MUCH has been said about the unalterable character of Papal decisions regarding the sacraments. Some of these have been ambiguously expressed, and have lent themselves readily to varied explanations. Others there are which appear on the surface clear and definite, but the apparent force of which has been attenuated, or even reversed, by the advancing knowledge of theologians. There is one of the thirteenth century which has never, I believe, exercised the ingenuity of commentators.
In the year 1231 the Archbishop of Bari was troubled in mind about the Greeks, who were probably numerous in his Apulian province. They used a form in baptism which seemed to him of doubtful validity. He was not sure about their confirmation, administered with the holy chrism by simple priests. They used a kind of corporal, blessed by a bishop, in place of a portable altar-stone, when saying Mass in places unprovided with a duly consecrated altar. Worst of all, there were some who, after so doubtful a baptism, had procured for themselves holy orders, and were professing to exercise the priesthood. In his perplexity the Archbishop appealed to the reigning Pontiff, Gregory IX. The Pope replied to him, resolving his doubts, in a letter which deserves to be quoted entire. I borrow the text from M. Auvray's edition of the Registers of Gregory IX:--
"Consultationi tue breviter respondemus quod Greci qui sub hac forma verborum: baptizetur talis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, baptizati ab aliquo extiterunt, non sunt, cum non fuerint secundum formam evangelicam, baptizati, et ideo tam illos quam de cetero baptizandos sub hac forma: ego te baptizo in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, precipimus baptizari. Eos autem qui extra tempora constituta sacros ordines receperunt, caracterem non est dubium recepisse, quos pro transgressione huiusmodi prius eis penitentia imposita competenti, sustinere poteris in susceptis ordinibus ministrare, attentius provisurus ut id de cetero fieri in tua provincia non permittas. Crismati vero, ut verbis tuis utamur, a simplici sacerdote confirmationis munus minime receperunt; quia de solis apostolis legitur, quorum sunt episcopi successores, quod per manus impositionem Spiritum Sanctum dabant, et ideo tam illi quam confirmandi de cetero a solis episcopis consignentur. Illis quoque qui prò altari viatico utuntur panno lineo, a Greco episcopo benedicto, studeas firmiter inhibere ne in panno huiusmodi celebrare presumant; sed id de cetero faciant, vel in altari itinerario, vel in altari maiori, secundum ritum Ecclesiae consecrato. Ad hec quia nonnulli, ut asseris, taliter baptizati se fecerunt et ad maiores et minores ordines promoveri, nos, quod tutius est sequentes, eos primo secundum formam superius tibi traditam baptizatos per singulos ordines precipimus ordinar!.
"Dat. Reate. II. idus novembris, pontificatila nostri anno quinto."
[Les Registres de Grégoìre IX, tome I, n. 740. Published in the Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d'Athènes et Rome. An incomplete account of this epistle is given by Raynaldus in his continuation of Baronius. Under the year 1231 he records that the Archbishop of Bari consulted the Pope on three questions: the validity of holy orders conferred at forbidden times; the validity of confirmation conferred by a simple priest with the holy chrism; and the use of antimensia. He quotes at length the parts of the letter dealing with these three questions, but passes over in silence the first sentence and the last, in which the Greek baptisms and ordinations are dealt with, adding the date immediately after the words, secundum ritum Ecclesiae consecrato, as if the letter there ended. (Raynaldi, Annales, anno 1231, cap. 30.)]
The letter is very clear, though it contains some things not easily accounted for. In the first place, the Greek baptisms are broadly declared invalid. Their form is defective. It is not, however, certain that Gregory IX knew what he was doing in this matter. His words, carefully weighed, suggest that he was unaware that the form which he condemns was invariably used by all the Greeks. He would seem to have thought it a mere occasional aberration. But, wherever it was used, he rules absolutely that no baptism was effected. He expresses no doubt; he leaves nothing vague. He does not merely charge the Greeks generally with using a defective form, or merely assert that no valid form is contained in their rite. He quotes the form used; he quotes it accurately, and he dogmatically declares it invalid. He lays it down as a dogmatic fact that such as are baptized in this form are not baptized at all.
Can we determine the ground on which he so decided? About forty years afterwards St. Thomas discussed in the Summa this same question. He argues (P. iii. qu. 66, art. 5) that the minister ought to be mentioned (significari) in the form of baptism. There are two causes of baptism--the principal, which is the Holy Trinity, and the instrumental, which is the minister--and both ought to be mentioned. The minister is mentioned in the words Ego te baptizo. He allows, however, the sufficiency of the Greek form, on the ground that "quia exprimitur actus exercitus per ministrum cum invocatione Trinitatis, verum perficitur sacramentum." This defence of the Greek form was adopted almost verbally by Eugenius IV at Florence in the Decretum pro Armenis:--"Quoniam cum principalis causa ex qua baptismus virtutem habet sit Sancta Trinitas, instrumentalis autem sit minister qui tradit exterius sacramentum, si exprimitur actus qui per ipsum exercetur ministrum, cum Sanctae Trinitatis invocatione, perficitur sacramentum."
St. Thomas, in requiring mention of the minister, was following the traditional teaching of the schools; but by his time, the baptism of the Greeks being in practice allowed as good, a certain modification was necessarily imported. Forty years previously Gregory IX, insisting perhaps more rigidly on this requirement, ruled out all Greek baptisms as invalid. He wrote, indeed, as if he supposed the form Ego te baptizo to be actually prescribed in the Gospel.
Was the Pope indeed ignorant of the Greek use, or did he purposely ignore it in pursuance of a policy of repression? He goes on to condemn the practice of conferring holy orders at other than the appointed times, without seeming to be aware that he is insisting on a purely Western custom. In the same way he condemns the use of antimensia, the specially consecrated linen cloths with which the Greeks have immemorially supplied the lack of a consecrated altar. So, too, he treats the Greek mode of confirmation as if it were an altogether unheard-of novelty. [Here, again, it is interesting to compare what is said by Eugenius IV. He echoes the very words of Gregory IX--"De solis apostolis legitur, quorum vices tenent episcopi, quod per manus impositionem Spiritum Sanctum dabant; " but by an ingenious turn the Eastern custom is rendered tolerable:--"Legitur tamen aliquando per apostolicae sedis dispensationem ex rationabili et urgente admodum causa simplicem sacerdotem chrismate per episcopum confecto hoc administrasse confirmationis sacramentum." The Oriental use depends upon a presumed Papal dispensation.] Lastly, he deals with Greek ordinations. Here, again, he assumes that what we know to have been universal was only individual and eccentric. Some, he says, have been advanced to holy or lesser orders after a baptism of the kind which he has condemned. Even this statement is founded on the bare assertion of the Archbishop of Bari. Such men, the Pope says, are to be first baptized properly and then ordained afresh. His definition of dogmatic fact invalidates in reality all Greek ordinations whatever. He appears, indeed, to base his decision on tutiorist grounds. If we could read his words--quod tutius est sequentes--in the sense which they would bear in a seventeenth-century document, it would follow that he expressed only a doubt as to the validity of these ordinations, which would involve, according to later usage, a conditional reordination. But to read these refinements into a thirteenth-century document would be a gross anachronism; and further, it would involve the intolerable consequence that a man who was certainly unbaptized might possibly be validly ordained. Gregory IX, whether he meant it or not, whether he knew it or not, laid down a dogmatic definition which excludes the possibility of valid ordinations in the Greek Church.
As history shows, this position was not sustained by the Popes who succeeded him. Yet Gregory IX was no ordinary Pontiff. He was one of the greatest in the great constructive period of the Papacy. How came he to give such a decision? How came it to be so speedily ignored? If we had only his prohibition of ordinations apart from the appointed seasons and of the use of antimensia, we might see in his letter merely a determination not to allow Greek customs to get a foothold in the West. He bids the Archbishop take care not to permit anything of the kind for the future in his province. But the rest of his decision touches graver matters. He is dealing precisely with those three sacraments which confer character; and he denies to the Greeks the real character alike of baptism, of confirmation, and of holy orders. Why this? In the year 1231 the Greek Church was barely emerging from the lowest depth of depression. A Latin emperor was still seated on the throne of Constantinople; it was still open to a Pope to dream of latinizing the Eastern Church. At the same time, in Southern Italy, Frederick II was using Greeks and Saracens alike in his bitter contest with the Papacy. Greeks were in special ill odour at Rome, and their ecclesiastical standing was of the weakest. But it would be unjust to attribute to Gregory IX a motive of mere policy. We need not suppose him free from prejudice. Prejudice may help to account for the tone of his letter; but, as regards the substance, we have no reason to doubt that he honestly decided according to his knowledge of the truth that was in him. But in practice the decision was speedily reversed. Events and opinions marched apace. Within thirty years the Latin dynasty of Constantinople was ended. The Emperor Michael Palaeologus was only too ready to fortify his uncertain throne by the friendship of the Pope. The Swabian danger had passed away, and the Popes on their side were ready to listen to overtures from the Greeks. The rapid growth of systematic theology furnished explanations which tended to remove the differences dividing Christians, and the first of many abortive schemes of reunion was attempted. In 1274 Gregory X received the Greeks into communion. From that time forward it was practically impossible to impugn their sacraments.
The decision of Gregory IX was thus robbed of all lasting effect. It would be interesting to speculate on what would have followed if this letter, instead of slumbering in the Papal archives, had been published to the world, and so had contributed to the formation of practice and opinion. A small part of it--the part relating to the time for ordination--was incorporated by Raymond of Peñaforte in the Decretals. [Lib. i. tit. II, de temp. ordin. c. 16. This was quite regular. He followed the ordinary method of the compilers of such codes, extracting from various decretal letters of the Popes such sentences only as bore upon the subjects to be treated. If it be asked why he did not use, in dealing with baptism, the important decision upon the form of baptism given in this letter, the answer is that he had ready to his hand a decision given by an earlier Pope, the decretal of Alexander III mentioned in the text, which seemed effectually to cover the same ground. He cites this as follows (Lib. iii. tit. 42. de bapt. c. l): "Si quis puerum ter in aqua immerserit in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, amen, et non dixerit: ego te baptizo in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, amen, non est puer baptìzatus." Equally with Gregory IX, Alexander III regarded the words ego te baptizo as essential; but, as he did not specifically declare the Greek form invalid, his decretal did not bar the way to an explanation which allowed the validity of Greek baptisms. Yet there can be little doubt that the compiler and his contemporaries would have taken it in the most rigorous sense. The only modification allowed by the Gloss of Bernard of Parma (died 1263) is the omission of the word ego, "quia plenum generat sensum haec vox baptizo, sine hoc pronomine ego." St. Thomas (loc. cit.), quoting the decretal, says that the "actus baptismi" is expressed "vel per modum, nostrum vel per modum Graecorum."] If the whole of the letter, or the part of it relating to baptism, had in the same way been made public, it would certainly have been quoted by St. Thomas in his article on the form of baptism, where he does actually quote a decretal of Alexander III of similar tendency. In that case he could not have defended the validity of Greek baptisms. They would have been put aside as unquestionably invalid. Where, then, would have been the Greeks at Lyons, at Vienne, at Florence? Their presence there may have done little good, but it did at least keep alive the idea of union, the conception of a Christendom which was not wholly Latin. If the validity of Greek sacraments had been formally denied, the chasm between East and West would have been made broader and more impassable, the Western idea of the Church would have become still narrower than it actually was. Christendom was spared this further evil, because a decretal epistle of Gregory IX lay forgotten in the registers of the Vatican.