Pastoral Challenges for Marriage in Contemporary Orthodoxy

by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko, Rev. Dr. Alkiviadis Calivas, John Klentos, Paul Meyendorff, Rev. Dr. Stelyios Muksuris, Lewis Patsavos, Teva Regule, and Rev. Dr. Philip Zymaris

In preparation for the Great and Holy Council to be held on Crete in June, 2016, the Orthodox bishops have issued a preconciliar document on the sacrament of marriage. The document’s main thrust is to illuminate the core teaching on marriage and its sanctity from the Orthodox perspective. Marriage is a dominical institution reserved for a monogamous union of man and woman (1.1). The document refers to marriage as “the oldest institution of divine law” and Christ-centered, since it is “the image of the unity of Christ and the Church” (1.2). Lament over the decline of family life and a deep desire to protect families from external threats shape the remainder of the document’s positions (1.5).

The preconciliar document elucidates the fundamental theology of the mystery of marriage and appeals for pastoral sensibility in appointing canonical parameters for the Church’s blessing and administration of marriage. The document would be strengthened by elaboration of select theological dimensions of marriage and reflection on the proposed enforcement of canonical norms to be applied to marriage. Ultimately, a more robust articulation of the mystery of marriage will inform the pastoral application of the impediments to marriage listed in the second part of the preconciliar document.

The document refers to marriage as “a small church, or image of the church,” the “image of the Kingdom of the Holy Trinity,” (1.4), and the “heart of the family” (1.8). These theological metaphors honor the sacramental images of marriage established from late antiquity and renewed in modernity, and they also establish the married couple and the family as the smallest cell of the Church, smaller even than the parish. Furthermore, these definitions fuse marriage firmly with the Church so that marriage is ecclesiological and an internal matter of the Church.

When the document turns to the consequences of the turbulence of the world and expresses grave concern over the problems of divorce and abortion, it seeks to equip pastors to defend and protect marriage from external threats. This thematic progression pits the Church against the threats of the world, an opposition established by grounding the mystery of marriage in the Church from the outset of the teaching.

The document does not account for two substantial facts: the process of selecting marital partners has evolved in modernity and some of the threats to marriage are not external. A consideration of these two realities would strengthen the approach to the Church’s pastoral sensibility proposed by the teaching. The teaching must account for the reality that most men and women in the modern world do not accept arranged marriages and choose their own partners. This reality has implications for the pastoral approach to marriage, because men and women will participate in courtship before marriage. The Church has an opportunity to provide witness to single people as they engage in pre-marital courtship, especially in discerning the marital love and the longevity of fidelity in the haze of impulse and excitement. Furthermore, the document limits its pastoral concern to abortion and divorce, but does not account for other serious matters that threaten marriage, such as domestic abuse, alcoholism, and selfish pride. Many marriages are threatened by fallen human nature, and a program for pastoral care for marriage can account for the problem of sin and for husbands and wives to understand their responsibilities as established by the theological sources (e.g., Eph. 5:25, the husband’s responsibility to give up his life for his wife).

The opposition of marriage as an ecclesial institution pitted against a threatening world impoverishes the good that can come from healthy marriages in the Church. The Orthodox Church honors numerous beautiful images of love shared between married couples. In many instances, marriages of love contribute enormously to the mission of the Church by providing shared Orthodox witness for the life of the world. The first two prayers of the rite of crowning present images of couples who received God’s blessing and participated in his salvific work. Here, the conciliar teaching might be strengthened by referring to these holy marriages and appealing to pastors to celebrate and honor healthy marriages in their parishes. Furthermore, a shared reverence for holy marriages of the past and present might be introduced as models for those receiving pre-marital counseling. Creating the space for narrating the stories of healthy marriages contributes to the elucidation of marriage as a rehearsal of exchanging love on a daily basis, one which requires ascetical toil through the processes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and pouring one’s self out for the other.

The document states the marriage of an Orthodox Christian with a non-Orthodox Christian is forbidden and cannot be celebrated in the Church, though it can be “blessed out of indulgence” if the children of marriage will be baptized and raised Orthodox (2.5a). This particular point may be the most challenging pastoral matter for contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in North and South America and Western Europe, where the overwhelming majority of marriages are mixed. The Church has honored marriages between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians without ritual restrictions (except Holy Communion) for many years, and the non-Orthodox spouse frequently becomes Orthodox through participation in the life of the local parish. An attempt to implement this initiative pastorally would raise serious questions, especially given that “intermarriage” is easily the norm for most Orthodox.

The document briefly alludes to families, so a larger discussion on marriage would benefit from explicit reference to children, especially since the rite of marriage makes several references to children as the fruit of marriage. One of the crises facing some Orthodox Churches today is the decline of people requesting marriage from the Church. The Church’s presentation of marriage as a beautiful model of love with the capacity to contribute to God’s salvation of the world might encourage men and women to seek marriage in the Church. The Church’s conscious choice to honor good marriages publicly is one step towards rehabilitating the prospect of marriage among single people.

There are other issues the document does not address, but remain relevant. First, what pastoral initiatives might be created for widowed and divorced clergy? Second, what is the vocation of the single person in the Church? Last, can the Church adopt a more charitable view of marriages between Orthodox and non-Christians? As Orthodoxy seeks new ways to dialogue with postmodern society, it will be necessary for future councils to expand the discourse beyond the question of marriage and its impediments.

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

Nicholas Denysenko is Associate Professor of Theological Studies and Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University.

Alkiviadis Calivas is Emeritus Professor of Liturgics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

John Klentos is Associate Professor of Eastern Orthodoxy Studies at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute and the Graduate Theological Union.

Paul Meyendorff is the Alexander Schmemann Professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

Stelyios Muksuris is Professor of Liturgical Theology at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

Lewis Patsavos is Emeritus Professor of Canon Law at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

Teva Regule is a doctoral candidate in the theology department at Boston College.

Philip Zymaris is Assistant Professor of Liturgics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

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