Do Eastern Orthodox Churches issue annulments? Are these annulments considered valid by the Catholic Church?
The Eastern Orthodox have a different understanding of marriage and divorce than Catholics do. For starters, Eastern Orthodox Churches do not issue “annulments.” Instead, they issue “ecclesiastical divorces.” In practice these are similar to annulments, and require an investigation of the relationship. Ecclesiastical divorces, unlike annulments, acknowledge that a marriage was actually present, and then fell apart. Annulments, in contrast, decree that a marriage was never truly present. An ecclesiastical divorce is only granted for good reason, after investigation. Interestingly enough, this is a difference that predates the schism of 1054.
The reason for this difference is because of the Eastern theology of marriage. In the West, the sacrament of Marriage is administered by the couple, with the priest serving as a witness. In the East, the sacrament of Marriage is conferred by the priest to the couple through crowning. Hence, in traditional Eastern theology, every marriage celebrated by a priest was considered valid.
Today Eastern Catholic Churches also issue annulments instead of ecclesiastical divorces.
I am not sure how one would reconcile the doctrine of indissolubility of marriage in the Roman Catholic Church with the practice of ecclesial divorce in the Eastern Churches since the fourth century, because as you know there was union between the Churches at that time. Unless it was the case that the Roman Catholic Church may have had a more lenient view of divorce in the sixth century.
The system of annulments has been one that evolved in the life of the Church. Prior to the evolution of this system, there were differing opinions as to how to deal with divorced and remarried Christians. The Eastern system of ecclesiastical divorces was one such attempt to deal with this problem.
Ecclesiastic divorces were rare, and were only granted after investigations. They were not an everyday occurrence. During the first millennium, the Eastern ecclesiastical divorce system was not considered an obstacle to unity. Of course, the theological understanding of the Catholic Church has developed considerably since the first millennium.
In the event of a Catholic/Orthodox reunion, this issue will have to be worked through. Although the theology is different, in practice an ecclesiastical divorce is similar to an annulment. But it is the underlying theological difference that is the problem.
Is it correct to conclude that the teaching of the Catholic Church has changed on ecclesiastical divorces?
I wouldn’t conclude that “the teaching has changed,” but rather that the praxis has evolved. When the Christian religion was first legalized in the fourth century, there was no uniform way to deal with divorced Christians. The mind of the Church has always held that divorce is objectively evil, but the pastoral dilemma of how to deal with these people is a different matter.
Ecclesiastical divorces were one attempt to handle the problem in a firm yet sensitive manner. The annulment system was another attempt, which didn’t actually evolve into its present form until later. In both cases the Church taught the objective evil of divorce, but was searching for a way to pastorally re-integrate the victims of divorce into the life of the Church. In the end the annulment system won the day. The Eastern Orthodox Church ceased being in communion with the Catholic Church in 1054 AD, so they are still using the previous system that dominated in the East.