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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


B. Constantinople 1755, the Pedalion of Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, and "Sacramental Economy"

1. Constantinople 1755: In an atmosphere of heightened tension between Orthodoxy and Catholicism following the Melkite Union of 1724, and of intensified proselytism pursued by Catholic missionaries in the Near East and in Hapsburg-ruled Transylvania, the Ecumenical Patriarch Cyril V issued a decree in 1755 requiring the baptism of Roman Catholics, Armenians, and all others presently outside the visible bounds of the Orthodox Church, when they seek full communion with it. This decree has never been formally rescinded, but subsequent rulings by the Patriarchate of Constantinople (e.g., in 1875, 1880, and 1888) did allow for the reception of new communicants by chrismation rather than baptism. Nevertheless, these rulings left rebaptism as an option subject to "pastoral discretion." In any case, by the late nineteenth century a comprehensive new sacramental theology had appeared in Greek-speaking Orthodoxy which provided a precise rationale for such pastoral discretion; for the source of this new rationale, we must examine the influential figure of St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1748-1809).

2. Nicodemus and the Pedalion: The Orthodox world owes an immense debt to this Athonite monk, who edited and published the Philokalia (1783), as well as numerous other works of a patristic, pastoral, and liturgical nature. In the Pedalion (1800), his enormously influential edition of - and commentary on - canonical texts, Nicodemus gave form and substance to the requirement of rebaptism decreed by Cyril V. Thoroughly in sympathy with the decree of 1755, and moved by his attachment to a perceived golden age in the patristic past, he underscored the antiquity and hence priority of the African Councils and Apostolic Canons, and argued strenuously, in fact, for the first-century provenance of the latter. Nicodemus held up these documents, with their essentially exclusivist ecclesiology, as the universal voice of the ancient Church. In so doing, he systematically reversed what had been the normative practice of the eastern church since at least the 4th century, while recognizing the authority of both Cyprian's conciliar legislation on baptism and the Apostolic Canons. Earlier Byzantine canonists had understood Cyprians procedure as superseded by later practice, and had interpreted the Apostolic Canons in the light of the rulings of Basil the Great, the Synod in Trullo, and other ancient authoritative texts.

3. "Sacramental Economy" according to Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain: Nicodemus was clearly obliged, however, to reckon with the approach of Basil the Great and the ecumenically-ranked Synod in Trullo to baptism "outside" the visible Church, different though it was from that of Cyprian. His attempt to reconcile his sources with each other drew on a very ancient term, oikonomia, used in the New Testament and patristic literature to denote both God's salvific plan and the prudent "management" of the Churchs affairs, and employed in later canonical literature as roughly the equivalent of "pastoral discretion" or stewardship. In adapting this term to differentiate between what he understood as the "strict" policy (akriveia) of the ancient Church and the apparently more flexible practice (oikonomia) of the Byzantine era, Nicodemus inadvertently bestowed a new meaning on the term oikonomia. By means of this new understanding, Nicodemus was able to harmonize the earlier, stricter practice of Cyprian with that of Basil and other ancient canonical sources; so he could read the fathers of the 4th century as having exercised "economy" with regard to baptism by Arians in order to facilitate their reentry into the Church, just as the Synod in Trullo had done with respect to the "Severians" and Nestorians, and could interpret the treatment of Latin baptism by Constantinople at the Synod of 1484 and later Orthodox rulings as acts of "economy" designed to shield the Orthodox from the wrath of a more powerful Catholic Europe. In his own day, he argued, the Orthodox were protected by the might of the Turkish Sultan, and so were again free to follow the perennial "exactness" of the Church. Latins were therefore now to be rebaptized.

4. Varying Understandings of the Phrase, "Pastoral Discretion": After the publication of the Pedalion in 1800, backed by Nicodemus's formidable personal authority, the opposed principles of akriveia and oikonomia came to be accepted by much of Greek-speaking Orthodoxy as governing the application of canon law in such a way as to allow for either the rebaptism of Western Christians (katakriveian), or for their reception by chrismation or profession of faith (katoikonomian), without in either case attributing to their baptism any reality in its own right. This is the understanding that underlies the "pastoral discretion" enjoined by the Synod of Constantinople of 1875, as well as by numerous directives and statements of the Ecumenical Patriarchate since then. In the work of some modern canonists, oikonomia is understood as the use of an authority by the Church's hierarchy, in cases of pastoral need, to bestow a kind of retroactive reality on sacramental rites exercised "outside" the Orthodox Church - rites which in and of themselves remain invalid and devoid of grace. The hierarchy is endowed, in this interpretation, with a virtually infinite power, capable, as it were, of creating "validity" and bestowing grace where they were absent before. This new unders tanding of "economy" does not, however, enjoy universal recognition in the Orthodox Church. We have already noted that the East Slavic Orthodox churches remain committed to the earlier understanding and practice of the Byzantine era, which does not imply the possibility of making valid what is invalid, or invalid what is valid. Even within Greek-speaking Orthodoxy, "sacramental economy" in the full Nicodemean sense does not command universal acceptance. As a result, within world Orthodoxy, the issue of "sacramental economy" remains the subject of intense debate, but the Nicodemean interpretation is still promoted in important theological and monastic circles. Although these voices in the Orthodox world are significant ones, we do not believe that they represent the tradition and perennial teaching of the Orthodox Church on the subject of baptism.

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