Does a Convert Become a Latin or an Eastern Catholic?

Q: I have a question about the church membership of an adult convert to Catholicism.

My grandparents were Greek Melchite Catholics. Their son, my father, drifted away from Catholicism, married a protestant woman, and began attending protestant services.

I was raised and baptized in a protestant church.  When I went to college, I felt called to become Catholic.  The pastor investigated my protestant baptism, and concluded that because it did not use the Trinitarian formula it was invalid.  So I was baptized at the Easter Vigil.

A month later, I was talking to both my pastor and a Greek Melchite Catholic priest visiting from my grandparents’ hometown. I mentioned my grandparents and said that they are, in fact, Greek Melchite Catholics, though I myself was raised protestant. Hearing this, the visiting priest suggested that I am actually a member of the Melchite Greek Catholic Church, because church membership is inherited through the male line.

My pastor says that’s not possible and explains that I was just baptized at the Easter Vigil. The visiting priest replies that the child of an Eastern Catholic is always an Eastern Catholic, and if I really want to be a Latin Catholic, I have to write a letter to Rome.

But the pastor argued that my father’s failure to raise me as any kind of Catholic or have me validly baptized broke the chain of membership and left me free to join a new church. Both priests say that I can attend Mass wherever I want, but my actual church membership will be significant for marrying or having children.  Each priest, though, believes his position is the correct one.  Which is right? –Abe

A: If your head is already spinning, be aware that the answer to Abe’s excellent question is much simpler than you might expect.  The law on this type of situation is surprisingly straightforward, and can readily be ascertained by anyone who consults the Code of Canon Law.

In “Are They Really Catholic? Part I,” we saw that not all Catholics are Roman (i.e., Latin) Catholics.  Depending on how you count them, there are actually about twenty different groupings of Catholics on earth today—and the Greek Melchite Catholic Church mentioned by Abe is one of them.  Most of them exist today because in centuries past, significant numbers of Orthodox clergy and faithful returned to full communion with the Catholic Church.

But unlike the Orthodox Churches, which are in a state of schism (cf. c. 751) because they do not recognize the Pope as the Vicar of Christ on earth, these groupings of former-Orthodox-turned-Catholics are truly Catholic, for they share the same faith, the same sacraments, and the same governance as Latin Catholics (cf. c. 205).  These different groupings of Catholics are known in technical parlance as Catholic Churches sui iuris.

As was discussed in “Adopting Children of Another Faith (Eastern Churches, Part II),” canon 111.1 tells us that by baptism, a child becomes a member of the Latin Catholic Church if his parents belong to that Church.  If both parents are Catholic, but each belongs to a different Church sui iuris, the child becomes a member of the Church sui iuris of his father—unless both Catholic parents agree that the child is to be a member of the mother’s Church sui iuris.  And if only one parent is Catholic, the child belongs to the Catholic Church sui iuris of that parent (c. 111.2).

(By the way, canon 111 was reworded and reorganized into three paragraphs by Pope Francis’ 2016 Apostolic Letter de Concordia inter Codices—yet the change is still not reflected on the Vatican’s website.  Nor does their website even contain an English translation of this important document; you can, however, find one here, which contains a correct version of the current canon 111.)

A couple of concrete examples will serve to illustrate these points.  Let’s say that Robert is a Ruthenian Catholic, and his wife Lucy is a Latin Catholic.  Their new baby will, at his baptism, become a member of the Ruthenian Catholic Church like his father—unless both parents agree that he is to become a Latin Catholic like his mother instead.

But if, on the other hand, Paul is Ukrainian Orthodox and his wife Sara is a Latin Catholic, when their baby is baptized in the Catholic Church he will automatically become a member of the Latin Catholic Church—he will not be a Ukrainian Catholic.  Got that?

Thus it is erroneous and over-simplistic to assert, as the visiting priest did, that “church membership is inherited through the male line.”  This is not necessarily the case, although in certain circumstances it is correct.

While we’re on the subject, there is another fairly common scenario which is not mentioned in canon 111 (although it is addressed in a separate body of canon law which pertains exclusively to the eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris): if a baptized member of an Orthodox Church wishes to become a Catholic, he/she will become a member of the Catholic Church sui iuris that corresponds to his Orthodox Church.  So, for example, if Helen is Romanian Orthodox, and she is received into the Catholic Church, she will be a member of the Romanian Catholic Church.  We saw a real example of this in “Becoming (Or at Least Marrying) an Eastern Catholic.”

Returning now to Abe’s situation, it actually is not covered by canon 111.1 or 111.2 at all.  That’s because when he was baptized, he was not a child!  The first two paragraphs of canon 111 pertain only to those children under the age of 14.  Anyone who has reached his 14th birthday is covered by canon 111.3 (the former canon 111.2), which states that anyone to be baptized who has completed his 14th year of age can freely choose to be baptized in the Latin Church or in another Church sui iuris; in that case, the person belongs to the Church which he or she has chosen.

As Abe has told us, he was baptized a protestant, but his baptism was later determined to have been invalid in the eyes of the Catholic Church.  We saw in “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity” that the minister performing the baptism must use the correct, Trinitarian formula for validity—and in Abe’s case it did not.  Thus Abe’s protestant baptism might very well have been celebrated when he was a child, but it doesn’t count because it wasn’t really a baptism!  This is what necessitated his recent baptism in the Catholic Church, as an adult.

And as an adult, Abe chose to be baptized in a Latin Catholic parish.  In accord with canon 111.3, he had every right to make this choice.  His ethnic background, and the Church sui iuris of his grandparents, are completely irrelevant in his case—because he was baptized not as a child, but as an adult.  As his pastor correctly put it, Abe’s “father’s failure to raise [Abe] as any kind of Catholic or have [him] validly baptized broke the chain of membership and left [him] free to join a new church.”

It should be clear by now that the visiting priest who told Abe that “the child of an Eastern Catholic is always an Eastern Catholic” was wrong in multiple ways!  Abe was not baptized a Catholic as a child, and so he can become a member of any Catholic Church sui iuris that he wishes.  And since he decided that he wants to be a Latin Catholic, he is a Latin Catholic.  Period.

Where did the visiting priest get this erroneous idea, then?  There are a couple of possibilities, one of which is that he may simply have made it up.  It could also be that he is misapplying the general rule that when an infant is baptized a Catholic, he becomes a member of his Catholic father’s Church sui iuris.

This brings us to the next point: Abe asserts that his (Latin) parish priest and the visiting (Greek Melchite) priest reached contrary conclusions about Abe’s status as a Catholic, and “each priest … believes his position is the correct one.”  It is, in fact, quite easy to check the law on this matter and determine which position objectively “is the correct one,” and there is no gray area here.  Thus this is not a question of belief, and there is absolutely no room here for personal opinions or preferences.  You have to wonder why two Catholic clerics would sit and argue about a situation like Abe’s—when all they need to do is pick up the phone and contact canonists from their respective dioceses, who can set them straight!  It sounds very much like the sad situation we saw in “Why is the Priest Telling Me Not to Talk to a Canon Lawyer?” in which a parish priest couldn’t be bothered to seek legal clarification from the canonists of his diocese, instead insisting that his parishioners were blindly to accept whatever he chose to tell them.  The Church’s laws are not deep, dark secrets; they are readily accessible to all who seek them—and they are not automatically synonymous with whatever a Catholic priest might happen to think.

To sum up, then, Abe is a member of the Latin Catholic Church—despite the fact that his grandparents were Greek Melchite Catholics—because that is what he chose when he was baptized as an adult.  Had he been baptized Catholic as a child, however, he would have been a Greek Melchite like his father.  But that’s not what happened; and as we can see, this significantly changed Abe’s life as a member of the Catholic Church.

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