A Note on the Neo-Orthodox Attack on Catholic Sacraments

Since the book is getting a lot of attention in Eastern circles, I thought I would make mention of the recently translated neo-Orthodox polemic against the Second Vatican Council, Fr. John Heers’s newly translated The Ecclesiological Renovation of Vatican II: An Orthodox Examination of Rome’s Ecumenical Theology Regarding Baptism and the Church from Uncut Mountain Press. Heers, for those who are unaware, is a vocal opponent of Catholic/Orthodox ecumenism and the intellectual heir of Greek-nationalist theologians such as Fr. John Romanides. To be clear: I have not read the book, though I am not against doing so at some point down the line. In the meantime I decided to check out an earlier paper by Heers, one which appears to summarize the “findings” contained in his book: “The Mystery of Baptism and the Unity of the Church: The Idea of ‘Baptismal Unity’ and its Acceptance by Orthodox Ecumenists.” The title effectively gives away the author’s conclusions. Heers wants the Orthodox Church to “return to strictness” when it comes to “heretical baptisms.” In other words, he wants all converts to be re-baptized and for Orthodoxy to go full Jansenist in declaring there is no grace to be found in non-Orthodox sacraments. Wonderful.

As most know, the push for re-baptism and grace-denial is of relatively recent vintage. In the centuries prior to the rise of Greek nationalism, the Greek Orthodox Church—like its Russian counterpart—accepted non-Orthodox (Catholic and Oriental) baptisms, and if chrismation or confirmation had already been administered, they were sometimes accepted as well. (I will leave to the side the various debates about this.) Further, Catholic priests who converted to Orthodoxy, whether from the Latin or one of the Eastern churches, were traditionally received through vesting, not re-ordination. Once the modern “Greek view” started to become normative, theories were developed about previous practice, with oikonomia being proposed as the “magic answer.” According to this line of thinking, it wasn’t that Orthodoxy accepted the validity of non-Orthodox baptisms; reception into the Orthodox Church retroactively filled the otherwise empty sacraments with grace.

It is ironic that Heers and his fellow travelers are so rabidly against the possibility that Orthodoxy could develop a broader and deeper sacramental theology which contemplates the validity of sacraments conferred by non-Orthodox ministers. None of them seem to have any problem with the development (some might argue degeneration) of Orthodox sacramental theology with respect to marriage, one which now allows for the dissolution of valid marriages and the possibility for an Orthodox layman to marry two additional times. When, I wonder, will the neo-Orthodox now calling for a “return to strictness” regarding baptism do the same regarding marriage? That’ll be the day.


  1. Several years back I asked a PhD candidate –who was at that time just flushed through with that rigorist sort of thinking– “what is a sacrament?” and he could not answer. The sectarian idea that grace is restricted to a particular political body and that grace is only conveyed through said body’s rites reduces the whole thing to politics. Once one asks such people, “what does grace mean, then?” the question cannot be answered in any way that does not admit its exclusive sphere within the sect, so that any possible answer again reduces to politics.

    1. Just like the author of this post, I have not read all of this book myself. That being said, here’s an interesting quote from Florovsky regarding Cyprian of Carthage’s ecclesiology:

      “Strictly speaking, the theological premises of St. Cyprian’s teaching have never been disproved. Even St. Augustine was not so very far from St. Cyprian. He argued with the Donatists, not with St. Cyprian himself, and he did not confute St. Cyprian; indeed, his argument was more about practical measures and conclusions. In his reasoning about the unity of the Church, about the unity of love, as the necessary and decisive condition of the saving power of the sacraments, St. Augustine really only repeats St. Cyprian in new words.”

      Florovsky, Fr. George, The Boundaries of the Church (Collected Works, Vol. XIII, pp. 36)

  2. The reality is that there is a segment of Greek Orthodox (literally, belonging to the Greek Church) that advocate these views. Officially, they are considered fringe (labeled Emphremites, if I recall correctly). Unofficially, however, they have an appeal among the Greeks – not sure about everyone else.

      1. Which is funny, because the Moscow Patriarchate has historically been quite less strict about it. For instance, Greek Catholics were received back to Orthodoxy en masse without so much as an individual confession of faith. Perhaps redrawing borders is a sacrament of initiation?

        1. Ryan, that is because for the Byzantine Orthodox, simply being Byzantine is in some manner considered to be almost Orthodox (the cultural fixation is very strong). The Carpatho-Russian Greek Catholics were received by the Greeks in the 1930’s via telegram, whilst converting Romans, with the same Sacraments were received via re-baptism.

          1. The Russian rite for reception of Latin Catholic converts in use since the 18th century called for reception by confession of faith. I don’t know if anyone still does this though.

            1. Ryan, the Russians under Constantinople, with their cathedral in Paris, were still using the traditional method of reception of Roman Catholics in this method; and vesting for the reception of Roman Catholic clergy. But I do not know if they are still doing this or not. Even when I was in S Serge there was a movement to receive by chrismation. But this was rejected by the older Russians.

              In the Philippines all converts to the Russian religion are received via rebaptism. Regardless if they are coming from the Philippine Independent Church or from Rome.

          2. For what is is worth, Dale, I was never re-baptized. In fact the only one that was baptized was a two year old who hadn’t received baptism of any sort. Just for reference.

            1. Yes, it comes and it goes and in the end is usually a personal opinion of the receiving clergy or jurisdiction. Not too long ago a group of members of the Charismatic Episcopal Church were received into the Antiochian Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, about 30 people, they were all rebaptised, even the priest. The converting priest was one of those Byzantine rite evangelical types. He posted videos on youtube. What was strange is that he was received without baptism, and his manner of baptising, back of head first instead of forehead first was right out of the Southern Baptist handbook. To baptise or not to baptise is a turkey shoot in Byzantium.

              I was in London years ago when ROCOR was rebaptising converts from the Moscow Patriarchate.

            2. Oh,this happened at St John the Theologian mission, San Juan Capistrano, California. I later heard that almost all of these people, realising what a kook outfit they joined, left.

            3. So it would appear there is no set rule, based upon my own experience and what you’ve learned. The priest who did it (in my parish) is a former Roman Catholic – I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. The bishop’s son (he’s a widower) told me that, according to Antiochene rules in the USA (or perhaps just New England) Roman Catholics are listed as not needing Baptism. As I understand it, after the RCs the “rules” become more complicated. For instance, because of an alleged tendency of Episcopalians in the USA to baptize “In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier,” and for said Baptism to be conducted by a female priest, there is a possibility that re-Baptism would be required, but I think that would also hold true in the Roman Church as well. At at the end of the day, religion brings out the best and worst in people.

              “I was in London years ago when ROCOR was rebaptising converts from the Moscow Patriarchate.”

              So, they were re-baptizing other Orthodox? I thought only the Greeks were prone to that.

            4. The Charismatic Episcopal Church are not the same as the Episcopal Church, they are theologically very conservative, and have their orders from the Brazilian National Catholics, whose validity are accepted by Rome. You are quite correct that in the United States the Antiochians tend to accept trinitarian baptisms as valid, but many of the Byzantine rite Evangelicals who have joined have ROCOR and Genuine Orthodox tendencies, and behave accordingly. I can only imagine that they must love this Heers fellow.

              One could mention that the same month this group in California was received by baptism, another, larger group, was received into Antioch’s western rite in New England by more normal methods. So, in the same jurisdiction, converts from the same ecclesial background were received in vastly different methods. It is indeed not too much more than personal opinion. Rather like the Episcopal Church somehow.

  3. Also, respectfully, the teaching within this book is not “neo-Orthodox”, whatever this may mean. I recommend reading the writings of Cyprian of Carthage or Firmillian of Caesarea, if you think this is something strangely new. Even the heretic Tertullian (ironically) taught that heretics cannot rightfully be Christians.

    1. So? Cyprian was wrong, and, by the Grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, his view did not prevail. That is why we have a Magisterium: It is far bigger and weightier than the views of any one Father or saint.

      Father Stanley Jaki observed that the defeat of the Cyprianist position marked the real beginning of Catholic ecumenism — many centuries before Vatican II. Heck, it’s arguable that Saint Peter’s vision on the rooftop and the subsequent Council of Jerusalem marked the real beginning. The bottom line is that rigorist exclusivism is not of God. There is such a thing as false ecumenism, sure. But it does not consist in recognizing the reality of Grace for those who have received Trinitarian Baptism.

    2. It is neo-Orthodox insofar as it represents a theological break with what the Orthodox have been teaching and practicing for centuries. Also, not even the Orthodox privilege particular Fathers in the way you seem to be suggesting. Not every inchoate theological opinion rises to the level of binding dogma, unless you want to argue that Trullu Canon 95 represents some radical, innovative break from which the East now needs to free itself from.

  4. I remember a Melkite priest recounting to me the story of a fellow Melkite who went Orthodox. The Orthodox bishop hesitantly accepted the norm that Catholic clergy were not to be re-ordained, so the convert was only re-baptized, vested, and concelebrated the Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday.

      1. I knew a priest who converted from eastern rite Catholicism. He was received by the Rue Darue (Russians under Constantinople) in the traditional Russian manner via vesting. Later when he visited Greece, the Greeks refused to allow him to con-celebrate, demanding that he be crismated. Later, on Athos, they demanded that he also be re-baptised; but at no time did anyone demand that he be re-ordained. Goofy is the only word for it.

        1. Meanwhile, if a Catholic attends an Oriental Orthodox Vespers he may find himself invited to their Sunday Liturgy AND to Communion (it’s happened to me a few times and I almost wanted to take them up on the offer).

          1. I know the Armenian and Syriac Churches would have no problem allowing Catholics to receive Holy Communion as their Liturgies. I’m not sure about the other Oriental Orthodox Churches.

            1. It’s a mixed bag. Things are messier in the West where there is so much overlap, which almost seems to accentuate the differences.

            2. My specific examples were Coptic and Malankara (Indian Syriac) priests. Coptics are the only ones who I’ve heard vary. All Miaphysites, from what I hear, have an open Communion policy with the Byzantine Orthodox (even if it is a one-way street).

  5. Interestingly enough, Father Peter Heers’ father, Father Gregory, began as an Antiochian Western Rite Orthodox priest. His son went off to Greece to study and fell, it appears, under the influence of the Romanides-Metallinos school of ecclesiology.

    1. Was he one of those who used a bunch of trusting Anglicans to get a quickie ordination in Antioch’s western rite and then immediately went Byzantine leaving his people behind once they had served their purpose? Happens quite frequently.

  6. Along these lines it might be worth looking into the Catholic Church’s 2001 declaration on the invalidity of Mormon baptisms. An explanation of the CDF’s judgment appeared in L’Osservatore Romano: https://www.ewtn.com/library/theology/mormbap1.htm I’m still trying to wrap my head around why Mormon baptisms are invalid but Arian baptisms are. The Catholic Church likewise accepts as valid the baptism of most Protestant sects, but how does it judge that the intention of either the minister or the recipient is valid when many more fundamentalist sects deny the efficacy of water baptism and don’t believe (faith is key here!) that baptism doesn’t actually do anything? It’s not magic.

    1. Arians separated themselves from the Church, whilst Mormons created their religion on their own, from the Church’S POV.

      There’S certainly a lit of fuzziness to go around. To Gabriel’s, if you undermine your effort for greater strictness if you’re capricious regarding what to be strict about. At the same time, in the fight against secularism, we do need some capability to communicate what is unworthy belief and praxis. In this, I find the west no less convulsed that the east. Many westerners were trained with the notion that while dogma is unchanging, doctrine is not, and the Magisterial is fully empowered to change doctrine. I don’t understand this, but I do believe it is normative and operative in the RC Church.

      1. Huh???? I have no earthly clue what you are talking about. Who ever said that doctrine is changeable? Have you actually read Newman? Or the Catechism? Why not learn what Catholicism actually teaches? Then you might actually understand it.

          1. Did I say there was no difference between doctrine and dogma? No, I did not. But if you want to know what Catholicism means by development of doctrine, go to the Catechism. You can google that, too, you know.

      2. Setting aside Diane’s remarks, I do think there is a prevalent notion among Catholics that doctrine can be changed or, as they say, “developed” into something other than what it was before. I think the fault of the Orthodox is that they lack a theory of development and so assume — wrongly — that their own doctrines have not developed. But you see that same problem too with respect to elements of church life which everyone acknowledges can and does change, such as the liturgy. I don’t doubt there are a great many Orthodox, even converts, who think the Divine Liturgy they attend every Sunday is substantially the same liturgy Ss. Basil and John Chrysostom celebrated over 1500 years ago.

        1. Indeed. That is the self-talk within the group, and such self-talk goes a long way to defining understanding of reality.

        2. Gabriel what you have written here is very true. The Antiochian Archdiocese is actually selling a book, “These Things We Believe,” by one of their half-baked konvertsi who actually declares that all western rites, even those used by the Orthodox, are “man made” (He is one of those Byzantine rite Evangelicals, and seems ignorant of the fact that the Roman Canon is one of the most ancient in the Church), and goes on to state that the liturgy of S John Chrysostom seems have come down from heaven complete and unchanged to the present day.

          They also have a tendency to state that their theology is only that of the Councils, but Palamasism is not found in any of the Councils and is in some ways a “Theological development.” They can get quite irate when this is mentioned; and then start a completely different song-and-dance that not all of the ancient faith is found in the Councils.

          1. goes on to state that the liturgy of S John Chrysostom seems have come down from heaven complete and unchanged to the present day.

            This sounds a whole lot like the conviction held by many fundamentalists that the Bible (especially the Authorized a/k/a King James Version) fell out of Heaven, all 66 books intact, in elegant Jacobean English, sometime near the end of the first century. (Or was it 1611?)

            The konvertzi apple does not fall far from the fundy tree, it seems.

    2. The intention does not necessarily belong to the celebrant or recipient unless that person establishes a contrary intention. The intention is traditionally judged and established by the rite itself, which is, for example, why a priest who has lost his faith can still celebrate Mass (even if he shouldn’t). The Mormon way of baptizing has nothing in it recognizable to Catholicism other than the Father, Son & Holy Spirit formula; the rest of the rite renders it meaningless, given that Sacramental rites aren’t magic words. Protestants, traditionally, perform Baptism in a way that is recognizable to a Catholic and is at least open to a Catholic interpretation. That might be less and less true as more evangelical protestant sects invent more baptism rites “in the name of Jesus” that have no structure based in historic theology.

      I know it’s referenced excessively in debates like this, such Apostolicae Curae’s real point isn’t just that the Anglican “form” of ordination is invalid, but that the rite itself has absolutely nothing to do with the traditional understanding of the episcopacy, so an ordination couldn’t take place there. The same applies to Baptism.

      1. Brendan, I know what you’re saying, of course. But the element of faith must be taken into account also when we speak of intention; I know it usually isn’t considered in Latin sacramental theology. I’m just saying it needs to be. Consider Benedict XVI’s words to this effect back in 2005 (Meeting with the clergy of Aosta): “I would say that those who were married in the Church for the sake of tradition but were not truly believers, and who later find themselves in a new and invalid marriage and subsequently convert, discover faith and feel excluded from the Sacrament, are in a particularly painful situation. This really is a cause of great suffering and when I was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I invited various Bishops’ Conferences and experts to study this problem: a sacrament celebrated without faith. Whether, in fact, a moment of invalidity could be discovered here because the Sacrament was found to be lacking a fundamental dimension, I do not dare to say. I personally thought so, but from the discussions we had I realized that it is a highly-complex problem and ought to be studied further. But given these people’s painful plight, it must be studied further.”

      2. Protestants, traditionally, perform Baptism in a way that is recognizable to a Catholic and is at least open to a Catholic interpretation.

        Interestingly, this is basically the argument used by Orthodox regarding (re)baptism of most Western Christians. The only difference where the line is drawn regarding what is “recognizable” and necessary. For Orthodox who (re)baptize, triple immersion and the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are necessary minimum requirements for a baptism to be “recognized” as baptism. This is why Anabaptists and others who baptize by triple immersion in the name of the Trinity are typically received by chrismation alone, as this is the only sacrament they are lacking.

        Regarding re- anything sacramental in Orthodoxy, the late Orthodox canonist Abp. Peter L’Huillier noted the Orthodox view that reception at the Lord’s Supper was effectively the reception of any state (excluding sin) the person was in. (I’m sure he would have stated that in more nuanced and precise terms, BTW, and that’s apart from pastoral needs both ‘strict’ and ‘loose’ for the person, the parish, and the church.) Specifically, once a person was received at the chalice, his/her baptism/chrismation/ordination/marriage/etc. was received, as well, since the Eucharist/Union with Christ Himself was the sacrament par excellence, which is far more than simply providing that which might be lacking. Now, this might represent more of the Russian view of such things, but it saves one from the oddities mentioned above whereby a Catholic priest might receive all the sacraments (“again”) except the one that made him a priest. It also focuses the reception of non-Orthodox sacraments on union with Christ and His Body rather than on economia; that is, the bishop’s economia (‘management of the house’) is exercised in deciding who will be allowed to the table rather than as a sort of forensic grant of that which is absent.

        1. “For Orthodox who (re)baptize, triple immersion and the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are necessary minimum requirements for a baptism to be “recognized” as baptism.” But this would invalidate most of the older baptisms of the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox, who, at least when I was young, used pouring and not the triple immersion. When I was a seminarian, a child who was not expected to live, he did, was baptised by pouring in the hospital. So if this bizarre notion is taking to its logical conclusions, virtually all older baptisms in the Carpatho-Russian diocese are invalid, and any child baptised in medical emergency by pouring must also not be validly baptised. Getting back to goofy.

          1. The view I noted is for discerning the baptisms of those outside of the church. What you are discussing is the economia of necessity for those baptisms done within the church, i.e., triple immersion was the norm, pouring in necessity second best, even sprinkling in necessity OK if the intention was there, and also baptism without water altogether (martyrs’ “baptism by blood”). That definition of “necessity” is expanded even more broadly in many cases and is the basis for many/most Orthodox accepting baptisms done in churches not in communion with the Orthodox.

        2. And this is the absurdity of the current Orthodox view of things articulated in the most straightforward manner possible. It is an innovation to claim that somehow a previously “dead” sacrament, devoid of grace, can be “graced” ex post facto. It is a theory not found in the Fathers and one that has only come into vogue in the last few centuries after the push in some Orthodox circles to not recognize the validity of Catholic sacraments in toto. It makes a complete mockery of both Orthodox sacramental theology and oikonomia, though it doesn’t seem to bother the convert-dox all that much…

          1. The baptisms of heretics and schismatics were accepted in the canons of the early, undivided church, and some not, so there’s nothing new about the practice per se. The only things that are contestable, really, are where the line is drawn (who are heretics/schismatics and whose sacraments should be accepted or not) and the reasoning about why and what is happening (a sacramental workaround, economia, or something more administrative in nature). The early church accepted the baptism of Arians (long after it was otherwise acknowledged as out of bounds), so this shouldn’t really be a controversy apart from the emotions it engenders.

  7. <>

    Your post is unfortunate, for it is filled with misleading and inaccurate comments such as the one above.

    You are referring to an article I wrote more than 12 years ago – several years before I began formal research on the book. How can I summarize a book for which I hadn’t even begun formal research?

    The book is addressing ecclesiology and not pastoral economy or the question of the reception of converts, which was taken up by the article. A Roman Catholic reader will find abundant material for consideration, discussion and debate – a discussion which can only enrich his own knowledge of the issue at hand. As anyone who has read the book can tell you, I have gone to great lengths to quote the original sources and commentaries of Roman Catholic scholars (with over 700 footnotes and references). I spent 7+ years reading these texts all in attempt to get behind the superficial and counter-productive generalizations and assumptions (such as those made here both in the article and comments) and get to the heart of the matter: the differences between the doctrine of the Church pre and post Vatican II among Roman Catholics and the Orthodox patristic teaching.

    There are many inaccuracies in your post above – too many to address here. My suggestion to those sincerely interested in the issue is simply to read the book and then return to the discussion AFTER having read it. I would be more than happy to engage in a discussion with you on that basis, even if we stand in strident opposition.

    I am all for a good discussion and debate. What you are doing here, it seems to me, is stifling debate and attempting to sabotage discussion. It need not be that way.

    1. Fr. Heers,

      From the excerpts of your book I’ve had scanned to me, I do not know how you can credibly say that the earlier article and your present text are in any sense substantially different in their conclusions. From what I have seen, your book is an elaboration on previously drawn conclusions from which you have not backed down. Also, I think you are being disingenuous to assert that you are not leading your readers to the same conclusion with the book that you insisted on so vehemently with your earlier article and other texts which are available in English.

      I am the last man on earth to defend all of the texts of V2 as being consistent, precise, or unproblematic. What I do not care for is someone trying to dodge their own ecclesial project with the weak defense of, “Read the book…” While I think people should read it if so inclined, there can be no doubting where you are directed ideologically or who your intellectual forebears are. With that knowledge out in the open, people can draw their own conclusions on whether nor not to read.

        1. I imagine it would be easy to dismiss Fr. Aidan’s review, too, as being simply his elaborations on “previously drawn conclusions”, as would a review by, say, Met. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos or Abp. Job (Getcha). It’s a fallacy to assume any of us are coming to the evidence anew to objectively follow wherever it leads. It’s often a rhetorically useful fallacy, though.

          1. Well, except, you don’t know Fr. Aidan’s views because you haven’t read him…

            But more to the point, I never called for a dismissal. I simply want people to go in with their eyes open.

            1. I think a book by an Orthodox priest pretty much advertises where he will come out on various topics, as does the OP following Fr. Aidan’s name. It’s a non-point, especially given that Fr. Peter likely states his thesis pretty clearly, pretty earlier; as Fr. Aidan and most scholars and polemicists do.

              I have read Fr. Aidan.

            2. That’s absurd. Fr. Heers’s book is nothing like one would expect if they read Schmemann, Meyendorff, Florovsky, Behr, etc. Apples and oranges, bro.

              Also, you must not be a very attentive reader of Fr. Nichols if you think his broadminded approach to theology is summarized simply by “O.P.”

      1. As one sees in judicial rulings, it’s possible to end up at the same point via different routes. I would imagine it is as easy to dismiss your own opinions on anything based on the assumption that you are simply attempting to prove “previously drawn conclusions”, as well.

        1. There exists 50+ years worth of scholarship on Vatican II and what it does, or does not, say. While I am open to another Orthodox perspective on the matter (there have already been several), I am disinclined to trust someone who has already made elemental errors in earlier writings on Catholic theology. Now perhaps Fr. Heers has “cleaned things up” a bit, but from what I have read, that does not appear to be the case.

          Keep in mind my criticism is aimed solely at Heers’s Jansenism with respect to grace outside of the Orthodox Church. Whatever inconsistencies or shortcomings he finds in the Vatican II texts are not really my concern, or interest.

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