One thing that seems obvious in the Apostolic Constitution, and the events developing around it, is that the Church cannot rescind or revoke Leo XIII’s bull Apostolicae Curae of 1896. The state of the Anglican Communion is such a way that affirming each and every ordination as unquestionably valid would open a whole new can of worms. The question of whether our Orders in the TAC are valid is one that can cause us anxiety.
The classical argument would posit the notion of our priesthood being nothing other than a fake show, our Sacraments no more than empty imitations. Some Catholics say exactly that, a fake priesthood in a fake Church. The truth of the matter is highly complex, and it is not without accident that some hyper-traditionalists claim that the post-conciliar Roman Catholic rite of ordination is invalid!
The polemics raged in the 1880’s and 90’s, surrounding the association between Lord Halifax and Father Fernand Portal, the French Lazarist priest with a passion for the unity of the Church. The polemics have raged ever since and the fire has been lit once again – and don’t we just hate each other, as if we had never been redeemed! I believe that the Holy Father will come up with a solution, because this Ordinariate scheme must be made to work and succeed.
I have been reading a fine book by the English Jesuit John Jay Hughes, Absolutely Null and Utterly Void, published in 1968, at a more hopeful time for reconciliation of the Church of England with Rome. This work is not what one might expect, but it is a scholarly and detailed historical examination of what happened in those days of the 1890’s, with an open-minded humanist Pope and an optimistic intellectual environment.
I would like in this brief article to summarise Fr. Hughes’ conclusion. The first thing is to try to get beyond and behind prejudice and bigotry, in order to discover historical fact insofar as it can be found from the available evidence. We must study history to place theology in its context. This does not mean that something is true one moment and false the next, but it does mean that we often understand things in a distorted way without knowing the history.
We need to know about the key events that occurred from the time of the Reformation to the promulgation of the Apostolicae Curae. Historical evidence suggests that the decision against Anglican Orders was made not on theological grounds but on account of political expediency. But, it is possible to reach a correct decision for bad reasons, and it is perfectly conceivable that this was what happened in 1896. The theological issues do have to be faced, especially now in the light of the ordination of women.
The Papal decision concerned the situation of 1896 and before. It could not anticipate anything that might happen in the future, like for example the “Dutch Touch”, the participation of Old Catholic bishops in Anglican episcopal ordinations since 1931. Even given that new element, there is the additional difficulty caused by the ordination of women and the resulting modification of the Anglican Communion’s habitual sacramental intention.
Apostolicae Curae rests on the notion of the “positive contrary intention” and some kind of transferring of that perverse intention to the rite of the Ordinal. What if a Roman Catholic bishop decided to ordain a priest using the Anglican rite? Would that ordination be valid? If yes, the problem resides in the subjective intention of the early schismatic Anglican bishops in the sixteenth century. If no, the rite is intrinsically defective, and that argument has been used by “sedevacantists” to prove the invalidity of the Bugnini-Paul VI rites in the Roman Catholic Church! As a footnote, one could remark that the authors of such extreme writings consider the early ecumenical movement (Lord Halifax, Abbé Portal, etc.) as a Gnostic-Masonic plot against the Church! We do not take such extreme views seriously, but they are an indication of a certain mentality that takes issues to the very limit of logic.
The polemics have raged for more than a century, and it would seem we are looking in the wrong place. The issue of the Sacraments needs to be seen in a wider perspective, in the context of ecclesiology. As a theological discipline, ecclesiology is relatively young, and has only really blossomed in the twentieth century. We need to emerge from the “scholastic” mentality to take church history, ecclesiology and other theological disciplines into account.
There has been the development of Anglo-Catholicism in the Anglican world, and now the Traditional Anglican Communion and some other "extra mural" groups no longer uphold "comprehensiveness". They have no longer to accommodate the traditional evangelical or broad-church types of churchmanship. An Anglo-Catholic ecclesial context gives another meaning to the Eucharist and the Sacraments administered to the faithful than hitherto in the Anglican Communion.
Some of the narrower notions of the priesthood received significant corrections at the Second Vatican Council, and sometimes excesses went to the other extreme. But, it remains that questions were asked. The priesthood has been understood in a number of different ways throughout the history of the Church, and today, the Orthodox tradition sees the priest in a different way to that of the Roman Catholic cleric. We need to expand our notion of Christian ministry.
Over the course of the twentieth century, there began to be a reaction against the rigid and legalistic conception of the priesthood. Before that reaction became extreme during the 1960’s “cultural revolution”, there were some interesting theological developments. Notably, the Thomist distinction between the power of order and the power of jurisdiction began to give way to a munus triplex, a threefold office of sanctifying, teaching and governing. This notion has most been developed in the Protestant world and imported into Catholic theology by German scholars and Newman among others. The notion of the threefold office of the priesthood was finally incorporated in the encyclicals Mystici Corporis Christi and Mediator Dei of Pius XII. From there, it found its ways into the teaching of Vatican II. The munus triplex emphasised the priesthood as a sacramental continuation of Christ and organised the three aspects of the ministry: worship, teaching and pastoral government. Therein lies also the disadvantage of excessive “tidiness” and separating these aspects. The characteristics of Christ’s ministry are often stretched by analogy and caricature. It is significant that it was in 1948 that Puis XII decided in his letter Sacramentorum Ordinis that the essential matter of the Sacrament of Order was not the porrection of the instruments, but the laying on of hands. It was also during this period that the Episcopate came to be recognised as a true Sacrament, or rather the highest degree of a single Sacrament of Order, and not merely the conferring of ordinary jurisdiction. The distinction between the old power of order and power of jurisdiction began to be blurred.
In considering the question of Apostolicae Curae in the light of the modern Church, one quotation of Hughes has particularly struck me:
If the reformers of the sixteenth century were simply evil men, 'fallen priests' bent on the destruction of the church which had ordained them and of the faith she had taught them— and this is the underlying assumption of most existing catholic works on Anglican Orders—then it is clear that we shall come closest to the truth by judging the reformers' deeds as strictly as possible, and by putting on their writings as anti-catholic an interpretation as the language permits. If, on the other hand, we believe that despite their exaggerations and the undoubted havoc which they wrought, the reformers were frequently moved by Christian (and therefore Catholic) concerns and motives; if we allow that they may have had a sense of genuine pastoral concern for the fate of countless souls whom they saw being led to spiritual ruin by a religious system which they believed was tolerating, if it did not actively teach, a false idea of man's relationship with God; if, moreover, we take to heart the statement of the second Vatican Council that the reformation divisions came about 'not without the fault of men on both sides'; and if we are open to the possibility that on the catholic side this fault may not have been confined entirely to the realm of morals and discipline, but that it perhaps included the teaching of a theology which, at least in certain of its implications, was sub-Christian; then it is clear that in judging the reformers' work we shall come closer to the truth if we 'go to all possible lengths in the way of putting a favourable construction on what was then done, rather than to adopt precisely the opposite course'.
It seems safe to assume that the Church is going to require us priests to accept a fresh ordination on entering her communion. She has every right to ask this of us, but I am persuaded that in one way or another, the Holy Father and his advisors do not consider us as fakes, false priests, impostors, charlatans, but already as ministers of the Sacraments and the Word, serving the communion of God’s people, however imperfectly.
These questions might seem somewhat to move the criteria for the validity of the Sacrament and cause us to relativise Apostolicae Curae. As I mentioned, this piece of Papal legislation from 1896 seems to act, not as a doctrinal definition, but as a dam at a pragmatic level against a potentially out-of-control situation and a keystone. It would be pointless to continue the polemics or more than a century, especially now that the situation in the Anglican Communion is worse that it ever was with the ordination of women. It should be noted that Newman was (re)ordained in 1847, decades before Apostolicae Curae, so it can be concluded that Leo XIII's decision rested on the constant practice of the Church since the Reformation to deal with returning clergy.
There is a web site I recommend, Accipe Potestatem, which deals with questions from a different angle, from the point of view of Anglicans sharing the same doctrinal belief as Catholics and having restored the significatio ex adiunctis (the meaning given to the essential parts of the rite by the “accessory” ceremonies and symbols) to the rites of ordination – the Traditional Anglican Communion. This also changes the context. I have no definitive opinion on this, for it will depend on the Church's authority, but we do need to be aware that things are not as simple as the more "fundamentalist"-minded would suggest.
Finally, I cannot claim to know better than the theologians who have debated for more than a century, nor would I dare challenge the wisdom of Pope Benedict XVI and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in continuing to (re)ordain Anglican clergy entering the Catholic Church. I should imagine that, in canonical terms, ordinations conferred on former Anglican clergy will be “absolute” (as opposed to sub conditione), but conferred in a context that would morally imply a “conditional” intention. One such sign is the difference between ordinands freshly out of seminary being ordained together in a solemn ceremony in the diocesan cathedral, and an Anglican priest being ordained discreetly in the Bishop’s private chapel. That alone would convey the notion of a conditional intention, even though the ordination is officially and canonically “absolute”.
To those unfamiliar with these concepts, the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Order confer a sacramental “character” on the soul of the one who receives it. These three Sacraments may not be repeated. However, there can be a situation in which a person doubts whether he has been baptised, confirmed or ordained validly, for example if the priest or bishop administering the Sacrament “did his own thing” rather than follow the rites of the Church. In case of doubt, the Sacrament is conferred again with the intention “if you have not already received this Sacrament, I give it to you now, but if you did receive it, then what I’m doing is of no effect”. There are degrees of doubt, and sometimes it would be more honest simply to confer the Sacrament and presume the previous Sacrament to be invalid. An example would be baptising a former Jehovah’s Witness, because people in that sect do not believe in the Trinity, nor do they invoke the Trinity when baptising.
The situation of Anglican Orders is much more complex. The best thing for us to say is that we should accept the Church’s judgement and look to the future. That is the way it is. Of course we can remember that we have an alternative of remaining in a marginal and ever-decreasing group that will not have a viable future in the long term. That being said, I am convinced that fine distinctions will be made.
Whatever happens, we are convinced that the intention of the Pope is eminently pastoral and determined to make the future Ordinariates work in practice, particularly that the project should not be blocked by legalism and the stingy spirit of the Scribes and Pharisees. From the days of Vatican II, the brilliant German theologian who is now the Pope has seen the need to simplify and place the pastoral office of the Church before purely intellectual considerations. We are confident, and know that much humility will be asked of us as we go forward in our pilgrimage. The Church's authority is being pastoral. It is for us to respond appropriately.
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