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The Canonical Norms Relating to Catechesis

The SFI Annual Theological Conference “Catechesis in the Tradition of the Holy Fathers: The Paths of Its Revival”
This is a short overview of the canonical norms associated with catechesis, and we begin with a reminder of the place and meaning of canonical tradition in the life of the church.

In his well-known article “The Unchangable and the Temporary in the Canons of the Church” («Неизменное и временное в церковных канонах»), Fr. Nikolay Afanasiev writes: “Canons are the vestments of dogmatic teaching… in the form of rules by which we live life in the church, so as to accord ourselves with the church’s dogmatic teaching.”1 It follows that within the church, canons manifest (or rather should manifest) the means of expressing the church's essence in historical reality: “…the will of the Church – the Church’s divine-human will – is expressed such that through its canons the Church’s being would embody her very essence.”2

Therefore, before considering the canons which relate to catechesis, it is necessary to show the spiritual reality which stands behind them or, in other words, designate the reality which they strive to express. This reality is not, as it might seem, just some sort of practice or institute of catechesis; first and foremost, it is a whole category of the church’s members who already possess faith in Christ, but have yet made the oaths of baptism, i.e. have not received holy baptism (or actualized their baptism). The very existence of canonical norms as part of church tradition speaks to this fact. After all, the action of the canons can’t be external. Thus, the church saw its borders, which divided it from this world (it follows, that these are its fundamental borders), not as being laid down by baptism (or the absence thereof), and not by regular participation in the Eucharist as is sometimes maintained today – but in faith in Christ. It is expressly by faith in Christ that a person becomes a Christian – even if not in fullness – but a true member of the church. And it is from this spiritual fact that the canons proceed.3

Let us consider the content of the canons relating to catechesis.

1. The canonical norms clearly speak about what non-baptised members of the church need to do, or what their obligation and responsibility as members of the church is:

They who are to be baptized must learn the faith [Creed] by heart, and recite it to the bishop, or to the presbyters, on the fifth day of the week. (Laodicea, canon 46. 364 AD) [https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3806.htm]

It behooves those who are illuminated to learn the Creed by heart and to recite it to the bishop or presbyters on the Fifth Feria of the Week. (6th Ecumenical Council, canon 78). [https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3814.htm]

2. Canonical norms which speak of the criteria for readiness for baptism, including: 1) life change; 2) length for which the person is a catechumen sufficiently to speak of his or her unwavering intention; 3) the witness of a faithful member of the church; 4) a personal confession of faith; 5) lack of demon possession.

Those in good standing who wish to become Christians must be catechumens for two years before being baptised. If they are seriously ill, than they may request baptism and be baptised earlier. (Elvira, canon 42, beginning of the IV c.) [http://legalhistorysources.com/Canon%20Law/ElviraCanons.htm]

A new convert who has spent many years not in the church can be baptised if one of the clergy sponsors him (or her) request to become a Christian, or if one of the faithful bears witness for him and it is clear that he has changed his life (Elvira, canon 45, beginning of the IV c.).

Concerning a woman with child, it is determined that she ought to be baptized whenever she will; for in this the woman communicates nothing to the child, since the bringing forward to profession is evidently the individual [privilege] of every single person. (Neocaesarea, canon 6, 315 AD). [https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3803.htm]

Forasmuch as, either from necessity, or through the urgency of individuals, many things have been done contrary to the Ecclesiastical canon, so that men just converted from heathenism to the faith, and who have been instructed but a little while, are straightway brought to the spiritual laver, and as soon as they have been baptized, are advanced to the episcopate or the presbyterate, it has seemed right to us that for the time to come no such thing shall be done. For to the catechumen himself there is need of time and of a longer trial after baptism. (1st Ecumenical Council, canon 2). [http://www.orthodoxa.org/GB/orthodoxy/canonlaw/canons1erconcileGB.htm]

Those wishing to be baptised must give their names. Having been tested in abstaining from wine and meat and by the multiple laying on of hands, let them be baptised (4th Council of Carthage, canon 85, not later than the 6th c.)4

Let us remember that the fathers who were catechists in the 2nd and 3rd centuries believed that at least a three year period of catechesis was necessary before taking the choice to receive a person for baptism.5 After this, the period is gradually reduced. As we have seen, the Council of Elvira speaks of two years, leaving a period of three years for more difficult cases, for instance if the catechumen had previously been a pagan priest and if he never repeats his former sin of idol worship.6

It is interesting that the witness of a faithful member of the church is more important that a personal confession of faith and can, at times, replace it. This is the basis upon which the baptism of children is possible, as well as the sick and those who are not conscious.

That the sick are to be baptized who cannot answer for themselves if their [servants] shall have spoken at their own proper peril a testimony of the good will [of the sick man] (Carthage, canon 45 (Greek 48), 393–419 AD). [https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3816.htm]

Question: If any catechumen, while ill, becomes out of his mind, and is unable to confess the faith, and his own people beg to have him receive holy baptism while he is still alive, ought he to receive it, or not?

Answer: He ought to receive it if he is not influenced by an unclean spirit. (Timothy of Alexandria, Question 4). [http://synaxis.info/synaxis/8_law/b_early/canons_fathers_rudder.htm#_Toc78634060]

Sometimes in following this experience, the border of that which was acceptable was crossed. Thus, examples of misuse were noted: “In North Africa, people were baptised without being conscious and without specifically expressing their wish to be baptised.” (Augustine. On Adulterous marriages. 1.26.33; compare Hippo. 32, 393 AD. The fourth canon of the same council forbids to baptism and communion of the dead).7

There are three types of emergency situation in church tradition, when the above-mentioned criteria are “moved to the back burner” and the baptism of the catechumen can be declared valid. The first is if the catechumen has died due to witnessing for Christ. The second is threat of imminent death, and the third is if the non-baptised person has participated in Christ’s Holy Mysteries.

The first instance is found in the writings of the teachers of the church8, and the second and third instances in the canons.

Baptised Christians, who have not denounced their faith and have not been married twice, may baptise a new convert who is in mortal danger, if they are at sea, or if there is not a church nearby. If (the convert) lives, then he or she must go to the bishop for laying on of hands (with the corresponding prayers – first example) (Elvira, canon 38, beginning of the IV c.).

“those who are in good standing and are striving to become Christians must be catechumens for a period of two years before they are baptised. If the are seriously ill, they may request baptism earlier” (Elvira, canon 42, beginning of the IV c.).

Question: If a child of say seven years of age, or any adult person, find an opportunity at any place, when the offering is being made, and unwittingly communes while he is a catechumen, what ought to be done about him?

Answer: He ought to be enlightened. For he has been called by God.

Baptism under these extreme conditions has its consequences, also. If “baptism by blood” is glory and honour, then baptism under extreme conditions brings with it an impediment to becoming a priest.

In differentiating baptism “by dispensation” and baptism “by necessity”, the canonical norms of the church say that baptism “by necessity” makes the person’s job of bearing fruit in the church more difficult even than his pre-catechism and pre-baptism priestly practice.

Former priests, or in other words teachers of “all trivialities”, if they have been catechized and baptised, may become priests of the church without impediment, but those who have been baptised “by necessity” may only become priests in the case that they have particular gifts or if there are not others worthy to serve as priests. In the case of such “clinical” baptism, if the person becomes well again (or the mortal danger has passed), it is mandatory to complete their baptism with subsequent teaching:

It is decreed that they who have offered sacrifice before their baptism, and were afterwards baptized, may be promoted to orders, inasmuch as they have been cleansed. (Synod of Ancyra, canon 12, 314 AD).

If any one be baptized when he is ill, forasmuch as his [profession of] faith was not voluntary, but of necessity [i.e. though fear of death] he cannot be promoted to the presbyterate, unless on account of his subsequent [display of] zeal and faith, and because of a lack of men. (Neocaesarea, canon 12, 315 AD).

They who are baptized in sickness and afterwards recover, must learn the Creed by heart and know that the Divine gifts have been vouchsafed them. (Laodicea, canon 47, 364 AD).

3. There are canonical norms, which speak of the place of catechumens in the liturgical gathering of the church. These norms show us that on the one hand, the catechumens are members of the church gathering, but on the other hand there is a boundary between them and faithful Christians.

Hippolytus of Rome, for instance, points to the particular place of catechumens in the gathering for church services.9 As such, to this day there is a division of the liturgy into two parts: all members of the church and faithful members of the church – this distinction has an ancient provenance.

This is made clear by a canon of the Council of Laodicea:

After the sermons of the Bishops, the prayer for the catechumens is to be made first by itself; and after the catechumens have gone out, the prayer for those who are under penance; and, after these have passed under the hand [of the Bishop] and departed, there should then be offered the three prayers of the faithful. (Laodicea, canon 19, 364 AD).

In some churches in the West, catechumens had to leave the congregation before the reading of the Gospel. Only in the mid-5th c. at the Council of Orange was it decided that:

Let the gospel be read in the presence of the catechumens in all provinces of our church (Orange, canon 18). Compare Gall. 84, 475 AD (?).10

It is interesting that “in the times of St. Ambrose of Milan “those striving” could come into the baptistry, while at later times this was forbidden” (Orange, 19)11.

In the canonical letter of Theophilus Archbishop of Alexandria, catechumens are refused the antidoron; by the same token we may assume that catechumens were not allowed to attend the post-liturgical agape meal.

As to the things offered for the purpose of a sacrifice, whatever remains after the consumption of what is needed for the Mysteries, let the Clerics distribute it; and let no catechumen either eat or drink thereof, but rather the Clerics and the faithful brethren with them. (Theophilus of Alexandria, canon 8). [http://synaxis.info/synaxis/8_law/b_early/canons_fathers_rudder.htm#_Toc78634061]

And the final item in this part. Similar to the way in which the canons strictly forbid simony, in just as categorical a fashion as antidoron is not received so also is payment for baptism forbidden. 

Those being baptized are not to place money in the baptismal shell since it seems to indicate that the priest is selling what is a free gift.  The feet of the newly baptized are not to be washed by the priests or clerics. (Elvira, canon 48, beginning of the IV c.) [http://legalhistorysources.com/Canon%20Law/ElviraCanons.htm]

4. There is a whole group of canonical norms which speak of the possibility of epitimia (penances) being used for unbaptised members of the church. Epitimia are used in the following cases: 1) if lack of care is shown in preparation for baptism; 2) in the case of committing serious sins; 3) demon possession. Epitimia might involve the change in the status of a catechumen or putting off date of his baptism, or even excommunication.

If a female catechumen marries a man in the knowledge that he deserted his former wife without cause, she may not be baptized for five years unless she becomes seriously ill. (Elvira, canon 11, beginning of the IV c.) [http://legalhistorysources.com/Canon%20Law/ElviraCanons.htm]

A catechumen who conceives in adultery and then suffocates the child may be baptized only when death approaches. (Elvira, canon 68, beginning of the IV c.) [http://legalhistorysources.com/Canon%20Law/ElviraCanons.htm]

If a catechumen coming into the Church have taken his place in the order of catechumens, and fall into sin, let him, if a kneeler, become a hearer and sin no more. But should he again sin while a hearer, let him be cast out. (Neocaesarea, canon 5, 315 AD).

Concerning catechumens who have lapsed, the Holy and Great Synod has decreed that after they have passed three years as mere hearers, they shall pray with the Catechumens. (1st Ecumenical Council, canon 14).12

[Candidates] for baptism are not to be received after the second week in Lent. (This canon refers to the baptism of adults, who in the ancient tradition, were baptised on Great Saturday. Those who had not decisively declared their wish to be baptised at the beginning of Great Lent, or at least within a two-week period after the start of the fast, could not be admitted to baptism, and were further assessed as to their perseverance in the faith) (Laodicea, canon 45, 364 AD). [https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3806.htm]

Question: If a person possessed of demons is a catechumen, and he himself wishes, or his own people want him, to receive holy baptism, ought he to receive it, or not, and especially if he be at the point of death?

Answer: Unless a person possessed of demons be cleansed from the unclean spirit, he cannot receive holy baptism. He may be baptized at the time of his exit (from life). (Timothy of Alexandria, canon 2). [http://synaxis.info/synaxis/8_law/b_early/canons_fathers_rudder.htm#_Toc78634060]

If anyone, having been catechised and then punished by exclusion from the congregation due to a fall into sin then draws close to death, let him be baptised and let not him depart this life without partaking of grace, i.e. without partaking of the Holy Mysteries. For it seems this is in accordance with the laws of the church. (Cyril of Alexandria, 5).

5. We must not fail also to mention the canon laws which regulate entrance into the church for those who come from break away sects. Why is this important for the subject at hand? Because in this case the question arises as to whether the members of a particular sect are catechumens or not. In other words, whether they are beyond the boundaries of the church or not.

From this arises the well-known definition between heresy, schism, and a non-canonical assembly (parasynagogue).

Heretics who either do not have faith in God and His Christ or have faith in a distorted fashion, are always received into the church as pagans without recognizing their baptism or rank, through full catechesis, and then by baptism. The schismatic or the member of a non-canonical assembly are received as “one of the church’s own”, given that faith itself is not distorted, but must only be fulfilled by making up what is lacking.

Those who from heresy turn to orthodoxy, and to the portion of those who are being saved, we receive according to the following method and custom: Arians, and Macedonians, and Sabbatians, and Novatians, who call themselves Cathari or Aristori, and Quarto-decimans or Tetradites, and Apollinarians, we receive, upon their giving a written renunciation [of their errors] and anathematize every heresy which is not in accordance with the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of God. Thereupon, they are first sealed or anointed with the holy oil upon the forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, and ears; and when we seal them, we say, “The Seal of the gift of the Holy Ghost.” But Eunomians, who are baptized with only one immersion, and Montanists, who are here called Phrygians, and Sabellians, who teach the identity of Father and Son, and do sundry other mischievous things, and [the partisans of] all other heresies for there are many such here, particularly among those who come from the country of the Galatians: all these, when they desire to turn to orthodoxy, we receive as heathen. On the first day we make them Christians; on the second, catechumens; on the third, we exorcise them by breathing thrice in their face and ears; and thus we instruct them and oblige them to spend some time in the Church, and to hear the Scriptures; and then we baptize them. (2nd Ecumenical Council, canon 7). [http://www.orthodoxa.org/GB/orthodoxy/canonlaw/canons2econcileGB.htm]

…For the older authorities had judged that baptism acceptable which disregarded no point of the faith. Hence they have called some of them heresies, and others schisms, and others again parasynagogues (i.e., conventicles). Heresies is the name applied to those who have broken entirely and have become alienated from the faith itself. Schisms is the name applied to those who on account of ecclesiastical causes and, remediable questions have developed a quarrel amongst themselves. Parasynagogues is the name applied to gatherings held by insubordinate presbyters or bishops, and those held by uneducated laities. As, for instance, when one has been arraigned for a misdemeanor held aloof from liturgy and refused to submit to the Canons, but laid claim to the presidency and liturgy for himself, and some other persons departed with him, leaving the catholic Church that is a parasynagogue. Heresies, on the other hand, are such as those of the Manichees and Valentinians and Marcionists, and that of these Pepuzeni themselves, for the question is one involving a difference of faith in God itself. It therefore seemed best to those who dealt with the subject in the beginning to rule that the attitude of heretics should be set aside entirely; but as for those who have merely split apart as a schism, they were to be considered as still belonging to the Church; as for those, on the other hand, who were in parasynagogues, if they have been improved by considerable repentance and are willing to return, they are to be admitted again into the Church. (St. Basil the Great, canon 1) [http://synaxis.info/synaxis/8_law/b_early/canons_fathers_rudder.htm#_Toc78634056]

Every one of the canons which relates to catechesis deserves particular attention and consideration. But in our opinion, it is an overall view which is of particular importance today. Our primary concern isn’t even the direct ignorance of many of these canons, but the circumstances in which ecclesial consciousness has in some sense lost the foundation for their “legitimacy”. This loss has “excluded” from the church an entire layer of its membership – the catechumens – and thereby ceased to be able to discern a main criterion which builds the New Testament People of God and serves as a boundary between the Church and this world. This boundary is the border between faith and lack of faith in Christ.

Having ceased to keep this “borderland”, the church necessarily becomes a “public thoroughfare” and begins to be dissolved in this world, insofar as it loses a fundamental dimension of its own life.

It isn’t right to simply ignore canon laws. Their status in the life of the church is, in some senses, the same as that of dogma. The saying that we should “please the Holy Spirit and ourselves”, is equally applicable to dogma and to canon laws.”13 “The Truth which they (the canons – author’s note) express, is in and of itself absolute, but the contents of the canons are not truth itself, but the way in which (italics added by author) the Truth should be expressed in a particular historical form of church life.”14

If everything were as it should be, the church would establish new canons which would adequately express a new historical reality, to replace those which are no longer in use. But this is not happening. We don’t have new, effective canons, but rather they old ones which have fallen out of use.

Father Nikolay Afanasiev called this situation the era of “the downfall of creativity and extinguishing of the spirit.” In such an era, “the true meaning of church canons is forgotten or twisted, and custom rises up to fill their place, though it itself has no foundation in any church law. Historical perspective is lost and people associate custom with ancient history, blessed by the activity of the church fathers of the ecumenical councils. False tradition is created, and this tears apart the divine-human nature of the Church because it leads church life away from its dogmatic foundations. Only a reinvigoration of creative activity will be able to overcome the inertia of false tradition.”15

1 Afanasiev, N. N. Neizmennoje i vremennoje v tserkovnikh kanonakh // Zhivoje predanije: Pravoslavije v sovremennosti. Moscow: St. Philaret’s Higher Orthodox Christian School, 1997. p. 99.

2 Ibid. p. 101.

3 We might note this, for instance, in the following canon, where it is stated that to become a Christian means to acquire faith in Christ: “And on the first day we make them Christians, on the second Catechumens, then on the third day we exorcise them, at the same time also breathing thrice upon their faces and ears; and thus we initiate them, and we make them spend time in church and hear the Scriptures; and then we baptize them.” (VI Ecumenical Council, Canon 95). See also 2nd Ecumenical Council Canon 7. “Pagans, if in sickness they wish to have the laying-on-of-hands, and if their life has been at least partially decent, shall have the laying-on-of-hands and become Christians, if his or her life has been sufficiently honest (here it isn’t completely clear whether those who have been admitted to catechesis or those who have been baptised by means of a simplified rite are being spoken of – probably the former, given the rite being used. (Editor’s note)) (Elvira 39, beginning of the IV c.). https://www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/elvira.html (sourced: 1 July, 2021)

4 Quotes from: Gavriljuk, P.L., Istorija katekhizatsii v drevnej tserkvi / Under the editorship of Fr. Georgy Kochetkov. Moscow: St. Philaret’s Higher Orthodox Christian School, 2001. pp. 240.

5 “Let him who is to be a catechumen be a catechumen for three years; but if any one be diligent, and has a good-will to his business, let him be admitted: for it is not the length of time, but the course of life, that is judged.” (Apostolic Constitutions. Book 8, Chapter 32). [https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/07158.htm]

Compare Hippolytus of Rome and Clement of Alexandria:

“Let catechumens spend three years as hearers of the word. ²But if a man is zealous and perseveres well in the work, it is not the time but his character that is decisive.” (St. Hippolytus of Rome, “Apostolic Tradition”, 17) [https://www.gutenberg.org/files/61614/61614-h/61614-h.htm]

“And [the law] does not allow imperfect fruit to be plucked from immature trees, but after three years, in the fourth year; dedicating the first-fruits to God after the tree has attained maturity.

This type of husbandry may serve as a mode of instruction, teaching that we must cut the growths of sins, and the useless weeds of the mind that spring up round the vital fruit, till the shoot of faith is perfected and becomes strong. For in the fourth year, since there is need of time to him that is being solidly catechized, the four virtues are consecrated to God, the third alone being already joined to the fourth, the person of the Lord.” (Clement of Alexandrea. The Stromata. Book 2, Chapter 18). [https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/02102.htm]

6 “Again, Flamines who are catechumens [i.e. studying Christianity, but not yet baptized] and who have refrained from sacrifices shall be admitted after a period of three years.” (Elvira, canon 4, beginning of the IV c.). “Persons converted from the heresy of those who are called Phrygians, even should they be among those reputed by them as clergymen, and even should they be called the very chiefest, are with all care to be both instructed and baptized by the bishops and presbyters of the Church. (Laodicea, canon 8, 364 AD).

7 Quotation from Gavriljuk, P.L., op. cit. pp. 234–235.

8 If a catechumen should be arrested for the name of the Lord, let him not hesitate about bearing his testimony; for if it should happen that they treat him shamefully and kill him, he will be justified, for he has been baptized in his own blood. (St. Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition, 19).

“But let him who is vouchsafed the honour of martyrdom rejoice with joy in the Lord, as obtaining thereby so great a crown, and departing out of this life by his confession. Nay, though he be but a catechumen, let him depart without trouble; for his suffering for Christ will be to him a more genuine baptism, because he does really die with Christ, but the rest only in a figure. Let him therefore rejoice in the imitation of his Master…” (Apostolic Constitutions, 5.6) This is also mentioned by: Cyrpian in Letter 73.22; Origen in his admonishments for martyrdom 30, 39; Gennadius Massiliensis. On church dogmas. 74 (for more detail, pls see: Gavriljuk, P.L. Op. cit., p.62).

9 When the teacher finishes his instruction, the catechumens shall pray by themselves, apart from the believers. ²And [all] women, whether believers or catechumens, shall stand for their prayers by themselves in a separate part of the church. And when [the catechumens] finish their prayers, they must not give the kiss of peace, for their kiss is not yet pure. ⁴Only believers shall salute one another, but men with men and women with women; a man shall not salute a woman… At the close of their prayer, when their instructor lays his hand upon the catechumens, he shall pray and dismiss them; (St. Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition, 18 and 19, parts).

10 Citation as per: Gavriljuk, P.L. Cit. op. p. 93.

11 Ibid. p. 242.

12 The following translation is also possible: “The Holy and Great Council rules that catechumens who have fallen away from faith [during times of persecution] must be “listeners” for 3 years, after which they may participate once again in the prayers of the catechumens”. Citation as per: Gavriljuk, P.L. Cit. op. p. 215.

13 Afanasiev, N.N., Cit. op., p. 100.

14 Ibid. p. 101.

15 Afanasiev, N.N., Cit. op., p. 105.

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