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  • The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent by E. Christian Brugger
  • Peter F. Ryan S.J.
The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent. By E. Christian Brugger. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017. Pp. xiii + 295. $69.95 (cloth). isbn 978-0-8132-2952-2.

"The Church's position on the indissolubility of sacramental and consummated marriage . . . was in fact defined at the Council of Trent and so belongs to the patrimony of the Faith" (17). So wrote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a letter to Charles E. Curran. This claim is the thesis of Brugger's book. He explains that the thesis needs defending because some theologians have questioned it ever since Paulo Sarpi wrote a grossly tendentious history of the council fifty years after its closing, and because many have denied the thesis in recent decades, so much so that Curran was emboldened to respond, with [End Page 136] obvious exaggeration, "All Catholic theologians recognize the teaching of the Council of Trent does not exclude as contrary to faith the [divorce] practice of 'economia' in the Greek church" (ibid.). Brugger adds that defending the thesis is particularly important now, given Cardinal Kasper's proposal to admit some sexually active civilly remarried divorcees to the Eucharist. For while Kasper denies that this change in pastoral practice implies a change in doctrine, Brugger maintains that the logic of such a pastoral change inevitably presupposes what Trent denies—that the Church's teaching about the absolute indissolubility of sacramental, consummated marriage is reformable.

"Trent's teaching," Brugger affirms, "need not remain indefinitely in dispute. Responsible scholarship can settle the question in a way that excludes serious doubt" (ibid.). The purpose of his book is to do precisely that. It consists of a preface, an introduction, five chapters, and three appendices. The preface contextualizes the problem by noting that modern deniers of what Brugger dubs the "indissolubility thesis" (15) have relied largely on the work of Piet Fransen, S.J., who published a series of essays in the 1950s on Trent's treatment of the indissolubility of Christian marriage in the case of adultery. Fransen's analysis of Trent's canon 7 on marriage, in light of both the canon's broader context and various recorded statements of the council fathers, led him to conclude that they did not intend to define the indissolubility of marriage as a truth of faith. Brugger notes that Kenneth Himes and James Coriden, in a 2004 article in Theological Studies, rely on Fransen to support their claim that the indissolubility thesis is false. He further notes that Germain Grisez and I, in a response published in the same journal, "observed that at multiple points the author [Fransen] seemed to assert conclusions that were not supported by the historical record as set down in the Council's Acta" (x).

Brugger focuses entirely on Trent, and he delves far deeper into the Acta than Grisez and I could. He realizes that because much of the theological community has assumed for decades that Fransen got it right, only a comprehensive approach to the council's treatment of indissolubility will suffice to displace that assumption. Fransen reports the results of some of the votes and cites remarks of various council fathers that seem to support his claims. Brugger sees that because Fransen's view is in the ascendancy and appeals to many people, his own response will have to do more than offer selective quotations that support his alternative account. He will instead have to equip readers to judge for themselves, and he does this admirably.

Brugger not only provides (mainly in the chapters) a thorough commentary on the ecclesial and cultural context and an in-depth treatment of the council fathers' discussion of the successive formulations of canons 7. He also supplies (in Appendix A, in Latin and English) all of the authoritative texts cited by council fathers and theologians. And he provides (in Appendix B, in Latin and English) the momentous intervention of the Venetian delegation arguing for an indirect formulation of canon 7 for the...


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