The Pauline Privilege case is restricted to the situation in which both parties to a valid marriage are unbaptized. If one later converts and is baptized, he or she obtains the right to break the bond and remarry, if the unbelieving spouse refuses to “cohabit peacefully,” which refers to the unbeliever’s attempts to hinder the convert in the practice of the new faith.
In the early days of Christianity, becoming a Christian was definitely a counter-cultural event and soon Christians even suffered life-threatening persecution. So the Church was often confronted with a situation in which two non-Christians are married and one spouse converted to Christianity and was baptized, while the other spouse chose not to convert. St. Paul encouraged Christians to remain with their unbaptized spouses if possible. However, when the situation became intolerable, St. Paul decided that in such circumstances, the preservation of the faith took priority even over the bond of marriage. This stands in contradiction to the sayings of Jesus (Matt. 19:3-6) which Paul recognizes by his indication that this opinion is based on his own authority – “I say, not the Lord” in verse 12 of his First Letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 7:15, he says:
If the unbeliever wishes to separate, however, let him do so. The believing husband or wife is not bound in such cases. God has called you to live in peace.
St. Paul makes no indication whether or not remarriage is possible (most scholars agree that the ability to remarry was assumed), but in fact within the next hundred years, the Church used this text to allow remarriage. This judgment was based on the assumption that a marriage between two unbaptized persons is only a “natural bond,” and therefore could be broken if it is “for the good of the faith” to do so. This became known as the “Pauline Privilege” and allowed the marriage to be dissolved. It was allowed even though the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels made no distinction between “natural” and “Christian” marriage.
It was widely used in the missionary expansion of the Church, but is somewhat rare presently in the West, because most people have been baptized in some Christian denomination and the Catholic Church recognizes all valid Christian baptisms.
For the difference between the Pauline Privilege and the Privilege of the Favor of the Faith (Petrine Privilege), please click here.