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An Agreed Statement of The North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation

Baptism and "Sacramental Economy"

St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary, Crestwood, New York, June 3, 1999


A. Inconsistencies in the Reception of Adults into Ecclesial Communion

1. The centralized administration of the modern Catholic Church, and the absence of any office resembling the papacy in the modern Orthodox Church, helps to explain the contrast between the diversity in modes of reception of Catholics practiced by local Orthodox churches and the (relatively) unitary practice of the Catholic Church over the past five hundred years in receiving Orthodox. From the fifth-century writings of St. Augustine on the Donatist Schism, the Latin tradition has been able to draw on a clearly articulated rationale for recognizing the validity, though not necessarily the fruitfulness, of trinitarian baptism outside the bounds of the visible church. This does not mean, however, that the rebaptism of Orthodox has never occurred in the Catholic Church; it appears, in fact, to have occurred rather frequently in the Middle Ages. Pope Alexander VI affirmed the validity of Orthodox baptism just after the turn of the sixteenth century, and Rome has periodically confirmed this ruling since then. Nevertheless, rebaptism continued to be practiced on the eastern frontiers of Catholic Europe in Poland and the Balkans - contrary to Roman policy - well into the seventeenth century. In addition, the practice of "conditional baptism," a pastoral option officially intended for cases of genuine doubt about the validity of a person's earlier baptism, was also widely - and erroneously - used in the reception of "dissident" Eastern Christians up to the era of Vatican II itself, and afterwards was practiced occasionally in parts of Eastern Europe. Vatican II, however, was explicit in recognizing both the validity and the efficacy of Orthodox sacraments (Unitatis Redintegratio 15; cf. Ecumenical Directory [1993] 99a).

2. In the Orthodox Church, a consistent position on the reception of those baptized in other communions is much more difficult, though not impossible, to discern. On the one hand, since the Council in Trullo (692), the canonical collections authoritative in Orthodoxy have included the enactments of third-century North African councils presided over by Cyprian of Carthage, as well as the important late-fourth-century Eastern collection, The Apostolic Canons. Cyprian's position, supported by his contemporary bishop Firmilian of Caesaraea in Cappadocia, was that salvation and grace are not mediated by schismatic communities, so that baptism administered outside the universal apostolic communion is simply invalid as an act of Christian initiation, deprived of the life-giving Spirit (see Cyprian, Epp. 69.7; 71.1; 73.2; 75.17, 22-25). Influential as it was to be, Cyprian and Firmilian both acknowledge that their position on baptism is a relatively new one, forged probably in the 230s to deal with the extraordinary new challenges presented by Christian sectarianism in an age of persecution, but following logically from a clear sense of the Church's boundaries. The Apostolic Canons, included in the larger Apostolic Constitutions and probably representative of Church discipline in Syria during the 380s, identifies sacraments celebrated by "heretics" as illegitimate (can. 45 [46]), although it is not clear in what sense the word "heretic" is being used; the following canon brands it as equally sacrilegious for a bishop or presbyter to rebaptize someone who is already truly baptized, and to recognize the baptism of "someone who has been polluted by the ungodly." Both Cyprian and the Apostolic Canons, in any case, draw a sharp line between the authentic visible Church and every other group which exists outside its boundaries, and accords no value whatever to the rites of those "outside." On the other hand, continuing Eastern practice from at least the fourth century has followed a more nuanced position. This position is reflected in Basil of Caesarea's First Canonical Epistle (Ep. 188, dated 374), addressed to Amphilochius of Iconium, whichclaiming to follow the practice of "the ancients"--distinguishes among three types of groups "outside" the Church: heretics, "who differ with regard to faith in God;" schismatics, who are separated from the body of the Church "for some ecclesiastical reasons and differ from other [Christians] on questions that can be resolved;" and "parasynagogues," or dissidents who have formed rival communities simply in opposition to legitimate authority (Ep. 188.1). Only in the case of heretics in the strict sensethose with a different understanding of God, among whom Basil includes Manichaeans, Gnostics, and Marcionites--is baptism required for entry into communion with the Church. Concerning the second and third groups, Basil declares that they are still "of the Church," and as such are to be admitted into full communion without baptism. This policy is also reflected in Canon 95 of the Council in Trullo, which distinguishes between "Severians" (i.e., non-Chalcedonians) and Nestorians, who are to be received by confession of faith; schismatics, who are to be received by chrismation; and heretics, who alone require baptism. Thus, in spite of the solemn rulings of the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils against their christological positions, "Severians" and Nestorians are clearly reckoned as still "of the Church," and seem to be understood in Basil's category of "parasynagogues;" their baptisms are thus understood--to use scholastic language--as valid, if perhaps illicit.

3. The schism between Catholics and Orthodox, unlike the schisms of the Non-Chalcedonian and East Syrian Churches, came into being much later, and only very slowly. Relations between Catholics and Orthodox through the centuries have been, in consequence, highly varied, ranging from full communion, on occasion, well into the late Middle Ages (and, in certain areas, until later still), to a rejection so absolute that it seemed to demand the rebaptism of new communicants. There are, however, in the Orthodox tradition two important synodical rulings which represent the continuation of the policy articulated by Basil, and affirmed by the Synod in Trullo and later Byzantine canonists, rulings which we believe are to be accorded primary importance: those of the Synod of Constantinople in 1484, and of Moscow in 1667. The first ruling, part of a document marking the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate's formal repudiation of the Union of Ferrara-Florence (1439) with the Catholic Church, prescribed that Catholics be received into Orthodox communion by the use of chrism. In the service for the reception of Catholic converts which the Synod published, this anointing is not accompanied by the prayers which characterize the rite of initiation; we find instead formulas of a penitential character. The rite therefore appears to have been understood as part of a process of reconciliation, rather than as a reiteration of post-baptismal chrismation. It is this provision of Constantinople in 1484, together with Canon 95 of the Synod in Trullo, which the Council of Moscow in 1667 invokes in its decree forbidding the rebaptism of Catholics, a decree that has remained authoritative in the East Slavic Orthodox churches to the present day.

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