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Examining validy of Anglican orders


Until about a year ago, my interest in the validity of Anglican orders -- meaning whether or not the Catholic church considers priests ordained by the Anglican church “valid” priests -- was pretty low, down there with whether St. Patrick was born in Scotland or Brittany.

But on June 29, 1998, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger changed all that. On that date, he issued a “doctrinal commentary” to accompany Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ad Tuendam Fidem, which established penalties in canon law for failure to accept “definitive teaching.” Ratzinger’s commentary listed Leo XIII’s apostolic letter Apostolicae Curae, declaring Anglican orders to be “absolutely null and utterly void,” as one of the irreversible teachings to which Roman Catholics must give firm and definitive assent.

These teachings are not understood by the church as revealed doctrines but are those which the church’s teaching authority finds to be so closely connected to God’s revealed truth that belief in them is required in order to safeguard those revealed truths. Those who fail to give “firm and definitive assent,” according to the cardinal, “will no longer be in full communion with the Catholic church.” Whew!

Before assenting too firmly, I decided it would be prudent to learn more. I began by reading Fr. John Jay Hughes’ 1968 book Absolutely Null and Utterly Void, a detailed and scholarly account of the events leading up to and resulting in the Leo XIII letter. Hughes followed this in 1970 with Stewards of the Lord on the same subject (both are now out of print). His conclusion, which I found quite persuasive, was that there were enough flaws in and ambiguity surrounding the pope’s finding that the question of the invalidity of Anglican orders merits re-examination.

Not wanting to rely on only one scholar’s viewpoint, however, I located a 1990 work by Fr. George H. Tavard titled A Review of Anglican orders: The Problem and the Solution. Tavard, an internationally recognized theologian, traces the history of the controversy from the time of Pope Julius III (1550-1555) onward. He concluded, “I am personally convinced that Leo XIII’s reasoning was flawed by several historical mistakes and by theological presuppositions that were inadequate yet hardly avoidable in the neo-scholasticism of the late 19th century.”

This obviously wasn’t doing much to firm up my assent, so I looked further. In 1996, the centenary of Apostolicae Curae, a book of essays titled Anglican Orders was published in England and the United States. It contains five essays by Catholic scholars and six by Anglicans (or their American cousins, Episcopalians). Nearly all the authors have been involved in the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission or its American equivalent, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Consultation.

Although the essays vary in perspective and approach, the comment of one Catholic participant reflects the view of all the participants: “Is it not now time after a century to press the Vatican respectfully but insistently to reopen the issue of Anglican orders? ... To reopen the question is not to prejudge the answer.”

With respect to the force of his own commentary, Ratzinger recently acknowledged that it was not “given a binding force”; that it was simply “an aid for the understanding of the texts”; and that “no one need feel an authoritarian imposition or restriction by these texts.”

All of the above leads me to withhold my firm and definitive assent until I can learn why Ratzinger failed to address the arguments made by the scholars noted above and whether other curial officials with relevant jurisdiction -- such as Australian Cardinal Edward Cassidy, head of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity -- share his judgment.

Like the vast majority of lay Catholics, I am not a theologian, a church historian or a canon lawyer. That fact does not prevent me from recognizing what looks like intellectual dishonesty, from whatever source.

Bill Broderick writes from Arlington, Va.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999