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.