The “Orthodox Practice” on Divorce and Communion, Part II

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.  It 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?”

In the first installment, the Orthodox practices on divorce and remarriage were described.  It was seen that 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.  Now it is time to answer, What do the Orthodox Churches do about Holy Communion?  They refuse to give Holy Communion to those who do not follow their Churches’ disciplines on divorce and remarriage.  The proponents of change in the Catholic practices would do the opposite, that is, go ahead and distribute Holy Communion to those who do not follow Catholic teachings on divorce and remarriage.  The consequences of both aspects of Orthodox practices lead to the conclusion that completes this article.

At the heart of proposals to change Catholic pastoral practice is the suggestion that Holy Communion ought to be distributed to Catholics who are living in a second civil marriage as husband and wife, without having obtained the Church’s judgment that a first marriage was never a true marriage.  (For convenience, this situation will be labeled as “civilly remarried.”)  Following the Lord’s own words in the Gospels, the Church teaches that civilly-remarried persons are committing ongoing adultery.  Objectively (and without attempting to assess the state of anyone’s soul here), adultery puts a person into a state of mortal sin.  (1 Cor. 5:9-10.)  Persons in a state of mortal sin cannot validly receive Holy Communion.  (1 Cor. 11: 27, 29.)

An inquirer into the Orthodox practices surrounding Holy Communion quickly finds that they reflect great awe and reverence toward our Eucharistic Lord.  Such awe and wonder are reflected in a contemporary document issued by the Russian Orthodox Church, On the Participation of the Faithful in the Eucharist. It is not an exaggeration to say that Latin Catholics (i.e., those who are not Eastern-rite Catholics) would find the Russian Orthodox requirements for preparation, especially fasting, to be surprisingly arduous.  Other Orthodox Churches that are more lenient than the Russian Church still require fasting from food and water beginning at least the previous midnight up to the time of Communion, and some also require recent Confession as well.

In accordance with their Communion practice, the Orthodox Churches insist that no one may receive who does not follow their Church’s disciplines on marriage and divorce.  The Orthodox disciplines on divorce and remarriage require an official decree or a bishop’s  determination of a divorce in order to make the divorce legitimate.  The fact that a civil divorce has been obtained is not sufficient.  The parties’ own judgment about their marital status is not sufficient.  Without a Church-recognized divorce and, if married again, a blessing on that remarriage by the Church, Orthodox Churches do not allow divorced persons to receive Holy Communion.

Two examples illustrate the rule.  In their Instructions for Weddings, Divorces, Baptisms, Funerals, and Memorials, The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America provides, “Orthodox Christians of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese who have obtained a civil divorce but not an ecclesiastical divorce may not participate in any sacraments of the Church or serve on the Parish Council, Diocesan Council or Archdiocesan Council until they have been granted a divorce by the Church.”

The Orthodox Church in America provides, “It is the practice of the Church as well not to exclude members of second marriages from the sacrament of holy communion if they desire sincerely to be in eucharistic fellowship with God, and if they fulfill all other conditions for participation in the life of the Church.”

The Catholic proponents of giving Communion to the civilly-remarried appear to ignore the Orthodox insistence that the faithful must submit to the Church’s judgment about their status before approaching the Lord in Communion.  Cardinal Kasper proposed the following just before the opening of last fall’s Extraordinary Synod: “[D]ivorced and remarried people should find a good priest confessor who accompanies them for some time and if this second, civil marriage, is solid then the path of new orientation can end with a confession and absolution. Absolution means admission to Holy Communion.”

Cardinal Kasper does not explain how Catholic absolution may be licitly granted to a person who does not evince a willingness to follow the Catholic Church’s requirement to forbear from living as husband and wife in a second civil marriage without a Church annulment of a first marriage.  Lacking a firm purpose to sin no more, the ostensible penitent lacks the repentance that is needed for absolution.  Proponents of change profess that the Church is not to change its doctrine, only its pastoral practices.  If that is true, then a confessor simply cannot absolve persons who maintain an intent to continue to “live in sin.”  To authorize priests to grant absolution in this case would amount to making a de facto change in one Catholic doctrine or another, whether it be about marriage, about the seriousness of adultery, or about the nature of the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

If an Orthodox person fails or refuses to follow Orthodox teachings on divorce and remarriage, then he or she is not eligible for Holy Communion.  Catholic leaders who propose distributing Communion to Catholics who become civilly remarried in violation of the Catholic Church’s teachings are not proposing “the Orthodox practice.”  In fact, they are proposing what the Orthodox forbid to themselves, communing those who flout the Church’s disciplines.

What has been described above yields two conclusions:  First, Orthodox practices that recognize divorce and bless subsequent marriages are founded on a principle that clearly contradicts Catholic teaching on the nature of marriage.  Second, the Orthodox Churches do not allow Holy Communion to those who will not follow their Church disciplines on divorce and remarriage.  That leaves nothing in Orthodox practice that Catholics can legitimately cite as justification for a change in Catholic pastoral practice.

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.

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