Pope Celestine III's Error on the indissolubility of Marriage

Pope Celestine III’s Grave Error on the Indissolubility of Marriage

Robert J. Siscoe

During the current Papal crisis, it is beneficial to look to historical precedents that demonstrate the extent to which God can permit a Pope to fall into error when he is not defining a doctrine ex cathedra. This is beneficial not only to see what it is possible, but also to counter the error of “creeping infallibility”, which extends infallibility beyond what the Church teaches by maintaining that every act of the Pope’s authentic Magisterium is necessarily be free from all error, or at least free from serious error.  One historical case that puts the breaks on creeping infallibility and shows the degree of error God can permit a Pope to fall into when he is not defining a doctrine, is the little-known case of Celestine III. 

This case involves a Catholic woman whose Catholic husband left the faith, abandoned her, and married another woman with whom he procreated children. The abandoned wife consulted her archdeacon and was given permission to enter into a second marriage, even though the validity of her first marriage was not in question.

With the approval of her archdeacon, the woman entered into a second marriage and had children with her new spouse.  The situation became complicated when her first (true) husband repented of his heresy, left the other woman, and desired to be reconciled with his wife. Since the wife had entered into the second marriage with the approval of the local Church authorities, it was unclear how the matter was to be resolved. 

Pope Celestine’s Error

The case eventually reached Pope Celestine III (d. 1198), who responded to the dubia by misinterpreting the Pauline Privilege (1 Cor. 7) and stating that the woman should remain in her second adulterous union rather than returning to her true husband.  Now, this was no minor error on the part of the Pope, either in itself or in its consequences; for his judgment was not only based on a misinterpretation of Scripture, but it had the effect of confirming a woman in the state of objective adultery.  And it should be noted that this error of Celestine was not a private matter; it was included in an Epistle and hence was an act of his “authentic Magisterium”.

The Dubia and Celestine’s Response

The following is the text from Pope Celestine’s epistle, titled: ‘On the Conversion of the infidels’:

The same law will apply in the following case, which you have taken pains to put forward, namely, of the Christian husband who denied Christ out of hatred of his wife and bound himself to a pagan woman, with whom he procreated children, and the Christian woman, who was abandoned to the dishonor of Jesus Christ, entered into a second marriage with the assent of the Archdeacon and had children.  

“It does not seem to us (non enim videtur nobis), even if the first husband returns to ecclesiastical unity, that she ought to depart from the second [husband] and return to the first, especially since she was seen to have left the first by the judgment of the Church; and as St. Gregory testifies, “the affront to the Creator dissolves the right of marriage for the one who is left out of hatred of the Christian faith.”[1]

Notice that Celestine quoted the authority of St. Gregory to support his judgment. The problem is that Gregory’s teaching is based on a correct interpretation of the Pauline Privilege (1 Cor. 7:15), which allows for the bond of a natural marriage – i.e., a true marriage by spouses who are not baptized – to be dissolved if one of the spouses becomes a believer, who is then abandoned by the unbeliever. By failing to properly distinguish between a natural vis-à-vis a sacramental marriage, Pope Celestine misinterpreted these words of Scripture as meaning that a valid sacramental marriage – i.e., one entered into by two persons who were both baptized – could be (or is) dissolved if one of the spouses falls into heresy. For erring so gravely in this matter, Pope Celestine was accused of heresy by men such as Alphonsus de Castro.[2]

Pope Innocent III Corrects Celestine’s Error

       Pope Innocent III corrected the error of Celestine by giving a contrary ruling to a similar dubia, as found in the letter Quanto te Magis, which was addressed to the bishop of Ferrara.  As the following shows, Pope Innocent correctly interpreted the words of St. Paul (1 Cor. 7:15) as being applicable to a natural marriage bond of two unbelievers (which can be dissolved in certain circumstances), rather than a sacramental marriage bond which remains indissoluble until death do them part.  He even states that one of his predecessors, namely, Celestine, judged otherwise.

“Your brotherhood has announced that with one of the spouses passing over to heresy the one who is left desires to rush into second vows and to procreate children, and you have thought that we ought to be consulted through your letter as to whether this can be done under the law. We, therefore, responding to your inquiry regarding the common advice of our brothers by making a distinction, although indeed our predecessor [Celestine III] seems to have thought otherwise, [the distinction being] whether of two unbelievers, with one converted to the Catholic Faith, or of two believers, one of whom lapses into heresy or falls into the error of paganism.

“If one of the unbelieving spouses is converted to the Catholic faith, while the other either is by no means willing to live with him or at least not without blaspheming the divine name, or so as to drag him into mortal sin, the one who is left, if he wishes, will pass over to second vows. And in this case we understand what the Apostle [Paul] says: "If the unbeliever depart, let him depart: for the brother or sister is not subject to servitude in (cases) of this kind" (1 Cor. 7:15). And likewise (we understand) the canon in which it is said that "insult to the Creator dissolves the law of marriage for him who is left” (Contumelia creatoris solvit jus matrimonii circa eum qui relinquitur).[3]

“But if one of the believing spouses either slips into heresy or lapse into the error of paganism, we do not believe that in this case the one who is left, as long as the other is living, can enter into a second marriage. (…) Although indeed true matrimony exists between unbelievers [i.e. a natural marriage], yet it is not ratified; between believers, however, a true and ratified marriage exists, because the sacrament of faith [i.e., baptism], which once was admitted, is never lost, but makes the sacrament of marriage ratified so that it itself lasts between married persons as long as the sacrament of faith endures.”[4]

Cajetan’s Commentary on Celestine’s Error

       Cajetan discusses the error of Celestine III in his Apologia, which was written in response to Almain, who rejected Papal Infallibility (before it was defined) and pointed to the error of Celestine as one of several cases that he believed proved his position.  The following is Almain’s objection and Cajetan’s reply:

"[Cajetan] says that the supreme pontiff, although he can err in believing in his personal capacity, nevertheless cannot err in faith in his judicial capacity.  (…)  The following is asserted against that proposition (…) two supreme pontiffs have reached contrary decisions in those things which touch on the faith; (…) Innocent III and Celestine reached contrary decisions concerning this proposition: ‘When one spouse has gone over to heresy, the other, who remains in the faith, can proceed to a second marriage.’  Innocent’s decision that one cannot do this is found in c. Quanto [x 4.19.7]’ Celestine’s decision, as the [ordinary] gloss says at the same chapter, once was found among the decretals at the end of De Conversione Coniugatorum [x 3.32[5]].”[6]

Cajetan responds by stating that neither of the two Popes intended to define the doctrine.

“To the second [point], the answer is that neither of these pontiffs determined definitively.  For Innocent III says Celestine in c. Quanto, ‘Although one of our predecessors seems to have thought otherwise’; and he adds concerning himself, ‘We do not believe that in this case the one who is left, while the other one is living, could enter into a second marriage.’  The very words used there, ‘seems to have thought otherwise,’ and, ‘we do not believe,’ show that they were not uttered to define it as a matter of faith.”[7]

What Cajetan’s defense shows is that those who defended Papal Infallibility, centuries before the doctrine was defined at the First Vatican Council, realized that infallibility only prevents a Pope from erring when he defines a doctrine; it does not prevent a Pope from erring - even erring gravely - in every official act of his authentic Magisterium.

Bellarmine’s Commentary

       Bellarmine addresses the error of Celestine III in Book Four of De Romano Pontifice.  He does not deny that Celestine erred in his judgment, but defends him from the accusation of heresy by noting that the doctrine had not yet been defined by the Church. Bellarmine also says it is “certain” that Celestine’s epistle was at one time contained in the Decretals, but notes that not everything in the decretals is to be considered as de fide .  The following is Bellarmine’s commentary of the case:

“The thirty-third [Pope accused of heresy] is Celestine III, whom Alphonsus de Castro asserted could not be excused of heresy in any way because he taught that Matrimony could be dissolved by heresy, and that it would be lawful for one to enter into another marriage when his prior spouse had fallen into heresy. Even if this decree of Celestine were not extant, still it was formally in ancient Decretals, the chapter, Laudabilem, ‘On the conversion of infidels,’ which is the decree Aphonsus says that he saw.  Moreover, that this teaching of Celestine is heretical is clear, because Innocent III (Cap. “Quanto,” c. 3) taught the contrary on Divorce and the Council of Trent also defined the same thing.

“I respond: Neither Celestine nor Innocent stated anything certain on the matter; but each responded with what seemed more probable to them. That is manifestly gathered from the words of Innocent who, when he says his predecessor thought otherwise, shows in his opinion that the whole matter was still being thought out. On the other hand, Alphonsus says the epistle of Celestine was at one time among the epistles in the decretals. While certainly that is true, it cannot thence be gathered that a plainly apostolic decree was made by Celestine, or even one ex cathedra; since it is certain that there are many epistles in the decretals which do not make any matter de fide, but only declare to us the opinions of the Pontiff on some affair.” [8]

By excusing Celestine’s error on the basis that many papal teachings contained in Epistles – even those included included in the decretals - are not intended to be de fide, proves that Bellarmine did not believe infallibility would prevent a Pope from erring in a non-definitive teaching of what today is called the Pope's authentic Magisterium.

Celestine’s Error in the Decretals

The following is the text from Laudabilem, “On the conversion of infidels,” which Bellarmine referred to above. It is taken from the Decretals of Pope Gregory[9] as found in the Corpus Iuris Canonici: 

“Decretals of Gregory IX, Lib. III, Tit. XXXII, Laudabilem, ‘On the Conversion of the infidels,’ by Pope Celestine III:

“A Christian man denied Christ out of hatred for his wife and united himself to pagan woman, with whom he procreated children.  The Christian woman, who had been abandoned unto the dishonor of Jesus Christ, went into a second marriage with the assent of the Archdeacon and had children.  It does not seem to us that if the first husband returns to the unity of the Church she ought to depart from the second and go back to the first, especially since she was seen to have departed from him by the judgment of the Church. And, as St. Gregory [the Great] testifies, ‘the affront to the Creator dissolves the right of marriage (solvat ius matrimonii) for the one who is left out of hatred of the Christian faith’. (…) 

       After addressing four more related questions concerning this case,[10] Pope Celestine concluded by saying:

[to these questions] we have the rule and the doctrine of the Apostle, by which it is said "if the infidel depart, let him depart. For a brother or sister is not under servitude in such cases" (1 Cor. 7:15), as well as the famous decree of Gregory: ‘it is not a sin if [the spouse], having been dismissed for God's sake, joins another; for the infidel who departs, he sins both against God and against matrimony’[11].”[12]

       It should be noted that the Sedevacantists have referenced recent authors, such as Cardinal Billot, who stated that Pope Gregory did not approve this particular decree, even though it is was included in the the book of Decretals that he promulgated.  While that may indeed be the case, it only excuses Gregory from confirming the error; it does not excuse Celestine from the error.


        The case of Celestine III highlights the limitations of papal infallibility by showing that it is possible for a true Pope to 1) misinterpret Scripture, and as a result 2) issue a non-definitive judgment as an act of his authentic Magisterium, which 3) contradicts divine revelation, and 4) confirms a person in objective mortal sin. Such a thing is possible provided the Pope is not exercising his Magisterium in an extraordinary manner by (1) issuing a final and definitive judgment (2) concerning a matter of faith or morals (3) to be held by the universal Church. If these conditions, as defined by the First Vatican Council, are not met, error – even serious error – is possible (albeit unlikely).
       And if anyone believes that all non-definitive judgments of a Pope must at least be “infallibly safe” (even if not infallibly true), they will have a difficult time explaining away this non-definitive judgment of Celestine - unless, of course, their definition of “infallibly safe” includes judgments that are contrary to Divine law and confirm a person in an objective state of mortal sin.


[1] Idem si quidem iuris erit in sequenti casu, quem proponere studuisti, quum S. Christiano viro propter odium uxoris Christum negante et sibi copulante paganam et ex ea filios procreante Christiana in opprobrium Iesu Christi relicta, cum assensu archidiaconi sui ad secundas nuptias convolavit et filios suscepit ex ipsis; non enim videtur nobis, quod si prior maritus redeat ad unitatem ecclesiasticam, eadem a secundo debeat recedere et resignari priori, maxime quum ab eo visa fuerit ecclesiae iudicio discessisse et teste Gregorio contumelia creatoris solvat ius matrimonii circa eum qui relinquitur odio fidei Christianae.  Celestine’s Epistle, Laudabilem pontificalis officii, survives intact in four early collections, most importantly in the Collecio Seguntina, a manuscript now in the cathedral archives of Siguinza.  It was transmitted in segments through canonical collections made at Bologna into the Liber Extra (Liber extra vagantium) - the Gregorian Decretals of 1234.
[2] Alphonsus de Castro, First Book Against the Heresies (1565), ch. 4.
[3] Decretum of Gratian, Secunda Pars. Causa XXVIII. Quaet. II, c. 2
[4] Pope Innocent III, Quanto te Magi, to Hugo, Bishop of Ferrara, May 1, 1199, Denz. 405-406.
[5] The following footnote was included by Burns & Izbicki in their translation of this text: “Alamain seems to have confused Celestine’s decretal Laudabilem [x 3.33.1], which was the last chapter of De Conversionam Infedelium, in Compilatio II
[6] Alamond, the Authority of the Church, ch. X.
[7] Cajetan, Apologia, translated by Burns & Izbicki, in Conciliarism and Papalism, p. 246.
[8] Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, bk. 4, ch XIV.
[9] Although this decree is included in the Decretals of Gregory, Cardinal Billot said that Pope Gregory did not give this decree his approval.
[10] The four related questions, formulated as the answers given, are the following: 1. The first husband is permitted to enter the monastic life, if he so desires.  2. If the abandoned wife died, and the first husband, having returned to the Church, could licitly enter into a true marriage with the pagan women, if she converted to the Faith for the sake of their children.  3. In the case of #2, the children born of the illicit union of their father and pagan mother would be considered legitimate by virtue of their parent’s later marriage in the Church. 4. That the children born of the first wife and her second husband, whom she married with the approval of her Archdeacon (while her first husband was still living), are considered legitimate. (Quod autem mulier possit primo viro qui ad fidem reversus est nolente ad vitam monasticam remeare, vel utrum ille reversus ad eam, quam ritu gentili sibi coniunxit, et quae propter eum ad fidem nostram cum liberis suis est conversa, mortua prima possit habere uxorem, et an filii ante conversionem geniti obtentu nuptiarum, quae post conversionem ritu ecclesiastico celebratae fuerunt, et similiter si filii illius, quae cum licentia archidiaconi sui marito priore vivente sed facto infideli nupsit viro catholico, legitimi sint habendi.)
[11] "Si infidelis discedit odio Christianae fidei, discedat. Non est enim frater aut soror subiectus seruituti in huiusmodi. Non est enim peccatum dimisso propter Deum, si alii se copulauerit. Contumelia quippe creatoris soluit ius matrimonii circa eum, qui relinquitur. Infidelis autem discedens et in Deum peccat, et in matrimonium…” (Gratiana, Secunda Pars. Causa XXVIII. Quaet. II, c. 2).
[12] Corpus Iuris Canonici - Volume 2, Decretal. Gregory IX, Lib. III, Tit. XXXII, “Concerning the Conversion of the infidels,” Cap. 1, pp. 587-588.