What is the Orthodox Church’s view of Roman Catholic ‘sacraments’?
Orthodox Sacraments: Heterodox Sacramental Forms
In the simplest terms, the (Orthodox) Church believes that there are no sacraments outside the Church. Thus, according to strictness or the strict view (in Greek ‘akrivia’), any Roman Catholic or Protestant who wishes to join the (Orthodox) Church must be received by baptism, for they are considered not to have been baptised. This is the practice on Mt Athos, in Greece, on Cyprus and in other parts of the Orthodox world, especially in Serbia. This is not ‘rebaptism’, which is specifically rejected in the Nicene Creed. ‘Rebaptism’ could only take place when (Orthodox) Church baptism had already occurred, which is utterly contrary to our Faith.
However, there also exists a less literal or fundamentalistic approach, which uses a certain discernment. This practice uses mercy, pastoral dispensation (in Greek ‘ikonomia’ or ‘economy’). This says that a Roman Catholic (or a Protestant) should not be treated as one who has never known Christ as the Son of God, that is, like a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist or simply a pagan. The latter may recognise God the Father, at least in some deformed way as a vague ‘Divine Force’ etc, but they most certainly do not confess Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. What they do not do either is confess the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father. And it is precisely this spiritual deficiency and resulting spiritual deformation which makes their sacraments into mere sacramental forms.
Therefore, using dispensation, most Orthodox do not receive Roman Catholics (or Protestants) into the Church through baptism, as they would Non-Christians and pagans. This is not because the Church believes that there are any sacraments outside the (Orthodox) Church, but because Roman Catholics (and Protestants) do have sacramental forms. Notably in the case of baptism, in principle, all Roman Catholics (and Protestants) are ‘baptised’ with water in the Name of the Holy Trinity.
Now it is true that their sacramental form of baptism, inherited from the Orthodox Church, which they left during the second millennium, is also deficient. In fact, it resembles an Orthodox emergency baptism conducted on a new-born baby in a hospital. In other words, it has no triple immersion. Nevertheless, most Roman Catholics (and Protestants) believe that this sacramental form confers on them the grace of God and entry into their churches. Although this is not the belief of the (Orthodox) Church, it seems uncharitable and ungenerous not to recognise their sincerity. After all, it is not their fault that they have been kept in ignorance and misled for a thousand years. Thus, most Orthodox practise dispensation, a generosity of heart, mercy. They believe that what is missing in their sacramental forms (and those are themselves an inheritance from the Orthodoxy of the West in the first millennium) is made up for, or filled, by the grace received by entering into the (Orthodox) Church and receiving her sacraments.
In the case of Roman Catholics, this generosity is taken by some even further. Since Roman Catholics also have other sacramental forms, which they believe to be sacraments, then it is actually possible, using extreme dispensation, to receive Roman Catholics by repentance, that is, by confession, and then communion. Similarly, Roman Catholic priests could in theory be received in the same way, that is, with neither baptism, nor chrismation, nor ordination. (Some Orthodox extend this same principle of pastoral generosity to Copts and Armenians, who on paper are Monophysites. However, other Orthodox insist that they be received by chrismation or baptism and chrismation).
The case of Protestants (also Anglicans) is different. Since most of them only recognise one sacrament, baptism, Orthodox pastoral dispensation is extended only to that sacramental form in their case. It is true that the tiny minority of High Church Anglicans may recognise several sacraments, even the seven main ones. However, since Anglicanism as a whole most certainly does not recognise other sacraments, the Orthodox Churches in practice do not either - even though, under intense political pressure in the 1930s, a few delegates of the Romanian Church seemed to have recognised them at an ‘ecumenical’ conference.
Dispensation or Strictness: Pastoral Discernment
Reading the above, and I have tried to be as clear as possible, some will still claim that the (Orthodox) Church is inconsistent. If they sincerely (and not polemically, out of ill will) hold this view, then they have not understood. Let us take a parallel.
A man runs into a shop, threatening everyone with a gun if all the money in the shop is not handed over to him. He shoots in the air. He beats a reluctant customer over the head. He kicks a pregnant woman in the stomach. He takes all the money and runs out. He is arrested.
Another man, unemployed, homeless and hungry, runs into a shop. He steals some bread and runs out. He is arrested.
You are the judge. Do you sentence both men to twenty years in prison? If you do, you are foolish.
And so, let us return to sacramental forms.
Your ancestors are Irish. They were baptised in the seventh century, when Irish pilgrims could freely take communion in Constantinople and Jerusalem and Greek pilgrims could freely take communion at any church in Ireland. You are Roman Catholic only by family tradition. You have not been to church for twenty years. You have never heard of the filioque, you have never agreed with the papal claims and infallibility, you reject clerical celibacy and have been scandalised by the recent pedophile revelations in Ireland. You understand nothing of the hows and whys of the situation of Roman Catholicism today. You have understood what Christianity is actually about and wish to join the Orthodox Church.
Your ancestors are Saxons. In the ninth century they were forced at Charlemagne’s swordpoint to be baptised. You live in Dresden, have understood what Christianity is actually about and wish to join the Orthodox Church.
Your ancestors are Mayan Indians. In the sixteenth century they were forced at Spanish swordpoint to be ‘baptised’ Roman Catholic. You have understood what Christianity is actually about and wish to join the Orthodox Church.
Your ancestors are Galician Ukrainians. In the seventeenth century they were forced by the Austro-Hungarians to ‘become’ Roman Catholic through the trick of Uniatism. The alternative was starvation by the Polish nobility, for whom your ancestors worked as serfs (slaves). You have understood what Christianity is actually about and wish to join the Orthodox Church.
Your ancestors are Serbs. In 1943 they were forced with guns to their heads by Croat Franciscan monks to ‘become’ Roman Catholic. You have emigrated to Australia and now enjoy freedom. You have understood what Christianity is actually about and wish to join the Orthodox Church.
In all the above five cases, the vast majority of Orthodox clergy would receive the Roman Catholics in question by pastoral dispensation, that is, chrismation (or possibly even though confession and communion). Unless, of course, the individuals concerned specifically requested to be received through baptism.
Quiet different is the case of conscious Roman Catholics, who have practised conscious heresy all their lives, that is, they full well knew the truths of Orthodoxy, but have preached against them, having been indoctrinated against them. They must first unlearn before they can learn.
Conclusion: Missionary and Anti-Missionary Orthodox
Below we give the authentic Orthodox views of someone who lived and, much more importantly, died for the Church, the New Martyr Daniel (Sysoiev) of Moscow (+ 19 November 2009). We believe that the views of one who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the Church of Christ are far more important than our own or anyone else’s, far more important of any who believe ‘in the spirit of our time’. As it is said: ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’:
‘He was a quarter Tartar, through his mother…His great grandfather was a mullah. Some think that his family can be traced back to Mohammed… He was busy with everything – he tried to embrace what cannot be embraced. He devoted a lot of effort to mission. His cherished dreams were to create missionary parishes all over the world to preach to the heterodox, and also in the Diasporas.
It can be said that he thought universally. Now, many like saying that Orthodoxy is a religion for Russians. Fr Daniel was categorically opposed to this view. He spoke out against the view that we must first of all preach to our Russians and then to other peoples, or that we must not preach on other people’s territory. These are false ideas, but they are very much in the spirit of our time’.
Matushka Julia Sysoieva: On Fr Daniel, happiness, miracles and martyrdom.
Archpriest Andrew Phillips,
5/18 December 2009