Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Rome Orthodoxy and the big "D": Are we closer than we think?

While I am on the topic of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), I am thinking that perhaps its time to briefly discuss one of the more common complaints I hear from my former co-religionists. That is the dreaded “D” word. Divorce. Even among the many Catholics who are friendly to Orthodoxy this is a sticking point. They complain about how we permit divorce. This is not a subject I am very comfortable with, but its one worth talking about. Let’s start by briefly stating where the two churches are on this.

The RCC’s position on divorce is pretty clear (as is their official position on most subjects). They don’t allow it. They don’t recognize it. It does not exist as far as they are concerned. They affirm that marriage is a sacramental contract being permanent and therefore is indissoluble. Those who are divorced may still commune provided they do not attempt to remarry. The RCC bars remarried Catholics from the sacraments.

By contrast the Orthodox position on divorce is less rigid or legalistic. In Orthodoxy, Holy Matrimony is not a contract; it is the mysterious or mystical union of a man and woman - in imitation of Christ and the Church - in the presence of "the whole People of God" through her bishop or his presbyter. In Orthodoxy marriage is also considered permanent and divorce is seen at the least as a manifestation of sin and in many cases as a sin in and of itself. (It’s worth noting here that our understanding of sin is different from the Western Church’s, but that’s a topic for another day.) A major point of difference is the approach to the reality of divorce.

Orthodox Christians condemn it but acknowledge that it exists. In some rare cases most Orthodox will even tell you it may be the lesser of evils. Typically these can be reduced to what I once heard described as the three “A”s, abandonment, abuse and adultery (if it’s persistent). I think I might even add another “A” and suggest apostasy on the part of a spouse as a possible justification. I am not talking about an Orthodox Christian who becomes Roman Catholic or Baptist. I am thinking more along the lines of the husband who comes home and says “Honey guess what. I have converted to Islam and next week we are moving to Saudi Arabia where I just know you will love meeting my three new wives.”

While condemning the reality of divorce Orthodoxy is more concerned with the causes of this tragedy and healing the soul wounded by it. Pastorally the divorced Orthodox Christian is treated as someone who has fallen on the road to God and is in need of help as opposed to blanket condemnation. This help typically consists of confession coupled with spiritual counseling which might last a while and possibly a period of being excluded from Holy Communion. This doesn’t mean we condone divorce. We don’t. But it does mean we live in the real world as did the apostles (1 Cor 7:12-16). Jesus himself seems to have affirmed at least the possibility of divorce in cases of adultery and grave immorality (Matt 5:32 & Matt 19: 9). Even the RCC now permits in grave cases civil divorce without being barred from the sacraments. This was not true until fairly recently (of which more in a bit).The crux of the difference between Rome and Orthodoxy is less our attitude towards divorce than towards remarriage.

The Second Marriage:

Many RCs (and way too many Orthodox) are under the impression that in Orthodoxy you have a right to be married three times. That’s a serious error. Presuming compliance with the canons of the Church the Orthodox Christian can claim the right to one marriage blessed in the Church. Second marriages are NOT a right. Indeed the Orthodox Church severely frowns on them. This is true even in cases where the second marriage is the result of the original spouse dying. That’s because in Orthodoxy a valid marriage is not presumed to end with death. However in some cases a second marriage (and in rare cases a third) are tolerated through oikonomia and a condescension to human weakness. This is the decision of the local bishop under the guidance of the particular synod of bishops.

The rules for this will vary somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and even between bishops in the same jurisdiction. However, generally second marriages are allowed out of pastoral concern for the divorcee/widow who might otherwise have great difficulty in life. Also the concept of annulment is not really known in Orthodoxy. Most Orthodox jurisdictions don’t have juridical courts which weigh the background of a marriage and pronounce it valid or not. In many cases there is a presumption that a failed marriage was spiritually defective from the word go. By contrast the RCC has a peculiar position. It unconditionally forbids second marriages on the part of the divorced but permits with no reservation a fourth or more marriages on the part of the widowed. In Orthodoxy fourth marriages are forbidden.

A legitimate question might be asked about the history of this issue. Without going into the kind of detail that would turn this essay into a short book, it is generally acknowledged that remarriage after divorce was known in the East as early the fifth century. Tolerance for the practice was confirmed at the council of Trulla (692) and various lesser synods. What is not as widely known is that divorce and remarriage also existed in the West. In fairness it must be admitted that it was less common than in the East and had largely been suppressed by the late eighth century. As is often the case, the Fathers can be quoted effectively by both sides though again in fairness some of them were very severe in their criticism of second marriages.


Until fairly recently the RCC excommunicated anyone who had a divorce. Thus the sacraments were not only withheld from those who remarried but from those who were divorced for any reason. Since the Second Vatican Council this position has evolved into the present policy of excluding only remarried divorcees from communion. But is this a fair description of the RCC’s policy? Or is it closer in practice if not perhaps theory to Orthodoxy than some would like to admit?

Since the late 1960’s the number of so called annulments issued by the RCC world wide but especially here in North America has increased exponentially. There were just 400 granted in the US in 1968 but by 1978, the church handed out 45,000 (an increase of 11,250 percent). By 1983 67,000 annulments were granted in the United States. The number has leveled off since then, but still exceeds 60,000 annually! Theory aside; I would respectfully argue that the Catholic Church does in fact grant divorces. They just call them annulments. That’s not intended as a shot at the RCC but a simple statement of belief backed by statistics. It is well known and has been widely reported in Catholic publications that annulments are easily available to those with money or the right connections. From an historical point of view this has always been true, though it has become far more pronounced in recent decades.

Is this immoral? Strict conservative Catholics have been bent over this for a long time. But I would suggest that in some ways the Roman bishops are being better pastors by acknowledging human sin while striving to reinforce the weak soul. This fairly blatant nod and wink at divorce and remarriage probably keeps people in the Church who might otherwise be lost. Even the most liberal RC bishop is unlikely to give someone more than one marriage annulment. So the “annulled” Catholic knows when he presents himself for marriage number two that he better get it right this time. This is not really that far removed from the practice in Orthodoxy, even if there are a lot of legalistic hoops to jump through.

All this is not to say that we Orthodox do not have our own problems. I mentioned that there is a widespread belief that any Orthodox has a right to be married up to three times in the Church. In far too many cases clergy do little to disabuse the faithful of that false belief. In some places second marriages are indeed permitted too liberally in my opinion. The jurisdictional soup that we deal with outside of traditionally Orthodox countries also makes things harder. If your Greek bishop will not allow you to remarry or wants you to wait a year before doing so why just slide on over to the Antiochians or the OCA (example only not to be taken literally) and one of them might marry you with less hassle. One blessing is that from what I have been able to glean from various sources it seems that some Orthodox bishops are becoming increasingly reluctant to allow third marriages in all but the most unusual cases. Some even prohibit them altogether unless both previous marriages ended with the death of the spouse.

In closing it should be emphasized that even when second marriages are permitted they are not occasions of joy for Orthodox Christians. They are in fact quite penitential in their form. This applies even to widows. There are no crowns and the entire service is subdued with a heavy emphasis on our human failings and imploring the mercy of God, without which we can not hope to be saved.


Young fogey emeritus said...

I understand and have written that amazingly the issue is not a bone of contention between the two sides. The Melkite Church kept the Orthodox discipline from union with Rome in 1724 through the early 20th century, after which they seem to have (self-)latinised. And in practice the Orthodox are admirably strict, not recognising civil divorce and granting a few church divorces much like old-fashioned annulments. AFAIK people don't become Orthodox to be divorced and remarried or practise birth control.

That said I don't understand the Orthodox thinking on divorce and remarriage. Man-made, disciplinary rules can and do change and there are of course dispensations (economy to use the Orthodox term). Can't do that with the commandments. A church can no more say it's OK sometimes to commit adultery than approve homosex or murder. And to more than one observer the Orthodox rule seems to try to do that.

gabriel said...

In many cases there is a presumption that a failed marriage was spiritually defective from the word go.

From a Catholic viewpoint, this looks awfully like a presumption of nullity. And I don't mean that as a criticism- you seem to indicate that pastoral discretion is exercised in granting 2nd marriages. A Catholic could interpret this as a non-juristic way of arriving at the same end.

Perhaps this might explain the understanding for the Melkite practice prior to rationalization with Latin practice.

That said, I'm somewhat flummoxed by the Orthodox view of marriage. Firstly, I would have thought the Seven Brothers dialogue would indicate pretty clearly that a marriage ends with the death of one of the parties.

But more difficult for me to understand is that "In Orthodoxy, Holy Matrimony is not a contract." Obviously, Catholicism doesn't regard Marriage as a contract in the legal sense either- but there are certainly contractual elements of Marriage, like the need for consent. If someone is forced to marry against their will, is that marriage real in any sense? Secondly, if Marriage doesn't have this contractual element, what of marriages outside the Church? Does Orthodoxy have convert couples (i.e. not from other Christian traditions) remarry? Is there no marriage outside the Church?

Wordsmyth said...

I wish to "piggy back" on Gabriel's comment. In light of the Seven Brothers married to one woman in scripture ... how do the Orthodox understand marriage to survive despite death?