The Synod of Adultery

St. Theodore the Studite vs. Constantine VI

by Roberto de Mattei

 “The Synod of Adultery,” an assembly of Bishops in the ninth century, made history when they wanted to approve the praxis of a second marriage after the repudiation of a legitimate wife. St. Theodore the Studite (759-826) was the one who opposed it the most vigorously and for this was persecuted, imprisoned, and three times exiled.

Imperial Power

It all started in January 795, when the Roman Emperor of the East (Basileus) Constantine VI (771-797) had his wife Maria of Armenia locked up in a monastery and began an illicit union with Theodora, the lady-in-waiting to his mother Irene. A few months later, the Emperor had her proclaimed “Augusta” Theodora, but being unable to convince the Patriarch Tarasios (730-806) to celebrate the new wedding, he finally found a minister willing to do so in the priest Joseph, hegumen (head) of the Monastery of Kathara on the Island of Ithaca, who officially blessed the adulterous union.

St. Theodore, born in Constantinople in 759, was at that time a monk in the Monastery of Saccudium in Bithynia, where his uncle Plato was the Abbot. He was also venerated as a saint. Theodore reports that the unjust divorce produced great perturbation in the entire Christian population: concussus est mundus1, and along with St. Plato, he protested energetically, in the name of the indissolubility of the marriage-bond. He wrote: “the Emperor must consider himself an adulterer and consequently, the priest, Joseph, must consider himself guilty for having blessed the adulterers and for having admitted them to the Eucharist.” By “crowning adultery, the priest, Joseph, is in opposition to the teachings of Christ and has violated the law of God”2. For Theodore, the Patriarch Tarasios had likewise to be condemned, since, even if not approving the new marriage, he showed himself tolerant of it, thus avoiding the Emperor’s excommunication and the priest Joseph’s punishment.

This behavior was typical of a sector in the Oriental Church, which proclaimed the indissolubility of marriage, but in practice, showed a certain submission to the imperial powers, thus, sowing confusion among the peoples and stirring up protest from the most fervent Catholics.

Religious Resistance

Basing himself on the authority of St. Basil, Theodore claimed the faculty conceded to subjects, of denouncing the errors of their superiors3, and the monks of Saccudium broke communion with the Patriarch because of his complicity in the Emperor’s divorce. This triggered off the so-called “moicheiana question” (from moicheia = adultery) which placed Theodore in conflict, not only with the imperial government, but with the Patriarchs of Constantinople themselves.

It is not a very well-known story, but some years ago, Professor Dante Gemmiti disclosed it through a careful, historical reconstruction based on the Greek and Latin sources4 which confirm that ecclesiastical discipline of the Oriental Church in the first millennium still respected the principle of the indissolubility of marriage.

In September 796, Plato and Theodore, along with a certain number of monks, were arrested, imprisoned, then exiled to Thessalonica, where they arrived on March 25, 797. In Constantinople, however, the population judged Constantine a sinner who continued to give public scandal; following the example of Theodore and Plato, the opposition increased day after day. Their exile was brief, as the young Constantine, following a palace conspiracy, had been blinded by his mother, who had taken upon herself the governing of the Empire. Irene called back the exiles, who moved to the urban Monastery of Studios, along with most of the community of monks from Saccudium. Theodore and Plato were reconciled with the Patriarch Tarasios, who, after Irene’s accession to power, had Constantine and hegumen Joseph publicly condemned for the imperial divorce.

Also Irene’s reign was brief. On October 31, 802, her minister, Nikephoros, following a palace revolt, proclaimed himself Emperor. When Tarasios died shortly afterwards, the new basileus had a high-ranked imperial functionary elected Patriarch of Constantinople, who was also called Nikephoros (758-829). In a Synod convoked and presided by him, about the middle of the year 806, he reintegrated hegumen Joseph (deposed by Tarasios) to his office. Theodore, who was then head of the monastic community in Studios (since Plato had retired to the life of a recluse), strongly protested the rehabilitation of hegumen Joseph, and when the latter took up his sacerdotal ministry again, Theodore broke communion also with the new Patriarch.

The reaction was not late in coming. The Studios Monastery was occupied militarily; Plato, Theodore, and Theodore’s brother Joseph (the Archbishop of Thessalonica) were arrested, condemned, and exiled. In 808, the Emperor convoked another Synod which met in January 809. This was the one Theodore defined “moechosynodus” the “Synod of Adultery” in a letter of 809 to the monk Arsenius.5 The Synod of Bishops recognized the legitimacy of Constantine’s second marriage; confirmed the rehabilitation of hegumen Joseph; and anathematized Theodore, Plato, and Theodore’s brother Joseph, who was deposed from the office as Archbishop of Thessalonica.

In order to justify the Emperor’s divorce, the Synod used the principle of the “economy of saints” (tolerance in praxis). However, for Theodore there was no motivation that could justify the transgression of a Divine Law. By referring to the teachings of St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. John Chrysostom, he declared the discipline of the “economy of saints,” according to which a lesser evil could be tolerated in some circumstances, devoid of any scriptural basis—as in this case of the Emperor’s adulterous marriage.

Some years later the Emperor Nikephoros died in the war against the Bulgarians (July 25, 811) and another imperial functionary ascended to the throne, Michael I. The new basileus called Theodore back from exile and he became the Emperor’s chief adviser. However, the peace didn’t last long. In the summer of 813, the Bulgarians inflicted a very severe defeat on Michael I at Adrianople, and the army proclaimed Leo V, the Armenian (775-820) the Emperor.

When Leo deposed the Patriarch Nikephoros and had the veneration of images condemned, Theodore took on the leadership of resistance against the iconoclasm. Indeed, Theodore is distinguished in the history of the Church, not only as the opponent of the “Synod of Adultery” but also as one of the great defenders of sacred images during the second phase of the iconoclasm.

So on Palm Sunday of 815, it was possible to witness a procession of a thousand monks of Studios, inside their monastery—but very much in view—carrying the sacred icons to the solemn acclamation chants in their honor.

The monks’ procession triggered off a reaction from the police.

Between 815 and 821, Theodore was whipped, imprisoned, and exiled to various places in Asia Minor. Finally he was able to return to Constantinople, but not to his own monastery. He then settled with his monks on the other side of the Bosphorus, at Prinkipo, where he died on November 11, 826.

The “non licet” (Mt. 14, 3-11) that St. John the Baptist set against the tetrarch Herod for his adultery, has resounded a number of times in the history of the Church. St. Theodore Studite, a simple religious who dared challenge the imperial power and the ecclesiastical hierarchy of his time, can be considered one of the heavenly protectors of those who, even today, being faced with the threats in changing Catholic practices on marriage, have the courage to repeat an inflexible non licet.


1. Epist. II.n. 181, in pg. 99, coll. 1559-1560CD

2. Epist. I. 32, pg. 99, coll. 1015/1061C

3. Epist. I, n.5, pg. 99, coll. 923-924, 925-926D

4. Theodore Studite, and the Moicheian Question, LER Marigliano. 1993

5. Epist. I. n.38, PG 99, coll. 1041-1042

(Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana, Source: