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In the comments below an earlier question of mine the following question arose:

The Roman Catholic Church describes the administration of sacraments as valid or invalid respectively licit or illicit. Those concepts are not identical, for some reading start e.g. here.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches administer the same seven sacraments as the Roman Catholic Church does. Which poses the question, whether these sacraments can be equally described in terms of validity and licitly and whether the Roman Catholic Church does so.

So my question is: Has the Roman Catholic Church declared the status of the sacraments administered in the Eastern Orthodox Churches in terms of validity and licitly and if so is it correct that those are regarded as valid but illicit?

Note that "no" might be a correct answer; but I do expect there to be some magisterial writing which a good answer should cite. It might also be that the answer is different for different sacraments.

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Orthodox Sacraments are Valid

It is well-known that Catholics hold Orthodox sacraments to be valid:

These [Eastern] Churches, although separated from us, possess true sacraments, above all by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with us in closest intimacy. (Unitatis Redintegratio, 15)

(See also, Faith, Sacraments, and the Unity of the Church, from the Joint Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church)

Are Orthodox Sacraments "licit"?

This is the harder question. In my opinion it is a question founded on a misunderstanding. Liceity is a term that means 'legal' or 'lawful', and in general an inquiry of this sort would be referred to the Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law. The Code governs most happenings in the Catholic Church, but of course the supreme lawgiver is the Pope, and he is free to change Church Law as he sees fit.

Liceity is a measure that governs the internal operations of the Catholic Church according to her own laws. It isn't meant to govern other church bodies, though other Churches or ecclesial communions may well consult Catholic Law in codifying their own systems or adjudicating disciplinary questions in their own sphere. In essence this means that asking whether an Orthodox sacrament is licit is like asking whether Chinese internet censorship violates the First Amendment. A non-Catholic Church is subject to Catholic Law no more than the Chinese government is subject to the U.S. Constitution.

Therefore I'm not sure this question makes sense. You could ask a canon lawyer or the Pope himself, but I don't think they would quite know what to say. There is no reason for this question to arise in the Catholic legal system, as Orthodox Christians are not subject to Catholic Law. Only Catholics are concerned about liceity.

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    Surely the sacraments of any schismatic are not lawful to receive. – Sola Gratia Oct 31 at 21:08
  • @SolaGratia The Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid.” - Code of Canon Law 844 – Ken Graham Oct 31 at 22:21
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    @SolaGratia There are two questions here: 1) Whether an Orthodox sacrament is licit, 2) Whether the reception of an Orthodox sacrament by a Catholic Christian is a licit act. I spoke to the first question because I believe that is what the question is about. If you are interested in the second, see Ken's answers above. – zippy2006 Nov 1 at 0:20
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    @zippy2006 you are right: my question was whether their sacraments were licit, not whether my reception of their sacraments was. – David Woitkowski Nov 1 at 5:36
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Do Roman Catholics regard Orthodox sacraments as valid and/or licit?

From a Catholic perspective the sacraments of the Eastern Orthodox Churches are valid and licit. Please allow me to explain.

The question of validity is rather simple to ascertain. In fact, the Catholic Church permits Catholics to receive communion in Orthodox Churches, the sacraments are unavailable by Catholic ministers. Canon 844 implies that the sacraments are licit, otherwise Catholics would be forbidden to receive the sacraments in Orthodox Churches in times of necessity.

Here is what the Code of Canon Law has to say on this issue:

Can. 844 §1. Catholic ministers administer the sacraments licitly to Catholic members of the Christian faithful alone, who likewise receive them licitly from Catholic ministers alone, without prejudice to the prescripts of §§2, 3, and 4 of this canon, and can. 861, §2.

§2. Whenever necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid.

§3. Catholic ministers administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick licitly to members of Eastern Churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church if they seek such on their own accord and are properly disposed. This is also valid for members of other Churches which in the judgment of the Apostolic See are in the same condition in regard to the sacraments as these Eastern Churches.

§4. If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.

§5. For the cases mentioned in §§2, 3, and 4, the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops is not to issue general norms except after consultation at least with the local competent authority of the interested non-Catholic Church or community.

The Eastern Churches are to be governed on their own as they also have apostolic succession.

The Special Consideration of the Eastern Churches

These Churches, although separated from us, possess true sacraments, above all by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with us in closest intimacy. Therefore some worship in common (communicatio in sacris), given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not only possible but to be encouraged.

  1. Already from the earliest times the Eastern Churches followed their own forms of ecclesiastical law and custom, which were sanctioned by the approval of the Fathers of the Church, of synods, and even of ecumenical councils. Far from being an obstacle to the Church's unity, a certain diversity of customs and observances only adds to her splendor, and is of great help in carrying out her mission, as has already been stated. To remove, then, all shadow of doubt, this holy Council solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, while remembering the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to them, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful, and more for the good of their souls. The perfect observance of this traditional principle not always indeed carried out in practice, is one of the essential prerequisites for any restoration of unity. - Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio

Nowhere will one se that the sacraments of the Orthodox Churches are illicit since the days of Vatican Council II.

The term licit/illicit is a term used by the Church internally for her own liturgical laws. The Orthodox administrate their own sacraments with their own rules of conduct. The Catholic Church does not govern Orthodox sacraments.

Both Pope St. Paul VI and Patriarch Atheneagorus of Constantinople nullified the excommunications from 1472, which means that Romans are now technically in communion with Constantinople itself though most Greeks do not recognize this.

Was the excommunication against the whole Eastern Church?

Rome excommunicated Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople and all of his immediate clergy. It did not excommunicate the emperor, or the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, or Jerusalem, or the bishops of any of the other Eastern churches (especially not in the Slavonic north or Russia). Nor did the Slavs or any of the other patriarchs ever excommunicate Rome. So, strictly speaking, Romans are still technically in communion with most of the Eastern Orthodox Church. And this is especially true because we formally healed the schism at Lyon II in 1274 and at Ferrara-Florence in 1439. Our present schism dates from 1472, when the Greeks renounced the union of Ferraea-Florence -- something the Slavic Churches never formally did. Also, in 1965, Patriarch Atheneagorus of Constantinople and Pope Paul VI nullified the excommunications from 1472, which means that Romans are now technically in communion with Constantinople itself though most Greeks do not recognize this. But, technically, there is no reason why we should not be in full communion today. - The split of 1054 between the Orthodox and Catholics

Thus their sacraments are valid and licit.

More information may be gleaned from the following articles:

According to Roman Catholicism, was the 1054 excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople valid, in light of Leo IX's death?

Joint Catholic-Orthodox Declaration of His Holiness Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I (December 7, 1965)

  • From your quotes I understand that the church does indeed not use the very word "licit" when it comes to Orthodox sacraments, but otherwise very much handles them as they would do with light sacraments. Or is there any quote explicitly using that term that I missed? – David Woitkowski Nov 1 at 5:41
  • @DavidWoitkowski True , but it is implied. For if they they were illicit, Rome would not allow the faithful to receive the sacraments in a case of great need. Likewise, you will not see the Church using the illicit in reference to their sacraments in modern days. Illicit would make such actions forbidden. The term licit/illicit is a term used by the Church internally for her own liturgical laws. The Orthodox administrate their own sacraments with their own rules of conduct. – Ken Graham Nov 1 at 10:18
  • Why is baptism not listed with the other sacraments there? – curiousdannii Nov 1 at 12:55
  • @curiousdannii Baptism is a special case due to the fact that it is applied to non-Christians. Thus the Code has a special section on baptism, canons 849-878. – zippy2006 Nov 1 at 16:21
  • As a rule, emergencies have no general bearing on liceity. Things that are lawful to do in the case of an emergency are not necessarily lawful in a non-emergency case. Further, the mother-action that is generally illicit can obtain liceity in the case of an emergency. For example, a laicized priest cannot licitly give absolution, and yet in an emergency he is allowed to do so. Thus the fact that a Catholic can licitly receive a sacrament from an Orthodox priest in the case of emergency does not give us any information about the general 'liceity' of the priest's sacrament... – zippy2006 Nov 1 at 16:34

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