Pastoral Guidelines on Divorce

The Orthodox Christian, in traditional view, canonical regulations on divorce and remarriage are based on two presuppositions. 1) Marriage is a sacrament conferred upon the partners in the Body of the Church through the priest’s blessing. As any sacrament, marriage pertains to the eternal life in the Kingdom of God and therefore, is not dissolved by the death of one partner. An eternal bond is created between them—“it is given to them” (Matthew 19:11). 2) As sacrament, marriage is not a magical act, but a gift of grace. The partners, being humans, may have made a mistake in soliciting the grace of marriage when they were not ready for it; or they may prove to be unable to make this grace grow to maturity. In those cases, the Church may admit the fact that the grace was not “received,” tolerate separation and allow remarriage.

But, of course, she never encourages any remarriage—we have seen that even in the case of widowers—because of the eternal character of the marriage bond; but only tolerates it when, in concrete cases, it appears as the best solution for a given individual. The indissolubility of marriage does not imply the total suppression of human freedom. Freedom implies the possibility of sin, as well as its consequences. Ultimately, sin can destroy marriage. The Church, therefore, neither “recognized” divorce, nor “gave” it. Divorce was considered as a grave sin; but the Church never failed in giving to sinners a “new chance,” and was ready to readmit them if they repented. Of course, in each particular case pastoral counseling and investigation should make sure that reconciliation is impossible; and the “permission to remarry” should entail at least some forms of penance (in conformity with each individual case) and give the right to a Church blessing according to the rite of “second marriage.”
(Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective by John Meyendorff, St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1975)

According to Orthodox teaching, one of the essential characteristics of marriage is its indissolubility. Consequently, a legitimate marriage is dissolved only through death, or through an event which revokes the ecclesiastical significance of marriage, refutes its religious and moral foundation, and is in other words religious or moral death.

Divorce caused by religious or moral death occurs by itself when the basis of marriage ceases to function and the purpose of the marital bond is therefore frustrated. In such an instance, it is not the competent authority which dissolves the marriage. Rather, this authority only formally certifies that the legitimate marriage has lost its basis and has dissolved itself.
(Orthodox Canon Law manual by Dr. Lewis Patsavos, p.135)

Marriage is one of the sacraments of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Christians who marry must marry in the Church in order to be in sacramental communion with the Church. According to the Church canons, an Orthodox who marries outside the Church may not receive Holy Communion and may not serve as a sponsor, i.e. a Godparent at a Baptism, or as a sponsor at a Wedding. The church gives one marriage, but will make the exception and tolerate up to a third marriage for any Orthodox Christian.

The Church grants "ecclesiastical divorces" on the basis of the exception given by Christ to his general prohibition of the practice. The Church has frequently deplored the rise of divorce and generally sees divorce as a tragic failure. Yet, the Orthodox Church also recognizes that sometimes the spiritual well-being of Christians caught in a broken and essentially nonexistent marriage justifies a divorce, with the right of one or both of the partners to remarry. Each parish priest is required to do all he can to help couples resolve their differences. If they cannot, and they obtain a civil divorce, they may apply for an ecclesiastical divorce in some jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church. In others, the judgment is left to the parish priest when and if a civilly divorced person seeks to remarry.

Those Orthodox jurisdictions that issue ecclesiastical divorces require a thorough evaluation of the situation, and the appearance of the civilly divorced couple before a local ecclesiastical court, where another investigation is made. Only after an ecclesiastical divorce is issued by the presiding bishop, can they apply for an ecclesiastical license to remarry.

To petition for Ecclesiastical Divorce and attend the Spiritual Court should be considered as an extension of the Sacrament of Holy Confession. Its purpose is neither to justify nor condemn anyone, but rather to facilitate the process of healing and reconciliation to the Body of Christ. This is a pastoral and healing ministry, rather than a legalistic formality.
(Procedures of Metropolis of Chicago, September 2004)

The parish priest must exert every effort to reconcile the couple and avert a divorce. However, should he fail to bring about reconciliation, after a civil divorce has been obtained, he will transmit the petition of the party seeking the ecclesiastical divorce, together with the decree of the civil divorce, to the Spiritual Court of the Diocese. The petition must include the names and surnames of the husband and wife, the wife's surname prior to marriage, their addresses, the name of the priest who performed the wedding, and the date and place of the wedding. The petitioner must be a member in good standing with the parish through which he or she is petitioning for divorce. Orthodox Christians of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese who have obtained a civil divorce but not an eccle¬siastical divorce may not participate in any sacra¬ments of the Church or serve on the Parish Council, Diocesan Council or Archdiocesan Council until they have been granted a divorce by the Church.

The marriage relationship between husband and wife is most sacred. However, human sin, affecting one or both spouses, can cause discord and conflict. The best time to seek help is at the first inkling of a problem before it degrades the relationship beyond repair. If however, the husband and wife cannot be reconciled, and a civil divorce is obtained, then the Orthodox Christian spouse can petition for an ecclesiastical (church) divorce. The entire process follows below:

  1. Meeting with priest to discuss what caused the marriage to fall apart.
  2. Priest contacts other spouse to discuss what caused the marriage to fall apart.
  3. If there is no possibility of reconciliation at this point, the priest will need a petition to proceed.
  4. Petition will include:
    • Petition From- name, address, phone number of both spouses; date and location of wedding; reasons why marriage ended; signature of petitioner.
    • Ecclesiastical Marriage Certificate (original)- or an official transcript from local church where wedding took place.
    • Civil Divorce Decree (full copy of all pages)
    • Fee- $200 money order or certified check payable to "Metropolis of Chicago".
  5. Sacrament of Confession for petitioner(s).
  6. Spiritual Court Hearing (both spouses will be notified).
  7. Spiritual Court submits all documents with recommendation to local Hierarch for final decision.
  8. Ecclesiastical Divorce Decree (if issued) delivered to petitioner.

Sometimes a petitioner may feel quite justified in seeking an ecclesiastical divorce to the point where they do not see any fault of their own in the breakdown of the marriage. The process of a church divorce is meant to uncover, name and heal any brokenness, both small and great, within the heart, mind and soul of the petitioner(s). This will enable them to move forward with peace, grace and maturity to continue their life following Christ in His Holy Church and, God-willing, enter into a subsequent marriage.