Christian historians

24/7/05

Just been reading (or rather skimming) William Kelly, Pope Gregory II on Divorce and Remarriage (Rome, 1976), a bizarre exercise in Catholic canon law/theology. This devotes 300+ pages to an analysis of 6 lines of a letter from 726 by Pope Gregory II which allows the remarriage of a man whose wife is so ill as to be incapable of intercourse. Kelly’s aim is to prove that the church’s teachings on indissoluble marriage has always been consistent throughout history, because ‘If it were established that the Church’s present teaching about indissolubility reflected only one aspect of Western tradition, that teaching would be much more vulnerable, more open to question…’ [For what it’s worth, I don’t think Kelly does show church teaching as consistent. He argues convincingly that the most likely case being dealt with is what he calls ‘antecedent impotence’ (the woman was unable to have intercourse at the time of marriage). He also shows that from the eighth century onwards, clerical writers are arguing that antecedent impotence in men makes a marriage invalid, and that therefore it’s likely that this was held to apply to a woman as well. So far, so good. But as he shows, there’s no discussion of antecedent impotence before the seventh century in the church. Given the early church’s stress on the indissolubility of marriage, it seems likely that therefore they implicitly considered a marriage in these circumstances as valid (especially since consummation wasn’t seen as a necessary part of marriage). In other words, while the eighth century pronouncements on antecedent impotence may not have contradicted any explicit earlier views, they probably were at odds with the church’s previous teaching: hence the doctrine has changed.]
The wider point this got me thinking about was how difficult a devout Catholic historian’s life is when researching the Middle Ages. Does he/she admit all the problems, corruption and dubious doctrines of the medieval church or pretend that it was all OK really because of infallibility, consistency etc? In contrast, being a liberal Protestant historian of the early medieval church, as I am, is a spiritual doddle. I can blame all the bad points of the church on Catholic bad influence or misunderstandings, while taking all the good aspects as an example of the preservation of the authentic apostolic tradition. (I suspect it would be harder to be an Anglican historian of the sixteenth/seventeenth century, when you could get a close up view of just how nasty and intolerant the Church of England has historically been). The one really difficult point of my years studying church views on morality has been realising how accepting the church was right from the earliest times about the institution of slavery: that is a depressing thought.

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