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What Boudway gets wrong about indissoluble marriages

The Catholic Church does not teach that “all valid marriages are indissoluble”. She teaches, more precisely than Matthew Boudway grasps, that all valid marriages are ‘intrinsically indissoluble’.

(CNS file photo/Jon L. Hendricks)

The nonchalance with which some non-canonists try to argue canon law with canon lawyers these days verges on the remarkable. But, folks, these aren’t fair fights; they are scarcely even interesting. The latest example is Matthew Boudway over at Commonweal.

Somehow Boudway has gotten it into his head that Fr. Gerald Murray (J.C.D., Gregorian University, 1998) thinks that the Catholic Church holds that “all valid marriages are indissoluble” even though the Code of Canon Law (which apparently Boudway looked at the other day) indicates a few instances wherein valid marriages can be dissolved (i.e., the papal dissolution of non-consummated sacramental marriages and of certain non-sacramental marriages per Canon 1142 and the Pauline Privilege dissolution of marriage per Canons 1143-1147). Thinking he has fingered a truth that Murray should find inconvenient, Boudway wonders why Murray (who opposes the assault on the Church’s teaching on marriage being conducted under cover of Amoris laetitia) is not embarrassed by these supposed examples of “the Catholic Church … condoning a narrow category of adultery for much of its history.”

Yes, it’s embarrassing, alright. For Boudway.

I’ll do this quickly.

The Catholic Church does not teach that “all valid marriages are indissoluble”. She teaches, more precisely than Boudway grasps, that all valid marriages are “intrinsically indissoluble” (not a happy adjective, but one that trained canonists understand in this context) meaning that the parties to a valid marriage (be it natural, merely sacramental, or sacramental and consummated) cannot dissolve it. There are no exceptions to the intrinsic indissolubility of marriage. None.

The notion of intrinsic indissolubility leaves open the possibility, however, that an “extrinsic” power might, might, under certain, unusual-to-rare, circumstances be able to dissolve a valid marriage (say by “Petrine privilege” with regard to non-sacramental marriage between a baptized and a non-baptized party); that a subsequent marriage might dissolve a non-sacramental marriage between two non-baptized persons (the Pauline Privilege); or even that a sacramental but non-consummated marriage could be dissolved by papal act. But these cases are not “exceptions” to some “rule” whereby all valid marriages are supposedly “extrinsically” indissoluble, because such a rule does not exist.

What rule does exist, as Murray knows, and as the Church has held since her inception, is the rule now set out in Canon 1141 (but incredibly not cited by Boudway!) that: “A marriage that is ratified [i.e., between two baptized parties] and consummated [i.e., the conjugal act has taken place between the spouses] can be dissolved by no human power (i.e., not a pope, not the state, and not the parties) and by no cause, except death” (my emphasis). Period. End of discussion.

In short: Valid, consummated marriage between two baptized people is intrinsically and extrinsically) indissoluble (see Canon 1056) except by death; persons in such marriages attempting other marriages enter a state of “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384) and thus may not be admitted to holy Communion (Canon 915).

Fr. Murray understands this perfectly and proclaims it faithfully.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this post identified the papal dissolution of a non-consummated sacramental marriage as the “Petrine privilege.” This is incorrect, and the paragraph in question has been changed.

(This post originally appeared on the “In the Light of the Law” blog and is reposted here by kind permission of Dr. Peters.)

About Edward N. Peters 96 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.

5 Comments

  1. You’re providing an online course on Canon Law particularly marriage which is extremely helpful. I presume you refer to Matthew Boudway of Commonweal in this important statement, “The Catholic Church does not teach that ‘all valid marriages are indissoluble’. She teaches, more precisely than Boudway grasps, that all valid marriages are ‘intrinsically indissoluble’ (not a happy adjective, but one that trained canonists understand in this context) meaning that the parties to a valid marriage (be it natural, merely sacramental, or sacramental and consummated) cannot dissolve it. There are no exceptions to the intrinsic indissolubility of marriage. None” (E Peters).

  2. Hi All. Alert readers will catch that in my original post (which Carl O. kindly republished here) I had mislabeled one of the papal acts: dissolution of non-sacramental marriage by the pope is sometimes called ‘the Petrine privilege’ while papal dissolution of a non-consummated sacramental marriage is just called ‘papal dissolution’. The law is as described, but I had attached the label ‘Petrine Privilege’ to the latter. My bad. It is revised at my site. Thanks ever. edp.

  3. Ed,
    A google search repeatedly asserts that the Petrine privilege is different than you have stated.
    A priest at ewtn states that it is not treated in the canons which may be relevant. They say it refers to the Pope allowing the baptized person of an original baptized / non baptized marriage….to marry a baptized person. Noonan noted that NY diocese had rare cases yet other major cities had much more ( “The Church that Can and Cannot Change”).

    • Believe he has it correct. Think you are confusing the fact that he is addressing two privileges in the post, Pauline and Petrine.

  4. The affirmation that all valid marriages are intrinsically dissoluble, does not make the affirmation that all valid marriages are indissoluble false. Being intrinsically something is the strongest form of being something, it is not a weakening of the concept of indissolubility. There is an epiqueia in play here. In the case of the Pauline privilege it is a Biblically affirmed epiqueia. What you are doing is to deny the existence of epiqueias in order to maintain the rigorist conceptual order in which rules cover everything. Pope Francis is insisting that the rigorist conceptual order be overcome. That is why he calls his moderate realism (opposed to the rigorist interpretation of morality and law in which rules cover everything) Thomist. And he is right, it is Thomist.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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