Matters arising: Can I go to the Orthodox?

Rev. Nicholas Mary C.SS.R.

Fr. Nicholas Mary answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

I've been told that a Catholic may always attend Mass at an Eastern Orthodox church when there is no Catholic one easily available, for example when on holiday in Greece. Is that true?

That is a common and oft-repeated opinion amongst Catholics today, but nonetheless a completely erroneous one. It stems, on the one hand, from a confusion between the schismatic Eastern Orthodox and the Catholics of the oriental rites, and, on the other, from the errors of ecumenism rampant in the Church since Vatican II.

The law of the Church stipulates that “on Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass ... celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite...”Can. 1247–1248 §1. This echoes in this regard Can. 1248–9 of the 1917 code, though the new legislation has extended the time to satisfy the Sunday obligation to include Saturday evening, and the old had placed limitations (since abolished) on the places in which the obligation might be satisfied (principally churches and public or semi-public oratories). This means that a Catholic of the Roman Rite, for example, attending the Divine Liturgy at a Byzantine or other Eastern Catholic church on a Sunday or other holy day of obligation has fulfilled his or her duty.Can. 881 of the Oriental Catholic code is less specific, but the same applies in reverse, i.e. when an Eastern Catholic attends the Roman Rite. We are not here considering the various liturgically and doctrinally problematic concrete situations that the crisis throughout the Church has engendered, but rather the terms of the obligation in itself. It does not mean that a Catholic may actively participate in the worship of the Eastern Orthodox or any other non-Catholic group.

Though there are only minor differences between the liturgies of Eastern Catholics and Orthodox, Eastern Catholics worship in a Catholic rite whereas Orthodox do not. Even when the rites of the latter are materially identical to the former, they are not Catholic, for they are performed by schismatics. Nor does the fact that the schismatics have retained valid sacraments change this. Even though their Masses are valid and Our Lord deigns to descend to their altars as to ours, we may not lawfully take active part in their schismatic worship. In the early fifth century, St. Augustine famously reminded the Donatist“Originally a schism and then a heresy of the fourth and fifth centuries, claiming that the validity of the sacraments depends on the moral character of the minister; also that sinners cannot be members of the Church, nor can they be tolerated by the true Church if their sins are publicly known. The Donatists came into existence in Africa during the disorders following the persecution under Diocletian (245–313) [and] did not disappear until the Muslim invasion of Africa in the seventh century.” Donatism in: J.A. Hardon, S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary (Eternal Life Publications, Bardstown, KY, 2000). schismatics and heretics—whose Masses and sacraments were as valid as those of the Orthodox today—that:

“A man cannot have salvation, except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church he can have everything except salvation. He can have honour, he can have Sacraments, he can sing Alleluia, he can answer Amen, he can possess the Gospel, he can have and preach faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: but never except in the Catholic Church will he be able to find salvation.Discourse to the People of the Church at Caesarea in: W.A. Jurgens (ed.) The Faith of the Early Fathers (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn, 1979), Vol. III, p. 130.

The Czars of Russia (and later the Communist rulers of the Soviet Union) spared no repressive measures to force the Byzantine Slavonic Catholics of Ruthenia (spread over parts of what is today Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Poland and Lithuania) to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Many martyrs and confessors have suffered for their unity with the Catholic Church. During one such persecution in 1840, Pope Gregory XVI addressed the Ruthenian Catholic Metropolitan of Kholm:

The difference which distinguishes Ruthenian Catholics from Latins, consisting solely in points merely disciplinary and liturgical, and with the permission of the Holy See, in no sense breaks the bonds which unite the true sheep of Christ to one another. On the other hand, non-Catholic Ruthenians are at odds, as much with the Latins as with the Ruthenian Catholics, on matters which stem from the true faith of Christ, without which 'it is impossible to please God'... They differ on the subject of submission to the Roman Pontiff, successor of Peter the Prince of the Apostles, to whom, to use the terms of the Council of Chalcedon, 'the protection of the vineyard was entrusted by the Lord,' and to the Church to which, as Irenaeus says, 'by reason of her eminent primacy, every other Church must be in harmony, that is to say, the faithful of the entire world.' Finally, as St. Jerome says, 'whoever gathereth not with Him, scattereth,' that is to say: he who is not Christ's, is Antichrist's.Letter Has ad te litteras in: A.G. Welykyj OSBM Documenta Pontificum Romanorum Historiam Ucrainae Illustrantia (1075-1953), Vol. II., 1700–1953 (Sumptibus Ucrainorum apud Exteros Degentium, Rome, 1954), p. 360.

There is a tendency even amongst faithful Catholics today to think of Eastern Orthodoxy as somehow being a more harmless form of non-Catholic Christianity than, say, Protestantism or Modernism. This error is contradicted by the witness of those countless martyrs who gave their lives rather than abandon Catholic unity for Orthodox schism. It is also a reminder that we must not think of the Catholic Church as merely a better, more perfect body than the Eastern Orthodox churches, but rather as the One, True Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, and of any other man-made institution as having no existence in the eyes of God. Mgr Ronald Knox put it thus:

We do not think of our Church as the best religious body to belong to; we believe that those who do not belong to it, provided that they believe in our Lord and desire to do his will, may just as well belong to no religious body at all. Even a schismatic Greek who is 'in good faith,' although he receives valid Communion, and at the hour of death valid absolution, is saved through Rome, not through Constantinople. For it is normally necessary to salvation to hold the Catholic faith; and to believe in Catholic doctrines without believing in the existence of that infallible authority which guarantees them all is to hold, not the Catholic faith, but a series of speculative opinions. It is the first infidelity that counts.Mgr R.A. Knox, The Belief of Catholics (Sheed & Ward, London, 1953) p. 196.

If even faithful Catholics have been desensitised to the dangers of the Eastern Schism (many confused souls have left the Novus Ordo to find some kind of liturgical sanity and sense of the sacred and traditional in Orthodox churches over the last 50 years), the perception of the Orthodox amongst modernist Catholics from the top down amounts to nothing less than heresy.

That heresy views the Church of Rome as merely the western part of the Church, with the Pope as its patriarch, and the Orthodox churches as the corresponding eastern component headed by their patriarchs. According to this ecclesiology (i.e. doctrine concerning the nature of the Church), all these regional churches of East and West are equal "Sister Churches" aspiring to a restored unity within a kind of Superchurch. This unity, it is claimed, has been lost over the centuries, and must be found again through ecumenical endeavour.

This of course is a denial of the unicity, perpetual unity, universality and salvific necessity of the Catholic Church, of themuniversal primacy of jurisdiction of the Vicar of Christ, and of the missionary imperative to save souls through conversion. Nonetheless, both in theory and in practice, these errors have prevailed in the Church since Vatican II. Eastern Catholics have been betrayed just as ruthlessly as Catholics faithful to Tradition, or as Chinese Catholics faithful to the Holy See have been betrayed in the conciliar era.

In an agreement signed by Catholic and Orthodox representatives in Balamand, Lebanon in 1993 (and praised by Pope John Paul II),In his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, 60. the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity undertook to pass “beyond the outdated ecclesiology of return to the Catholic Church,” describing the past missionary work of Catholics amongst the schismatics as:

“[An attempt] 'to bring them back' to one's own Church. In order to legitimise this tendency, a source of proselytism, the Catholic Church developed the theological vision according to which she presented herself, as the only one to whom salvation was entrusted... Because of the way in which Catholics and Orthodox once again consider each other in their relationship to the mystery of the Church and discover each other once again as Sister Churches, this form of 'missionary apostolate' described above, and which has been called 'uniatism,' can no longer be accepted either as a method to be followed nor as a model of the unity our Churches are seeking... It is in this perspective that the Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Churches recognise each other as Sister Churches, responsible together for maintaining the Church of God in fidelity to the divine purpose, most especially in what concerns unity... Pastoral activity in the Catholic Church, Latin as well as Oriental, no longer aims at having the faithful of one Church pass over to the other; that is to say, it no longer aims at proselytising among the Orthodox.Uniatism, method of union of the past, and the present search for Full Communion, Statement of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church issued at Balamand, Lebanon on 23 June, 1993. Paragraphs 10, 12, 14, 22 and 30 are here quoted from in the translation at the PCPCU website: http://….

When such errors are officially promulgated and put into practice by the hierarchy, it is no wonder that ordinary Catholics are confused. It should be noted that, with the exception of a handful of liberal ecumenists in western countries, almost no-one in the Orthodox churches actually accepts that the Catholic Church is a "Sister Church" or that Catholics should not be converted to Orthodoxy.

And so, Catholics may not actively participate in Orthodox worship, and they cannot satisfy their Sunday obligation by attending it. If present for some good reason, they should remain respectful and passive, as they would when attending Protestant services likewise for a good reason (weddings, funerals, etc.), sitting and standing with the congregation, but not joining in the prayers or singing. As Our Lord is sacramentally present, they should genuflect (or perform the prostration customary in the East), and may adore Him in silent prayer.Fr Henry Davis, S.J. relates that during the French Revolution, “Pope Pius VI reminded French Catholics that they should genuflect before Hosts consecrated by intruded French priests, but should try to avoid meeting said priests when they carried the Blessed Sacrament to the sick.” In: Moral and Pastoral Theology (Sheed & Ward, London, 19598) Vol. I, p. 285. Where no Catholic rite is available they should keep Sundays and feast days of obligation holy privately.

Finally, it should be remembered that, in danger of death, one can seek absolution from any priest whatsoever, even a schismatic Orthodox one. Fr Nicholas Halligan, O.P. († 1997) writes:

When there is danger of death, all priests, even though they are not approved for confessions, can validly and lawfully absolve any penitent whatsoever from any sin or censure, no matter in what manner it is reserved or how notorious it may be, even in the presence of a duly authorised priest... A reasonably prudent judgment is to be made from signs and conjectures that the danger of death is present and that it is morally certain that death can follow in a short time. It is not necessary that it be the final moment (articulus mortis) or that death is imminent or physically certain. In doubt of the existence of the danger or when an erroneous judgment has been made, the absolution is certainly valid, since the Church supplies jurisdiction for such contingencies; there is no such faculty when the judgment is deliberately false.


Death may threaten from an intrinsic cause, e.g., a dangerous illness, very difficult childbirth, extreme old age, wound, etc., or from an extrinsic source, e.g., a sentence of execution, imminent battle, air raid alarm, difficult surgery, a perilous trip, etc. (but not an ordinary air journey). Mobilised soldiers may be considered in danger of death for the purposes of this faculty. A person in probable danger of falling into insanity, or who has been captured by pagans with slight hope of release and of ever contacting a priest, or who is suffering under certain forms of religious persecution, may be considered in danger of death. It suffices that the priest be validly ordained, even though he may be irregular, suspended, excommunicated, or a schismatic, heretic or apostate, and even though a priest with normal jurisdiction is present.N. Halligan, O.P., The Administration of the Sacraments (Mercier Press, Cork, 1963) p. 187. Can. 976 of the current code stipulates that “even though a priest lacks the faculty to hear confessions, he absolves validly and licitly any penitents whatsoever in danger of death from any censures and sins, even if an approved priest is present.”

This last provision is to set consciences at ease and remove all doubts as to the validity of the sacrament. In such situations we may approach any priest with valid orders—non-Catholic, excommunicated, suspended, laicised or disgraced – for absolution (or others could approach him for conditional absolution and Extreme Unction on our behalf if we are unconscious) without scruple. One may not, however, thereby jeopardise one's faith, and so if an Orthodox priest were to insist, for example, that he would give absolution only on condition that one should renounce the Catholic Church, one would obviously not be permitted to do this, and would have to elicit an act of perfect contrition to the best of one's ability. †

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