In the years of 2014 to the present, the question of whether Catholics can re-marry after divorce has become much more talked about in light of the two Synods on the family and their subsequent Apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. I cannot go into the details about what Pope Francis communicated with this document, but I can give a basic summary. Amoris Laetitia (Eng. The Joy of Love) reaffirms the Church’s moral doctrine on the purpose of human sexuality and conjugal relations, even explicitly referring to the need to appropriate the message of Pope St. Paul VI’s Encyclical Humane Vitae. The document also states that there are “no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (251). On the matter of Catholics who have married in the Church but who have subsequently divorced and contracted a civil “marriage” while the first spouse is still alive, Pope Francis makes clear that this is contrary to the demands of the Gospel, and is objectively out of harmony with the Church’s understanding of marriage (303). To those who insist that they should be able to openly demand recognition, respect, and good-standing of their 2nd “marriage” as if it were awarded to them out of mercy, the Pope says they should be considered as persons seeking to flaunt an objective sin, and should consequently be subject to hearing the gospel again in order to be converted, or separated from the community in excommunication (297). With that said, the Pope still opened the door for Catholic “re-married” divorcees to receive Holy Communion (305, fn 351), not on the basis that re-marriage is acceptable or objectively good, but rather that, on a case by case basis, certain persons who are involved in these objectively sinful and unlawful relationships can be free even of grave and mortal guilt, thereby landing them in the venial category of transgressor. Causes for this are said to be difficult and complex circumstances which mitigate against a person’s level of culpability, reducing the severity of their guilt and sin before God (302).
In light of this, I wanted to blast to the past and look at the life of a certain 4th-century Roman saint (but who is still venerated by the Eastern Orthodox Church, Dec. 27), St. Fabiola (d. +399), of whom St. Jerome wrote extensively about concerning her holiness and charity in his Epistle to a certain Royal friend Oceanus. St. Fabiola was born into the gens Fabia family, which was a Royal patrician family, and was first married to a vicious and adulterous husband. She had divorced him and married another man while her first husband was still alive.
In this letter to Oceanus, St. Jerome took up the task of writing a eulogistic summary of the life and Christian service of St. Fabiola. Of course, before he gets into the saintliness of life, he is forced to mention this unfortunate crime that existed in her life as a result of entering into an unlawful second union. He speaks somewhat to the background of the divorce, explains how the second union was contrary to the Law of God, and how, upon the death of her 2nd “husband”, St. Fabiola returned to the Lord in genuine repentance for the evil she had done, completed penance, and was restored to communion with the Church.
Below, I will cite some portions of St. Jerome’s explanatory background, and then tie this all together in the end back to the question of the 2014/15 synods on the family, and Amoris Laetitia.
St. Jerome first seeks to explain her fall, before her conversion and saintly career:
“And because at the very outset there is a rock in the path and she is overwhelmed by a storm of censure, for having forsaken her first husband and having taken a second, I will not praise her for her conversion till I have first cleared her of this charge. So terrible then were the faults imputed to her former husband that not even a prostitute or a common slave could have put up with them. If I were to recount them, I should undo the heroism of the wife who chose to bear the blame of a separation rather than to blacken the character and expose the stains of him who was one body with her. I will only urge this one plea which is sufficient to exonerate a chaste matron and a Christian woman. The Lord has given commandment that a wife must not be put away
except it be for fornication, and that, if put away, she must remain unmarried. Now a commandment which is given to men logically applies to women also. For it cannot be that, while an adulterous wife is to be put away, an incontinent husband is to be retained. The apostle says:
he which is joined to an harlot is one body. Therefore she also who is joined to a whoremonger and unchaste person is made one body with him. The laws of Cæsar are different, it is true, from the laws of Christ: Papinianus commands one thing; our own Paul another. Earthly laws give a free rein to the unchastity of men, merely condemning seduction and adultery; lust is allowed to range unrestrained among brothels and slave girls, as if the guilt were constituted by the rank of the person assailed and not by the purpose of the assailant. But with us Christians what is unlawful for women is equally unlawful for men, and as both serve the same God both are bound by the same obligations. Fabiola then has put away — they are quite right — a husband that was a sinner, guilty of this and that crime, sins— I have almost mentioned their names (i.e. adultery/fornication)— with which the whole neighbourhood resounded but which the wife alone refused to disclose”
So we see that St. Jerome clearly understood that St. Fabiola’s first husband had been a fornicator/adulterer, for it is only on these grounds that Jerome admits a lawful divorce. Also interesting is his insistence that what is lawful and unlawful for the male in the context of divorce and re-marriage equally applies to the female. This was not always the case in other ecclesial contexts. But our main concern here is to set the state of St. Fabiola as having lawfully divorced her husband for adultery/fornication, but unlawfully entered into a second union (an attempted 2nd marriage).
St. Jerome goes on:
“If however it is made a charge against her that after repudiating her husband she did not continue unmarried, I readily admit this to have been a fault, but at the same time declare that it may have been a case of necessity.
It is better, the apostle tells us,
to marry than to burn. She was quite a young woman, she was not able to continue in widowhood. In the words of the apostle she saw another law in her members warring against the law of her mind; she felt herself dragged in chains as a captive towards the indulgences of wedlock. Therefore she thought it better openly to confess her weakness and to accept the semblance of an unhappy marriage than, with the name of a monogamist, to ply the trade of a courtesan. The same apostle wills that the younger widows should marry, bear children, and give no occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. And he at once goes on to explain his wish:
for some are already turned aside after Satan. Fabiola therefore was fully persuaded in her own mind: she thought she had acted legitimately in putting away her husband, and that when she had done so she was free to marry again. She did not know that the rigor of the gospel takes away from women all pretexts for re-marriage so long as their former husbands are alive; and not knowing this, though she contrived to evade other assaults of the devil, she at this point unwittingly exposed herself to a wound from him.”
At the opening of this section, St. Jerome admits right away that a woman who seeks to marry again after divorcing her adulterous husband is unlawful. He says it again at the end, namely, that the gospel completely removes the possibility of lawfully seeking a second marriage when the first spouse is still alive. This is directly contrary, for example, to the statement made in Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s The Eastern Orthodox Church where he says that the “The Orthodox Church permits divorce and remarriage, quoting as its authority the text of Matthew xix, 9, where Our Lord says: ‘If a man divorces his wife, for any other cause other than unchastity, and marries another, he commits adultery’. Since Christ, according to the Matthean account, allowed an exception to His general ruling about the indissolubility of marriage, the Orthodox Church also is willing to allow an exception…In theory, the Canons only permit divorce in cases of adultery, but in practice it is granted for other reasons as well.” (Pg. 295). Notice how St. Jerome told us above that divorce from an adulterous husband is lawful (even necessary), but that remarriage was completely out of the question until the first spouse is deceased. But even so, the comments made by him about St. Fabiola’s second union are not all condemnatory. In fact, it would almost seem he gets into Amoris-Laetitia-type reasoning. For example, to say that her second union “may have been a case of necessity” sounds quite similar to the sought after reductions of personal culpability in complex situations that Pope Francis wrote about. Of course, St. Jerome already made it plain that it is a break in God’s holy law, but then is still willing to speak of it being done “of necessity“? What are the implications of that? Interesting. On top of this, he quotes St. Paul’s “it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor 7:9). Now, it would appear that St. Jerome falsely applies this to the situation of remarriage, since St. Paul intended it to apply to persons who are seeking their first marriage or to widows. But perhaps St. Jerome saw enough similarity given the situation to make it apply to St. Fabiola. We can’t be too sure. And even more than this, St. Jerome says that, being a young divorced woman, “she was not able to continue in widowhood“. We can already hear the voice of the Traditionalists, of which I consider myself, citing the Tridentine Canons (Session 6, Canon 18) which condemn anyone who says that keeping the commandments of God is impossible for the justified. St. Fabiola was a baptized member of the Church, and yet St. Jerome attributes this incapacity to her. Was it an absolute incapacity? I doubt it. But even so, it is impossible to know for sure. He goes on to say that St. Fabiola “though it better openly to confess her weakness” and get remarried than to “ply the trade of a courtesan” (i.e. prostitution with noblemen). In all fairness to critics of Amoris Laetitia, such as myself, St. Jerome ultimately describes her as being ignorant of the Gospel’s rule. Amoris envisions permitting communion to those who “know the rule” (AL, 301), but who nevertheless continue to persist in that union. On the contrary, St. Jerome writes: “She did not know that the rigour of the gospel takes away from woman all pretexts for remarriage“. That would certainly mitigate against personal culpability. But I’m not so sure how much ignorance St. Jerome intends to attribute to her, since in the next section, she repents of this remarriage as soon as the man of the 2nd union passes away. In the end, while she “contrived to evade other assaults of the devil, she at this point unwittingly exposed herself to a wound from him“. That last sentence is importance, for while the Eastern Orthodox, and others within the Catholic Church, such as Cardinal Walter Kasper, wanted to regularize the remarried life in open and unmitigated harmony with the life of grace, St. Jerome situates it in the hands of the devil.
But through an intervention of God’s grace, when St. Fabiola’s second “husband” passed away, she committed herself to repentance for her evil deed. St. Jerome describes this quite vividly:
“But why do I linger over old and forgotten matters, seeking to excuse a fault for which Fabiola has herself confessed her penitence? Who would believe that, after the death of her second husband at a time when most widows, having shaken off the yoke of servitude, grow careless and allow themselves more liberty than ever, frequenting the baths, flitting through the streets, showing their harlot faces everywhere; that at this time Fabiola came to herself? Yet it was then that she put on sackcloth to make public confession of her error. It was then that in the presence of all Rome (in the basilica which formerly belonged to that Lateranus who perished by the sword of Cæsar ) she stood in the ranks of the penitents and exposed before bishop, presbyters, and people — all of whom wept when they saw her weep — her dishevelled hair, pale features, soiled hands and unwashed neck. What sins would such a penance fail to purge away? What ingrained stains would such tears be unable to wash out?”
If there was any question on whether St. Jerome understood St. Fabiola to have committed a crime by remarrying, this section here would knock it out of Yankee stadium. If St. Jerome understood our Lord’s exception clause (except on account of porneia, Matt 19) to authorize the remarried life as objectively consistent with grace, how could he say that it was a sin worth penitence? After the death of this 2nd “husband”, St. Fabiola submitted herself to the penance of the Roman clergy while wearing sackcloth with a public confession of her error at the Lateran palace. So penitent was she that she wept so hard , she made other wept who witnessed her (which calls into question whether she was so ignorant about the law of God on this matter, as St. Jerome hints above). It is to no surprise, then, that we hear of no protest from anyone in Rome against the theological errors of mistaking the law against remarriage to pertain to those who are the victim of adultery in a previous marriage.
In the text subsequent to this, St. Jerome compares the repentance of St. Fabiola to the repentance of St. Peter after his threefold denial of the Lord, that of Aaron who directed the building of the golden calf, that of David’s 7 days of fasting after his adultery and murder, that of King Ahab who rent his cloths and fasted in sackcloth, that of King Mannaseh, and that of the tax collector on his knees in the Temple.
After that, the the imagery of her repentance is even more severe:
“But this one thing I will say, for it is at once useful to my readers and pertinent to my present theme. As Fabiola was not ashamed of the Lord on earth, so He shall not be ashamed of her in heaven. She laid bare her wound to the gaze of all, and Rome beheld with tears the disfiguring scar which marred her beauty. She uncovered her limbs, bared her head, and closed her mouth. She no longer entered the church of God but, like Miriam the sister of Moses, she sat apart without the camp, till the priest who had cast her out should himself call her back. She came down like the daughter of Babylon from the throne of her daintiness, she took the millstones and ground meal, she passed barefooted through rivers of tears. She sat upon the coals of fire, and these became her aid. That face by which she had once pleased her second husband she now smote with blows; she hated jewels, shunned ornaments and could not bear to look upon fine linen. In fact she bewailed the sin she had committed as bitterly as if it had been adultery, and went to the expense of many remedies in her eagerness to cure her one wound.”
After speaking of her fall and repentance, St. Jerome finishes this letter to his friend by detailing the enormous acts of charity that characterized her life after her return to communion with the Church in order to fulfill the eulogistic purpose of the letter.
Some concluding remarks. I think it is abundantly clear that St. Jerome, who was a fantastic theologian, historian, ascetic, linguist, biblical commentator, monastic traveler, and personal secretary of Pope St. Damasus (366-384), and who is greatly venerated as a saint in both Greek and Latin traditions, believed that, while divorce is permitted in the case of adultery, remarriage is absolutely forbidden by God’s law. While that is clear, he seems to have some pity on those who break the Law in this regard out of weakness, necessity, or ignorance. No indication is given that he would render them worthy of Holy Communion. In fact, St. Fabiola was said to have rightly sat outside of communion until she received absolution from the clergy of Rome. What we have then is a certain woman who submitted herself to confession, turned away from her sins, and received absolution, before coming to Holy Communion. Therefore, if we look at the two synods on the family and Amoris Laetitia in light of this scenario in the life of St. Fabiola, it seems, with St. Jerome as a reliable witness, that the rule of no communion for those who remarried without penance, upheld by St. John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI, is the Patristic tradition. What is, in fact, transparently antithetical to the “merciful” considerations of Amoris Laetitia, is the fact that St. Fabiola, who was the victim of adultery, and for whom even the hard-liner St. Jerome found reason for reducing her culpability (see above), was willing to undergo the form of penance that she did! I’m sorry to say this, but as long as we reduce the bar of what God expects from His people, we won’t be seeing any St. Fabiola’s in our present day. Most Protestant churches already accept remarriage as a given. The Eastern Orthodox Church regularizes it up to three times, if the conditions (which exceed adultery) are sufficient, and the current Vatican reform severely dulls the edge of the sword of God’s law on this matter.
Sancti Fabiola et Hieronymus, ora pro nobis!