Recently, a newspaper article brought to the attention of the public a rather unusual request made by an Orthodox believer to his bishop in Romania. The believer asked the bishop why the Church is not doing anything about the situation of the thousands of orphaned and abandoned children in the country. The believer even proposed a practical solution: to establish a sacrament of adoption as a precondition for receiving ordination. In this way, part of the problem would be solved. The hierarch answered by pointing to the philanthropic activity of the Church already in place and the difficult process that has to be followed for adoption, and for financial reasons, he excluded the possibility of linking adoption with ordination. The young family would not have the material resources to adopt a child straightaway.
Now, pause for a second and try to move beyond whatever you might think about the answer of the bishop or the initial impression of awkwardness the proposal elicits. The hierarch is right to reject conditioning the ordination on adoption, although for reasons other than the one he mentioned: not only that any sacrament should not be forced on anyone, but also that forcing someone to adopt a child to obtain a position might lead to instrumentalizing the child, and this would not necessarily improve the life of the little one. Still, there is much to be appreciated here. The proposal comes from a good place, burning with the care and compassion characteristic of the Christian ethos ever since the first centuries, when Christians adopted the disabled children abandoned at the side of the road by the pagans. There is also some truth in the assumption that if adoption were a sacrament, the practice would receive more visibility, and more Orthodox faithful might be encouraged to assume it. But, more importantly, the author of the letter invites us to reflect on a fundamental question: Is there any reason against considering adoption a sacrament? From the perspective of systematic theology, I am tempted to say no.
Sacraments have always been one of the pillars of ecclesial existence, but their number has varied throughout the centuries. While for the Roman Catholic Church the list of sacraments has already been closed since the Middle Ages, for the Orthodox things look different. As Father Andrew Louth explains, the number of seven sacraments was presented to the Orthodox at the unionist Council of Lyon in 1274. Later, during the Reformation, the Orthodox began to speak about seven sacraments in order to distinguish themselves from the Protestants. In the end, the number seven was included in Orthodox Catechisms, but without necessarily being legitimated by the patristic tradition. Father Louth himself suggests that the limitation of the number of sacraments “fits ill with the approach of Orthodox theology” (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology,epub, p. 136).
Nonetheless, let’s take the example of a theologian who, in his magnus opus, The Experience of God, uses without questioning the number of seven sacraments: Father Dumitru Stăniloae (1903-1993). As we will see, even inside his framework, there is still legitimate place for another sacrament. Stăniloae does not use this precise word. He prefers that of mystery (taină). For one thing, the word sacrament is seldom used in an ecclesial context in Romanian. Still, this is more than a linguistic preference. Stăniloae used the term sacrament in his early writings from the 40s and 50s but dropped it later. For him, mystery (taină) remains closer to the Greek mysterion, that is something hidden that is revealed through the faithful action of the Christian. In this broad sense, even the human being herself could become a mystery if she united the material and the spiritual sides of her being with Christ and then made Christ manifest to the world.
Stăniloae, however, chooses to speak of only seven sacraments. The reason why he limits himself only to seven becomes hard to grasp when one reads this definition:
The mystery is celebrated in the encounter of two human subjects who through faith have opened themselves to the Holy Spirit, who is at work within the milieu of the Church, and this encounter is extended also in the direct touch of their bodies, or through the mediation of some material element. It is not the material elements, the words spoken, or the gestures realized, taken in themselves, that constitute the mystery. Rather, the mystery has its being in the faith-filled encounter of the two persons within the midst of the Church, which is full of the Holy Spirit, and also in the bodily contact between the two persons, together with the testimony to their faith that they give through their words, both the faith of the one who celebrates the mystery and of the one who receives it.(The Experience of God, vol. 5, pp. 2-3)
This definition does not reject in any way the possibility of another sacrament. It can be objected that the sacraments are different from other symbolic actions and gestures and that adoption could be just that—another symbolic action, receiving a blessing—but not a sacrament. But then, what is the role of the sacraments?
Stăniloae conveys the consensus of the majority of the Orthodox theologians when he says that the role of the sacraments is to help us reach closer to union with Christ. Each sacrament raises and strengthens human nature on its path to union with Christ. Baptism introduces us to the life in Christ, Chrismation pours onto us the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist incorporates us into the body of Christ, Confession helps cleanse our relationship with Christ of all lies and discontent. “We grow in our human nature from a spiritual point of view just as He too deigned to grow in His human nature. We cannot skip over the different stages of growth that belong to this nature.” (The Experience of God, vol. 5, pp. 18-19)
The difficulty is that this answer does not fully justify the three other sacraments that are not directly linked with our life in Christ: marriage, ordination, and the anointing of the sick. The latter can be somehow squeezed in the category of sacraments that are leading to Christ if we link healing with a certain inner wholeness that has to be restored to each person, but this does not apply to the first two. To solve this tension, Stăniloae distinguishes between sacraments of direct union with Christ and sacraments of service. Marriage and ordination fall in this latter category. Speaking of marriage as service, Stăniloae says
The majority of human beings live out the fullness of the relationship of marriage by actualizing the virtues as fruits of their collaboration with this grace, or as forms of their consecration within this uninterrupted and intense relationship. Now, once this relationship is entered into, it has a certain quality of prominence that determines in a positive sense all the other relationships that a human being has in society, which marriage multiplies.(The Experience of God, vol. 5, p. 168)
Could not these very sentences bear the same weight in the case of adoption? Does not adoption actualize virtue in those committed to it? Is not grace needed in these relationships established out of the desire to give oneself to a complete stranger? For me, it is hard to answer in the negative.
There is not much one can find against adding adoption to the list of sacraments. For Orthodox theology, sacraments are paths to deification. They give us the strength to get closer to God and make visible God’s love for humanity through our actions. And where else can this love can manifest itself more fully than in the actions by which we sacrifice ourselves for others, for people we do not know but learn to love?
It would be somehow ironic to glide over this higher meaning of the sacraments for the sake of symbolism. It would be ironic in an almost funny way to cling to a number that is not even part of our identity, but a vestige of our “Babylonian captivity” to Western theology. The irony would turn darker and pitiless if we were to leave the open arms of the orphans and of those who opened their arms to receive them without the strength of grace pouring from the sacraments, only because we are mesmerized by the magic of a number.
Petre Maican is a Post Doctoral Researcher at the UCLouvain and one of the founding members of Saint John Chrysostom Orthodox Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland. His current research interest lies in the area of disability theology, focusing on the relationship between intellectual disability and the Orthodox understanding of human perfection.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.