A Response to Cor-bishop Felix Shabi

12/6/2010 11:48:00 AM

In his recent article dated November 26, 2010 entitled “Does the Assyrian Church Understand the Sacrament of Priesthood” (Arabic) and published on the internet [1], Rev. Cor-bishop Felix Shabi attacks the Assyrian Church of the East for the recent ‘Statement of Clarification’ published by the Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East (dated 11 November 2010), through its Secretary His Grace Mar Awa Royel, Bishop of California. [2] Cor-bishop Shabi vehemently condemns the Holy Synod’s declaration in rather derogatory terms and a demeanor not befitting a clergyman, a purported canonist, and certainly not an episcopal vicar. This article will deal with the points raised in Fr. Shabi’s interesting article on the Internet.

First and foremost: for a clergyman who claims to be the assistant of the Chaldean bishop of the Diocese of San Diego to not know the official title of the Assyrian Church of the East is truly stunning. Cor-bishop Shabi, get it right: the name of our Church is: The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East! Even your patriarch, His Beatitude Mar Emmanuel III Delly, when writing to His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV always refers to us as the Assyrian Church of the East (‘Kanisat ul-Mashriq al-Ashuriya’); if your patriarch knows how to nominate our Church, then how comes it that you do not, dear cor-bishop and canonist??? The term you use in Arabic (“Al-Athuriya”) is reminiscent of the oppressive regime of Sadam Hussein and co-partisans who, in order to deny the existence of the modern Assyrians and to denigrate the Assyrian Church of the East, systematically referred to us as “Athuriyeen” or “Kanisat al-Athuriya”, as opposed to “Al-Ashuriyeen” or “Kanisat ul-Mashriq al- Ashuriya.” Therefore, kindly tell us whether you subscribe to this policy of Sadam and the Baathists, or whether you simply intend on deriding the Assyrian Church by utilizing this nomenclature; I’m sure the readers of both articles will be interested to know your opinion.

Further, your use of the term “New Calendar” after nominating the Church of the East (twice!) is also taken as an affront, because it is obvious that you aim at proclaiming that this is the Church of the East which is split according to the calendar (i.e. Gregorian and Julian), an event which took place in 1968. Well, why don’t you go a little farther back into history? Remember what happened in 1552, dear cor-bishop??? In canonical terms, that is called a ‘schism.’ Being a canonist, you should indeed know these things. Whether the Church of the East is split according to the calendar, or not, is utterly none of your business!

You must remember, dear cor-bishop, that His Holiness the Pope of Rome himself to whom you and your Church owes allegiance has repeatedly recognized His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV as the head of the Assyrian Church of the East and the heir of that ancient liturgical and theological tradition, most especially in his welcome to the Patriarch and his delegation at the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, at the General Audience on Wednesday, November 9, 1994, two days before the signing of the Common Christological Declaration on November 11; the pope declared: “Today I have the honor and the joy to have next to me a special guest, who comes from afar. He is a brother whom I welcome in the love of Christ—the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV, accompanied by three bishops, members of the Holy Synod of his Church. He is the leader of one of the most ancient and venerable Churches of the East. The language adopted by it in the liturgy is the closest to the language in which Jesus expressed himself.” Later, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI declared at the Vatican on June 21, 2007, during the meeting between the pope and His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV: “The Assyrian Church of the East is rooted in ancient lands whose names are associated with the history of God's saving plan for all mankind. At the time of the early Church, the Christians of these lands made a remarkable contribution to the spread of the Gospel, particularly through their missionary activity in the more remote areas of the East.” These words are brought to your attention, dear cor-bishop, just so that you are made aware of the estimation of the last two popes in regards to the Assyrian Church of the East and her patriarch.

Now, on to the more theological and canonical matters. You speak about the Assyrian Church of the East’s ‘ignorance’ as to the meaning of the sacrament of priesthood, and hence the title of your article ‘Does the Assyrian Church of the East understand the meaning of the sacrament of priesthood?’ The theological understanding of this particular sacrament includes both a theological and a canonical discussion. Now, it is well noted that the sacrament of ‘Holy Orders’ in the Latin theological is indelible, meaning that once given (validly), they imposed a spiritual ‘mark’ on the soul that cannot be erased. You mentioned cor-bishop that in your studies on dogma, you learned that the following sacraments are indelible according to the Latin tradition: 1) baptism 2) confirmation 3) holy orders. Although I am very glad to learn that in the Latin theological and sacramental system the priesthood imprints an indelible mark on the soul of the one ordained, however, you must know be aware of and recognize that this issue of the suspension and excommunication of Ashur Soro is based on the theological and sacramental system of the Assyrian Church of the East, and not that of the Latin West or the Roman Catholic Church. Again, although in the Latin tradition ordination imparts an indelible mark, that is not the case in the theology of the Church of the East.

Now, let us ask: what is the meaning and importance of the sacrament of priesthood for the Assyrian Church of the East? First, Mar Abdisho of Nisibis (d. 1318) mentions in his Marganitha (Part IV, Chapter II), states the priesthood is the most important prerequisite for any valid sacrament in the Church, he who has “…attained the priesthood rightly, according to the requirements of the Church. ”This is very important, and it means only he can be called a priest who has attained the priesthood (i.e. has been ordained) legitimately and canonically. Why is that an important point? Because the priesthood, according to the theology of Mar Narsai, is the office/faculty of mediation between God and man, and the priest is the instrument of the Holy Spirit in effecting the sacraments (rendering them spiritually efficacious and valid) and in administering them to the faithful for their salvation and as means of God’s grace to us.

In the sacramental, liturgical and canonical tradition of the Assyrian Church of the East, the function of the ordained priesthood and its liturgical/sacramental ministry is only understood and can only operate within the context of the holy Church. This was already proclaimed in the liturgical theology of Mar Narsai of Nisibis (399-502) who refers to the sacraments as the ‘Sacraments of the Church’ and who call the priest the ‘vessel/instrument of the Holy Spirit,’ in that it the Holy Spirit himself who acts in and effects the sacraments, while the priest is only the vessel in the hands of the Spirit. Therefore, priesthood and the function of all of the grades of priestly ministry can only function within the Church, and as a communion of the ordained with and at the head of the Body of Christ which is the Church. Once you are out of the Church, you are out of that theological, liturgical and sacramental communion. For the simple question is: ‘If you are outside the bounds and communion of the Church, where and how will you exercise your priesthood and its ministerial function?’ You are a priest as long as you area minister in and of the Church. The early ecumenical councils already determined and decreed that presbyters and deacons were not to be ordained except for a specific parish (whether urban or rural), or shrine of the martyrs. In like manner, no bishop may be ordained except for a specific diocese. All you have to do, dear cor-bishop, is open the Takhsa d-Syamida and see that in the ordination of deacons, presbyters and bishops (and their various sub--‐ rankings), the archdeacon proclaims the name of the one being ordained and declares for what diocese or parish or city the candidate is being ordained. During the deacon’s ordination, the archdeacon proclaims: “Lift up your eyes to the highest heights, and beseech mercy from God the compassionate, for NN. the sub-deacon who is ordained and ordered deacon for the Church of God to which he is set apart…” [3] Similarly, for the priest’s ordination it is proclaimed by the archdeacon: “Lift up your eyes to the highest heights, and beseech mercy from God the compassionate, for NN. the deacon, who is ordained and ordered presbyter for the Church of God to which he is set apart…” [4] Finally, and most importantly, to illustrate the point that the three grades of the clergy are ordained for and assigned to a particular ecclesial community wherein they may exercise their priesthood, during the consecration of bishops in the rite of the Church of the East, the archdeacon again proclaims: “Lift up your minds to the highest heights, and beseech mercy from God the compassionate, for NN. the presbyter and hermit who is ordained and ordered bishop for the city of NN. (or for the Church of God in the country of NN.), and for all the territory to which he is set apart; pray for him…”

Early on, Nicea declared that there were to be no vagabond clergy. Therefore, one who has been deposed from the clerical state, laicized and excommunicated ceases to function as a minister of Christ and as a minister and vessel of the Holy Spirit in the Church, for the ministry of the edification and sanctification of the baptized faithful. If he is outside of the communion of the Holy Church and the absolving Mysteries, how then can he be considered to have an indelible mark upon his soul? What will he do with that indelible mark? In what manner will he make use of it and how will it function? For this reason, the ecclesiology of both the Assyrian Church of the East and the Eastern Orthodox Churches do not admit the ‘indelible mark’ for the priesthood.

Once a cleric has been deposed or excommunicated, he can no longer make use of the name, dignity or function of the priesthood. To say that notwithstanding all of this, the ordination which he has received is ‘indelible’ is indeed a moot point. Why, because simply the deposed cleric can never function again in the priesthood, and in the canonical tradition of the Assyrian Church of the East even if he were to be forgiven, he could only enter the church as a layman and receive Communion (unless, of course, he were found guilty of heresy, in which case he would be anathematized). In the famous case where the Patriarch Mar Aba I ‘the Great’ (540-552) restored order in the Church after the schism that occurred between Narsai and Elisha the anti-patriarchs who preceded Mar Paul the Patriarch, the schismatic bishop Timai bar Dadisho (a bishop in the province of Prath Maishan), was deposed by Mar Aba I in his Synod of 544. The acta of this Synod read: “Just as Timai bar Dadisho, who became an evil servant in the Church of God, by means of the divisions and strifes which he caused, they (Mar Aba and the bishops in communion with him) bound, deposed and separated from the rank, ministry, title and the entire administration of the episcopacy forever…” [5]

Further instances of the ‘loosening’ and ‘deposition’ of the clergy from all priestly dignity and ranking can be seen in canons 3 and 5 of the Synod of Mar Yosip the Catholicos (554 AD). [6]

Yet another instance of the ‘loosening’ from holy orders can be seen in the Collection of Synodical Canons of Mar Abdisho of Nisibis, where it is indicated that a priest, cor-bishop or archdeacon who is elected and called to the episcopacy and does not submit may be prohibited from mixing with the community of the faithful (though, this is not the case for a layman who is called to the episcopacy). The reason for this is because the three grades of the priesthood noted above, once given (through ordination) cannot be loosed “except by death or by transgression [of the canons];” see Memra 8, Chapter [7].

The Canon 68 of the collection known as the Apostolic Canons forbids the repeating of an ordination for the same person, however, this does not amount to a declaration of the ‘indelibility’ of the priestly office. In fact, the concept that ordination imparts an ‘indelible mark’ is really a concoction of the Scholastic theologians of the West, and was only formally pronounced by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (also known as the ‘Catholic Counter-Reformation’). It is, therefore, an ecclesial gift, charism and ministry, and does not impart an ontological change on the soul of the ordained.

At this point, it would seem quite necessary to bring forth to light some canons of the Eastern Catholic Churches, under which our sister Chaldean Catholic Church would function. As you are aware, being a student of canon law, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches was promulgated by the late Pope John Paul II on October 18, 1990. I refer here to the bi-lingual Latin and English edition published by the ‘Canon Law Society of America.’ These canons, as the readers will see as well, clearly indicate that a cleric (whether bishop or priest) once stripped of the clerical status or deposed from the clerical state ceases to function as such.

First, let us look at what the code of canon law which governs all of the Eastern Catholic Churches has to say in regards to a cleric losing his clerical status in the Catholic Church. Let me list these canons for your dear cor-bishop:

  1. Canon 394, par. 2: “A cleric, however, loses the clerical state…by the legitimate infliction of the penalty of dismissal…” [7]
  2. Canon 395: “A cleric loses the clerical state according to the norms of the law, loses with it the rights proper to the clerical state nor is he further bound by the obligations of the clerical state without prejudice, however, to cann. 396 (he may not be dispensed from celibacy); he is forbidden to exercise the power of order without prejudice to cann. 725 [the possibility to absolve sinners] and 735, par. 2 [the possibility to hear confessions]; he is by the law itself deprived of all offices, ministries, functions and any delegated power. ” [8]
  3. Canon 1433, par. 2: “A cleric deposed from the clerical state is deprived of all offices, ministries or other functions, ecclesiastical pensions and any delegated power; he becomes disqualified for them; he is forbidden to exercise the power of orders; he cannot be promoted to higher holy orders, and is equivalent to lay persons in respect to canonical affairs…” [9]

Second, let us take a look at what the canons of the Eastern Catholic Churches say in regards to excommunication:

  1. Canon 1434, par. 1: “In addition to all things mentioned in can. 1431, par. 1, a major excommunication forbids one to receive other sacraments, to administer sacraments and sacramentals, to exercise any offices, ministries and functions, to place acts of governance, which if they are nonetheless placed, are null by law itself.” [10]
  2. Canon 1434, par. 2: “One punished with a major excommunication is to be turned away from participating in the Divine Liturgy and in other public celebrations of divine worship.” [11]
  3. Canon 1434, par. 3: “One punished with a major excommunication is forbidden to make use of privileges previously granted. He cannot validly obtain dignities, offices, ministries, or any other function in the Church or a pension, and he cannot acquire the revenues attached to them…” [12]

Third, the other matter of importance is the fact that Ashur Soro was not subordinate to the authority of the Catholicos-Patriarch as his immediate superior, nor to the Holy Synod (all of the bishops of the Church in communion and being presided over by the catholicos-patriarch) as the legislative body of the Church. Again, in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, the canon against insubordination states:

  1. Canon 1437: “One who refuses subjection to the supreme authority of the Church, or who is subject to it refuses communion with the Christian faithful, though legitimately admonished does not obey, is to be punished as a schismatic with a major excommunication.” [13]
  2. Canon 1466: “One who disobeys his own hierarch when the latter legitimately issues orders or prohibitions, and who after a warning persists in such disobedience, is to be punished as delinquent with an appropriate penalty.” [14]
  3. Canon 1447, par. 1: “One who incites sedition and hatred toward any hierarch whatsoever or provokes his subjects to disobedience, is to be punished with an appropriate penalty, not excluding major excommunication, especially if the offense was committed against a patriarch (or indeed against the Roman Pontiff).” [15] Looking at the above-mentioned canons from the code promulgated by the pope for the Eastern Catholic Churches themselves, dear cor-bishop, let us apply these canons to the case of Ashur Soro.
  4. Soro was suspended by the Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East on November 11, 2005 for refusing to submit to the authority of the Catholicos-Patriarch as the head of the Church, and to the whole body of the Holy Synod as the legislating body of the Church. According to the canon laws of the Assyrian Church of the East, any sacramental act carried out by a suspended cleric is null and void. The distinction in the tradition of the Latin West, that a sacrament celebrated by a suspended cleric is valid but illicit (illegal, canonically speaking) does not exist in the canonical tradition of the Assyrian Church of the East. Since you claim to be a canonist, you should be aware of the “Sources” (fonti) of the canons contained in the Eastern Code and of which the Chaldean Catholic Church claims to lay hold to! Even if Soro claimed that his suspension was not just, which it most certainly was, then Canon 23 of the Synod of Patriarch Mar Yosip (554 AD) would apply: “Again, it was the will of the council of bishops that when a deacon is suspended by a presbyter, or a presbyter is suspended by his visitor, or a visitor by a chorepiscopus, or a chorepiscopus by a bishop, or a bishop by a metropolitan, or a metropolitan by the patriarch, even if it is claimed that he who is suspended was suspended improperly, nevertheless the suspension should be observed with diligence. He who was suspended should remain in his binding and seek judgment in the council of the community before those who are higher in rank than the one who bound and the one bound…” In any case, Soro was to remain under the ecclesiastical penalty of suspension (Kilyana), until the next Synod would re-examine his case, were he to appeal the former suspension.

    The Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East took the next step of formally deposing Ashur Soro from the rank of episcopacy, and depriving him of all ecclesiastical faculties and honor, in its decree of excommunication and laicization dated October 31, 2008. The decree of excommunication and deposition from the priesthood (Qatharasis) reads: “The suspended bishop Ashur Andrious Soro is hereby pronounced entirely excommunicated and stripped of the episcopal office and of all priestly dignity which he had received in the Assyrian Church of the East. From henceforth, he is utterly laicized and retains absolutely no canonical or spiritual right or privilege of any other sort in the Assyrian Church of the East.” What this meant was that from the date of the Decree of Qatharasis (Oct. 31, 2008), Soro was officially declared to be a layman in the Church. The Synod had given him almost 3 whole years to offer his repentance before God and the Church, in the hopes that he might be forgiven; but alas, it was to no avail! The decree of deposition pronounced on Soro is binding permanently (whereas the suspension would have been temporary, had Soro repented). The canon laws of the Assyrian Church of the East regarding Qatharasis are very clear; to name but a few:

    1. Qatharais is the deposition from the clerical state, [as] one who is dead who does not receive life, and is only to be decreed concerning priests and the head of priests (i.e. bishops), and the one who is given Qatharasis, he shall not be clad with the dignity of which he formerly had, even after his repentance, at all” (Collection of Synodical Canons of Mar Abdisho of Nisibis: Part II, Memra I, Chapter 22).
    2. Concerning those who are anathematized, excommunicated, and utterly dismissed from the ministry of their priesthood, that they may not be received. A bishop, then, or a metropolitan who once has been cut off and cast out by the great Synod, or a presbyter or deacon by their bishop in a council of priests and deacons, as those who have been tried and convicted for their faults, no longer ought to be admitted to the ministry of which they were justly stripped, and there may no longer be mercies for them—nor, indeed, when they go creeping round about and pestering and making helpers for themselves. There may not be helpers for them, and there may not be for them a hope of being accepted, nor may a place for compassion be found for them. The prior confusions which came about through the rebellious and worthless may no longer be, such a brought about the confusion of the divine laws and paternal canons. Those who are excommunicated and dismissed by the sentence which once went out against them from the great synod may not again be admitted in ecclesiastical assemblies by another synod, but all those as well who fellowship with them or help them shall receive the censure and suspension naturally fitting to them, especially (if), after having learned the judgment which went out against them, they still venture to assist them. This edict concerning these things was decreed also in an earlier synod by the blessed fathers” (Synod of Patriarch Mar Isho’yahb I, 587 AD, Canon 18).

    Further, we read in the Synodicon Orientale (‘Eastern Synods’), that those clerics (in particular bishops) who have been bound, deposed and utterly laicized, they may continue to receive the Holy Eucharist only if they offer their penance and repent before the whole Church, to the satisfaction of and with a decree by the Holy Synod: “…may he be loosed and void from all the ranks of the priesthood, and may he be bound also from ecclesiastical fellowship until he offers repentance and it is seen to the Synod of Bishops, and he [may be] absolved unto the communion of the Holy Mysteries” (Synod of Patriarch Mar Yosip of 554 AD; Canon 5). [16]

    As seen above, one who has been excommunicated and deposed from the priesthood of the Church ought not to be accepted by others. Further, even if he were to repent, he would only be accepted as a layman in the Church, and not as one in holy orders. Concluding, dear cor-bishop Felix, you should be aware of the patristic patrimony of your Church. Furthermore, you should know, if your purport to be a canonist, that the Assyrian Church of the East or any other Church not in full communion with Rome will judge canonical matters according to canons proper to that Church’s juridical and theological traditions. It is sincerely hoped that this brief rebuttal to the remarks of Cor-bishop Shabi will be sufficient to put to ease the concerns of the faithful of the Assyrian Church of the East, and our Chaldean Catholic brethren who have read our Holy Synod’s Statement of Clarification. Finally, the ultimate raison d’etre for the Statement was to assure all of the faithful of both Churches that the official status of Ashur Soro is that he has been deposed from all clerical dignity and excommunicated by his hierarchy, and that the Chaldean faithful should beware of receiving the sacraments from a deposed and excommunicated cleric.

    References:

    1. Refer to: http://kaldaya.net/2010/Articles/11_November_2010/42_Nov26_FrFelixShabi.html
    2. Refer to the official English text at: http://news.assyrianchurch.com/clarification-from-the-secretariat-of¬the-holy-synod/789
    3. Kthawa d-Takse Kumraye [Chaldean Pontifical], (Rome, 1957), p. 135.
    4. Ibid., p. 157-158.
    5. JEAN BAPTISTE CHABOT, Synodicon Orientale, ou recueil de synods nestoriens (Paris, 1902), p. 71. See the parallel Arabic version in: YOUSIF HABBI, Majami’ Kanisat al-Mashreq [Councils of the Church of the East], (Kaslik, Lebanon: 1999) p. 241, especially point 10.
    6. op. cit. , p. 99-100 and 94; ibid., p. 302 (number 19).
    7. JOHN PAUL II, Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches [Latin-English Edition], Canon Law Society of America, English Translation (Washington D.C., 1990) p. 203.
    8. Ibid., p. 203.
    9. Ibid., pp. 684-685.
    10. Ibid., p. 685.
    11. Ibid.
    12. Ibid.
    13. Ibid., p. 687.
    14. Ibid., p. 689.
    15. Ibid.
    16. CHABOT, Synodicon Orientale, p. 100; HABBI, Majami’, p. 302.

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