Rorate Caeli

The [Separated] Orthodox Churches and Second Marriages

By Monsignor Nicola Bux



Recently Cardinal Walter Kasper made reference to the Orthodox practice of second marriages to support the notion that even Catholics who are divorced and remarried should be admitted to Communion.  But perhaps he did not pay attention to the fact that the Orthodox do not have Holy Communion in the rite for a second marriage, even as in the Orthodox rite for Holy Matrimony there is no provision for Communion, but only an exchange of a common cup of wine that is not consecrated.  It is now commonly said among Catholics that the Orthodox permit second marriages, and therefore, that they tolerate divorce from the first spouse.

In truth this is not the case, because it has nothing to do with the modern legal system.  The Orthodox Church is disposed to tolerate second marriages of persons whose matrimonial bonds have been dissolved by the Church, not by the State.  The basis of this practice has its basis in the power given by Jesus to the Church to “loosen and to bind”.  This second chance is conceded to those in particular circumstances: typically, cases of long standing adultery, but by extension as well to certain cases in which the matrimonial bond has become a pretence. There is also provided for, although discouraged, even the possibility of a third marriage. Moreover, the possibility of entering into a second marriage is conceded only to the innocent partner.


The second and third marriages, quite differently from the first marriage, are celebrated by the Orthodox in a special rite, defined as “penitential”.  Because in the rite for a second marriage there is no “coronation of the bride and groom”—which for the Orthodox is the  essential and defining act of the Sacrament of Matrimony—a second marriage is not a true sacrament, but, to use Latin terminology, is a “sacramental”, that allows the newly wed couple to regard the union itself as fully accepted by the Church community.  The rite of second marriage applies also in the case of spouses who have been widowed.

The non-sacramentality of the second marriage finds confirmation in the disappearance of Eucharistic Communion in the Byzantine marriage rites, with the substitution of the cup of wine understood as a symbol of a common life.  This appears as an attempt to desacramentalize Matrimony, perhaps because of a growing awareness of the awkward situation that a second and third marriage brings about, the motive for which is a departing from the principle of the indissolubility of the bond, which is directly proportionate to the Sacrament of Unity: the Eucharist.

Speaking to this matter, the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote that the cup of wine itself, raised to a symbol of the common life, “shows the descramentalization of Matrimony reduced to a natural felicitude.  In the past, this was done in the context of Holy Communion,  the sharing of the Eucharist, the ultimate sign of the fulfillment of Matrimony in Christ.  Christ must be the true essence of the life of the man and woman together.”  But how can this “essence” be preserved?

Then one must deal with a “quid pro quo” that can be ascribed to a certain Catholic ambit that has little or no consideration for doctrine, in which there is affirmed the opinion, or to use a better word, heresy, that the Mass without Communion is invalid.  The whole preoccupation with Communion for the divorced and remarried, which has little to do with the Eastern understanding and praxis, is a consequence of this distorted view. 

Ten years ago, in helping to prepare for the Synod on the Eucharist, in which I participated as a specialist in 2005, this type of an “opinion” was advanced by Cardinal Claúdio Hummes, a member of the Council of the Secretariat of the Synod.  Invited by Cardinal Jan Peter Schotte, then the Secretary General, I had to remind Hummes that the catechumens and the penitents in varying degrees—among which were those in second marriages—participated in the celebration of the Mass or part of it without going up for Holy Communion.  This erroneous “opinion” is today diffused throughout the clergy and the laity, for whom, as Joseph Ratzinger observed: 

One needs to once again take clear note of the fact that the Eucharistic celebration is not devoid of value for the one who does not receive Holy Communion. (…)Since the Eucharist is not a ritual banquet, but the communal prayer of the Church, in which the Lord prays with us and is present to us,  the Eucharist remains precious and wonderful, a true gift, even if we are not able to receive Holy Communion. If we were to regain a better understanding of this fact and if we were to once again see the Eucharist itself in this more correct light, a number of pastoral problems, for example that of the state of divorced and remarried Catholics, would automatically lose much of their oppressive weight.

This is the result of the splaying apart and the opposition between dogma and liturgy. The Apostle Paul asked for the self-examination of those who intend to communicate at Mass, so that they do not eat and drink to their own condemnation. (I Cor. 11,29).  This means: “Whoever wants Christianity only as “good tidings” in which there must be no threat of judgment, falsifies it.”

One might ask how we arrived at such a place.  Various writers, in the second half of the last century,  upheld the theory –as Ratzinger remembers—that “sees the sources of the Eucharist more or less exclusively in the meals that Jesus ate with sinners.  (…) But from this follows an idea of the Eucharist that has nothing in common with the custom of the primitive Church.”  Although Paul protects Communion from abuse with his anathema (I Cor. 16,22), the above mentioned theory proposes “as the essence of the Eucharist that it is offered to all without any distinction and preliminary considerations, (…)even to sinners, nay rather, even to non-believers.”

No, Ratzinger goes on to say that from its origins the Eucharist has never been understood as a meal with sinners but with those who have been reconciled:  “There existed from the beginning well defined conditions for access to the Eucharist …and in this way did the Church lay her foundations.”

The Eucharist, in the end, remains the “banquet of those who have been reconciled”, something that the Byzantine liturgy reminds us of at the moment of Communion, with the invitation “Sancta sanctis”,  "Holy Things for the Holy."  But nevertheless, the theory of the invalidity of the Mass without Communion continues and influences the liturgy today.


Translated by Father Richard G. Cipolla

Source: Chiesa, Sandro Magister


[Rorate note: it is true, as has been pointed elsewhere, that in subsequent liturgies the couple can receive the Eucharist. Msgr Bux's point seems merely to be that, in "de-Eucharisticizing" the [false] "marriage" ceremony, even the Separated churches of the East have kept a minor liturgical vestige of the venerable unchanging apostolic doctrine on marriage that they have repudiated... in practice and that has always been gloriously and unfailingly defended by Rome.]

No comments: