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Questions in the wake of Cdl. Coccopalmerio’s comments on Anglican orders

May 10, 2017

A rock dropped into quiet waters produces a visible splash and observable ripples. The same rock thrown into a storm-tossed sea, however, passes unnoticed, for its effects are overwhelmed by larger and wider waves.

Before the splash of Cdl. Coccopalmerio’s startling comments toward recognizing Anglican orders disappears in the theological chop that is the new normal for Catholics, let’s record some questions deserving of consideration.

Note, the only source I have for Coccopalmerio’s comments is The Tablet and, as that site sets the stage for its report by recalling “Leo XIII’s remarks [on] Anglican orders”—as if Leo’s letter Apostolicae curae (1896), which declared Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void”, simply conveyed, you know, some “remarks”—one is not reassured that The Tablet fully grasps what is at issue here. In any case, no Tablet quotes attributed to Coccopalmerio directly attack Leo’s ruling (we are not even told what language the cardinal was speaking or writing in, and I think that is an important point) so there is some room for clarification.

But, if Coccopalmerio said what The Tablet reports him as saying, the following questions would warrant airing.

1. Was Leo’s Apostolicae curae an exercise of the extraordinary papal magisterium, itself making infallibly certain the invalidity of Anglican orders and thus requiring Catholics to hold them “absolutely null and utterly void”? I think it was, and I think we must, but I am open to counter arguments.

2. Or, was Apostolicae curae a prominent exercise of the ordinary papal magisterium which coalesced with several centuries of other ordinary exercises of papal-episcopal magisterium in rejecting the validity of Anglican orders to the point that Catholics must hold them invalid? I think they surely came together thus and so hold that Catholics must regard Anglican orders as null. I can scarcely see any counter argument, let alone a plausible one, here, but if someone wants to offer it, I would listen.

3. Or, finally, does Apostolicae curae, and the effectively unanimous rejection of Anglican orders by Catholic authorities over the centuries, and the express inclusion of the invalidity of Anglican orders by then-Cdl. Ratzinger in his doctrinal commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem (1998) as something known with infallible certainty, and therefore as something to be held definitively by Catholics, leave any room whatsoever for speculating on, let alone defending, the possible validity of Anglican orders? Surely the question is rhetorical.

Next, if the answer to any of the above scenarios is Yes, do we not then face the situation anticipated by Canon 750 § 2 whereby one who rejects an assertion “proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church” is in that regard “opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church”? And, if the answer to that question is Yes, would not ‘obstinacy’ (which, I hasten to add, can scarcely be proven by a few comments) in rejecting a “doctrine mentioned in can. 750 § 2” leave one, following fruitless admonition by the competent ecclesiastical authority, liable to a “just penalty” under Canon 1371, 1º?

Now, besides the possibility that Coccopalmerio did not say what The Tablet thinks he said, or that he said it but, on further consideration, he wishes to revise his remarks, the only other accounting I can come up with for his remarks is that, while Anglican orders are themselves invalid, some Anglicans are nevertheless validly ordained—not in virtue of their Anglican orders, to be sure, but in virtue of a post-Edwardian reintroduction of valid orders (conferred by break-away Catholic bishops or Orthodox prelates), such that a given Anglican minister might, by doing an ‘ordination pedigree’ search, be able to trace his orders back to a prelate possessed of valid orders. Such a query can be tedious, of course, and it might impact only a small number of Anglican ministers, but I think it only fair to acknowledge the possibility. (For what it’s worth, I think the Roman decision to ordain “absolutely” all Anglican ministers coming into full communion who wish to serve as priests—if applied without regard for the possibility that some could trace their orders to a bishop with valid orders—is problematic). Maybe this unusual source of sacramental validity is what the prelate had in mind.

If, by the way, our speaker above were not a credential canonist, I would pause to make it clear that the canonical-doctrinal conclusion of the invalidity in Anglican orders does not, repeat not, mean that “nothing happened” at, or as the result of, the rites undergone by Anglican ministers. Such rites can of course be occasions of great grace for their recipients and ministry conducted in their wake can, and doubtless has, helped many to grow closer to Christ. But canonists need no reminding that the power of a devotional rite to dispose one toward a closer cooperation with grace is not to be confused with whether a specific sacrament was (i.e., validly), conferred thereby, and so I mention this point only for the sake of others following this discussion.

In the end, though, perhaps the prelate said exactly what The Tablet claims he said, and perhaps he meant it just the way it sounds. If so, I grant, he would not be alone, at least not in, how to put this?, ruminating around the possible validity of Anglican orders.

That said, and as important as the above questions might be, the cardinal’s further statement, one directly attributed to him, also deserves a closer look: namely, that the Church has “a very rigid understanding of validity and invalidity: this is valid, and that is not valid. One should be able to say: ‘this is valid in a certain context, and that is valid another context.'”

That, folks, is huge.

But, one issue at a time, shall we?

Update (11 May): (1) See Fr. Dwight Longenecker, here. (2) See Phil Lawler, here.

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