight of the Lord. Otherwise, you may cause your land, which the Lord your God will deliver to you as a possession, to sin.

The case above concerns natural marriage. The man takes a wife, divorces her, and she marries a second time. Then her second husband divorces her, or perhaps dies. The question is whether she can return to her first husband? Let’s take the simplest case. The man does not remarry, and she was his first wife. Their marriage is a valid natural marriage. They divorce, she marries another man, and he dies. Why does the law not permit her to return to her first husband? Their marriage was valid, and the second husband has died. The reason is that “she has been polluted and has become abominable in the sight of the Lord”. Even though the marriage was valid, she is not permitted to return to it, because she took another man as husband after him.

Perhaps you think that, by reason alone, it seems as if she should be permitted to return to her first marriage. But this is divine revelation, and so it should be held to be indisputable — unless the Church declares otherwise — that she cannot, whether it seems right to fallen sinners or not. So often the mere opinion of sinner creeps in and replaces what is higher.

Now let’s consider the case before Pope Celestine — for which decision he is accused of heresy.

Decretals of Gregory IX, Lib. III, Tit. XXXII, Laudabilem:

A Christian man denied Christ out of hatred for his wife and united himself to pagan woman, with whom he procreated children. The Christian woman, who had been abandoned unto the dishonor of Jesus Christ, went into a second marriage with the assent of the Archdeacon and had children. It does not seem to us that if the first husband returns to the unity of the Church she ought to depart from the second and go back to the first, especially since she was seen to have departed from him by the judgment of the Church. And, as St. Gregory [the Great] testifies, ‘the affront to the Creator dissolves the right of marriage (solvat ius matrimonii) for the one who is left out of hatred of the Christian faith’. (…) [Concerning this question we have] the rule and the doctrine of the Apostle, by which it is said “if the infidel depart, let him depart. For a brother or sister is not under servitude in such cases” (1 Cor. 7:15 – i.e., the Pauline Privilege), as well as the famous decree of Gregory [found in the Decretum of Gratian]: ‘it is not a sin if [the spouse], having been dismissed for God’s sake, joins another; the departing infidel [however], has sinned and against God and against matrimony’.”

The text above is not from Celestine III, as that epistle is not extant. It was not even extant at the time of Bellarmine, as he himself says. The text is from the decretals, which is not merely Church documents, but commentary as well. The section referring to St. Gregory appears to be commentary; so these are not the words of Celestine. The Pope did not compare his decision to the decision of Gregory on natural law marriage being dissolved by the Church in favor of sacramental marriage. All we know of the Celeste decision is as follows:

The husband leaves the Christian faith, and then leaves his wife, and he marries a pagan woman. The wife mistakenly thought it was moral to remarry, as she relied on the advice of an archdeacon. Then the husband repents, leaves his pagan wife (which marriage was not valid) and wishes to reunite with his first wife.

The Roman Pontiff, Celestine III, seems to have relied on the passage from Deut. 24, which is NOT a question of whether the second marriage is valid, but only whether the wife may return to a first husband. The passage from Scripture and the decision of Celestine both say the same thing, she may not return to her first husband. The question of the second marriage being invalid is not mentioned. And it seems clear that the second marriage was invalid, so this was at the time not the controversial matter, the matter requiring recourse to the Roman Pontiff.

“It does not seem to us that if the first husband returns to the unity of the Church she ought to depart from the second and go back to the first, especially since she was seen to have departed from him by the judgment of the Church.”

We don’t have the original epistle, so we don’t know if the above is an exact quote. Texts from centuries ago often took liberties with quotes, and lack the devotion to precision common today. In any case, Celestine seems to be only deciding if she can return to her first husband, with whom she had the valid Sacrament of holy Matrimony. She cannot, according to Deut. 24, and the decision of Pope Celestine. As the Roman Pontiff, he has the authority over the Sacraments and is also the Supreme Judge of all the faithful. So he is well within his authority and rights to decree that she cannot return.

Nothing is said about what to do regarding the second marriage. The assumption is uncharitable that the Pope approved of the second adulterous union. If the Pope had actually meant that second marriages are lawful if the husband is accused of adultery or apostasy (or other grave sins), this would have become a very famous decision; it would have had many comments, theological treatises, and of course rebukes from Popes and Councils.

Instead, we have one Pope mentioning a similar past case, and expressing a mild difference of opinion with the past Pope, Celestine. And what does Pope Innocent III say? He states: “although indeed our predecessor [Celestine III] seems to have thought otherwise….” It seems as if Celestine thought otherwise. That is a mild disagreement based on what seems to have been Celestine’s opinion. Does Innocent III accuse Celestine of heresy? No. And his was the next Pontificate after Celestine III. Neither do any of the subsequent recent Popes accuse Celestine of anything. So what Celestine “seems to have thought” is a reference to one way of interpreting his decision. And is it possible to interpret it in another way? Certainly, as the phrasing “seems to have thought” indicates. What Celestine stated was nothing of the kind; he merely refused to permit her to return to her first husband. This leaves unanswered what he “thought” about the second marriage. That is unstated, and so the most Innocent III can say is he “seems to have thought” otherwise.

Innocent III is also considering a different type of case. In his case, the innocent spouse wishes to obtain approval for a second marriage, which has not happened. The question is, can he remarry? The answer is “No.” The question before Celestine was whether the women, having already remarried, would be permitted to go back to her repentant first husband. And the answer to this different question is also “No.” But we don’t know what Celestine thought of the woman remaining with the second husband. Nothing is stated.

Therefore, he cannot be accused of heresy. For the only basis would be a guess or assumption as to what he “seems to have thought” and that is never sufficient to accuse anyone of any grave error.

Now it is clear to me, from the circumstances, that Celestine was only disapproving of the woman’s return, and not deciding what she should do otherwise. Perhaps she should leave the second husband, and remain chaste. Or perhaps she should live as brother and sister with the second husband, for the sake of the children. Nowhere does the Pontiff state approval for divorce and remarriage, and it was never taken that way in the history of the Church — except when certain persons, desirous of a means to make accusations against one Pope, look through the history of Popes to find dirt they can rake up.

So nothing that Celestine said is heretical. We don’t know all the details of this case, as to what happened to the woman. The Pope only decided the matter which was controversial, that she cannot return to her first husband. As is usually the case, the local Bishop would handle matters that are not controversial. Perhaps the local authorities already decided that the second marriage was not lawful, and corrected the archdeacon. So if she cannot stay with the second husband, what can she do? Can she return to the first husband, now that he is repentant? The local authorities were perhaps unsure, so they consulted the Apostolic See. And the decision was “No.” That is my charitable, reasonable, and faithful interpretation of the circumstances.

So it does not seem to be at issue whether the second marriage was lawful; it was not. And the Pope in no way approved of the second marriage by saying she could not return to the first. That is a false assumption.

The reference to St. Gregory’s decision on a different type of case, involving a first natural marriage, may have been presented as a comparison between two cases with some similarities and some differences. We should not assume that the Pope did not realize the difference between a natural marriage and a sacramental one. It’s likely that the reference to Gregory was added by the commentator in the decretals, and not something said by Celestine.

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 commentary. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to In Defense of Pope Celestine on a Spouse returning from a second marriage

  1. erm6 says:

    Hi Ron. Suppose that Marcia and Fred get married in a valid, sacramental, Catholic Christian marriage. Then, unfortunately, they get divorced, and both of them enter into non-sacramental civil remarriages with other people. So now, Marcia is civilly married to Bob, and Fred is civilly married to Sarah. Marcia and Bob have children together, and Fred and Sarah also have children together.

    Then, the two new spouses (Bob and Sarah) both die.

    Now, the two original spouses (Marcia and Fred) both repent of the divorce and remarriages, go to Confession, receive absolution, get civilly married to each other again, and resume living together again, together also with all their children. And suppose that at this point, they’ve gotten good advice, help, and support from others, and there are no bad intentions in any 1st font anywhere, and the 3rd font is looking good for the well-being of the combined family, the children from the two separate civil marriages are integrating well together, etc.

    Does the passage from Deuteronomy mean that it’s now an objective mortal sin for Fred and Marcia to live as husband and wife?

    If so, is this reflected anywhere in current canon law? Are there any other theological writings in the 20th or 21st century that concur on this question? Do you deal with this question in any of your books?

    • Ron Conte says:

      My point was that, Pope Celestine may have taken the teaching of Deuteronomy, which on this point about marriage, may be merely discipline, into consideration when making a judgment about this particular case. He did not issue a teaching under the Magisterium, nor did he establish a law or general rule for other cases. I am not saying that the Church must abide by that rule in Deuteronomy. I don’t of any canons or precedents that would govern such a decision on the part of the Church. However, either spouse could morally refuse to return to the first valid marriage, and instead live chastely, based on the grave sins of the other spouse (I’m thinking particularly of cases where only one spouse sins in the way you described).

Comments are closed.