Divorce & Remarriage in the Church Fathers


Wedding – Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine

The subject of divorce and remarriage in the Church Fathers has been an area of exploration in recent years. Below I provide some very important citations from pre-eminent voices representing the Patristic tradition on the question of whether divorce was ever permitted, and also whether a 2nd or more new marriages are capable of being had even when the 1st divorced-spouse is still alive. Of course, this compilation of citations is not exhaustive, but should be somewhat representative. In my readings of the historical data, I have admittedly found that answers to these questions are not monolithic, and can vary. In other words, there are certainly texts available within the pool of 1st millennium source data which show both an interolerance of divorce and remarriage, and then a toleration of one or both on certain conditions. Of course, one would be wrong to suppose that this variance entails that there is no functioning consensus in the Church Fathers, or held by the Church Catholic. Just because a Synod of W,  or a Treatise of X or a discipline of Y existed in time, place, and circumstance Z , does not mean that this would represent the functioning consensus, let alone be an official position taken by the magisterium of Christ’s Church. Often times, people on the outside look at the Church Fathers as if they are part of the Church’s magisterium. This is actually not an accurate statement. The Catholic Church’s magisterium is the teaching office of the Church, and that belongs to the Episcopal College under and in union with her head, the successor of Peter in Rome. When this college enacts teaching, whether individiaully dispersed, or corporated assembled in a Synod, or when a Pope issues a decree out of his supreme authority over the universal Church, we believe these enactments are authentic teachings of the Church’s magisterium. With that said, there is certainly a vital role that Church Fathers play in the tradition of the Church, and it would be impossible for the Fathers, as an orchestrated symphony of voices under the influence of the Holy Spirit, to be at odds with the content of magisterial teaching, at least where they are unanimous, or a functioning consensus.

Why this study is important is because we as Christians should give every effort to obey the Lord. When He commanded His apostles to “Go and make disciples of all nations”, he specified “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded”. This also contributes to the dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholic churches and ecclesial communities, since this very question of divorce and remarriage remains a bone of contention. My intention here is to just lay out what is there, and allow the conclusion to force itself from that alone. What did the Fathers say (?) is the controlling purpose of this list.

Readers will probably wish to know how I have interpreted the data in light of the dialogue between the separated Eastern churches and the Catholic Church. In short, neither the Eastern churches nor the Roman Catholic Church today perfectly follows the Patristic disciplines. For starters, it was widely known and accepted, as reflected even within canons of the Church, that if a spouse were to commit adultery, the offended party could “divorce” or “put away” the adulterous spouse (in the majority of cases, this was only accorded to the husband). On the other hand, there is a significant voice, if not the majority, that the offended party in this was required to live celibate until the death of the adulterous party, even if the latter went off and attempted “remarriage” (this was always especially the case with the wife). The best a Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox (or members of the Oriental bodies) can say is to admit that  perfect conformity to the Patristic disciplines (yes, plural) is existent in neither of their communions. That may disappoint some of my readers. With that being said, I would argue that the doctrinal foundations which forbade remarriage after divorce (until the bond is broken by death, that is), namely the indissolubility of marriage, even in the case of a party who is victim to adultery, and which appears to me to be the majority view of the Fathers, is firmly upheld only by the Roman Catholic Church today, as opposed to the practices of the Eastern churches. In other words, today’s Catholic Church has the closest doctrine and theoretical discipline to that of the Scripture and the Fathers. But it would be dishonest and irresponsible to say that there were no variation of belief to be found in the Patristic data. There are even Councils in the West which appear, given the authenticity of certain documents, that remarriage after divorce (only on the condition of adultery being committed) was permitted. Whether the decrees of these Councils ever made it to the knowledge of the Roman See for confirmation is another question entirely. Many clerics throughout the first millennium floated ideas which were required to be annulled later for one reason or another. Therefore, the existence of variation does not paralyze Christians today from coming to a solid answer on the whole matter. There are Fathers and Bishops who were wrong, but whose writings have, perhaps unfortunately, been preserved for us all to read about. And so, I would say that both the Eastern Christian (separated from Rome) and the Catholic will have to admit that, without their being a perfect and congruent continuity with Patristic disciplines, both have had to trust the authority of their hierarchical institutions as carrying the divine right of making so-called unessential modifications over the centuries (even though, I would argue, the East did make at least one essential modification). Of course, we don’t see the Patristic era as one of handing out annulments like going out of style, and this would certainly put a dimmer on the Catholic’s imagining that we’ve kept up the same discipline as the past with perfection. But it is also the case that this is not an essential modification, in theory at least.

The window of time for the below citations range from the 2nd to 9th centuries, and I provide some commentary on many of them. Enjoy!



“And I said to him, Sir, if any one has a wife who trusts in the Lord, and if he detect her in adultery, does the man sin if he continue to live with her? And he said to me, As long as he remains ignorant of her sin, the husband commits no transgression in living with her. But if the husband know that his wife has gone astray, and if the woman does not repent, but persists in her fornication, and yet the husband continues to live with her, he also is guilty of her crime, and a sharer in her adultery. And I said to him, What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her vicious practices? And he said, The husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery. And I said to him, What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: shall she not be taken back by her husband? And he said to me, Assuredly. If the husband do not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented. But not frequently. For there is but one repentance to the servants of God. In case, therefore, that the divorced wife may repent, the husband ought not to marry another, when his wife has been put away. In this matter man and woman are to be treated exactly in the same way. Moreover, adultery is committed not only by those who pollute their flesh, but by those who imitate the heathen in their actions. Wherefore if any one persists in such deeds, and repents not, withdraw from him, and cease to live with him, otherwise you are a sharer in his sin. Therefore has the injunction been laid on you, that you should remain by yourselves, both man and woman, for in such persons repentance can take place. But I do not, said he, give opportunity for the doing of these deeds, but that he who has sinned may sin no more. But with regard to his previous transgressions, there is One who is able to provide a cure; for it is He, indeed, who has power over all.(The Shepherd, Hermas, 150 AD, Book II.Commandment 4)




The early pagan Philosopher convert, Athenagorus of Athens (133-190), who is venerated by the Eastern Orthodox Church (July 24th), wrote the following: 

“For we bestow our attention, not on the study of words, but on the exhibition and teaching of actions, — that a person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. For whosoever puts away his wife, says He [Christ], and marries another, commits adultery;not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to marry again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race. (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 178 AD, Chapter 33)

Keep in mind, this is a straight forward condemnation of those who re-marry after the death of a spouse. The reliability of Athenagorus here is reduced by the simple fact that St. Paul contradicts this clearly in Romans 7:1-3. But one could argue convincingly that if he condemned 2nd “marriages” even after the 1st spouse had passed away, he would most certainly condemn 2nd “marriages” in the case of adultery.


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St. Clement of Alexandria

St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) , the Head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, Egypt, gives some interesting material from which we can draw some conclusions, albeit limited.

In this first, citation, St. Clement appears to imply the indissolubility of the marriage bond:

That is the sort of thing taught by the dissolvers of the marriage bond. Through them the name of Christian comes into bad repute.” (Book III.6)

In this second citation, a second marriage is permitted, but the only given condition given here is in the case when the marriage bond had broken with the dead of the first spouse:

 He is acquiring heavenly glory for himself, if he remains single and keeps immaculate the union which has been broken by death and cheerfully obeys what God has in store for him, becoming ‘undistracted’ from the Lord’s service. ”  (ibid.12)

Again, quite general terms are used in the following:

Now that the Scripture counsels marriage, and allows no release from the union, is expressly contained in the law, ‘You shall not put away your wife, except for the cause of fornication’; and it regards as fornication, the marriage of those separated while the other is alive. ( St. Clement of Alexandria, 200-215 AD, Stromata Book II.23)

This statement from St. Clement is not very decisive. While it clearly seems to speak generally against both divorce and re-marriage, and particularly the latter while one’s spouse is still alive, he gives no elaboration on the exception from his citation from the Lord where it is said “except for the cause of fornication”. One could say that this exception to the rule against divorce would imply an exception to the rule against re-marriage, but we aren’t given any explicit information. However, even if we were to go out on a limb and suggest that St. Clement might be thinking that re-marriage is allowed in the case of adultery, that would mean that adultery is the *only* condition upon which this is allowed, leaving all Christian bodies who teach other conditions out of line with the Alexandrian Christian. However, there are reasons why this could be questioned. St. Clement says elsewhere:

He that takes a woman that has been put away, it is said, commits adultery; and if one puts away his wife, he makes her an adulteress, that is, compels her to commit adultery. And not only is he who puts her away guilty of this, but he who takes her, by giving to the woman the opportunity of sinning; for did he not take her, she would return to her husband. ” (ibid, Chapter 23)

This is at least proof that, for St. Clement, marrying a woman who has been divorced or allowing one’s spouse to be put away and forced to marry against is both adulterous. It would seem reasonable to conclude that this is adultery because the marriage bond is not dissolved by divorce., since the last portion states that she would “return” to her true “husband”.



Origen of Alexandria (184-253)

But this also, ‘A wife is bound for so long time as her husband lives, but if her husband be dead, she is free to be married to whom she will, only in the Lord’, was said by Paul in view of our hardness of heart and weakness, to those who do not wish to desire earnestly the greater gifts and become more blessed. But now contrary to what was written, some even of the rulers of the church have permitted a woman to marry, even when her husband was living, doing contrary to what was written, where it is said, ‘A wife is bound for so long time as her husband lives’, and So then if while her husband lives, she shall be joined to another man she shall be called an adulteress, not indeed altogether without reason, for it is probable this concession was permitted in comparison with worse things, contrary to what was from the beginning ordained by law, and written.” (Origen, Commentary on  Matthew, Book XIV, Ch. 23)

It is very interesting that Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia is merely an echo of what these early Bishops that Origen described (if not including his own thinking) as a justification for allowing for re-marriage. While Amoris is note quite as liberal or permissive, we have certain Bishops in the 3rd century already playing with the idea that it should be permitted to “marry” again in order to prevent worse sins. And yet, Origen himself recognizes that this was contradictory to the Scripture, presumably the Gospels which record Jesus’ teaching, since Origen cites St. Paul from Romans 7:1-3, which is not the Old Testament Law, but the Law of Christ. If Origen is right, as the Catholic Church holds, then this would disqualify any Christian body today who attempts to teach the Lord taught the allowance of re-marriage. One might interject, “Ah, but Origen doesn’t speak of the situation where the wife’s husband had committed adultery, and so this specific situation is not dealt with by the text”. True enough, though he could also have had this in mind. It is impossible to tell, since he does not specify.

In yet another place, Origen writes:

But as a woman is an adulteress, even though she seem to be married to a man, while the former husband is still living, so also the man who seems to marry her who has been put away, does not so much marry her as commit adultery with her according to the declaration of our Saviour.” (ibid 24)

Notice how even in the case of a wife who is guilty of adultery, and leaves her first husband, is bound to that first husband even while she actively engages in a second “marriage”. This would mean that the innocent husband who was victim to said adultery forms a life-long union of matrimony even after the adultery, and thus the departing wife is not freed from that bond until death. Now, one might ask whether the husband-victim is allowed to re-marry? Origen does not answer this question for us, but what is surely being pictured is an indissoluble bond between the husband and the wife even after the latter had committed adultery. With good reason, therefore, even if Origen were to support the notion of re-marriage for the husband-victim, it would have to be a marriage which is permitted even while the bond convicting his first wife remains as the indictment for her own new relationship(s).




The Council of Elvira (305) , a city in Granada, Spain, was a meeting of 19 Spanish bishops presided over by a certain Hossius of Cordoba. Despite the size of this Synod, it was considered “Plenary”. What is distinctive here is that Hossius was the bishop chosen either by Pope St. Sylvester or Constantine the Great to preside over the Council of Nicaea in 325. Therefore, his representation is not without significance in relation to the Christian tradition on the matter. This Council passed the following canon which, in the historical context, was meant to counteract a certain law passed by Emperor Diocletian in 293 which allowed woman to dissolve their marriages by a simple bill of divorce:

Also a baptized woman who leaves a baptized husband on the ground of his adultery and marries again, is to be prohibited from marrying; if she marry, she is not to be received into communion until the husband, whom she has left be departed out of this life, unless perchance extremity of sickness demand it be given to her

(Canon 9; Bevilacqua, A. J. (2012). The History of the Indissolubility of Marriage. Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America22. Retrieved from https://ejournals.bc.edu/index.php/ctsa/article/view/2633; Page 288)



St. Constantine I



In 314, a Council summoned by the Emperor Constantine was convened in Arles, France, and the question of remarriage came up in one of its canons. It reads as follows:

Concerning those young men who are Christians who apprehend their wives in adultery and are forbidden to marry, we decree that, as far as it is possible, counsel be given them not to take other wives while their own, though guilty of adultery, are still living

(Consilium Aralatense I,  c. 10 ,The History of the Indissolubility of Marriage, p. 289)

At first reading, it seems that there is an allowance for re-marriage in the case of a wife committing adultery to the innocent party, the husband. Some observations should be collected first. Notice how the Council does not think that the victim-husband, at the very least, should take another wife. Now why not, if adultery can break the marital bond? This would indicate that the Council is not operating off the view which sees the marital bond breaking through adultery and divorce. Secondly, the canon does technically say that these husbands are “forbidden to remarry”. Why are they forbidden? If it is true that the exception clause of St. Matthew which says, “except for fornication”, gives the green light to re-marry, then there should not be any notion of being forbidden to remarry.

Interestingly enough, in the Codex Lucensis, which contains the canons of the Council of Arles, there are 6 additional canons, though some scholars, such as Mansi, have attributed these to another council in Arles held around the same time. There is, however, no doubt to their antiquity. One of these canons reads as follows:

We decree that, in so far as it is possible, a man who has dismissed his wife be forbidden as something unlawful to marry another woman while his first wife is still alive. But whoever should do this shall be cut off from Catholic communion” (Consilium Aralatense I,  c. 24; The History of Indissolubility, ibid)

Here, we are given the same “as far as it is possible”, which some might have thought means that, if it is not possible, all things are still OK. However, in this case, if the husband cannot remain single, he is forbidden from communion. This may be a way to read the previous canon as a much stronger prohibition against remarriage than appears at first glance.



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St. Basil of Ancyra

In an early treatise, ascribed to St. Basil of Ancyra (336-364), a former Semi-Arian turned orthodox Bishop (and referred to by St. Athanasius and St. Hilary of Poitiers), the following is stated:

Do you not understand that he who marries a wife who has been dismissed commits adultery? Even if she has been dismissed with just cause, the Scriptures say, her husband is still alive. Then why do you trouble a dismissed wife? Why do you not allow time, to her on the one side to correct the faults that were the reason for her dismissal; and on the other, time to him who dismissed her, so that in his mercy on her in her repentance, he may recover her who is a member of his own body? This you can do instead of preempting the moment of her correction and marrying the dismissed woman while her husband is still alive. Let her be, say the Scriptures. Or better still, let her return to her living spouse and be taken back by him as a spouse become even more beautiful. Or let her, as neither widow nor spouse, undergo chastisement for the sin that obliged her husband to dismiss her. But you , before even understanding the fault that has merited her dismissal and wanting the right to live with her, in an absurd way you render her even more shameless in her sin. In continuing to commit adultery with her as with a stranger, and while her husband still lives, you absurdly stimulate her tendency to sin within her married life” (St. Basil of Ancyra, On the True Integrity of Virginity; English translation from Divorce & Remarriage, Theodore Mackin, S.J., Pg. 145)

If, as St. Jerome records in De Viris Illustribus (Paragraph 89), St. Basil truly wrote this Treatise on Virginity, this would mean there is good evidence coming from the East (Ancyra/Angora, but today called Ankara, capital of Turkey) that even in a “just” cause, a dismissed wife, even for a just reason, is not free to remarry. Once again, one could say that the specific crime of adultery is not therein stated. But this does not entail the opportunity of haste, nor does it preclude that St. Basil does have this crime in mind.


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St. Basil of Caesarea 

One of the clearest Church Fathers who appears to permit re-marriage is St. Basil (330-379), Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia, Asia Minor. Yet again, there are reasons to caution his readers from what has become a typical reference to him as endorser of  modernistic moral theology pertaining to the bond of marriage and re-marriage, such as held by some Protestants and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Let’s look at the canon most often cited:

The sentence of the Lord that it is unlawful to withdraw from wedlock, save on account of fornication,  applies, according to the argument, to men and women alike. Custom, however, does not so obtain. Yet, in relation with women, very strict expressions are to be found; as, for instance, the words of the apostle ‘He which is joined to a harlot is one body’ and of Jeremiah, ‘If a wife become another man’s shall he return unto her again? Shall not that land be greatly polluted?’ And again, ‘He that has an adulteress is a fool and impious’.Yet custom ordains that men who commit adultery and are in fornication be retained by their wives. Consequently I do not know if the woman who lives with the man who has been dismissed can properly be called an adulteress; the charge in this case attaches to the woman who has put away her husband, and depends upon the cause for which she withdrew from wedlock. In the case of her being beaten, and refusing to submit, it would be better for her to endure than to be separated from her husband; in the case of her objecting to pecuniary loss, even here she would not have sufficient ground. If her reason is his living in fornication we do not find this in the custom of the church; but from an unbelieving husband a wife is commanded not to depart, but to remain, on account of the uncertainty of the issue. For what do you know, O wife, whether you shall save your husband? Here then the wife, if she leaves her husband and goes to another, is an adulteress. But the man who has been abandoned is pardonable, and the woman who lives with such a man is not condemned. But if the man who has deserted his wife goes to another, he is himself an adulterer because he makes her commit adultery; and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has caused another woman’s husband to come over to her.” (St. Basil the Great, Letter 188 to To Amphilochius, Canon IX )

This is an immensely dense piece of literature, and the thought is not very forthright, clear, nor satisfying. If read carefully, St. Basil seems to open up with a point which gets contradicted in the rest of his teaching. He says, on one hand, that “the sentence of the Lord” that makes it unlawful to divorce one’s spouse, except on account of fornication, applies equally to men and woman, which would seem to allow divorce in the case of fornication. But then, St. Basil seems to content to go with “custom”, which, does not fully apply this to both husbands and wives, for he eventually argues that a wife, even if victim of adultery by her husband, cannot depart from him and be with another. In fact, he appears to imply that if a wife were to leave her adulterous and fornicating husband to marry another, she would be committed the sin of adultery. How could that be if the bond was broken by her husband’s adultery in the first place? The implication would be that the bond prohibiting the victim-wife to re-marry is indissoluble even in the event of adultery. Even in the case of a husband who deserts his wife to be with be with another, this husband is committing adultery because the spouse he left is forced to “remarry”, and thus commit adultery. And the the new woman to which this husband turns to is also committing adultery because, says Basil, she causes that husband to come over to her, breaking his obligatory bond with the wife he deserted. All of this strongly implies that mere fornication does not break the marital bond. And yet, one could argue that Basil, at the same time, supports the idea of a husband, but not the wife, withdrawing from wedlock and who is permitted to continue on with another woman who is not his first wife. The condition states is that his wife deserted him. This man is to be “pardoned” and the new woman he is with is “not condemned”. If the separation of these two are not to be read into the text, it sounds like these two get the benefit of living out their new relationship in peace. And yet, even so, the wife who deserted the husband who entered into this second “marriage” is still held to the marital bond which she has with that husband, which means the marital bond is not truly and fully broken, at least for both sides. One could hardly figure how it is broken only for one side, the husband, but it seems like one could argue that St. Basil supports the idea that this victim-husband is not bound by the obligations of that continually existing bond until his first spouse dies.

Now, after reading this, can we say that St. Basil is grounds for modern Protestant or Eastern Orthodox (cf. here , here, and here) practices?  I would first say that the very opening statement of St. Basil’s canon above would preclude both practices (i.e. “unlawful to withdraw from wedlock,save on account of fornication”)Is it truly the case that either Orthodox or Protestant polities strictly forbid re-marriage unless it is a case of proven fornication/adultery? I’d welcome any reader to inform me where I have been misled, but my resources have it that this is not the case. I understand there are Protestant groups which strictly forbid re-marriage (cf. here and here) . The Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for External Church Relations, whose Chairman is Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, himself directly appointed by Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow as Vicar to the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, came out with the following statements with respect to re-marriage, and you’ll see the reference to St. Basil towards the end:

according to the canon law, after a legitimate church divorce, a second marriage is allowed to the innocent spouse. Those whose first marriage was dissolved through their own fault a second marriage is allowed only after repentance and penance imposed in accordance with the canons. According to the rules of St. Basil the Great, in exceptional cases where a third marriage is allowed, the duration of the penance shall be prolonged.” (Personal, Family, and Public Morality)

Whatever might be right about this above, it seems clear that St. Basil is being stretched beyond his own boundaries by some interpreters.

Let’s continue to see what St. Basil has to say:

If a man living with a wife is not satisfied with his marriage and falls into fornication, I account him a fornicator, and prolong his period of punishment. Nevertheless, we have no canon subjecting him to the charge of adultery, if the sin be committed against an unmarried woman. For the adulteress, it is said, being polluted shall be polluted, and she shall not return to her husband: and He that keeps an adulteress is a fool and impious. He, however, who has committed fornication is not to be cut off from the society of his own wife. So the wife will receive the husband on his return from fornication, but the husband will expel the polluted woman from his house. The argument here is not easy, but the custom has so obtained.” (Letter 199, Canon XXI)

Once again, we have anything but equity being supported by St. Basil, who himself attempted to exhort otherwise (cf. Canon IX above). A husband who decides to live in fornication can demand both a new woman in fornication, and then also demand his abandoned wife to uphold her obligation to the marital bond forbidding her from being released to re-marry. And yet, the wife who commits adultery is not to be received by the husband ever again, in order to avoid the inevitable pollution of uniting with a harlot. One may ask if, in the beginning of this canon of Letter 199, St. Basil is envisioning a fornicating husband being ale to persist in his fornication, complete penance all throughout, and then be received into communion while persisting in the same indefinitely. The text doesn’t make clear, but I strongly urge one to hesitate before they take the affirmative in light of the ambiguity.

St. Basil also provides some corroboration:

The woman who unwillingly marries a man deserted at the time by his wife, and is afterwards repudiated, because of the return of the former to him, commits fornication, but involuntarily. She will, therefore, not be prohibited from marriage; but it is better if she remain as she is.” (Ibid, Canon XLVI)


The woman who has been abandoned by her husband, ought, in my judgment, to remain as she is. The Lord said, ‘If any one leave his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, he causes her to commit adultery’; thus, by calling her adulteress, He excludes her from intercourse with another man. For how can the man being guilty, as having caused adultery, and the woman, go without blame, when she is called adulteress by the Lord for having intercourse with another man?” (ibid, Canon XLVIII)

St. Basil here seems to imply that if either husband or wife commit adultery or forces their spouse to commit adultery are disallowed from re-marriage. There is only one problem, however. Above St. Basil says that the man who has been deserted by his wife, if he were to go to another woman, is to be “pardoned”, but yet in this last citation, the woman deserted by her husband is not pardoned? What does St. Basil mean when he says the fornicating man is pardoned? Does he presume that such a one repents and separates? I think the ambiguity makes it difficult to say one way or the other.

Lastly, in St. Basil’s Ascetical Works, “On Morals”, there is once again a repetition that spouses may not separate (not to be identified with freedom to remarry) from each other unless the condition of adultery , but also adds that if one spouse is so much a hindrance to the worship of God, said separation may lawfully occur:

“That a husband must not separate from his wife, nor a wife from her husband unless one of them be taken in adultery or is a hindrance to the other in the devout service to God” (Rule Seventy Three)



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Saint Jerome

I’ve written an extensive article on St. Jerome’s perspective of re-marriage here, but I’ve decided to reproduce some citations which, I believe, make it just as clear.

I find joined to your letter of inquiries a short paper containing the following words: ask him, (that is me,) whether a woman who has left her husband on the ground that he is an adulterer and sodomite and has found herself compelled to take another may in the lifetime of him whom she first left be in communion with the church without doing penance for her fault. As I read the case put I recall the verse they make excuses for their sins. We are all human and all indulgent to our own faults; and what our own will leads us to do we attribute to a necessity of nature. It is as though a young man were to say, I am over-borne by my body, the glow of nature kindles my passions, the structure of my frame and its reproductive organs call for sexual intercourse. Or again a murderer might say, I was in want, I stood in need of food, I had nothing to cover me. If I shed the blood of another, it was to save myself from dying of cold and hunger. Tell the sister, therefore, who thus enquires of me concerning her condition, not my sentence but that of the apostle. Do you not know, brethren (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman which has an husband is bound by the law to her husband, so long as he lives; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then, if, while her husband lives, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress. And in another place: the wife is bound by the law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.  The apostle has thus cut away every plea and has clearly declared that, if a woman marries again while her husband is living, she is an adulteress. You must not speak to me of the violence of a ravisher, a mother’s pleading, a father’s bidding, the influence of relatives, the insolence and the intrigues of servants, household losses. A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another. The apostle does not promulgate this decree on his own authority but on that of Christ who speaks in him. For he has followed the words of Christ in the gospel: whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, commits adultery. Mark what he says: whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery. Whether she has put away her husband or her husband her, the man who marries her is still an adulterer. Wherefore the apostles seeing how heavy the yoke of marriage was thus made said to Him: if the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry, and the Lord replied, he that is able to receive it, let him receive it. And immediately by the instance of the three eunuchs he shows the blessedness of virginity which is bound by no carnal tie.” (St. Jerome, Epistle 55 to Amandus)

Such is plain. However, one might inquire whether St. Jerome was as insistent in the case of a wife who commits adultery, whether the husband is somewhat free to move along, as many attempt to show from St. Basil. The below passage would appear to answer that question.

The laws of Cæsar are different, it is true, from the laws of Christ: Papinianus commands one thing; our own Paul another. Earthly laws give a free rein to the unchastity of men, merely condemning seduction and adultery;  lust is allowed to range unrestrained among brothels and slave girls, as if the guilt were constituted by the rank of the person assailed and not by the purpose of the assailant. But with us Christians what is unlawful for women is equally unlawful for men, and as both serve the same God both are bound by the same obligations. ” (Epistle 77.3 to Oceanus)


File:Августин Кентреберийский (икона).jpg

Saint Augustine

Neither can it rightly be held that a husband who dismisses his wife because of fornication and marries another does not commit adultery [himself]. For there is also adultery on the part of those who, after the repudiation of their former wives because of fornication, marry others. This adultery , nevertheless, is certainly less serious than that of men who dismiss their wives for reasons other than fornication and take other wives… Therefore, when we say: ‘Whoever marries a woman dismissed by her husband for the reason other than fornication commits adultery’, undoubtedly we speak the truth. But we do not thereby acquit of this crime the man who marries a woman who was dismissed because of fornication. We do not doubt in the least that both are adulterers. We do indeed pronounce him an adulterer who dismisses his wife for cause other than fornication and marries another, nor do we thereby defend from the taint of this sin the man who dismisses his wife because of fornication and marries another. We recognize that both are adulterers, though the sin of one is more grave than that of the other. No one is so unreasonable as to say that a man who marries a woman whose husband has dismissed her because of fornication is not an adulterer, while maintaining that a man who marries a woman dismissed without the ground of fornication is an adulterer. Both of these men are guilty of adultery” (St. Augustine, De Coniugiis Adulterinis, 1, 9, 9; J. Zycha 1900, Vienna Corpus, Vol. 41, taken from Jurgens Vol. 3, pg. 132)

‘Therefore, while her husband is alive, she will be called an adulterous if she be found with another man. But if her husband shall have died, she has been set free from the law, so that she is not an adulterous if she has been with another man’. These words of the Apostle, so often repeated, so often inculcated, are true, living, sound, and clear. A woman begins to be the wife of no later husband unless she has ceased to be the wife of a former one. She will cease to be the wife of a former one, however, if that husband should die, not if he commit fornication. A spouse, therefore, is lawfully dismissed for cause of fornication; but the bond of chastity remains. That is why a man is guilty of adulterer if he marries a woman who has been dismissed even for this very reason of fornication” (ibid 2.2.4; taken from Jurgens Vol. 3, pg. 133)

It is certainly not fecundity only, the fruit of which consists of offspring, nor chastity only, whose bond is fidelity, but also a certain sacramental bond in marriage which is recommended to believers in wedlock. Accordingly it is enjoined by the apostle: Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church. Of this bond the substance undoubtedly is this, that the man and the woman who are joined together in matrimony should remain inseparable as long as they live; and that it should be unlawful for one consort to be parted from the other, except for the cause of fornication.  For this is preserved in the case of Christ and the Church; so that, as a living one with a living one, there is no divorce, no separation forever. And so complete is the observance of this bond in the city of our God, in His holy mountain — that is to say, in the Church of Christ— by all married believers, who are undoubtedly members of Christ, that, although women marry, and men take wives, for the purpose of procreating children, it is never permitted one to put away even an unfruitful wife for the sake of having another to bear children. And whosoever does this is held to be guilty of adultery by the law of the gospel; though not by this world’s rule, which allows a divorce between the parties, without even the allegation of guilt, and the contraction of other nuptial engagements — a concession which, the Lord tells us, even the holy Moses extended to the people of Israel, because of the hardness of their hearts. The same condemnation applies to the woman, if she is married to another man. So enduring, indeed, are the rights of marriage between those who have contracted them, as long as they both live, that even they are looked on as man and wife still, who have separated from one another, rather than they between whom a new connection has been formed. For by this new connection they would not be guilty of adultery, if the previous matrimonial relation did not still continue. If the husband die, with whom a true marriage was made, a true marriage is now possible by a connection which would before have been adultery. Thus between the conjugal pair, as long as they live, the nuptial bond has a permanent obligation, and can be cancelled neither by separation nor by union with another. But this permanence avails, in such cases, only for injury from the sin, not for a bond of the covenant. In like manner the soul of an apostate, which renounces as it were its marriage union with Christ, does not, even though it has cast its faith away, lose the sacrament of its faith, which it received in the laver of regeneration. It would undoubtedly be given back to him if he were to return, although he lost it on his departure from Christ. He retains, however, the sacrament after his apostasy, to the aggravation of his punishment, not for meriting the reward.” (Marriage and Concupiscience, Book I.X)

In matrimony, however, let these nuptial blessings be the objects of our love— offspring, fidelity, the sacramental bond. Offspring, not that it be born only, but born again; for it is born to punishment unless it be born again to life. Fidelity, not such as even unbelievers observe one towards the other, in their ardent love of the flesh. For what husband, however impious himself, likes an adulterous wife? Or what wife, however impious she be, likes an adulterous husband? This is indeed a natural good in marriage, though a carnal one. But a member of Christ ought to be afraid of adultery, not on account of himself, but of his spouse; and ought to hope to receive from Christ the reward of that fidelity which he shows to his spouse. The sacramental bond, again, which is lost neither by divorce nor by adultery, should be guarded by husband and wife with concord and chastity. ” (ibid, Book I.XVII)



It seemed good that according to evangelical and apostolic discipline a man who had been put away from his wife, and a woman put away from her husband should not be married to another, but so should remain, or else be reconciled the one to the other; but if they spurn this law, they shall be forced to do penance, covering which case we must petition that an imperial law be promulgated.”  (Council of Carthage AD 419, Canon # 102)

This canon is a general prohibition to remarriage. Nothing is said specifically, however, about the situation where the wife or husband is a victim of adultery. It can either be a total and general prohibition which would disallow divorce and re-marriage in any and all circumstances, or it can be a more specific prohibition in the case of being “put away” without the crime of adultery having been committed. However, it would seem to be general since “put away” should be understood as a lawful reality, and the Patristic consensus is that adultery is the very condition where “putting away” either a wife or husband is legitimate (i.e. separation , but not dissolubility of the marriage bond). That it is almost certain that this canon forbids re-marriage even after someone is the victim of the adultery of their spouse is to be discovered by the fact that St. Augustine, who is cited directly above in flat out condemnation of re-marriage after adultery, was in attendance at this Council.


In the 8th book of the Apostolic Canons (dated to 400 AD), we read the following canon:
If a layman divorces his own wife, and takes another, or one divorced by another, let him be suspended” (Canon 48)



“You have also asked about those who, after divorce, have married again. It is clear that both parties are adulterers. Those who, while the wife is living, although their marriage has been dissolved, hasten to another union cannot be other than adulterers: so much so that the woman to whom the persons in question have united themselves, have themselves evidently committed adultery, according to that which we read in the Gospel: ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife and shall marry another, commits adultery: likewise ‘he that married her when she is put away, commits adultery’. All such then are to be debarred from the communion of the faithful” (Pope Innocent, Epistle VI.12 to Exuperius, Bishop of Toulouse; J. Stevenson, Creeds, Councils, and Controversies: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church A.D. 337-461, pp. 254-5)




St. Perpetuus of Tours (410?-490)

In 465, the Council of Vannes, presided over by St. Perpetuus of Tours, stated the following in its 2nd canon:

Those also who have abandoned their wives, except for the cause of fornication, as the Gospel says, without proof of adultery, and have married others, we decree are to be excommunicated , lest the sins overlooked through our indulgence entice others to the license of error”  (Concillium Veneticum, c. 2; The History of the Indissolubility of Marriage, pp. 291-92 )

This would appear as though if there is evidence of adultery, the 2nd marriage would be no reason for excommunication. It is also possible that the condition of adultery is merely there to certify the abandonment aside from the remarriage. That would make it more consistent with what else is taught by the Latin West, especially. But undoubtedly, it can be read in more than one way. Let the reader decide.



St. Theodore of Canterbury (602-690)

At the Council of Hertford (673) , presided over by St. Theodore of Canterbury, took a firm stance on the matter in the follow decree:

Only a legitimate marriage is permitted to anyone; let no one commit incest. No man may abandon his wife except, as the holy gospel teaches, for the cause of fornication. But if anyone have expelled his wife united to him in legitimate marriage, if he will rightly to be a Christian, he is not to unite himself with another woman but let him remain single
or be reconciled to his own wife” (Concilium Herudfordense, c. 10;  The History of the Indissolubility of Marriage, p. 293))




St. Leo the Great (400-461)

In the text below, St. Leo the Great answers questions from the Bishop of Aquileia, one of which has to do with whether wives who thought their husbands dead from war and re-married are to return to their husbands if they show up back alive years later. What is interesting here is that the new union does not destroy the bonds of marriage that were ontologically there, regardless of the wife’s ignorant and inculpable 2nd union. Intercourse with someone other than your spouse, itself, does not break the bonds of marriage, as Augustine said above.


As then you say that through the disasters of war and through the grievous inroads of the enemy families have in certain cases been so broken up that the husbands have been carried off into captivity and their wives remain forsaken, and these latter thinking their own husbands either dead or never likely to be freed from their masters, have contracted another marriage under stress of loneliness, and as, now that the state of things has im proved through the Lord’s help, some of those who were thought to have perished have returned, you seem, dear brother, naturally to be in doubt what ought to be settled by us about women thus joined to other husbands. But because we know it is written that a woman is joined to a man by God , and again, we are aware of the precept that what God has joined, man may not put asunder, we are bound to hold that the compact of the lawful marriage must be renewed, and after the removal of the evils inflicted by the enemy, what each lawfully had must be restored to him; and we must take every pains that each should recover what is his own….And, therefore, if husbands who have returned after a long captivity still feel such affection for their wives as to desire them to return to partnership , that, which necessity brought about, must be passed over and judged blameless and the demands of fidelity satisfied. And if any women are so possessed by love of their later husbands as to prefer to remain with them than to return to their lawful partners, they are deservedly to be branded: so that they be even deprived of the Church’s communion; for in a pardonable matter they have chosen to taint themselves with crime, showing that they have sought their own pleasure in their incontinence, when a rightful restitution could have obtained their forgiveness. Let them return then to their former state and make voluntary reparation, nor let that which a condition of necessity extorted from them be by any means turned into disgrace through evil desires; because, as those women who refuse to return to their husbands are to be held unholy, so they who return to an affection entered on with God’s sanction are deservedly to be praised.” (Letter #159, St. Leo the Great)




St. Boniface (675-754) being baptized and then martyred (source)

During the 8th-century, St. Boniface, archbishop of Mainz, had sent a letter to the Pope at the time, St. Gregory II, about what to do if a wife is overcome by an illness and consequently cannot have intercourse anymore. Gregory II says that if the husband can manage to remain as he is, it would be ideal, but :


 since this requires great virtue, if he cannot live chastely, it is better if he marry. Let him, however, not stop supporting her since she is kept from married life by her infirmity and not by a detestable fault” (Gregorius II Papa Ad Varias Bonifatii consultationes, epistula III; taken from The History of the Indissolubility of Marriage, p. 286)

Now, it is possible, however much unlikely, that what Boniface had in mind were the situation where a wife learns of her disease before the marriage is consummated but after vows were exchanged. In this case, there is opportunity to legitimately marry again on the part of the husband. But if it is not, and what we have here is a contradiction to the Apostolic tradition, then what the famous Medieval canonist Gratian said would accurately pertain:

The passage of Gregory must be regarded as completely contrary to the sacred canons and even to evangelical and apostolic doctrine” (C.18, c. XXIII, q. 7; The History of the Indissolubility of Marriage, p. 285)




St. Bede the Venerable (672-735)

In his commentary on Mark 10, St. Bede the Venerable (673-735) states the following, leaving the question for him absolutely answered:

For a wife to be dismissed, there is only one carnal cause and that is fornication and there is only one spiritual cause and that is fear of God, as it is read that many have done for religious motives. But there is no cause allowed by the law of God whereby a man may marry another woman while the wife whom he has deserted is still alive

( In S. Marcum X;  The History of the Indissolubility of Marriage, pg. 269)





Canterbury Cathedral

In the 9th-century, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Ethelred (872-882) had written to Pope John VIII concerning the practice of divorce in England. In 877, the Pope wrote back back clearly condemning re-marriage even in the case of the single condition for permitted divorce, namely, fornication:

To those men who, as you say, abandon their wives contrary to the precept of the Lord, we command that a husband shall not leave his wife or a wife leave her husband except for fornication. If either one has left for this reason, each shall remain single or be reconciled to each other, for the Lord says: ‘what God has joined together, let not man put asunder’. Therefore, as a husband cannot abandon his first wife with whom he was united in legitimate marriage, so also he is not permitted for any reason whatsoever to take another wife while his first wife is still living. If he should do this and does not amend his ways, then he is to be excluded from the community of the Church” (Patrologia Latina 126.746;  The History of the Indissolubility of Marriage, pp. 287-88)

This passage may serve to clarify a great deal of viewpoints taken prior which seem to allude to the allowance of a divorce or dismissal on the basis of fornication, while also not necessarily allowing a remarriage.



Pope St. Zachary (741-752)

In 747, Pope St. Zachary wrote a letter to Pipin and to the Frankish clergy in order to explain the Church’s tradition on the matter of divorce and the question of whether re-marriage is permissible. The Pope’s letter simply quotes the 48th Apostolic Canon (cited above) and the 8th canon of the Council of Carthage (419):

Concerning those who dismiss their wives or husbands that they remain single, taken from..the African council…’We decree that…neither the husband dismissed by his wife, nor the wife dismissed by her husband, may marry another; but they are to remain single or be reconciled to each other. If they disobey this law, they are to do penance‘”

That this includes a total forbidding of remarriage even in the case of adultery is proven by the first part which says, “those who dismiss their [spouses]..that they remain single”. Remaining single would have to follow a just separation of the marriage relationship, namely, adultery, which had always been understood to be the only exception allowing for separation of husband and wife. So this canon necessarily implies that adultery does not turn the light green for remarrying.

What is even more interesting here is that this Council is accepted by the Eastern Orthodox since the Council of Trullo (692) mentions it in its 2nd canon.

Lastly, it has been brought up before that the Western synods of Compiegne and Verbereie, held in 757, endorsed the permissibility of re-marriage for the person who is divorced and the victim of adultery. However, we can briefly say this is not in agreement with Pope St. Zachary 10 years earlier, and there is no evidence the Pope accepted these Councils.



8 thoughts on “Divorce & Remarriage in the Church Fathers

  1. Pingback: Why I Converted from Orthodoxy – Clarifying Catholicism


  3. Pingback: Church Fathers and Patristic Era Writers on Divorce and Remarriage (a Florilegium) – Ubi Petrus Ibi Ecclesia

  4. Pingback: Annulment Crisis Pt. 1: 250 Years of Marital Breakdown and Annulments 101 - The Meaning of Catholic

  5. Thanks, this is an extremely useful set of data, and it has been pretty interesting to look through it.

    I would love if you guys could do some sort of discussion or debate about this topic on Reason and Theology! Would be really helpful both to hear a discussion of the Patristic data re: a comparison with the Eastern churches’ practices vs. the West’s (and whether the latter’s is defensible), as well as the current internal debates about practice within the Western church.

    Just from my reading of it I agree that in terms of practice and attestation there does not seem to be a clear uniformity in the data, but that nevertheless the Western practice on this is as reasonable as any other, and that theoretically it makes a lot of sense. Would be great to hear a discussion and defense of this position though.

  6. Pingback: Fr. Richard Price on Divorce & Re-Marriage in the New Testament and Early Christianity in light of St. Augustine | Erick Ybarra

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