While recognizing that these things are an essential aspect of our Orthodox Faith, I honestly struggle with the concept, because I think it has been abused. Too many times on this forum and elsewhere, when serious moral or ethical questions are at stake, the answer is "Ask your Priest." This poses two main problems as I see it: 1) it seems far too subjective and relativistic, and 2) it seems to make every Priest a "Pope" of his own parish, whereby he can individually decide whether or not it is ok for married couples to use birth control, whether or not a girl can get an abortion, whether or not someone can divorce their spouse, etc.
These concerns were highlighted last week when I attended an Orthodox Bible Study at a Greek Orthodox Church. The Priest, who I respect very much, made two comments that were both disturbing and contradictory in my estimation. He was discussing the topic of Confession, and a lot of questions were raised. Someone asked why penance should ever include abstaining from receiving the Holy Eucharist. The Priest said that such penance is very rare, and even when it is given it is usually only for a short period of time. But then he said that a woman once came to him and said that another Priest had told her she could not receive the Sacraments for ten years, because she had confessed to having an abortion. The Priest at our Bible Study said he could do nothing to undo the penance that she had been given. I think everyone here who has read my numerous posts knows how strongly I feel about the issue of abortion, but even I thought it to be overly severe to give a woman who has confessed an abortion a penance of abstaining from the Eucharist for ten years. But then again, I don't know the whole story. Perhaps the woman was a repeat offender who had confessed this sin multiple times before, and the Priest felt he needed to help her realize the severity of her sins. I don't know.
Anyway, to continue the story... Later during this same Bible Study, the Priest made a second statement saying there are only two instances where the Church allows abortion: in the cases of rape or incest. I raised my hand and as respectfully as I could I explained that I thought he was mistaken about that. I have never heard any such Church teaching (maybe there is a difference in this regard between my EOTC Church and the Greek Church.) Presvytera explained that she works in a hospital and has seen certain situations where abortion and euthanasia are the best options. I was deeply troubled and disturbed by this, and I gently but firmly expressed my disapproval without pressing the issue to the point of unnecessary contention.
So, there seemed to be two contradictory extremes. On the one hand a woman was refused Communion for ten years because she had an abortion, and on the other hand it was stated that euthanasia and abortion are essentially issues of "economia."
I really need to go to Confession soon, badly! But now I am terrified because I feel that I am placing myself at the arbitrary whim of an individual Priest. And while I respect this Priest very much, his statements at Bible Study really gave me pause. I have complete trust in the Teachings and Traditions of the Church, but I am leery of individual Priests who seem to be wishy washy or ill informed about vital moral issues such as abortion, birth control, etc. And I certainly don't want to "Church hop" until I think I have found the perfect Priest, as that was the pattern I too often fell into during my Protestant years.
I know it is ultimately a matter of faith, and I am planning on going to Confession soon regardless of my concerns. But my main question here is about these concepts of "economia" and the "ask your Priest" thing. Isn't there a grave danger that individual Priests will advise or counsel things that are actually contrary to Church Teaching? I do realize that if a renegade Priest is consistently giving out unOrthodox advice or teaching things contrary to the Church that they will be held accountable by the Bishop and probably "defrocked" (if that is an Orthodox term?) But the problem is that Confession is private and personal, and so if a Priest is giving unOrthodox advice then how will he ever be held accountable?
Well, I know this post and these questions were not articulated very clearly, but I hope you get the gist of my concerns. I really would appreciate some sound Orthodox answers here.