Eastern Catholic Children Receiving Latin Catholic Sacraments

Q: The Syro-Malabar Eastern Catholic Church confers all sacraments of initiation [Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist] to infants.  But many Syro-Malabar couples in the United States have their children baptized at their local Latin parishes—which would just be limited to baptism in the Latin rite.

My question is, as per canon law, could those children still continue to receive the other sacraments later on (Confirmation, Penance, First Communion) at their local Latin church?  Even though there’s a Syro-Malabar jurisdiction in the United States. –Melvin

A: The scenario that Melvin describes is not unique to the Syro-Malabar Catholics of India—who live not only in India, but also in other parts of the world where Latin Catholics are the majority.  Worldwide, millions of Catholics who are members of the other eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris find themselves in exactly the same situation!  We have looked at various issues relating to eastern Catholics before; but nevertheless, let’s first review how the eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris fit into the Universal Church.  Then we can look at what happens—and what’s supposed to happen—when eastern Catholics immigrate to parts of the world where out of necessity, they end up regularly attending a Latin Catholic parish church.

We saw in “Are They Really Catholic? Part I” that not all Catholics are Roman Catholics.  The Catholic Church is comprised of over 20 different Catholic Churches sui iuris of which the Latin Church is by far the largest.  (Sui iuris, by the way, is an untranslatable Latin phrase indicating an entity unto itself, with some degree of autonomy.)  Most, but not all, of the others were formed in relatively recent centuries, when various groupings of Orthodox faithful—who had been in schism with the Catholic Church—returned to full communion with Rome (cf. c. 205, and see “What is the ‘Old Catholic Church?’” for more on the issue of full communion).  They now acknowledge the Pope in Rome as the supreme earthly head of the Church.  The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Romanian Catholic Church, and the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church are a few examples of these Churches sui iuris.

While members of these Churches sui iuris are fully Catholic, they have retained their own ceremonies and rituals.  On the surface these appear radically different from those of the Latin Church, with which we are most familiar; but theologically speaking, the clergy of the eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris are celebrating the same Mass and the same sacraments as Latin Catholics.

If an eastern Catholic continues to live in the region of the world where his Church sui iuris is prevalent, well and good!  He ordinarily belongs to a parish which is part of his Church sui iuris, and regularly receives the sacraments there.  But as everyone knows, people immigrate to other countries all the time—and since the eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris constitute such a small percentage of the Catholic Church worldwide, it’s no surprise that eastern Catholics who move to other countries will usually end up surrounded by Latin Catholics.

Because eastern Catholics are indeed Catholics (unlike the Orthodox, who have been in a state of schism for nearly 1000 years), there is absolutely no reason why they can’t attend Mass at a Latin Catholic parish, and routinely receive sacraments like Penance and the Eucharist there.  This goes both ways, of course: if a Latin Catholic lives in a region where an eastern Catholic Church sui iuris is prevalent, or if he simply likes to attend a Catholic Mass using a different ritual, he can regularly attend an eastern parish and receive the sacraments there: see canon 1248.1 for attendance at a Mass of any Catholic rite, canon 991 for reception of the sacrament of Penance, and canon 923 for reception of the Eucharist in any Catholic rite.  We are all Catholics!

(Just for the record, the sacrament of matrimony is a maddening exception to this logical rule, as we saw in “Why Don’t We Marry Validly Before a Ukrainian Catholic Priest? Eastern Churches, Part I.”  As Supreme Legislator, the Pope could, if he wished, eliminate this exception entirely; but to date, no Pope has chosen to do so.)

Note that as per canon 112.2, the mere fact that a Catholic attends Mass and receives the sacraments at a Catholic Church sui iuris other than his own, doesn’t make him a member of that Church.  So if, for example, Latin Catholics choose to attend a Ruthenian Catholic parish every Sunday, they’re still Latin Catholics.  Likewise, the Syro-Malabar Catholics whom Melvin describes may regularly be attending a Latin Catholic parish—but this doesn’t change the fact that they and their children are Syro-Malabar Catholics.

Your membership in a Catholic Church sui iuris does not depend on which church you were baptized in as an infant; it is determined by the Church sui iuris to which your parents belong.  We looked at this issue in more detail in “Becoming (Or at Least Marrying) an Eastern Catholic.”  If a Syro-Malabar couple routinely attend a Latin Catholic parish, because they live in a part of the world where there simply isn’t a Syro-Malabar Catholic parish to be found, they will naturally—and correctly—bring their new baby to the Latin Catholic priest for baptism.  Since the parents are Catholic, and the priest is Catholic, this is totally okay—but the baby will nevertheless be a Syro-Malabar Catholic.  For clarity’s sake, the record of this baby’s baptism in the parish’s baptismal register really should include a notation that the parents are actually Syro-Malabar Catholics; but while your average Latin Catholic parish priest knows that he must keep a baptismal register (c. 535, and see “Canon Law and Marriage Records” for more on sacramental registries), he might not realize that the parents and the baby are all Syro-Malabar Catholics, and thus this information might inadvertently be missing from the registry.

When an eastern Catholic child is baptized in a Latin Catholic parish church, the Latin Catholic priest is naturally going to use the Latin Catholic baptismal rite.  Latin Catholic clergy are to celebrate Mass and the sacraments according to the liturgical books of the Latin Catholic Church; thus in the situation which Melvin describes, even if a Latin Catholic priest had access to the liturgical books of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church (which is highly unlikely!), he cannot use them himself.  Clergy are obliged to use the liturgical books of their respective Catholic Churches sui iuris, as per canon 846.2.

(There is one uncommon exception to this rule.  Worldwide, there are a tiny number of priests who are “bi-ritual,” meaning that they have been specially trained and received faculties to celebrate Mass and the sacraments in two different Catholic rites, as needed; but the odds that you’re going to encounter one are pretty low!)

Let’s now look at the details of Melvin’s question.  He notes that in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church sui iuris, when a child is baptized, the priest also confers the sacraments of Confirmation and First Holy Communion as well.  By the way, this is not unique to Syro-Malabar Catholics; some other eastern Catholics do exactly the same thing—with Russian Catholics and Ukrainian Greek Catholics being good examples of this (see “Adopting Children of Another Faith: Eastern Catholics, Part II”).  Obviously, therefore, a Syro-Malabar Catholic baby who is baptized by a Latin priest will need to receive these other two sacraments later on.

As should be clear, in the scenario as described above, nobody has done anything wrong!  The Syro-Malabar Catholic couple brought their infant to a Catholic priest, and he baptized the child in accord with the liturgical rites of his own Church sui iuris.  If the couple continue to live in an area where there is no Syro-Malabar Catholic parish, they will naturally need to have their child catechized when he reaches the appropriate age, and the child will make his First Confession and First Holy Communion along with all the other Catholic children of the parish.  Once again, there is certainly nothing wrong with this; this is a case of a Catholic child receiving Catholic sacraments.  After all, in this situation, what’s the alternative?  Unless the Syro-Malabar couple abandon the Catholic faith altogether and take their child with them, the child will have to make his First Penance and First Communion somewhere, right?

There are, however, many different variations on this basic theme.  For example, let’s say that this Syro-Malabar Catholic couple have immigrated to a part of the world where there isn’t any Syro-Malabar Catholic parish, but there are a significant number of other Syro-Malabar Catholics living in the same diocese.  In this case, as per canon 383.2, the (Latin) diocesan bishop should, if humanly possible, have made some kind of provision for the spiritual care of these Catholics in their own rite.  If he can identify a Syro-Malabar Catholic priest whose hierarchical superior agrees to send him to minister in this region, that’s great!  Or perhaps one of his own, Latin priests is interested in becoming bi-ritual, enabling him to minister both to Latin Catholics of the diocese, and to the Syro-Malabar Catholics who live there (with the approval of the Syro-Malabar Catholic hierarchy, of course).  Another possibility which canon 383.2 envisions is that the Latin diocesan bishop can appoint an episcopal vicar specifically to deal with the spiritual needs of the Syro-Malabar community living within this Latin diocese—and that episcopal vicar can make provisions for these Catholics as best he can, depending on the circumstances (see also c. 476, and “Is Nepotism Still an Issue in the Church?” and “Our Priest Cancelled Our Wedding, So Who Else Can Validly Marry Us?” for more on episcopal vicars).  The specific circumstances can vary dramatically, so it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations about what should be done in these cases.

Another factor which often can play into the equation is that many eastern Catholics don’t even know that they are, in reality, eastern Catholics!  Imagine, for example, that their eastern Catholic grandparents immigrated to an area where there is no parish of their own Catholic Church sui iuris, and so they began attending the Latin Catholic parish, where they and their children received all the sacraments.  The grandchildren may have absolutely no idea that their family originally were all eastern Catholics—which ipso facto makes them eastern Catholics too—and so they simply continue attending their Latin Catholic parish, as they have done all their lives.  At the same time, the clergy of their Latin Catholic parish have no clue that the family are actually eastern Catholics; note that the mere fact that a Catholic is (let’s say) ethnically Indian, or Romanian, or Iraqi does not mean he must be an eastern Catholic.  Yes, each of these nations is home to an eastern Catholic Church sui iuris, but there are plenty of Latin Catholics in these countries too. Once again, nobody is doing anything wrong here, if children are baptized, and later make their First Penance and First Holy Communion in a Latin Catholic parish, even though these children are in actuality eastern Catholics.  (It’s surprisingly common for prospective seminarians to discover that they are not, in fact, members of the Catholic Church sui iuris which they’ve attended all their lives—see “Can a Latin Catholic Man Enter an Eastern Catholic Seminary?” for more on this issue.)

But let’s look now at the precise scenario which Melvin describes.  Imagine an eastern Catholic couple who know full well that they are eastern Catholics, living in a region where there is a parish of their own Church sui iuris, but who regularly attend a Latin Catholic parish.  Why would they do this?  Well, maybe the Latin Catholic church is much closer to their home, or they really like the parish priest there, or they really don’t like the priest at the eastern Catholic parish (etc. etc.).  In itself, as we’ve seen above, this is totally okay; we Catholics just have to attend Catholic Mass and receive Catholic sacraments, regardless of the Church sui iuris to which we belong.

When it comes to your children receiving the sacraments of baptism, confirmation (termed “chrismation” by many eastern Catholics), First Penance and First Holy Communion, you certainly can, if you wish, make an argument that Catholics really should receive these sacraments at a parish of their own Catholic Church sui iuris if that’s possible—and eastern Catholic clergy will undoubtedly urge the members of their Church sui iuris to do that.  Think about it: if all the Syro-Malabar Catholics in a given region attend a Latin Catholic parish, and there’s a Syro-Malabar parish in that same region which is frequented only by Latin Catholics and members of other eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris … then what’s the point of having a Syro-Malabar parish in that region?  It only makes sense that eastern Catholics should be encouraged to attend a parish of their own sui iuris Church, and have their children baptized there!  Nevertheless, you won’t find any canon asserting that this is actually a requirement, either in the (Latin) Code of Canon Law or in the separate body of canon law governing the eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris.  The sacraments of initiation—baptism, confirmation/chrismation, and Holy Eucharist—are just as valid in another Catholic Church sui iuris as they are in your own.

So now Melvin has his answer.  Yes, within the universal Catholic Church there are different Catholic Churches sui iuris, and in a perfect world we would all be attending a parish of our own Church.  But in the real world, we can receive the sacraments of initiation at any Catholic parish, even if it’s not our own Catholic Church sui iuris.  At the end of the day, we are all Catholics.

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