Looking East Clearly: More on Orthodox Divorce and Remarriage

Looking East Clearly: More on Orthodox Divorce and Remarriage July 17, 2014

My recent post on the “Orthodox solution” has provoked a lot of conversation here and on social networks. Most of the reaction has been from Catholics who do not wish to see the Church alter its practice of denying the sacraments to divorced Catholics who remarry, and interpreted calls to look to Orthodox practice as a signal that the upcoming synod might seek such an alteration. My purpose—and, I believe, the purpose of Cardinal Kasper and other Church leaders who recommend exploring what might be learned from Orthodox pastoral practice—was not to call for such a change. In fact, the post gave me a chance to clarify just what it is that Catholics believe about the nature of marriage and the nature of the Eucharist that would make admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments impossible. What I found most helpful about the Orthodox solution, but didn’t note in my previous post, was that it treats divorced persons seeking to be married in the Church with the presumption from the get-go that they are imperfect people who yearn to come to Christ, not adulterers trying to put one over on the parish.

I am not an Orthodox Christian; for the record, I’m a divorced-and-not-remarried Catholic. I did get some aspects of “the Orthodox solution” wrong in my attempt to draw from a variety of sources—and I thank my Orthodox readers for being so helpful and respectful in their corrections. Here are some key updates/edit to my post:

  • I said that the Orthodox marriage crowning does not take place at second or third marriages, even if a spouse is widowed. I was incorrect. The liturgy for a Second Ecclesiastical Marriage differs from that of the first in the wording of some prayers, but the crowning takes place in exactly the same way. (At a third marriage, which is rare, the liturgy for the second marriage is used, and the ceremony is performed only in the presence of the couple and their attendants.) If it is a first marriage for one of the partners, the liturgy for the First Marriage may be celebrated. The bond of a second or third ecclesiastical marriage is also presumed to last beyond death.
  • There are differences in thought among Orthodox Christians about the observance of penance (including abstaining from Communion) with regard to second marriages. Some sources say, as I did, that there is a penitential nature to any marriage after the first marriage—which is one reason that a divorced or widowed and remarried man may not be accepted as a candidate for Orthodox priesthood. Other sources attach the penance not to the second marriage but to the ending, through an ecclesiastical divorce, of the first marriage. As with the duration of the penance, this seems to be a matter determined by the couple’s priest in consideration of their pastoral circumstances.
  • Some of my readers argued that Orthodox practice does not require notification of or permission from the bishop. Again, this may be a matter of differing churches and dioceses; most that I have checked say that the diocese is involved at some point in the issuing of ecclesiastical divorces and the license to marry a second or third time.

Lest we get too tangled in matters of practice and discipline that are not the real point of Catholics “looking to the East” on marriage, however, I want to encourage you to read the Encyclical Letter on Marriage from the Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America. This letter speaks more eloquently than I can of the Orthodox vision of marriage, and communicates it in a way very clearly meant to issue an invitation to people today. That’s not a bad start.

An increasingly secularized world tends more and more to neglect the traditional biblical understanding of marriage and family. Misunderstanding freedom and proclaiming the progress of a humanity supposedly too mature, sophisticated and scientific to follow Christ’s Gospel, many have abandoned its moral demands. The consequences are plain for all to see: the family is disintegrating, legalized abortion is killing millions of unborn children, corrupt sexual behavior is rampant. The moral foundations of society are collapsing.

We, the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, therefore proclaim anew to you, the flock entrusted to our care, the great and holy vision of marriage that is gloriously preserved and manifested in the doctrine, liturgy and canonical tradition of the Church. We do not make this proclamation in the name of an outdated conservatism or because we consider our present society intrinsically more corrupt than the past generations. We speak because we are concerned for the welfare and salvation both of you, the members of our flock, and of all men. We speak of “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes … concerning the word of life” (John 1:1). We speak because we know the Truth of the Gospel of Christ to be the eternal Truth, the one needful thing, the good portion (Luke 10:42) for all men, in all times and places.

Many – Orthodox, non-Orthodox, and even non-Christians – admire our beautiful Marriage Service. Our task is to show them the vision that this Service reveals, a vision of marriage as an icon of the Trinitarian life of God Himself, and to indicate the responsibility and commitment that this vision of marriage implies.


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