Could Adultery and Fornication be Forgiven in the Early Catholic Church?

Could adultery and fornication be forgiven in the early Catholic Church? In the 200s, Christians were deeply divided over this question of mercy and forgiveness.

A major theological controversy broke out in in the Catholic Church around the year AD 217 regarding adultery and fornication.


In 217, Pope Saint Callixtus I of Rome issued a decree that the sins of adultery and fornication could be remitted by the Catholic Church through the office of the bishop.

Tertullian, who rejected the Pope for this reason, directly quotes and preserves Pope Callixtus’s decree:

I hear that there has even been an edict set forth, and a peremptory one too. The Pontifex Maximus, that is, the bishop of bishops, issues an edict:

“I remit, to such as have discharged the requirements of repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication.”

It’s notable that Tertullian refers to the Bishop of Rome as the “bishop of bishops” and “Pontifiex Maximus.” Tertullian scholars believe that he was saying this tongue in cheek, because Tertullian held the lowest esteem for Bishop of Rome and Pope Callixtus in particular.

This merciful papal decree of 217 led to general scandal because it was generally believed that certain sins could not be absolved by the visible church. According to Tertullian (a great theological enemy of Pope Callixtus), once a baptized person committed any of the seven sins on the list below, he or she could not be absolved by the visible church:

  1. murder
  2. idolatry
  3. fraud
  4. apostasy (publicly renouncing Jesus Christ)
  5. blasphemy
  6. adultery (sex with someone besides your spouse)
  7. fornication (sex outside marriage)
    (this list is found in Tertullian’s De Pudicitia*, Ch 19).

Tertullian vs. Pope Calixtus

Tertullian, citing ancient custom, claimed that a sinner could be forgiven directly by Jesus Christ for these seven sins; however, the Catholic Church on earth could not absolve these seven sins and those that committed them would and should remain excommunicated and outside the Catholic Church until death. If you were baptized and committed one of these seven sins, you could never in your life receive the Holy Eucharist. Period. End of story. Close the book.

Anti-Pope Hippolytus vs. Pope Callixtus

The Catholic Church’s first Anti-Pope (a man falsely claiming to be Pope against a valid Pope) arose in response to the 217 decree of Pope Callixtus allowing the absolution of fornication and adultery. While Tertullian was railing against Pope Callixtus’s laxity, some traditions say that a priest in Rome named Hippolytus rebelled against his Pope Callixtus and set himself up as a rival Bishop of Rome against Callixtus on the issue of absolution for adulterers and fornicators. It is unclear if Hippolytus claimed to be a full blown “Bishop of Rome” or merely a reformer set against the laxity of Callixtus. Either way we can see that even the clergy of Rome were divided over this issue.

Hippolytus writes that during the pontificate of Pope Callixtus, men in holy orders began taking wives and Callixtus did not censure them for sin or depose them (Refutation of All Heresies 9, 7). Hippolytus claims that clergy were even being married two to three times after ordination. Divorce and remarriage among the clergy!

Concerning Pope Callixtus, Hippolytus writes:

And in justification, [Callixtus] alleges that what has been spoken by the Apostle has been declared in reference to this person: “Who are you that judges another man’s servant?”

Hippolytus goes on to lament that Catholic women in Rome began to engage in contraception and abortion:

Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round [their belly], so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time! And withal, after such audacious acts, they, lost to all shame, attempt to call themselves a Catholic Church!

And so there was great scandal in Rome concerning Pope Callixtus (who is a canonized Catholic saint).

Can Mortal Sins Be Forgiven? Callixtus says Yes

Center to the debate between Pope Calixtus and Tertullian/Hippolytus was the passage in 1 John concerning “mortal sins”:

And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. (1 Jn 5:15-16)

Both Tertullian and Hippolytus claimed that the Apostle John taught the Catholic Church that prayer should not be made for those whose sin is mortal. Saint John explicitly says: “I do not say that one is to pray for that.” So for them, there was Apostolic teaching that mortal sins should not receive the intercession of the public and visible Church. According to Tertullian and Hippolytus, if you committed apostasy or adultery or fornication, then the Church had nothing for you. No prayer. No Eucharist. Nothing. After all, didn’t Saint John teach the same thing?

Binding and Loosing in Saint Peter’s Rome

We don’t have the exegetical response of Pope Saint Callixtus but I can make a conjecture of his orthodox response: Saint John said that we are not obliged to pray for mortal sins. However, we find two truths in the Gospels that show us that the visible Catholic Church can and should absolve mortal sins (even the mortal sins on Tertullian’s list of seven):

  1. The power to bind and loose on earth as given by Christ to Peter in Matthew 16. Saint Peter and the bishops of Rome do have the power to bind and loose sins and to modify customs for the sake of Christ’s mercy and salvation for sinners. Pope Callixtus was using the power of the keys as the Successor of Saint Peter.
  2. Peter committed apostasy on Good Friday. He was reestablished visibly and publicly by Christ. Christ did not leave Peter without prayer and sacraments until death. He publicly raised Peter back to his rank with the question: “Simon do you love me” three times.

The Catholic Church, the Pope, and the Ministry of Mercy

Nowadays it seems unthinkable that the austere rigorism of Tertullian and Hippolytus was once normative in the Catholic Church of AD 217. Back then it was generally assumed that after baptism, Catholics did not commit adultery, fornication, murder, apostasy, idolatry, blasphemy, or fraud. It just wasn’t supposed to happen. Remember, this was the persecuted Catholic Church of the martyrs. If you were baptized, you were signing up for possible martyrdom!

Origen (who died in 254), it seems, was baptized as an infant, but 90% or more of Christians at this time were not baptized as children. They made a careful and prayerful decision to follow Christ and receive baptism. Most of them had friends or family who were actual martyrs for Christ. These were serious Christians and once we recognize this reality, we see how “mortal sins” were a real issue.

In the Catholic Church, we see a theological shift happening in AD 217. The reality of Romans 7 comes alive: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” For this reason, the Church as the Body of Christ can visibly execute the mercy of Christ to mortal sinners.

Many Catholics began to report that the Rigorist position against absolving sin removed forgiveness and yet did not remove sin – because even the Rigorists had scandalous sins among them.

Repentance and Mercy

Pope Callixtus and the Catholic tradition afterward was not entirely lax, and she always required the act of ecclesial repentance for sin. “Going straight to Jesus” for the forgiveness of mortal sin has never been approved. If we commit a mortal sin, we must go and confess it to a priest in confession. We believe that forgiveness is tied to the Church and her powers that she received directly from Jesus Christ.

If a sin can be absolved through the bishop and the priests he appoints, then any sin can be absolved through the bishop and the priests. This is the great mercy and comfort of being a Catholic


Taylor Marshall

PS: If you are interested in these types of topics, can get all three volumes of my Origins of Catholic Christianity at

* Of note, Tertullian in De Pudicitia claims that Saint Barnabas wrote the Epistle of Hebrews in union with Saint Paul. I claim that Tertullian is wrong on this point and Hebrews was written by Saint Luke and give my reasons in my book The Catholic Perspective on Paul.


109: Is Catholicism a Religion or Relationship with Christ? [Podcast]

My goal this week is to talk with you about whether Catholicism is a religion or a relationship or both:

latin mass

#109 Catholicism: Religion or Relationship with Christ [Podcast]


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  • Proverb of the Week: Proverbs 14:1
  • Featured Segment: Catholicism as Religion or as Relationship with Christ
  • Latin Word of the Week: Relatio
  • Tip of the Week: Read the Didache. Click here for electric version.
  •  Announcements:
    • sword and serpent look insideThe podcast is now on
    • Sword and Serpent 2 will be released in 2016.
    • Download the Study Guide at:
    • New classes at New Saint Thomas Institute. We have just begun our Catholic Church History curriculum. Please visit: for more details.

I’d love to read your feedback: While you listen to today’s podcast, would you please take 30 seconds to write a review? Please click here to Rate this Podcast!

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  • POPULARITY: 911,045 downloads on iTunes as of today.
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Today I am 10 Years a Catholic! It’s harder than I expected…

Today Joy and I turn “ten years old as Catholics.”

Prior to being a Catholic, I was an Episcopalian priest and becoming Catholic is the most important thing that I have done in my entire life.

Ten years later my thought is: “Wow, it’s a lot harder than I expected!” We are joyful, but don’t let this glossy photo fool you into thinking that we have everything together.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 11.15.46 AM

Joy and I had breakfast this morning after Mass, and we celebrated and discussed our last ten years inside the Catholic Church. We are taking all the kids out for dinner tonight to explain to them how important our conversion was.

We have eight beautiful children and our marriage has been deeply blessed by Catholic teaching. The Eucharist and Confession stand out as the greatest blessings.

The hard parts?

What are the hard parts? Initially (for me) it was being a layman and not being a clergyman. This is a much younger Taylor as an Episcopalian priest with Fr Benedict just before I became a Catholic:


10 years later, that “priestly” feeling has faded to silence. I am very content and fulfilled as a Catholic layman. Through books, podcasts, NSTI, and speaking I thank God that I have been able to be used by Jesus for other people. On my podcast, we have reached over 900,000 downloads and we are heading to one million. It’s humbling and encouraging. Despite me being a sinner and unworthy of His favor, God had much bigger plans for me.

For Joy, the initial hard part was trying to navigate Catholicism and all the groups within the Church. When we converted there were some who wanted to use us for their cause (eg, married priesthood or whatever) and she didn’t like that.

Ten years later the hardest part of being Catholic is:

  1. Catholic politics and division
  2. Having a big family

I speak for Joy and me on these two points:

1) Catholic politics and division; I’m dizzy

When I was an Episcopalian, I wrongly believed (oh so wrongly) that the Catholic Church was a Shangri-La of doctrinal unity, devotion, and custom. I was not aware of all the movements, debates, liturgical abuses, and dissent within the Catholic Church. My exposure to Catholicism was reading books by Saints and Church Fathers. I assumed that every Catholic read, study, and agreed with the Catechism.

I received a number of shocks: “Wait, you mean that not all seminarians are taught Thomas Aquinas?”

I was shocked to learn that there are actual Catholic nuns that did not believe every jot and tittle of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

Since the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, I feel dizzy as a Catholic. Like I’ve been spinning on that carousel at the park. I’m not falling down. I’m not sick to my stomach. But I’m dizzy.

Ten years ago, I would not have expected to feel this way. So I hunker down in my Catechism and in the magisterium of the Church. I’m spending more time reading theology and the Church Fathers especially. I’m going back to the roots. Of course, I recognize Pope Francis as Pope and I pray for him daily. I am now 10x more aware of my devotion to the papacy and to the Pope’s need for prayer.

As I read Church History, I realize that the Barque of Peter has always been a rocky boat (I have post on that coming out this Wednesday). So it was my own naivety that led to my misunderstanding of the Catholic Church that I was entering. My conclusion is that the Catholic Church is a giant family, and like a family, it’s complicated.

2) Having a Big Family

Speaking of family, Joy and I now have 8 kids. Joy was pregnant with number 4 when we entered the Church ten years ago. So 5 children have been born and baptized inside the Catholic Church.

We always wanted 8 kids, even before we were Catholic. Now we look at each other and say: “This is hard. Why didn’t anybody warn us how hard this would be? Everyone said big families were fun! They didn’t mention the unfun parts…”

You often hear me on my podcast celebrating marriage and family and talking about joy and peace. I’m speaking to myself more than I am to you. It is very hard. I would say it’s even a cross. But a cross is a joy. Each of those 8 children is a blessing – each is an everlasting soul. They are my heart.

After 10 years, I have to recommit myself to my vocation. My vocation is Joy and those 8 children. The screaming kids. The spilled drinks (every day). Joy sometimes being too tired to talk at night. The late nights. Housework. Dishes for 10 people. Laundry for 10 people! Studying for tests. Monitoring media, video, inputs. Teenagers. Teenagers. Lots of broken things. Budgets. Costs. Debates. It’s not easy.

But there are also the cooing babies, cuddles with a tired 2 year old, the joy of seeing a child learning to walk, the first words, the first day of school, the First Communions, the laughter at the dinner table, the gigantic birthday parties, and the rewarding “grown up talks” with a teenager. And we look forward to the graduations, the marriages, the future births, and whatever else God may have stored up.

And when I pray at Mass in the morning, I see their faces and pray their names. I can’t help but love Joy and those 8 babies and I want nothing more in the whole world than to spend eternity (millions x millions of years) with them in Heaven dancing with Jesus.

Now for the Good of Being Catholic:

The greatest joy of being a Catholic is the joy. Without the Faith, I would be a depressed wreck without hope and without peace. Maybe I’m crazy, but I have had visions. I’ve seen things in the supernatural. I know that Jesus is real. I have felt Him. I have been with Him.

I have knelt before the bones of Peter. I have cried before the miraculous image of Guadalupe. I’ve prayed before the Shroud of Turin. I’ve been to Mass with two Popes. Those things are great and edifying – but they aren’t the center of my Catholicism.

Rather, in the simple quiet of my daily Mass in Bedford, Texas and at night praying the complicated Rosary with my distracted children – I know that Jesus is burning in my heart. That’s where I find it. That’s what I searched for 10 years ago. And that is what I have found.

It’s a war. Even this past weekend, I wanted to give up. But Jesus keeps burning in me. The same Jesus of the Gospels. I know that he won’t give up on me. I need Him.

Here’s to another 10 years and in saecula saeculorum.

Taylor Marshall

Question: In the comments below, please tell me how long you’ve been Catholic and tell me what is the best and the hardest thing about your journey as a Catholic. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Descended into Hell and Today you will be with me in Paradise: How does this fit?

Waiting in Limbo...

Renee, a student member of the New Saint Thomas Institute recently asked this question:

Ok, I am confused about something in regard to this subject.
As Jesus hung on the cross, one of the crucified thieves acknowledged Him as the Son of God, acknowledged Christ’s innocence, confessed his own sins, and asked to be remembered. The Bible says: (Luke 23:43) ‘Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” ‘
Since Jesus truly died, then descended into hell to preach, and then rose again on the third day, how is the construction of the sentence in Luke 23:43 possible? It makes sense to me if you move the comma like so: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise”.

What is going on with this passage? How can the thief be with Jesus in paradise on THAT day when Jesus has descended (or will descend) into hell? Does the original Greek have a different context? Any help would be appreciated.

And here is my answer:

108: Early Female Mystics and Martyrs: Perpetua and Felicity [Podcast]

Saint Perpetua left us the first recorded first person account of early Christianity by a woman. Today we look at the unusual dreams and vision of the Acts of Saint Perpetua and Felicity and the theology involved in their conversions and martyrdom – especially as it relates to the salvation of the unbaptized:


#108: Early Female Mystics and Martyrs: Perpetua and Felicity [Podcast]


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  • Proverb of the Week: Proverbs 31:25
  • Featured Segment: Early Female Mystics and Martyrs: Perpetua and Felicity
  • Latin Word of the Week: Felicitas
  • Tip of the Week: A Fast from Social Media
  •  Announcements:

I’d love to read your feedback: While you listen to today’s podcast, would you please take 30 seconds to write a review? Please click here to Rate this Podcast!

Please Share Your Feedback:

  • POPULARITY: 896,786 downloads on iTunes as of today.
  • SHOUT OUTS: A huge “shout out” to all 499 (!) of you who wrote amazing 5-star reviews at iTunes. Please rate this podcast by clicking here. From there you can leave a review. I appreciate you for this! Thank you!

Subscribe to This Weekly Podcast:

  • Apple/Mac Users: Please subscribe via iTunes by clicking here and then clicking on “View in iTunes.”


  • Android Users: For listening to The Taylor Marshall Show on Android devices (free) using the Stitcher app.

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You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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The 3 Kinds of Faith? Which do you have?

The Latin Church Fathers (beginning with Augustine) speak of three levels of faith in God:

  1. credere Deum (“to believe that God is”): This is simply to believe that God exists. The devils have this kind of faith, as Saint James explains in James 2.
  2. credere Deo (“to believe toward God”): This is to trust God. If God says, “Jesus is God’s Son,” then you believe it. If God says, “I am your shepherd. I will take care of you.” You believe it.
  3. credere in Deum (in Latin, literally: “to believe into God”): This is more difficult to translate but it implies motion into God. This is placing faith, trust, even yourself into God. This is the highest form of faith.

Saint Augustine says that credere in Deum (level 3) is actually placing “yourself into God.” In the moments and seasons of tragedy, depression, dark nights, betrayal, confusion, bankruptcy, divorce, cancer, and death, this highest form of faith transcends simply believing that God exists or believing His statements.

Pain and Believing into God

“Believing into God” or “credere in Deum” (not “in Deo” – a huge difference in Latin) is what I often teach to myself and to others who are hurt so deeply.

In the moments and seasons of tragedy, you have to push everything and your own pain and soul into the bleeding side wound of Jesus and just camp out there. That spiritual movement of going into the Heart of Jesus is the highest form of faith. It is the only thing that can restore peace, sanity, and joy. I’ve been there. It’s true.

Caravaggio Thomas Wound Christ

Explore the three levels of faith. Where are you? Honestly I have moved up and down the ladder. Sometimes we can be satisfied with level 2 (credere Deo). Even if life is good, try to move beyond this daily and pray for the faith credere in Deum – to believe into God.


Taylor Marshall

The Unholy Trinity of Evil in the Book of Revelation

Revelation 13 and 19 describe three preternatural demonic personages that attack Christ and His Church and are finally cast into the lake of fire:

  1. “the great dragon…that ancient serpent who is called the Devil and Satan” (Rev 12:9)
  2. the Beast of the Sea (Rev 19:20; who also appears in Daniel 7)
  3. the Beast of the Land who is called “the false prophet” (Rev 19:20)

Just as Christ has a mark (baptism) placed on His people. So also does the Antichrist or Beast have a mark that he places on his people.

If you’d like to better understand the image of the dragon and his two beasts as an unholy mockery of the Blessed Trinity, please explore these two free commentary lessons that I recorded on the topic:

Listen to: Revelation Podcast on Chapter 13 (Identity of the Beasts)

Listen to: Revelation Podcast on Chapter 19 (Eucharist as Apocalypse and the Destruction of the Beasts)

You can begin the entire Catholic Revelation audio series by clicking here.

Book Of Revelation

Do you have fire in your soul?

Do you have fire in your soul? Are you “on fire”?

Fire transfers heat. Within the soul of Christ on the cross, He was full of fire. Fire of love. That divine fire burned in Him a million times hotter than a furnace or forest fire. Like the burning bush, He burned but never burned up for us, and He wanted to ignite that fire in our souls.

Sepulchre Fire

The fire was already burning furiously in the soul of Mary as she stood beneath the cross. Sparks and flickering flames were already in the souls of Saint John and the women with Mary.

That fire is personal. The fire is a Divine Person. The Holy Spirit.

Look into your chest and see if this Fire is burning with in you. Burning up sin and making your soul glow with warmth. Daily prayer is the oxygen that your soul needs. Stoke the fire with Scripture. Pour gasoline on it with the habitual grace of the sacraments.

This week, prayer every morning. Read Scripture every morning. Try to attend a daily Mass at least once.

Come Holy Spirit and kindle in us the Fire of Your Love.

A Blessed Pentecost to you and yours this coming Sunday,

Taylor Marshall

A Practical Tip on Reading the Psalms: Find Just One Word

Everyone should read the Book of Psalms once all the way through. The Psalms are the place where our emotions, pains, sufferings, and sins are conquered by words of faith, assurance, praise, and hope.

For me, the Psalms are the fire extinguisher for the troubles burning in my soul.

Here’s a practical for reading the Psalms:

  1. Read Psalm 1.
  2. Pick one word in the Psalm that jumps out at you.
  3. Write on a piece of paper: Psalm 1 and the word that jumps out, eg. chaff.
  4. Then ask God and your soul, “Why is that the word that speaks to me in my season of life?”
  5. Read Psalm 2 and repeat.

This kind of punctuated reading will help you connect with God’s voice (and your voice toward God) as you read the Psalms. You might begin to see how your soul is screaming or crying for something from God.

This “one word in each Psalm” is a great way to find God and find peace in your daily life.


Taylor Marshall

Receiving Sacraments in Mortal Sin – What Happens?

One of our Members of the New Saint Thomas Institute, Dr Ken Hare, (who appeared on this podcast with me) had an excellent question recently in the Forums of the New Saint Thomas Institute. This question came up on our studies regarding Holy Matrimony and obstacles to a valid marriage:

marriage rings

Tagging onto part of Helene’s question, with regard to the impediments of lack of openness to having children as well as lack of commitment to marital fidelity, what if one of those exists at the time of the original marriage, but thru conversion of heart ceases to exist at some point thereafter? Can an originally invalid marriage at that point become valid?


A canonically invalid marriage can later become valid.

It’s like the example of confirmation from a previous lesson:

A 14 year old boy could validly receive the sacrament of Confirmation in a state of mortal sin. He would receive zero habitual grace upon reception of the sacrament because of the obstruction of mortal sin. However, if he were not making an explicit act of the will against receiving the sacrament of Confirmation, he would validly receive the sacrament (and the indelible character of Confirmation), but not the grace of the sacrament, nor the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

If he stayed away from Christ and the Church for 30 years from that day but then one day he made a good confession, suddenly at that moment of absolution, his soul would be FLOODED not just with the grace of justification, but with all the graces of Confirmation that had been held in reserve until that moment. This is why people sometimes experience such a spiritual experience when they make a confession after a long time. They are receiving sacramental graces accrued from the past!

There is also radical sanation of Matrimony whereby a bishop can validate a previously invalid marriage. The previously lost graces of Holy Matrimony are restored to the couple. Some people like to use the analogy of a “sacramental time machine” but I don’t like that analogy.

With regard to “artificial contraception so as to avoid the conception of children” this is an impediment to valid sacramental marriage. However, the openness to life later on would demonstrate a valid marriage. The previous graces would come to rest. The couple would not need to perform the marriage liturgy again in order to have a valid marriage since the original form stands. If, however, they were Catholics married outside the Church (lacking form) then they would have to perform the marriage liturgy to have  valid marriage.

Interestingly enough, the sacrament of confession is always a “reactivating” of sacramental baptism. Confession or reconciliation is a sacrament in its own right, but it is restorative of the state of baptism. This is why baptism must always be received prior to confession. Sacramental absolution removes all guilt and eternal punishment, but temporal punishment can remain – hence the need for penance and indulgences even for those who have been to confession.

As with the Confirmation example above, the same could be true of Holy Orders. A man could receive Holy Order in a state of mortal sin. He would be validly ordained and could confect the sacraments. He would say a valid Mass. But the habitual grace of Holy Orders to assist him in ministry would be lacking in his soul. He would be a valid priest but for the sake of his salvation, not well-equipped. When he made a good confession, his soul would be justified an in that moment it would receive the habitual grace of Holy Orders.

It goes without saying that receiving sacraments (especially the Eucharist) in a state of mortal sin (except baptism) is always sacrilegious.

Please leave a question below if it’s still not clear.


Taylor Marshall, PhD