Some thoughts on the Baptism of Catholics

The Orthodox Church considers each controversial issue in the light of the witness of the Scriptures, the Liturgical, Spiritual and Canonical Tradition, and with the writings of the God-Approved Fathers as the standard by which all actions and understandings are measured. It is the case that few situations which arise in any generation have not been experienced and considered in the past by our Fathers who provide us with an authoritative voice.

In the case of the manner in which the Baptism performed by Roman and Eastern Catholic Christians should be valued and accepted by our Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate the Fathers have already provided a judgement. This judgement should be the basis for all present decisions together with the light of the continuing activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

The communion of Catholic Christians is made up of those who follow the Western rite and belong to the Roman Catholic Church, and those who follow an Eastern rite and belong to the Eastern Catholic Churches. While Roman and Eastern Catholics have their own local history and relations with the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, they are united in accepting the jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome.

Both Roman and Eastern Catholic Churches are part of the Chalcedonian movement, which originated in the 5th century with their support for the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. The Eastern Catholics have developed as communities in more recent times from members of the Orthodox populations in various countries who have united themselves with the Roman Catholic Church and accepted the jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome. Though there have been divisions between the Roman and Eastern Catholic Churches and the ancient Orthodox Churches of the East, especially the Great Schism which finally brought about the separation of Rome and Constantinople in 1054 AD, nevertheless these divisions are between the members of the Chalcedonian movement.

The Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate has a very clear response to the Chalcedonian movement, which will be examined in detail in this paper. This will show that we have always accepted the Baptism of Chalcedonians, and have considered it a great error to baptise again those who come to us from the Chalcedonian communion. It will be necessary to ask whether there are aspects of Catholic faith and practice which justify any deviation from this ancient practice of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. Finally, the statements about the Catholic Church made by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of blessed memory, and the statements and practices of the other local Oriental Orthodox Churches will be considered.

In the earliest times there were two responses which were proposed in different places to respond to those who had gone into schism. In the region of Carthage St Cyprian held the view that schismatics could not be considered to have any of the sacraments, while in Rome St Stephen held the view that such strictness was an innovation. The Coptic Orthodox Church has always adopted the view of St Stephen with regard to those who support the Council of Chalcedon, among whom must be counted the Roman and Eastern Catholics.

The controversy with the supporters of the Council of Chalcedon often led to periods of persecution and even lethal violence against those in Egypt and elsewhere who rejected the Council. It might be expected that in periods of such persecution the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate would adopt a very strict and negative view of the Baptism of the Chalcedonian community. But this was never the case.

Immediately after Chalcedon our holy Fathers St Peter the Iberian, St Philoxenus of Mabbugh and St Timothy Aelurus, the successor to St Dioscorus, provided very clear instructions that those wishing to join the communion of the anti-Chalcedonians should not be baptised, but should provide a statement of Orthodox Faith and submit to a period of probation and penance. We have an example of such a statement of faith..

Anastasius, a priest of Jerusalem, I anathematise the impious creed which has come from the impious council gathered at Chalcedon, because of the impious and alien teachings, opposed to the Apostolic Faith, which are found there, as well as those who adhere to it, or have signed it, or who participated there, and the letter of the impious Leo, bishop of Rome, and the teachings that it contains, which are alien to the Catholic Faith… without constraint, I have signed this by my own hand.

And we have the prayer which our holy father, St Timothy, the 26th Pope of Alexandria, composed to be prayed over those who were being united to our communion from among the Chalcedonians. He required no other practice at all, neither baptism nor anointing. The prayer is as follows..

O Lord, the Lord God Almighty, Father of our Lord and our God, our Life-Giving Jesus Christ, who desires the life of all men and that they should come to a knowledge of the truth, your servant bows his head before you, he takes refuge in you, fleeing the bonds of the Devil set in place at the Council of Chalcedon by your detractors. We ask and supplicate you to send your Holy Spirit and your grace upon this one who rejects and tears away from his spirit all the perversion of the Faith which took place at Chalcedon, being made worthy to truly approach the right Faith which has been preached by the Holy Apostles and Evangelists, counting him among your people and your inheritance, granting remission of his faults through the coming of the Holy Spirit. Sanctify him, bless him, fill him with your fear, direct him according to Your good will, by Our Lord and Life-Giver Jesus Christ, by whom and with whom, glory is due unto You, together with Your Holy Spirit, good and life-giving, to the ages of ages. Amen.

Despite facing exile himself, and being witness of the martyrdom of countless thousands of those who rejected the Council of Chalcedon in Alexandria, there was no other requirement for a member of the Chalcedonian party to be reconciled to our Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate than to provide this statement of Faith, and to have this prayer prayed over them.

Now it might be suggested that this method of reconciliation only applied to those who had been baptised and brought up in the Church of St Cyril, and had only fallen away for a short period. But we can see that several generations after St Timothy the same method was being applied to those who had certainly been brought up in separation from our anti-Chalcedonian communion.

St Severus speaks of one priest, Silvanus, who had been ordained among the Chalcedonians. He writes to two priests in our own communion, reminding them of the practice of St Timothy..

As to Silvanus who is of heretical ordination, but begs to be received, you ought not to be in difficulty seeing that the regulations of the holy Timothy have marked out the proper course for you, and have laid down for you the method to be followed in this case…

Elsewhere he refers to St Timothy again, and in a very useful case. A certain Theodotus had been a bishop but had fallen away into error and heresy. The question was asked about what should happen to those who had been followers of this man. He replies..

As to those who have been converted from the error of Theodotus, we say this much, that, if there are some who received ordination from Theodotus himself, since he was a bishop legally appointed, but was afterwards perverted to the abominable tenet of a self-created observance, I mean that of the illegal re-anointing, and to a change as to the faith, so that he does not confess that our Lord and God Jesus Christ, who is of one essence with the Father in the Godhead, himself became also of one essence with us without variation, and took our likeness, except sin only, let these be subject to the periods of penance which Timothy of saintly memory, archbishop of Alexandria, laid down with regard to those who are converted from the heresy of the Diphysites.

Even in this case St Severus insists that only the period of penance which were instituted by St Timothy should be applied. This has been the continuing practice of our Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate through the centuries.

A manuscript from 1808 records both the practice at that time, and more ancient texts, relating to the reception of Melkites and Nestorians into the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. The practice in 1808 in our own Coptic Orthodox community was very simple. There was a requirement to keep the Fast of Great Lent, offer the daily prayers of the Agpeya, and make a Confession of Faith. After this a prayer was made over the candidate by the priest was able to participate in the Liturgy of the Church.

In this manuscript of 1808 it is stated clearly that the practice of our Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate is as follows..

It is known that foundation of the Christian denominations, who are the Melkites, the Nestorians and the Orthodox, is common in the faith of ten fundamental rules among them the confession of one Baptism. If someone from the two denominations or their followers decides to leave his rite intending to enter to the Orthodox denomination, his baptism is recognized after rejecting the two Substances, the two Hypostases and the two Wills in the reality of Lord Christ – to Whom is the glory – he should confess the unity in all what we mentioned above.

In the Book of Spiritual Medicine, from the 13th century, the same attitude towards these other Apostolic communities is found. It is written there..

And about that the Holy Spirit knows that their faith is straight or nearly straight, they separate themselves from us by their traditions, sayings that they are committed to either by ignorance; the fathers did not ordered us to baptise them. The reason of the baptism is to be performed in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; The Consubstantial Trinity and the eternity. It is also the faith in the Incarnation of the Son… Whosoever believes in this is an Orthodox faithful, nothing is less for his faith but he was separated in different customs, traditions, lack of knowledge of explanation, He opposed to some fasting days, or some statements or food. His faith is not lesser but he should be considered as a sinner faithful, whenever he will leave this sin separated him from us, he became one with us, he should not be baptised or nor do we curse him or curse his belief … according to what is ordered by the Canon 36 and 25 of the 318 fathers of Nicaea.

The same manuscript asks a similar question and provides the same answer..

Question number fourteen: If a Melkite or Nestorian person wishes to enter to the Orthodox Church, should he be baptised? … The Answer: The Aconites, Melkites and Nestorians have in common ten fundamental aspects of the faith among them the unique baptism. If one, from the above two denominations, or their followers, wishes to leave his denomination to enter to the Orthodox Church, his baptism will be accepted after renouncing the belief of the two substances, the two hypostases and the two will in the reality of Lord Christ – to Whom be the glory- and confess the oneness in all the above mentioned. The Orthodox priest will recite prayers established in the Coptic Church for those joining the Church. This will all take place in front of the holy altar with the instruction of the priest.

The well-established Coptic Orthodox Tradition from the time of St Timothy, the 26th Patriarch, until the 19th century, has been than those wishing to be united with our Orthodox community should not be baptised, but should make a confession of Faith and be received by the prayer of the priest before the Altar.

Nor does this only apply to those who have been members of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, since the Tradition speaks of those uniting themselves to us from the Melkites, Nestorians and Aconites. The Melkites would be counted as both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in the 13th century. The Nestorians, if this is not to be taken as referring to the Roman Catholics, are the Assyrian Church of the East whose Christology has been subject to much greater criticism by our Fathers than that of the Chalcedonians. While the Aconites seem to refer to the Christians of Persia and the Far East. These also followed a more corrupted Christology than the Chalcedonians.
Therefore until very recently there seems to be no basis in our Orthodox Tradition of 1500 years to require the baptism of Roman or Eastern Catholic Christians. Catholics, as much as Eastern Orthodox, are Chalcedonians, and there is an authoritative means of receiving Chalcedonians.

Perhaps it will be said that since the Catholics separated from the Eastern Orthodox communion in 1054 they have developed other errors which lead them to be considered in a different manner. This seems impossible to reconcile with the Coptic Orthodox Tradition since this refers even to Nestorians being received only by confession of Faith and prayer. Certainly the author of the text of 1808 would have been aware of the Catholic Churches, but does not choose to distinguish between different Melkite, or Chalcedonian, groups.

It seems very difficult to consider that those specifically Catholic developments of doctrine and practice which have been introduced should be of greater significance than the Christological controversy, which was never an obstacle to receiving Chalcedonians without baptism.

The fact that Roman Catholics have tended to baptise by affusion or pouring since the 12th century cannot be an obstacle since even in the earliest manual of Christian faith and practice, the Didache of the first century, pouring is allowed as a means of baptism…

But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

While Eastern Catholics continue to baptise by immersion as they have always done. Indeed it is commendable that in the present time the Catholic Church is reinforcing the teaching that baptism by immersion should be seen as the norm, and Roman Catholic Churches are beginning to be built with baptisteries large enough for adult immersion.

The Catholic Catechism, the official directory of the teaching of the Catholic Church, states..

Baptism is performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water. However, from ancient times it has also been able to be conferred by pouring the water three times over the candidate’s head.

This is entirely in accordance with the teaching of the Orthodox Churches, including the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate.

It might perhaps be suggested that the recent doctrinal developments of Papal Infallibility and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary have caused the Catholic Church to introduce errors which make its baptism valueless from an Orthodox perspective. The teaching about the Blessed Virgin Mary has no impact at all on the central teachings, which our own Coptic Orthodox Tradition insist we hold in common with all Apostolic Churches. Nor does the definition of Papal Infallibility express anything more than the unbalanced ecclesiology which the Roman Church has attempted to impose on the other local Orthodox Churches since at least the 5th century. The teaching on Papal Infallibility, while certainly an error, is of less importance than the Christological controversy which led to the separation of the supporters and opponents of Chalcedon, and yet is has been the constant and authoritative Tradition of our Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate to receive those from the Chalcedonian community without baptising them. For many hundreds of years this would have included Roman Catholics, with a too greatly elevated view of the Pope of Rome. It was not an issue in the past, and it should not be allowed to be an issue in regard to baptism today.

It has been suggested that the Roman Catholics teach a form of universal salvation which prevents their baptism being received. Again, it must surely be the case that Christological controversies are of greater consequence than speculations about matters to do with God’s eternal judgement. If the baptism of those who confessed two natures in Christ was accepted, even while their teaching about Christ was considered heresy, then it is difficult to conclude that speculation about the life to come should prevent the reception of Catholic baptism when it is clear that they have in fact the same Orthodox Christology.

Indeed the Catholic Catechism says only..

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.

This is a very restricted and humble statement. It says no more than that those to whom God grants grace, may also be able to be saved. It certainly does not say that all religions are the same, or that all religions are equally vehicles of salvation. It simply expresses the hope and faith which all share, that God will have mercy on those who have not been blessed with being brought up in faith in the Orthodox Churches.

There are certainly doctrinal and practical matters which stand in the way of union with the Catholic Churches, but in respect of receiving there baptism, this was always the practice of our holy Fathers, and was the practice of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate until recent times. There has been no development in the Catholic Churches which is of greater significance than the Christological matters which led to our sad division. But even these matters were not enough to justify our baptising those who held such false views.

In recent times His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of blessed memory did much to bring about a reconciliation with the Catholic Churches, and he published a joint statement expressing his view of the Apostolic nature of the Catholic Churches. His official statement seems to be in complete agreement with the Coptic Orthodox Tradition of receiving Chalcedonians, of whom the Catholics are a part, without baptism.


We are rediscovering ourselves as Churches with a common inheritance and are reaching out with determination and confidence in the Lord to achieve the fullness and perfection of that unity which is His gift…We have, to a large degree, the same understanding of the Church, founded upon the Apostles, and of the important role of ecumenical and local councils. Our spirituality is well and profoundly expressed in our rituals and in the Liturgy of the Mass which comprises the centre of our public prayer and the culmination of our in corporation into Christ in His Church….The divine life is given to us and is nourished in us through the seven sacraments of Christ in His Church: Baptism, Chrism (Confirmation), Holy Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony and Holy Orders.
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III gave his name to this document asserting that the ‘divine life is given to US..through Baptism’. It would not be possible for him to make such a statement if he did not agree and believe that the baptism offered in the Catholic Churches was also a means of receiving the divine life.

Likewise the Theological Commission of Oriental Orthodox hierarchs and theologians who have been working with the Catholic Churches to bring about a unity in truth and love, have published an official document in 2009 on the Nature, Constitution and Mission of the Church which says..

The Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church share the following constitutive elements of communion: they confess the Apostolic faith as lived in the Tradition…they believe in Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word of God, the same being true God and true man at the same time; they venerate the Holy Virgin Mary as Mother of God (Theotokos); they celebrate the seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation/chrismation, Eucharist, penance/reconciliation, ordination, matrimony, and anointing of the sick); they consider baptism as essential for salvation; with regard to the Eucharist, they believe that bread and wine become the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ; they believe that the ordained ministry is transmitted through the bishops in apostolic succession; regarding the true nature of the Church, they confess together their belief in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”, according to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

Once more, the common declaration of sharing in one faith, and in one baptism requires that the baptism performed in the Catholic Churches be received if a Catholic should wish to join our Coptic Orthodox communion. There can be no other understanding of this agreement. If the Catholic Churches are said to share with us, then they must be held to participate with us, in the benefits of faith and the sacraments.

When this Theological Commission was first instituted under the Presidency of His Eminence Bishop Gregorious, Bishop of Coptic Culture and Higher Theological Studies, he added to the guidelines which described and defined the work of the Commission these words..

Our Joint Commission wishes to recall the words of the Common Declaration of Pope Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III: “The Divine life is given to us and is nourished in us through the seven sacraments of Christ in His Church: Baptism, Chrism (Confirmation), Holy Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony and Holy Orders”. We wish to emphasize that this passage underlines the common regard and mutual respect which should be had for each other’s sacraments. We want to see this reflected in our pastoral practices and in our concern for the conscience of everyone.

It would seem that at the time of the creation of this commission the words of Pope Shenouda III were understood to require a ‘common regard and mutual respect’ towards the Baptism of each community. The Catholic Church has already embraced such a view in regard to its reception of our own Coptic Orthodox baptism, saying..

For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church – whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church – do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. The ecumenical movement is striving to overcome these obstacles. But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church. (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3, 1964)

If we consider the responses of many of the other local Orthodox Churches which comprise the Orthodox Church of Christ we find that many others receive Catholics without baptism, in accordance with our own ancent and authoritative Tradition. The Armenian, Syrian and Indian Orthodox do not require Catholics who wish to join our communion to be baptised since their own baptism is accepted. Far from being a novelty and a sign of liberalism, this is our own Tradition from which we have changed only in recent times.

When the Supreme-Catholicos Vasken I met with Pope Paul VI in 1970 he agreed with the statement..

Collaboration must be based on the mutual recognition of the common Christian faith and the sacramental life, on the mutual respect of persons and their Churches.

And in 1984, when Patriarch Mar Ignatius Zakka I met with Pope John Paul II they agreed in the statement..

Through the Word and through the Sacraments the Holy Spirit acts in the Church to call everybody and make them members of this Body of Christ. Those who believe are baptized in the Holy Spirit in the name of the Holy Trinity to form one body and through the Holy Sacrament of the anointing of Confirmation their faith is perfected and strengthened by the same Spirit.

It is therefore the case that our holy Fathers in the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate have always firmly insisted that Chalcedonians, of whom the Catholics are a part, should be received only by confession of faith and prayer. All those who performed anointings and baptisms were condemned. This was the case even in the times of greatest persecution. How much more should this ancient Tradition be applied to all Catholics in a time of growing reconciliation.

The reception of those outside our Orthodox community in the past by confession of faith and prayer applied even to Nestorians. How much more should this generosity be applied to Catholics who share the same faith in the most important aspects, and whose faith is certainly less diminished than that of the Nestorians of ancient times.

Our fathers in the other Orthodox Churches have continued to receive Catholics without baptism, as was our own practice until recently. And the very words of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, and of His Eminence Bishop Gregorious, who established the Commission with the Catholics, call us to mutual respect and a common reception of the sacrament of Baptism.

To restore this ancient and authoritative Tradition is a matter of obedience to our holy Fathers, and a participation in that work of reconciliation begun by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of blessed memory.

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