One of the enduring problems that all churches face is how to deal with the moral and ecclesial questions related to divorce and remarriage. The most obvious difficulties have ensued in the Catholic Church due to its interpretation of Matthew 19 as a prohibition against all divorce. Here Jesus very clearly speaks about divorce but the understanding of this text has presented no small problem for Christian interpretation.
Our Lord says:
When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he cured them there.
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause? He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘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, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 19:1-9, NRSV).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of marriage and annulment:
The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that “makes the marriage”. The consent consists in a “human act by which the partners mutually give themselves to each other”: “I take you to be my wife” – “I take you to be my husband.” This consent that binds the spouses to each other finds its fulfillment in the two “becoming one flesh”. If consent is lacking there is no marriage. The consent must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free of coercion or grave external fear. No human power can substitute for this consent. If this freedom is lacking the marriage is invalid. For this reason (or for other reasons that render the marriage null and void) the Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage, i.e., that the marriage never existed. In this case the contracting parties are free to marry, provided the natural obligations of a previous union are discharged (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1626-1629).
An annulment is an ecclesial declaration that “the marriage never existed.” The Church recognizes that a relationship between a married man and woman was a putative marriage but not that it was a sacramental one if an annulment is granted. For those who do not understand this the reasoning is ultimately connected to the Catholic understanding of marriage as a sacrament.
What interests me, as an ecumenist, is how the dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church has allowed for an increase in understanding about both this text and the church teaching about marriage and divorce.
My friend Fr. John Crossin (OSFS) serves as the Executive Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Fr. Crossin recently noted:
Pope Francis had an important interview with reporters aboard his airplane returning from World Youth Day in Brazil last summer. He mentioned in the course of this lengthy discussion that perhaps the Catholic Church had something to learn from the pastoral practice of the Eastern Christian Churches on marriage and divorce. The Pope’s remarks commanded widespread and continuing attention.
Here is what Pope Francis said:
But also – a parenthesis – the Orthodox have a different practice. They follow the theology of what they call oikonomia, and they give a second chance, they allow it. But I believe that this problem – and here I close the parenthesis – must be studied within the context of the pastoral care of marriage.
Fr. Crossin adds:
For decades the American and Canadian Catholic Bishops Conferences have engaged in fruitful dialogue with our Orthodox colleagues. We have the deepest respect for the thinking, the theology and the pastoral sensitivity of the Orthodox churches. In 1990, the Joint Committee of Orthodox and Catholic Bishops published an agreed statement on Orthodox-Catholic marriages.
The different practices of the two churches have been formally described in this way:
Our churches have expressed their conviction concerning the enduring nature of Christian marriage in diverse ways. In the canonical discipline of the Orthodox Church, for example, perpetual monogamy is upheld as the norm of marriage, so that those entering upon a second or subsequent marriage are subject to penance even in the case of widows and widowers. In the Roman Catholic Church the enduring nature of marriage has been emphasized especially in the absolute prohibition of divorce. Our churches have also responded in diverse ways to the tragedies which can beset marriage in our fallen world. The Orthodox Church, following Mt 19:9 (“whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery”), permits divorce under certain circumstance, not only in the case of adultery but also of other serious assaults on the moral and spiritual foundation of marriage (secret abortion, endangering the life of the spouse, forcing the spouse to prostitution and similar abusive situations). Out of pastoral consideration and in order better to serve the spiritual needs of the faithful, the Orthodox Church tolerates remarriage of divorced persons under certain specific circumstances as it permits the remarriage of widows and widowers under certain specific circumstances. The Roman Catholic Church has responded in other ways to such difficult situations. In order to resolve the personal and pastoral issues of failed consummated marriages, it undertakes inquiries to establish whether there may have existed some initial defect in the marriage covenant which provides grounds for the Church to make a declaration of nullity, that is, a decision attesting that the marriage lacked validity. It also recognizes the possibility of dissolving sacramental non-consummated marriages through papal dispensation. While it is true that the Roman Catholic Church does not grant dissolution of the bond of a consummated sacramental marriage, it remains a question among theologians whether this is founded on a prudential judgment or in the Church’s perception that it lacks the power to dissolve such a bond.
Fr. Crossin concludes:
We should note that there have always been significant differences in the Western and Eastern Christian approaches to marriage. Even within the Catholic Church, for example, the Latin Code of Canon Law states that the husband and wife are ministers of the sacrament, while the Eastern Code states that the minister of the sacrament is the priest who blesses the couple. As with their Catholic colleagues, Orthodox theologians can have different insights into theology and pastoral care. Drawing on both of these traditions would enrich a more extensive and well-informed study and meditation on one of the most important pastoral question of our times.
The last few words of Fr. Crossin’s reflection takes us to the heart of why ecumenism truly matters. If “one of the most important pastoral questions of our times” is divorce and remarriage then we would all do better to draw upon our several traditions while we respectfully listen and learn from one another. While Pope Francis is seeking to create better pastoral practices the timing for deeper ecumenism has never been more evident. By extensive and growing study, and through mutual respect, we just might do a better job of addressing a major and vexing issue rooted in an ancient biblical text that gives us the clearest teaching our Lord ever offered about the permanence of marriage and the “exception” (clause) regarding divorce.