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On Praying With Heretics

Question: What does an Orthodox convert do when he attends the funerals of his heterodox friends or of his parents? I know that we cannot pray with non-Orthodox and should not compromise our Faith. The last time that a non-Orthodox friend died, a Roman Catholic, I left the funeral during the reading of the Epistle and the Gospel and during their communion. (J.C., RI)

Answer: The Canons of the Church forbid us to participate in non-Orthodox religious services and to engage in common prayer with non-Orthodox and with those who have been officially condemned as heretics by the Orthodox Church. Contemporary ecumenists react to these Canons with outrage, the Orthodox among them often maintaining that the Canons are outmoded, ineffective, "non-operational," or whatever. Many so-called Orthodox "traditionalists," on the other hand, invoke these Canons as evidence that the ecumenical movement is illicit, not a few of such individuals taking these proscriptions to a point that, quite frankly, smacks of religious bigotry. To understand the Canons correctly we must avoid these extremist reactions and combine a proper respect for the inspired content of Church laws with the sense of moderation constantly prescribed by the very Fathers who wrote and compiled them.

Firstly, we must distinguish between those who have been condemned by the Church as heretics and those who embrace incorrect or heterodox doctrines. Like it or not, Latin Christianity has been condemned by numerous Fathers and several local councils as heretical. It is, indeed, a traditional Orthodox position that, lamentable though the fact may be, the Orthodox and Latin Churches are divided over the fall of the latter to heresy (e.g., papism, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the filioque innovation, etc.). Therefore, it is clear that Orthodox may not participate in joint services with Latin Christians. This applies, as well, to the separated Eastern Christians (Armenians, Copts, etc.), notwithstanding the fact that many of these Churches have embraced Orthodox views and beliefs in recent years and despite the fact that many modernist clergy, in unilateral decisions which show no understanding of Orthodox ecclesiology, admit the separated Eastern Christians to communion. Naturally, the Church also forbids us to join in prayer with single individuals who may have been condemned for heretical views. Placed in a medical model, the Church preserves us from diseased believers who might, because of the many things that they hold in common with us, pass on, with their correct belief, the bacterium of their wrong belief.

Now, the Church also recognizes that heresy is not born in a single moment. It is a process of erroneous thought or spiritual practice that leads to misbelief. There are those in the Church today who, though not condemned by the Church officially, obviously hold views at odds with Her established beliefs. They are ill, but we do not know whether their diseases are in fact serious or communicable. A "diagnosis," or judgment by the Church, has in effect not been made. These instances are often difficult to deal with unequivocally. Given this, the Church is careful to guide us with great discretion with regard to those in error, but who are still uncondemned by the Church. If we can recognize an error clearly, then we must resist it, separate ourselves from it, and urge the Church to investigate the error. But again, we must remain cautious in our actions, until the Church has actually conducted an investigation and condemned the presumed error in belief. In the case of clergy or even entire local Churches that may have fallen into error, but which are yet uncondemned, we must avoid possible contamination; but certainly we must not state, on our own, that disease has overcome the body. We cannot wholly and unequivocally "cut off' those who show symptoms of disease, until an "official" and "authorized" diagnosis is made by the properly appointed Church authorities. [It is indeed for this very reason that we Old Calendarists do not deny the Holy Mysteries among the New Calendarist innovators, though we avoid open communion with them and interact cautiously with them.]

Secondly, as we have seen, the entire matter of heresy and misbelief is handled very subtly in the Orthodox Church. Those who want "black" and "white" answers and who would forego discretion and caution for hasty action will be quite dissatisfied with the teachings of the Church in this area. Underlying all considerations of heresy is a deep sense of the responsibility of the Church, its pastors, and its Faithful to preserve in detail those paths and means, handed down to us by the Fathers, by which man might attain to enlightenment and salvation. Deviation from the "Orthodox Way" is a fearful prospect simply because we know, by way of the Church's experience, that even the slightest innovation or departure from the Church's standards has always resulted in the loss of souls. In other words, it is compassion and a concern for souls which underlies the Church's desire to preserve Her "tried and true" paths absolutely untouched by anything foreign, heterodox, or untried. It is this compassion which some extremist traditionalists fail to understand, making a mockery of the "discipline of love" and transforming compassion into a smug practice of protecting that which is one's "prerogative." This even takes on the ugly form of ethnic exclusivity or of the heresy of philetism. On the other hand, contemporary ecumenists would throw caution to the wind in favor of the worldly attention that accrues to one who is willing to sell his Faith for the modern theories of relativism, all the while claiming to have done nothing to abandon the Orthodox Church's claim to spiritual primacy.

Thirdly, we must realize that the Orthodox Church is "catholic." It is meant for everyone. When, therefore, we seek to protect those within the Church from the bacterium of non-Orthodox belief, we must be constantly aware that this is for the purpose also of preserving Orthodoxy as a pure standard for all those who confess Christ (if not for all of those who are not, in fact, confessors of the Christian Faith). We wish to preserve perfectly and in full force the bread of salvation taught to us by the Prophets, the Savior, the Apostles, and the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, lest we offer stones in the name of Orthodoxy. Our exclusivity, our apparent disdain for the religious observances of others, and our fear of the relativism of even the best-intentioned ecumenists are things that ultimately derive from pure and true ecumenism, which is expressed in the missionary spirit of desiring with the whole heart and soul to bring all mankind to Orthodoxy. We must remember this. And if we do remember it, then we will be very careful not to hurt, to insult, or to humiliate non-Orthodox. All spiritual actions are, of course, meant to benefit our own souls; but, at the same time, they are aimed at the salvation of our fellow man.

It would seem to us, then, wrong for an Orthodox Christian to avoid the weddings and funerals of non-Orthodox friends and relatives. In the case of parents, whether Orthodox or not, our behavior is determined by one of the Mosaic Commandments: that we honor our mothers and fathers. It is perfectly possible to attend non-Orthodox services and behave politely and without offending anyone. After all, the question of participation is one of intent. When others pray, lower your head and pray an Orthodox prayer. If they read from the Bible, what possible harm can this do an Orthodox Christian? And while they commune, show respect. They are communing with Christ in their own way and in no manner compromising our Faith. We are not here calling into question the true nature of heterodox communion or the true nature of Orthodox communion. Such is not necessary. We are simply showing respect for fellow Christians whom, with every cell of our bodies and every prayer of our souls, we should always wish to see joined to Orthodoxy. And if, by chance, our quiet respect might at times offend some other Orthodox, we can easily explain that we pray our own prayers in these circumstances, showing the respect for others that every Father of the Church has demanded from us. Such an explanation can be instructive.

Our remarks concerning attendance at non-Orthodox weddings and funerals do not apply, of course, to convert monastics. Monastics should not attend weddings, as dictated by Canons. A good monastic, too, should avoid funerals, including those of his parents, and concentrate on intense prayer for the deceased. There are, of course, cases in which non-attendance at a funeral might cause undue stress, in which case a monastic's superior must use proper discretion in relaxing this rule.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. IV, No. 3, pp. 18-20.