Curial Cardinal questions Papal Teaching on Anglican “Orders”

Source: FSSPX News

At a recent ecumenical forum, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio called into question the formal declaration in 1896 by Pope Leo XIII that Anglican orders are “absolutely null and utterly void.”

A Novel Approach to Validity 


The presentation by Cardinal Coccopalmerio, who since 2007 has been President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, was published in an anthology of papers and discussions from the “Malines Conversations” held in Rome. In his talk the Cardinal argued the Catholic Church today has “a very rigid understanding of validity and invalidity,” whereas “one should be able to say: this is valid in a certain context, and that is valid another context.” Such an approach, in his view, could lead to rapprochement in ecumenical relations with the Church of England. 

Startling headlines notwithstanding, Catholic teaching about the nullity of Anglican orders is part of the unchangeable papal Magisterium, set forth authoritatively in a papal Bull. Until now it had not been questioned in more than a century, which has included fifty years of Catholic-Anglican modern ecumenical dialogue. Coccopalmerio has no delegated authority from the Pope to engage in ecumenical dialogue; the statements that he made at the forum are his personal views as a canon lawyer.

The Question of Succession 

Giving the Cardinal the benefit of the doubt, lay canonist Edward Peters noted that in isolated cases Catholic or Orthodox co-consecrators of Anglican clergy may have established some claim to apostolic succession. In any event that “succession” would be short-lived, because the rare validly-ordained Anglican bishop would not ordain validly, lacking the proper intention. But Coccopalmerio does not discuss this historical argument at all.

What is the Cardinal talking about, then?

When someone is ordained in the Anglican Church and becomes a parish priest in a community, we cannot say that nothing has happened, that everything is ‘invalid’…This about the life of a person and what he has given…these things are so very relevant!” 

Coccopalmieroalso mentioned symbolic gestures, such as the alleged gift of an episcopal ring and a chalice by Pope Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1966. “With these gestures the Catholic Church already intuits, recognizes a reality.

The Teaching of Sacramental Theology

Catholic sacramental theology teaches that anyone, even a non-Christian, can baptize validly in an emergency, provided that in pouring the water and reciting the Trinitarian formula they intend to do “what the Church intends.” It also teaches that when two baptized Christians marry, their marriage is sacramental. In this sense and only in this one, the Cardinal is right: valid sacraments may occur even in an Anglican parish.

The Anglican rite has been declared certainly invalid in a definitive manner, because of "defect of form and intention" in the Bull Apostolicae Curae issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1896. Without valid Holy Orders, there is no Eucharist, there is no absolution. The existence of women “priests” and “bishops” in many parts of the Church of England today should be proof enough that something went drastically wrong with their “apostolic succession” after the sixteenth century.

Coccopalmerio tries to paper over these obvious theological facts by making a conceptual distinction: he says that there are “differences” between Christians and then there are “divisions” between them. He claims that “divisions” should exist only over fundamental beliefs like the divinity of Christ.

Today, Churches are divided, or, rather, they say that they are divided because they lack common elements which, however, are not fundamental because they are not a matter of faith. We say: you don’t have this reality, which is a matter of faith, and therefore you are divided from me. But in fact it isn’t a matter of faith, you only pretend it to be.

For Anglicans to belong to the Catholic Church which is the unique Spouse of Christ - outside which there is no salvation - there requires unity in the Faith, sacraments, and governance. Conserving some truths of faith and some sacraments does not allow possession in the virtue of Faith, not to mention their lack of unity to the Holy See, both of which preclude membership in the Catholic Church.