Some Notes on the Byzantine Practice of (Re)Baptizing Latins

by Nicolas Kamas

The impending Great and Holy Council has provoked a number of reactions, from joy to hostility, on many of the topics it has promised to address. Among these has been the relationship of the Orthodox Church to other forms of Christianity, which highlights the long-standing problem of the reception of converts who have already received some form of Trinitarian baptism. One approach has been taken by those who insist on the loss of grace and totally heretical nature of those not belonging to the Orthodox Church, whose incorrect baptismal ritual prevents the application of economia and their reception by any means other than baptism. This view has found its fullest recent expression in the works of George Metallinos. The opposite view, recently articulated by George Demacopoulos in this forum, insists that “no Byzantine canonist or apologist ever thought that Latin theological errors, such as the filioque, were so great that they required rebaptism.” Demacopoulos accuses his opponents of relying “on a highly selective and reductionist appropriation of our rich canonical tradition to justify simplistic ideological conceits.” While the latter statement may have some truth to it, Demacopoulos fails to acknowledge the extent to which the practice of receiving Latin Christians by (re)baptism was discussed and applied in Byzantium from the eleventh century through the end of the Middle Ages.

First, it seems clear that some Byzantine clergy did rebaptize Latins. Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida complained in his infamous excommunication of Patriarch Michael Cerularius that Michael’s followers “like the Arians, rebaptize those already baptized in the name of the holy Trinity, and especially Latins” and that they hold that “except for the church of the Greeks […] the true sacrifice and baptism had perished from the entire world.” Subsequent Latin authors, like Odo of Deuil and Hugh Etherianus – and even the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 – identified and criticized the practice of Greeks who rebaptized Latins.

The concerns expressed by Byzantine apologists about the baptismal practices of Latins are twofold. Both reasons concern points of ritual, something that ought not be surprising. Even the most cursory glance at the history of the division between the churches reveals the enormous role that ritual differences played, especially when it came to the use of azymes (unleavened bread) in the Eucharist. Greek and Latin apologists alike claimed that the wrong ritual form or formula could invalidate the sacrament and imply the existence of a deeper heresy.

Several Greek apologists, when confronted by reports of Latin baptismal practices, made a tacit appeal to Canon 7 of Constantinople I and Canon 95 of the Quinisext Council in Trullo. The same Patriarch Michael who was excommunicated by Humbert complained in a letter to Peter, the Patriarch of Antioch, that the Latins “baptize those who are being baptized with a single immersion while they say the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The passage comes in the midst of a long line of other complaints (regarding clerical marriage, the filioque, etc.) and indicates his strong disapproval of the practice of single immersion. Even so, this could be dismissed as the uniquely antagonistic attitude of a spiteful and ambitious cleric had similar charges not been made by Constantine Stilbes (mid-12th–early 13th c.), Ps.-Athanasios II of Alexandria (late 13th c.), the Panoplia (late 13th c.), St. Meletios Galesiotes (c. 1209-1286), and Joseph Bryennios (early 15th c.), among others. Even Balsamon, while he does not name the Latins specifically, also opined that everyone who had been baptized with a single immersion should be baptized again.

A second concern may have developed by the first half of the thirteenth century. The use of different grammatical voices was one of the primary discrepancies between the formulas used by the two churches. The Greek formula, “The servant of God is baptized,” emphasized the action of Christ and the Holy Spirit, rather than the priest, in the celebration of the Mystery. The Latin version instead used the active voice (“I baptize you”) to establish the intent of the action. To the critics of each tradition, however, the Greek formula lacked intent, and thus was invalid, while the Latin use was an arrogant usurpation of the ministry of the Trinity, and so was devoid of grace.  This resulted in rebaptisms, especially of Greeks in southern Italy during the pontificate of Gregory IX (r. 1227–1241) (readers interested in this topic are referred to the work of Yury Avvakumov). Greek authors were also quick to criticize the Latin practice on these grounds, and accusations of this kind lasted at least through the time of St. Symeon of Thessaloniki (c. 1381–1429).

As tempting as it may be to interpret the sources to mean more than they say, there are several important caveats to the above. First, there are no recorded conciliar statements on the issue until the fifteenth century, when chrismation/anointing, rather than baptism, was established as the normative method for receiving Latins. Second, there was no general sense of schism in the eleventh century. The earliest Byzantine critics of Latin baptism believed their Western counterparts somehow still to be in the Church. Third, although several of the authors listed above attribute single-immersion baptism to all Latins, a triple-immersion ritual was the more common option in the West. Balsamon himself is on the record as recommending a simple statement of faith in the reception of (at least most) Latins. Fourth, several of the works (and a majority of the earlier ones) critical of Latin baptisms never actually argue that they are invalid, but rather imply that the form is dispreferred. There was a diversity of opinion about the validity of Latin sacraments even among those who wrote against them. Finally, and most importantly, our knowledge of the matter is far from complete. A treatise by the Byzantine Patriarch Germanus II (r. 1223–1240) on Latin baptisms, for instance, seems never to have been printed in modern times and may be extant only in manuscripts if it survives at all. Other examples abound, and the lack of good scholarship on the matter effectively prevents conclusive statements of any kind. The reception of converts to Orthodoxy has been and remains a complicated problem, and it can only be hoped that those who make decisions concerning it will take the time to familiarize themselves with the broader scope and history of the issue.

Nicolas Kamas is a doctoral candidate in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame. His dissertation is a commentary and edition of the works of Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida against the Greeks.