Responding to Difficult Situations in Orthodox / Catholic Marriages

Fr. John Crossin, OSFS

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. He 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."
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.  They described the different practices of the two churches 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 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 on the Church's perception that it lacks the power to dissolve such a bond."1
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.

[1] The full text of this document is available online at