Chiesa news agency has published a copy of a draft text (previously unpublished) from the current Orthodox-Catholic ecumenical dialogue.
from the Joint Coordinating Committee for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church
Aghios Nikolaos, Crete, Greece, September 27 – October 4, 2008.
Here’s the first part:
1. In the Ravenna document, “The Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church – Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority”, Catholics and Orthodox acknowledge the inseparable link between conciliarity and primacy at all levels of the life of the Church: “Primacy and conciliarity are mutually interdependent. That is why primacy at the different levels of the life of the Church, local, regional and universal, must always be considered in the context of conciliarity, and conciliarity likewise in the context of primacy” (Ravenna document, n. 43). They also agree that “in the canonical order (taxis) witnessed by the ancient Church”, which was “recognised by all in the era of the undivided Church”, “Rome, as the Church that “presides in love” according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch, occupied the first place in the taxis, and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the protos among the patriarchs’ (nn. 40, 41). The document refers to the active role and prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as “protos among the patriarchs’, “protos of the bishops of the major Sees’ (nn. 41, 42, 44), and it concludes that “the role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of all the Churches’ must be ‘studied in greater depth”. “What is the specific function of the bishop of the “first see” in an ecclesiology of koinonia?” (n. 45)
2. The topic for the next stage of the theological dialogue is therefore: “The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium”. The aim is to understand more deeply the role of the bishop of Rome during the period when the Churches of East and West were in communion, notwithstanding certain divergences between them, and so to respond to the above question.
3. The present text will treat the topic by considering the following four points:
– The Church of Rome, prima sedes;
– The bishop of Rome as successor of Peter;
– The role of the bishop of Rome at times of crisis in the ecclesial communion;
– The influence of non-theological factors.
The Church of Rome, “prima sedes”
4. Catholics and Orthodox agree that, from apostolic times, the Church of Rome has been recognised as the first among the local Churches, both in the East and in the West. The writings of the apostolic fathers clearly testify to this fact. Rome, the capital of the empire, quickly gained renown in the early church as the place of martyrdom of saints Peter and Paul (cf Rev 11:3-12). It occupied a unique place among the local churches and exercised a unique influence. Late in the first century, invoking the example of the martyrs, Peter and Paul, the Church of Rome wrote a long letter to the Church of Corinth, which had ejected its elders (1 Clem. 1, 44), and urged that unity and harmony (homonoia) be restored. The letter was written by Clement, subsequently identified as bishop of Rome (cf Irenaeus, Adv.Haer., 3, 3, 2), though the exact form of leadership in Rome at that time is unclear.
5. Soon afterwards, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Church of Rome with high esteem, as “worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of being called blessed, worthy of success, worthy of purity”. He referred to it as “presiding in the region of the Romans’, and also as “presiding in charity” (“prokathemene tes agapes'; Romans, Salutation). This phrase is interpreted in various ways, but it seems to indicate that Rome had a regional role of seniority and leadership, and that it was distinguished in the essentials of Christianity, namely faith and charity. Ignatius also spoke of Peter and Paul, who preached to the Romans (Romans, 4).
6. Irenaeus emphasised that the Church of Rome was a sure reference point for apostolic teaching. With this Church, founded by Peter and Paul, it was necessary that every Church should agree (convenire), “propter potentiorem principalitatem”, a phrase which can be variously understood as “because of its more imposing origin” or “because of its greater authority” (Adv.Haer., 3, 3, 2). Tertullian also praised the Church of Rome “upon which the apostles [Peter and Paul] poured their whole teaching together with their blood”. Rome was foremost among the apostolic churches and none of the many heretics who went there seeking approval was ever received (cf De Praescrip. 36). The Church of Rome was thus a point of reference both for the “rule of faith” and also in the search for a peaceful resolution of difficulties either within or between certain Churches.
7. The bishop of Rome was occasionally in disagreement with other bishops. Regarding the dating of Easter, Anicetus of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna failed to agree in 154 AD but maintained eucharistic communion. Forty years later, bishop Victor of Rome ordered synods to be held to settle the matter – an interesting early instance of synodality and indeed of popes encouraging synods – and excommunicated Polycrates of Ephesus and the bishops of Asia when their synod refused to adopt the Roman line. Victor was rebuked by Irenaeus for this severity and it seems that he revoked his sentence and that communion was preserved. In the mid-3rd century, a major conflict arose regarding whether those baptised by heretics should be re-baptised when received into the Church. Recalling local tradition, Cyprian of Carthage and the bishops of north Africa, supported by synods around the eastern bishop Firmilian of Caesarea, maintained that such people should be re-baptised, whereas bishop Stephen of Rome, with reference to Roman tradition and indeed to Peter and Paul (Cyprian, Ep. 75, 6, 2), said that they should not. Communion between Stephen and Cyprian was severely impaired but not formally broken. The early centuries thus show that the views and decisions of the bishops of Rome were sometimes challenged by fellow bishops. They also show the vigorous synodal life of the early Church. The many African synods at this time, for instance, and Cyprian’s frequent correspondence with Stephen and especially with his predecessor, Cornelius, manifest an intense collegial spirit (cf Cyprian, Ep. 55, 6, 1-2).
8. All the Churches of East and West believed that the Church of Rome held first place (i.e. primacy) among the Churches. This primacy resulted from several factors: the foundation of this Church by Peter and Paul and the sense of their living presence there; the martyrdom in Rome of these two foremost apostles (koryphes) and the location of their tombs (tropaia) in the city; and the fact that Rome was the capital of the Empire and the centre of communication.
9. The early centuries show the fundamental and inseparable link between the primacy of the see of Rome and the primacy of its bishop: each bishop represents, personifies and expresses his see (cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Smyrnaeans 8; Cyprian, Ep. 66, 8). Indeed, it would be impossible to speak of the primacy of a bishop without referring to his see. From the second half of the second century, it was taught that the continuity of the apostolic tradition was signified and expressed by the succession of bishops in the sees founded by the apostles. Both East and West have continued to maintain that the primacy of the see precedes the primacy of its bishop and is the source of the latter.
10. Cyprian believed that the unity of the episcopate and of the Church was symbolised in the person of Peter, to whom primacy was given, and in his chair, and that all bishops held this charge in common (“in solidum”; De unit. ecc., 4-5). Peter’s chair was thus to be found in every see, but especially in Rome. Those who came to Rome came “to the chair of Peter, to the primordial church, the very source of episcopal unity” (Ep. 59, 14, 1).
11. The primacy of the see of Rome came to be expressed in various concepts: cathedra Petri, sedes apostolica, prima sedes. However, the saying of Pope Gelasius: “The first see is judged by no–one” (“Prima sedes a nemine iudicatur”; cf. Ep. 4, PL 58, 28B; Ep. 13, PL 59, 64A), which afterwards was applied in an ecclesial context and became contentious between East and West, originally meant simply that the Pope could not be judged by the Emperor.
12. The Eastern and Western traditions recognised a certain “honour” (timi) of the first among the patriarchal sees which was not purely honorific (Council of Nicaea, can. 6; Council of Constantinople, can. 3; and Council of Chalcedon, can. 28). It entailed an “authority” (exousia; cf Ravenna document, n. 12), which nevertheless was “without domination, without physical or moral coercion” (Ravenna document, n. 14). Although in the first millennium Ecumenical Councils were called by the emperor, no council could be recognised as ecumenical without it having the consent of the pope, given either beforehand or afterwards. This can be seen as an application at the universal level of the life of the Church of the principle enunciated in Apostolic Canon 34: “The bishops of each province (ethnos) must recognize the one who is first (protos) amongst them, and consider him to be their head (kephale), and not do anything important without his consent (gnome); each bishop may only do what concerns his own diocese (paroikia) and its dependent territories. But the first (protos) cannot do anything without the consent of all. For in this way concord (homonoia) will prevail, and God will be praised through the Lord in the Holy Spirit” (cf Ravenna document, n. 24). At all levels in the life of the Church, primacy and conciliarity are interdependent.
13. The Emperor Justinian (527-65) fixed the rank of the five major sees, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, in imperial law (Novellae 131, 2; cf 109 praef.; 123, 3), thus constituting what became known as the Pentarchy. The bishop of Rome was seen as the first in the order (taxis), without however the Petrine tradition being mentioned.
14. Under Pope Gregory I (590-604), a dispute which had already started under Pope Pelagius II (579-590) over the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” for the patriarch of Constantinople continued. Different understandings, in East and West, gave rise to the dispute. Gregory saw in the title an intolerable presumption and violation of the canonical rights of the other sees in the East, whereas in the East the title was understood as an expression of major rights in the patriarchate. Later, Rome accepted the title. Gregory said that he personally refused the title “universal pope”, being honoured instead simply when each bishop received the honour that was his due (“my honour is the honour of my brothers’, Ep. 8, 29). He called himself the ‘servant of the servants of God” (servus servorum dei).
15. Charlemagne’s coronation in 800 by Pope Leo III marked the beginning of a new era in the history of papal claims. A further factor leading to differences between East and West was the emergence of the False Decretals (c.850), which aimed towards strengthening Roman authority in order to protect the bishops. The Decretals played an enormous role in the following centuries, as popes gradually started to act in the spirit of the Decretals, which declared, for instance, that all major issues (causae maiores), especially the deposition of bishops and metropolitans, were the ultimate responsibility of the bishop of Rome, and that all councils and synods received their legal authority through being confirmed by the Roman see. The patriarchs of Constantinople did not accept such a view, which was contrary to the principle of synodality. Though the Decretals, in fact, did not refer to the East, at a later stage, in the second millennium, they were applied to the East by Western figures. Despite such increasing tensions, in the year 1000 Christians in both the West and the East were still conscious of belonging to a single undivided Church.
It’s still unofficial, but very interesting. The complete document can be read here.
Update (September 29, 2010)
The above document should not be considered to faithfully represent the Orthodox views on the subject, according to a statement from an Orthodox Bishop attending a subsequent meeting of the ecumenical discussions. See:
More from Metropolitan Kallistos. Here the Metropolitan lectures on “What is Prayer?” at Seattle Pacific University. The lecture doesn’t begin until about 5:40 into the video, so you may want to fast forward a bit to get to it.
This book by David Bentley Hart looks like a powerful read. I’ve got my copy on order.
George C Michalopulos
Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
David Bentley Hart
Yale University Press
New Haven & London, 2009
253 pages, $28.00
Several years ago when I was young and impressionable, I happened upon the Charles Laughton version of The Mutiny on the Bounty. What struck me – as near as I can recollect—was the climax of Lieutenant Bligh’s trial. Though acquitted of the charges against him, the president of the tribunal condemned Bligh’s character by saying that the Royal Navy had erred in commissioning him as he was “no Christian gentleman.” I remember how devastated I was by the indictment of Laughton/Bligh, delivered as it was in the crisp, no-nonsense, upper-class English accent. It became immediately apparent that the poor wretch would be hounded out of decent society for the rest of his life.
The reader may ask at this point: what would incite a reviewer of a book which is a vigorous apologia of the Christian religion to cite a little-remembered version of movie describing an event barely remembered today? Only this: that at one time, there was such a thing as a “Christian gentleman,” a man of culture and erudition who lived comfortably in the world but was resolute in his religious convictions. More importantly, this type of Christian gentleman lived in a society that was Christian and unapologetically so.
Now of course, the opposite is the case: obloquy is heaped upon Western Civilization and the Church. Christendom is castigated as the great engine of colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, and the heartbreak of psoriasis. No doubt, we will soon find out that we would be much better off if our ancestors had never read McGuffy’s Reader as children or the Confessions of St Augustine as adults. Instead, we would all be better off if we read Heather has Two Mommies or I, Rigoberta Menchu. In this abyss of ignorance in which we find ourselves. It seems to be the case that we have only two choices: the tyranny of tolerance or the horrors of Christianism.
Into this vacuum come the strident New Atheists, the Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harrises of the world. Though their books are vastly more intelligent than the bovine waste that comprise the feminist, homosexualist, or secularist “canon” of the typical Western university, they are not without their logical and philosophical problems. A few enterprising souls have risen to the fore to engage them on their own terms. Dinesh D’Souza for example, has done yeoman’s work in this regard, easily besting them, often in open debate as well as in print. However, the problem is not the New Atheists but the broader society, which has internalized a very ignorant, Christophobic dynamic. It is modern society and its “smelly little orthodoxies” (in Chesterton’s apt phrase), that has made the careers of the New Atheists viable. To decimate these pretensions, one could do no better than look to David Bentley Hart’s new book Atheist Delusions.
The New Atheism has found fertile clay indeed in which to sink its growing roots. The modern world has been softened up for some time now by the plows of materialism, Darwinism, and Freudianism. It is into this arena that Hart (an Orthodox Christian), has boldly advanced to do battle. He is certainly up to the task: like a confident gladiator he knows where his enemy’s weak spots are. His weapons are impressive indeed; besides the facts, he has a keen analytical mind and is able to spot fallacies and errors in logic. He sees what is there and often what is not there, the so-called dog that didn’t bark, and for this we can be grateful. Indeed, his prose is lively and entertaining, that alone is worth the price of admission. Moreover, he does not hesitate to pore through the evidence and footnotes (a tedious process if there ever was one), and is perfectly willing to call out eminent scholars (such as Ramsay MacMullen) for purposely distorting the evidence which they themselves used, in order to propagate a deliberate anti-Christian argument.
Hart dispatches the secularist critiques of (among other things) the Inquisition, the trial of Galileo, and the Christian burning of the famous Library at Alexandria. In the interest of brevity, I will only say that the Inquisition was set up by the Roman Catholic Church to stop the promiscuous torture and execution of people condemned of heresy and witchcraft by the state. In this respect, the Church largely succeeded. As for Galileo, Hart plumbs the historical record and proves that he was a prickly character who needlessly and with malice often provoked his many academic enemies. More to the point, his own astrophysical theories were not in themselves correct as his inquest pointed out. Indeed, the Church had no problems with his theories as they were essentially the same as Copernicus’, who some eighty years earlier, had received the imprimatur of the Church. And almost always left out of the modern secularist critique of the Church was the fact that he was a devout Christian, indeed more so than his great friend, Pope Urban VIII, who lavished upon him great accolades, pensions, and awards (thus further inflaming Galileo’s many enemies). More damningly, Galileo himself was not intellectually honest. He castigated competing astronomers such as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, more out of spite than conviction. Indeed, it is Kepler’s system of celestial mechanics which we use today.
As to the famous burning of the Alexandrian Library by supposedly superstitious and bigoted Christian mobs in A.D. 390, Hart destroys this myth with an alacrity that enlightens as well as educates us about the intricacies of the early Christian age. It is little known that the Library had in fact been burned down many centuries earlier, most probably – and inadvertently—by Julius Caesar’s legions, during the dictator’s war against Pompey in the year 48 B.C. This is a stunning revelation, as Caesar died in 44 B.C., a good forty years or so before Christ had even been born (and almost a good century before the creation of the Church). So how did this myth take hold? The answer lies in the internecine conflicts that took place between Greeks and Jews, and later between pagans and Christians in Alexandria, quite possibly the most cosmopolitan and most violent city in the Roman Empire.
The facts are discernable to anyone who wishes to pore over the earliest extant documents. On the grounds of the earlier Library stood a temple dedicated to Serapis, constructed a century after the first Library. The confusion arises because the Serapeum contained many scrolls scattered about its environs. The twelfth century Byzantine historian John Tzetzes for instance “claimed that Callimachus of Cyrene (c.305-240 B.C.) catalogued forty-two thousand scrolls in the library…but whether this is to be trusted…cannot be determined.” It is important to note that Tzetzes received this information second-hand; at any rate neither historians’ sources are extant. At any rate, the destruction of the Serapeum was one incident in the long, internecine conflicts between Christians and pagans. In this particular instance, some pagan gangs had kidnapped Christians, taken them to the temple, tortured and killed them, dumping their bodies in the adjacent pits where the offal of sacrificial animals was thrown. In the ensuing melee, the enraged Christians burned the temple and all its contents. Although a regrettably violent act, it is unknown at this time if there were indeed books and scrolls there. Regardless, the myth of the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by intolerant Christian mobs arose out of the ashes of this great catastrophe.
It is because of Hart’s great historical knowledge that this book is well worth a leisurely read. His historical episodes are written in a lively manner, entertaining and often with a hint of sarcasm. However, the real jewel of this book lies in its middle section, when Hart beautifully describes the rite of Christian initiation, contrasting it with the benighted, and hopeless paganism that permeated the entire non-Christian world. The remorselessness that Hart catalogues –from the pagans’ own sources at that—describe nothing less than a severe existential crisis for Hellenistic civilization. Even the vaunted erudition and science of Greek philosophy had long degenerated into superstition and magic by the time the Galilean “had cast the world gray with His breath.” The Renaissance myth, that Greek learning was snuffed bout by an intolerant Church takes a well-deserved beating in these pages. Indeed, it was Christianity, with its insistence that Reason (logos) had permeated the world –indeed created it—which gave rise to the scientific method. True science did not begin with Aristotle, who disdained the laboratory as the denizen of slaves, but with the Franciscans of the High Middle Ages, who had no compunction about getting their hands dirty. The operating principle of modern science –reductionism—was the revealed to the world by William of Ockham, a Franciscan monk.
So where are we now? Clearly not in a Christian – or even post-Christian age — but more probably an anti-Christian one. It is equally apparent to some that this age cannot last. There comes a time when old paradigms must be cast away. Sometimes a good idol-smashing does this, or better yet, a nice book-burning. Hart describes one such book-burning which gave rise to the modern age. It was on June 24, 1443, when Paracelsus took copies of all the medical books written by Galen and Avicenna in his possession, and publicly burned them, thereby destroying the stranglehold of Aristoteleian pseudo-science on the Christian and Islamic worlds. Hart makes a convincing case that it was only by such an audacious act that the modern age of scientific inquiry could begin. At any rate, it was not the Church which burned pagan texts (indeed, quite the opposite), but it was the Church which created a new paradigm that allowed such a brave soul to take such action, thereby birthing the modern age. One could only look wistfully upon such cheekiness and wonder if the modern Academy would be better off if 90 percent of its “canonical” literature received a similar fate.
Be that as it may, the Christian society of the ages past is probably extinct. However if it were to ever arise again, it would need an informed intellectual vanguard. There is no doubt in mind that Atheist Delusions would be a welcome and necessary addition to a new, more confident Christian canon, one appealing to Christians of all stripes. If nothing else, for those who desire the appellation of Christian gentleman, Atheist Delusions is a necessary addition to one’s library.
George C Michalopulos, is a layman in the Orthodox Church in America. He was born in Tulsa, OK where he resides and works. George is active in Church affairs, having served as parish council president at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church and as Senior Warden at Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Church. Together with Deacon Ezra Ham, he wrote ‘American Orthodox Church: A History of Its Beginnings” (Regina Orthodox Press: 2003). He is married to Margaret and has two sons, Constantine and Michael.
Two interesting videos just posted on YouTube by the BioLogos Foundation:
A patristics center at an Evangelical Protestant Bible College? You’ve got to be kidding, right? No, it’s for real and it’s about time.
Bobby Maddex, of Ancient Faith Radio, has done a special podcast on the new Center for Early Christian Studies which has opened at Wheaton College, an Evangelical Protestant institution in the Chicago area.
I’ve often said that many Evangelicals tend to have a “blind spot” when it comes to Church history, especially with regards to the Eastern Church. For many Evangelicals, Church history jumps from the book of Acts to Martin Luther in 1517 AD.
This “blind spot” often becomes real apparent when Evangelicals discuss historical theology and only mention Catholic writers from the West. For example, traditional Evangelical Protestant apologetics countering the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist most likely will focus on medieval Catholic writers and the Catholic council that defined Transubstantiation. Byzantine, Syrian, and Coptic Christian writers from the Early Church on the Real Presence are routinely ignored. The average Evangelical believes that the idea of Real Presence dates from the thirteenth century and was one of those “Roman inventions.” The fact that the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a universal belief of the Ancient Church is lost on most Evangelicals, often because many of them don’t even know about the Eastern Christian Churches. Many Evangelicals confuse Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, let alone Coptic, Syrian or Armenian Orthodoxy.
How will this new Center at Wheaton impact Evangelicalism? Maddex has some great interviews with Wheaton staff and administrators and asks some pointed questions. He also interviews some Orthodox priests and some alumni of Wheaton who are now Orthodox. Maddex’s podcast is definitely worth a listen.
For those interested in more detail, the inaugural address for the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies, given by Robert Louis Wilken, is also available for download. It gives an idea about the direction the Center intends to go.
Visitors from other Christian groups to an Orthodox Divine Liturgy will often find some similarities to their own religious services along with some major differences. For example, visitors from other liturgical Churches will recognize the Epistle and Gospel readings, the Alleluia, and the Anaphora or Canon before the distribution of the Eucharist. One major difference, however, is the Orthodox belief that there is no minimum age requirement for the reception of Holy Communion. Orthodox children, including infants, who have been Baptized and Chrismated (Confirmed), are welcome at the Lord’s Table.
For example, here is a video of an Orthodox infant, who having just been Baptized and Chrismated (Confirmed), receiving Holy Communion.
This is quite different from the Christian West. In Roman Catholic theology, for example, there is an emphasis on children understanding what the Eucharist means before they are permitted to receive the Eucharist. Most Protestant Christians have inherited this viewpoint. However, historically, this restrictive view that infants and children should not be welcomed to the Lord’s Table only developed in the Western Church and dates only from about 800 years ago. All the Christian Churches of the East (including Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, Byzantine Orthodox, etc.) have maintained the earlier tradition of giving the Eucharist to infants as well as adults. In fact, infant Communion was also practiced as a norm in the West up until about 1200 A.D.
St. Augustine of Hippo bears testimony to the practice in the Western Church of infants receiving from the Lord’s Table:
“Those who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are denying that Christ is Jesus for all believing infants. Those, I repeat, who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are saying nothing else than that for believing infants, infants that is who have been baptized in Christ, Christ the Lord is not Jesus. After all, what is Jesus? Jesus means Savior. Jesus is the Savior. Those whom he doesn’t save, having nothing to save in them, well for them he isn’t Jesus. Well now, if you can tolerate the idea that Christ is not Jesus for some persons who have been baptized, then I’m not sure your faith can be recognized as according with the sound rule. Yes, they’re infants, but they are his members. They’re infants, but they receive his sacraments. They are infants, but they share in his table, in order to have life in themselves.”
Augustine, Sermon 174, 7
Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. (who was on the faculty of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome) explains about the history of infant Communion in the Western Church in an article entitled “Liturgy in the Life of the Church” :
“The practice [of communing infants] began to be called into question in the 12th century not because of any argument about the need to have attained the “age of reason” (aetus discretionis) to communicate. Rather, the fear of profanation of the Host if the child could not swallow it led to giving the Precious Blood only. And then the forbidding of the chalice to the laity in the West led automatically to the disappearance of infant Communion, too. This was not the result of any pastoral or theological reasoning. When the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ordered yearly confession and Communion for those who have reached the “age of reason” (annos discretionis), it was not affirming this age as a requirement for reception of the Eucharist.
“Nevertheless, the notion eventually took hold that Communion could not be received until the age of reason, even though infant Communion in the Latin rite continued in some parts of the West until the 16th century. Though the Fathers of Trent (Session XXI,4) denied the necessity of infant Communion, they refused to agree with those who said it was useless and inefficacious — realizing undoubtedly that the exact same arguments used against infant Communion could also be used against infant baptism, because for over ten centuries in the West, the same theology was used to justify both! For the Byzantine rite, on December 23, 1534, Paul III explicitly confirmed the Italo-Albanian custom of administering Communion to infants….So the plain facts of history show that for 1200 years the universal practice of the entire Church of East and West was to communicate infants. Hence, to advance doctrinal arguments against infant Communion is to assert that the sacramental teaching and practice of the Roman Church was in error for 1200 years. Infant Communion was not only permitted in the Roman Church, at one time the supreme magisterium taught that it was necessary for salvation. In the Latin Church the practice was not suppressed by any doctrinal or pastoral decision, but simply died out. Only later, in the 13th century, was the ‘age of reason’ theory advanced to support the innovation of baptizing infants without also giving them Communion. So the “age of reason” requirement for Communion is a medieval Western pastoral innovation, not a doctrinal argument. And the true ancient tradition of the whole Catholic Church is to give Communion to infants. Present Latin usage is a medieval innovation.” (Emphasis added) (Text from here.)
Eastern Catholics (those Catholics which celebrate other liturgies such as the Byzantine, Armenian, Coptic or Syrian liturgy) generally adopted the later Roman practice of delaying communion until “the age of reason” once they entered union with Rome (1500 – 1700s A.D.) and thus discontinued infant Communion. This is explained by Pope Benedict XIV’s encylical Allatae Sunt (On the Observance of the Oriental Rites), given 26 July 1755. First, Pope Benedict XIV explains that:
24. For several centuries the practice prevailed in the Church of giving children the Eucharist after the sacrament of baptism….For the last four centuries, the Western church has not given the Eucharist to children after baptism. But it must be admitted that the Rituals of the Oriental churches contain a rite of Communion for children after baptism. Assemanus the Younger (Codicis Liturgici), bk. 2, p. 149) gives the ceremony of conferring baptism among the Melchites. On page 309, he quotes the Syrians’ baptismal ceremony as it was published by Philoxenus, the Monophysite Bishop of Mabbug, and on p. 306, the ceremony from the ancient Ritual of Severus, Patriarch of Antioch and leader of the Monophysites. He gives also the ceremonies of baptism observed by the Armenians and Copts (bk. 3, p. 95 and 130). All of these ceremonies command that the Eucharist should be given to children after baptism.
Here, Pope Benedict XIV dates the time the Latin Church stopped giving the Eucharist to children to 400 years earlier — in the 1300s. He recounts how the practice of the Eastern Church still gave testimony to Infant Communion and then notes the various Eastern Catholic synods which stopped the practice in imitation of the Latin Church from the 1500s to the 1700s. The specifics of the removal of Infant Communion can be read in the link to Pope Benedict XIV’s encyclical above. Eastern Orthodox Christians maintained the historic tradition, however.
The extent of the loss of the tradition of Infant Communion among the Eastern Catholic Churches was noted by Fr. Casimir Kucharek’s Ukrainian Catholic catechism Our Faith: A Byzantine Catechism for Adults. Writing in 1983, he explained:
Ancient practice had infants receiving Holy Communion (under the form of wine) after baptism. The Latin Church discontinued the practice in the twelfth century. Of all the Eastern Catholic Churches, only the Copts have preserved this venerable tradition, while all the Orthodox, — to their credit — also have. (page 269)
However, in the past 15 years or so various Eastern Catholic Churches have started to restore infant Communion with encouragement from Rome. The first indication of this was in 1990 with the publication of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (Eastern Catholic Canon Law). Canon 710 of that law stated:
With respect to the participation of infants in the Divine Eucharist after baptism and chrismation with holy myron, the prescriptions of the liturgical books of each Church sui iuris are to be observed with the suitable due precautions.
“In the Eastern rites the Christian initiation of infants also begins with Baptism followed immediately by Confirmation and the Eucharist…” (Section 1233)
However, there is no uniform practice yet among Eastern Catholics on infant Communion. When my two children were Baptized and Chrismated (Confirmed) in the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church in 1994 (ages 5 and 3), they were the first children in our Eparchy (Diocese) to receive the Eucharist at the time of their Baptism/Chrismation. The Ukrainian Catholic Church decided in 1997 to begin the restoration of infant Communion. Some parishes have implemented the change, but many have not. The tradition of “First Communion” dies hard in some places. The Melkite Greek Catholics (also in union with Rome) have generally restored infant Communion. According to this source, this has happened since about 1969, but many parishes have retained a “First Solemn Communion” that reflects the “First Communion” experience from the Latin Church.
The vast majority of Protestant churches do not practice infant Communion, though a few Protestant churches do practice or tolerate it. It enjoys limited support by some Reformed writers and has been debated in the Episcopal Church. It has also become an issue for several Lutherans who are contemplating converting to Orthodoxy. Some Lutheran writers have also correctly noted that the discontinuance of the practice of communing infants in the Western Church dates from about the twelfth century. Since 1997, some parishes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) now practice infant Communion.
Meanwhile, the Orthodox Christian East has retained this ancient tradition of the undivided Church of the first millennium.
For additional reading: