Of Blessings, Marriage and Relationships. Notes on the (troubled) History of Second Nuptials.

[this is the translation of the original post in French : https://histcatho.hypotheses.org/131]

The history of the refusal and tolerance of second nuptials in ancient and medieval Christianity is well known. In the early Christian centuries, as the Fathers of the Church attest, second marriages were at best only tolerated. Basil thus considers that second marriages are not really worthy of the name (letter 188). Second marriages are the object of canonical provisions which mark the reprobation that weighs on them. Thus, remarriage is forbidden to priests. When the doctrine of the sacraments became more precise, especially from the 12th century onwards, the inclusion of marriage in a properly sacramental space initially led medieval reformers to reaffirm the ascetic refusal of second marriages. From the 13th century onwards, however, the tolerance of second marriages regained ground. AroundTrent, a certain number of shifts are noticeable. The Council Fathers were confronted with the question of the practice of second marriages (including those outside of widowhood) in the Greek-Catholic churches of the Venetian Mediterranean. They reaffirmed the Latin discipline on the indissolubility of marriage, without condemning the Eastern practice. If canon 10 of session 24 reaffirms the superiority of virginity, it does so without specific mention of the case of second marriages. If the ascetic discourse on the latter remains negative, particularly in certain styles of early modern Catholicism (notably in Jansenism), the clergy seems have discouraged the practice less and less. Yet, in 1917, the Code of Canon Law still states that a “chaste widowhood” is “more honorable” than a second marriage, which is nevertheless valid and licit (can. 1142). It was not until the twentieth century, therefore, that second marriages lost the stigma that had long been associated with them in Catholicism. The 1983 Code of Canon Law is completely silent on the subject.

What I’d like to return to here is the liturgical dimension of this history. Indeed, one of the ways in which Christian communities and their clergy have shown their disapproval of second marriages is by refusing to bless them. Both the Latin and Eastern churches shared this refusal. In some Greek liturgical traditions, a second wedding is thus the object of a ceremony without blessing and without crowns where prayers are pronounced on the married couple imploring the mercy of God in their favor, which the fault they commit by remarrying requires. Early modern commentators find the Eastern churches more severe than the Latin churches in this respect

In the Latin church, a simple absence of blessing prevails. It can, however, be rigorously affirmed: the canons of Aelfric of Eynsham (c. 998) forbid priests to bless second weddings, impose a penance on offenders, and forbid them to attend the festivities that accompany them. In the Rationale Divinorum Officiorum (1286), William Durand argues that second marriages are unable to signify the mystical union of Christ and the Church (one of the arguments Augustine uses against second marriages). Practices also seem to have varied considerably in time and space, as well as in terms of respect for norms. G. Mollat thus considers that many clerics at the end of the Middle Ages openly challenged the prohibition of blessings for second nuptials.. 

Around the Council of Trent, at a time of clarification of canon law on marriage, this discipline evolved considerably both in relation to the blessing of second marriages and, more broadly, in relation to the liturgical environment of their celebrations. In the case of France, a 1538 manual from Toulouse still explicitly forbids the blessing of second weddings without distinction; it is again published in 1552 without modification; another from Lyon in 1542, on the other hand, allows the blessing of a man’s second marriage, if local custom allows it, as it does in the diocese, but not that of a woman; another from Urgel in 1540 distinguishes between four nuptial blessings according to the previous situation of each spouse. The Rituale Sacramentorum of St. Francis de Sales (1612) also refuses the blessing of a woman’s second wedding and asks that the matrimonial rite without a blessing be done outside of mass; this blessing, however, includes the blessing of the ring. Prescriptions of the same type can be found in Chartres in 1627. On the other hand, in the Ypres ritual of 1639, it seems that mass is authorized in the case of a second wedding. The Roman ritual of Paul V (1615) still states a general prohibition of blessing second weddings but also considers the possibility of blessing the second marriage of a man, where custom allows.

Gradually, what the Roman ritual allowed, became the rule (and no longer a customary tolerance). A man’s second wedding was blessed, a woman’s was not. The discipline was still in force at the beginning of the twentieth century and was taken up again in the missal of 1925. Commentators justified the omission not by the stigma attached to remarriage, or, like Guillaume Durand, by its lack of sacramental significance, but by the fact that the wife having already received this blessing, which is addressed specifically to her at her first marriage, she cannot receive it again since this blessing remains upon her. As is also often the case, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liturgists sought to reduce the historical and geographical diversity of the second marriage blessing and to smooth out its history in order to justify the practice that became common after the Council of Trent. This is, for example what Jean-Pierre Gibert tries to do in 1725 in his Tradition ou Histoire de l’Eglise sur le sacrement de Mariage, not without great difficulty because of the variety of sources with which he is confronted (cf. supra; I rely on him among other sources).

As for the current rituals, they do not seem to care much about such matters anymore, apart from a few omissions in the details of the nuptial blessings.

Some final remarks in the present situation and in the context of the CDF recent statement.

First of all, the understanding of blessing has profoundly evolved in the Latin Church over time. At some point, Catholic churches began to bless what they did not previously bless and gradually relaxed their rules, at the same time as they standardized them. As is often the case, this historicity seems to have no place in the thinking of many theologians.

At no time in this history is there any question of blessing relationships. From this point of view the CDF note breaks quite remarkably with the liturgical tradition: the Church blesses people (together or separately) to invoke God’s grace upon them. At the same time, this break is certainly coherent of the evolution of marriage theology in the twentieth century and the way it has substantialized and hypostatized the matrimonial relationship.

As is often the case, the Eastern churches’ liturgical practice that economically articulates individual and ecclesial temporalities. In some ways the severe discipline of the early Eastern centuries might open up resources for thinking about the situation of LGBT Christians even (if not first) for those who think that the current teaching on homosexuality holds and is theologically sound. Perhaps this is a better starting point for the discussion in the current situation of disagreement.

In the recent evolution of the Catholic discourse on conjugality, the reduction of marriage to its procreative end turns the question of second marriages into a blind spot. In return, this question is revealing of the contradictions and aporias of the contemporary evolution of the discourse on marriage in contemporary Catholicism. In some ways, it may even point to a form de-theologization of that very discourse.

[this note was written too quickly, and is meant to evolve according to complementary research, as well as with an easier access to the bibliography].

Bibliographical orientations

Hélène Bricout, Le Mariage entre consentement et bénédiction, Paris, 2015.

James A. Brundage, Law Sex And Christian Society in Medieval Europe, 1987.

James A. Brundage, « Widows dan Remarriage. Moral COnflicts and Their Resolution in Classical Canon Law »,, dans Sue Sheridan Walker, Wife and widow in Medieval England, Ann Arbor Mich., 1993, 17‑32.

Cristian Crisan, « Divorce, dissolution du lien et deuxième mariage dans les Eglises Orientales », L’année canonique, 2016-1, 135-158.

Carlo Jemolo, Il matrimonio nel diritto canonico. Dal Concilio di Trento al Codice del 1917, Il Mulino, Bologne, 1993

Charlotte Methuen, “The ‘Virgin Widow’: A Problematic Social Role for the Early Church?” Harvard Theological Review 90 (1997): 285–298.

Guillaume Mollat, « La bénédiction des secondes noces » dans Etudes d’histoire de droit canonique dédiées à Gabriel Le Bras, Paris, 1965, p. 1337-1339.

Giancarlo Pani, « Matrimonio e ”seconde nozze” al Concilio di Trento », La Civiltà Cattolica, 3943, 2014: https://www.laciviltacattolica.it/articolo/matrimonio-e-seconde-nozze-al-concilio-di-trento/


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