Gregory II Counseled Adultery?

On another board, an Orthodox poster is explaining why the Orthodox make allowances for contraception.

He quotes a quotation from Pope Gregory II, which appears to give reluctant sanction to adultery (specifically, a second marriage), in a case where a wife is sick and unable to have sex with her husband.

I don’t understand this:

*Pope Gregory II Replies to Questions Put by Boniface (22 November 726)

Gregory, the servant of the servants of God, to Boniface, our most holy brother and colleague in the episcopate.

Your devout messenger Denual has brought us the welcome news that you are well and that, by the help of God, you are making progress in the work for which you were sent. He also delivered to us letters from you reporting that the field of the Lord which had long lain fallow and was overgrown with the [81] weeds of pagan customs has now been ploughed up and sown with the truth of the Gospel, producing an abundant harvest of souls.

in the same report you included a number of questions concerning the faith and teaching of the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church. This is a commendable practice, for here St. Peter the Apostle held his see and the episcopate had its beginning. And since you seek our advice on matters dealing with ecclesiastical discipline, we will state with all the authority of apostolic tradition what you must hold, though we speak not from our own insufficiency but relying on the grace of Him who opens the mouths of the dumb and makes eloquent the tongues of babes.

Your first question is: Within what degrees can marriage be solemnized? Our answer is that if the parties know themselves to be related by blood they should not marry; but since moderation weighs more with these savage people than strict legal duties, they should be allowed to marry after the fourth degree of consanguinity.

As to what a man shall do if his wife is unable through illness to allow him his marital rights, it would be better if he remained apart and practised continence. But since this is practicable only in the case of men of high ideals, the best course if he is unable to be continent would be for him to marry. Nevertheless, he should continue to support the woman who is sick, unless she has contracted the disease through her own fault.*

Thanks in advance for any help,


There is absolutely no doubt that this letter from Gregory to Boniface is authentic, and says exactly what it seems to say.

Some context would be helpful. St. Boniface was a missionary Bishop, establishing the Church in pagan Germany. There is some precedent to reluctantly “watering down” marriage rules so that the Faith can become established:

Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard." [Matt 19:7-8]

Gregory followed in the footsteps of Moses, permitting a disagreeable practice (polygamy, not adultery) in order to allow the Church to become established, with the idea that the practice would later be curtailed (as it was - the Church in Germany does not allow polygamy today under any circumstances).

Polygyny (one husband many wives) was never banned. Nothing in the OT or NT suggests it.

Remember though, the Jewish requirement was very demanding on the man as he had to provide for the material needs of the woman married, it was not the same thing as an eastern harem - they were not kept women or slaves - but rather full wives with all the rights and duties of a wife. In an age where women could not fend for themselves it made perfect sense.

Christianity later adopted the Greek/Roman custom of marrying only one woman. Apparently, the Greek/Roman reasoning was that this increased the number of children per woman - thus increasing the size of the army.

Jesus did, in fact, institute the Sacrament of Matrimony as being between one man and one woman, and thus did actually “ban” polygamy, since marriage was instituted as a sacrament to never be broken between one man and one woman.

And no, marriage was not restricted in this way because of the Greeks or Romans, but because God Himself instituted it this way. It is ridiculous to be suggest that God was swayed by the cultural or practical motives of the fleeting cultures of the time.

There is an entire book on this subject, by William Kelly, SJ, written in 1976. It’s available for purchase on Google eBooks.

The Church has taught about polygamy in negative terms, such as V2’s Gaudium et Spes [47,49], which was cited by St. John Paul the Great in Familiaris Consortio [19] and the Catechism [2387, 2400].

There is no doubt that the Church has a low opinion of polygamy, and polygamy is certainly illicit, but I find nothing in Church teaching that clearly says polygamy invalidates matrimony.

There is no doubt that the Church has a low opinion of polygamy, and polygamy is certainly illicit, but I find nothing in Church teaching that clearly says polygamy invalidates matrimony.

Actually, that’s found in the 1983 Code of Canon Law:
“Can. 1085 §1. A person bound by the bond of a prior marriage, even if it was not consummated, invalidly attempts marriage.”

It clearly says invalidly attempts marriage, not illicitly. Therefore, if a person is currently married and attempts to marry another person, whether civilly married or not, whether living in marriage life or not, cannot attempt to marry a second person. If it were simply a matter of church law and therefore subject to change, the sacrament would not be invalid, simply illicit, so long as proper form, matter, and intent were present.

Yeah, but I wish the Canon was cited in something doctrinal. Canon Law is a transient entity. A couple of paragraphs later we read:

Can. 1087 Those in sacred orders invalidly attempt marriage.

Can. 1088 Those bound by a public perpetual vow of chastity in a religious institute invalidly attempt marriage.

I’m pretty sure that’s not strictly true.

The rules are a bit odd when it comes to killing your spouse. If you kill your spouse so that you can marry some particular person then it is “invalid” but if you kill your spouse for some other motive and later decide to marry that same person, it is (apparently) not invalid. And if you kill your spouse so that you can marry some particular person, but later (after the murder) decide to marry somebody else, it is (apparently) not invalid.

This why I’m not a canon lawyer. My head would explode.

So Luther had some precedent (though Luther suggested that women should also be allowed to do this).


Even if that letter is authentic, what does it have to do with contraception?

G.H. Joyce considers this argument in his book Christian Marriage. He gives evidence that the marriage in question was ratum et non consummatum. If I understand the argument he gives, it rests principally on the grounds that the pope in question could be orthodox on this point if ratum et non consummatum applied here, and there is evidence from other documents that that pope was orthodox on this point; therefore, it is likely that ratum et non consummatum applied here. That’s not quite an accurate summary, so I’ll post some selections later.

Thanks, David,

Yes, I know that about Moses. And I do understand the circumstances. But circumstances don’t in themselves determine objective morality. The circumstances, intention, and the act itself all have to be good.

I’m not doubting the authority of the Vicar of Christ, but I am seeking understanding.

How can we claim that it is wrong for a priest to ever, in any manner, sanction contraception-- or to in any manner sanction any other thing that is intrinsically wrong-- if it is okay for us to in some way sanction polygamy?

I hope that explains what I’m saying. I’m perplexed by the issue.

The Orthodox poster is arguing for the Orthodox principle of “economia”, which involves making allowances for contraception due to circumstances and looking at the overall, big picture and accepting human weakness.





Hi Dmar,

Glad you posted. What does “ratum et non consummantum” mean?



A few years back some nuns petitioned the Vatican for permission to take birth control pills. They were in an area where the risk of rape was high.

IIRC, the request was denied, but on the grounds that the pills were abortifacients. It is possible the Church could permit non-aborting forms of contraception for such extreme circumstances. Nothing in Church teaching would categorically rule out such an indult. That’s why we have indults.

But the Church will not sanction consenting adults to engage in sexual bulimia on account of “human weakness.” Heck, every sin is the result of human weakness. Where would it end?

It translates “ratified and not consumated,” but it’s usually expressed “ratum sed non consummatum” which translates “ratified but not consummated.”

“Ratified” means the ceremony took place according to Church practice.

Yes, that is what ratified means.

The thrust of the teaching regarding ratum sed non consummatum, assuming I haven’t misunderstood anything, is this: the pope has the power to bind and to loose. The loosing power lets him loose things that have been bound together by men, including vows, but it does not give him power to loose things that have been bound by God. A consummated sacramental marriage is a divine bond, for Scripture says they are no longer two but one flesh, and whatever God has put together, no man may put asunder.

The reason that matters is this: between the time when a couple marries (ratum, ratified, validly married in the Church) and before they have consummated their marriage (consummatum, married sexual intercourse), they have not become two in one flesh, therefore God has not yet bound them together, therefore they are legally together only because of a human vow.

During that space of time, the vow can be dissolved by the pope, even though it is a valid marriage (ratum). Thus, unless I’ve misunderstood something, in Catholic theology an unconsummated marriage can be dispensed with if a sufficient cause demands it.

In this case, there is some evidence that Pope Gregory II (and the missionary he was instructing) was dealing with a “ratum sed non consummatum” marriage, where the marriage was not consummated because the woman was too sick for sex when she married and had not recovered. So the pope gives the missionary permission to dissolve the marriage, which would only have been indissoluble after consummation had occurred.

I’ll post the selection from G.H. Joyce in the following post.

Here is how G.H. Joyce explains it: About a hundred years later (716 A.D.) we have an instruction given by Gregory II (715-731) to the legates whom he was that year sending to Bavaria. In this document, speaking of the relation of married persons to one another, he says: "The Apostle has said: ‘Art thou bound to a wife? Seek not to be loosed’ : so long, that is, as your wife lives, seek not to pass over to carnal intercourse with another.’ [Footnote: Addit. ad Leg. Baiuwariorum. [[Latin text of the above quotation.]] (M.G.H., Leges iii, 453.)]

[Note for CAF readers: Before the paragraph I just quoted, Fr. Joyce had just quoted more than a dozen other popes and Church Fathers against divorce+remarriage, so these quotes from Pope Gregory II come after a long string.]

Much difficulty has been felt about a subsequent letter of the same Pope of 22 November, 726, addressed to St. Boniface, in which he replies to a series of enquiries made by the latter. In answer to one of these he says:

“As regards your question what a husband is to do, if his wife has been attacked by illness, so that she is incapable of conjugal intercourse, it were best if he could continue as he is and practice self-restraint. But since this demands exceptional virtue, the man who cannot live in continence, had better marry. But let him not fail to furnish her with support, since she is kept from married life by sickness, not debarred from it by some abominable offence.” [Footnote: [[Latin text of the above.]] (M.G.H., Ep. iii, 276.)

This decision has given rise to an immense amount of comment from the twelfth century to the present day. Many authors (including Gratian [Footnote: c, 18, C. xxxii, 7.]) have asserted without hesitation that the Pope gave permission for divorce and remarriage, thereby acting ultra vires. This is hardly credible. It supposes that he decided in a sense not merely opposed to his own express directions, but to the principle maintained for centuries against immense difficulties by his predecessors as an integral part of the Christian revelation. Since we do not possess St. Boniface’s letter, the precise terms of the enquiry must be a matter of conjecture. It is reasonable to suppose that it concerned a marriage in which, previously to consummation, the bride had been attacked by a disease which made conjugal life impossible.

[Footnote: This is the solution given by Rolandus, C. xxxii, 5; Mihi vero authenticum videtur hoc decretum quod et cuique praesenti casu inspecto manifeste liquebit. Sponsus quidam sponsam propriam in domum suam traduxit; verum aegritudine praeventa sponso debitum reddere non valuit: ea igitur jugi aegritudine detenta sponsus continere nequit. Summa Rolandi (ed. Thaner), p. 181; also p. 186 in C. xxxii, 7. Both Freisen (Geschichte des canonischen Eherechts, p. 331) and Fahrner (Geschichte der Ehescheidung, p. 63) accept this as the only reasonable explanation. The dissolution of unconsummated marriage did not become part of the Church’s regular practice till later. It may be supposed that in this case the Pope acted on the ground of the practical impotency of the woman.]

[Continuation of the paragraph above the footnote:] This is no far-fetched supposition. In certain cases Germanic custom tolerated the marriage of children. Thus in the Lombard code the legal age for marriage was the completion of the fourteenth year for a boy and of the thirteenth for a girl. But it is expressly declared that if the mundoaldus of the girl be her father or brother, he may give her to whom he wishes and at any age. Another law lays down the conditions under which a girl of full age might take a child husband. [Footnote: Lex Langobardorum, Liutprand, 12, 129 (M.G.H., Leges iv, III, 161).] Where this custom prevailed many marriages must have remained unconsummated for years. And, as will appear later (infra, p. 430 sqq.), until marriage is consummated it lies within the power of the Church to grant a divorce, and permit the parties to take other partners.

A few years later (5 January, 747) Pope St. Zacharias wrote to Pepin, then mayor of the palace, the bishops and other magnates of the Franks, a letter in which at Pepin’s request he sets forth the Church’s doctrine on a variety of points. There is no qualification in his teaching on this subject. He simply cites the forty-seventh of the Apostolical Canons, and the decree of the council of Carthage of 407 A.D. [Footnote: M.G.H., Ep. iii, 480.] This seems to furnish yet a further reason for regarding it as improbable that Gregory II was unfaithful to the traditions of the Holy See.

Again in the year 754 A.D. Stephen III is equally explicit in a letter to the monks of a place named Brittannacus in the diocese of Noyon. He cites the letter of Innocent I to Exsuperius of Toulouse, and declares that all who divorce their wives and make new marriages are to be excluded from the communion of the Church. [Footnote: Steph. III ad monasterium Brittan., c. 5 (Mansi, t. xii, p. 559).] Similar pronouncements of the Popes in the ninth and following centuries will find mention later. Their natural place is in connection with the Carlovingian reform and the subsequent developments. Source: Joyce, George Hayward. (1948.) Christian Marriage. (2nd ed.) London, U.K.: Sheed and Ward. p. 332-334

I hope that helps. God bless!

Yes, thanks Dmar. That is very helpful.

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