Baptismal Boundaries (3)

In my previous blog pieces I examined the question of how converts to Orthodoxy should be received, focusing mostly upon converts coming from Protestant denominations. I also suggested that non-Chalcedonians might be received by chrismation as schismatics, since theologians from our respective confessions have reached a Christological agreement which (in my view anyway) if reached in the fifth century could have preserved the unity of the Imperial Church and avoided the schism entirely. (This of course presupposes that the non-Chalcedonian churches are prepared to subscribe to and approve of the work of the theologians who have reached this agreement.) I have been asked to further give my view about how our Roman Catholic brethren should be received if they convert to Orthodoxy. To my mind this issue is considerably muddier, since the Roman Catholic Church itself is far from homogenous. There exists more internal consistency among (say) Baptists than exists among Roman Catholics, and this internal Roman Catholic diversity makes it difficult to pontificate confidently. Accordingly, I will not pontificate. I will only opine, and give somewhat tentative opinions.

I suggest that our Roman Catholic neighbours be received by baptism if they convert to Orthodoxy. I will stress again that receiving them (or any Christian) by baptism does not mean that we deny they have been born again, just as receiving a convert by chrismation does not mean that we deny he or she has experienced the saving work of the Holy Spirit. It only means that we can have no accurate knowledge about what the Holy Spirit does outside the canonical boundaries of the Church, and that we are taking our own ignorance seriously. Our sacramental praxis must be accompanied by a degree of agnosticism and humility. To say (as some do) that no one can be saved outside the bounds of canonical Orthodoxy even if that person is a humble and devout Christian strikes me as absurd, and as an inept confusion of a deliberate rejection of the Church (such as the Fathers experienced) with a non-wilful lack of experience of the Church. The issue is too large to deal with here. Here I will only say that to assert that a devout Baptist will perish because he did not belong to the Orthodox Church betrays a skewed view of the love and grace of God.

I give two reasons for my suggestion that Roman Catholics be received by baptism.

Firstly neither of the two poles of Roman Catholic diversity—the extremely liberal and the extremely conservative—are consistent enough with Orthodoxy to allow us to discern our own faith there. Liberal Roman Catholics who lobby for women’s ordination and gay marriage (to pick but two hot topics) are more or less indistinguishable from their Protestant liberal confreres. But the conservative Roman Catholics who reject such liberalism often go too far in the opposite direction, refusing remarriage after divorce, insisting of clerical celibacy, and on an elevated view of papal supremacy. In neither of these two extremes can the Orthodox recognize their own faith. In fact often all that these two Roman Catholic extremes have in common is a (sometimes highly theoretical) submission to the Pope—which, if taken as the defining element in Roman Catholicism, does little to commend it to the Orthodox.

Regarding the vast majority of Roman Catholics who fall between these two extremes, even here there are a multitude of differences that make it difficult for Orthodox to find their own faith in contemporary Roman Catholicism. I refer to such things as the effective collapse of asceticism and fasting wherein the Eucharistic fast has been reduced to one hour and Lenten fasting made optional, the Protestantization of their liturgical tradition with the possibility of an informal thirty minute Mass, and the legalism which afflicts theology and devotion, including the granting of indulgences for the performance of certain prayers. The list goes on. These differences are not theoretical and abstruse, but affect the daily life of pious Roman Catholics, and are imbued with a spirit and spirituality hardly compatible with Orthodoxy.

Secondly, I am not entirely convinced that baptism by affusion or pouring as a norm (of course there are exceptions, such as in the case of clinical baptism) can be regarded as baptism. It is well known that the Greek word baptizo means “to cause to dip”, and while it is true that God’s grace does not depend upon the amount of water used, it also true that pouring a little water is not dipping. I remember well a baptism which I attended in the United Church of Canada. The candidate was an adult, and he presented himself for baptism still clothed in his three-piece suit. The minister dipped his hand into the font, and then wiped his wet fingers on the man’s forehead three times. Even at the time I remember thinking, “This is baptism?” If to baptize means to dip, then surely wiping wet fingers on a forehead is so far from dipping that it cannot be considered baptizing.

The issue here is not the amount of water used, but the integrity of the action: wiping is not dipping, and we were told to dip. In the same way, pouring also is not dipping. Pouring by economia (such as when baptizing a candidate on his sick-bed) is the exception that proves the rule: we only pour when dipping becomes physically impossible. If the exceptional practice becomes the rule, if economia becomes akribeia, then arguably we are no longer doing what Christ told us to do. For He told us to dip. For this reason as well I suggest that converts from Roman Catholicism (where triple pouring is the norm) be received by baptism.

I am aware that the issue is far from clear, and that stating such opinions invites angry retorts from all sides. Some will think this approach too liberal, and others will think it too fundamentalist. But as C.S. Lewis once observed, if the Patagonians think me a dwarf and the Pygmies a giant, perhaps my stature is in fact fairly unremarkable.




  1. I was a former Catholic, received into the the Orthodox Church through the Greek Archdiocese of America by Chrismation. I converted to Catholicism from a protestant denomination with unclear teaching on the Trinity and Baptism. So naturally the Catholic priest baptized me owing to the difference in views, in what he referred to as a conditional baptism, formulated as “In case you have not been previously baptized…”. My Catholic baptism was a matter of sprinkling over my head as I knelt before an urn in a full suit. Coming into the Orthodox Church I was told that Chrismation validated my Catholic baptism. The priest was very clear that it isn’t that we Orthodox consider this previous Baptism to be valid, but rather that it is validated by Chrismation. I’ve been Orthodox for a couple of years now. This article has me wondering whether I was received properly. Should I talk to a priest about whether my baptism was really validated?

    1. I would certainly not talk to a priest about this, but would remain at peace. My blog article concerned which way would be most appropriate to receive converts in the future, but should not be read as if it were commenting on the validity or effectiveness of past receptions. God is not a legalist: since you came to Christ in faith, you may assuredly believe that He poured His Spirit into you through chrismation. It is the Enemy who sows doubts about these things. Whichever way you were received into Orthodoxy was valid and effective. Praise the Lord that you are home!

  2. Ty, having hoped to “feel” the Holy Spirit through the Episcopal and later Roman churches, I couldn’t agree more and look forward to the “real thing” soon!

  3. This is a very interesting take on Roman Catholics and entrance into the Orthodox Church. I can’t comment on it really except to say that I have known a handful of converts from Roman Catholicism who would have been very happy to have been received into the church by baptism. I have never heard of a Roman Catholic actually being orthodox baptized though.

  4. I completely agree with baptizing Roman Catholics. Unfortunately, I was only received by Chrismation. I would have much preferred baptism. I don’t quite feel legitimate now. Also, I was never a catechumen, though I asked about it a few times. I was told that it was only necessary that I attend Liturgy as often as possible. I expected a more formal process.

    1. I suggest that you are quite “legitimate” in that Christ poured His Holy Spirit into your heart when He brought you home. Whatever improvements might be made in the future, you should be at peace and rejoice in the Lord that you are finally where you should be in His holy Church.

    2. I was never a catechumen either… I converted from a Protestant denomination though so I was baptized. One of the hardest things for me about becoming Orthodox was/is submitting to my priest and bishop. It didn’t really matter how I thought things should be done, no matter how much research I did or how strongly I felt. This was very good for me, coming from a place where the smartest best arguer carried the day. It is good to be Orthodox.

  5. I was received by baptism though not a Roman. Water was poured three times over my head and into my ear. The baptismal font in that parish was a very large stainless steel bowl set in a movable stand. There was no room in the parish for a font large enough to dip an adult and no safe access to the nearest river. My infant son was dipped.

    Also, the priest by whose hands I was received was thoroughly dysfunctional and later left the Church leaving great hurt in his wake. Then he left his family. Still it was by his hands that the doors into the Church were opened for me. Thank God. No real catechism. That did not happen until 20 years later as part of a personal spiritual reformation.

    I have never once worried that my reception was lacking in any way despite the circumstances. I was Baptised and Chrismated, unworthy though I am, into a life of repentance and struggle in a matrix of joy and thanksgiving.
    The reason a person wants to be received into the Church is more important. As T.S.Eliot’s Becket said:. “To do the right deed for the wrong reason is surely the greatest treason.”

    There is only one reason to come to the Church–union with Jesus Christ.

    Not theological correctness, not family, not doing things the right way, the ancient way, not ideological falderall.

    If the longing of one’s heart is for repentance, union with Jesus Christ and Him crucified, the Holy Spirit will fill any form used. If not, it does not matter how perfect the form. Sacraments are not acts of magic. In any case it is the bishop’s decision.

      1. Sorry, I guess I’m noticing what seems to be a parallel between the requirements for baptism and an Orthodox marriage.

        Is there such a connection?

        1. Because Christian marriage is about the partners glorifying Jesus, both husband and wife must be Christian. Ideally both should be Orthodox, but canonically marriage is allowed between an Orthodox and a non-Orthodox, so long as the latter is a Christian.

  6. Father,

    Reflecting off and on about these articles and the issue of marrying outside of the Church came to mind. Please correct me if I have misread, but the current regulations for baptism which you laid out seem similar to those regarding the marriage of heterodox and Orthodox.

    If I understand your thoughts correct, would this issue of baptism also affect potential marital ties between Orthodox and heterodox?

    1. Sorry to be dense; I don’t quite understand the question. My sense is that an Orthodox may canonically be married to a non-Orthodox as long as the non-Orthodox has been properly received.

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