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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Divorce in the Catholic Church, part II

In the last post I examined the Eastern Christian (Catholic and Orthodox) practice of granting divorces and remarriages.  Now I must demonstrate that it is compatible with Catholic teaching.  Several points are in order first.

Standard compilations of Roman Catholic teaching - the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Ecumenical Councils since 1054 - are only reflective of and binding on the Latin Church.  The Eastern Church in communion with Rome does not reject the content of what the Latin Church teaches, but we do have our own traditions of phrasing dogmas.  The statement quoted by Protopresbyter Eyman in my last blog post is indicative of this divergence.  The duty of the Orthodox theologian living in the West and in communion with Rome is to demonstrate the harmony and mutual complementarity of these two modes of expression.  But anything said in the East is only binding within an Eastern context and an Eastern phronema, and likewise anything said in the West is only binding within a Western context and a Western phronema.  So theological expressions in the CCC for example may carry with them unspoken assumptions that color the applicability of the phrasing - for example, they may assume that the marriage is performed with the married couple themselves as the ministers rather than the priest.  The CCC expresses Roman Catholic doctrine; while it does cite the Greek Fathers who left a common inheritance to both East and West, and while the section on prayer was in fact written by a Melkite priest of French extraction (Pere Jean Corbon - see, ultimately the Catechism is compilation of the Latin expression of the Faith, which should not be in contradiction to but need not be organized the same way as or phrased with the same metaphors as a Byzantine expression of the Faith.  Eastern Catechisms have been written before - though the East has more typically had a natural aversion to systematization and the catechism format - with a delightful example being Nikolaous Boulgaris' "Divine and Holy Catechism", organized along the lines of the Divine Liturgy.  The new Catechism to be published by the Ukrainian hierarchs is forthcoming, and we await the English translation with great anticipation.  Nonetheless, it remains that the standard of Eastern Catholic teaching is not any Catechism but the service-books and the Philokalia.  I was once told by an ultra-vostochnik iconographer who had spent time by turns in the Ruthenian Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and Romanian Catholic Churches to even throw away my volumes of St. Gregory Palamas; all the theology I need is in the horologion.  A less exhaustive but more comprehensive study (if that makes any sense!) of Eastern Catholic teaching would be a book like Archbishop Joseph Raya's The Face of God, or other classic texts like Vladimir Lossky's Mystical Theology of the Orthodox Church and imitations like Fr. George Maloney's Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, though when we start mentioning Lossky and Maloney we are getting into private theologians with no claim to be the voice of the Church, however influential.

That all being said, nothing that I have said is contrary to the actual words of the Catechism, which calls divorce a sin but not a metaphysical impossibility.  I cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church, linking to the Vatican website, with comment.

1614 In his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning permission given by Moses to divorce one's wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts.106 The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it "what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder."107   [Indissolubility is the "original meaning" placed by the Creator; it is a command given by God, not a "magical adherence.]
1615 This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy - heavier than the Law of Moses.108 By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to "receive" the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ.109 This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ's cross, the source of all Christian life.
1623 According to Latin tradition, the spouses as ministers of Christ's grace mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church. In the tradition of the Eastern Churches, the priests (bishops or presbyters) are witnesses to the mutual consent given by the spouses,124 but for the validity of the sacrament their blessing is also necessary.125 [This is a somewhat ambiguous statement that might appear to leave open the question as to whom the minister of the Sacrament was.  We are quite insistent that it is the priest, however.  The priests are indeed witnesses to the mutual consent given by the spouses, but they are not witnesses to the marriage; rather they confer it, and as such are necessary for the validity of the Sacrament.]
1640 Thus the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by God's fidelity. The Church does not have the power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom.146 [This is the most difficult paragraph to reconcile with my thesis.  But recall what I said about hidden assumptions.  This is a Latin Catechism and unless specified otherwise they are talking about a Latin marriage.  In the East, the marraige bond does not result from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage; it results from the conferring of the marriage by the priest.  So while the Church quite definitely does not have the power to dissolve a marriage performed in the Latin Rite, it does not necessarily follow that the same holds true in the East where She confers the marriage.  And the indissolubility of marriage is still the disposition of Divine wisdom, even if a divorce is granted by economia.  Also remember, even a Catechism is not infallible, as we found to our chagrin when "YouCat" came out condoning contraception.]
1644 The love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses' community of persons, which embraces their entire life: "so they are no longer two, but one flesh."153 They "are called to grow continually in their communion through day-to-day fidelity to their marriage promise of total mutual self-giving."154 This human communion is confirmed, purified, and completed by communion in Jesus Christ, given through the sacrament of Matrimony. It is deepened by lives of the common faith and by the Eucharist received together. [This is uncontroversial.]
1650 Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ - "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery"160 the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence. [Civil divorce in the Latin Rite is not a question here, but rather canonical divorce in the Byzantine Rite.]
2382 The Lord Jesus insisted on the original intention of the Creator who willed that marriage be indissoluble.174 He abrogates the accommodations that had slipped into the old Law.175
Between the baptized, "a ratified and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death."176 [But even what He abrogates, the Church can for good reason dispense from.  He commanded fasting, but dispensations from fasting are granted all the time.  The Church, we must recall, is not "any human power" but the Body of Christ.]
2383 The separation of spouses while maintaining the marriage bond can be legitimate in certain cases provided for by canon law.177 [Economia]
If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense.   [Economia]
2384 Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law.  [Yet it was permitted by Moses, by God.] It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery:  [No mention is made of its recognition canonically; clearly we are dealing only with a Western context and civil remarriage, which is adultery anywhere if one has not been released from one's marriage by the Church.] 

If a husband, separated from his wife, approaches another woman, he is an adulterer because he makes that woman commit adultery, and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has drawn another's husband to herself.178

2385 Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.
2386 It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage.179  [Economia]

Finally, the compatibility of the Orthodox practice and treatment of marriage was defended by Cardinal Ratzinger on historical and patristic grounds in a 1972 article which, due to its length, I shall only link to rather than copy:


  1. Your synthesis is very convincing and if I ever have to teach someone about marriage and the indissolubility of marriage in the Roman and Eastern Catholic regulations, I'd probably use your explanation. The link to Cardinal Ratzinger's essay was particularly helpful as well. Pope Benedict XVI's knowledge is extensive. I am very glad to have him as pope, and just as well, you as my brother in the Faith.

    God bless!

  2. And I am very glad to have you, Steven, as my brother in the Faith, and very thankful to have your witness of the holiness of Augustine that you provide in your blog. The East does not always treat Augustine in the kindest light that they ought.