In the light of the contributions which have been made during the Synod of Bishops, and as specifically indicated in my contribution which I delivered last Wednesday, I believe that in the coming months the Catholic Church will be seeking a “new approach” with regard to wounded married couples who sincerely wish to belong to the Church, which “is not a toll house, but the house of the Father in which there is a place for everyone, with one’s particular tribulations”.
In my opinion a serious and in-depth study of the praxis employed by the Orthodox Churches vis-à-vis the divorced remarried would greatly help in delineating the “new approach”.
The Orthodox Churches uphold the principles of the indissolubility and unity of marriage. I would say that the Orthodox Churches believe more than we do that the first marriage, which in Orthodox theology is the sole sacramental one, is forever and that death of one of the spouses does not nullify the bond. In fact, in a general way, the Orthodox Churches rate the second union or marriage following divorce on the same level as the second union or marriage established between widowed persons.
Whilst upholding the sacred ideal set out in the Gospel, the Orthodox Churches are deeply cognizant of the fact that the sacrament of marriage, which establishes an eternal bond, faces ongoing challenges. Sadly enough, in spite of being eternal, in certain cases marriage just ceases due to various causes such as the death of one of the spouses, domestic violence, adultery and other factors.
In the face of such a human predicament which causes much suffering and the withering sense of hopelessness, the Orthodox Churches apply the principle of the oikonomia to reach out mercifully to the suffering to save them from drowning – or to use Paul’s term, “burn” (1 Cor. 7, 9) – together with their marriage.
Notwithstanding this merciful approach the Orthodox Churches consider the second or third union which the Church blesses as a penitential and not as a sacramental one because the one marriage that is sacramental and eternal could only be the first one.
The Church expresses her solicitous care to the divorced remarried
In the Orthodox Church, the application of the oikonomia principle could be likened to the flexibility which is diligently employed in the art of navigation. It can be likened to the seasoned captain who, when faced with a raging sea, or when manoeuvring his vessel through insidious reefs, instead of steaming ahead full speed regardless of the emerging situation, deftly responds with unfettered flexibility to the point of relinquishing hold of the tiller, diminishing the speed, and throws overboard all encumbering material to save the vessel with its most precious cargo.
In other words, by applying the oikonomia pastoral praxis, the Orthodox Churches seem to have come to a balanced view which the Synod of Bishops yearn to acquire: the balance between the justice and mercy of God; between the respect for the ideal proposed by the norm and the respect for the concrete suffering of persons; the balance between attention to Christ’s words and attention to His prophetic and controversial attitude with regard to the law and sinners; the balance between fundamentalist legalism which exalts the Sabbath above man (Mk 2, 27) and the moral relativism which throws everything overboard; the balance between the letter and the spirit of the law; the balance between Church’s role as the Teacher who corrects and the Church as the Mother who consoles; the balance between the juridical competence of the Church to regulate the “external forum” of marriage and the spiritual need of the faithful to re-establish their union with the Church.
This new approach is rooted in the truth that God’s justice is not modelled on human justice. Contrary to common belief, God’s justice is not retribution but mercy. Mercy is the opposite of retribution. The nature of God’s justice is mercy and forgiveness. As Pope Francis rightly affirms, “there is no limit to divine mercy which is offered to everyone”.
This deep understanding of God’s nature will surely help the Church to give fresh answers to those who, because of their present critical marital situation, have to carry a hefty spiritual, human and social burden.
With this approach the Church continues to remain faithful to Christ’s good news about marriage. Yet, through merciful love once again it expresses her solicitous care towards the divorced remarried and helps them to continue their existential journey. This “creative pastoral approach” on the part of the Church will definitely contribute to accompany people of good will to “re-create” their life.
Mario Grech is the Bishop of Gozo.
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