Even if we ignore everything unique about Christian marriage, its status as sacrament is a prima facie objection to the possibility of Christian divorce. Christian churches, as far as I can tell, have never raised the possibility of a formal process that could undo a sacrament – there is not even a name for what, say, “unbaptizing” would be. Among Catholics and Orthodox this problem is even more acute by being repeated in several other sacraments. What would “unconfession” be? Or unconfection of the Eucharistic species? True, there is some sort of dispensation from Holy Orders, but the priesthood as sacrament is seen as indelible.

Any notion of Christian divorce either has to see it as non-sacramental or has to give some account of unsacramenting. Option 2 is as unknown both to history as to spellcheck, and so the possibility of Christian divorce rests on denying it’s a sacrament. Some Reformation churches did this long ago, but it is not a viable option for Catholics.

Catholicism seems to be in the process of looking for a tertium quid between marriage and divorce: a sort of yet-to-be-defined pastoral status that nullifies the binding character of the vow while still not recognizing any formal process like divorce. This new status, as far as I can tell, would not be the result of any one-size-fits-all process but of personal consultation and spiritual guidance but would still have to somehow unsacrament a previous marriage. While I get the reasons for wanting this to be so, the cost to our understanding of the sacraments is usually not factored into the discussion. The cost in question is pretty clear: even if all of sacraments depend on ministers to be accomplished, they are chiefly the exercise of God’s fidelity to the Church, which leaves us with no account of unsacramenting that avoids imputing infidelity to God. This is one of the main reasons why marriage is the paradigm for understanding all of God’s relations to his Church, and why the tradition of the Church saw marriage as indissoluble and as sacramental in a mutually-implicating way.



  1. Dylan said,

    February 6, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    A few thoughts:

    1) It would seem that the current RC practice of annulment serves precisely the function of “unsacramenting.” Whether or not such a practice is legitimate is another question, but I don’t see how invalidating a marriage is anything else.

    2) So far as confession not only forgives offenses but “restor[es] us to God’s grace,” to quote the CCC, confession is “unsacramented” all the time by sin itself. Past sins are not unforgiven by present sins, but that condition of intimacy with God now needs restoration. That’s why people have to go back to confession all throughout their lives, right?

    3) There is historic precedent for divorce, just not in the West. The Orthodox allow for divorce and remarriage, but the remarriage ceremony is significantly different, involving an act of public penance for the sin of divorce. If I’m not mistaken, remarriage is limited to twice at most and requires a special pastoral oikonomia.

    4) Perhaps the best counterpoint I have: Death “unsacraments” marriage, for the widow or widower can remarry. And “in the resurrection [we will] neither marry nor [be] given in marriage, but [will be] like angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).

    None of this is meant to be an objection to RC practice, which I think can be defended by appeal to local precedent, jurisdictional authority, and pastoral practice. But I do think that at least one if not all of these point to the possibility of “unsacramenting.”

    • February 6, 2017 at 5:42 pm

      I guess you already know what Catholics would say to 1 and 2 so I won’t labor the point. I am aware of the tradition for 3 and have argued it with some Eastern-riters, but the OP was an attempt to explain why I think the West has the stronger position (and I say this as someone who is very sympathetic to the East, especially on grace, Ecclesial structure, rational theology and – obviously – the liturgy.)

      All sacraments are for the life in via which is why there is no sacrament of monastic life. Marriage is not so much dissolved in death as the sign gets fulfilled by the signified. Marriage does not have the same indelible mark as other sacraments, but this is still a very different claim from unsacramenting.

  2. February 6, 2017 at 3:48 pm

    Good argument James. However, CIC 1697ff. states the Pope can dissolve a non-consummated sacramental marriage.

    • February 6, 2017 at 5:28 pm

      Wouldn’t this fall under the description of a marriage ratum but not consummatum? I don’t think there is enough precision in the terms to say that this counts as dissolving a sacramental marriage tout court.

      • February 6, 2017 at 6:56 pm

        Pauline and Petrine privileges fit fine with the OP if one bases them on the imperfect character of the sacrament. I thought the Fehlner wants more precision in the matter than I need to make in distinguishing what is essential to the contract from what belongs to marriage qua sacramental sign, but it’s a useful technical qualification to make to the OP.

      • dpmonahan said,

        February 6, 2017 at 5:47 pm

        The church also claims it can dissolve consummated natural law marriages for the benefit of the faith, eg, the Pauline privilege, or the Petrine privilege usually extended to polygamists who want to be baptized but don’t want to be married to their first (and by natural law, only) wife.

      • February 6, 2017 at 6:46 pm

        Both the Pauline and Petrine privilege can be made to fit with the OP if one says that they are made possible because of the imperfect character of the sacrament.

        FWIW, I think the indissolubility of even natural marriage follows from its character as an oath of fidelity which can only be rational by invoking some sort of divine fidelity as assistance. In this sense, even natural marriages are indissoluble from the invoking of divine fidelity we make in the oath.

  3. February 8, 2017 at 6:08 am

    Natural law marriage isn’t an imperfect Sacrament.
    ‘But I say, do not make any vows!’
    You water down the meaning of the laicization.
    The spiritual mark belongs to three of the Sacraments, not to all seven.

  4. February 13, 2017 at 3:17 pm

    The word “intention” does not show up in this conversation thread, so I’ll throw it out there: a sacrament initiates one into a mystery through the form that figures and manifests the mystery properly, so as to initiate.

    In the medieval Catholic understanding of Marriage as a Sacrament, esp. in the wake of Abelard, the operative agents were only the contracting parties (and not the priest, as he was and is in the East — Marriage and Penance were the last Mysteries to be codified in both East and West), and what was needed was that they have proper intention. Intentionality became an important feature of ethics in general after Abelard, but it also became an essential part of the Mystery of Marriage in the Latin West.

    If one is only baptized but the Name of the Trinity is not announced, the form of the Rite is insufficient, for it lacks an element it needs to figure the mystery. One is, in such a case, not baptised. If one is married without proper intention the Mystery lacks an essential element, so the history of the Rite in the West goes. Ergo, if one discovers one never had proper adult intention, didn’t understand what one was promising, the external act of the vow is irrelevant, for it cannot be made with proper intention.

    Vows –vows in general, I mean, not specifically wedding vows– having validity without intention would have been the way things were understood before Abelard. Not after. This distinction became normative and, if I’m not mistaken, canonical.

  5. February 19, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    I don’t understand the Catholic prohibition against divorce. If the husband and wife hate each other’s guts, how can they stay married? The sign of love is unsacramented when the signified, i.e., love, disappears.

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