Unlike secular law, or Mosaic law, the purpose of the Church’s law is the spiritual perfection of her members. Mere application of the letter of the law is replaced by a sense for the spirit of the law, and adherence to its principles. This purpose is the determining factor when authority is granted to apply the law when circumstances warrant according to each individual case. The spirit of love, understood as commitment to the spiritual perfection of the individual, must always prevail in the application of the law. The abolition of the letter of the law by the spirit of the law has led to the institution of “economy,” exercised in nonessential matters. Through “economy,” which is always an exception to the general rule, the legal consequences following the violation of a law are lifted.
“Economy” is granted by the competent ecclesiastical authority and has not so much the character of urgency as it does the character of compassion for human frailty. The character of compassion is justified by the Church’s ardent desire to prevent any adverse effects from the strict observance of the law in exceptional circumstances. The premise upon which an exception is granted is the general welfare of all concerned. This premise exists in all systems of law but it finds its fullest expression in the Church’s law. As the law of grace, it is characterized primarily by the spiritual attributes of compassion, pastoral sensitivity, and forgiveness.
“Economy” is not something to be applied at random or arbitrarily. It is governed by defined guidelines which must be strictly adhered to by the competent ecclesiastical authority granting it. First and foremost, exception from a law which has been endowed with universal recognition and validity is not possible. It is only from a law that has not been endowed with such authority that a person can be released, if this is deemed spiritually beneficial.
The right to exercise “economy” is the sole prerogative of the legislator (council or holy synod of bishops). This right can in turn be delegated to individual bishops by the corporate authority of the synod. This delegation must, however, be within the limits prescribed by the canons and according to the express authorization of one’s superior legislative authority. (See, for example, canon 2 of Ancyra:
“It is likewise decreed that deacons who have sacrificed [to pagan idols] and afterwards resumed the conflict shall enjoy their other honors, but shall abstain from every sacred ministry, neither bringing forth the bread and the cup, nor making proclamations. Nevertheless, if any of the bishops shall observe in them distress of mind and meek humiliation, it shall be lawful to the bishops to grant more indulgence, or to take away [what has been granted].”
As evidenced by the phrase: “it shall be lawful to the bishops to grant more indulgence, or to take away [what has been granted],” “economy” may be both a more lenient or a more strict observance of the rule. Consequently, “economy” is any deviation from the norm. The exercise of “economy” ceases if its cause no longer exists or if the basis for its application rested upon false or pretended grounds. Once “economy” has been applied, the normative practice is restored as before. Furthermore, temporary departure from the normative practice through “economy” does not set precedent.
The institution of “economy” has been actively invoked throughout the history of the Orthodox Church. This is perhaps due in part to liberal trends of thought in the cultural milieu within which the Orthodox Church flourished. Although authority in the exercise of “economy,” especially in matters of great importance, rests with the synod of bishops of each local church, this authority, as indicated, can be delegated to individual bishops as well. The Ecumenical Synod, as supreme administrative, legislative and judicial body in the Church, administers ultimate authority in the exercise of “economy.” It alone can alter or overrule the decision of any subordinate ecclesiastical authority. In the realm of conscience, however, it is the spiritual father who has been entrusted with the authority to exercise “economy” according to his good judgment. The determining factor in its application, however, must always be the spiritual welfare of the penitent.