People, Look East: Exploring the Orthodox Experience of Divorce and Remarriage

We’re divorced and remarried, but we love God and love the Church. Are we excommunicated? Why can’t we receive Communion? I heard Orthodox Christians can!

In anticipation of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family, the question of pastoral care for the divorced and remarried has emerged as an issue of great concern. In areas of the world where divorce is common, this question rated high urgency on the surveys sent to bishops’ conferences to prepare for the synod. (In other parts of the world, other “irregular” family situations such as cohabitation without marriage or polygamy are more common than divorce, and command their own attention.)

As many have so carefully noted in their writing for the recent Patheos Public Square Summer Symposium on the Synod and the Family, true pastoral care for all those in irregular situations is complicated by the competing voices of culture and by lack of clarity in proclaiming or hearing the Church’s teachings on marriage and family life. The extraordinary synod and the regular synod that follows in 2015 are not intended to change that teaching—so, in spite of media spin, the survey was never intended to be a plebiscite for reform or revolution—but to provide conscious reflection of how that proclamation and hearing can be made more effective amid the noise of real everyday life. And once made clear, how are those teachings applied most compassionately and faithfully in the lives of real families?

The Instrumentum Laboris, or working document, for the extraordinary synod says this about a key aspect of life in canonically irregular marriage—that divorced and remarried Catholics are barred from receiving Penance and Holy Communion:

Some Church members who are cognizant that they are in an irregular situation clearly suffer from the fact that they are unable to receive the sacraments. Many feel frustrated and marginalized. Some wonder why other sins can be forgiven and not theirs. . . . These questions highlight the necessity of providing suitable formation and information in the matter. In other cases, persons do not understand how their irregular situation can be a reason for their not being able to receive the sacraments. Instead, they believe that the Church is at fault in not permitting their irregular marriage situation. This way of thinking can lead to viewing withholding the sacraments as a punishment. Furthermore, another factor of concern is the lack of understanding of the discipline of the Church when access to the sacraments is denied in these cases, as if it were a punishment. . . . Moreover, responses and observations from some episcopal conferences emphasize that the Church needs to equip herself with pastoral means which provide the possibility of her more widely exercising mercy, clemency and indulgence towards new unions. (Instrumentum Laboris 2014, #92)

It is in light of that last sentence, with its stress on “more widely exercising mercy, clemency, and indulgence toward new unions,” that many Church leaders, including the Holy Father himself, have spoken about looking to the so-called “Orthodox solution”—the practice of the Eastern Orthodox Churches with regard to marriage after divorce. Could the Orthodox practice teach the West anything about mercy, clemency, and indulgence? Cardinal Walter Kasper, the pope’s theologian, raised both hopes and a ruckus when he suggested, in an interview with Commonweal magazine, that the answer is yes.

CWL:You also talk about the difference between the Eastern Orthodox principle of oikonomia and the Western principle of epikeia. Could you explain the difference between those things, and how it’s important in questions such as how the church treats divorced and remarried Catholics?

Kasper: The Orthodox have the principle of oikonomia, which allows them in concrete cases to dispense, as Catholics would say, the first marriage and to permit a second in the church. But they do not consider the second marriage a sacrament. That’s important. They make that distinction (whether the people do is another question). I’m not sure whether we can adapt this tradition to our own, but we have similar elements. Epikeia says that a general rule must be applied to a particular situation — very often complex — taking into consideration all circumstances. We talk about jurisprudence, not jurisscience. The jurist must apply the general rule, taking account of all circumstances. For the great canonists of the Middle Ages, epikaia was justice sweetened with mercy. We can start there. We have our own resources for finding a solution.

Cardinal Kasper’s attempt to synthesize Orthodox practice into a few paragraphs came out the other end of the telephone game that is the media as somehow suggesting or promising that because the Orthodox under certain circumstances permit second or even third marriages, and that spouses in these marriages may receive Communion, the Catholic Church should do that, too—on the principle of mercy sweetening justice. That this was not the Cardinal’s intention, and that his comments don’t do justice to the differences between Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practice, may have gotten lost in the scuffle.

So if you’ve been hearing about the Orthodox solution, here’s a primer on what it is and isn’t—and why it can, in the long run and possibly not for the reasons you might think, be helpful to ask What Do the Eastern Folk Do?

Marriage After Divorce

On the surface, it appears that the Orthodox Churches differ from Catholic practice in allowing remarriage after divorce. Catholic teaching prohibits “second” or subsequent marriages while one spouse lives, because Marriage is a sacramental bond that only death can sever. A Catholic who is civilly divorced is still a Catholic—and still married in the eyes of the Church. He or she may receive Communion when in a state of grace, and take advantage of the sacrament of Penance to return to that state. However, a Catholic who attempts a second marriage after divorce is, by definition, living in a state of sin (adultery), and may not receive Holy Communion or be absolved of the sin in Reconciliation, because living in an ongoing adulterous relationship precludes contrition and a purpose of amendment.

But what of annulments? A Catholic who seeks a decree of nullity (annulment) from the Church does so on the basis that the first marriage never existed—there was an impediment of will or intent or capability that made it impossible for the vows to be made or lived from the very beginning. A civil divorce is required in most cases to obtain an annulment, and any children of the annulled union remain legitimate under the law, but it is as though that marriage did not happen. A Catholic who marries after annulment is not remarrying, but celebrating the Sacrament of Matrimony for the first time.

Orthodox Churches, on the other hand, do admit remarriage after divorce in certain circumstances, for certain reasons. The divorced person must seek a church divorce (not an annulment, but a declaration from the church that the marriage bond has been irreparably damaged) in consultation with the parish priest, who then talks with and listens to the person about whether a second (or in rare cases, a third) marriage will be in the pastoral interests of the person and his or her family. That information is submitted to the bishop for final decision. If permission is granted, the person may remarry in the Church, but without the crowning ritual that marks a first marriage. In the Orthodox understanding, that first marriage relationship, partaking as it does in the mystical marriage of Christ and his Church, outlasts death; the crowns anticipate the couple’s presence at the wedding banquet in the Kingdom of God. However battered that bond may become by earthly sin and heartbreak, it cannot be superseded.

Orthodox Christians who have been granted a dispensation to marry after divorce are considered full members of the community. They are generally required, at their confessor’s discretion, to refrain from receiving Communion for a period of some months after the second marriage—not as a punishment, but in repentance for the breakdown of the first marriage bond. Eventually, however, they are welcomed back into full Communion, on the Orthodox understanding that the Eucharist is a medicine for sinners, for which all people are in some sense unworthy.

Justice or Mercy? It’s Not a Choice

Cardinal Kasper uses the Greek words oikonomia and epikaia in reference to the Orthodox solution. Like many Greek words and the deeply nuanced philosophical and theological understanding behind them, these terms are often misunderstood. In the sense of the pastoral application of doctrine, oikonomia (literally, flexibility) and epikaia (literally, rigidity) are often set against each another, or made synonymous with the two pillars of law, mercy and justice. It can be all too easy, then, to caricature the Catholic approach to marriage after divorce as legalistic epikaia, and the Orthodox approach as compassionate oikonomia.

That does neither practice justice . . . or mercy. And that’s not the Orthodox solution we’re being asked to look to. Instead, Cardinal Kasper and others are reminding us that justice and mercy are inseparable. In practice, what the West can learn from the East is not that marriage is no big deal (because it is the biggest of deals for us both) or that automatic and unthinking open Communion is the way to go (because No). Instead, we are to look at how the East practices oikonomia with those who seek to enter a second marriage. The process takes place in the deeply personal relationship between priest/confessor and parishioner/penitent. Every case is unique, and resolved uniquely according to the priest’s (and through him, the bishop’s) understanding of the circumstances of this person in this community. The Orthodox solution applies the law, but with a flexibility born of acknowledging that it is the Church’s task to bring people to Christ in community, in the midst of an imperfect world.

Learning from Our Own Past

In Western Catholic practice, before divorce became so prevalent that canon law was revised to refer specifically to the divorced and remarried, the Orthodox solution was often the Catholic solution, too. Divorced and remarried Catholics might seek counsel from their pastor or confessor, and under certain circumstances be admitted to Communion quietly, where no scandal would result. The rise in divorce rates, the fall in understanding of the meaning of Marriage, the growth in size of parishes, the increased use of the annulment have all done as much as canon law has to place the focus on epikaia rather than oikonomia in the West.

Despite the media flap, Catholic law and Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage are not likely to change this October or next. But Catholic pastoral practice might—nudging Catholic parishes to be more welcoming of those in irregular situations, Catholic pastors to get to know better those smelly sheep and why they’re so driven to seek the sheepfold, and divorced and remarried Catholics to move closer and more honestly to a true understanding of Marriage and the Eucharist.

People, look East. It couldn’t hurt.

The Patheos Catholic Channel recently hosted a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod. Symposium posts and essays, which address a wide range of synod topics, remain available here.


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