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Is the ‘Petrine Privilege’ an exception to Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage?

Comprising a very small portion of all the marital cases dealt with by the Church world-wide, recent Petrine cases follow complex procedures that evolved in the crucible of pastoral-chancery practice and not in the calm of the classroom.

Pope Francis greets newly married couples during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in this Sept. 30, 2015, file photo. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

The Church herself has not yet fully articulated what happens when a marriage is dissolved by the ‘Petrine privilege’ or ‘papal dissolution’ so we cannot fully address here all of the canonical and theological issues raised thereby, but we can show that the Petrine Privilege doesnot, in any way, provide a basis for moving against Church doctrine and discipline on the indissolubility of consummated Christian marriage.

Orientation to the issue.

Regarding the possibility of remarriage during the lifetime of a previous spouse we saw earlier four kinds of marriage, namely, those: (I) between two non-baptized parties; (II) between a baptized party and a non-baptized party; (III) between two baptized parties that has not been consummated; and (IV) between two baptized parties that has been consummated. All four kinds of marriage, we noted, enjoy the presumption of validity. Marriages in Groups I and II are not sacraments while those in Groups III and IV are.

Marriages between two non-baptized parties (Group I) are generally dealt with by the Pauline Privilege to allow, under strictly defined conditions, remarriage during the lifetime of a former spouse. Marriages between Christians that have been consummated (Group IV) are completely indissoluble by anything other than death. Here, we consider marriages between two baptized parties that have not been consummated (Group III) and those between a baptized party and a non-baptized party (Group II).

For several hundred years the power of the Roman Pontiff to dissolve non-consummated Christian marriages (our Group III) has been unobtrusively exercised, but about 100 years ago popes began to dissolve marriages between baptized and non-baptized persons (our Group II). It is especially this latter development, in these times of widespread confusion about even the most fundamental Church doctrine and discipline on marriage, that some think (or fear) implies a way around our Lord’s words on the permanence of marriage.

Practical obstacles to understanding the operation of Petrine cases.

Comprising a very small portion of all the marital cases dealt with by the Church world-wide, recent Petrine cases follow complex procedures that evolved in the crucible of pastoral-chancery practice and not in the calm of the classroom. These cases seem not quite to have settled into doctrinal-canonical place yet. Consider: “[Modern Petrine] dissolutions could not be explained by the traditional principles governing the application of the Pauline privilege or even by the extensions of this privilege [Canons 1148 and 1149]. These dissolutions were soon recognized as exercises of a heretofore unknown papal prerogative to dissolve non-sacramental marriages”. CLSA New Comm (2000) 1372. Again: “Theological and juridical doctrine has not provided an explanation that treats all the points questioned in this specific supposition of dissolution of marriage and others regulated in this article of the Code [Canons 1142-1150].” Exegetical Comm (2004) III/2: 1545.

Cases of matrimonial dissolution by popes are not adequately addressed in the 1983 Code (proposals to include a few more provisions on them were rejected late in the post-conciliar canonical reform) and thus bishops, pastors, and canonists must rely on extra-codical instructions for processing such petitions (the most recent version of these coming out in 2001). There is not even consistency in the terminology used for these cases and, though I prefer to distinguish between papal dissolutions of non-sacramental marriages (‘Petrines’) and papal dissolutions of non-consummated sacramental marriages (‘papal dissolutions’)—in part to acknowledge that a pope’s dissolving a natural marriage and his dissolving a sacramental marriage are different things—canonists follow various naming conventions. Everyone agrees, however, that, under the current law, popes, and only popes, are dissolving herein presumptively valid marriages at least some of which are sacraments.

But I pause to be clear: In neither Petrines, nor Paulines, nor any other dissolutions (such as the now-dormant dissolution of certain marriages by certain religious vows) do the parties themselves dissolve their own marriage. Rather, something “extrinsic” to these marriages dissolves them, be it the pope in Petrine cases, the second marriage in Pauline cases, or the law itself upon the ecclesiastical acceptance of certain vows. Indeed, to hold that the parties themselves can, by any act performed by themselves, dissolve their own marriages, is to contradict flatly well-settled Church teaching on the “intrinsic indissolubility” of all marriage.

Short explanation of how Petrine cases do not threaten Church teaching on marriage.

While Christians, let alone Catholics, make up only a minority of the world’s population and hence a minority of the world’s marriages, the vast majority of the marriages to which the Church actually ministers are presumptively valid (c. 1060), ratified, i.e., sacramental (cc. 1055, 1061), and consummated (c. 1061), that is, our Group IV, and as such are completely indissoluble during the lifetime of the spouses (c. 1141).

But marriages between a baptized person and a non-baptized person (Group II) are not sacraments and in that respect more resemble Pauline-type situations, whose dissolubility can be traced to Scripture without threatening Church teaching on that indissolubility recognized in Christian marriage. Group III marriages, though sacramental, have not been, literally, consummated, that is, the sign value of conjugal intercourse has not yet expressed, as deeply as human beings can express it, the mystical union between Christ and his Church and so, again, allowing Group III marriages to be dissolved under certain narrow conditions does not impugn Church teaching on the complete indissolubility of consummated Christian marriage (Group IV), that is, those marriages maximally symbolic of the Great Mystery (Ephesians V: 32).

In short, only “ratified and consummated” marriages (Group IV) are, per Our Lord’s words, completely indissoluble, but Group II marriages are not “ratified” and Group III marriages are not “consummated”. Petrines do nothing to disturb this teaching.

Longer explanation of how Petrine cases do not threaten Church teaching on marriage.

All the power that the Church was ever going to have was present at her inception. That is not to say that the Church has always exercised all of her powers or even that she has always been fully aware of and/or able to explain adequately all of her powers. An illustration of this point is that the Church always possessed and celebrated all of the sacraments, even though that was centuries before the word “sacrament” came to identify them and even longer before the magisterium finally numbered them at seven. Now, among the powers entrusted to the Church by Christ are certain ones over marriage, authority that she has, in greater or lesser degrees and with fewer or more detailed explanations, faithfully exercised over the centuries.

The basic authority of the Church over the Pauline Privilege can be traced to Scripture though many centuries were required for the exercise of this authority to take its present form; the power of the Church over non-consummated Christian marriages (say, in the context of spouses seeking to enter religious life) emerged clearly only in the Middle Ages; and not quite a hundred years ago the power of the Church over the marriages of Christians with non-baptized persons began to be exercised to the point that, in recent decades, it now encompasses virtually every fact pattern imaginable under that heading and even includes some marriages between two non-baptized persons that do not meet the traditional Pauline requirements.

But throughout her long history, even in the last one hundred years of rapid expansion in the scope wherein Church authority over marriage is exercised, the refusal, nay inability (CCC 1640) of the Church to attempt to dissolve a consummated Christian marriage has been steadily and unambiguously proclaimed. As typical of dozens and dozens of papal, conciliar, dicasterial, episcopal, and scholarly assertions of the divinely-grounded, complete indissolubility enjoyed by consummated Christian marriage that have been issued over the centuries, let one statement from Pope Pius XII made to the Roman Rota in 1941 serve:

It is superfluous before a judicial body such as yours, but does not distract from Our remarks, to repeat that a ratified and consummated marriage is by divine law indissoluble, in that it cannot be dissolved by any human power; meanwhile other marriages, though they are intrinsically indissoluble, do not have an absolute extrinsic indissolubility, and, given certain necessary presuppositions, can (and it does occur, as is known, in relatively rare cases) be dissolved, whether by virtue of the Pauline privilege or by the Roman Pontiff by virtue of his ministerial power.*

So instead of starting with the Petrine Privilege and asking, Could these principles be extended so far as to impugn the indissolubility of consummated Christian marriage?, try starting with the divinely-demanded, complete indissolubility of consummated Christian marriage on earth and ask, Can any institute, theory, or argument—short of one obviously betraying the teachings of Jesus—detract from that truth?

I say, No.

*È superfluo avanti a un Collegio giuridico qual è il vostro, ma non disdice al Nostro discorso il ripetere che il matrimonio rato e consumato è per diritto divino indissolubile, in quanto che non può essere sciolto da nessuna potestà umana ([1917 CIC] can. 1118); mentre gli altri matrimoni, sebbene intrinsecamente siano indissolubili, non hanno però una indissolubilità estrinseca assoluta, ma, dati certi necessari presupposti, possono (si tratta, come è noto, di casi relativamente ben rari) essere sciolti, oltre che in forza del privilegio Paolino, dal Romano Pontefice in virtù della sua potestà ministeriale. (From, here, my trans. and emphasis above.)

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

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About Edward N. Peters 120 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.


  1. This is the clearest explanation I’ve had of the differences and individual scope of the Pauline Privilege and Petrine Privilege [may it ever remain as clear]. And the article fully explains that the Petrine Privilege does not effect an exception to the integrity of the indissolubility of marriage. My thanks.

  2. . The real diocesan world however did not have the clarity of ideas taking place in actuality. New York and Newark were shunting Petrine cases into their nullity track. I know this intimately thru a person and I smiled wryly years later when I saw John T. Noonan Jr. give major city figures for such cases of ” in favor of the faith”….in 1979 Chicago and Los Angeles
    had 87 and 86 respectively….several years later New York, an extreme diversity city, had three year totals of 6,0, and 12. In 2002 Africa had one case in the same year that the US had 649. The CDF expressed concern about diocesan non cooperation because they had taken pains to disseminate the process in a host of languages. Ed would find chapter 26 of “The Church That Can and Cannot Change” by Noonan interesting on this topic as to diocesan reality versus the ideals of the law.

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