When an Orthodox Joins the Catholic Church

Author: Father Edward McNamara


When an Orthodox Joins the Catholic Church

ROME, 16 OCT. 2007 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: What is the procedure for a person who was baptized Macedonian Orthodox and who now wants to be received into the Roman Catholic Church? — F.F., Toronto

A: In the vast majority of cases Orthodox Christians have been validly baptized, confirmed and received the Eucharist from infancy, and thus do not have to receive any of these sacraments.

Likewise, Catholic canon law allows a Catholic priest to administer the sacraments of Eucharist, reconciliation and anointing to Orthodox Christians if their own minister is unavailable or for other just causes. (Most Orthodox Churches, however, do not approve of their faithful availing of this possibility.)

For this reason Orthodox Christians intending to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church would usually be able to participate in the Church's sacramental life even before their formal incorporation, either in the Latin rite or in an Eastern Catholic rite.

Prior to formal incorporation, they would still require a dispensation from the bishop before entering into marriage and a man could not enter into seminary formation. Nor could they receive any formal ministry.

The specific process for incorporating a baptized Eastern Christian is covered above all in the Code of Canon Law of the Eastern Churches, canons 35 and 896-901.

Canon 896 specifies that for those adult Christians (beyond 14 years) "who ask of their own accord to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, whether as individuals or as groups, no burden is to be imposed beyond what is necessary."

Canon 897 indicates that the Christian may be received "With only the profession of faith after a doctrinal and spiritual preparation that is suited to the person's condition."

With respect to individual laypersons the right to receive usually pertains to the pastor although in some cases particular law might reserve this admission to a higher authority (cf. Canon 898.3).

Canon 35, however, is important because it specifies that baptized non-Catholics entering into full communion "should retain their own rite and should observe it everywhere in the world as far as humanly possible. Thus they are to be ascribed to the Church 'sui iuris' of the same rite."

When the person wishes not only to become Catholic but to change to the Latin rite, the same canon recognizes the right to approach the Holy See (the Congregation for Eastern Churches) in special cases.

Therefore, in the case at hand, the simplest thing to do is to approach the Eastern eparchy most closely resembling his original rite in order to be admitted into the Catholic Church in accordance with the dispositions of the pastor.

Once admitted, he should continue to practice the faith in the corresponding Eastern rite. But he may also freely practice in the Latin rite for a just cause, for example, if there were no churches of his own rite within a reasonable distance.

In order to formally switch rites, he would need to recur to the Holy See as mentioned above.

* * *

Follow-up: When an Orthodox Joins the Catholic Church [10-30-2007]

Two readers, both expert canonists, sent in some clarifications that expand on my earlier answer (Oct. 16) regarding how an Orthodox Christian may enter the Catholic Church. I am very grateful and happily share their wisdom with our readers.

I had suggested that the Orthodox Christian seek out the nearest Eastern eparchy in order to make the profession of faith. A canonist informed me that when this is not feasible, "The simplest thing to do, in the likelihood that the proper Eastern Catholic Church 'sui iuris' is not readily accessible, is for an Eastern Christian to make a profession of faith before the local (usually Latin) Catholic pastor.

"The Eastern Christian recites the Nicene Creed and adds: 'I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God' (RCIA, Appendix, 2, 15; USA, 474, 491).

"Ascription to the proper ritual Church 'sui iuris' is automatic but needs to be recorded. Mentioning this in your column will be helpful in reminding Latin priests (and priests of other Churches 'sui iuris') to note it properly in the remarks of the baptismal registry (which usually serves as the 'special book' referred to in RCIA, Appendix, 13; USA, 486)."

Regarding my statement that an Orthodox would need a dispensation in order to enter into marriage, another reader clarified the terminology and the ensuing legal consequences.

She wrote: "Please permit me to point out that it is incorrect to state that an Orthodox requires a dispensation in order to marry in the Catholic Church. Canon 1124 notes that marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic is 'prohibited' ('prohibitum est') without 'permission' ('licentia') of competent authority. Absent such permission, the marriage is held to be illicit, rather than invalid. This required permission is different from a dispensation, as a dispensation is required to overcome an impediment which would affect validity.

"The above pertains to all non-Catholic Christians, but current marriage law is especially lenient, if you will, toward intermarriage with Orthodox, with regard to canonical form. Ordinarily, all marriages are required to follow the form delineated in Canon 1108.1, and a dispensation is thus required if the couple wish to marry in the church of the non-Catholic. Without this dispensation, the marriage would be invalid due to lack of form. But the particular case of an Orthodox Christian marrying a Catholic is specifically addressed further in Canon 1127.1: If the two were to marry in an Orthodox wedding ceremony, i.e., without following canonical form, the Church regards the marriage as valid, although illicit."

Once more I express my gratitude for these observations which I am sure will be as helpful to our readers as they have been to me.

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