When Can an Orthodox or Catholic Christian Get a Divorce?

Marriage is an outward representation of God’s covenant with man, and God has promised countless times that He will never live nor forsake us. Jesus himself said that it is not right for a man to divorce His wife and is always a challenging process to undergo especially when there are children involved.

“No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” – Isaiah 62:4-5. 

In reality, divorce is getting more common by the day. The majority of us probably know people who have got divorced. Civil divorce by a divorce certificate is very different from the Church’s perspective of a divorce. Although the state can offer civil divorce, the church has a different procedure of declaring one as a divorced person.

For the Orthodox and Catholic Church, marriage is very sacred in that it is perceived as a sacrament, an outward representation of who God is and His intimate relationship with man. Catholics have high regard for sacraments and are very reluctant in abandoning such agreements as opposed to the Orthodox Church that is more considerate but still very strict.

When there is no room for counseling both Church denominations recommend separation for the couple and to enter into an annulment process.

An annulment is not a divorce; an annulment is a process through which the Catholic and Orthodox Church declare the Sacrament of Matrimony between the couple was not valid in the first place.

Due to the increased number of mixed marriages that is Orthodox and Catholic Christians and the complexity of divorce procedure required by the two denominations, there is an increased need for both to reform some of their requirements where necessary, especially with the increasing divorce rates mostly in the west.

Here are some of the impediments that could lead to an annulment of a marriage under the Orthodox and Catholic Church.

1. Guilt and the violation of natural moral obligations 

This is usually a challenging factor in mixed marriages that is, between Catholics and non-Catholics, including Orthodox Christians. In a scenario where one does not want to have children and has to use contraceptives to avoid getting children. For example, a Catholic woman will not accept to habitually participate in practices that violate the Catholic conscience which includes the use of contraceptives.

If such a woman is given into marriage and forced to use contraceptives to prevent the natural conception then this renders grounds for the Sacrament of Matrimony to be invalid from a Catholic standpoint.

A Catholic husband that needs to perform his conjugal act but every time He does it with His wife who let’s say is not a Catholic and is using contraceptives would be performing a moral sin. If any of these yield to the temptation and habitually indulge in such a practice while preventing conception, they are to be prevented from partaking in the Penance and Holy Communion from a Catholic standpoint.

The Catholic teaches that partaking in the sacraments nourishes their Catholic lives otherwise their Catholic faith will fail due to the guilt of immoral conscience.

For the orthodox, if an individual was given into marriage due to a feeling of guilt and not out of free choice then it is a valid ground for the annulment of the marriage.

2. Either one or both were underage when married 

During an annulment process and the tribunal investigation authorities find out that any of the married couples had been underage according to Canon Law, their marriage will be declared invalid.

The man should have been above 16 years and the woman 14 years old. The Catholic Church prevents the likelihood of child marriages to make sure that both of the parties involved in this contract were old enough to make a valid contract. Both need to possess the mental capacity to understand the requirements and essentials of performing the conjugal contract.

Those who are given into marriage must have undergone baptism requirement according to the Canon Law, or else the Catholic Church cannot be involved in their marriage and their Sacrament of Matrimony is invalid.

According to the Orthodox Church, any time between puberty and 20 years old is recommended for marriage. Under the Orthodox tradition, early marriage is a way of controlling youthful passions and prevents them from getting out of control. A large gap between the ages of the spouses under the Orthodox tradition is highly discouraged and termed as unwise. Under the Talmud the father has to wait for his daughter to grow up and be able to choose her spouse for herself, this is usually above 12 years old.

3. Impotency and the conjugal contract

Both the Orthodox and Catholic Church grant marriage annulment if, one or both given into marriage are proven by medical means to be impotent, that is, He or She is unable to satisfy the other when it comes to the coition act.

However, impotency is not to be confused with being sterile under both denominations. If one is sterile, unable to bear children to the other party, The Orthodox and the Catholic Church perceive it as a natural occurrence and not an impediment to their marriage.

The capacity of one to perform sexual intercourse is the foundation of the contract and if either is deemed to be unable to perform the act is termed as incapable of taking part in the contract, one cannot give what he/she does not have under the Catholic perspective.

4. One has already married

If one is already secretly in a valid marriage and wants to get married to another, and is discovered to have deceived the church authorities about his already existing matrimonial contract then, the Sacrament of Matrimony, in that case, is viable to be invalid.

The Catholic Church is against polygamy and states that the conjugal act is exclusively for one party and once the contract is entered into it cannot be re-entered with different individuals.

One can only re-enter into the contract if the first partner dies, however, they have to first get permission from the Catholic Church. If in the feature it happens that the partner that was deemed dead happens to be alive while the other is already given into a different marriage, only the first has the lawful claim and the second marriage is invalid.

The Orthodox Church although stricter compared to the divorce permits one to re-enter a marriage up to a maximum of 3 times with each divorce necessitating a slight period of ex-communication.

5. Secret affair and crime against an existent marriage

The Canon is keen to protect those already in marriage from those that may threaten their lives to end their marriage.

Those that are involved in either of these crimes validate diriment Catholic impediments;

  • Those who commit conjugative to get married to their present partner.
  • Those that at one point committed adultery together and arranged to get married together through other means such as civil ceremony
  • Those that at a point committed adultery together and promised marriage with an external manifestation of the promise.

The Catholic church is aimed at protecting the lives of those in marriage by assuring fidelity to the marriage bond. However, for the impediments from such actions to be brought into effect they must be strictly interpreted. Although acts such as committing adultery do not suffice for the marriage to incur impediment, both or either much commit formal adultery.

6. Related relations 

If both have direct blood relations to each other, that is both illegitimate and legitimate, their marriage is not permitted by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church denies the Sacrament of Matrimony under any form of consanguinity.

In spiritual relationships for example the woman is not permitted to marry the one who administered baptism to her or the one chosen to be the witness at her baptism.

7. Unwillingly forced to marriage 

In the case that one is forced into marriage under any kind of abduction constitutes diriment impediment. The Church denies the validity of the marriage of a woman and the person that seized her event thought the government grants validity.

8. The difference in worship and the oath for sacred service

Those that decide to undertake the priesthood as a service to God and man are expected to abstain from marriage. Although not all who serve at the altar are required to abstain from marriage, celibacy is well revered. The Catholic Church puts in place diriment impediments to those that serve together in religious orders such as Brothers and Nuns.

For the Orthodox Christians, a celibate priest cannot marry once ordained while a priest cannot remain a priest if he decides to marry. Widowers that choose to remain celibate are allowed to be bishops under the Orthodox Church.

In terms of church members, the Catholic Church does not allow one to marry a non-catholic and would not validate the marriage if the one partner was not baptized under the Catholic Canon law, however, for the Orthodox Church, one can marry another denomination provided that She/he marries a Christian.

9. Health conditions not disclosed at the time of marriage

If one partner did not make known to the other partner of medical conditions that affect their reasoning barring them from sound judgment, before the marriage, then their marriage can be annulled under both Catholic and Orthodox Canon law.

10. Jail Time

According to the Orthodox tradition, if one of the partners is already imprisoned for more than seven years, then the Orthodox Church can gratify the nullification of their marriage. The same applies to a Catholic marriage.

11. Abandonment

If one partner that does not suffer from any mental disorder decides to leave without the consent of their partner and goes missing for a long time without any form of communication, then the other can file for an annulment of their marriage granted by both the Catholic and the Orthodox Church.

12. Illicit deals 

If one partner given to marriage is involved in illicit business such as drug trafficking, the Catholic and Orthodox Church are obliged to protect the moral integrity of the other by granting an annulment to the marriage. This is to prevent the one in marriage from being forced to undertake actions that are against their moral integrity.

13. Economic hardship due to drug abuse

If one partner is involved in a selfish habit that is causing economic hardship in the marriage, for example, if one is a drug addict and refuses any form of rehabilitation but rather continues to indulge in such habits that cause economic strain for the other, both Catholic and Orthodox laws allow the other to divorce.

With the growing ecumenical atmosphere fueled by mixed marriages by members of different dominations and the ever-increasing marriage breakups, especially in the west, both Catholic and Orthodox Church express interest in each other.

The marriage of many Catholic and Orthodox Christians has failed which brings the pastoral dilemma of the indissolubility of marriage and why many fail to abide by this demand. The Catholic Church feels it cannot leave the victim of marital breakdown with an answer.

The difference in Canon Law between the Orthodox and Catholic Church concerning the divorced and the remarried faithful

When it comes to the Catholic Church vs The Orthodox Church we are talking about the West vs The East, way before Christianity, Rome and Greece were still different even in the most fundamental levels of their ideologies. It is not a surprise that there are now different circles of ideas when it comes to Christianity among the two.

One major difference to point out is that the Orthodox Church does not have an all-binding Catechism and Code of Canon Law compared to the Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church is more decentralized and diversified with independent churches each with its own Primate.

Pope Benedict XVI’s View

Pope Benedict XVI view on the reception of the Holy Communion by divorced and remarried faithful termed it as a ‘painful’ and ‘highly-complex problem’ in need of further research but hinted at the Orthodox practice being a more suitable approach. However, the Catholic Church has accused the orthodox church of conceding divorce too lightly and impairing the principle of indissolubility.

Pope Francis’ View

Pope Francis expresses the need of the Catholic Church to be a kairos of mercy likening the church as a mother that seeks those that are hurting, therefore, needs to look into the issue of the divorced and the remarried including a general overview of the entire pastoral care for marriage. Aimed at neutralizing the pastoral challenges of the family especially concerning the divorced and remarried.

The Views of the Two Churches – Summarized

To the Orthodox Church Divorce must be placed between the ‘akribia’ and ‘okonomia’. Akribia being the perception of strict application of canon law and the oikonomia being the perception that is more considerate that is a regulated deviation and suspension of the rule to allow room for flexibility and approach of mercy.

The Catholic Church believes that the power to lose and bind, ‘power of the Keys’ belongs only to the Roman Pontiff as the only successor of Peter. However, the Orthodox Church believes that the power to lose and bind was not just given to Peter but to all the Apostles, therefore, their tradition allows bishops to officiate marital breakups on an individual level.

The Orthodox Positon on Divorce

The Orthodox Church promotes the possibility of divorce and remarriage although highly discouraged and regarded as not praiseworthy. The Catholic Church excludes the divorced and remarried from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Eucharist, and Anointing of the Sick, both are amid at preventing scandalous behavior among the creed.

The orthodox fear that rejection of the divorced and remarried will cause them to abandon the faith and result in more scandal, furthermore, rejection is not the correct depiction of the compassion and forgiveness of Christ. The church according to Orthodox tradition should stand and support those going through the pains of divorce and not abandon the members of the faith.

The Catholics stand in contrast and argue that one should stand by the absolute indissolubility of marriage to prevent confusion and scandalous habits from rising in the church.

The Catholic Position on Divorce

To the Catholics, under the light of the Code of Canon Law, marriage is a juridical reality understood as a ‘contract’. The contract is life-long and can never be terminated, if one party was to die the other would be urged to embrace celibacy.

The contract that is, marriage, provides exclusive rights to the bodies of either partner even if they happen to hate each other, with the exclusion of a third party. The right of sexual relation is independent of the personal relationship between the two partners and in case of adultery would deem the exclusion of the couple to holy sacraments.

The Orthodox Church embraces that although marriage symbolizes the unbreakable spiritual relations between Christ and the Church, real life is different and there exist instances when ending the marriage is the best option.

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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