Dialogue on Annulment & Divorce: Essentially Different?

Dialogue on Annulment & Divorce: Essentially Different? March 5, 2018

Very in-depth discussion with Orthodox and Protestant dialogue opponents.


The following exchanges were with Orthodox and Baptist friends of mine. Their words are in blue. Eastern Catholic William Klimon’s words are in green. He agrees with my view.


Let me ask you this David, aside from the fact that we call a divorce a divorce, and you call it an annulment, how is your position morally superior? Suppose our bishops decided to play it your way: A case that was previously under consideration for a divorce in which the husband was on his 3rd marriage (the previous two ending in the death of the first two wives) and a wife, charged with adultery — in the Orthodox approach, the husband could not have remarried because this was his 3rd marriage, and the wife (if guilty) could not have remarried because she was guilty; but following the Roman method, this marriage could just be annulled, and both parties would be free to marry again. How is this the stricter position? How is it morally superior?

Your scenario is clearly “stricter” in the sense that it is more “sexually (or, “ascetically”) rigorous.” Then again, why do you object when we are more rigorous and strict than you with regard to the celibacy of priests? Stopping at three marriages (in the case of deaths — say during a war, pestilence or a plague or something) is certainly more arbitrary than our biblically-based criteria of the preferability of priestly celibacy (which you impose on monks and bishops).

Moral superiority is another question. Remarriage after the death of a spouse does not violate any principle of sacramentalism, since marriage vows apply up to the death of one party only. As to the man on his third marriage in such an instance, he may or may not be able to marry again in Catholicism, depending on the sacramentality and validity of the third ostensible marriage. Adultery in and of itself is not grounds for annulment, if the marriage was a valid one in the first place. So that if there were no grounds, he would not be able to remarry (in a Catholic ceremony, at any rate), just as in your view.

If the marriage was indeed invalid, then why shouldn’t he be able to marry legitimately? Why penalize him because his first two wives died, by God’s Providence? He was faithful to to his marriage vows in each case. That’s the whole point. It seems that now you guys are getting a bit legalistic and Pharisaical, huh? But this prohibition is no different in kind than our celibacy requirement, which you so despise (and which has considerably more practical and pastoral justification behind it).

Now as to the adulterous woman: if she never intended to honor the vows and the sacramental nature of marriage, then there was no marriage, period. If one doesn’t even believe or intend to keep a vow as they are saying it, how can it have any binding force? This is as sinful as (and not essentially morally distinguishable from) an immoral affair, and cannot sensibly be acknowledged as a valid marriage in either of our views, it seems to me. Don’t Eastern Orthodox recognize that there is such a thing as a sham “marriage” which was never seriously undertaken by one or both parties in the first place? This is self-evident. I don’t see how it could be denied.

So why should the man be punished in that eventuality? Can she marry again? Sure, she can straighten herself out, reform herself, learn what really constitutes marriage, grow in the faith, repent and confess, meet the right guy, get the proper premarital counseling, and have another chance. Welcome to mercy and forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. Welcome to the fallen human race! “He who is without sin . . .” She had never been in a valid marriage in the first place, so she is free to enter into a valid one. If she had been, then the Church is powerless to do anything, as by definition such a marriage is indissoluble.

On the other hand, quite ironically, by now forbidding her to validly marry because she sinned sexually, you burden her with the very “undue” penalty for which you chide us for imposing on those we deem to have been legitimately and sacramentally married (now dysfunctional in some fashion). So that now your practice of “condescension” is not applied, thus (using Eastern Orthodox rhetoric) condemning the woman (due to not accepting “reality”?) to even worse sins of promiscuity, fornication, perhaps masturbation, unbridled lust, etc.

This being the case, how, then, is your view “morally superior” to ours? I say we are the ones who uphold both the principle and inviolability of sacramental matrimony, and mercy, whereas you are willing to deny both, according to — respectively — moral laxity and an arbitrary, cruel legalism. In conclusion, then, your hypothetical situation backfires as support for your outlook.


Also what is happening in the Roman Catholic Church as regards to annulments? I read that the American Catholic Church gave over 11,000 last year,

The higher numbers can be explained two ways:

1) more and more people have not the slightest inkling of what a “sacramental marriage” is, and what responsibilities it entails; hence; these “marriages” were never sacramentally (and that is the key) valid in the first place. This would be a legitimate reason for greater numbers.

2) heterodox priests and bishops may be abusing the power to annul marriages; giving in to societal pressure, which would be a grave sin on their part, possibly leading to their damnation if they willfully persist in violating Church teaching.

most notably the annulment of Joe Kennedy’s 11 year marriage. How could the Church annul a marriage of 11 years that produced children? Is this not de facto making annulment the same as divorce?

Children per se do not make a marriage valid, if it was not undertaken with the proper understanding of what the sacrament of matrimony is. I don’t know the particulars of the Kennedy case, but it may be an instance of liberal abuse, as in #2 above.

Is the Roman Catholic Church through a technicality beginning to slide down the slippery slope on marriage and ending marriage that many Protestant churches (sadly in some cases my own [Southern Baptist Convention] ) have gone? I would hope the Catholic Church will stand tall on this issue.

As I’ve argued many times, our doctrine on this has not changed in the least, whereas Protestants do change their official stands and long history of conservative marital teaching. Annulment — properly understood — is not divorce at all. Rather, it is the determination that the proper elements of a valid, consummated, sacramental marriage was never met in the first place. If a marriage is sacramentally valid, it cannot be annulled by any power on earth. It may appear to be so, but it is not in God’s eyes, and whoever violates His moral teaching will pay a penalty for it, if not in this life, then perhaps in the next (whether purgatory or hell). Jesus is very clear on this.

As to the somewhat complex qualities of a valid sacramental marriage, theCatechism of the Catholic Church discusses these in its Part II, chapter 3, Article 7, numbers 1601-1666.

[Further dialogues with Orthodox, on my Apologetics/Ecumenism list, November 1998]:

You keep asking for quotes from the Fathers to support the Orthodox position,

Indeed. When will you guys produce that? If you are right, I should think that would be an easy task. I have always thought that the Orthodox sought to be faithful to the Holy Fathers, so this is most disappointing. We have supported our viewpoint from the Fathers (my paper “Divorce: Early Church Teaching”).

but the Orthodox position is the same as yours. We also believe that remarriage after divorce is sinful.

So it’s sinful, but you allow it . . . Very well, then. I will take your word that the Orthodox Church sanctions and upholds — even has a ceremony for — that which it itself regards as sin. In my humble opinion, that’s an even more objectionable position than holding that divorce isn’t a sin, because it involves hypocrisy and compromise; an accommodation with that which God hates (Malachi 2:16). I don’t mean to be harsh or judgmental, but I don’t see how a Christian could regard this stance otherwise. Christianity cannot sanction sin and wrongdoing, period.

We (Orthodox) do not argue the fact that remarriage after divorce is sinful!!!

Duly noted. I shall keep this post for when someone asks me about your position. You have stated it very clearly twice now, and in my opinion, refuted your own position.

Let me say it again so that we have no doubt….please mark this down in your notes: THE ORTHODOX CHURCH BELIEVES THAT REMARRIAGE AFTER DIVORCE IS SINFUL. I have said it three times now….a holy number.


The question is, how do we deal with real people who have fallen into this sin? The Roman Catholic Church has come up with the idea of annulments. That is, the marriage did not really exist in the first place. This is a very clever answer to the problem.

We didn’t come up with it, the Apostle Paul did. Our Lord Jesus did. St. Ambrose, St. Leo and other Fathers did, as I demonstrate below.

In Orthodoxy, we allow the spouse who was the innocent party to remarry, the other spouse is out of luck. However, the service is not the same as it is in the first marriage. The service in a second marriage is more of a penitential service. Why do we allow this?

I hope part of the penitence is for the Church which is possibly compromising with sin (in cases where a theoretical annulment could not be obtained) in order to allow this “marriage.”

Because the Church is a hospital for the soul, not a court room. In the Church, sometimes we have to choose between the lesser of two sins.

I regard that as atrocious Christian ethics myself. If we start allowing sins, it is a slippery slope, and by the same logic, many sins could then be justified. Why single out marriage? If the idea is to avoid related occasions of sin, I could think of a dozen additional examples of a scenario like that.

Recall that the Church speaks for Christ on Earth. So what we have here is a decision that, in some instances, is made by the Church to allow a person to remarry lest they fall into fornication.

What you don’t seem to understand is that if a divorce takes place in instances of an existing valid sacramental marriage, then the Bible and the Fathers are both clear that a second “marriage” is a state of perpetual adultery. Jesus never taught as you do here. So in effect you are saying that “rather than burn and commit fornication, our Church will sanction an adulterous state.” This is nonsensical morality. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I can hardly believe I am reading this.

When I was still Roman Catholic I used to wonder how the Orthodox could call the RCC legalistic, when obviously they seems much more obsessed with the canons and traditions. It was because when the Orthodox say that the RCC is legalistic they are not faulting them for their observance of rules, but rather in the placing of rules above an individual soul.

Yeah, far be it from us to harm a soul by preventing it from entering into a sin so serious its eternal destiny might be jeopardized. We will be like you, then: rather than tell them the difficult truth which will help them to be more righteous (Jesus did that a lot, too – remember the rich young ruler?), we will inform them of an easy way out, and sanction a sin which Jesus and the Fathers didn’t allow at all.

To say that a rule is engraved in stone and that there can be no exceptions is to undermine the authority of the Church to bind and loose.

Yes, relativists, antinomians, many libertarians, secularists, and theological liberals argue the same way: they tell us that Christian morality is too rigid and archaic, and that there are no absolutes: we must exercise a flexibility and compassion which takes into account human frailty, situation ethics, and modern society. Teenagers can’t be expected to abstain, so we will pass out condoms to them and not even try to stop them from engaging in sex. Rather than protect them from the possibility of contracting AIDS by urging abstention, we will give them a balloon for sexual purposes and hope that it doesn’t break. We’re willing to take that chance (with their lives). Instead of telling college kids they shouldn’t get drunk, we know they will anyway, so we will come up with the claptrap about “designated drivers.” Where does such reasoning end? The eternal destiny of a soul is far more important than even saving one’s life.

In Orthodoxy we have what is called economia. Economia means to lessen a rule for the sake of a person’s soul. It is the prerogative of the Bishop to exercise this economia.

So what other sins are allowed as cases of “economia?” The lesser of two evils . . . ?

So, what I am saying here essentially is that the Roman Catholic Church should get off of their high horse when it comes to this issue. We all agree that remarriage after divorce is sinful. The difference is in how we deal with it.

Obviously. We continue to follow through on the notion that it is sinful and thus we won’t allow a second “marriage.” But if an ostensible “marriage” was in actuality never valid in the first place, the couple can be released to enter into a valid sacramental marriage. That is mercy and economia exercised in harmony with the upholding of right and wrong — not a compromise with what is inherently immoral. The concept is fundamentally different.

You have your annulments, which makes bastards out of the children of these “non-marriages,”

“Bastard” is a secular, legal term, and derogatory at that. Therefore it has no relevance whatever to Church rulings regarding sacramentality. The Catholic Church has never taught this (though, of course it is a common slander which you parrot).

but is very logical and seems to get around the problem.

There is moral logic and consistency, and there is moral illogic and inconsistency and incoherence.

And we simply admit to the fact that people make mistakes, and that not everyone can remain chaste after a divorce, and they should not be punished indefinitely for a divorce that is the fault of the other spouse.

“The two shall become one flesh.” Your teaching might be preferable if ethics were relative and if we didn’t have such clear NT and patristic teaching that “remarriage” is adulterous, and that true marriage is indissoluble. In my humble opinion, those things make your position impossible to consistently take from within a Christian framework.

With regards to birth contol…I posted the following back in July…..

    “…For what its worth, in the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad birth control is still considered a sin. However, it is not quite as black and white as in the Roman Catholic Church.”

Another clear case of a sliding scale of ethics. This is downright shocking and depressing. Another act is wrong, is sinful (by your own admission), yet you will allow it. That’s all I need to hear. What is there to argue further? Black is white, and white is black.

But here again, we are dealing with souls. The Church is larger than its canons. The canons were made to serve the people, not the other way around. That is one reason that we have Bishops. They can decide how strictly canons should be applied on a case by case basis.

When Jesus contended with the Pharisees over, e.g., the levitical legality of rescuing a sheep on the Sabbath, He was not saying such an act was wrong, which He was now relaxing for pastoral purposes, in order to accommodate human weakness. Quite the contrary; He was saying that such acts never were wrong, but that they were misunderstood as being forbidden by the Law when in fact they were not contrary to the Law – properly understood spiritually. He said that the Sabbath was made for man, not vice versa.

Orthodoxy, on the other hand (if you are representing it properly – and I sure hope you are mistaken) is asserting that what is truly sinful and wrong can be relaxed and allowed, as an exercise of pastoral mercy or prudence. Such a principle is never found in the Bible. Jesus didn’t tell the woman caught in adultery that she was free to engage in sin because she couldn’t help it. No, He said, “go and sin no more.” By your reasoning, the early martyrs could have exercised “economia” and bowed down in idolatry to Caesar to spare their lives. They could have reasoned, “it is too difficult to be burned alive or eaten by lions, so God and the Church will understand if I renounce Christ in order to get out of this mess.”

Uh uh. I don’t buy this at all. It is very dangerous ground which Orthodoxy has decided to tread. And without biblical and patristic precedent . . . You can get mad at me if you want, but I won’t back down because it is the easier, more pleasant course. God didn’t call me to be an apologist in order to win a popularity contest. Oftentimes it is a thankless task. I must speak out against what I (i.e., my Church) believe to be wrong. I am not saying anything the Fathers before me didn’t say. I stand with them, and on Holy Scipture. I am accountable to God as a teacher. And again, I am just a messenger.


By the way…I don’t believe that there is any Eastern tradition or anything in the early Tradition of the Western Church that supported the use of annulments.

I cited both Scripture and referred to my compilation of Fathers in that regard. But all one has to do to establish that is to show that there is a distinction between merely civil and sacramental marriage. If that is true (which I think you would grant), then clearly a marriage can exist which is one sort but not the other, more sublime type. And that is the presuppositional basis for an annulment, which Bill Klimon shows (below) even existed in the East. I don’t consider this a particularly difficult concept to grasp. Nor should it be at all controversial, in my opinion.

I had asked earlier if you have any history that supports the practice of annulments. Is there any historical justification within common Church Tradition for their usage?

From my paper on the subject, the following are the two clearest examples:

There is hardly anything more deadly than being married to one who is a stranger to the faith, where the passions of lust and dissension and the evils of sacrilege are inflamed. Since the marriage ceremony ought to be sanctified by the priestly veiling and blessing, how can that be called a marriage ceremony where there is no agreement in faith? (St. Ambrose, To Vigilius, Letter 19:7 (A.D. 385), in FC, XXVI:176)

This is an unambiguous example of the “Pauline privilege,” which is a type of annulment.

And so a wife is different from a concubine, even as a bondwoman from a freewoman. For which reason also the Apostle in order to show the difference of these persons quotes from Genesis, where it is said to Abraham, ‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.’ And hence, since the marriage tie was from the beginning so constituted as apart from the joining of the sexes to symbolize the mystic union of Christ and His Church, it is undoubted that that woman has no part in matrimony, in whose case it is shown that the mystery of marriage has not taken place. (Pope St. Leo the Great, To Rusticus, Epistle 167:4 (A.D. 459), in NPNF2, XII:110)

This raises a very interesting point, one I had not previously thought of (praise God for your call for clarification! ). The OT distinction between a concubine and a wife is somewhat analogous to our distinction between civil and sacramental marriage — itself the kernel and foundational premise of the concept of annulment. Sarah told Abraham to have sexual intercourse with the slave girl Hagar in order to produce a child (she being barren up till that time).

This was a Hebrew custom in those days. Concubines were protected by Mosaic law (Ex 21:7-11, Deut 21:10-14), though they were distinguished from wives (Judges 8:31) and were more easily divorced (Gen 21:10-14). Remember, God approved of the sending away of Hagar and her son Ishmael (Gen 21:12), not because they were evil or disparaged by Him (see Gen 17:20, 21:13,17-20), but because Sarah was Abraham’s wife in the fuller sense (akin to sacramental marriage), as St. Leo argues above, following the Apostle Paul (see Gen 17:15-21; Gal 4:21-31).

But later prophets encouraged monogamy (Mal 2:14 ff.) and the ideal woman of Proverbs 31 lived in a monogamous society. Later, of course, Jesus taught that monogamy (with no divorce) was God’s ideal from the beginning (Mt 19:1-12; cf. Gen 2:24). Divorce — so Jesus said — was permitted to the Jews only because of “hardness of heart.” But the “except for fornication” clause of Matthew 19:9 is interpreted by us (and, I believe, the Fathers) as a case of non-matrimonial ongoing fornication as opposed to real marriage, and as such is a biblical basis for annulments, along with the Pauline privilege (1 Cor 7:15), which has always been accepted by the Church.

So there you have it: three biblical arguments and two patristic citations. Even the OT biblical evidence for annulment (by strong analogy), considered in isolation, is stronger than for many doctrines we both (and all Christians) accept, such as the resurrection of the body, heaven, the atonement of Christ, original sin, the Eucharist, and other doctrines, which were all developed much more fully in the New Testament. In this case, too, the NT builds explicitly upon the kernels of the Old Testament.

Albeit, as a legal device they may have some utility they have been misused recently within the Catholic Church and used improperly as a form of de facto divorce.

No one denies that abuses take place, but that does not prove whether or not theconcept is valid or invalid. Arguments from abuses never rise to “essence.” I know you wouldn’t appreciate it if I made this sort of argument about something in Orthodoxy.

The use of annulments in conjunction with Catholic divorces need to be discussed as you try to critique the Orthodox views toward divorces…views which are Biblical and Traditional as well.

Again, in our case, it is a matter of abuse. I have shown you the biblical and patristic rationale for both annulments and “no divorce.” You have institutionalized the sin, precisely as you have done with contraception and division (and what we have always refused to do). That is our beef with you (the biggest moral objections we have).

The annulments still look like divorces in fact. A rose or in this case a skunk still is skunk but only by another name. It appears unfortunately that the annulment game does lead to more moral Christians or to more loving parents or spouses. Catholics are no more moral than most Protestants or Orthodox in their behavior as a result of the use of the annulment loophole.

This has absolutely nothing to do with my post, which was about the Fathers’ views on marriage, remarriage, and divorce, and about how Eastern Christendom changed the primitive, apostolic Tradition on this — following the emperors rather than councils and popes, the Bible and the Fathers (as was clearly documented).

Not a word has been “spoken” about these things – which were, after all, what my post was about. It’s an historical argument (about the actual early Tradition), not a moral or philosophical or ethical one, about what constitutes an annulment, how corrupt our marriage tribunals are, etc.

Either Orthodoxy has diverged from the teaching of the early Church and the Fathers on this or we have. But ignoring the issue doesn’t advance the discussion at all — nor does switching it over to corruptions in practice. As Joe Louis said, “he can run but he can’t hide.” The “ring” in this instance is Church History.

The same tactics have been used in the past by my Orthodox friends with regard to contraception. Unable to prove that the Fathers allowed it in any way, shape, or form, the debate is switched over to the nature of Natural Family Planning (NFP). This reminds me of today’s politics, too: instead of responding to anothers’ actual argument, or defending yourself with facts, just attack the attacker (in this case the Catholic Church, which is said to be playing “games” with annulments and rationalizing about the essential distinction between NFP and contraception).

I think the facts speak (loudly) for themselves. If Orthodox want to say that the Fathers were simply wrong on this issue en masse, then that is an option, I suppose, but it sounds more like Protestantism to me than what I understand as the Orthodox self-conception of their unique preservation of apostolic Tradition.

And I still can’t comprehend a view which holds that “divorce is a sin and evil, yet we as a Church sanction it under certain circumstances.” Is there not something fundamentally wrong in that picture? I would prefer Luther’s half-facetious “be a sinner and sin boldly” to this!

Aren’t annulments innovations that are corruptions?

The concept — rightly understood — isn’t an innovation, but rather, a development of the notion of valid sacramental marriage. Corruptions of the process are just that, but they don’t touch on the essence of a true annulment, any more than a Hans Kung or any other heterodox buffoon passing themselves off as “Catholic” affect the essence and validity of true Catholic dogma (or your liberals affect true Orthodoxy).

without any biblical support?

The “Pauline privilege” (1 Cor 7:15) would be an example of a situation which precisely fits a certain type of annulment (and the Church has always accepted it — for the very reason that it is so clearly taught in Holy Scripture). Also, we argue (with much exegetical and linguistic justification) that Jesus’ “except for adultery (‘porneia’)” in Matthew is a reference to an adulterous affair which is in actuality no sacramental marriage at all. I also cited the parallelism of Abraham and Hagar / Sarah above. You may think differently, but then you have to deal with the overwhelming consensus of the Fathers.

and which have no precedence in either early Eastern or Western Church history.

Maybe not in the East, since that’s where the false notion of dissolubility and permissible divorce originated. But certain aspects of annulments are seen in some of the patristic quotes I presented. But if I recall correctly, there were many easterners in that collection, such as St. John Chrysostom.

Don’t annulments undermine your whole notion that divorce does not exist in the Catholic Church?

No, not in the slightest, because annulments and divorce are entirely different in essence. You can complain about annulments if you like, but that does not make them the equivalent of divorce. The least you could do would be to get the definitions right — without which no constructive discussion is possible. We’re just ships passing in the night.

Look at the facts and reality of the behavior of most Catholics.

There are sinners in the Catholic Church?????!!!!!!! Thanks for pointing that out! Now, . . . what does that prove?

Let’s get real here Dave!!

I am very real, thank you. Now — with all due respect — you (and other Orthodox) ought to “get” courageous and brave; gird up your loins and work up enough gumption to tackle my challenge about the early Church and divorce, and how and why the East (and later Orthodoxy) departed from it.

[Additional clarifying comments by my friend William Klimon, an Eastern Catholic who is very knowledgeable about Orthodox history]:

I don’t really care to weigh in on the history of Christian marriage. I think the basic principles of life-long indissoluable marriage are clear from Scripture. How they have played out in the history of the Church is exceedingly complex, I will grant.

I will address one of my pet peeves, though, namely:

Ignorance of the distinction between divorce and annulment and the claim that annulment is “Catholic divorce.” That claim is an incorrect and really uneducated one, for the following reasons:

(1) There is no system of civil marriage law in the Christian world (and those parts of the world influenced by the Christian view) that does not have both categories–divorce and annulment–by whatever names.

(a) “Annulment of a marriage is legislative or judicial invalidation of it, as in law never having existed, as distinct from dissolution [divorce], which terminates a valid marriage.”– The Oxford Companion to Law, ed. D.M. Walker (1980), s.v. “Annulment.”

(b) “An ‘annulment’ differs from a divorce in that a divorce terminates a legal status, whereas an annulment establishes that a marital status never existed.”–Black’s Law Dictionary (6th ed. 1990), s.v. “Annulment.”

(2) This distinction is recognized even in the Eastern canon law.

(a) “One should probably distinguish [when looking at the Eastern canon and civil law] between divorce proper and the annulment of marriage caused by its illegality (e.g., marriage prohibited by impediments, such as consanguinity) or by the social inequality of the partners.”– The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium , ed. A.P. Kazhdan (1991), s.v. “Divorce.”

(b) See also Eve Levin, Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700 (Cornell U. Pr., 1989), p. 112 (citing examples of annulment on the grounds of minority and consanguinity–and demonstrating that these were in fact annulments by showing that they did not “count” as valid marriages when calculating whether someone was attempting a forbidden fourth[!] marriage).

(3) Additionally, every system of marriage law with which I am familiar also recognizes two types of divorce:

(a) “A mensa et thoro”: literally “from table and bed” (or more colloquially “from bed and board”). This is the type of divorce known as limited divorce or legal separation. It involves a judicial decree that the parties may not live together, but it does not affect the legal status of the marriage.

(b) “A vinculo matrimonii”: literally “from the bond of marriage.” This is the type of divorce known as absolute divorce or dissolution. Under this type of divorce, the parties are free to contract other marriages.

(c) The Roman Catholic church, in the Codex Iuris Canonici (1983), in fact recognizes limited divorce (though in a very limited way). See CIC, canons 1151-55. The reasons given in those canons for limited divorce are adultery, “serious danger of spirit or body to the other spouse or to the children,” or some other situation that “renders common life too hard.”

So we may conclude by saying that annulment and divorce are two entirely different things. Every modern system of law recognizes both. Divorce itself is of two types, limited and absolute. The Catholic Church recognizes limited divorce, but does not–cannot–countenance dissolution of valid marriages with the freedom to remarry.

What the heck is a “limited divorce?”

I thought I had explained it clearly. Here is what Black says:

“[The] term refers to a divorce a mensa et thoro (from bed and board) with no right to remarry.”– Black’s Law Dictionary  (6th ed. 1990), s.v. “limited divorce.”

A DIVORCE, in what we are discussing, is a dissolution of a marriage bond. This is not about legal separation– this is not even close to the issue that was brought up to the Orthodox on the list. Either the RC Church recognizes divorce or not.

My point is simply to clarify the terminology. Annulment is not divorce. Divorce comes in at least two distinct forms–limited and absolute. Divorce is not necessarily dissolution.

In effect, the whole letter restates precisely what I said: The RC Church refuses to recognize the legal dissolution of the bond of marriage. A separation from bed and board, I must point out, is not the recognition of a divorce; it’s a recognition that a couple cannot live together–a very different thing indeed. Couples find themselves not living together all the time. A state of war is a good example. Are you telling me this is a state of “limited divorce”?

No, that is not what it means. One of the duties of marriage is cohabitation. To live apart deliberately and indefinitely is not permitted. (Circumstantial separations are of course not what is referred to here.) If a grave reason (usually adultery or danger to one or the other spouse) exists, then a competent judicial authority may decree a limited divorce: that is not a “recognition that a couple cannot live together,” but rather a judicial determination that they ought not to live together.

This accords fully with the thought of the great majority of the Fathers who, in interpreting 1 Cor. 6:16, required spouses to separate (without of course the possibility of remarriage) when one or both parties had committed adultery. See Henri Crouzel, “Divorce: I. Separation” in Encyclopedia of the Early Church, ed. A. Di Berardino (Oxford U. Pr. 1992), vol. 1, p. 243.

If you are telling me this loophole is precisely the Catholic view, and we therefore agree in principle that this is the ACTUAL view of the Catholic Church (which was not acceptable for discussion when I said it, perhaps because I did not include the term “limited divorce”) please demonstrate a historical precedent based on the everyday practice of the pre-schism Church.

I am not certain what you mean by “loophole.”

It is quite right to note that the exact legal formulation and possibility of a decree of divorce “a mensa et thoro” de jure does not enter into the (western) canon law until the 12/c. See Roderick Phillips, Putting Asunder: A History of Divorce in Western Society (Cambridge U. Pr. 1988), p. 13.

As I indicated above, though, it is a concept completely in accord with the thought and the practice of the Fathers, who required a de facto limited divorce when one or both spouses had committed adultery. The only relevant question the Fathers were divided on was whether the innocent spouse had to accept back the erring one. None of the Fathers thought that either party would be free to marry someone else.

Another clear example of the use of de facto limited divorce was the separation of spouses so that they could both enter religious life, or the husband the episcopate and the wife monastic life. The marriage is not dissolved or declared null, rather the effect is that the parties may not live as spouses, but neither are they free to remarry. This was of course a very wide-spread practice after the 4/c. St. Basil the Great specifically approved of it. See his Moralia 73, 1; Great Asceticon 12.

To sum up, my points were these:

(1) Annulment is not divorce.

(2) Divorce is of at least two types–limited and absolute.

(3) The Catholic Church does not recognize the absolute divorce of those in a sacramental marriage.

(a) It does recognize the limited divorce of those who, for grave reasons, should not live together.

(b) It also recognizes the dissolution of valid but non-sacramental marriages in some cases (the Pauline and Petrine privileges).

My main point is that annulment is not “Catholic divorce.” Historically, it was generally not viewed and not used in that way. One of the foremost historians of the subject has concluded that “the cases of marriage annulment [in the Middle Ages] lend little support to the view that the church’s laws on marriage were regarded as rules to be cynically broken at the time of marriage and then, just as cynically, applied so as to obtain an annulment in order to escape from an unhappy marriage in a society that did not permit divorce.”–Phillips, op. cit., p. 13.

Unfortunately, today we American Catholics have had an annulment explosion accompanying the wider societal divorce explosion. Seventy-five percent of all annulments are granted in the U.S. Six hundred were granted in 1968; 60,000+ in 1998. Are many of these de facto divorces? Obviously, yes. That is the conclusion of Robert H. Vasoli in What God Has Joined Together: The Annulment Crisis in American Catholicism (Oxford U. Pr. 1998).

Of course, the annulment process, like any judicial proceeding, is open to abuse. If someone is intent on defrauding the proceeding by, e.g., lying under oath, there is not much that can be done to stop that. One does not, therefore, dismantle the process. Abusus non tollit usum.

But the abuses in the American church (which seem largely limited to the American church) do not change the real nature of the annulment process (which seeks to determine whether a particular marriage was valid ab initio) nor the Church’s teaching on marriage.

[Additional dialogues from my Apologetics/Ecumenism List, from Orthodox and Protestants]:

This is somewhat of a response to Dave’s “Divorce….a Sin but OK???”. . . I could give a litany of similar titles . . .
  • “Polygamy…a sin but OK???” (Jacob)
  • “Concubines…a sin but OK???” (David, Jacob)
  • “Divorce…a sin but OK???” (Deuteronomy)

In all these cases, a sin? Yes. Ok? No. Permitted? Yes. You only need to look back to the OT to see that grace is greater than law.

The fallacious premise here is that you wish to take us back to the OT dispensation, the Law, a state of being as it was prior to the New Covenant and revelation of Jesus and the New Testament. In other words, the Orthodox position on divorce is the moral and developmental equivalent of OT polygamy, concubinage, and divorce. The only problem is that Jesus expressly “overruled” these things. He calls divorce the result of “hardness of heart” and not as God intended things from the beginning. He went on to absolutely prohibit it. Staying back in 900 B.C. simply won’t cut it for Christians. We have to grapple with the words of Jesus and Paul now. We don’t have the luxury of not yet hearing their teaching.

The sin is forgiven once and the person moves on.

You continue to ignore the Fathers on this. How do you explain that? At least please explain how you can ignore them, if you don’t want to deal with the issue of their witness against you.

Similarly, in divorce the Church chooses between the lesser of two sins.

John 8:34 . . . Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin . . .

1 John 3:8-9 Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil . . . Those who have been born of God do not sin.

Romans 7:7, 12 What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! . . . the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.

Romans 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

If one spouse is beaten by her husband, and he goes out and gambles their money away every week, and finally she divorces him, the Church is willing to allow this woman to remarry with the penitential service I was talking about. As for her husband: never! Only the innocent party is given the exception.

Always the hard cases . . . a standard form of propaganda. What about the routine, run-of-the-mill cases? What about the Fathers and the biblical teaching? Must I ask till I’m blue in the face?

I don’t understand why Dave is so upset over this very ancient Orthodox practice. It is not something that we just started doing in the 60’s you know.

No, it started in the 6th century, as I have shown. When I say “ancient,” I mean at least the classic patristic period, and on back to the biblical (apostolic) period.

and I am quite comfortable with the Orthodox position on this. The Church may bind and loose.

No Church which claims to be following Jesus — the sinless One- – may sanction sin. “Binding and loosing” refers to forgiving sin, not giving one the freedom to indulge in it. I find all this extremely shocking and depressing.

I will easily grant your assertion that Jesus raises the bar to a higher level of moral expectations. Jesus states that marriage is permanent (until death). He does not qualify it by saying “sacramental” marriage.

That’s precisely what the “fornication clause” of Mt 19:9 does (and also the “Pauline privilege”). Jesus and Paul were distinguishing between an actual marriage and a state of fornication. God also made the same distinction between Sarah and Hagar, according to Pope St. Leo the Great and (I think, as he did) Scripture. This is what annulment is all about.

Are you serious? The Pauline privilege is about fornication (porneia?)? I was reading the Scriptures the other night and I noticed that Paul said that in the case of a marriage between an unbeliever and a believer, the unbelieving spouse is “sanctified” because of the marriage and the children are “holy” because of the marriage. How could a state of fornication result in a sanctified spouse and holy children? How could Paul allow someone to live in a state of fornication? Paul tells them to stay in their marriage if the unbelieving spouse will allow it, so if he is talking about fornication, he is telling them to stay in a state of fornication. It is hard to believe that Paul would tell them to remain in a state of fornication. By St. Paul’s use of the adjectives “sanctified” and “holy”, I would tend to think that he is referring to a “sacramental” marriage. Yet, in the case of this marriage with a sanctified spouse, Paul allows the believer to remarry in the case of abandonment.

You’re right. I should have been more clear about this. Jesus was obviously talking about fornication, because He used the word porneia. But in the case of the Pauline privilege, that may be in many cases a valid marriage in some sense (as opposed to merely a state of perpetual fornication) but not a sacramental one. This was true in my own case. I had never been Catholic, and married in a Protestant service, so I was in a valid marriage according to Catholic teaching (and I believe it is even considered a sacrament). My wife, however, had been raised Catholic, so for her it was “invalid form.” Therefore, we had our marriage “sacramentalized” when I was received into the Church in 1991. So there is a valid marriage which falls short of “full” Catholic sacramentality. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify that. But I am rapidly getting over my head, and into areas which are fit only for canon lawyers . . .

The people he was speaking to did not have “sacramental” marriages. He was making the indissoluble union based on the pattern of Adam and Eve becoming one flesh–not on Christian sacramental marriage.

These things develop, but remember, above you were making the argument that OT polygamy and concubinage suggest that divorce is ok. I think that argument is fundamentally flawed, as I have sought to demonstrate. The concubines are far more analogous to non-sacramental marriages than to “second marriages.” Adam and Eve far more approximate sacramental marriage, as there was no one else around to cause any romantic conflict! LOLOL It was either Eve or nuthin’ in those days . . . LOL

Yes, but Jesus makes his case based on Adam and Eve who only “approximated” sacramental marriage. I still haven’t been convinced that Jesus was speaking strictly about “sacramental” marriage, but marriage in general.

Perhaps. One has to factor in the many variables (who is baptized, who is Catholic, etc.). But I was simply trying to find some biblical material which gave some inkling of the notion of annulment, and I believe I have done so, whatever the Orthodox on the list think. I have answered their challenge, while they have continued to ignore my pleas for a reply to my post about the historical changes in the East with regard to the sacrament of matrimony and divorce.

It seems to me that the RCC is playing games by saying non-sacramental marriages are dissoluble, but not sacramental marriages. It is a form of legalized divorce by the legal game of saying that it never was really a “sacramental” marriage.

We make the arguments, which I think are obvious and compelling, but somehow they just don’t sink in. I have done my part. God has to show you the truth of these things, with His enabling grace. These are “hard sayings,” just like all the biblical sexual teachings are. People don’t want to believe them, by nature (Mt 19:10-12). I suppose if I was in a lousy (but valid sacramental) marriage I would be sorely tempted in the same way. You (and all of us) have to be willing to go wherever truth leads (I am not saying you aren’t — just making a general observation).

Did the couple become one flesh? If they had children, it’s sort of hard to deny that they became one flesh.

Yes, but that in itself does not make a sacramental marriage. That is just describing what sex does and is, in the spiritual realm. One can even become “one flesh” with a prostitute (1 Cor 6:16), but obviously that does not constitute a marriage, let alone a sacramental one.

What of a couple who purposefully and willingly get a vasectomy or tubal ligation for contraceptive purposes? Every act of coitus after that is a contracepted act.

Technically, yes, but if they repent, it isn’t a sin, because the evil lies in the “contraceptive (or anti-life) will

They may later regret and repent of the sin. However, every act of coitus even after repentance is still a purposeful contraceptive act–it just so happens that repentance occurred after the purpose.

Mere inability to conceive is not the equivalent of “contraception.” If that were true, every woman not fertile (permanently or temporarily), or post-menopausal would be sinning whenever they had sex, which is absurd.

For the couple who are infertile or had some accident, the act is not a contraceptive act because the couple took no pro-active measures to avoid conception.

Correct. But that also applies to the repentant vasectomy recipient, because he no longer has an anti-life will. I would say, however, that he should abstain during the wife’s fertile period as a matter of ethical and spiritual principle, as I do (thus respecting the natural reproductive cycle of the woman). In that case, he would be ethically no different than me. If he wanted children, but couldn’t have them, that would be “penance” and punishment enough, would it not? But he would no longer have a contralife will or intent. So sex would not be evil.

In the case of a vasectomy, that is what the RCC allows a couple to do–to move on. If the church prohibited conjugal relations between a couple after a vasectomy, then that would be consistent. After someone sins by getting a divorce and remarrying and has more children, there is no way to undo the sin they have sown. In a like manner, the odds are against undoing the vasectomy. In the case of divorce and remarriage the RCC calls it sin. In the case of surgical contraception, the church calls it unfortunate.

OK, I see what you are driving at now. This analogy fails because in the case of marriage, they are either truly joined together (sacramental and indissoluble) or not (non-sacramental / civil marriage / cohabitation / ongoing fornication). If they are truly joined together, that is a metaphysical and spiritual reality which can’t be examined under a microscope. We accept that based on revelation. If that is the case, then it cannot end until death (remember that?: “till death do us part”?). “What God has joined together . . .” God – not man! That’s why a second marriagemust be adulterous, and perpetually so, by the very nature of things.

With vasectomy, on the other hand, we are not talking about an unbreakable metaphysical bond, but a physical procedure which was entered into with ill will and bad ethics (and which may in many instances, be medically reversed). But since the evil of contraception resides in the will to thwart conception, that can be changed by education and a transformation of one’s will. After that point, the recipient of the vasectomy is not sinning when he has sex any more than the recipient of a war injury, or radiation or something, is. Will, will, will! That is the key!

Actually, it is also the key to sacramental marriage, since a couple has to willfully and with full knowledge enter into the holy, grace-giving matrimonial covenant and sacrament, which has certain defining characteristics. The fact that they often don’t these days is the root cause of the increase in annulments. The very concept of sacramental marriage is being lost, as evidenced by this conversation. But it goes back to the eastern changes in civil law in the 6th century, and Luther’s lowering marriage to a mere civil contract in the 16th century (he thought it fine to marry an “infidel or a Turk” — the Turks being Muslim, of course). People have always fought against God’s most sublime and difficult moral laws. This shouldn’t surprise us.

Why shouldn’t the bishop be able to use oikonomia in the hard cases?

In perhaps most of those cases, it would be the equivalent in actuality of our annulments, anyway. The Orthodox simply misunderstand the spiritual and matrimonial realities and essences and definitions involved.

Actually the way it [annulment] is implemented makes me distrustful. If we were to go back 100 years, I would not be so suspicious of the practice.

But remember, 100 years ago, people in general had a much better notion of what marriage was about, too, and divorce was still scandalous (as it was even 30 years ago). This accounts for the rise in annulments at least as much (probably more so) than abuses. E.g., in 1898, no Christians believed in contraception. If a couple deliberately decides not to have children, and contracepts towards that end, this is contrary to Catholic wedding vows, and is itself grounds for an annulment.

Non-sacramental marriage is not prostitution or fornication. It is marriage.

Yes (that’s where I painted with too broad of a brush), but I was making the point above that having sex can make two people “one” but not necessarily married as a result.

Do you take the next step and concede that Orthodoxy has departed from the Fathers and Tradition on this matter?

I do not really believe that you proved your case here. I realize that you were trying to separate the discussion of annulments from the discussion of divorces but as a practical matter they are so interrelated I can not logically see their separation.

This is the usual Orthodox confusion (on this topic) of corruption in practice with the actual teaching of a group. I will elaborate below . . .

Without being polemical about it, if annulments were not abused as they are today your case might have some merit. Perhaps if the Holy Roman Church purged itself of this abuse, I could look at your arguments on divorce more favorably. I am not trying to be critical but I am trying to explain why I find it hard to agree with your basic thesis that the Orthodox have made major mistakes in this area.

Your entire argument here – it seems to me – is based on a series of logical fallacies:

1) Whether or not the Catholic Church has departed from Christian Tradition on this matter has nothing whatsoever to do with whether the Orthodox Church has (why is it that Orthodox peristently refuse to discuss their own Church teaching on marriage and divorce without recourse to annulments and their abuse? Are you unable to defend yourself without always switching the subject over to us?). This pronounced tendency (which we have seen repeatedly on this list) reduces a serious conversation down to the foolish level of the child’s retort, “your dad’s uglier than my dad . . . “;

2) The Fathers taught certain things about divorce and remarriage; that, too, is a matter which stands on its own (the same holds true with regard to contraception, whether or not NFP is ipso facto contraception — which I vehemently deny, of course);

3) Annulments are simply not divorce, by their very nature. My friend William Klimon has shown above that the East historically made the same distinction as well;

4) Any abuses (God forbid) of annulments do not change the essential nature of what an annulment is. An abuse, by definition, is something which is distinct from the thing which is being abused.

The end result is that as a practical matter divorces with remarriage occur within the Holy Roman Church when annulments are abused.

. . . which (whatever the implications are) has nothing to do with whether or not Orthodoxy has departed from the Fathers on this issue.

If you can show me that there is any serious move to strictly enforce discipline in the administration of this area within the Roman Catholic Church I might be willing to reconsider my position on this issue.

The two have no relation to each other, as explained above. You should change your opinion based on what the Holy Fathers and Holy Scripture teach, not because the Catholic Church has “cleaned up its act,” so to speak. If you are correct about us, and insist on equating any abuses with the teaching and essence of annulments, then at best you can only say that both our communions have departed from Tradition. But what you can’t say is that Orthodoxy has held to the Tradition while Catholicism has not. The very fact that you keep switching the focus indicates to me that you are unable to defend your own Church’s position.

Let me get to the crux of the matter: The Orthodox teaching on divorce is basically (regardless of what Stanley Harakas or Bp. Ware state) is:

. . . Yet another instance of the eternal quandary of “who speaks for Orthodoxy.” Now you are to be trusted as an authority over an Orthodox bishop . . . How is that different from sola Scriptura and Protestantism, I wonder?

1. Divorce is a sin.

Good, but of course this leads to radical and troubling inconsistencies in the Orthodox position.

2. If a couple divorces only the spouse who is clearly not at fault is allowed to remarry in a church wedding.

I think it is a fallacy from the outset to believe that one party in such a tragic rupture can be “clearly not at fault.” They may be in terms of starting the divorce procedure, but not in terms of contributing causes (at least almost always, if not always). Hense the wisdom of the Scripture and Fathers (and the Catholic Church) to disallow either party to remarry (apart from the Pauline privilege, which has to do with theological belief).

3. Both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches recognize the legal validity of remarriages even if they are not blessed by their Churches.

This isn’t true. “Remarriage” in this sense, for the Catholic, can only refer to a “civil marriage,” not a sacramental one, since the latter is by nature indissoluble.

The only difference I see between the traditional Orthodox view toward divorce and the Roman Catholic position on divorce is that :

1. The Orthodox allow the nonoffending spouse to remarry. This is a rational, just, and appropriate action since it punishes the moral wrongdoer and not the innocent party.

The two shall become one flesh . . . If in fact divorce is a sin, then remarriage cannot take place, since it perpetuates the sin indefinitely, and makes both parties ongoing adulterers.

2. The Orthodox do not have annulments. The Holy Roman Church does use annulments which I have said are ok under limited circumstances.

So Orthodoxy sanctions sin, then? To me it is simple:

  • a) Divorce is a sin;
  • b) Orthodoxy allows (or doesn’t forbid) divorce, at least in some circumstances;
  • c) Therefore Orthodoxy sanctions sin.

How can the inexorable logic of this be escaped? You say our annulments are playing around with words and pretense. I would say that — on the contrary — your allowing what you yourselves deem a sin is much more spiritually dangerous and destructive of Christian ethics.

3. If annulments are abused they in effect could allow both spouses…the innocent and the guilty one to remarry which in my opinion is not a position that strengthens morality. However, I am glad to hear that annulments are being tailed back…

Back to the distinction between an abuse and the essence of a teaching . . .

If anyone can prove to me that not allowing the wronged spouse to remarry is a bad thing or an immoral thing I will concede that my position is wrong and that the position of the Holy Roman Church is correct. Why isn’t it ok for the wronged spouse to remarry and for the lawbreaking spouse not to remarry?

Because the two have become one flesh, and took an oath “till death do us part” and “for better and for worse.” And because Jesus and the Fathers taught thusly.

Note that an Orthodox priest was asked by a list member about some of these questions. His response was helpful. There are a few points of it in particular which support my contention that the East believes in annulments in some fashion also:

The Orthodox position would best be put as follows: Divorce, indeed, is a sin. It is only permissible in the circumstances which Jesus Christ Himself stated in Holy Scripture.

. . . Which “circumstances” the Catholic Church believes are nonexistent, of course (the “adultery” clause being thought of as a state of fornication; in other words, an example of a living situation which is a prime candidate for annulment). Sin is sin. And it cannot be permitted by any Church claiming to be apostolic. I don’t think that is a difficult concept to grasp.

The Orthodox Church does allow remarriage. You get up to three chances. Why? Well, not until you get it right, but since the Church exists for the salvation of sinners, and people do sin, the Church offers the chance to relearn and recommit to what Christian marriage is.

But this disregards the “ontology” of what has happened in a legitimate marriage, where the two become one flesh. One can’t undo that by “repentance.” It is distinct from other sins, which can be viewed as “in the past.” A true marriage between two validly-baptized Christians can’t be dissolved by any power on earth, because it is a metaphysical and spiritual reality, ordained by God Himself.

The service for a second marriage is much less joyful and much more penitential in nature, asking for the forgiveness of sins, errors, etc… and committing to Christian marriage and discipleship.

We understand this (I think I do, anyway, having had this conversation many, many times now). But it disregards or has no relation to the question of ontology, which I just explained.

The Orthodox Church does not recognize other church’s sacraments or civil marriage to be Christian marriage, the holy Mystery which St. Paul writes about in his Epistles. When someone, or even a couple, enter the Orthodox faith from heretical confessions or Non-Christian religions, the Mystery of Marriage is not required because in Chrismation (Confirmation in the Catholic Church) we believe very firmly that the Holy Spirit “makes up what is lacking,” that is, fulfills the mystery, and it is sanctified in the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ.

[emphasis added]

Good! This is precisely the same in essence as a Catholic annulment! What is regarded as “marriage” by civil authority or some non-Orthodox Christian body is in fact no marriage, from Orthodoxy’s perspective. Where, then, is the beef about Catholic annulments? What becomes of all the fatuous talk about our excessive “juridical” distinctions and abstract argumentation? In fact, Orthodox do the same thing we do: viz., make a distinction between civil and sacramental (Christian) marriage. So to my mind this undercuts completely the Orthodox argument – recently stated again – that Catholic annulments are 1) improper, and 2) no more than a rationalized and equivocating instance of divorce. And right from an Orthodox priest. I regard this as an unwitting concession of almost the entire argument on divorce, as it has progressed on this list.

Sometimes it is said that the Orthodox Church “allows” divorce. This is not true. But She does recognize that frequently no marriage exists,

Again, here is the acknowledgement of a “marriage” which may be annuled, because it is in reality no marriage. If no marriage exists, it is no sin to remarry, and to that extent our two communions are in total agreement. Where there did exist a true marriage, we think divorce is (metaphysically, spiritually, morally) impossible, and that’s where the disagreement lies.

because we see marriage as a Mystery of Martyrdom

Not sure what he means by that, but it strikes me kind of funny . . .

and not a legal or ecclesiastical contract (hence no vows are taken in the Orthodox Marriage ceremony), there is the opportunity for repentance, for turning around one’s life and getting it right. It requires obedience, and time, though, and many do not fulfill it.

This is a good point; however, I don’t think it overcomes the objection that “the two become one flesh.” However one regards the particulars of the “contractual” or “legal” elements of marriage, we still have our Lord’s rather clear words as to what happens to those two people: a mystical bond occurs which is unbreakable in its very essence. Hence to break it constitutes adultery.

Matthew 5:31-32:

It was also said: “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.” 32: But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) {which would be grounds of annulment} causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

He expands on this in Matthew 19: 3-12:

Some Pharisees approached him and tested him, saying. “Is it a lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” They saith to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss her?” He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful and marries another commits adultery.”

In Mark 10:1-12 this is reiterated without the dispensation for unlawful marriages.

I thank the Orthodox priest for his clear and precise explanation. I think it shows better than ever why we disagree on this, yet it also illustrates that there is also common ground on the question of annulments (as I have previously argued). In any event — from whatever standpoint one approaches this -, it is helpful for the purpose of both sides to further clarify their positions.


The reason I think that annulments can violate the spirit and letter of Scriptures is that when a man and woman get married and intend to get married even if it is not in a Roman Catholic wedding ceremony, once they have had intercourse they have become one flesh.

But that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily married in the sacramental sense. Otherwise every sexual act with a prostitute would constitute a “marriage” (see 1 Cor 6:13-20).

Annulments in effect also rip asunder that one flesh that has in fact come into being once the marriage is consummated.

Again, following this convoluted logic (i.e., no annulments), every time a fornicator or adulterer ceases his immoral activity he is committing a sort of “auto-divorce.” This scenario obviously reduces to absurdity; therefore the premise (“there is no such thing as an annulment”) must be discarded. You are half right; you just don’t see where the real sin lies: divorce. That is what truly rips asunder the “one flesh” because it violates the “ontological (and moral) reality” of the one flesh entailed in a valid sacramental marriage. Abstaining from fornication, on the other hand, violates nothing except the devil’s preferences . . . So how is it that Orthodoxy allows the former, yet disallows the notion of an annulment which is really simply common sense?

Above, my friend William Klimon shows how the concept of annulment has historically existed in the East as well, even in its own Canon Law, so all this squawking about it being an exclusively western “corruption” or “innovation” is so much hot air.

If I sound frustrated, I am. I’ve been through this discussion so many times on my discussion list and never seem to make any progress. I find myself posting the same things over and over, for lack of a truly responsive Orthodox reply. I guess it is analogous to Protestants and sola Scriptura: once the argument is conceded, the person finds himself in very deep waters of doubt and confusion as to the overall preferability of his own system. If the Orthodox once admits that his Church is officially sanctioning sin, going against the Bible and the Fathers alike, then where does that leave him? Not in a very comfortable place. So instead we see hair-splitting and obfuscation about annulments (usually their mere abuses at that), as if that resolves the difficulty of the Orthodox position in and of itself. It certainly does not.

Someone has to tell the Emperor he is wearing no clothes. It might as well be me, since I am accused so often of Orthodox-bashing in the first place. :-) I’m willing to take the heat on this one, since in my opinion it is a clear-cut and compelling case.

See related papers:

Divorce: Early Church Teaching

Contraception: Early Church Teaching (William Klimon)


(culled from dialogues in 1997-1999)

Photo credit: Image by kerbstone (11-6-15) [Pixabay / CC0 Creative Commons license]


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