Ecclesiastical Divorces

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 very 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 very good reason, after thorough investigation. Intesestingly enough, this is a difference that predates the schism of 1054 by many, many centuries.

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 onto the couple. Hence, in Eastern theology, every marriage celebrated by a priest IS a valid marriage. This is a very ancient difference in understanding, which was elucidated by numerous Eastern Church Fathers.

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 very rare, and were only granted after thorough investigations. They were not an everyday occurance. During the first millenium, 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 millenium.

In the event of a Catholic/Orthodox reunion, I imagine that the Orthodox will have to adopt the annulment system. Although the theology is different, in PRACTICE an ecclesiastical divorce is almost identical to an annulment. But it is the theological difference that is the problem.

Is it correct to conclude that the teaching of the Catholic Church has changed from what it was in the fourth century and later to permit ecclesiastical divorces, to what it is today, whereby it is taught that ecclesiastical divorces are not permitted?

I wouldn’t conclude that “the teaching has changed,” but rather that the praxxis 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.