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Beliefs about divorce and remarriage 

Roman Catholic view: Historical tradition.

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The following essay provides only general information. If you are seeking guidance
on your own personal use, please consult a canon lawyer or other authority.

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Variety of Bible-based beliefs:

There is no consensus within Christianity towards divorce and remarriage:

bullet Various Christian groups -- conservative Protestants, liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics have reached different beliefs about when, if ever, the Bible permits divorce and remarriage. Some argue that the preservation of the institution of marriage is of the greatest importance and that marriages should not be dissolved even though a married couple may find their life a living Hell. Others feel that to preserve the mental health of the spouses and children, that divorce should be allowed with the possibility of a future remarriage.

bullet Each author, theologian, and webmaster who has written on these topics seem to regard that their belief alone is the correct interpretation of the Bible. The vast majority are obviously wrong.

The main positions are:

  1. Neither divorce nor remarriage are allowed. (Conservative Protestant view)
  2. Divorce is OK, but not remarriage. (Ditto)
  3. Divorce is OK in cases of adultery or desertion; remarriage is OK. (Ditto)
  4. Divorce is OK for many reasons; remarriage is OK. (Ditto)
  5. Divorce is impossible unless the marriage can be proven to have never existed -- described below. (Roman Catholic)
  6. Divorce is OK in cases of marriage breakdown; remarriage is OK. Religious liberal and secular view.

This essay describes the fifth position: the Roman Catholic beliefs that the Bible does not allow divorce on any grounds. Valid marriages are indissoluble. However, if it can be proven that a valid marriage had never taken place, then an annulment can be obtained. Remarriage is generally allowed after an annulment.

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The position of the Roman Catholic church on divorce and remarriage can be summed up in a few sentences:


Divorce was allowed in Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) times. But the permanence of marriage was restored by Jesus in the first century CE.


Marriage is a sacrament that is indissoluble. Once a valid marriage has been consummated, It endures until one spouse dies.


The church does not issue divorces or recognize divorces issued by other institutions. Thus a couple who has obtained a civil divorce is still regarded as married by the Church.


The church can issue an annulment. However, the couple must first prove to a church tribunal that the marriage was invalid; that is, that a valid marriage never did exist.

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Historical tradition:

The Church Fathers in early Christianity, the Church Councils in later years, and various popes to the present time have consistently held that after a valid marriage is consummated, it is indissoluble until the death of one spouse. Some examples:

bulletThe Shepherd of Hermas (a.k.a. The Pastor of Hermas) describes a conversation between a Christian leader and a follower. 1 There is no consensus on the date of its composition; estimates range from 50 to 160 CE. or even later. One source says that the most likely date is "between c.AD 139-155; proposals for a first-century date of composition are largely dismissed today." 2 Some attribute the authorship to the Apostolic Fathers; others to the Hermas mentioned by Paul; still others say the work is anonymous. "Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and [initially] Tertullian treated it as divinely inspired, on par with what was later to become New Testament Scripture." 2 Some unsuccessfully argued that it be included as a canonical work in the Bible. Section 35.1, "Mandate the Fourth" deals with marriage. Verses 35:16-18 discuss a case in which a wife commits adultery, and the husband detects it:

bullet 35:16 "What then, Sir", say I, "shall the husband do, if the wife continue in this case"?

bullet 35:17 "Let him divorce her", said he, "and let the husband abide alone:"

bullet 35:18 "but if after divorcing his wife he shall marry another, he likewise commits adultery".

bullet Justin Martyr (circa 107-176 CE) wrote: "He that marries her that has been put away by another man commits adultery. " 3

bullet Athenagoras (134 - 190 CE) wrote "For whosoever shall put away his wife and shall marry another, committed adultery." 4

bullet Tertullian (160-230 CE) wrote: "They enter into adulterous unions even when they do not put away their wives, we are not allowed to even marry although we put our wives away." 5

bullet Clement of Alexandria (150-circa 220 CE) was very specific when he wrote: "You shall not put away your wife except for fornication, and [Holy Scripture] considers as adultery a remarriage while the other of the separated persons survives." 6


The web site New lists similar writings by Basil of Cæsarea, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. Their web site mentions that some ancient authors:

"... treat the husband more mildly in case of adultery, or seem to allow him a new marriage after the infidelity of his spouse, does not prove that these expressions are to be understood of the permissibility of a new marriage, but of the lesser canonical penance and of exemption from punishment by civil law. Or if they refer to a command on the part of the Church, the new marriage is supposed to take place after the death of the wife who was dismissed." 7


Synod of Elvira (300 CE) issued Canon 9:

"A faithful woman who has left an adulterous husband and is marrying another who is faithful, let her be prohibited from marrying; if she has married, let her not receive communion until the man she has left shall have departed this life, unless illness should make this an imperative necessity." 7

bullet The Synod of Arles (314 CE) instructs those young men who had dismissed their wives on grounds of adultery to not remarry. 7

bullet The Second Council of Mileve (416), the Council of Hereford (673), and the Council of Friuli (791 CE) made similar statements. 7

bullet Pope Innocent I (401 to 417 CE) wrote: "Your diligence has asked concerning those, also, who, by means of a deed of separation, have contracted another marriage. It is manifest that they are adulterers on both sides." 8

bullet Pope Zacharias wrote: "If any layman shall put away his own wife and marry another, or if he shall marry a woman who has been put away by another man, let him be deprived of communion." 9

bulletThe Council of Trent issued two canons during their 24th session:

bullet Canon 5: "If anyone shall say that the bond of matrimony can be dissolved for the cause of heresy, or of injury due to cohabitation, or of willful desertion; let him be anathema."

An anathema is a formal curse by a pope or a Church council that excommunicates an individual or denounces a doctrine as heresy.

bullet Canon 7: "If anyone shall say that the Church has erred in having taught, and in teaching that, according to the teaching of the Gospel and the Apostles, the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved, and that neither party -- not even the innocent, who has given no cause by adultery -- can contract another marriage while the other lives, and that he, or she, commits adultery who puts away an adulterous wife, or husband, and marries another; let him be anathema."

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See also an essay on the Catholic view of annulments

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. J.B. Lightfoot, trans., "The Shepherd of Hermas," at:
  2. "The Shepherd of Hermas,", at:
  3. Justin Martyr, "First Apology," xv, P.G., VI, 349
  4. Athenagoras, "Defense for the Christians (Legatio pro Christ)," xxxiii (P.G., VI, 965)
  5. Tertullian, "De monogamiâ", c, ix (P.L., II, 991).
  6. Clement of Alexandria, "Strom.", II, xxiii (P.G., VIII, 1096).
  7. Divorce in Moral Theology," New Advent, at:
  8. Innocent 1,"Epist. ad Exsuper.", c. vi, n. 12 (P.L., XX, 500).
  9. Zacharias, letter to Pepin and the Frankish bishops, 747.

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Copyright © 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-APR-18
Latest update: 2011-DEC-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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