Church history and divorce

As the Roman Catholic Church considers changing its teaching on divorce, and some theological conservatives push back, Lutheran pastor Benjamin Dueholm takes a look at the story of St. Augustine and St. Peter’s wife in light of potential changes:

Two of our most prominent authorities were effectively divorced, one in life and the other in death. St. Augustine, the great theologian of late antiquity, had a concubine whom he loved and with whom he lived and produced a child. They were not married under Roman law and, though Christians should think twice before making Rome’s legal distinctions do much ethical work, that was grounds for scandal. To pursue his faith and his vocation meant putting the woman away and taking her son so that he could eventually serve as a priest, bishop of Hippo, and not coincidentally a major early authority on questions of marriage and sexual morality.

In the case of St. Peter’s wife, the dissolution took place after her death but was still more complete. Her mother was the recipient of one of Jesus’s first healings (Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-41, Matthew 8:14-15) and she accompanied Peter on his work (1 Corinthians 9:5); Eusebius, the fourth-century church historian, quotes an earlier source saying that she was martyred in Rome together with her husband. And yet she is excised completely from the history and iconography of her companion in ministry and martyrdom, known as the Prince of the Apostles and the first bishop of Rome. Karl Keating, editor of Catholic Answers, dumps her unceremoniously in the grave before Jesus even meets Peter. A bishop needs to be free to marry his church.

And so two divorces, one in life and one in posterity, help anchor the theory and the imagery of sexual purity on which arguments like Spaemann’s rest. A better church and a better world would have honored these women; as it is, their involuntary sacrifices underwrite the “beauty” of teaching to be asserted over and over through the centuries. Nameless, they linger awkwardly like the overlooked shoes of a Soviet general airbrushed out of a photograph.

“Has anyone even mentioned the victims? Is anyone talking about the woman whose husband has abandoned her and their four children?” Spaemann asks. The question is rhetorical, but the history of the church answers it all the same.

The full article from Religion Dispatches is available here.

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