Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback
Background Image

Why Anglican Priests Aren’t Catholic Priests

In 1896 Pope Leo XIII declared that Anglican orders were "absolutely null and utterly void." Why should Catholics - or Anglicans - care?

Few ordinary people these days (perhaps in any days) care much about questions of validity. Sure, you might have an occasional scandal—unfortunately, these have been more frequent of late—where a deacon or priest used an invalid baptismal formula, resulting in an uproar of confusion and hassle: parochial and diocesan staff scrambling to track down records, correct mistakes, and reassure the faithful. But one of the gifts of ordinary Catholic life is that we do not normally need to worry about these things. Safeguards are in place. When you visit a Catholic church in another town, another country even, you can take for granted that the sacraments are the sacraments. To act as if every ministerial act should go under microscopic canonical scrutiny would be a recipe for anxiety at a high scale.

When it comes to ecumenical relations and non-Catholic Christian communities, the subject of validity in the sacraments is more pressing. Whether or not your average Catholic could define validity in relation to the sacraments, he or she likely understands that a Methodist service of “Word and Table” is not the same thing as the Catholic Mass. Many Catholics understand they should likely not participate in other rituals that have some semblance of Catholic sacraments. If I told a Catholic congregation that I, as a Catholic priest, was headed over to the nearby Baptist church to assist in ordaining a new elder, I suspect that I would get some immediate pushback and maybe even a call from the chancery.

Yet these situations are not always clear. When I was an Episcopalian (Anglican), my high-church parish routinely celebrated high mass with three sacred ministers, Latin Renaissance polyphony by Palestrina or Victoria, incense— the works. Once a month we celebrated evensong (vespers) with benediction of the blessed sacrament. We heard confessions, we did eucharistic processions, we fêted the Blessed Virgin Mary on the solemnity of the Assumption. Your average person could be forgiven for walking into such a place, getting a whiff of the lingering incense, viewing the statues, and thinking that this must be a Catholic church. It would take some time and some technical knowledge to recognize the different books in the pews, the different name of the bishop, the subtle changes in references to the papacy (“N., bishop of Rome” rather than “N., our pope”). And even then, one might wonder whether these things make much difference.

To be fair, that is what I wondered for some years. I was told, and I generally believed, that we were “Catholic, not Roman.” Though in some quarters one could find so-called “Anglo-Catholics” who resist even that distinction. “We are Catholics,” I remember one Anglican bishop saying, “separated from the Holy See by the accidents of history.”

Whether this is historically coherent or complete fantasy has very little to do with the concrete experience of the phenomenon. For my part, even in those moments when I found myself longing for a “fuller” Catholic identity, in union with the visible Catholic Church, I would compare my experience of Roman Catholicism—childish homilies; insipid, dated music; an apparent lack of communal life and hospitality—with my “Catholic” experience as an Episcopalian, and there was only so far an intellectual concept such as validity could go in swaying the heart.

The papal bull with little effect

The experience of both Anglicanism and Catholicism at the end of the nineteenth century was, no doubt, quite different from that of the early twenty-first. But I provide this long prologue in part to suggest why Pope Leo XIII’s 1896 bull Apostolicae Curae had little effect. It seems that Pope Leo genuinely believed, or hoped, that declaring Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void” would effect the reconversion of England to the Catholic faith. Perhaps he thought that more Anglicans would have a John Henry Newman moment.

Whatever the pope’s designs, among Anglicans there was no mass reversion or rethinking of loyalties. Why not? In the first instance, by 1896 very few Anglicans cared anything at all for what the pope said. English culture had developed in a decidedly anti-Catholic direction for some centuries. It wasn’t until 1829 that Catholics received full civil rights. Even then there was strong built-up prejudice against Catholicism. To be English was to be Protestant.

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, though, the Oxford Movement, or the Catholic Revival, led by John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey among others, had charted a new way of identifying the English Church, a way emphasizing its continuity with rather than rupture from the Catholic past. These leaders and clergy, most of them scholars, were responsible for translating many of the works of the Church Fathers into English for the first time. Ritualism, the liturgical side of this movement, brought back many of the Catholic practices and devotions that had been lost at the Reformation, from candles and incense to eucharistic devotion and surpliced choirs. So although for many in this movement, Catholic was no longer a naughty word, it did not require the “foreign” influence of a pope but could be found within Anglicanism itself.

It was especially to this new “Catholic” claim that Pope Leo XIII felt obliged to respond. Anglicanism may have caused a certain amount of destruction and chaos in the sixteenth century; it may have usurped the centuries-old Catholic hierarchy and church structures. But it was, for most people, so clearly Protestant that formal definition of things such as order and validity of the sacraments did not register.

To be sure, many of the visible structures of Catholic order—the threefold ministry, a keen sense of apostolic tradition, some of the most impressive cathedral foundations and scholastic institutions of the Middle Ages—had always remained. But concern about the strident “Catholicism” of nineteenth-century Anglican theologians framed the question in new light.

Two principal arguments

Apostolicae Curae makes two principal arguments for the invalidity of Anglican ordinations. First, Pope Leo declares that the form of the ordination rite given in the Edwardian Ordinal (the first new rite of ordination approved after the split with Rome) is invalid in its intentional omission of language referring to the sacrificial priesthood as understood by the Catholic Church. The form given is simply “Receive the Holy Ghost”; references to offering the eucharistic obligation for the living and the dead are removed.

Second, the Anglican ordinations possess a defect of intention, revealed by the omissions in the rite itself, to continue the sacrament of order as practiced in the Catholic Church. Even if the original bishops involved were validly ordained Catholic bishops—and Pope Leo does not doubt that they were, since they were ordained prior to the break—these ruptures in form and intention create a break in apostolic succession that affects every subsequent ordination. Anglican priests are not therefore true priests and cannot validly absolve sins or confect the Eucharist. Pope Leo minces no words: their orders are “absolutely null and utterly void.”

A year following the promulgation of Apostolicae Curae, the Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a formal response, Saepius Officio, which sought to answer Pope Leo’s arguments. On the first problem, the question of form, the Anglicans called foul, claiming that Leo’s argument relies on an anachronistic understanding of sacraments. The sacramental form of ordination has, they said, varied considerably from place to place and time to time. Indeed, the Roman Church has at certain moments of history used the very form of the rite lacking clear sacrificial language that Leo condemns. “Thus, in overthrowing our orders, he overthrows all his own and pronounces sentence on his own Church.”

On the problem of intention, the Anglicans look to the source documents, arguing that the Edwardian Ordinal, despite its adapted language, states its intention to continue the threefold apostolic ministry of the Catholic Church, which up to that point had been practiced in England. A potential error in the actual content of that apostolic ministry (like an error in eucharistic doctrine or baptismal theology) does not invalidate the intention to do what the Church does.

These were, and are, serious objections. In the century following Apostolicae Curae, both Anglican and Catholic theologians raised similar questions to those of Saepius Officio. Indeed, it seems that some of the theologians and canonists advising Leo raised similar questions, and the final judgment of the bull comes not from a unanimous or even majority position of the papal commission.

Answering the critique

None of these objections, reasonable as they may be, gives a Catholic permission to dissent from the papal judgment of Apostolicae Curae. In fact, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, under Pope St. John Paul II, clarified in 1998 that the teaching of Apostolicae Curae was definitive. How exactly it is definitive is something worth exploring.

First, we should attempt a reading of Leo XIII’s logic in reference to its critics. The argument of Leo’s bull centers on the intentional modification of the rite of ordination under King Edward VI. In this way, the secondary argument about defective intention relies implicitly on the first argument about form. Canonical tradition is hesitant to make declarations about intention— which is usually a matter of what canon law calls the “internal forum,” something only accessible within an individual’s own mind—except where that intention is manifested by some clear external means. In this case, the modification of the sacramental form constitutes such an external manifestation.

What then of the Anglican response that Catholic orders would all be invalid if the Edwardian form is invalid? It is simply true that the form for ordination in the Roman Rite used in the mid-sixteenth century was not identical to the form used in every ordination rite up to that point in the Latin Church, much less in the churches of the East. As more recent critics have pointed out, the revised ordination rites in the Latin Church following the liturgical reforms of the 1960s are, in their particulars, closer to the sixteenth-century Anglican form condemned by Leo XIII than they are to the Catholic rites of the period.

But this critique ignores a basic awareness of how doctrine and liturgy develop over the centuries. Take, as an obvious example, the Nicene development of the term homoousias (“consubstantial”) to describe the relationship in nature between the Father and the Son. We can read Fathers of the Church prior to A.D. 325 who do not use this language and not condemn them as heretics. But after 325, a refusal to use the language of Nicea takes on a new intentionality in opposition to the stated mind of the Church.

While the Church has, especially since St. Augustine’s explication of the Donatist controversy, understood and accepted that the sacraments may be present outside the visible boundaries of the Church, it retains the right to make judgement on where the character of those sacraments has objectively changed. The words of the Edwardian Ordinal are not heretical or invalid in themselves. However, in the context of the rites that they replaced, they reflect a desire to do something different and new.

The Church has every right to question the legitimacy of that stated intention when it is accompanied by a radical revision of theological content. A public person who says one thing and does another is held to account for what he does, not what he says he intends to do.

The contemporary situation

Just as ordination rites in the Latin Church have changed since 1896, so have ordination rites among Anglicans. Partly in response to Apostolicae Curae and partly in response to liturgical reform movements, Anglican ordinations for the most part no longer follow the Edwardian rite condemned by Leo XIII. Further, since the middle of the twentieth century, many Anglican bishops have been ordained with the laying on of hands by bishops recognized as valid by Rome, including both bishops of the “Old Catholic” churches and the Polish National Catholic Church, most of whom separated from communion with Rome following Vatican I in the nineteenth century.

These consecrations were done with an explicit intention by Catholic-minded Anglicans to rectify any defects in their orders with an eye toward mutual recognition of ministry and ecumenical relations. As Fr. Simon Francis Gaine, O.P., said, “The judgment [of Leo XIII] may remain irrevocable, but only with regard to what lies in its scope, with the ‘Anglican orders’ of the ‘new context’ falling instead outside that scope” (“Defect of Sacramental Intention: The Background of ‘Apostolicae Curae,’” New Blackfriars 82.959, 22).

From the Catholic side, one part of the new context is the work of the Second Vatican Council. The Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, acknowledges that the Anglican communion, while not a “Church” properly so called, has retained “in part” certain “Catholic traditions and institutions” (13). Anglican liturgical action “can truly engender a life of grace” (3). The Church may not recognize the validity of ordinations in the Anglican tradition, but it no longer thinks it necessary to declare with Leo XIII that they remain “utterly void” unless meant in a specific juridical sense.

Yet even as Catholic-minded Anglicans attempted to draw closer to the Holy See, and as the Council attempted to deepen dialogue and understanding with the “separated brethren” of other communities, Anglicans changed their theology of orders once again by ordaining women in the 1970s. Clarifying the Church’s position on the matter, Pope St. John Paul II declared in 1994 that the Church has “no authority whatsoever” to ordain women to the priesthood (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4).

The ordination of women

For many, the ordination of women in the Anglican communion rendered the old question of Anglican orders moot. If there were over the past century lingering problems and questions as to intention and form, the sudden revision of something as basic as the subject of the sacrament means that Anglicanism, whatever its stated intention, does not in fact practice ordination in continuity with Catholic practice.

Even with the ordination of women, the principles of Unitatis Redintegratio hold: the Church recognizes that God may in fact communicate grace through such ministry. But we do not have the ability or the authority to recognize such ministry as being the ministry that Christ conferred through his apostles to the Catholic Church.

This general judgment does not prevent the Church’s recognition, in specific and rare cases, the possibility of validity. Most notably, in 1994 the former Anglican bishop of London, Graham Leonard, was conditionally ordained to the Catholic priesthood, at the direction of Pope St. John Paul II. However, the legal norm after Apostolicae Curae is the presumption of invalidity.

With the advent of the “Anglican” personal ordinariates in the past decade, following Benedict XVI’s constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, many more former Anglican priests have been absolutely (not conditionally) ordained as Catholics. For my part, this seems a prudential decision. Lengthy investigation into each individual case would be impractical.

In the end, the Church recognizes its limits. It can declare certain things to be valid. On other matters, it cannot (usually) say. And the Church’s supreme law is the salvation of souls (Code of Canon Law 1752). In other words, not all knowledge is fruitful. When it comes to the sacraments, the faithful should have no doubt.

So, for a former Anglican priest such as myself, the question of whether my orders were valid or not is not very interesting. What matters is that I am, with certainty, now a priest, and I can now, with certainty, absolve sins and celebrate the holy sacrifice according to the rites of the Catholic Church. Whatever his other motives, I suspect that this certainty was what Leo XIII wanted—and what any good pastor should want for the salvation of souls.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!