The Eastern Orthodox Church, or Orthodox Church, reluctantly permits divorce under limited circumstances and allows practitioners to remarry up to three times within the church. As a sacrament of the church, marriage is recognized as indissoluble. However, the church allows divorce in particular cases of errant behavior if the condition of the matrimonial relationship is rendered such as to defeat the purpose of marriage as a spiritual journey to God. Invoking the doctrine of oikonomia, or economia, which allows equitable exception from general rules in specific cases, the church compassionately grants divorce and license to remarry as a concession to the sinfulness of man. Nevertheless, the church always considers divorce as a tragedy and remarriage as a corruption of the ideal.
In the Orthodox faith, marriage is a mystery, or sacrament, instituted by God and consecrated by a priest or bishop through the power of the Holy Spirit. The nuptial couple is thereby joined as “one flesh,” in accordance with the language of the Old Testament book of Genesis (2:24) and the New Testament Gospel of Mark (10:8). Marriage is recognized as a spiritual path whereby the spouses jointly seek God, as well as a model of the Kingdom of God on earth. Marriage serves as the basis of the family and is thus instrumental in the natural order of God's divine plan.
The doctrine of marital indissolubility, which provides that the sacramental joining of a man and a woman in matrimony shall be permanent, reflects the holiness of the matrimonial state conferred by God. Given the uniqueness and anticipated permanence of Christian marriage, the Orthodox Church identifies a single, monogamous, lifelong marriage as the ideal of Christian conjugal life. The church compares the marriage of two Christians to the biblical analogy of the church and Christ as a bride and bridegroom.
Nonetheless, the Orthodox Church recognizes limited circumstances permitting the church to allow divorce and possible remarriage. Scripturally, the church relies upon Jesus's teaching in the Gospel of Matthew (19:9) as a justification for allowing divorce: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Jesus seems expressly to provide a particular circumstance in which divorce is permissible, thereby establishing the principle that the general rule of the indissolubility of marriage is subject to a narrow exception.
The early fathers of the church taught that severe behavioral offenses against the marriage by a spouse may have the spiritual effect of renouncing the bonds of matrimony. Whereas a legitimate marriage ought to be dissolved only by the death of a spouse, the church recognizes that certain egregious acts on the part of a spouse destroy the nuptial union or prevent the reception of matrimonial grace. Therefore, the church does not actively dissolve the marriage but only proclaims that a particular marriage no longer entails the elements proper to such a union.
Furthermore, as the purpose of marriage relates to a path of holiness leading to God, a marriage may be deigned irrevocably corrupted if the degeneration thereof threatens the spiritual damnation of one or both spouses. As compared to Catholic doctrine, the Orthodox view of marriage demotes the role of procreation and concentrates on the marriage as a spiritual path. Should the perversion of a marriage actually have the result of imperiling or retarding the spiritual maturation of the spouses, such realities may indicate that the marriage has already been effectively dissolved.
Divorce in the Orthodox Church relies on the principle of economia (alternately spelled oikonomia), also rendered as pastoral or ecclesiastical economy, which Orthodox canon law defines as follows: “the suspension of the absolute and strict applications of canon and church regulations in the governing and the life of the church, without subsequently compromising the dogmatic limitations. The application of economia only takes place through the official church authorities and is only applicable for a particular case.”
Economia is similar to the legal concept of equity, in that it allows the church to reconcile general rules with particular conditions that would result in severe injustice. In such cases, the specific facts and circumstances merit an exemption from the relevant proscriptions. However, economia does not formally announce a precedent; rather, it applies solely to the specific case at hand. In this manner, economia may be distinguished from a dispensation of the Catholic Church, as the latter anticipates an exception that provides a juridical norm parallel to the official regulation.
As a momentary exercise of flexibility, in contrast to legalistic rigidity and strict adherence to the letter of the law, the doctrine of economia allows a bishop to grant a divorce in consideration of the fallen nature of man. Speculating on the implausibility of a particular marriage to produce spiritual fruit because of human sinfulness, a bishop may condone a divorce in an attempt to preserve communion with the church and ultimate salvation. As a final concession to the realities of sin, divorce is always recognized as a last resort and tragedy.
Prior to the authorization of an ecclesiastical divorce on the grounds of economia, the spouses undergo pastoral counseling in an attempt at marital reconciliation. Only following the failure of all means of reunification and, usually, the completion of a civil divorce will the Orthodox hierarchy initiate religious divorce proceedings. It is noteworthy that a civil divorce has no direct effect on the validity or indissolubility of an Orthodox marriage. Thus, while a civil divorce decree may legally dissolve a secular marriage and serve as a prerequisite for a religious divorce decree, the church will continue to consider the marriage intact until an Orthodox court has formally issued the religious decree.
Although a strict interpretation of scripture and canon law might lead to the conclusion that divorce is available only in cases of adultery, Orthodox bishops have generally liberalized the criteria to include a number of offenses as qualifying for a valid divorce. Although the decentralized nature of the Orthodox Church allows for local variances, qualifying reasons for granting a divorce routinely include adultery, insanity, a venereal disease undisclosed prior to the marriage, conspiracy to murder the other spouse, imprisonment for more than seven years, abandonment for three years, unexcused absence from the home, addiction resulting in undue economic hardship, discovery that the marriage was entered into by force or fraud, failure to fulfill nuptial responsibilities or impotence, forcing the other spouse to engage in illicit sexual affairs, or initially entering into the marriage by force or fraud. Also, a marriage may be dissolved upon the mutual consent of the spouses in order for the husband to be consecrated as a bishop or for either spouse to adopt a monastic life. Each of these grounds must be construed in light of each individual case and measured within the context of economia.
If the church deems that sufficient grounds exist for the granting of a divorce, local practice often requires that the spouses wait to file for a dissolution of marriage with the priest until one year following the issuance of a civil decree of divorce. The divorce petition usually includes the religious marriage certificate, the civil decree of divorce, the grounds justifying divorce, and funds to cover administrative processing fees. The package is accompanied by a priest's report of pastoral efforts to reconcile the couple and is subsequently delivered to a bishop for review. If the bishop concludes that sufficient grounds exist for divorce, an ecclesiastical court will be convened to issue an official decree either granting or denying the divorce request. Subsequent to the submission of the divorce packet and prior to the spiritual court hearing, the spouses are enjoined to receive the sacrament of penance.
A valid divorce is usually accompanied by a mandatory period of excommunication, during which the penitent is excluded from participating in the full communion of the church. Following this period, the church may permit remarriage as a pastoral concession in light of human weakness—a further result of ecclesiastical economia. Although the church approaches the issue of remarriage with a sense of reluctance and refuses to admit an automatic right to remarry, the possibility of remarriage is available under certain penitential circumstances.
Orthodox canon law permits a maximum of three marriages, although the second and third marriages are recognized as deviating from the ideal of a single marriage. Custom relates that the Orthodox Church blesses the first marriage, performs the second, tolerates the third, and forbids the fourth. The order of a second or third marriage rite adopts a penitential character and excludes certain joyous aspects exclusive to the first marriage rite.
- Marriage: Religious Sacrament Versus Civil Contract
- Religion: Finding or Losing
- The Eastern Orthodox Church, Its Thought and Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1963. .
- The Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century. New York: Peter Lang, 2011. .
- Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984. .
- Families in Eastern Europe. London: Elsevier JAI, 2004. .
- Rodopoulos, Panteleimon; Dragas, George Dion, eds. An Overview of Orthodox Canon Law. Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2007.
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