Eastern Orthodox ‘Oikonomia’ and Marriage

COMMENTARY: What is the Eastern Orthodox practice concerning divorce, remarriage and the sacraments? And can it help the Latin Church and the Catholic Church as a whole?

Christ Pantocrator mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Turkey
Christ Pantocrator mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Turkey (photo: Public domain)

Before Pope Francis announced last year’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Marriage and Family, and this year’s ordinary synod on the same topic, the Eastern Orthodox practice of oikonomia was little known by Westerners. A Greek term that literally means “house law,” and which serves as the base of our word “economy,” oikonomia is a biblical and patristic term that usually means the dispensation of our salvation. God manages the household, so to speak, by saving us in mercy. The term came to be used especially for interpreting Church laws loosely for the reason of salvation. What is the Orthodox practice of oikonomia concerning multiple marriages? And can it help the Catholic Church?

At the outset, Latin Catholics must realize that the present Orthodox Church does not have a See of Peter. They do not have a universal pope whose charism is to safeguard the unity of the Church. Thus, attempting to describe the practices of “the” Orthodox Church is difficult, since there are many Orthodox Churches, and not all of them agree with each other in practice. Nevertheless, we can identify shared traits of the oikonomia practice concerning multiple marriages among the Orthodox Churches and trace its historical development, even though some details may differ from one Orthodox Church to another.

Like the Western Christian tradition, the Eastern Christian tradition interprets the Lord’s imperative in Luke 16:18 quite literally. (“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”) In fact, in the early Church, a significant dispute was whether a second marriage is permissible after the death of a spouse. The vast majority of the early Church Fathers in both the East and the West were committed to St. Paul’s exhortation that widows should remain as they are and only remarry if absolutely necessary (1 Corinthians 7:39-40).

If there was a dispute about remarriage after the death of a spouse, you can be sure there was overwhelming and consistent opposition to the practice of divorce and remarriage while a spouse was still alive. Those who did divorce and remarry were almost universally forbidden from holy Communion. There was never officially another option for them.

However, in 1994, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a letter to bishops concerning Communion for the divorced and remarried, acknowledged that in some places practices differed. It also seems that certain individual Church Fathers used extraordinary means to reconcile cases that were borderline.

The 1994 letter to the bishops said, “Even if analogous pastoral solutions have been proposed by a few Fathers of the Church and in some measure were practiced, nevertheless these never attained the consensus of the fathers and in no way came to constitute the common doctrine of the Church nor to determine her discipline. It falls to the universal magisterium, in fidelity to sacred Scripture and Tradition, to teach and to interpret authentically the depositum fidei [deposit of faith].”

During the first millennium of Christianity and into the second, the Church in the East was increasingly entangled with the state. There was increasing pressure for the Church to recognize divorce and remarriage according to civic and cultural norms. In some places in the East, the Church herself became the sole adjudicator of marriage and divorce for society. It was in this context that the practice of oikonomia for multiple marriages developed.

As the Orthodox describe it, oikonomia is the concept that God’s loving husbandry or stewardship of the covenant he has established with his people sometimes requires an act of mercy that dispenses from the strict laws he himself established. Therefore, for various reasons, a divorced person who desires to remarry can have the second (or third) marriage blessed by the Church in a simple ritual outside of the Eucharistic liturgy.

In some Orthodox Churches, such persons are then asked to undertake some penance for a period of time before receiving holy Communion. We should note that second or third marriages still need to be blessed by the Church before the question of reception of Communion can be resolved. Even in Eastern Orthodoxy, individuals are not permitted to resolve the status of their current marriage themselves.

This practice, which resulted from the unique church-state entanglement in the East, is certainly a deviation from the Orthodox theology of marriage, which was inherited from the early Church. In fact, in many places today, divorced Orthodox Christians are simply given a notification that they are free to marry.

In practice, there does not seem to be today many remarried Orthodox Christians who undertake a penance before receiving Communion. In his book Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff acknowledged that, due to its history, “the [Orthodox] Church was obliged not only to bless marriages which it did not approve, but even to ‘dissolve’ them (i.e., give ‘divorces’). …. The Church had to pay a high price for the new social responsibility which it had received; it had to ‘secularize’ its pastoral attitude towards marriage and practically abandon its penitential discipline.”

Though unique historical circumstances in the East led the Orthodox Churches to liberalize their practice and thereby distance themselves from the explicit teaching of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church has never wavered in her teaching and in her practice from abiding by the Lord’s admonition that a validly contracted marriage is absolutely indissoluble. “What God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mark 10:9).

Those who divorce and remarry without an ecclesial declaration of nullity place themselves beyond the discernment of their marital covenant that only the Church can offer. Prohibiting them from holy Communion expresses an objective situation. As St. John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), “They are unable to be admitted [to Communion] from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and his Church, which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.”

I have never met a pastor who does not reach out and meet those parishioners living in difficult situations and who does not yearn to help them reconcile their relationship with Jesus Christ and with the Church. At the same time, the Catholic Church also strongly defends the sacrament of matrimony precisely because we believe in the power of God’s grace, and we see it at work in so many couples that strive to live their vocation to marriage virtuously, in spite of the common difficulties married life presents.

Dominican Father Thomas Petri is the academic dean

of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception

at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington.

He is a moral theologian with expertise in the theology of marriage.