January 14, 2023

Now online: S. Augustine, “Concerning Adulterous Marriages, to Pollentius” (1550)

S. Augustine, Concerning Adulterous Marriages, to Pollentius (1550)

This translation of a work by Saint Augustine played a profound role in shaping the course of the English Reformation. One of the key topics (of great influence on the present day) was the subject of divorce and remarriage. The great Anglican texts on this question, by Edmund Bunnius, John Howson, John Dove, John Udall and others, had not yet been written. However the debates already raged. Late-medieval Roman Catholics taught that marriage was a sacrament; it being indissoluble was because it was a Sacrament (albeit with a dozen clauses allowing such a breaking, in typical Roman casuistry). Reformers saw from history that ‘marriage as a sacrament’ was at a novel doctrine only recently defined; which seemed to mean that it was less supernatural and mystical, and more pragmatic and utilitarian. Thus most Reformers were comfortable with divorce and even remarriage, as we detail here and here. An astute observer could note that if left unchecked this would lead to the secularisation and dissolution of holy matrimony we see in the present day.

What were the leaders of the English Reformation to do, given the prestige of the Reformers but the scary consequence which this teaching would lead to; and the apparent safety of the Roman teaching, yet cloaked in the novel and superstitious language of the sacraments?

The answer for the English Church, here as elsewhere, was in the ancient Church Fathers. It is into this debate that this text enters: a work by Saint Augustine which centrally examines the question of divorce and remarriage (and peripherally the link of indissolubility to it being a sacrament).

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No less important is the fact that it is in English, in an era when all Patristic works were studied in the original Latin and Greek. By laying out St. Augustine’s argument against any kind of divorce/remarriage, in English, without marriage ever having to be called a Sacrament, this text played an explosive role in shaping this debate for the English Church. The new ideas of the Reformers paled in comparison with the eminence of Saint Augustine. The novelties of Roman sacramental theology became likewise exposed and refuted. Indissolubility of marriage could be protected, without having to rely on errant Roman sacramental theology. Saint Augustine showed the way.

After this text was published in 1550, the inroads of allowance for divorce/remarriage quickly stopped. Under Queen Elizabeth, new canons promulgated by Archbishop Parker taught that “Matrimonium inter Christianos legitime juxta Verbum Dei initum & contractum, est indissolubile” (A legitimate Matrimony between Christians, initiated & contracted in accord with the Word of God, is indissoluble). Edmund Bunnius, John Howson, and other eminent men of the 1580s and 1590s engaged and roundly defeated any teachings to the contrary. Finally the 1604 Canons, officially forbidding divorce and remarriage, had effectively closed the issue.

It all started from this 1550 translation of S. Augustine, thereby making it one of the most influential translations in the entire 16th century. Enjoy!

S. Augustine, Concerning Adulterous Marriages, to Pollentius (1550)