Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Hope from history

Sometimes the Christian may feel depressed over present errors and distortions, supported by intellectual and cultural elites, defended by individual Christians, and sometimes perhaps insufficiently condemned by the elders. It may seem like various battles, such as the ones over abortion, divorce, and Sunday work/shopping (I do not equate the three issues), are lost, even among many of the faithful. Sometimes it helps me to remember past battles that also appeared to be unwinnable but that have been won, mainly to increase hope, though a wiser person than I might also learn lessons from the past victories.

Two past battles seem to me particularly memorable: simony and duelling. They are different kinds of examples. Simony (the charging of money for sacraments), as far as I know, was never strongly supported by anybody but the simoniacs themselves. But nonetheless it seemed to be a vice that for centuries was impossible to root out. Yet now, by the grace of God, we are almost entirely free of it. Duelling was supported by much literature, and by examples in the highest society of people who engaged in this sin without any sign of shame. The situation might well have seemed hopeless, and the defense of the Christian teaching on the sanctity of life would have seemed crazy. Yet, again, while people still fight, the cold-blooded, formalized duel to the death is almost entirely gone, as are its defenders. It's almost a miracle—or perhaps literally it is a miracle.

Also certain kinds of once-mighty ideological enemies of Christianity are no more. An interesting case is the puritanical secularist, whom one now one meets mainly in the pages of Chesterton and in history books. For instance, Gonzales in The Mexican Revolution quotes the revolutionary Saturnino Cedillo (around 1920):

I want land. I want ammunition so that I can protect my land after I get it in case somebody tries to take it away from me. And I want plows, and I want schools for my children, and I want teachers, and I want books and pencils and blackboards and roads. And I want moving pictures of my people, too. And I don't want any Church or any saloon.
Or any brothel, too, I bet. These kinds of secularist revolutionaries seemed to have four enemies: the exploiting classes, the Church, the saloons and the brothels. This sternly moralistic secularist was a formidable enemy in his time: his just opposition to exploitation, drunkenness and prostition did make it harder to fight against him. But he is no more. That is a pity in some ways.


Heath White said...

Of course, the other way to read this is to notice that bans on "abortion, divorce, and Sunday work/shopping" were once pretty entrenched, and now are no more. So with respect to simony and duelling, things can always go downhill again! :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...


Abortion is also something that has gone up and down. First the Romans had it. Then eventually under Christian influence it became generally disapproved of (though sometimes secretively done). And now it's come back again.

Jake said...

I believe there is a difference in type between the examples you discuss (simony and duelling) and the issues of abortion, divorce, and Sunday work/shopping. The difference is that simony and duelling can be clearly seen to be wrong under all circumstances, and once seen as such by a large majority of people, can quite easily disappear from society. The other three issues are not so black-and-white. Scripture allows for divorce in the case of adultery. Abortion is considered allowable in cases where it is required to save the life of the mother (and the only alternative is for mother and fetus to both die). Modern society cannot function without at least some people working on Sunday (would you like to be in intensive care in the hospital and be told that no one will check on you until Monday because the doctors and nurses are not permitted to work on Sunday?). Since the exceptions will always exist, these things will never disappear from society, and there will always be those who seek to push the line further and further into the gray areas.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's a really interesting disanalogy.

Let me try to blur it a little and say a little about each case.

1. Sunday work. Here you're exactly right. The tradition, starting with Jesus's comments on the Sabbath, holds that it is unnecessary work that is to be abstained from, and there will always be a gray area. E.g., traditionally a peasant could ask his pastor for permission to bring in a crop on Sunday if the crop would be spoiled by being left until Monday.

2. Duelling. There are cases where something like duelling is permissible. For instance, when the duelling is not something private, but a part of a just war. A biblical case is David's taking on Goliath.

3. Abortion. As far as I know, the Christian tradition up to the 19th century or so has held that abortion is always wrong. I have heard of one late medieval author (not someone famous--I don't remember the name) who thought that abortion to save a life is permissible, but that was a very exceptional view--I don't know if anybody but that one author thought so. If there is a gray area, it is provided by double effect cases, where certain acts that result in the child's death are not intended to result in the child's death, and hence do not count as an intentionally induced abortion. But there are similar cases related to simony (it's wrong to charge a local lord for baptizing his child; but it is not wrong to baptize the child while knowing that the lord will give one a nice gift, as long as one does not baptize the child in order to get the gift).

4. Divorce. The majority view in the Christian tradition has been that while "divorce" for Christians is permissible in cases of infidelity, remarriage to another person is not possible after that, because objectively speaking the couple is still married, and the "divorce" is simply a separation of bed and board (though the civil law may treat it as the dissolution of marriage).

I take all Scripture to be inerrant. Therefore, when St. Luke's Gospel says that anyone who divorces a wife and marries another commits adultery, and St. Matthew's Gospel says the same thing but throws in an "except for porneia" clause, I need to read both Gospel claims as true.

The best reading seems to be to read the "except for porneia" clause as an explanatory clause that excludes certain cases of non-marriage that are marriage-like. Thus, an incestuous couple, though "legally married", is not really married. Such a couple would not only be permitted to divorce, but they would be obligated to do so. (Such issues might well come up in the early Church due to some pagans being more flexible than Jews about consanguity.) In other words, "except for porneia" is like the exception clause in the following: "We accept all U.S. currency, except fake ones." The "except fake ones" does not actually rule out any U.S. currency, because fake currency is not U.S. currency. But the exception clause simply highlights the fact that fake currency is not included in the general acceptance claim.

Likewise, "except for porneia" highlights the fact that the prohibition on divorce does not apply to couples whose "marriage" is an instance of porneia (porneia is a general term for sexual immorality), such as incestuous couples, Christian couples one member of whom was previously married to a third Christian who is still alive, etc.

There are other readings. I think Augustine separates out divorce and remarriage, and reads the texts as allowing divorce in cases of porneia, but allowing remarriage in no case. But if one takes Luke's unexceptioned prohibition seriously (though to be fair, one does need to qualify it to apply only to Christian marriage, and that weakens my argument), one cannot take the case of porneia to be a case where a genuine Christian marriage is dissolved and a new marriage is permitted.

Heath White said...


You might be interested in the following article about exegeting the "divorce" passages in the gospels. I found it quite enlightening.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I have come across the argument (and I think I use it in my One Body manuscript) that the disagreement between the school of Hillel and Shammai pushes one to the opposite conclusion. People are extremely surprised by Jesus' teaching, in a way in which they wouldn't be if he were merely affirming the teaching of Bet Shammai, which was after all one of the options on the table in the then-current debates.

Nor does the reading that Jesus simply sided with Shammai fit with the tone of the surrounding text in Matthew 5, all of which seriously tighten up the quoted rules, such as strengthening the prohibition on adultery into a prohibition on lustful looks. Thus, it is very likely, contextually, that Jesus was tightening up the Mosaic prohibition he was quoting.

Heath White said...

Alex, if you don’t mind, I’d like to pursue this a little bit.

As I understand it, your view is that, (a) under conditions of “porneia”, i.e. when there is no genuine marriage to begin with, a Christian couple may divorce and remarry. (b) Under conditions of adultery and maybe some others (?), a Christian couple may “divorce”, i.e. separate, but not remarry. (c) Under any other conditions, a Christian couple may not separate. (d) These strictures apply only to Christian couples. Please correct me if any of that is wrong.

So, some questions.

1. “Porneia” means “sexual immorality.” Is there any motivation for not taking this to include adultery, except for the mismatch between Luke and Matthew?

2. If you regard Jesus in Matthew 5 as tightening up the rules on adultery to include lustful looks, would it be right to say that Christians may separate if their partner gives someone else a lustful look?

3. What is the motivation to say that these rules only apply to Christians? In the gospels Jesus is offering an interpretation of the law for people who are not his followers.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Two crucial questions, which the text in insolation leaves unanswered, are (a) who are the two partners in the porneia, and (b) what range of sexual misdeeds qualifies here.

If the man and woman who are prospectively getting divorced are A and B, then on my reading the porneia is committed between A and B, while on the common Protestant reading, the porneia is committed between B and C.

Note that on both readings, "adultery" qualifies as porneia. On my reading, the adultery would need to be committed between A and B (think of a case where A is married to C; A divorces C; A "marries" B; then A's "marriage" to B is an instance of adultery against C). At the same time, the term is wider in meaning than adultery. The relationship between A and B could be an instance of incest or even of rape (if B was forced to "marry" A; the Christian tradition holds that forced marriages are invalid).

Note that for the Protestant reading it is moderately puzzling why the term used is "porneia" rather than the more specific "moicheia" ("adultery"). After all, sexual activity between B and C, when A is married to B, would be adultery.

That answers 1.

As for 2, this is even more of a problem for the common Protestant reading on which adultery enables not just divorce but also a marriage to another. I think the right way to see this is to say that the tightening of the rules does not mean the things to which the rules are extended are to be treated on par. Thus, Jesus warns against rude words against one's brother, by extending the prohibition on murder (Mt. 5:21-22). However, it does not follow from this that the courts should impose the same penalty on people who speak rude words as upon murderers. The rude words are wrong, and are wrong for the same reason as murder (they are unloving towards neighbor), but are not identical to murder. Likewise, there is no reason to suppose that "adultery in the heart" should be treated legally and otherwise in the same way that normal adultery is.

I think point 3 is a genuine difficulty. However, Jesus is preaching to Israel, and it is the Church that is the New Israel. Moreover, the Jewish people to whom he is preaching are morally required to become Christ's followers. I think it's not unreasonable to see the Gospel of Matthew as focused, on the whole, on what the obligations of a follower of Christ are.

Heath White said...


Thanks for the replies. I think the Protestant would say (I’m not an expert on this)

Re 1: the adultery is committed by one of the married partners *against* the other. The reason the text has “porneia” rather than “moicheia” may be for the reasons you say, namely non-adultery cases of sexual immorality. The difference is that the Protestant wants to say Jesus is giving conditions for the dissolution, rather than the non-existence, of a marriage. The assumption is that any divorce can be followed by remarriage (though at some point this becomes unwise).

Re 2: Basically the same reply. “Adultery in the heart” is not literally adultery. This is a manner of speaking intended to bring out the pedagogical character of the law, and its true intent, not to extend the crime of adultery to crazy proportions.

Re 3: Jesus is just interpreting the Mosaic law on divorce, which is natural law for everyone.

Now I have a different set of questions which I hope you’ll indulge me in. I really do not understand how Tradition is supposed to work as an epistemic resource, exactly, and I’d like to know more, and this seems like a good learning opportunity.

I assume that there is some fact of the matter about Jesus’ intentions when teaching on divorce. For example, either he was giving conditions under which marriages exist, or conditions under which marriages can be dissolved, or possibly some third thing, but not both. The Church teaches that he was giving conditions under which marriages exist, and for this teaching cites the Tradition, which I take it amounts to citing some early Church Fathers, papal pronouncements, etc. So far as I understand it, this is supposed to be evidence for a reliable chain of testimony stretching back to Jesus himself. However, and without prejudging anything, it is not likely that most of the men who made these claims (most of the testifiers in the chain) knew about the first-century rabbinic context, so prima facie one might think that here is a case where scholarship might overturn testimony. I guess I am wondering just how much of a live possibility that really is, on the Catholic view. Is the official position:

1) Jesus’ intentions were to give marriage-existence conditions, and we know this because we have a reliable chain of testimony, and we know that because we have a long textual tradition. Perhaps this could be overturned by scholarship but nothing good enough has come along yet.

2) Jesus’ intentions were to give marriage-existence conditions, and we know this because we have a reliable chain of testimony, and we know that because the Holy Spirit tells us, of which the textual tradition is secondary evidence. (If much of the textual evidence were to be shown fraudulent, that wouldn’t make much difference.) Scholarship would be nice secondary evidence too but we can do without it.

3) Jesus’ intentions were to give marriage-existence conditions, and we know this because the Holy Spirit tells us, and secondary evidence is our reliable chain of testimony, of which the textual evidence is tertiary evidence. Scholarship would be nice evidence too but we can do without it.

4) The teaching on marriage and divorce does not depend, evidentially, on Jesus’ intentions, but is known by the Holy Spirit through the consensus of the Tradition. However, since Jesus taught the truth we know apriori that his intentions would line up with Church teaching. Here, no scholarship could defeat Church teaching.

Maybe that does not cover all the bases but that is most of them. Is one of them “the official view”? And how official is the official view? Thanks for whatever insight you can give.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think the standard Catholic story about Tradition is that we do in fact have chains of testimony ("testimony" is a bit narrow, though, as a term) going back to the Holy Spirit's teaching in the Apostolic Church, by which teaching the Apostolic Church gradually came to understand, though perhaps still only inchoately, what it was that Jesus had intended. Jesus himself emphasizes this coming growth in understanding. This is compatible with the claim that the chains go back to Jesus's intentions, in that the Holy Spirit acting in the Apostolic Church might well have simply been enabling the Apostles to discern better in their memories of Jesus's words what Jesus intended. However, I do not think the Holy Spirit's role was limited to this.

However, our confidence in the claims morally unanimously made by Tradition goes beyond historical confidence in these chains. For we believe that the Tradition is protected by the Holy Spirit from error in faith and morals.

How exactly this protection works is, as far as I know, an open question.

I think all that is dogma is that the Tradition is infallible in matters of faith and morals, and that the Tradition goes back at least to the Apostolic Church. More than that--including what I said above--is probably just theological speculation.