The Orthodox Church always does its best to ensure that blameless & trustworthy people who uphold the Orthodox Faith are chosen to be ordained to the priesthood and the episcopate (ie, a priest or bishop). However because people are not perfect, occasionally a bad apple slips through the cracks, or perhaps someone who was originally good and blameless succumbs to temptation and falls into sin. What happens in such cases? Are they still priests/bishops? Are the Mysteries and other official acts that they conducted while a bishop/priest still valid? This question is the subject of this post.

Membership & Validity in Parliament

House of Representatives in Australian Federal Parliament

To understand this issue it might be helpful to consider how Parliament handles similar problems.

As a nation we have certain minimum standards for our MPs. Of particular relevance at this time is that people who have been found guilty of a crime are not permitted to be members of Parliament. So let’s consider a current example: Craig Thompson is a Federal Labor Member of Parliament (MP), holding the Federal seat of Dobell. Recently he has made headlines due to allegations that he misused a Union credit card while head of the Health Services Union. If found guilty of this crime, he would be ineligible to be an MP and would be forced to resign from his office. But (and here is the first important point): up until the time that he resigns or is otherwise forced out of office, he is still the Federal Member for Dobell.

Now for the second important point: as long as he is the Federal Member for Dobell, he is entitled to a vote in the Federal Parliament. Even with this investigation against him pending, his vote counts just as it always did. And if he is later found guilty & forced to vacate his seat, then this does not affect the validity of any of the votes he made before that time.

The reason for this is obvious when you think about it: could you imagine what would happen if the MP’s sacking was applied retroactively, and all his earlier votes cancelled? We would forever be in doubt about our legislation, because there would always be the possibility that one or more of the MPs had committed an as-yet-undiscovered crime which invalidates his/her/their vote(s). Parliament could not function or legislate effectively.

For example, suppose the “Carbon Tax” legislation passed by one vote (thanks to Craig Thompson). Two years pass and various companies pay various forms of tax on their carbon-dioxide emissions. Then Mr Thompson is found guilty of the allegations against him and cast out of his seat. Does this mean that the Carbon Tax legislation was invalid? Does this mean that the Government would have to refund the carbon taxes that they collected? The answer is no. In this way citizens & businesses of this country can have certainty about their legislation.

The Donatist Heresy

Icon of St Augustine of Hippo

St Augustine of Hippo was famous for his refutation of the Donatists.

The Orthodox Church has a very similar approach to the decisions & acts of its bishops as our nation does towards its MPs. The most famous example of this was the Donatist heresy in the 4th century.

In the early 4th century there were severe persecutions against Christians that tried to convince them to betray their faith by (among other things) handing over copies of their Scriptures. The penalty for this denial of the faith was to be cast out of the Church. When the persecutions ended, the Church in her mercy accepted the “lapsed” (as they were known) back into the Church after a period of repentence. However, there was a “strict” group who were less merciful and would have preferred to see them left out of the Church permanently.

This tension boiled over when a new bishop of Carthage (Caecilian) was elected in AD 311. One of the bishops that ordained him was allegedly one of the “lapsed”. The strict group accordingly declared Caecilian’s ordination to be invalid and ordained their own rival bishop of Carthage (Majorinus) – beginning a new schism in Carthage. Majorinus lived only four more years, at which point his followers appointed a successor called Donatus. This schism became known as the Donatist schism after him. (You can read more about the Donatist schism on Orthodox Wiki.)

Fundamentally, the Donatists were teaching  that Mysteries (aka Sacraments) or other official actions of the Church conducted by a priest or a bishop were not valid if he has any kind of sin in him. If the Donatists were correct, then the same problems of uncertainty would arise as described in the case of Parliament above. No one would know if their Baptism, Marriage, Ordination, or even Holy Communion was valid, because there’s always the chance that a priest may have committed some grave sin that won’t come to light until later.

It is for this reason that the Orthodox Church has always firmly rejected Donatism as a heresy. We believe that the ability to perform the Holy Mysteries does not come from the priest’s personal holiness (and conversely, that it is not taken away by the priest’s personal sins). His ability to perform the Mysteries comes from the Holy Office of the Priesthood – which the priest holds by the grace of God. As long as a priest/bishop has been properly ordained, and hasn’t been defrocked, then he is still a priest/bishop – and as long as he is still a priest/bishop, then the Mysteries he conducts are valid Mysteries and all his official acts remain official acts, regardless of his personal sin. Of course, if a priest commits a sin that later comes to light he may be defrocked as a punishment – but until he is defrocked he is still a priest!

Example: Dioscoros & the 4th Ecumenical Council

The 4th Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon

The 4th Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon

The above principle might make a bit more sense if we look at an example where it has been put into practice.

In the 4th Ecumenical Council (AD 451), the Patriarch of Alexandria (Dioscoros) was placed on trial for heresy and for his handling of a council two years earlier (which turned violent). What is interesting is that even though most of the bishops at the Council suspected that Dioscoros was guilty of the charges against him, they still took care to address him as “the most religious bishop of Alexandria” (see here for the first session). It was not until after he had been officially defrocked (during the third session of the Council) that they stopped referring to him as “the most religious bishop of Alexandria” and simply referred to him as “Dioscoros”. As an example, in the fifth session they say “Which would you follow, the most holy Leo or Dioscorus?” Note the clear difference in the way that they refer to St Leo (who had not been defrocked) as “the most holy Leo” whereas Dioscoros was simply “Dioscoros”.

When the bishops at the Council were showing respect by addressing Dioscoros in this way, it was not because they respected him as a person (a great many of them didn’t) – it was because officially he was still a bishop. It was not until he was officially defrocked (at which point he ceased to be a bishop) that they dispensed with the titles.

After Dioscoros had been deposed, the decisions he had made as Patriarch of Alexandria were still in force – they weren’t automatically annulled when he was deposed. During the remainder of the Council, a substantial amount of time was dedicated to undoing what he had done wrongfully or unjustly while Patriarch – for example, bishops who had been wrongfully deposed were officially re-instated.

The Relevance

This may seem a little off-topic for our blog, but it is relevant because of some of the accusations that have arisen recently. Accusations are often made against our priests and bishops. Sometimes they are true; usually they are false. But the important thing to remember is – even if the accusations are true, until he is officially stripped of that rank (ie, defrocked) he is still a priest/bishop, and the acts that they carry out in their name we need to respect them as such even if we don’t respect them as people.