Christian Views on Divorce


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    Bishop Lancelot Andrews (1555-1626)


    When marriage was a purely civil ceremony in the West, divorce was a simple and routine matter available to all. When marriage was taken over by the Church, divorce became more problematic. The Bible is not clear on the matter. In the Matthew gospel, Jesus is reported as saying that if a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery, unless the first wife was unfaithful (Matthew 19:9). This implies that if she was unfaithful, it is perfectly acceptable for the man to divorce her and remarry. The Mark author has him banning divorce altogether (Mark 10:2-12). Following the Matthew author, many Church Fathers took for granted that divorce was permitted. So did a number of early synods. Broadly speaking, the Eastern Church followed the Matthew version, and has always permitted divorce and remarriage on the grounds of infidelity (as well as on other grounds specified in the Civil Code of Justinian ). The Western Church preferred the Mark version, prohibiting divorce, and that is the line that has generally been followed — except when it has been convenient to do otherwise.

    Married people have been permitted to divorce and sometimes remarry in all manner of circumstances by the Roman Church. For example, in the eighth century Pope Gregory II said that a man could remarry because his wife was so seriously ill that she could not live with him. If the spouse of a convert to Christianity abandoned their marriage it was held that marriage was dissolved and the convert could remarry. This was the Pauline Privilege, so called because it was justified by reference to St Paul's writings (1 Corinthians 7:10-17). It became Church law in the twelfth century. Pope Alexander III in the middle of the twelfth century held that a marriage could be dissolved if it had not been consummated. Towards the end of the century Pope Celestine III declared that a marriage could be dissolved if one of the parties became a heretic, although this was denied by his successors. Celestine also said that a woman could remarry if her husband abandons her, leaves the faith and marries a pagan.

    In 1585 Pope Gregory XIII extended the Pauline Privilege to cover converts even when there had been no desertion by their partner. In 1894 Pope Leo XIII granted a divorce to a couple who had married as Jews but had separated and then independently converted to the Roman Church. In 1924 Pope Pius XI dissolved a marriage between a Protestant and a Jew when the Protestant wanted to convert to the Roman Church and remarry. Later the same year he dissolved a marriage between an Anglican woman and an unbaptised man. The current rules about the dissolution of the marriage bond are set out in canons 1141 to 1150 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

    Divorce was rarely permissible for Christians who lacked wealth, power and influence. For those who had these qualifications there was no problem, at least not unless someone else with more wealth, power and influence opposed the separation. Canon lawyers invented all manner of imaginative reasons why marriages could be annulled. Technically an annulment meant that the marriage had never been valid in the first place, so the parties were free to remarry. In fact it was often merely a cover for divorce, as J. H. Baker, a legal historian, puts it:

    Some of the subtleties of the Canonists in this regard seem very remote from theology, morality or human feeling, and served merely to facilitate divorces on flimsy grounds, by the discovery of forgotten indiscretions or genealogical obscurities. Moreover, some of the impediments could be dispensed with in return for money paid to the Church1.

    Historically, annulments have been granted principally to advance the interests of the papacy, as gestures of goodwill or to satisfy powerful allies and potential enemies. The Church developed ways of ensuring that virtually any marriage could be annulled. Prohibition on marriages between relatives was extended to the seventh degree of consanguinity in canon law (sixth cousins)2. This gave grounds for annulling almost every royal marriage in Europe, if required. The chance of finding two members of royal houses, or even two noble houses, not related in the seventh degree or more closely was remote. If no blood link could be found, then spiritual affinity could be used instead: Godparents and their families were treated like blood relatives. Even the officiating priest could create spiritual affinity, as the following case shows:

    Spiritual affinity arises between one baptized and the child of the baptizer, and it is a diriment impediment to their contracting marriage. Thus for this text: Gregory IX.
    We understand from your letter that his wife M. charged her husband Alan before the official of Canterbury, and proved through trustworthy witnesses, by these witnesses' public depositions, that he had known her carnally. A. produced the defense that he could not have her as wife because her father, a certain priest, had baptized him. Then, when the same official, having refused to accept this defense, gave a final judgment against him, he appealed to the Apostolic See. Thus we command that, if this is the case, A. is cleared of the woman's charge, and we impose perpetual silence about this on the woman.
    (Decretals of Pope Gregory IX , Book Four, Title II C. 8)

    Another method was to count as related men and women who had had sex together, or had at some stage been betrothed. The practical result of all this was that grounds could be found for the annulment whenever it was expedient to find them. The degree of consanguinity in which marriage was prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church varied every few centuries. By the sixteenth century it was down to the fourth degree of consanguinity in canon law (third cousins), and in 1917 this was reduced to three (second cousins). In 1983 the rules were further relaxed, and now the Catholic Church puts no restriction on second cousin marriages but prohibits first cousin marriages except by special dispensation*.

    It is clear that annulments are sometimes really divorces under a different name. Roman Catholic couples have been granted annulments after they have been through a ceremony that everyone believed valid, spent years together as husband and wife, and brought up a family. For example, in 1993 Joseph Kennedy (son of Robert, nephew of John F.) obtained an annulment of his marriage to his wife Sheila after fourteen years and two children, despite Sheila's protests, thus allowing him to remarry. It is not unknown for prescient families of Roman Catholics who intend to marry to write letters betraying some defect in intention. These letters are then kept in safe custody, to provide an easy annulment if one is ever required.

    Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough with her younger son Ivor Spencer-Churchill
    by Giovanni Boldini, 1906

    Consuelo Vanderbilt married Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895. They had two children together. The Marlboroughs separated in 1906 and divorced in 1921. The marriage was annulled on 19 August 1926 after more than thirty years, after an advisor suggested possible grounds. The grounds were coercion on the part of Consuelo's mother - which she cheerfully confessed to in order to secure the annulment.

    The Orthodox Church also has an uneven record. At one time it opposed remarriage even after the death of a spouse. Such a marriage (described as digamous) was considered offensive to God. Later, the position became more flexible, and it was even possible to divorce and remarry — though only once. Then the rules were changed and it was possible to divorce and remarry only twice. Then only three times. Then only four, but this was an exception for an emperor. Now the Church has returned to its earlier position and absolutely forbids a fourth marriage.

    In England after the Reformation the position was not very different from that of the Roman Church. Divorce was available for the rich and powerful, but not for everyone else. A separate Act of Parliament was required for each divorce until the year 1857. Between 1670 and 1857 there were 229 of them. Since 1857 divorces have been granted through the courts, but the Anglican Church consistently tried to make it as difficult as possible to obtain one.

    The movement for reform was inspired by Jeremy Bentham. He advocated divorce on Utilitarian principles in his Theory of Legislation published posthumously in 1864. Over the following century the Churches consistently opposed a series of bills for reform. When Thomas Hardy hinted in Jude the Obscure in 1895 that divorce might be preferable to a lifetime of married misery the reaction was quick and vigorous. Such Utilitarian blasphemy could not be tolerated. The Bishop of Wakefield told readers of the Yorkshire Post that he had burned his copy of Hardy's book, and had persuaded Smith's Circulating Library to withdraw it. Before World War I a Royal Commission (the Barnes Commission) had suggested giving the same rights to women and men, and allowing divorce on the grounds of cruelty and desertion as well as adultery. Christians were once again scandalised. As J. H. Baker has noted: "The Convocations of Canterbury and York immediately declared their hostility to any proposal to “facilitate” divorce, and the Bill which was drawn up to give effect to the suggestions of the Barnes Commission was defeated in 1914 by opposition from the Churches"3. It was not until 1923 that Parliament managed (again in the face of hostile Churches) to give a wife the same rights as a husband4. The Barnes Commission's other recommendations were finally implemented by Act of Parliament in 1937, as a consequence of which the Church of England immediately legislated to prevent divorced people remarrying in church.

    The question as to whether polygamists could keep their wives after conversion was also a difficult one. The traditional position has been that they were not allowed to. As a result Christianity made hardly any impression in Asia over the five centuries it had been evangelising there. Islamic missionaries had a huge advantage over Christian missionaries in polygamous communities. They won much of Asia and in the twentieth century were making large inroads into Africa as well. Under God's guidance the Anglican Church reassessed matters at the Lambeth conference in 1989. It was decided that, contrary to Church teaching for almost 2,000 years, polygamists who become Christian can keep their wives after all.

    The stark fact is that the ever-changing, and mutually inconsistent, rules of the various Christian Churches have caused possibly more misery and distress than any other Christian teaching. From the time when the Church took over matters of divorce to the time it lost control, ordinary couples whose marriages had broken down irretrievably were unable to divorce each other. Even when there was no chance of reconciliation and when each partner had found someone else with whom they wished to share their lives, divorce was still not permitted. Over the centuries this ruling caused untold lifelong misery and suffering to millions. In this century the Protestant Churches, like the Anglican Church, have reversed their position on this matter, but Roman Catholics still maintain that divorce should not be available to ordinary couples - only the rich and powerful.

    Now only religious people suffer because of religious rules about divorce. For everyone else marriage and divorce have returned to being secular civil matters. Indeed, some Christians seem to have taken to divorce as keenly as they recently opposed it. By the year 2000 non-believers had the lowest divorce rate in the USA while born-again Christians had the highest.5

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    * First cousin marriages are in any case illegal in many states in the USA, although they are legal in most other developed countries.

    1. J. H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, p 265.

    2. The question is dealt with at length in the Marriage Cannons in Decretum gratiani. Pope Nicholas II defined the prohibition on marriage as extending to the seventh degree in 1059, and Pope Alexander II accepted Peter Damien's system of working out the practicalities in 1076. The history of this "edifice of impediments" is dealt with in chapter 18 of Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, pp 190-199.

    3. J. H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, p 270.

    4. Matrimonial Causes Act 1923, 13 and 14 George V, chapter 19.

    5. Dennett, Breaking the Spell, 279 citing George Barna, “Christians are more Likely to Divorce Than Are Non-Christians”, Barna Research Group, 1999-Dec-21. For more recent updates see

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