Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
Associate Editor: Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.  Not to be republished without permission.
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No. 14 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program November 1987

Hunting the "Heresy-Hunters" - Brian W. Harrison
Recent Thought on Anglican Orders - Brian W. Harrison


by Brian W. Harrison

        Early this century, certain trends in the Church which aimed at reconciling Christian thought with modern scholarship, but which, in effect, emptied many central Catholic beliefs of their essential content, were condemned very severely by Pope St. Pius X under the name of Modernism.

        It is generally recognized today that this response, though necessary, was sometimes implemented over-zealously, so that a number of loyal clerics (including the future Pope John XXIII) were unjustly penalised or denounced in the general climate of suspicion. Indeed, the holy Pontiff Pius X himself recognized that some persons were accused without real foundation. It was in a sense "open season" on heretics.

        Today it is remarkable how the mood in the Catholic Church has swung to the opposite pole since the days of the anti-Modernist movement. Everyone familiar with the contemporary world of Catholic religious education - whatever his or her own position on the theological spectrum - is aware that while few will deny in theory that heresy is both possible and (if real) harmful, the whole atmosphere, the social consensus, the emotional ambience, is strongly oriented towards tolerance of novelty. The heretic has been replaced by the "heresy - hunter" (or "right-winger") as the source of division, the object of suspicion and ostracism. The favored words are "pluralism," "openness," "dialogue," "flexibility"; and the attitudes most generally resisted and feared are "intransigence," "ultraconservatism," "fundamentalism," "rigidity," and "closed-mindedness."

        There is no denying that the resulting tension causes much pain and division. It would be comforting to think that further charity and patience all round might be sufficient to heal the breach. But if bad will is not the problem, no amount of good will can be expected to provide a solution.

        As I see it, the underlying conflict in today's Church is not necessarily one of bad will versus good will: it is of a spiritual and intellectual nature. If we start from the assumption (conscious or otherwise) that Christian faith is first and foremost a matter of feeling and experience - a personally "lived experience" of God's love manifested through Jesus - then creeds, doctrines, moral precepts and definitions of orthodoxy will all be seen in the last resort as "surface" phenomena. They will all appear as attempts (necessary but inadequate) to reflect on and formulate that which is ultimately inexpressible - the primordial, rock-bottom religious experience. To someone who thinks like this, the "heresy-hunter" is simply incomprehensible: he seems to be obsessed and agitated about all the wrong things - things which really aren't all that important.

        If, on the other hand, we begin by assuming that faith is more fundamentally a matter of the head than of the heart - "fundamentally" in the literal sense that a "personal experience" of God is the apex, not the base, of the Christian life, and should itself be built on intellectually defensible rational assent as its foundation - then one's whole perspective becomes radically changed. From this standpoint, logical consistency and the unswerving defence of propositional orthodoxy assume an absolutely central role - the sine qua non.

        This second standpoint is the historic position of Catholic Tradition and the Magisterium, and it is under heavy fire today. We live in the age of what Karl Rahner (in his earlier, more orthodox days) called "cryptogamous heresy" heresy which cannot readily be pin-pointed or "nailed down" with precision, because it consists chiefly of underlying emotional attitudes rather than clearly intelligible propositions. As Rahner said, it "often consists simply in an attitude of mistrust and resentment towards the Church's Magisterium, in a widespread feeling of being suspiciously and narrow-mindedly supervised."

        In short, it is the heresy of hating "heresy-hunts" more than heresy itself. How very different is that pure and timeless Catholic spirit displayed by Cardinal Newman in his great Apologia: "From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery."


by Brian W. Harrison

        Are Anglican orders valid? Have they ever been - or could they ever be - valid? What would the conditions for validity have to be?

        These are some of the old questions which have come to the surface again recently in Anglican-Catholic discussions. Many Catholics, especially in England, have been led to wonder whether their Church is changing its doctrinal position on this issue in an unprecedented way, in the light of an official letter written by Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, head of the Vatican's Secretariat for Christian Unity, to the Co-Presidents of the second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC-II).1   (NOTE: Key sections of this letter, dated 13 July 1985, and other documents relevant to the question of Anglican orders, are reproduced in the pages following this article.)

        Let us go straight to the heart of the question which has been troubling some Catholics since the publication of Cardinal Willebrands' letter. Pope Leo XIII, in the Bull Apostolicae Curae of 13 September 1896, solemnly declared that ordinations carried out with the Anglican Ordinal are "absolutely null and utterly void." The Pope decided that this nullity was due principally to a defect of form in the sacrament - a defect which is evident above all, he declared, from the "native character and spirit" (nativa indoles et spiritus) of the Ordinal as a whole.2   Pope Leo immediately added this statement about the Ordinal:

Moreover, incapable as it was of conferring valid orders by reason of its original defectiveness, and remaining as it did in that condition, there was no prospect that with the passage of time it would become capable of conferring them.3

Cardinal Willebrands, however, says that if the Catholic and Anglican Churches came to agree about essential doctrine "concerning the Eucharist and the Ordained Ministry," then in that case

the Roman Catholic Church would acknowledge the possibility that in the context of such a profession of faith the text of the Ordinal might no longer retain that "nativa indoles" which was at the basis of Pope Leo's judgment.4

        Here, it might seem, we have a real and insuperable contradiction: Leo XIII allowed "no prospect that with the passage of time" the Anglican Ordinal might become capable of conferring valid orders. Cardinal Willebrands, on the other hand, states that there is at least a possibility that in future the Ordinal might lose that defective character which Leo XIII said was permanent.

        In fact I do not think the contradiction is real or substantial. In a nutshell, it seems quite arguable that Leo XIII's teaching about the permanently defective character of the Anglican Ordinal was based on the premise that official Anglican doctrine regarding Orders and the Eucharist would remain un-Catholic. As long as that premise or assumption is verified in fact, as it still is today, the defective "native character" remains - as Leo said it would. The Anglican Church as such has so far not officially accepted the sacrifice of the Mass, transubstantiation, and the Catholic doctrine of ordained priesthood; therefore I believe we must continue to affirm that ordinations carried out with the Anglican Ordinal continue to be invalid today, just as Leo XIII affirmed. Cardinal Willebrands, however, is talking about a different, hypothetical state of affairs which Pope Leo probably did not envisage as a possibility, and so would not have taken into account in formulating his judgment: the possibility, that is, that the Anglican Communion as a whole might one day formally renounce those selfsame Protestant errors which originally invalidated the Anglican Ordinal.

        Cardinal Willebrands' speculation about a possible future change of this description may still strike some readers as scarcely reconcilable with Leo XIII's teaching. It may therefore be helpful to explain the doctrinal and historical context of this question rather more fully, and then to reflect on the hermeneutical principles involved.

        I. What the Vatican is NOT saying

        First of all, it is important to observe the strict limitations of the possibility envisaged by the Secretariat for Christian Unity; in other words, we should be clear as to what Cardinal Willebrands is not saying.

        To begin with, he is speaking only about a possibility that ordinations carried out with the Anglican Ordinal might begin to be valid in future. There is no suggestion that any such ordinations carried out now caused be recognized as valid by the Catholic Church - and much less any idea of retrospective recognition of those carried out in the past. That would indeed contradict Leo XIII's teaching.

        Secondly, this Vatican statement prescinds altogether from the issue of Apostolic Succession, and the question of which Anglican Bishops, if any, presently possess the power of ordaining others. (A few of them, it seems, have been consecrated by true Bishops according to a valid rite - Old Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.) In other words, the statement is confined strictly to a consideration of the inherent validity or otherwise of the text of the Anglican Ordinal, and certainly does not suggest that as soon as doctrinal agreement is reached in future, God willing, all actual ordinations carried out by Anglicans from that time onwards would be recognized as valid by the Catholic Church. Obviously, the ordaining Bishop in each case would himself need to have received valid episcopal ordination prior to ordaining Anglican priests under the terms of the hypothetical agreement; and since that agreement, as we saw, would not operate retrospectively, it would not itself be of any assistance in that regard.

        Another limitation is that this hypothetical future recognition would not apply to female ordinations carried out by Anglicans. The Catholic Church, of course, regards all such ordinations as invalid. Indeed, shortly after the present statement from the Secretariat for Christian Unity, Cardinal Willebrands wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, reaffirming and explaining the Catholic Church's position on this important point.5

        Again, it is important to remember that the agreement which the Vatican looks forward to would have to involve "the Anglican Communion as such," and not just a certain group or party within that Communion. This condition will probably be very difficult to fulfil - partly because doctrinal authority within the Church of England is quite diffuse and ill-defined, and partly because there will probably always be a substantial "low Church" or Protestant Evangelical group within Anglicanism which will strongly resist any clear affirmation of Catholic doctrine regarding the Mass and Priesthood. Almost certainly, the kind of hypothetical agreement about which Cardinal Willebrands is speculating would provoke a schism within Anglicanism. The main body of Anglicans might perhaps agree to affirm these Catholic doctrines; but it would be at the cost of discarding ecclesial communion with the more resolutely Protestant Anglicans.

        In the light of all these qualifications, then, the recent overture to Anglicanism from the Secretariat for Christian Unity appears rather less than a Great Leap Forward. However, even such a modest step undeniably represents a definite change of some sort from the previous official position of the Holy See, which had never held out any hope whatever that ordinations carried out with the Anglican Ordinal might under some circumstances be recognized by Rome.

        II. Historical and Doctrinal Background

        How, it might be asked, has it been possible for this change to come about? Cardinal Willebrands' letter itself points out some of the factors which have been operative since the promulgation of Apostolicae Curae: changes in the liturgy, on the part of both the Anglican and Catholic Churches, have made our respective modes of worship less dissimilar than they previously were, while "the dialogue of the last twenty years ... has produced statements and elucidations on the Eucharist and on the Ministry." These agreed statements, of course, have not been accepted as adequate by either the Catholic Church or the Anglican Communion in an official way. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its 1982 "Observations" on the final ARCIC report, noted a number of key areas where ambiguities remained over essential points of Catholic doctrine. However, contrary to what some Catholics have been tempted to think, ecumenism has not simply been a movement on the part of Catholics towards a stationary Protestantism. There has also been movement on their part towards us. Martin Luther, for instance, would not have been at all happy with the 1973 ARCIC statement on Ministry and Ordination,6   which affirmed that

(Ordained) ministry is not an extension of the common Christian priesthood but belongs to another realm of the gifts of the Spirit (Article 13).

        Nor would Cranmer and the other Reformers have been overjoyed with the 1979 ARCIC "Elucidation" on the Eucharist,7   which (from their point of view) would have sounded suspiciously close to "papist" doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice:

In the celebration of the memorial, Christ in the Holy Spirit unites his people with himself in a sacramental way so that the Church enters into the movement of his self-offering (Article 5).

        It remains true, however, that statements such as these are not clear enough to satisfy the exacting and permanently valid standards of the Council of Trent. To see how the Vatican has been able to raise the possibility of recognizing Anglican orders, therefore, it will not be sufficient to point to the results of recent ecumenical dialogue. These have probably been no more than a catalyst. To understand the crucial issues we must go back to the Bull of Pope Leo XIII, and see precisely why it was that he then declared Anglican ordinations to be null and void.

        A good deal of confusion seems to have arisen because Pope Leo pointed out a defect of intention as well as a defect of form in Anglican ordinations. Some have tended to confuse these two reasons, thinking that the form is invalid only to the extent that it is used with an un-Catholic intention. Hence, one hears some Catholics and "high Church" Anglicans speculating that some Anglican men, having been ordained by Anglo-Catholic Bishops who themselves had been validly consecrated and held perfectly Catholic views about the Mass and Priesthood, may well be true priests in the Catholic sense of the word, even though they were ordained with the Anglican Ordinal.

        Unfortunately, Leo XIII's teaching does not allow for this idea. Paragraph 33 makes it very clear that the defect of intention is quite distinct from the defect of form - and also quite secondary. It is not the reason why the form is invalid; rather, the defective intention (on the part of the original users of the Anglican Ordinal) is deduced from the independently and anteriorly known fact that the said Ordinal does not contain a valid form of the Sacrament of Holy Order. For if, says the Pope,

the rite is changed with the manifest purpose of introducing another rite which is not accepted by the Church, and of repudiating that which the Church does and which is something that by Christ's institution belongs to the nature of the sacrament, then it is evident, not merely that the intention necessary for a sacrament is lacking, but rather that an intention is present which is adverse to and incompatible with the sacrament.8

        This means that even if some true Bishop at a later stage of history uses the Anglican Ordinal with a fully correct and Catholic intention, his attempt to impart priestly powers by the use of that rite will not succeed. Since, according to Pope Leo, the form of the sacrament found in that document is invalid, it simply is not capable of performing the task expected of it. Just as the strongest axeman on earth cannot fell a tree with a plastic paper-knife, so the Pope himself, with the best intention in the world, could not impart the priesthood to any man by the use of the Anglican rite.

        (This explains, incidentally, the fallacy involved in arguing that since the Church recognizes the validity of baptisms carried out by those who have incorrect doctrinal views about baptism and its effects, so she should be able to recognize Anglican orders, even though Anglicans may have wrong ideas about the nature of the priesthood. One hears theologians - even Bishops - gravely urging this argument today as if it were some profound new insight. In fact, Leo XIII was well aware of this argument ninety years ago and answered it in the very text of his Bull against Anglican Orders. Baptisms carried out even by the unbaptized are valid only "provided the Catholic rite is used," for if someone "has seriously and correctly used the due matter and form, he is for that very reason presumed to have intended to do what the Church does" ( AC, 33). In short, the correct intention is presumed in baptisms by non-Catholics only insofar as they use the correct form of the sacrament. And since the form of the sacrament is precisely what is defective in Anglican ordinations, teaches Leo, there is no relevant parallel here with non-Catholic baptisms.)

        Why did Leo XIII, then, declare that the form of sacramental ordination in the Anglican rite is invalid? Here we arrive at a source of no little confusion, because unfortunately the criteria for a valid form in the Sacrament of Holy Order are not so clear-cut as they are in that of Baptism. There are certain well-known words - "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" - which are required by the Catholic Church as a valid form of baptism. If these words are substantially changed or omitted, this deviation will be fairly obvious, so that there is usually no great difficulty in determining whether a given baptismal rite contains a valid form or not.

        In the case of sacramental ordination, however, there are a variety of different forms of words which have been recognized as valid by the Catholic Church over the centuries, in many different liturgies - ancient and modern, Eastern and Western. All of them, however, signify in some way that the grace of the priesthood (or episcopacy, as the case may be) is being bestowed - understood in the Catholic sense of the words "priest" and "bishop." And the heart of the confusion surrounding the question of Anglican orders arises from the fact that verbally, the essential form of priestly ordination in the Anglican rite is not significantly different from that of the modern (Latin Rite) Catholic Church.

        Let us compare them. In 1947 Pope Pius XII declared that the sole form of priestly ordination is the following prayer, which has been carried over unchanged into the new Catholic rite of ordination promulgated by Paul VI after Vatican Council II:

Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty Father, to this Thy servant, the dignity of the Priesthood; renew the spirit of holiness within him, that he may hold from Thee, 0 God, the second rank in Thy service and by the example of his behaviour afford a pattern of holy living.9

Now look at the parallel prayer in the Anglican rite. This is the version found in the 1662 Prayer Book, which remains substantially unchanged today:

Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a priest in the Church of God now committed unto thee by the imposition of hands: Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven: and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained: and be thou a faithful dispenser of the word of God, and of his holy sacraments.

        As can be readily seen from a comparison of these two prayers, the Catholic form of ordination does not verbally express Catholic doctrine about the priesthood more clearly than the Anglican form. Indeed, the latter - if we were to interpret it superficially and in isolation from its context - might even be considered superior to the Catholic form, insofar as it seems to be including the priest's power of absolving from sin by quoting the words of John 20:23.

        Why, then, did Leo XIII judge the form of Anglican orders to be invalid, when the actual words do not seem significantly different from those used in Catholic ordinations? After all, the Pontiff himself did not rule out the possibility that in themselves, the words "for the office and work of a priest" in the above Anglican prayer "might have lent the form a legitimate signification," even though they were in any case added a century too late, when no more true Bishops were left in England - that is, nobody left with the capacity to make fruitful use of even a valid rite of ordination (AC, 26).

        To answer this question, we must refer to the crucial point in Pope Leo's argument, which we have already referred to above: what he called the "native character and spirit" of the whole Anglican Ordinal. The point is that the mere use of the words "priest" and "bishop" will be insufficient for a valid form of ordination if those words bear a different meaning from that which the Catholic Church understands. And in order to determine what meaning these words have in the Anglican rite, one has to consider their historical and literary context - that is, what doctrine of ministry or priesthood is taught by that rite of ordination considered as a whole. This involves looking not only at the central prayer - the essential form of ordination - but also at the other prayers and texts of the Ordinal, as well as the opinions which are known to have been held by its authors.

        Once an investigation of this sort is carried out, it very quickly becomes apparent what the Anglican Reformers did and did not understand by the word "priest." As Leo XIII called to mind, the Catholic idea of the priestly character - an idea which must be expressed or at least intended in any valid form of priestly ordination - is "pre-eminently the power 'to consecrate and offer the true body and blood of the Lord' in that sacrifice which is no 'mere commemoration of the sacrifice performed on the Cross'" (AC, 25). However Thomas Cranmer and the other original Anglican Reformers not only did not believe in the sacrificial power of the priest, but were positively hostile to this Catholic doctrine, which they regarded as heretical and blasphemous. Therefore, in revising the Catholic rite of ordination, they deliberately made sure that none of the texts or prayers or gestures contained even the slightest hint of this "pre-eminent" and essential feature of the priestly character as understood by Catholics. Thus, the "native character and spirit" of the whole Anglican rite (including, of course, the central prayer embodying the form of ordination) was one of a deliberate exclusion of what Catholics understand by the priesthood. As Leo XIII said,

these prayers have been deliberately stripped of everything which in the Catholic rite clearly sets forth the dignity and functions of the priesthood. It is impossible, therefore, for a form to be suitable or sufficient for a sacrament if it suppresses that which it ought distinctively to signify.10

        The inevitable consequence of this deliberate suppression, the Pope continues, is that even though this or that Anglican prayer "conceivably ... might be held to suffice in a Catholic rite which the Church had approved,"11   the fact remains that words such as "priest" or "bishop," occurring in the existing Anglican Ordinal,

cannot bear the same sense as they have in a Catholic rite. For, as we have seen, when once a new rite has been introduced denying or corrupting the sacrament of Order and repudiating any notion whatsoever of consecration and sacrifice, then the formula, "Receive the Holy Ghost" (that is, the Spirit who is infused into the soul with the grace of the sacrament), is deprived of its force; nor have the words, "for the office and work of a priest" or "bishop," etc., any longer their validity, being now mere names voided of the reality which Christ instituted.12

        Leo XIII's argument could be summed up, then, as being based on the principle that a rite cannot convey something which it was intended specifically to exclude and repudiate. And in fact, as the Pope and many others since have pointed out, there have always been many Anglicans who agree entirely with Leo's condemnation of Anglican orders - in the sense that they do not believe their rite conveys those powers which Catholics ascribe to ordained priests, and indeed, would be totally opposed to any attempt to convey such powers. They do not want their orders to be valid in the Catholic sense! A recent study by an Evangelical Anglican scholar, Colin Buchanan,13   expresses this viewpoint very clearly, underlining the fact that Cranmer knew what the Catholic doctrine was and wanted to make quite sure it was utterly excluded from his new rite of ordination.

        At this point someone might object that the argument we have expounded seems to contradict what we said earlier about the defect of form being quite independent from, and anterior to, the defect of intention. Leo XIII's argument for the defectiveness of the form (it might be said) turns out after all to depend crucially on Cranmer's intentions, and not simply on the actual words he used in his Ordinal.

        The answer to this objection - which seems to have been a source of confusion for quite a few people who have studied this problem - would be that we must distinguish carefully between the intention of those who use the Anglican Ordinal in ordaining men to the Anglican ministry, and the intention of the authors of the Ordinal when they were composing it. What Pope Leo teaches is that the latter intention - an anti-sacrificial and anti-Catholic one - is written into the Anglican rite, and "sticks" or "clings" to it, so to speak, for ever afterwards. That anti-sacrificial intention is thus the objective and perduring meaning of the rite, and "infects," as it were, the words "priest" and "bishop" in the essential prayers in such a way that those prayers are an invalid form of the sacrament. In other words, according to Leo's teaching, it is not good enough for an Anglo-Catholic bishop to come along at a later date (even assuming he has been validly consecrated) and say, "When I use the Anglican Ordinal, I am using the words "priest" (or "bishop") to mean exactly what the Roman Catholic Church means. Therefore the form is quite valid when I use it, and since my intentions are also Catholic, my ordinations convey true priestly powers." Not good enough, says Leo - the reason being that the words in the rite mean only what the original Anglican authors intended them to mean. They cannot have that meaning "flushed out" by some well-intentioned individual who wants to inject into them a Catholic meaning of his own choosing. When the Pope says that the defect of intention is a distinct and secondary defect, however, he is not talking about the intention written into the Ordinal by its authors. Rather, he is referring to the presumed intentions of the original users of the Anglican Ordinal - some of whom, of course, were the same persons who had a hand in composing it. At that time, long before there was a definite Anglo-Catholic party which had recovered a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist and Priesthood, those who knowingly chose to use a rite from which essential Catholic doctrines had been "deliberately stripped" must be presumed, says Pope Leo, to have had an un-Catholic intention. And this would be a further reason for the invalidity of their ordinations, over and above the fact that they used a defective form of the sacrament.

        III. Cardinal Willebrands' Recent Initiative - Hermeneutical Considerations

        After the foregoing explanation of Leo XIII's teaching about the permanent invalidity of form in the Anglican rite of ordination, readers may be wondering how it could be said that the Vatican's recent statement - which raises the possibility of that same rite being considered valid at some time in the future - could in any way be reconciled with Pope Leo's teaching.

        Here we are entering the realm of theological speculation about hypothetical future developments; and it should be remembered that the Secretariat for Christian Unity's letter to ARCIC-II is only very tentative. It does not say that, in the event of the conditions being realized which we outlined earlier, the Catholic Church definitely would decide that the "nativa indoles" condemned by Leo XIII was no longer present in the Anglican rite; only that it "might" come to that conclusion. In other words, Cardinal Willebrands is simply saying that at this stage there appears to be room for discussion and further investigation on this point. He does not attempt, however, to embark on any detailed speculation regarding the precise issues which would have to be faced in that kind of investigation. This is what we shall attempt to do in the rest of this article.

        Some theologians, of course, will be quite ready to say that there is no need to uphold the correctness of Leo XIII's original decision, and that we Catholics should feel quite free to admit that our Church has simply been wrong on this issue till now. Without wishing to enter here into the question of whether Apostolicae Curae was a formally infallible and irrevocable declaration, we can have no hesitation, I believe, in predicting that the Holy See will never adopt any "solution" which involves attributing error to Pope Leo. Not only would such a theory seem very difficult to reconcile with belief in the Holy Spirit's continuing guidance and maintenance of the Catholic Church in truth, but such a decision by Rome would undercut the credibility of the hypothetical "correction" itself: if such an absolute and forceful judgment as that of Leo XIII was said to be simply an unfortunate blunder, what assurance could anyone have that a subsequent and contrary magisterial decision enjoyed a greater divine assistance or guidance than the first one?

        If we are to discount the possibility of a future "correction" of Leo XIII's judgment by the Vatican, what avenues might still remain open for a convergence with Anglicans on the point we have been studying? As we have observed at the beginning of this article, it seems at least arguable that Leo XIII's judgment took for granted a situation which obtained in 1896 - and still remains today - but which might not always obtain: the official non-acceptance of Catholic doctrine on Eucharist and Orders on the part of the Anglican Communion. If that situation does in fact change (the argument would proceed) then perhaps the Catholic Church's judgment on the Anglican, Ordinal could change without thereby implying that Leo XIII was in error.

        In order to see how this position might be a reasonable one, it is necessary to reflect on the different hermeneutical criteria which are appropriate for interpreting different types of documents. The objection which might naturally spring to mind against the possibility we are raising is that the meaning of a document simply cannot change with the passage of time. It is fixed once and for all at the time of writing. Hence (it might be said), if Leo XIII was right in ascribing to the Anglican Ordinal a "native character and spirit" which rendered it incapable of imparting the Catholic priesthood, then it is simply nonsense to say that at some subsequent point in history the meaning of that selfsame document might change in such a way as to render it capable of bestowing that sacrament.

        There is certainly no doubt that if we are dealing with a document whose formal author is a private individual, then its meaning cannot ever come to be one which is incompatible with what the author originally intended. If I happen to write in a letter to a friend that I do not believe in the extra-terrestrial origin of reported UFO phenomena, then that meaning certainly remains indelibly inscribed forever in my letter. It becomes a historical fact that at the time of writing, I had that attitude to UFOs and expressed it in my letter. And not even the omnipotence of God can change or "cancel out" a historical fact. Once it happened, it happened; and nobody - not even God - could somehow say truthfully at a later date that it never happened. Hence, nobody will ever truthfully be able to say that my letter has subsequently come to mean that I did believe in extra-terrestrial UFOs after all. The only sense in which change of a certain sort might come into play here would be a later "development" in the meaning of my letter - or more precisely, a development in the understanding (perhaps even in my own) of what I meant to say in my letter. This is the kind of elaboration or development which is often referred to as the "hermeneutical circle": subsequent dialectical exchange can bring to light new facets or nuances of meaning in the original document which might have been only obscure or implicit or partially formulated in the author's mind at the time of writing.

        Continuing with the example we have chosen, for instance, we might well imagine that my friend, on receipt of my letter, writes back to me, asking, "When you say you don't believe in the extra-terrestrial origin of UFOs, do you mean to exclude, or to admit, the possibility of a diabolical origin for some of these phenomena? After all, demons could be regarded as 'extraterrestrial' in the sense that they're not ordinary, empirically observable inhabitants of our world." In order to answer my friend, I think back to when I wrote my letter. It so happens that I was not consciously thinking at the time about the distinction between demons and hypothetical beings from other planets, so in that sense a truthful answer to my friend's question would be that my letter meant neither to include nor to exclude the possibility which he now mentions to me. However it is also true that I do in fact believe in demons, and remember several years ago hearing someone maintain - with some degree of plausibility - that they might have more than a little to do with at least some UFO phenomena. And, at least in the back of my mind, so to speak, I have always - including when I was writing my letter - thought after hearing this suggested explanation that there might perhaps be something in it. So in that sense I can truth fully reply to my friend that I did not mean to exclude the possibility he raised, and at least implicitly admitted it when I wrote my letter. The original meaning of my letter has now been clarified - for my friend, and even in a sense for myself: what my letter meant was that I did not believe that physical extra-terrestrial beings were responsible for UFO phenomena, even though the distinction between physical and spiritual (i.e. angelic) beings was not consciously in my mind when I wrote. (This analogy helps us to see how the Church's doctrine can develop over the centuries, as new questions arise and new situations come about, yet without any substantial change in meaning from what was revealed in the first century A.D.)

        The above considerations hold good, as we have remarked, when it is a question of a document authored by a single, private individual: there can be no substantial change in the meaning of the document, only (at the most) a kind of "growth" in that meaning, in the sense that we may eventually be able to say more about its meaning than we were at first. But what about a document with multiple authors - or at least, with multiple formal authors, such as a decree of an Ecumenical Council signed by two thousand Bishops? (They are its formal authors, even though the "material" authors - the persons who actually drafted the document - may have been a quite distinct group of theologians, none of whose signatures appear on the final decree.) In the case of a single-author document, its words cannot bear two or more authentic meanings which are mutually incompatible, because the author would not have intended to affirm two or more incompatible ideas by the one set of words. But when a whole group of persons are the "official" or formal authors of a document, the possibility arises that some of them may have understood certain words differently, and thus intended to affirm incompatible ideas when they put their respective signatures to the document. Experience shows, moreover, that this is far from being a merely theoretical possibility: constitutions, laws, decrees of councils, parliaments, etc., are constantly giving rise to problems of interpretation, which cannot always be resolved by appealing to the simple criterion of author's intention. How, then, can the "true" or "correct" meaning be discerned from amongst various contradictory meanings which the document is capable of bearing? Indeed, does it make sense to assume in such cases that there is a "true" or "correct" meaning, which excludes all others? The way such problems are often resolved is by appeal to a new authority: not the authors (all of whom may well be deceased and thus inaccessible for consultation), but some recognized arbiter who officially decides that the document shall henceforth be deemed to mean this and not that. An authentic meaning is thus, in a sense, imposed extrinsically on the document.

        How might these principles apply to a question such as the meaning of the Anglican Ordinal? In this case there is probably little or no question of incompatible intentions on the part of its authors: there was more than one formal author (although Cranmer certainly played the leading part), but there seems to be no evidence that any of them still believed in the Sacrifice of the Mass and the priest's power of offering it. They were agreed in wanting to exclude the "papist" doctrine; and this, as we saw, was the very reason Leo XIII gave for judging that the Ordinal's "native character and spirit" made it a totally inadequate instrument for conferring valid priestly orders. The Ordinal excluded those priestly orders because its formal author, the Anglican Church, intended to exclude them.

        But at this point another factor comes into play. When the formal author of a document is neither an individual who lives and dies, nor an ad hoc group of authors which does its work and then disbands, but a continuing, living community, then it would appear to have very extensive rights over its own document. And when the document, moreover, is not simply a record of ideas or opinions expressed in the past, but a liturgical rite which "comes to life" over and over again in the Church's present activities, then these rights of the community over one of its own documents could well extend as far as altering the document's meaning.

        This last point perhaps bears a little further explanation. When we considered my hypothetical letter about UFOs, we were thinking of a document which was merely informative: it simply passed on factual information to the reader - the fact that I held such-and-such an opinion about UFOs. Rut other kinds of documents can express or contain what some modern philosophers of language call "performative utterances." They do not just inform, but "perform." Instead of simply passing on ideas or opinions or facts, such pronouncements have a dynamic, creative quality which brings into being some new reality, some new state of affairs. Legislative documents are of this type, as are military orders, the "I do" pronounced by bride and groom in their wedding ceremony, a degree conferred by a university, and a host of other utterances, written or spoken.

        Now, a liturgical rite is certainly one of these "performative utterances," but unlike the examples just mentioned, it is not a once-only utterance. By its very nature, it is meant to be repeated. Like a composer's musical score, it becomes actuated over and over again; and each time this happens, a new community act of worship offered to God is brought into being.

        If we keep these considerations in mind, it is not difficult to see how there is no absurdity in the idea of an ecclesial community changing the meaning of one of its rites, without necessarily changing the words. Meanings, as we have seen, can be imposed extrinsically on certain documents by a competent authority, and this is supremely true when the document is a "performative" one such as a rite of priestly ordination, the main purpose of which is not to record and preserve past ideas in a purely theoretical way, but to do something practical in the present and future.

        We could imagine, then, the possibility that if the Anglican Church as a whole - doubtless after "shedding" its more intractably Protestant members - came to accept the Catholic doctrine of the Mass, the Real Presence, and the Priesthood, then it could formally decree that the words "priest" and "bishop" in the Anglican Ordinal were henceforth to be understood as meaning what the Catholic Church means by them, and that this would come into effect on such-and-such a date. The Pope might then be able to reciprocate by declaring that (male) Anglican ordinations carried out on and after that date by validly consecrated Bishops would be recognized as valid by the Catholic Church, in the same way that she has always recognized the ordinations carried out by the Eastern Orthodox and other separated Oriental Churches. This would not seem to involve a contradiction of Pope Leo XIII, since the general principle followed by the papacy would remain constant throughout: the Anglican Ordinal means what the Anglican Communion intends it to mean. Leo XIII discerned - rightly - that the "founding fathers" of Anglicanism intended "priest" and "bishop" to bear a non-Catholic meaning in the Ordinal, and that this meaning perdured in the document in such a way as to invalidate the ordinations performed with it, even when individual Anglo-Catholic prelates subsequently used it with Catholic ideas and intentions. But what the Anglican Church as a whole established by its own authority it can presumably revoke by that same authority. And by doing so, it would so alter the character of its Ordinal (even without changing the actual words) that it would no longer be formally the same Ordinal which Leo XIII judged to be an ineffective instrument for conferring the priesthood.

        How likely, in reality, is such a possible development within Anglicanism? That of course, is another question altogether, which does not concern us in these present reflections. In particular, it seems highly problematical as to whether the majority of Anglicans would ever be prepared to pay such a high price - schism with "low-Church" brethren in their own denomination - for such a relatively meagre recognition by Rome. After all, this kind of recognition would not (from the Catholic viewpoint) suddenly confer ordaining powers on all the invalidly consecrated Anglican Bishops. At least, however, this study may have helped some Catholic readers to see how the Vatican's newly-adopted position on Anglican orders is not in principle incompatible with Leo XIII's decision.


l. Cf. L'Osservatore Romano, English edn. 17 March 1986, p. 8.

2. AC, 31.

3. AC, 31.

4. L'Osservatore Romano, loc. cit.

5. Cf. L'Osservatore Romano, English edn., 7 July 1986, pp. 7, 12.

6. ARCIC, The Final Report, London, CTS and SPCK, 1982, pp. 27-39.

7. Ibid., pp. 17-25.

8. AC, 33.

9. Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis, 30 November 1947.

10. AC, 27.

ll. AC, 32.

12. AC, 31.

13. Buchanan, Colin O., What Did Cranmer Think He Was Doing?, Bramcote, Notts., Grove Books, 1982.


I  -  Leo XIII: Bull Apostolicae Curae, 13 September 1896.  
25. Now the words which until recent times have been generally held by Anglicans to be the proper form of presbyteral ordination - "Receive the Holy Ghost" - certainly do not signify definitely the order of the priesthood (sacerdotium) or its grace and power, which is pre-eminently the power to consecrate and offer the true body and blood of the Lord" in that sacrifice which is no "mere commemoration of the sacrifice performed on the Cross." (Citations from Trent.)

26. It is true that this form was subsequently amplified by the addition of the words "for the office and work of a priest;" but this rather proves that the Anglicans themselves had recognized that the first form had been defective and unsuitable. Even supposing, however, that this addition might have lent the form a legitimate signification, it was made too late when a century had already elapsed since the adoption of the Edwardine Ordinal and when, consequently, with the hierarchy now extinct, the power of ordaining no longer existed.

27. Some have latterly sought a help for their case in other prayers of the same Ordinal, but in vain. To say nothing of other reasons which show such prayers, occurring in the Anglican rite, to be inadequate for the purpose suggested, let this one argument serve for all: namely, that these prayers have been deliberately stripped of everything which in the Catholic rite clearly sets forth the dignity and functions of the priesthood. It is impossible, therefore, for a form to be suitable or sufficient for a sacrament if it suppresses that which it ought distinctively to signify.

31. The native character and spirit of the Ordinal, as one may call it, is thus objectively evident. Moreover, incapable as it was of conferring valid orders by reason of its original defectiveness, and remaining as it did in that condition, there was no prospect that with the passage of time it would become capable of conferring them. ... (E)ven though some words in the Anglican Ordinal as it now stands may present the possibility of ambiguity, they cannot bear the same sense as they have in a Catholic rite. For, as we have seen, when once a new rite has been introduced denying or corrupting the sacrament of Order and repudiating any notion whatsoever of consecration and sacrifice, then the formula, "Receive the Holy Ghost" (that is, the Spirit who is infused into the soul with the grace of the sacrament), is deprived of its force; nor have the words, "for the office and work of a priest" or "bishop," etc., any longer their validity, being now mere names voided of the reality which Christ instituted.

32. ... The same argument by itself is fatal also to the suggestion that the prayer "Almighty God, giver of all good things," occurring towards the beginning of the ritual action, can do service as a legitimate form of Order; although, conceivably, it might be held to suffice in a Catholic rite which the Church had approved.

33. With this intrinsic defect of form, then, there was joined a defect of intention - of that intention which is likewise necessary for the existence of a sacrament.

Concerning the mind or intention, inasmuch as it is in itself something interior, the Church does not pass judgment: but in so far as it is externally manifested, she is bound to judge of it.

Now if, in order to effect and confer a sacrament, a person has seriously and correctly used the due matter and form, he is for that very reason presumed to have intended to do what the Church does. This principle is the basis of the doctrine that a sacrament is truly a sacrament even if it is conferred through the ministry of a heretic, or of one who is not himself baptized, provided the Catholic rite is used.

But if, on the contrary, the rite is changed with the manifest purpose of introducing another rite which is not accepted by the Church, and of repudiating that which the Church does and which is something that by Christ's institution belongs to the nature of the sacrament, then it is evident, not merely that the intention necessary for a sacrament is lacking, but rather that an intention is present which is adverse to and incompatible with the sacrament.

II  -  ARCIC - Final Report.  
1973 Agreed Statement on Ministry and Ordination:

13. ... So our two traditions commonly use priestly terms in speaking about the ordained ministry. Such language does not imply any negation of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ by any addition or repetition. There is in the eucharist a memorial (anamnesis) of the totality of God's reconciling action in Christ, who through his minister presides at the Lord's supper and gives himself sacramentally. ... (Ordained) ministry is not an extension of the common Christian priesthood but belongs to another realm of the gifts of the Spirit.

1979 Elucidation:

2. The Statement (para. 13) explains that the ordained ministry is called priestly principally because it has a particular sacramental relationship with Christ as High Priest. At the eucharist Christ's people do what he commanded in memory of himself and Christ unites them sacramentally with himself in his self-offering. But in this action it is only the ordained minister who presides at the eucharist, in which, in the name of Christ and on behalf of his Church, he recites the narrative of the institution of the Last Supper, and invokes the Holy Spirit upon the gifts.

1979 Elucidation on the 1971 Agreed Statement on the Eucharist:

5. (On Anamnesis and Sacrifice): The Commission believes that the traditional understanding of sacramental reality, in which the once-for-all event of salvation becomes effective in the present through the action of the Holy Spirit, is well expressed by the word anamnesis. ...

There is therefore one historical, unrepeatable sacrifice, offered once for all by Christ and accepted once for all by the Father. In the celebration of the memorial, Christ in the Holy Spirit unites his people with himself in a sacramental way so that the Church enters into the movement of his self-offering.

III  -  Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Observations on the Final Report of ARCIC, 27 March 1982.

B:I:1 Eucharist as Sacrifice:  
... But one still asks oneself what is really meant by the words "the Church enters into the movement of Christ's self-offering" and "the making effective in the present of an event in the past." It would have been helpful, in order to permit Catholics to see their faith fully expressed on this point, to make clear that this real presence of the sacrifice of Christ, accomplished by the sacramental words, that is to say by the ministry of the priest saying "in persona Christi" the words of the Lord, includes a participation of the Church, the Body of Christ, in the sacrificial act of her Lord, so that she offers sacramentally in him and with him his sacrifice. Moreover, the propitiatory value that Catholic dogma attributes to the Eucharist, which is not mentioned by ARCIC, is precisely that of this sacramental offering (cf. Council of Trent, DS 1743, 1753; John Paul II, Letter Dominicae Coenae, no. 8, par. 4).

B:II:1 Ministerial Priesthood: (Commenting on Elucidation, 2, last sentence, cited by us on p. 2 above).  
But this formulation only means that he is a priest, in the sense of Catholic doctrine, if one understands that through him the Church offers sacramentally the sacrifice of Christ. Moreover, it has been previously observed that the document does not explicitate such a sacramental offering. Because the priestly nature of the ordained minister depends upon the sacrificial character of the Eucharist, lack of clarity on the latter point would render uncertain any real agreement on the former (cf. Council of Trent, DS 1740-41, 1752, 1764, 1771; John Paul II, Letter Dominicae Coenae, no. 8, par. 4 and no. 9, par. 2).

IV  -  Letter from Joannes Card. Willebrands to the Co-Presidents of ARCIC-II,  July 1985.  
Leo XIII's decision rested on a doctrinal basis, a judgment that the doctrine concerning eucharist and priesthood expressed in and indeed controlling the composition of the Anglican Ordinal of 1552 was such as to lead to defects both in the sacramental form and in the intention which the rite itself expressed. ... Thus his decision that the orders thus conferred were invalid rested above all on what he described as the "nativa indoles ac spiritus" ("native character and spirit") of the Ordinal as a whole.

Since that decision ... there have been a number of important developments. On the one hand this century has seen a remarkable process of liturgical renewal in both our Communions. In the Roman Catholic Church this has led to the promulgation of new rites of ordination in the Pontificale Romanum of Pope Paul VI. In the Anglican Communion many member-Churches have introduced new Ordinals, while at the same time retaining some use of that of 1552-1662. ... On the other hand, the dialogue of the last twenty years ... has produced statements and elucidations on the Eucharist and on the Ministry. ...

As the processes of evaluation proceed, the position of both Communions will become clearer. ... If at the end of this process of evaluation the Anglican Communion as such is able to state formally that it professes the same faith concerning essential matters where doctrine admits no difference and which the Roman Catholic Church also affirms are to be believed and held concerning the Eucharist and the Ordained Ministry, the Roman Catholic Church would acknowledge the possibility that in the context of such a profession of faith the text of the Ordinal might no longer retain that "nativa indoles" which was at the basis of Pope Leo's judgment. This is to say that, if both Communions were so clearly at one in their faith concerning the Eucharist and the Ministry, the context of this discussion would indeed be changed.

In that case such a profession of faith could open the way to a new consideration of the Ordinal (and of subsequent rites of ordination introduced in Anglican Churches), a consideration that could lead to a new evaluation by the Catholic Church of the sufficiency of these Anglican rites as far as concerns future ordinations. Such a study would be concerned with the rites themselves, prescinding at this stage from the question of the continuity in the apostolic succession of the ordaining bishop.

In our view, such a possibility (even though one could not yet foretell with any certainty the outcome of such a study) could do much to assist the climate of the whole discussion.

V  -  The current essential form in the Anglican ordination of a priest, (the 1662 version, which is substantially unchanged today):
"Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a priest in the Church of God now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands: whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven: and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained: and be thou a faithful dispenser of the word of God, and of his holy sacraments."

Buchanan, Colin O., What Did Cranmer Think He Was Doing?, Bramcote, Notts., Grove Books, 1982 (2nd edn.) A Low-Church Anglican study insisting on Cranmer's intention of totally excluding the idea of Eucharist as a sacrifice.

Clark, Francis, Anglican Orders and Defect of Intention. London 1956.
Probably the classic statement of the traditional R.C. position.
Hughes, J.J., Absolutely Null and Utterly Void: the Papal condemnation of Anglican Orders, 1896, London, Sheed & Ward, 1968. A forthright defence of Anglican Orders by a Catholic (cf. esp. ch. 14, "A Reappraisal of Anglican Orders?").
Yarnold, E., Anglican Orders - a Way Forward? London, Catholic Truth Society pamphlet, 1977. A brief introduction to the current discussion. Yarnold raises the key questions without arguing for a particular position.

Also the Anglican Archbishops' reply to Apostolicae Curae (1897) and the subsequent Vindication of the Bull by Cardinal Vaughan and the English Roman Catholic Bishops (1898) are key documents in the history of the debate over Anglican Orders.

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