Monday 17 February 2014

Divorce and Remarriage, Oikonomia, and the peril of following the Greeks

The following is a summary of two lectures presented by Rev Dr Dylan James at the Faith Symposium 2014, and of a workshop at Evangelium 2015

Recent media reports have focused on the long-standing pastoral problem of Catholics who are divorced and remarried. Christ taught that those who divorce and remarry “commit adultery” (Mk 10:11) and the Church consequently notes that such a serious breach of the moral law bars them from receiving Holy Communion. As Pope St. John Paul II said, "their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist… if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage” (Familiaris Consortio n.84). Recently, however, there have been calls for the 2014-15 synod on Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the context of Evangelisation to consider whether the Catholic Church should adopt the 'oikonomia' practice used by the Greek Orthodox Church. This article will outline the nature, history, and practice of oikonomia but argue against its appropriateness.

What does 'oikonomia' mean?
Oikonomia is the Greek work referring to the management of God's household (oikos) of the Church by the steward (oiknomos) of the Church, namely, the local bishop. In particular, it refers to a relaxation of the strict application (akribea) of a law in favour of a relaxation of that law in a particular case, in what is then called the practice of 'oikonomia'. The rationale for the relaxation of the law is God's condescension (sunkatabasis) to human weakness. According to this approach, as followed by the Eastern Orthodox Churches[1], God knows that we are weak, that we frequently fail to live up to his law, and so he has established his bishops as the stewards of his household to determine occasions when the law should not be applied strictly but should be relaxed instead.

How does this get applied to the remarriage of a divorced person (whose original spouse is still alive)? The strict application (akribea) of the moral law would forbid such a remarriage. While the Greek Orthodox understanding visages that the original marriage may have been broken, “dissolved” in some sense, nonetheless, in the Orthodox understanding there can only ever be one "true" "unique"[2] marriage. The second marriage is not the "true" marriage. Divorce and remarriage is a sin, it breaks God's law. However, the local bishop can make a judgment in oikonomia to not apply the law forbidding remarriage strictly, and thus the couple are permitted to remarry in church, though with a penitential ceremony that reflects the fact that their behaviour does not accord with what Christ has commanded. Thus there is a condescending to human weakness while still holding that the moral law is the ideal. (Such remarriages are allowed for a second, and even a third marriage, but are strictly forbidden for a fourth marriage.[3])

Before proceeding further, a comparison can be noted with some Latin concepts. In the West our canon law establishes a legal framework whereby 'dispensations' can be granted, a word that is the literal translation of the Greek oikonomia. However, the two notions are not the same. A dispensation is a precise legal term and process: the law itself specifies who has the authority to grant dispensations and also the exact circumstances in which a dispensation may and may not be granted. For those situations that the law fails to describe the Western legal tradition adds the notion of 'epikeia' whereby, in a particular circumstance distantly removed from the legislator, the law is not enforced because it is judged that the intention of the legislator did not include the case being considered. In contrast, oikonomia is primarily a theological rather than a legal concept, and, in a dramatic difference from Roman thought, it is applied not only to Church law but to the Divine and moral law. Further, its practice is not codified and does not follow precedents, its application on one occasion does not necessarily establish a pattern for future occasions, rather, its application depends on the local bishop.[4] To summarise the key Roman-Orthodox difference: in the Roman understanding, the Church is the servant of what Christ has commanded and has no authority to ‘dispense’ someone from the moral law, rather, it is her duty to call people to live it as the path to life.

Greek Orthodox Remarriage Liturgies
The Orthodox Church's condescending to human weakness in allowing a remarriage (while still acknowledging that divorce and remarriage is a sin) is expressed in the liturgy of the remarriage ceremony. In the Greek Orthodox ritual, after the exchange of rings, the long prayer of the betrothed that would have been part of a first marriage ceremony is replaced by two penitential prayers. The first prayer refers to the prostitute Rahab (c.f. Josh 6:25) who was forgiven by God and the prayer asks not only for such forgiveness for the couple but that they receive the gift of tears and repentance. The second prayer is perhaps even more indicative of what the Orthodox understand themselves to be doing: it alludes to St Paul's advice where he says that it is better that the unmarried and widows remain single, but then adds, "but if they cannot control themselves they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion"(1 Cor 7:9), a permission that he says he adds as "a concession"(1 Cor 7:6). The second penitential prayer (mis)applies this to the couple, saying, "They, unable to bear the heat and the burden of the day and the burning of the flesh, come for a second nuptial communion (gamou deuterean koinian) as you have legislated by means of your chosen vessel, the apostle Paul, who said to us needy ones that ‘it is better to marry in the Lord than to burn’. You, good and friend of men, merciful and forgiving, have pity, loosen, remit our blows because you are the one who has taken on our infirmities; no-one, in fact, is without sin and neither can even one day in the life of man be without impurity.”

Two things can be noted about what is described above. First, such penitential prayers are frequently a source of pastoral embarrassment at the remarriage ceremonies because the couple have come seeking a joyful celebration and do not really ‘buy into’ the oikonomia pastoral theology that holds that they are committing a sin but that the Church is condescending to their human weakness. Do we really think that such a pastoral and liturgical practice will satisfy those in the West currently dissenting from Church teaching? Second, the reference to St. Paul, though one made frequently in the Orthodox tradition, is not appropriate because it confuses what in the West we have termed the distinction between 'counsels' (expedient advice, but morally optional) and 'precepts' (commandments, morally obligatory). St Paul is referring to two categories of people who do not sin if they marry (the single and widows), thus, though he counsels that it is better for them not to marry he is not citing a moral command. As a consequence, he says that this is his guidance, not the Lord's, and says that his guidance is "not a command"(1 Cor 7:6). This contrasts with the following verse, “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife” (1 Cor 7:10-11, c.f. Rom 7:2-3).

In the Eastern Tradition?
This noted, what support exists in the Tradition for the Orthodox oikonomia theology and practice?

The writings of the earliest Church Fathers make it clear that in both East and West there was unanimity in forbidding Christians to remarry, with the era of the Apologists being characterised by them highlighting the splendour of Christian doctrine by contrasting the pagan practice of divorce and remarriage with the Christian practice forbidding it. In the third century, however, Origen noted that certain bishops in his area had permitted remarriage. He noted that this practice contradicted Scripture but he justified it out of ‘condescension’ (symperiphora), saying that it is better to avoid the worse (synkrisei cheironon).[5] Is it not to be taken as profoundly significant that the first time that this ‘condescension’ approach is commented on it is noted, even by its defender, as contradicting Sacred Scripture? Regardless, a century later, St Basil the Great, influenced in many things by the teachings of Origen, seems to have built on this in his canons. These canons specified the penances to be done by different sinners, and distinguished many different types of immoral sexual unions, including different types of second unions, and noted different penances to be done by penitents in these categories, with his much-cited canon 77 specifying that a remarried man is to do seven years penance.[6] The doing of such penances resulted in someone being reconciled to the Church. This should not, however, be taken to imply that St Basil thought such second unions were the same as first marriages, or that he approved of them. Crouzel comments on this saying, “In fact in the primitive Church there are a few rare instances of tolerance shown towards divorcees who have remarried: the mistake of certain theologians and canonists is to have equated this tolerance with acceptance”.[7] While St Basil’s canons do not themselves say that the penitents were allowed to remain in their second unions after fulfilling their penances the later Orthodox tradition has interpreted him as saying that they may. This said, it is important to note that there was no unanimity among even the later Eastern Church Fathers in this regard, with towering figures like St John Chrysostom being very clear about the impermissibility of remarriage. Nonetheless, the Greek Orthodox Church increasingly followed a practice that 'condescended' to allow remarriage, albeit with a penance assigned. It is also significant to note that, living under the shadow of the Byzantine Roman emperors, the Greek Orthodox Church increasingly followed the state's civil laws in the grounds that were used to permit divorce and remarriage, so that post-Justinian state and church laws were complied in the same collections.

Remarriage at Nicaea?
Before concluding these brief comments on the history of the Orthodox practice it is important to respond to claims circulating on some websites that the Council of Nicaea allowed the remarried to be admitted to Holy Communion. The issue concerns Canon 8 of the Council, which specified that certain strict schismatics were only to be reconciled to the Catholic Church if they would admit those in "second marriages" to Holy Communion. What certain commentators have failed to note, however, is what sort of "second marriages" these concerned: the "second marriages" of widows who had remarried after the death of their spouse. The schismatics being reconciled were among many who had argued that widows should not remarry, a position that was likewise held by such great figures as Tertullian, St Jerome, and St Gregory of Nyssa. In fact, the doubt concerning the appropriateness of widows remarrying is so strong in the tradition that even as recently as 1917 the Code of Canon Law felt the need to assert that the second marriages of widows are "valid", while also reiterating the tradition in saying that "chaste widowhood is more honourable" (Canon 1142). Nicaea did not say what certain dissenters are claiming it did.

Assessing the Greek Practice
Having outlined the Greek Orthodox practice, how it is to be assessed? When we look at their practice we might note that, along with Rome, they do not deny that divorce and remarriage is a sin. When we also note that Trent has defined this as a matter of anathema,[8] it is inconceivable that the coming synod might change the Church's teaching on the indissolubility of the marriage bond. But, even while continuing to hold that remarriage is a sin, might the Church maintain her doctrine but change her discipline, and adopt the oikonomia practice of the Greek Orthodox? Three concerns can be noted.

First, the notion that is at the heart of the oikonomia principle, namely, that the Church can decide to condescend to human weakness and dispense someone from needing to follow the moral law is a notion that risks doing away with the entire moral life. While the oikonomia principle is currently only being invoked with respect to remarriage why should it stop there? For example, the Orthodox Metropolitan Athenagoras discusses applying it to unmarried couples who are cohabiting.[9] Looking at less official sources, various websites can be seen asking about other applications: abortion ("I know its wrong... it's not the ideal... but...”), same-sex unions ("We acknowledge heterosexual marriage as the ideal, but...."), and where might it end? While the conservatism currently imbued in much of the Orthodox Church has presently prevented such applications of oikonomia it takes little rational analysis to see that there is no inherent limit to the application of oikonomia. More specifically, for ourselves, given the weak moral climate currently in the Western Catholic Church, and given the permissive moral forces that surround us, it is difficult to see how the introduction of this principle in the West could be anything less than cataclysmic in its effect.

Second, it must be asked what sort of vision of the moral law and moral life is implicit in oikonomia. The notion that the moral law can be dispensed implies that the moral law does not really accord with our nature, that it does not really fulfill us, that it has not been given to us by God for our good. If, in contrast, the moral law is not arbitrary, and cannot be departed from without leading us to act contrary to our nature and our happiness, then it must be asked why we should want to dispense someone from it. Yes, the moral life involves many struggles. Yes, these struggles can often involve a cross that someone has to carry for the rest of their life. But the moral life is for our good and the moral law that spells out its 'bottom lines' must be adhered to, and, with the assistance of grace we can live it.

Finally, a thought about the meaning of repentance. As was noted earlier, the Greek Orthodox ritual for remarriages includes two penitential prayers. However, the notion of repentance includes not just 'feeling bad' but certain conditions, conditions usefully specified by the Council of Trent. To note two in particular: hatred of sin and a desire to amend our life. If being remarried, i.e. living with a partner who is not your true spouse, is what Christ said it is, namely “committing adultery"(Mk 10:11), then repentance, involving a 'firm purpose of amendment', must involve the intention to separate from the second partner (or, if duties to children in the second union prevent you separating, then at least living in continence 'as brother and sister' rather than as husband and wife). The Church's role in this includes pointing out the truth of what someone needs to be repentant of, and if we are only seeking to dispense people from the moral law rather than seeking to call them to it, then the Church is failing to proclaim the Gospel: The call to believe always includes the call to repentance (c.f. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, n.25).

As a concluding corollary about the nature of repentance, it needs to also be noted that for many penitents the movement from living in a state of sin to accepting the demands of the Gospel is a slow process. It might, perhaps, seem that the oikonomia approach of condescending to human weakness allows people to exist in a penitential second union while awaiting the hoped for change in their state of life. However, let us not forget that the Roman practice already has a penitential state for the remarried: they are not excommunicated, they remain in the Church, but they are not admitted to Holy Communion. This state is not permanent but only for "as long as their situation persists"(CCC 1650), i.e. until they are "committed to living in complete continence"(ibid). To conclude by recalling how the Catechism describes their living in this penitential state, “Toward Christians who live in this situation, and who often keep the faith and desire to bring up their children in a Christian manner, priests and the whole community must manifest an attentive solicitude, so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptised persons: 'They should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God's grace.[FC 84]' ”(CCC 1651)

[1] This article will focus on the practice of the Greek Orthodox Church though it should be noted that the different Orthodox Churches do not all apply this practice in the same way.
[2] Bishop Athenagoras (Metropolitan of Belgium), “Economia and Pastoral Guidance” (2005) accessed 23/2/14
[3] Ibid.
c.f. "Orthodoxy regards the marriage bond as, in principle, lifelong and indissoluble, and it condemns the breakdown of marriage as a sin and an evil. But while condemning the sin, the church still desires to help the sinners and to allow them a second chance. When, therefore, a marriage has entirely ceased to be a reality, the Orthodox Church does not insist on the preservation of a legal fiction. Divorce is seen as an exceptional but necessary concession to human sin, it is an act of 'oikonomia' ('economy' or dispensation) and of 'philanthropia' (loving kindness). Yet although assisting men and women to rise again after a fall, the Orthodox Church knows that a second alliance can never be the same as the first; and so in the service for a second marriage several of the joyful ceremonies are omitted, and replaced by penitential prayers.”(Metropolitan Kallistops Ware)
[4] “In theory divorce is only recognised in the case of adultery, but in practise is also recognised in light of other reasons. There is a list of causes of divorce acceptable to the Orthodox Church. In practise the bishops sometimes apply ‘economia’ in a liberal way.”(Bishop Athenagoras, op cit)
[5] “But now contrary to what was written, some even of the rulers of the Church have permitted a woman to marry, even when her husband was living, doing contrary to what was written, where it said, ‘A wife is bound for so long as her husband lives’[1 Cor 7:39]. Yet they did not take the step altogether without reason. It would seem that they make this concession, contrary though it is to the law established at the creation and contained in Scripture, as the lesser of two evils.” (Origen, In Matthaeum Commentarii 14,23 (185/6-254/5))
[6] "He who abandons the wife to whom he is legally married and marries another, he is, according to the Lord’s declaration, subject to the judgment of adultery. But our fathers have ruled that such men should be for one year among those who weep [the first step in the penitential return to communion], for two years among those who hear, for three years among the prostrate, and during the seventh year with those who stand among the faithful – and thus render themselves worthy of the sacrament if they have done this penance with tears.” (St Basil, Epistola 217, ad Amphilochium, canon 77)
[7] H. Crouzel, “Remarriage after Divorce” Irish Theological Quarterly (1971) 38, p.28. Bevilacqua similarly notes, "in these canons, St Basil is not speaking of the morality of the actions of husbands and wives as much as the canonical penalties to be inflicted. The fact that a transgressor of the morality of the marriage state is not excluded from communion with the Church is not to be construed as signifying that the action is permitted. Thus a man may enter a second marriage and not be excommunicated. This would not mean that his second marriage should be considered valid. The present legislation in the [Roman] Code of Canon Law, for example, does not excommunicate a Catholic who attempts a second marriage after divorce but the marriage is still invalid” (A.Bevilacqua, “The History of the Indissolubility of Marriage”, Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America (1967), p.277).
[8] “If any one shall say that the Church is in error, when it taught and still teaches, in accordance with the teaching of the Gospels and the Apostles, that the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved by reason of the adultery of one of the partners, and that neither of them, not even the innocent one who gave no cause to the adultery, can contract another marriage while the other partner is alive: and that the man who dismisses his adulterous wife and marries another, and the woman who dismisses her adulterous husband and marries another, are guilty of adultery -let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Session 24, Canon 7)
[9] Athenagoras, op cit


John said...

"Thus there is a condescending to human weakness while still holding that the moral law is the ideal."

Isn't the Greek practice simply an evasion, a watering down of the Gospel? It hardly seems different than the accommodation (divorce) Moses provided, a practice Christ condemned.

—(Jesus) 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 (porneia, fornication, idolatry), and marries another commits adultery.—St. Matthew 19.

Condoning behaviours which Christ Himself condemned puts people's souls at risk. As you've noted, where would the accommodations stop?

Surely, if people have "left" a marriage, and they claim to love Christ and His Church, would they not want to do the right thing and submit their cause to a diocesan tribunal to determine whether or not a prior union was valid, or not?

Thank you for an informative article!

Fr. Dylan James, Catholic Priest, dual American-British citizen said...

Hi Wendell,
Your reference to Mt 19 and the Old Testament permission of remarriage because of their 'hardness of heart' is very apt. As I noted in the article, the first person to note and justify the current Greek Orthodox practice was Origen in the 3rd century, and he refereed to this exact text (Mt 19, and the allowance because of their for hardness of heart)) to justify the 'condescension'. Interestingly, however, as I noted in the article, he also noted that the practice of remarriage was contrary to the Gospel.

Strahlen said...

Hi Father,

Thank you for this post. I didn't know much about permitting subsequent marriages in the Eastern church. On the surface, I guess it makes sense to allow them (childcare, finances, employment, loneliness - there is so much despair and fear for a true divorce victim. It would seem helpful to have a special someone to lean on).

On the deeper level though, I agree 100% with you. Your statement saying to allow 2nd marriages would put us on a slippery slope and asking what else would have to be permitted based on human weakness was right on target. Marriage for the sake of human weakness is not for the moral good and not what God wants for His children because, in the long run, it is not good for His children. It's sad how society often looks at the surface for quick and easy solutions and then wonders why those solutions are not so quick and easy long term.

I was 5 months pregnant with our 5th little boy in a surprise and risky pregnancy when my husband suddenly announced he was leaving and moved out a week later. The situation caught me (and everyone else) completely off guard. To me, it was like the man I had known and loved died but left this incredibly cruel, angry stranger with the ability to place oppressive demands on me in his place. I struggled with the church's teaching since this was not a divorce I wanted and felt in some ways, it was/is worse than death.

The financial devastation was nothing compared to the emotional loss my boys and I experienced, and I understand better now why some divorced Catholics would want to lash out and even leave the Catholic church. I now blog at because I think divorce is a major threat to our faith, and I hope I can relate to those suffering its effects and help lead them back to the Catholic church and to the Lord.

Divorce is devastating, but it can also be a new beginning. That new beginning cannot mean remarriage without the church's blessing. So many of us tried marriage "our way" the first time and then wonder why it ended in divorce. Maybe we should wait and do things the church's way (God's way!) the 2nd time around. That said, I am (hopefully) days away from hearing the decision on our annulment and would appreciate your prayers that it does go through. In the meantime, I will take comfort in the reminder you put out there from 1 Cor 7:8 and use my time, not to search for a new husband, but to grow in my faith and to lead my children to their one perfect parent, God the Father.

Thank you again for this piece. I learned a lot and have some more thinking to do now!

God Bless...

A. T. Wallace said...

Something that I think needs to be added to this discussion is the Roman practice of granting declarations of nullity, i.e. "annulments." The local Church is certainly not infallible in judging that "this marriage" was lacking proper form or intention. Objectively speaking, a person who receives an annulment can actually still be married and then married again in good faith despite their first marriage being actually valid in the first place. There are other situations, too, where a man-not actually validly married-abandons his family, and the injured spouse is denied an annulment and, if she is to be faithful, can never remarry and must bear an (unbearable?) cross in raising a family without a husband. These are things that must enter into the discussion.

Stephen said...

Fr., regarding the ongoing penitential ramifications between the two, you make no mention of the impact within the different liturgical practices of east and West. Specifically, Mass is pretty much the only communal activity for Westerners anymore, whereas Easterners have more stuff to go to which do NOT include communion; I would think it then harder on Westerners to not receive communion, especially as the expectation is to receive at every Mass, and that same expectation does not exist nearly as much among Easterners (while recognizing a mix of better and less in each of these customs too)