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Coping with Life's Struggles: Divorce

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The Orthodox approach to the unavoidable evil of divorce is different from that of the Roman Catholic Church, because it starts with different presuppositions. The Roman Catholic approach is based on the presuppositions that marriage is a legal contract that is legally indissoluble for Christians, and that the marriage contract concerns only earthly life and is legally dissolved by the death of one of the partners.

The Orthodox approach presupposes that marriage is a Mystery conferred upon the partners in the Body of the Church through the Priest's blessing. As any other Sacrament, it pertains to the eternal life in the Kingdom of God, and is therefore not dissolved by the death of one of the partners but is "given to them" (Matt 19:11) as an eternal bond. Another presupposition is that as a Sacrament, marriage is not a magical act, but a gift of grace. The partners, being human, may have made a mistake in soliciting the grace of marriage when they were not ready for it. In these cases, the Church may admit the fact that the grace was not "received", tolerate separation and allow remarriage. However, the Church never encourages any remarriage, but only tolerates it when it appears as the best solution for a couple.

The condemnation of divorce by our Lord Himself is well known: For your hardness of heart, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so. Whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery" (c/f. Matt 19:8-9, Mark 10:2-9). However the possibility of divorce on grounds of "unchastity", and the even more general admission by St Paul that a wife can separate herself

from her husband (1 Cor 11:7 11), clearly show that the New Testament does not understand indissolubility of Marriage as total suppression of human freedom. Moreover, freedom implies the possibility of sin, as well as, its consequences; ultimately, sin can destroy marriage.

The Fathers in their great majority followed St Paul in discouraging any form of remarriage, either after widowhood or after divorce. However we have to bear in mind that civil laws which were changing from time to time were granting divorce not only on grounds of adultery but also on grounds such as political treason, planning of murder, disappearance for five years or more, unjustified accusation of adultery and finally, monastic vows of one of the partners. Nevertheless, no Church Father ever denounced these imperial laws as contrary to Christianity. Pastoral exhortations on the evil of divorce are, of course, innumerable. According to the whole history of the Orthodox Church and the writing of the Fathers, without any single exception, we can state with certainty that the Church remained faithful to the practices set by the New Testament revelation; only the first and unique marriage was blessed in Church during the Eucharist.

The Church, neither "recognized" divorce, nor "gave" it. Divorce was considered as a grave sin; but the Church never failed in giving sinners a "new chance", and was ready to readmit them if they repented.

Practically and with full conformity with Scripture and Church Tradition, we may suggest that the Church authorities stop "giving divorces", and rather on the basis of a recognition, based upon the civil divorce, that marriage does not in fact exist, issue "permission to remarry". Of course, in each particular case pastoral counselling and investigation should make sure that reconciliation is impossible. Furthermore, the "permission to remarry" should entail at least some form of penance and give the right to a Church blessing according to the right of "second Marriage".