“The Orthodox Practice” on Divorce and Communion: Part I

Orthodox Holy CommunionAt the close of the Extraordinary Synod of Catholic Bishops last October, the Synod’s Final Report ( the “Lineamenta”) included a questionnaire on pastoral practices on family issues. Among the questions was number 38, which opened with the following premise: “With regard to the divorced and remarried, pastoral practice concerning the sacraments needs to be further studied, including assessment of the Orthodox practice. . . . “

The bishops have asked the faithful to offer ideas on the questionnaire, so it is appropriate to ask, “What is the Orthodox practice that question no. 38 wants us to assess?”

Here is a summary of what a person can find by doing a little online research. There are two issues. First, there is no single “Orthodox practice” concerning divorce and remarriage, but all the Orthodox Churches share one principle: The sin of one or both of the married persons may kill a first marriage. That principle cannot be reconciled with Catholic teaching.

There is a second issue to assess: What do the Orthodox Churches do about Holy Communion? Both principles have implications for “assessment of the Orthodox practice.“  This installment will discuss the first one.


It appears the Orthodox Churches all subscribe to a principle that sin may terminate a marriage.

“The Lord pointed to adultery as the only permissible ground for divorce, for it defiles the sanctity of marriage and breaks the bond of matrimonial faithfulness.  . . . Unfortunately, sometimes spouses prove unable to preserve the gift of grace they received in the Sacrament of Matrimony and to keep the unity of the family because of their sinful imperfection.”  The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, Part X.3 (2000).

“The Orthodox Church permits its faithful to divorce because it maintains that marriages can and do die. In these cases, the Orthodox Church acknowledges this tragic reality . . . .”  GOA, Office of Interfaith Marriages, Frequently Asked Questions about Divorce (date unknown).

The Catholic teaching is squarely to the contrary. Simply put, there is no such thing as divorce, properly speaking. Civil divorces have no effect on true marriages (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1640-1651). In this respect, the Catholic doctrine on marriage reflects the beauty of God’s unchanging, ever-faithful devotion to His people (Catechism, no. 1647).

St. Paul spoke of human marriage as a sign of the greater mystery of the union of God with His people (Eph. 5:32). God never gives up on us, even when we forsake Him (Lk 15:11-32).

True marriages establish an indestructible and glorious union that protects the spouses’ love and provides safety and security to their children (Catechism, no. 1646).  St. John Paul II promulgated a wonderful Apostolic Exhortation that expands on these points: Familiaris Consortio, especially paragraph nos. 11-15 (1981). To that truth, one has not only the witness of Church documents, but the witness of martyrs, the most well-known of which is St. Thomas More, Esq.

In regard to the “exception” for divorce that the Orthodox Churches mention, found in Matthew 5:32 and19:9, the constant teaching of the Catholic Church has been that the Lord was referring to situations that are not true marriages (e.g., marriages of persons too closely related).  He was not creating an exception to allow dissolution of valid marriages.  (Paul Mankowski, S.J., “Dominical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage: The Biblical Data, Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church, pp. 57-62.)

Those few Catholic bishops in history who appear to have issued decisions that permit divorces have acted against Church teaching, not in accordance with it.  (Walter Cardinal Brandmuller, Unity and Indissolubility of Marriage: From the Middle Ages to the Council of Trent, op. cit., pp. 130-138.)

It is relevant to observe that in the present day, various Orthodox Churches accept justifications for divorce that go far beyond adultery. Even the Russian Orthodox Church, which is not only the largest of the Orthodox jurisdictions but also considered among the strictest in spiritual matters, recognizes ecclesiastical divorces for many situations that appear unconnected with adultery. An official document of the Holy Synod from 2000 includes such grounds as a spouse’s falling away from Orthodoxy, contraction of leprosy or syphilis, incurable mental disease, chronic alcoholism or drug addiction, and abortion without the husband’s consent.  (The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, Part X.3 ,2000).

Other Orthodox Churches appear to recognize whatever circumstances the bishop will accept as a reason to declare a first marriage to be dead, based on a report from a pastor who interviews the people involved.  See, e.g., Orthodox Church in America, Encyclical Letter of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America on Marriage , Appendix: “Pastoral Guidelines on Holy Matrimony,” Part F, no. 2 (year unknown).  See also Catholic Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, S.J. in “Separation, Divorce, Dissolution of the Bond, and Remarriage: Theological and Practical Approaches of the Orthodox Churches,” Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), pp. 105-120.

The variation on the allowable grounds for Church divorces among Orthodox Churches raises the question of what scope of past conduct is being proposed by Catholic proponents of change as a guide for allowing Catholic divorced-and-civilly-remarried persons to receive Holy Communion.  Should it be a list of grounds similar to the list for ecclesiastical divorce adopted by the Russian Orthodox Church?  No list at all, but the discretion of individual bishops or parish pastors?

No answer that is based on actual Orthodox practice is forthcoming from the proponents of change, it appears, and in fact any of these are inconsistent with Catholic doctrine on marriage.

Next, since the proponents’ goal is to enable the distribution of Holy Communion to the “remarried,” it is appropriate to investigate how the Orthodox practice of distributing Holy Communion might apply. The second installment will focus on that issue.

Jim Cole received his law degree from Harvard Law School and practices law in St. Louis, Missouri.  He serves as volunteer general counsel for Missouri Right to Life.