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:
- apostasy (publicly renouncing Jesus Christ)
- adultery (sex with someone besides your spouse)
- 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):
- 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.
- 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
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* 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.