Peter Hünermann’s errors about marriage and their influence today

One of the figures who emerged from the shadows through the Lettergate scandal, is German liberal (wrong) theologian Peter Hünermann.   Benedict XVI had a strong negative reaction to finding him among the writers of the series that was intended to bolster Pope Francis’ theological cred.  Benedict declined having anything to do with the project.  His letter was twisted and weaponized and the rest is ongoing history.

Of course it had to happen that libs would immediately defend Hünermann and his greatness against the cold intractability of Ratzinger.  Some young and self-promoting theological enthusiasts happily sit at Hünermann’s feet.  Hünermann writings on marriage seem to have influenced Pope Francis’ document Amoris laetitia.    Therefore, he needs attention.

At Crisis, he got some attention.  There find a piece which pulls Hünermann – on marriage – apart at the seams.  The writer shows how Hünermann misread Papa Ratti‘s 1930 Casti connubii and, hence, goes down a wrong track and into a theological dead end.   I can’t help but think that people as smart as Hünermann know they are going the wrong way, but they want the wrong way to be the right way so badly that they throw what they know to be true overboard for the sake of their own desires and, ultimately, self-promotion.

Hünermann’s “Way Forward” is a Dead End


Since the theological ideas of Hünermann have exercised considerable influence over Pope Francis, it is worth looking at what the German theologian thinks about the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage, on which he claims to have advised the pope.

In an interview in 2016 published in Commonweal, Hünermann replied to the following question related to the indissolubility of marriage: “Can you say something about how you understand the theology of marriage, as you conveyed it to the pope?”

By way of answer, Hünermann turns his sights on the great papal encyclical of Pope Pius IX, On Christian Marriage (Casti Connubii, 1930). He says the encyclical’s account of marriage was “not informed by systematic theology” and so “could not deal satisfactorily with the complexities of the situation we face today.” And then responding to those “complexities” he proposes as “a way forward” a rejection of the doctrine of the absolute indissolubility of a consummated Christian marriage.

Hünermann’s account, however, is problematic in three ways: (1) it misconstrues Catholic tradition on marriage and the sacrament; (2) it badly misreads and so misrepresents Casti Connubii; and (3) it proposes a false (indeed a heretical) “pastoral solution.

A mature sacramental understanding of marriage, as Hünermann rightly notes, did not develop until the Middle Ages. But (pace Hünermann) this had little influence on the Church’s ancient understanding of marriage’s indissolubility. The Catholic Church taught from apostolic times that all marriages, natural and sacramental, are indissoluble. The Fathers of East and West affirmed this unanimously, as the great patristic historian Henri Crouzel showed. And Trent infallibly defined the absolute indissolubility of sacramental marriage as an irreformable dogma of faith, as I show in my book on the The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent. The Eastern Church formally denied the doctrine of indissolubility in the ninth century; and Luther and Calvin denied it for Protestant Christianity in the sixteenth century. But the Catholic Church has maintained its teaching uninterrupted till today. [But we don’t change our teachings to match those of the Orthodox or of Protestants.  Or we shouldn’t.]

Hünermann claims that the author of Casti Connubii did not know that the indissolubility of marriage comes from its nature, that marriage, as Jesus teaches, was indissoluble “from the beginning” (Matt. 19:8-9). Hünermann says Casti teaches that marriage is made indissoluble by the sacrament: “marriage is transformed in sacramental reality in that it becomes indissoluble.” This is a misrepresentation. Casti does no more than affirm the correlation between marriage’s sacramentality and its indissolubility. Casti nowhere denies that the natural covenant is indissoluble, and even suggests it in paragraph numbers 8-10. Indeed, how could it deny it? Jesus explicitly taught the indissolubility of natural marriage in the Gospels, and the Church authoritatively affirmed it for twenty centuries.   [This is why I think that these lib theologians, especially the self-mesmerizing Germans, are so duplicitous.]

But it is true that Pius reaffirms only the absolute indissolubility of consummated sacramental marriages. (After all, his encyclical was on Christian marriage.) The pope was no doubt aware of the fact that at Trent, some fathers, although a minority, believed that natural, non-sacramental marriage was only indissoluble to the couple themselves, but that the Church could dissolve their marriages. In order not to definitively resolve this question, the Council chose only to resolve the question of whether consummated Christian marriages were absolutely indissoluble; and in Canons 5 and 7 of its teaching on the Sacrament of Matrimony, Trent did precisely this.

The text of Casti Connubii illustrates that Pius knew well the theology of the sacrament of marriage; and that he knew too that the early Church’s use of the term “sacrament” was as yet undeveloped. In Casti’s discussion of Augustine’s three “boni”—three goods—of marriage (CC, no. 31-36), Pius carefully avoids implying that Augustine’s use of the term “sacramentum” is coextensive with the Church’s later developed understanding of the same term. In fact, when Pius refers to Augustine’s use of the term “sacramentum” (e.g., CC, no. 31), Pius uses capitals (“SACRAMENTUM”) to indicate it is Augustine’s and not the Church’s developed sense by which the term should be construed at that point in his text. Unfortunately, the English translation confusingly drops the capitals.  [For more, check out the voice “SACRAMENTUM” in Augustinus Lexicon.]

The upshot of Hünermann’s account is to say that because Pius misunderstood the history and nature of the sacrament of marriage, the Church can now finally acknowledge that marriage is dissoluble. Hünermann writes:

So there is a way forward… If indissolubility refers to the nature of marriage, it is quite clear that [due to a failure of human cooperation] it can break down. Situations can arise where it is impossible to continue in marriage. If there are children and so on, one has to deal with the individual situation and attempt to find a pastoral solution. [Of course, you are asking how those situations are any different from the situations people have experienced all through the history of the human race.  Just because we have lived in the 20th and 21st centuries doesn’t mean that our conditions of life are so qualitatively different that we merit some special dispensation that results in a change in the Church’s – Christ’s – perennial teaching.]

But Hünermann’s “way forward” is a dead end. Because although it is true that the society of a marriage (i.e., the community of married life) can and often does break down, the Catholic Church at Trent infallibly rejected the claim that the bond (the “vinculum”) of a consummated sacramental marriage can break down. So what is “quite clear” is quite the opposite of what Hünermann claims. Nothing but the death of one of the spouses can dissolve (“break down”) a consummated sacramental marriage.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. JustaSinner says:

    Catholic or in the case of Hunnerman, catholic, theologians that are lay people have always bothered me. They want to get all pontifical and pious and such, but didn’t go the vocational calling route. I guess in my book it’s like all the civilian workers in the Dept of Defense. They want to play soldier, get paid the big bucks, but NO WAY would they want a commission and the UCMJ and chain of command. Never respected the Pentagon weenie civies and feel the same about lay ‘theologians’.

  2. Malta says:

    “The Eastern Church formally denied the doctrine of indissolubility in the ninth century” This is actually extremely interesting to me. I was tempted to join the Eastern Church due to the priestly abuse scandals. I was like, “God, why would you allow this to happen?” But then I made a vow, after a mystical experience where i saw the suffering face of Christ, to almost suffer in the Roman Catholic Church. I’m just going to go forward fighting for our Faith. And there are very good prelates in it, like Fr. Z. My spiritual advisor is another priest (he is brilliant, and knows five languages) who helps me in the faith, and keeps from despair over the nasty priests out there.

  3. ChrisP says:

    The genius of Benedict XVI is even more apparent after Lettergate. IMHO, his reply translates as:

    – thanks, but if you think I’m going to sully my final days on Earth with this flim-flammery. Nah.
    – if you think Pope Francis doesn’t understand theology on this, you’re wrong. He and his influences, esp. Hunermann, know EXACTLY what they’re doing.
    – however, I’m living proof that not all German’s are pastoral train-wrecks. Pray for us.

  4. tamranthor says:

    Would it not be more honest for Mr. Hunermann to say, “I want to commit adultery, so I want the Church to say that adultery is just peachy?” After a fashion, it becomes clear that the heretics who produce this brand of “theology” are simply trying to justify their particular sin.

    Were the Church to declare that gluttony was no longer one of the seven deadlies, my struggle would be over! (Not really. But, for illustration’s sake.)

    Is it not more efficacious to pick up that cross and get on down the road? This requires the long view, something very few heretics seems to be able to claim. It also requires the acceptance that, in this life, happiness may be fleeting and the easy life hard to come by, but rather than embracing the world and all its tragedy, it might be of more comfort to look to heaven than to look toward that Ol’ Scratch.

  5. Andrew says:

    It looks like somebody in the fifth century was not confused about this:

    Omnes igitur causationes Apostolus amputans, apertissime definivit, vivente viro adulteram esse mulierem, si alteri nupserit. Nolo mihi proferas raptoris violentiam, matris persuasionem, patris auctoritatem, propinquorum catervam, servorum insidias atque contemptum, damna rei familiaris. Quamdiu vivit vir, licet adulter sit, licet sodomita, licet flagitiis omnibus coopertus, et ab uxore propter haec scelera derelictus, maritus eius reputatur, cui alterum virum accipere non licet. Nec Apostolus haec propria auctoritate decernit, sed Christo in se loquente, Christi verba secutus est, qui ait in Evangelio: “Qui dimittit uxorem suam, excepta causa fornicationis, facit eam moechari: et qui dimissam acceperit, adulter est.” Animadverte quid dicat: “Qui dimissam acceperit, adulter est.” Sive ipsa dimiserit virum, sive a viro dimissa sit, adulter est qui eam acceperit. Unde et Apostoli gravem coniugii sarcinam intelligentes: “Si ita est” inquiunt “non expedit homini uxorem accipere.” Ad quos Dominus: “Qui potest capere, capiat”. Statimque sub exemplo trium eunuchorum, virginitatis infert beatitudinem, quae nulla carnis lege tenetur. (Hieronymus: ep. 55)

    The Apostle, dismissing all excuses, defined most clearly that a woman whose husband is alive is an adulteress, if she marries another. Don’t talk to me about violence, the mother’s plea, the father’s authority, the multitude of relatives, the contempt and the plotting of associates, the household’s bankruptcy. While the man lives, even if he is an adulterer, a sodomite, the worst peace of human garbage, and on account of all these things abandoned by the wife, he is her husband, and she cannot accept another. Nor did the Apostle decree this on his own authority, but he speaks the words of Christ who says in the Gospel: “But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Notice what he says: “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Whether she herself abandoned him, whether she was abandoned by him, the one who accepts her is an adulterer. Whence the Apostles considering the serious weight of marriage said: “”If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” To which the Lord replied: “let the one who can accept this, accept it.” And right away, under the example of the three eunuchs, he proposes the beauty of virginity which is not subject to any carnal law. (S. Jerome, letter 55)

  6. MundaCorMeum says:

    The article states that the Eastern Church formally denied the doctrine of indissolubility in the ninth century. Does anyone know whether the Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome similarly continue to deny this doctrine; and if so, why the renunciation of this denial would not be a condition for full communion given its importance?

  7. TonyO says:

    In an interview in 2016 published in Commonweal,

    Can anything good come from Commonweal?

    Now, to some of you that question might seem like hyperbole, since after all SOME of the articles have been (at some point in the past) quite OK. Seemingly. But let me put it to you: Is not Commonweal fully committed to innovation in theology? I have not dipped my reading into Commonweal very often, but when I have, INVARIABLY I have come across some piece of innovative business or other.

    In some fields of endeavor, innovation is OK. In some, it is a positive good. But NOT in theology. Theology is inherently conservative. It is the pope’s job to hand down what he received, not to make up what he finds lacking. It is the Church’s job to teach what Christ taught, to pass on what the Apostles gave us, to PRESERVE the word whole and entire and pristine. In theology, any good theologian is cautious around innovation. Nay, in most cases he should be positively suspicious of it. He should test it, scrutinize it, prod and poke and worry at it, and most of all give it time to show its true colors, “by its fruits you shall know it”. He does not jump on bandwagons of innovative theology. Almost by definition, any innovative bandwagon is theology going bad.

    And I think it indisputable that even though Commonweal has had solid pieces without a whiff of innovation, its bent is toward innovative theology. One might as well say that it is hell-bent for innovation, for in theology that’s what it means.

    Can anything good come from Commonweal?

  8. Malta says:

    MundaCorMeum: some Catholics have a misunderstanding of the Eastern Churches (I think in particular the Greek Orthodox church can teach us a lot in this time of almost heretical unbelief in the West–I do have Icons I pray through)–and not just those in communion with Rome. Here is what I wrote for a MS under consideration (and this might seem ironic for a Traditionalist who has previously written a published piece against aspects of Vatican II):

    “One of the crowning achievements and effects of the Second Vatican Council
    (notwithstanding its many deleterious effects) was a growing rapprochement between the
    Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic West. During and after the Council the
    attitude on the part of prelates, and the Catholic populace in general, became more
    positive towards the East: mutual excommunications were lifted, and in times of
    necessity Catholics were enjoined to receive Orthodox sacraments [Cf. Code of Canon
    Law, c. 846, sec. 2, in Code of Canon Law: Latin English Edition, Washington D.C. :
    Canon Law Society of America, 1999]. Orthodox visitors to Catholic churches were also
    enjoined to receive the Eucharist.
    In recent times, more efforts have been made to mend the Eastern and Western
    churches: on June 29, 1995 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople
    attended mass, or the “Divine Liturgy,” that was celebrated by the future St. Pope John
    Paul II, in the Basilica of St. Peter. After the reading of the Epistle and Gospel, the two
    Primates, recited the Creed in Greek without the addition of the Filioque. In the summer
    of 2004 St. John Paul II celebrated a Pallium Mass with Patriarch Bartholomew; again
    absent was the word Filoque from the jointly prayed—in Greek—Nicene Creed (which
    was absent from the original creed formulated by mostly Eastern and some Western
    bishops at the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century). The addition of the Filioque, or
    procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son, began to be added to the creed in 6th-
    century Spain, but was not used in the Roman canon of the mass until 1014.”

  9. Malta says:

    MundaCorMeum: I have a friend who is an Orthodox Priest. He said is the easy way to get annulments in the Catholic faith much different from the Orthodox faith’s position of “economy” in divorce? Believe it or not, at least in the Greek Orthodox faith, they don’t believe in divorce. That is a complete misunderstanding of the Orthodox faith. I’m not a theologian of either tradition, but that is my understanding. I’m not defending it, but that is what I’ve been told.


  11. MundaCorMeum says:

    Malta: Thanks for your responses. I ask this question because I am finding it to be the most troubling aspect in coming to grips with the AL controversy. I recall reading an article explaining how permitting the divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion undermines the entire moral structure of the Catholic Church. The logic of the argument made perfect sense to me and I was “all in” on the alarm raised by AL and its logical conclusion.

    Subsequently I was discussing the problems of AL with a friend who is much smarter than me and I expressed the concern about how it was a threat to the moral order of the Church, etc. He then raised the question about the Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome. He explained his understanding that in the Orthodox Church (as you note) there is no divorce. A sacramental marriage is permanent and cannot be dissolved. Rather, through the “economy” approach they essentially permit a sacramentally married person (after certain penitential practices) to get civilly married to someone else, live as husband and wife, and receive Holy Communion. So while the Catholic Church takes the position via the annulment process that there never was a sacramental marriage to preserve, the Orthodox Church takes the position that even though there is a permanent sacramental marriage, an “exception” can be made.

    So, the puzzling question he raised was if the Eastern Catholic Churches follow the Orthodox practice, and this practice is so inimical to the Catholic practice, then why weren’t the Eastern Catholic Churches required to renounce that practice when coming into full communion with Rome. The implication of that not being required is that it really is not inimical at all, is it not? That is the troubling question for me (as well as my friend, who himself has not been able to find a satisfying answer even after asking people who belong to the Eastern Catholic Churches).

  12. William Tighe says:

    “So, the puzzling question he raised was if the Eastern Catholic Churches follow the Orthodox practice, and this practice is so inimical to the Catholic practice, then why weren’t the Eastern Catholic Churches required to renounce that practice when coming into full communion with Rome.”

    All the Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome did or have “renounce(d) that practice,” either when coming into union with Rome or, in some cases, subsequently. Some Orthodoxophile Eastern Catholics may regret it, others may attempt to evade it, but all Eastern Catholic churches have marriage tribunals which follow classical “Latin” Catholic doctrine and practice on marital indissolubility and declarations of nullity.

    And as regards divorce, some Orthodox jurisdictions quite explicitly grant “ecclesiastical divorces” for a variety of stipulated causes (which can differ remarkably from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Fr. Z. has often recommended the book of essays Remaining in the Truth of Christ ed. Robert Dodaro. Among the essays in it is one by Archbishop Cyril Vasil, SJ, Secretary of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, which treats these matters in ample canonical, historical and theological detail.

  13. MundaCorMeum says:

    Professor Tighe: Thank you! I actually thought about you when posting this question. I said to myself, too bad the old Pontifications blog wasn’t still running because Prof. Tighe would surely see it and know the answer. This comes as welcome relief to me.

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