The conversations on marriage and family life brought to a boil by the recently-concluded Extraordinary Synod of Bishops have unsurprisingly continued, and it is important for Catholics to turn to our tradition to gain insight into these issues. In that light, an ongoing debate between Mark Silk, who writes for Religious News Service, and Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times, hinges on two heresies of the early church, Novatianism and Donatism.

Silk’s analysis builds on the now commonplace analysis that the synod has revealed a division between “rigorists” concerned with upholding the church’s traditional understanding of homosexuality and divorce, and “reformists” or “gradualists” seeking a more merciful, pastoral approach. Before going any further, I want to lay my cards on the table, given the controversy surrounding these issues. In general I agree with the perspective of the “reformists” and with the pastoral lines proposed in the synod’s “mid-term report” (and in fact I think some of them could have pushed further).  Even so, I think that terms such as “rigorism” and “gradualism” are unhelpful because they do not provide an adequate description of the disagreement at stake here; these terms presuppose a legalistic interpretation of Catholic morality and practice, and in fact part of the problem we are facing is that we are not using better language to talk about these issues. Also, although I agree with the general pastoral approach proposed by the “reformists,” I find their arguments for admitting the divorced and remarried to communion unconvincing, even if our present pastoral approach is unsatisfactory, as well. My purpose in analyzing the exchange between Silk and Douthat is to illustrate some of my concerns with the “reformist” position.

In a recent column, Silk compares today’s “rigorists” with the Novatianists and Donatists of yore:

 The Church’s struggle with rigorism goes back to days when it was persecuted by a not-yet-converted Roman Empire. In the middle of the third century, followers of the Roman priest Novatian opposed Pope Cornelius for being too ready to accept lapsed Christians back into the church; the Novatians [sic] also opposed second marriages. In the early fourth century, the Donatists held that sacraments were invalid if they were administered by priests who had handed over the Scriptures to the authorities as an emblem of their rejection of Christianity during the persecution of Diocletian.

In a series of tweets (available here, at Silk’s later post), Douthat responded to Silk’s claim, arguing that today’s rigorists are not refusing penance to anyone, but rather asking “what counts as repentance, when is repentance necessary, what kind of repentance do some sins require, etc.” He adds that references to ancient heresies are little help in solving today’s problems.

Silk has responded that on one of the key issues under discussion, communion for the divorced and remarried, it is the reformers who have indeed proposed a penitential path toward full communion for the remarried, while the rigorists have denied this option. He also adds that the ancient heresies are directly relevant because the Novatianists opposed second marriages.

Having recently written that in discussing these essential matters of marriage and family life, we Catholics should model the sort of respectful and loving communication needed within families, I must agree with Douthat that slinging accusations of heresy is not very helpful. That being said, drawing on the classic definition of a heresy as one truth exaggerated at the expense of others, it can still be useful to consider the heresies of the past to help us become aware of how we might be unduly emphasizing certain aspects of our faith at the expense of others. If we are to do that, however, we have to be very sensitive to the historical and ecclesial context of the heresies under discussion and of our own situation.

When looking at the Novatianists and Donatists, a crucial thing we have to keep in mind is that the experience of repentance and reconciliation in the early church was quite different from today. First, the confession of sins was done publicly, in front of the Christian congregation, rather than in private with a priest, as today. Second, the penance itself was also very public, and lengthy; a penitent could only return to Eucharistic participation at the end of their penance, in many cases lasting several years. Finally, at least in many cases, penance was available only once in the life of the believer; after that, the sinner was in the hands of God’s mercy. Therefore, “rigorism” is a relative concept; even orthodox Christianity in the early church was quite a bit more “rigorous” than anything on offer in the twenty-first century Catholic Church.

A second important historical consideration, which Silk notes, is that both Novatianism and Donatism were responses to those Christians who compromised their faith in the face of persecution—Novatianism after the Decian persecution of the 3rd century, the Donatists after that of Diocletian in the early 4th. Despite this similarity, however, Silk too easily lumps together these two distinct movements.

Novatianism arose out of disputes over the proper role of penance in the Christian community. The question of whether Christians could repent of sins after baptism arose as early as the second century. The author of the Shepherd of Hermas writes against those who hold that penance is unavailable to the baptized (Book 3, Sim. 8). On the other hand, in his On Modesty, Tertullian argues that those who have committed serious sins after receiving God’s forgiveness in baptism cannot receive penance within the church, and must rely entirely on God’s mercy. Tertullian wrote On Modesty after he had become affiliated with the Montanist heresy; although better known today for its advocacy of ecstatic prophecy, Montanism also held its believers to strict standards and denied repentance for serious sins. Although a distinct movement, Novatianism drew from and in some cases overlapped with Montanism. Novatian was greatly influenced by Tertullian, and in Phrygia, in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), Novatian’s followers became part of the Montanist group.

Returning to our discussion of marriage, Silk is incorrect to compare the Novatianists to today’s rigorists in opposing remarriage. Although Silk does not cite it, our primary source that the Novatianists opposed “second marriage” comes from canon 8 of the Council of Nicaea, which states:

 Concerning those who call themselves Cathari [i.e., the Novatianists—MS], if they come over to the Catholic and Apostolic Church, the great and holy Synod decrees that they who are ordained shall continue as they are in the clergy. But it is before all things necessary that they should profess in writing that they will observe and follow the dogmas of the Catholic and Apostolic Church; in particular that they will communicate with persons who have been twice married, and with those who having lapsed in persecution have had a period [of penance] laid upon them, and a time [of restoration] fixed so that in all things they will follow the dogmas of the Catholic Church.

When the canon refers to the “twice married,” however, it is almost certainly referring to widows or widowers who have remarried, not to the divorced whose first spouses are still alive. The issue of the remarriage of widows and widowers was closely tied to the broader debate on penance in the early church. The early Christians took seriously Paul’s advice that a widow was better off not remarrying (1 Cor. 7:8-9, 39-40), and the author of 1 Timothy already insists that a woman recognized as a “widow” by the church should be “married only once” (5:9, although he also encourages younger widows to remarry, 5:11-15). The Montanists forbade the remarriage of widows, and Tertullian condemned the remarriage of widows in his On Monogamy; even an orthodox writer such as Athenagoras made a similar argument in his A Plea for the Christians (ch. 33). Novatianism represented the persistence of this idea into the third century, and this was the live issue at the time of Nicaea, not communion for the divorced and remarried.

Although clearly arising out of the same atmosphere of moral rigorism as Novatianism, Donatism was much more focused on the pastoral problems arising from the fact that priests and bishops had been guilty of handing over Bibles and sacred vessels, and at times even fellow Christians, during the time of persecution. The Donatists did not deny penance for all those who had committed serious sins, as the Novatianists did, but rather struggled with how to reincorporate priests and bishops who had betrayed their faith.

Once we remember what penance was like in the early church, it is easy to see the dilemma for the Donatists. The lengthy period of penance made it practically impossible for a priest to carry out his duties: How could a priest celebrate the Eucharist that he himself could not partake in for several years? How could the priest reconcile sinful Christians to the church if he himself was not in a state of full reconciliation with the church, and especially if his sin had been the betrayal of the church? These were not easy questions, and it was even a common practice among orthodox Christians for a priest in such a situation to return to the lay state. The Donatists also engaged in this practice, but also at times required priests to be re-ordained, or even re-baptized, as part of a process of penance.

That is why Donatism is traditionally not considered first of all a heresy about penance, which in principle it did not deny, but rather concerning the efficacy of the sacraments. The Donatists understandably questioned the efficacy of sacraments performed by bishops and priests who themselves were not fully reconciled with the church. This belief was challenged by St. Optatus, and more fully by St. Augustine, who argued that the efficacy of the sacraments arises ex opere operato, that is, through the efficacy of God’s grace through the sacraments themselves, and not ex opere operantis, through the person performing the sacrament.

So how useful is a study of these heresies to the present discussion of divorce and remarriage? We have already seen that Silk wrongly compares the Novatianists to today’s “rigorists” on the question of remarriage. I think he is also wrong to compare them on the issue of penance in general. Although Silk is right to point out that it is those such as Cardinal Walter Kasper who have proposed a path of penance for the divorced a remarried on the way to communion, his claim needs further scrutiny.

In an interview with Commonweal, Kasper makes it clear that this penitential process is concerned with penance for the divorce itself:

 The failure of a first marriage is not only related to bad sexual behavior. It can come from a failure to realize what was promised before God and before the other partner and the church. Therefore, it failed; there were shortcomings. This has to be confessed.

But the reason current Catholic practice forbids communion for the divorced and remarried is not the divorce, but rather the remarriage. The church distinguishes between the civil and legal reality of marriage, which could be ended through divorce or separation, and the sacramental reality, which is indissoluble. So while civil divorce is a sin against the indissolubility of marriage, if repented of it does not provide an obstacle to communion because legal separation can coexist with a recognition of the marriage’s indissolubility. Subsequent remarriage, on the other hand, represents a repudiation of the previous marriage’s indissolubility, and therefore, as the Catholic Church sees it, is an ongoing sin. Kasper’s proposal blurs this distinction between the divorce and the subsequent remarriage, losing sight of what actually bars someone from communion. Therefore it seems that, at least on this issue, the “rigorists” have a point that “mercy” here means doing away with the sin.

At the risk of stirring controversy, it is worth noting that in the same interview with Commonweal, Kasper claims, or approvingly cites Pope Francis as claiming (in a private conversation), that fifty percent of Catholic marriages are in fact invalid because “you have to ask whether there was faith, and whether they really accepted all the conditions of a valid sacramental marriage—that is, unity, exclusivity, and also indissolubility.” It is unclear how Kasper sees this as connected to his proposal for the divorced and remarried, although his original presentation to a consistory of cardinals in February suggests that he believes that many of the divorces in question arise because the marriage was invalid, but this situation could not be dealt with through the church’s juridical procedures for annulment.

But don’t we here also see the threat of Donatism? Of course, unlike the other sacraments, marriage does require a level of commitment on the part of the participants for its validity. On the other hand, does any couple truly fathom the mystery of marriage and what it entails on the day of their wedding? I think a truly Catholic approach has to affirm that the sacrament of marriage itself is what enables a married couple to live out the unity, exclusivity, and indissolubility of marriage, despite their sinfulness, and not the full understanding or heroic virtue of the couple. Of course, the sacraments are ecclesial realities, and so the marriage also depends on the support of the church community, as well as the efforts of the couple, but these efforts are dependent on the grace of the sacrament itself. I believe that Kasper’s proposal risks ignoring this insight, risks denying the efficaciy of the sacrament, seeking mercy through a non-sacramental accommodation rather than through the church’s sacrament itself. After all, the Donatists proposed the repetition of sacraments—baptism, ordination—as a form of mercy for sinners, thinking sin had rendered the first sacrament invalid. Is the argument for a second marriage (albeit a non-sacramental one) any different?