A Facebook friend of mine posted a controversial passage from Fr. John Meyendorff’s Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. Here is the quote, along with some prefatory sentences he omitted.
Many confusions and misunderstandings concerning marriage in our contemporary Orthodox practice would be easily eliminated if the original connection between marriage and the Eucharist were restored. Theoretically, Orthodox sacramental theology, even in its scholastic, textbook form, has preserved this connection in affirming, in opposition to Roman Catholicism, that the priest is the ‘minister’ of marriage. Western medieval theology, on the contrary, has created a series of confusions by adopting, as in so many other points Roman legalism as the basis of sacramental theology: marriage, being a ‘contract’, is concluded by the husband and wife themselves, who are therefore the ‘ministers’ of the sacrament, the priest being only a witness. As a legal contract, marriage is dissolved by the death of one of the partners, but it is indissoluble as long as both are alive. Actually, indissolubility i.e., a legal concept taken as an absolute is the main, if not the only, contribution of Christianity to the Roman Catholic concept of marriage. Broken by death, assimilated with a human agreement, marriage, in the prevailing Western view, is only an earthly affair, concerned with the body, unworthy of entering the Kingdom of God. One can even wonder whether marriage, so understood, can still be called a sacrament. But, by affirming that the priest is the minister of the marriage, as he is also the minister of the Eucharist, the Orthodox Church implicitly integrates marriage in the eternal Mystery, where the boundaries between heaven and earth are broken and where human decision and action acquire an eternal dimension.
In the 40 years since Meyendorff penned those lines there have been various attempts within Catholicism to “correct” the idea of marriage-as-contract and adopt an ostensibly more Eastern take on the supernatural end of marriage rather than droning-on exclusively about the begetting and rearing of children. Even so, Latin “contractual theology” regarding marriage remains the prevailing view. It is so prevalent in fact that we have reached a point where a pope can (allegedly) say that more than half of Catholic marriages are invalid on the basis of the partners’ inability to form the proper intention to make a sacramental pact. Had Latin Catholicism adopted the Eastern view, whereby the priest is the minister of the sacrament, it would be far more difficult — if not impossible — to claim that any more than a relative handful of Catholic marriages are in fact invalid. Although Roman Catholics still enjoy lobbing stones at the Orthodox for allowing marriages to be dissolved, arguably the Eastern view of the sacrament better protects its integrity than the dominant Latin one. (And before anyone flies into a huff, I in no way, shape, or form reject fixed Catholic doctrine on marriage.)
Of course, one ought to take some of Meyendorff’s remarks with a grain of salt. As my aforementioned Facebook friend observed — and any Orthodox Christian can confirm — , Orthodox marriage ceremonies take place outside of the context of the Divine Liturgy all of the time. Reception of the Eucharist is not an “essential element” of the rite. Moreover, mixed marriages never include the non-Orthodox spouse receiving Communion. And as Meyendorff himself states elsewhere in the book, Roman Catholic marriages are typically celebrated with the Mass, which seems to splash at least a bit of cold water on Meyendorff’s hyper-contractualist retelling of Latin sacramental theology regarding marriage. Still, one can rightly speculate about the general effect the Latin view has had on the popular Catholic understanding of marriage and whether or not it may have something to do with the anthropocentric — rather than Christocentric — approach many couples take to the wedding ceremony itself. Contemporary Catholic weddings, by and large, have a great deal to do with the couple and very little to do with God.