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My Reply… An Eastern Orthodox Writer’s Attempt To Justify Divorce And Remarriage

March 19, 2019 Featured Today No Comments


An Eastern Orthodox correspondent has taken issue with Catholic teaching rejecting adultery as a legitimate ground for divorce and remarriage. His arguments stem from ill-digested readings drawn from both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sources.
The writer, in effect, rejects Catholic doctrine regarding the absolute indissolubility of sacramental marriage. That doctrine, based on the teaching of Holy Scripture, the Fathers of the Church representing the voice of Apostolic Tradition, and magisterial pronouncements, does not permit Catholics to divorce and remarry another person and does not permit divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion (that sacrament which is a sign of the indissoluble unity of Christ with His one Church, the Catholic Church).
The sexual relationship of the divorced and civilly “remarried” Catholic with a new partner constitutes an objective situation of adultery. Catholic teaching remains firm and unchangeable: The indissoluble bond of sacramental marriage ends only at death. If a civilly divorced Catholic man or woman chooses to be sexually conjoined to another, it is adultery.
The Catholic Church has never held that adultery or civil divorce can end a marriage or that the “breakup of a marriage” automatically dissolves the sacramental bond. People may speak of a divorced and remarried couple, but the Church has always held that a second marriage (without an annulment or the death of the first spouse) is no real marriage; the sexual relationship “more uxorio” (that is, involving intercourse) is adulterous since a valid marriage is still in effect.
My correspondent finds solace in dissenting Catholics who are seeking to change Catholic doctrine. He notes the “crisis concerning marriage in the Catholic Church,” and refers to the annulment abuses committed by marriage tribunals with resultant pain and suffering of those who believe an injustice has been committed in the annulment of a marriage regarded as valid.
There is no question that there are extremely difficult and complex marriage cases that would trouble any marriage tribunal. However, it is my correspondent’s understanding of indissoluble sacramental marriage as taught by Christ and His Church that is defective. He claims to write “from an Eastern perspective.” However, his “Eastern perspective” is not that of the authentic Eastern Catholic tradition before the tragic Byzantine Schism with Rome.
Evidencing confusion regarding Church teaching on divorce and annulments (he conflates the two), he charges annulments with “violating the indissolubility of marriage” upheld by the Church’s Magisterium. He ignores that annulments are granted only when it is determined by a marriage tribunal that no marriage had taken place. A thoroughly skewed perspective explains the author’s favor given the Eastern Orthodox notion of “oikonomia” [economy] used to justify divorce and second and third marriages, contrary to the Lord’s teaching in the Gospels.
He clearly sanctions a subjective and erroneous notion of “conscience” to determine the “lack of consent” that would render a marriage invalid. He forgets that as regards a Catholic couple’s consent to marriage, to give moral character to such acts, imperfect consent suffices.
The result is that our author elevates the conscience of the individual above the divine law and the Magisterium of the Church in determining the morality of human acts — and this in defiance of our Lord’s strict teaching regarding sacramental marriage.
The absurdity of the author’s position can be seen in his stating: “From an Eastern perspective, to say marriage is dissolved by the death of one of the spouses would be the same as saying the marital union between Christ and His Church is dissolved by the death of one of the spouses.” Does he not know that Christ no longer dies and that He perdures in maintaining an indissoluble Union with His earthly Church, His Virginal Bride, to the end of the world?
Our author also fails to note for his readers that Eastern Orthodoxy has no infallible Magisterium as an external authority that can teach unerringly and bind consciences to revealed truth. It is distressing to see our author using Marriage Code canons to twist Catholic teaching and Church history in a vain attempt to prove that the “Church of Rome [has] a flawed understanding of marriage.”
The author’s case against Catholicism’s understanding of the Sacrament of Marriage is based on his: (1) erroneous interpretation of our Lord’s words in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9; (2) erroneous understanding of the teaching of St. Basil the Great; and (3) a serious misunderstanding of the authentic Eastern tradition by the Eastern Orthodox who approve “divorce and remarriage” in certain cases.
As to our Lord’s teaching on the indissolubility of sacramental marriage as found in Matt. 5:32; 19:9, Holy Scripture and the immemorial tradition of the Church (both East and West) have always understood it to involve an absolute prohibition against the remarriage of divorced persons. Christ did not allow divorce in the case of adultery as Protestants and Orthodox hold. The same teaching is found in the Gospel of St. Mark (Mark 10:11-12) and the Gospel of St. Luke (Luke 16:18) wherein Christ says that the husband and wife who remarry after divorce both commit adultery, and a third party marrying the repudiated wife also commits adultery. (Adultery is a mortal sin which excludes from the Kingdom of God.)
In short, Jesus’ word is that a valid, sacramental, and consummated marriage is indissoluble without exception. However, our author follows the Orthodox understanding of “economy,” alleging Jesus did not prohibit all divorce and argues that divorce for adultery is, in fact, permitted in Matt. 5:32. He writes “The word porneia (fornication) is understood as meaning adultery. ‘But I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, excepting for the case of porneia [fornication], makes her to commit adultery; and he that shall marry her that is put away, commits adultery’.”
However, this key argument allowing for divorce in the case of “fornication,” or “unchastity,” or “sexual sin” — all common translations for porneia — collapses since the term porneia as used by St. Matthew does not mean adultery but probably refers to invalid marriages, that is, to unions invalid from the beginning (such as in cases of concubinage or incestuous “marriages”).
Our Lord’s words in the controversial “exception clause” thus have this simple and obvious meaning: a valid marriage can never be dissolved — unless, of course, it is not a real marriage at all, one only in appearance.
Similarly, there is the author’s effort to make the great Greek Father of the Church St. Basil an advocate for divorce and remarriage. In addition to an erroneous exegesis of Matt. 5:32 and Matt. 9:19, he seeks adoption of the use of “economy” by the Orthodox autocephalous churches to justify divorce and remarriage (not only for adultery but for many other reasons as well: insanity, a secret abortion, sodomy, endangering the life of a spouse, forcing a spouse into prostitution, and yet other abusive situations). The Russian Orthodox Church today admits 14 valid reasons for permitting divorce.
Contrariwise, the Catholic Church has allowed that in the case of adultery and other abusive situations, the separation of spouses was permitted, but not a divorce permitting another marriage. Divorce and remarriage was common in the pagan world, but Catholic Christianity involved a new order of things with insistence on the law of Christ forbidding divorce and remarriage while the spouse was alive.
The Russian Orthodox canonist Suvorov admitted in 1908: “The Roman Catholic Church has held to the severe rule of the discipline of the first centuries. Conjugal union is broken only by the death of one of the spouses.” Moreover, the tradition of the Church in the East in the first thousand years does not support our author’s understanding that if the communion of the spouses has ceased in practice (the marriage has “broken down” or “failed”), then the marriage has dissolved.
Nor does St. Basil sanction the present Orthodox practice of regarding the indissolubility of marriage as an “ideal,” but permitting the dissolution of the marriage bond in practice. In his “Moralia (Rule 73.2)” St. Basil’s doctrine is quite clear: “A man who has put his wife away is not allowed to marry another, nor is a woman who has been divorced by her husband allowed to marry another man.” In his letters dealing with church canons, the marriage of a divorced woman is always punished with canonical penalties for committing adultery
Controversy has arisen in the case of a man deserted by his wife and lives with a paramour, but receives from St. Basil a milder penance for a non-adulterous fornication. But in no way did the saint sanction a divorced and remarried man or woman continuing in an adulterous situation, nor did he sanction a husband in a valid sacramental marriage to continue living in adultery after undergoing a canonical penance or to marry his paramour.
As with St. Augustine and other fathers of the Church, marriage cannot be dissolved on account of adultery or anything else, and that the Church must teach this as a truth of faith. In its Canon 7, the Ecumenical Council of Trent did not explicitly anathematize the practice of “oikonomia” [economy] but clearly asserted that its application to “remarriage” after divorce is contrary to faith.

The Rock Of The Papacy

The above suffices to show that the reasons given for rejecting Catholic doctrine on the indissolubility of sacramental marriage are unconvincing and constitute a medley of errors. His arguments fail to justify Eastern Orthodoxy’ s understanding of Christ’s teaching on marriage or to prove that the 14 or so autocephalous (independent) Orthodox Churches are the historical heir of the Church of the first millennium.
The latter is rendered impossible by the separated Eastern Churches’ failing to abide by the Lord’s injunction: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).
It was deeply touching to read my correspondent’s prayers for the Unity of all Christians. Sadly, he contributes to the disunity of Christians by attempting to justify an ancient Eastern schism. He has not grasped Catholic doctrine concerning the Church’s absolutely unique visible Unity.
The one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church as the Teacher of Truth remains undivided amidst historical heresies and schisms, and is always easily identified as the true Church of Christ because it was built by Christ Our Lord on the indefectible Rock of the Papacy.
May readers remember my correspondent in prayer! Ut unum sint!

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(James Likoudis is the author of four books dealing with Catholic-Orthodox relations along with many articles on liturgy, catechetics, and sex education:

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Fr. James Schall passed away today. A Jesuit priest & Georgetown professor, he served as mentor & model to a numberless many (including me). With penetrating insight & wit, he pointed us to Christ & those great Catholic minds we mustn't forget.

Fr. Schall, requiescat in pace.

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