Summer 2014

Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church

Henri Crouzel

“[T]oo great a desire to adapt himself to the needs of his time would endanger the authenticity of the historian’s work and by that very fact would deprive it of the interest it could have for his contemporaries.”

Following Bishop Zoghby’s intervention at the Second Vatican Council, numerous books and articles have been published in an attempt to call into question the Catholic Church’s discipline regarding divorce and remarriage. A number of their authors have sought support in the remaining testimonies of the early Church, and interpret the texts in this sense. Often, these authors are theologians or canonists who do not specialize in the first Christian centuries and have little familiarity with the demands of the historical method. Since they desire to influence the public, they are little disposed to enter into discussions that will only make their book longer and discourage readers: so, like oracles, they determine the meaning of each passage without dedicating themselves to the necessary research. The result is also unsatisfying for the historian, who can only deplore the influence that such attempts have on the wider public, deluding it with false hopes. If any historian decides to publish a clarification, he can hardly hope that it will come to the public’s attention, first because the public will not be happy with his explanations, but above all because his clarifications will not be read; they require too much effort for the average reader and even for the authors in question, who pay them next to no mind. Projecting onto the historian their own desire to prove a thesis by history, and strengthened in this conviction by the modern “philosophers of suspicion,” these authors see in the historian nothing but an apologist. They fail to understand that it is possible to want to do something other than prove a thesis, and that historical research requires an effort to forget oneself and one’s own conceptions.

In fact, many of the modern authors in question appear to consider all studies whose results conform to orthodoxy to be mere apologetics. This qualification supposes that the historian has not done his duty, which was not to prove a thesis, but to draw out the real meaning of historical facts. Thus, historians would be “objective” only if their conclusions contradict orthodoxy. But if, then, they are not apologists, couldn’t they be counter-apologists, which would come out to the same thing, that is, coming at the question with a preconceived thesis? Are not the desires to maintain a traditional thesis or to respond to contemporary needs two equally suspect attitudes in the eyes of the historian? It seems that there is a certain contradiction in proclaiming one’s objectivity while demonstrating one’s intention to adapt to the contemporary situation.1


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1. The following is a text is taken from the preface to a collection of articles about divorce. With it, the editors of the journal that published it (Reserches de Science Religieuse 61 [1973]: 489) intend to present a contribution on the subject of divorce in the early Church: “To turn to the past, not with the prejudiced gaze of an apologist but with the eyes of a historian, capable of giving the ancient texts a modern treatment and marking our distance from the historical context in which they were written: this is a way of opening a window onto the future, of giving ourselves the means to envisage a future as different from the present as the present is from the past. It is in this spirit that the Western Church’s ancient tradition regarding the discipline of marriage will be called into question.” The historian worthy of the name, who is not an apologist with a prejudiced gaze, is thus supposed to give the ancient texts a modern treatment: here we confess that we do not understand. What does it mean, “marking our distance from the historical context in which they were written?” Perhaps highlighting the circumstances that would have influenced the doctrine or the practice of divorce, and that are no longer our circumstances? To be sure, this is an important aspect of the historian’s task, if he wishes to understand or to help others understand the period he is studying. But is it the role of the historian to “open a window onto the future” or “to envisage a future as different from the present as the present is from the past?” Very indirectly, in the sense that the data that he furnishes will help others to imagine this future. But it is very dangerous for the historian to be too preoccupied with this, for he risks gravely distorting the historical data in order to adapt it to contemporary needs.