Re-Marriage in the Orthodox Church

February 21, 2015 Length: 32:31

In light of the debate in the Roman Catholic Church about divorce and re-marriage, Fr. Tom offers the Orthodox view of this topic as well as an explanation of the fundamental difference in how marriage is viewed in Orthodoxy. We are so happy to have Fr.Tom back recording podcasts. Please continue to pray for him.

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There is a debate going on now in the Roman Catholic Church about the possibility of admitting divorced and civilly remarried persons to holy communion after a period of penance. This view is being upheld by Cardinal Kasper, and is and seems to be in conflict with the current teaching of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Kasper often points to the Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and says, “Perhaps we should have a policy the same as the Eastern Orthodox Church has.”

Well, I’ve been asked to comment on this and to comment on the remarriage or re-admittance to holy communion of a divorced person. So I will just reflect on this very vaguely, very generally. One of the great difficulties is, I believe, that the Orthodox have not always practiced what appears to be the Orthodox teaching on this subject, especially here in America. People would get married, divorced, people very easily. Not even [only] in America. You have, I don’t know, a Greek Orthodox archimandrite married Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy. I mean, talk about not following what you yourself teach and hold! But there may be a debate about, really, what is the Orthodox understanding, so I can only reflect and tell you what I believe it is and the way that we practiced it when I was a pastor, a parish priest.

Simply put, it was this: I believe that Roman Catholics cannot simply point to the Orthodox, because their fundamental teaching about marriage is so different. At least classically, up until [the] Second Vatican Council, and I think even beyond, the teaching was, in the Catholic Church, that the ministers of the sacrament [were] the couple: the couple who made a vow before God, that they would remain faithful to each other in marriage, “until death do you part.” The emphasis was on the making [of] this vow in the presence of God, and the priest’s duty, the priest’s function, at the marriage ceremony, Latin ceremony, was to bear witness, to be God’s witness that this vow was actually made and, of course, to see that it was possible that it would be made, given the couple who were going to get married.

You can say that in the Latin Church the marriage ceremony was primarily a legal ceremony, was a juridical ceremony, a ceremony about making a vow and fulfilling a law. This is the reason why, if a person was divorced and wanted to be remarried, the original marriage, the first marriage, so to speak, there had to be something wrong with it legally so that it could be annulled. In other words, there had to be an impediment in the vow and that’s what the annulment was.

I believe that, at least in my young years, in order to get that permission to annul the marriage, only Rome could do that. There was the Roman rota, and you had to send the case to Rome, and then they could judge whether or not the original vow was done properly. If they saw that there was some reason why it wasn’t properly done, then an annulment [could] occur, and an annulment simply means there was never any marriage because the conditions of making the vow were not in place. You had this legalistic approach to marriage with divorce being given by the Church, so to speak, with permission to remarry by annulling the marriage, saying it was no marriage, it never really existed.

If a Roman Catholic just was living with somebody and never went to be married in the first place, they would be considered simply living in fornication. So then if they decided to come to get married, they would not have to have anything annulled, because they were never married in the first place. They didn’t make any vow before God, so in a sense their sin was fornication, maybe even adultery, if they were having sexual relations with a married person, but they weren’t considered married. So it was kind of easier if you just plain never got married, to get married in the Catholic Church because technically you were never married before, and this would be your first marriage.

Now, I believe that in the Orthodox Church, the approach is totally different. The approach to marriage is not as a legal action or making a juridical vow. In fact, there are no vows in the Orthodox marriage service at all. They don’t exist. In the Russian Orthodox Church, there was a long period of time under the emperors where the only legal place you could get married, and this was, I believe, the same in the Church of Greece, was at a service in the Church. Therefore, there was a kind of a vow or at least a statement that was connected to the marriage service that would say, “Do you, John, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?” and he would say, “I do.” Then he would be asked, “You have no other brides? You’re not married to anybody else? It’s not bigamy?” and he would have to say, “No.” That was just simply for the state’s purpose; it was not part of really the sacramental ritual. In America now, in many places, it’s simply not used any more because the Church is not the official keeper of the records for the state in which the church is located, like Russia or Greece.

But looking at the marriage service itself in the Orthodox Church, it seems to me that there is no doubt at all that when a special service was formulated for a wedding in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which was very late, probably eighth, ninth, tenth century… To get married in church before that, simply the couple had to come before the bishop and he would question everything about them, and if everything was in order, then the bishop would just give the permission to have these people be recognized as married with some particular prayers put over them, probably even the crowns being used. The crowns originally were a pagan action; at a marriage, they were crowned. John Chrysostom, way back in the fourth century, he has a remark about a couple who had come to be married, and he says to them, “Why do you come seeking a crown when you have already given up the fight? When you have already lost the battle, how can you be crowned?” In other words, that they were already living together.

It is clearly the Orthodox Church teaching that sexual union, sexual intercourse, must take place only within a marriage that is offered to God, and that is blessed by God and transformed, almost like the holy Communion at the holy Eucharist. You take the bread and you offer it, you pray over it, you invoke the Holy Spirit, and the bread becomes the body and blood of Christ. Or in baptism, you come to the church, you confess your faith, you say the Nicene Creed, you reject the devil, you accept Christ, and that’s all done in the back of the church, in the narthex. And then you enter into the church, into the center of the church, receiving the crowns and the prayers, and then you make a procession around… like a little altar table, where you have the gospel enthroned and so on. Three times you make this circular procession, and the songs that are sung are the same ones that are sung at an ordination.

The marriage ceremony in the Orthodox Church doesn’t have any vows. It’s not a legal ceremony. It is patterned after baptism, and the couple have to be one together already as far as the civil society is concerned. For example, we have to have a marriage license to show that you want to be married, but then when you show that you are definitely intending to be married and you have the official document from the state that would say that you are married or going to be married—because in America priests and ministers can sign that official statement—well, you come to church and you offer yourself to Christ for this marriage to be not simply a human, you might say, institution of the fallen world, but that it would be fulfilled in heaven. There are no words in the Orthodox wedding service: “Until death do you part”; and there are no vows whatsoever as part of the ceremony as such.

So the ceremony is the following: the couple, being already professed to belong one to another humanly, are met at the door of the church by the priest, and in the narthex of the church, in the back of the church, the rings are put on which are betrothal rings, and the couple are saying: Yes, we want really to offer our unity and our love to God to be transformed into eternal, something divine and eternal. Then, when everything is in order, the rings are put on. They are led into the middle of the church, just like a person being baptized would be met at the door, they would be asked the questions, they would say everything that needed saying, they would recite the Creed, and then they would enter in and actually be baptized. You might even say that marriage in the Orthodox Church is a kind of a baptism of a couple in some sense, where they come and give themselves to Christ in order to be one in Christ, like Christ is with the Church, and the Ephesians letter here is very important, that they are to be submissive, one to another, and the husband is to love his wife even unto death, like Christ died for her, and the wife is to reverence her husband, and they are to stay together forever.

In the Orthodox Church piety, when one of the members dies, the suggestion, so to speak, if they are really pious, is to remain faithful to that person even through death. John Chrysostom has a letter to a young widow, where he says, “If you didn’t share your marriage bed when your husband was alive, why would you share it now that he is at the right hand of God the Father?” You know: he’s already glorified, so you should remain faithful to him. It’s interesting that St. Macrina, the sister of St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, that she was not even married—she was betrothed; she had made the promise that she was going to marry this particular man—and he dies; he died before the marriage took place. So she remained faithful to him her whole life, and felt that she ought to because they were betrothed; humanly speaking they had professed the fact that they were going to be a married couple, but they had not yet offered themselves for the sacramental transformation at the service of marriage.

So in the Orthodox Church the minister of the sacrament is the priest; it’s not the couple. It’s not a juridical ritual. There are no vows. There isn’t any situation where an annulment, as a kind of a legal action, could take place.

The question then comes up: What happens if this couple… and wherever they have been married, and the marriage outside the Orthodox Church is recognized by the Orthodox Church as married. And in the Lutheran Church, they’re considered married. In fact, catechumens who are married as far as this world is concerned, they’re not baptized when they enter into the Orthodox Church; their baptism is fulfilled by the invoking of the Holy Spirit and the anointment with the Holy Spirit, but they are certainly recognized as Christians and as being married people.

But if we just look at the Orthodox and say, okay, suppose you have the fact that you have this marriage [which] collapses, doesn’t work out. Maybe something happened, someone, one of the members committed adultery or one of them went to a mental institution or whatever, the question comes up: Could a person, especially, so to speak, an innocent party in a divorce, be married to another person with the sacramental ritual of the Church? Here I believe that, most simply put, the answer is Yes. In fact, in the Orthodox Church, we even have a service of a second marriage, where it’s a penitential type of service, which says—it’s not for widows or widowers, although it could be, but it’s mostly for people who are divorced—where it says they repent of the sins they committed, and they repent of the fact that their first marriage was broken and did not persist.

And then there has to be a pastoral judgment on the part of the priest, very often involving even the bishop: Does it seem right that this second marriage could really work and that the first marriage that ended disastrously in divorce, which is always a disaster; it’s always a failure—could that be repented of? Could then there be, let’s say, when the persons are more mature or whatever, a marriage ritual in church that really would… that they would be able to keep and therefore they would be able to have holy Communion?

As far as the Communion exists in the Orthodox Church, if a divorce takes place, there may be a very clear case that there is a so-called innocent party. In other words, one of the members of the marriage, their spouse committed adultery or they left them or they abandoned the family or they were abusive or whatever, that a person could continue going to holy Communion as long as they did not remarry. If they did not remarry they could come to holy Communion, if it was judged that they were penitential concerning the break-up of their first marriage. So people can repent; that’s the whole point. People can repent.

I would say this: that if it would be the practice that a person who is baptized could repent and re-enter into holy communion after a period of penance, why could not a divorced person who wants to remarry within the teachings of the Church, why can they not be considered as repenting of their sins committed in their first marriage and then being allowed to enter into the Church in a second marriage with the proper ritual, and therefore be a communicant of the Church?

Now we know that historically the issue of the readmission to the Church after a person had sinned and sinned egregiously or sinned mortally, as they say in the letter of 1 John, did a sin “unto death,” if they could be readmitted to holy communion after sufficient repentance, why could not a party who was involved in a marriage that broke up and there was no marriage there at all, just simply didn’t exist, when that would be repented of, it seems that a person can be remarried in church, have a second marriage, and then remain in holy communion in the Church. But there would have to be a second marriage in the Church for that to happen.

In the Orthodox canonical tradition, sometimes it happens twice, for whatever reason, and there was the case of the Emperor Leo the Wise, Leo VI, who got divorced three times because his wives [bore] no children, and he wanted to have an heir to the throne and so on. When he wanted to get married the fourth time, then a big fuss was raised, and the bishops said, “This is impossible. Three times is all you can do, and that’s it. There is no fourth marriage.” Which then led to a popular understanding that, in the Orthodox Church, you could get married three times but not four. Well, there is a certain truth to that, but that doesn’t mean that just automatically you can get married three times. You get married, you have a divorce, well, then you could get married again, and break up or die or divorce, and you could get married again, and that would be it—no fourth marriage, just three times and that’s it.

But that’s a very flippant way of looking at it, and that is not the right way. In other words, you can have a second marriage and a couple can maintain communion in the Church when it is witnessed by the priest in confession that they repent of whatever sins they have committed which led to the break-up of their first marriage. In other words, they had to confess; there had to be a confession, just like we have in the Church nowadays for baptized people, individual people. You sin, but you go to confession, you get a penance, epitimia, and in the early Church sometimes these penances were very long and tough.

For example, if you apostatized and lapsed under martyrdom, you may be readmitted to communion only on your deathbed. If you did an abortion, well, after ten years, if you were penitent, you could be returned to holy communion. In other words, if a person who has sinned can be returned to holy communion, why cannot a person be returned to holy communion who is authentically repentant over the fact that their marriage didn’t work and that it was divorced, and took responsibility for whatever they contributed to that divorce, because of course it takes two people? Of course, sometimes it’s pretty easy to see that the divorce was really the fault of one person, you might say, almost exclusively if not primarily, while the other was still trying to be a good Christian.

But in any case, I think that the Roman Catholic Church, if they were going to “follow the Eastern Orthodox Church,” would have to change their understanding of marriage in the first place, that it is not a juridical act, it’s not [the] making of a vow, it’s not being faithful until death do you part; that that would not be the way that it’s looked at. It’s looked at, rather, as a couple who want to have a union of love and a family and have children, a man and a woman—and this is only a man and a woman; it’s not two men or two women together—that they can repent if their first marriage was broken, and perhaps, if there’s really sufficient, authentic repentance over the fact that it’s broken, then they may be married a second time with the ritual for a second marriage, in order to maintain communion in the Church.

Basically, it would be a penitential act, very similar to the penitential act given to an individual who sinned after baptism. And the fact that the marriage service, when it finally became a complete service in and of itself, and then you have mixed marriages, where in the Orthodox Church the non-Orthodox party at least has to be a Christian and baptized in the name of the Trinity in water for the marriage to take place and for the Orthodox to maintain communion…

Here we should take the opportunity to say that this is why sexual relation, living together before being married, is a sin in the Orthodox Church. It’s a sin. It puts you out of communion. Well, the question is: What is the sin, if a couple is living together and they’re not married and having sexual relations? What’s the sin? Sometimes people say, “Well, the Church is against sex. That’s what’s really the sin.” But that’s not really the sin. The sin is that you have a baptized Christian person who is living a quasi-married life with another person and has not offered that marriage to Christ.

It would be like a person going to Communion who was not baptized, or no longer believed in baptism, that they had, but still stay in line and go for holy Communion because they like it or their mother wants them to go or something like that. So basically, it’s a huge pastoral issue. It’s not a legal issue; it’s a pastoral issue. The pastoral issue is: Is there sufficient repentance for the sin that would allow a prayer of absolution to be given, and that the person would then be readmitted to holy Communion or admitted to holy Communion? I believe that that’s how it would have to be looked at.

I do think that we could say that our Orthodox Church is against sexual relations outside of the married state. It’s against fornication and adultery. It’s against couples living together who have not offered their life together to Christ and God, especially if they claim to be Christians. If they are living together and they’re not married, they must not be allowed to come to holy Communion until they get married, and that would be [the] practice of the Church.

So divorce is always a tragedy, but it is something that may be repented of—kat’ oikonomion, according to oikonomia, so that when a person who is divorced does repent of the divorced condition, they may remarry, if the new marriage looks like it could be Christian, and then they may maintain holy communion within the Church. But as I said, again—let me repeat it once more—it’s a pastoral decision: Is there true repentance for the sin that was committed? Can the second marriage have a good chance of being a true Christian marriage? Are the people taking all of this marriage seriously? Do they really believe in the prayers that are given? Do they really believe that, in order to have sexual communion, that it has to be between a man and a woman who have offered their marriage to Christ in the sacrament of holy matrimony?

But, again, a person who has sinned against the sacrament of holy matrimony, just like a person who has sinned against the sacrament of baptism, if they repent of their sin and they witness that their life could really be a Christian life, then they may have the absolution for their sin and be readmitted to membership in the Church and to holy Communion, but this is an act that is very serious. Here I would say that the Orthodox themselves have been very flippant with it, very not-serious. It almost became pro forma that if somebody divorced wanted to get married, they would just go to the church… When I was young it cost $75 or something, and you’d get some statement saying that they were now allowed to enter into a second marriage.

But really the one who should make that decision is the pastor on the spot, and the bishop who doesn’t even know these people should follow the pastor’s advice or question him about it, or even meet the couple if there is some question. But when I was teaching pastoral theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary years ago, I always told the students that if they become priests and have to deal with these kinds of marital situations, they don’t just say to the bishop, “What should I do about this?” They should have a position made, and they should let that position be made known to the bishop.

In other words, the priest should write to the bishop or communicate with the bishop by saying, “I met with this couple. I don’t believe they’re penitent. I don’t believe they’re taking real responsibility for the break-up of the their first marriage. I don’t believe that their second marriage would be any more likely to persist as the first one didn’t”—in other words, the second one might end in divorce, too—“Therefore, I asked permission to not allow this marriage to take place until real repentance is seen.” So the priest would say his opinion.

Or he would say, if he had a positive case, he would write to the bishop, or communicate somehow with the bishop, and say, “I met with this couple for a long time. They are coming to church services. They are not now receiving holy Communion. They are repenting for whatever happened in their marriage that caused a divorce. They are now mature enough and ready enough to live a Christian life, especially in this new marriage, and therefore I ask, Bishop, the permission to do the marriage ceremony for this couple.” It would normally be the second marriage. However, if the bride is going to have her first marriage, then they use the first marriage rite, not to have this penitential element there when the bride is herself totally innocent.

In any case, it’s a pastoral decision, and the pastor should meet with the people, come to a conclusion himself, and then ask the bishop for permission to follow his conclusion, either not to marry the couple because they’re not really repentant of what happened before, or to marry the couple because they are repenting, just like you would allow a person who sinned after baptism to repent and have the prayer of absolution and to stay in communion of the Church. But sometimes even there the priest would have to say the prayers and say, “I’m sorry. You can’t keep coming to Communion because you keep doing the same sin over and over, and I don’t see any sign of repentance here.”

And it’s interesting that in the sacrament of confession in the Orthodox Church, the priest doesn’t say, “I forgive and absolve you.” Even in the service of baptism, the priest doesn’t say, “I baptize, I hereby baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” There’s no “I” in there. It’s: “The servant of God is baptized.” And in the prayer of confession, the original one—not the Peter Mogila one that came into Orthodoxy, which simply say, “I, an unworthy priest, through the power given unto me, do forgive and absolve you”... I went to confession to a priest who even would say his name. He would say, “And I, the unworthy archpriest John”—he would say his name—“do forgive and absolve you.” That’s not Orthodox.

The original prayer says this. It says that “you have come to repent of your sins before Christ, and I am a witness, testifying to your repentance.” That’s what it says: “I am a witness, testifying to your repentance.” Therefore the priest at confession can say, “I don’t witness any repentance here, and you really cannot come to holy Communion until you actually repent.” Or the priest could witness and say, “Yes, this person really is repenting,” and would give a proper epitimia, absolution, some type of penance, and then would go on with the sacrament and keep the person in communion.

The priest stands as this witness that there is really repentance. So with a divorced person we could say if there is a witness on the part of the priest that there is really and truly repentance for the break-up of the first marriage, then I believe that if that is really true then the person can be married a second time, perhaps even if, let’s say, the wife dies quickly after their marriage, even a third time, but certainly not a fourth time. A fourth time is forbidden, but you can’t simply glibly say, “The Orthodox [Church] allows three marriages.” It doesn’t. It allows remarriage of a person repenting of the sins that they have committed that contributed to the break-up of their first marriage. So there’s a real repentance there.

I believe that that is the way it should be done, and hopefully it will be done by the priests and pastors in the Orthodox Church, and be very serious about it. In any case, that’s how I understand things.