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Anglican orders not 'invalid' says Cardinal, opening way for revision of current Catholic position

09 May 2017 | by Christopher Lamb

Leo XIII’s remarks that Anglican orders are “absolutely null and utterly void” have been a major stumbling block to Catholic-Anglican unity

One of the Vatican’s top legal minds has opened the way for a revision of the Catholic position on Anglican orders by stressing they should not be written off as “invalid.”  

In a recently published book, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, calls into question Pope Leo XIII’s 1896 papal bull that Anglican orders are “absolutely null and utterly void.”

“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’,” the cardinal says in volume of papers and discussions that took place in Rome as part of the “Malines Conversations,” an ecumenical forum. 

“This about the life of a person and what he has given …these things are so very relevant!” 

For decades Leo XIII’s remarks have proved to be one of the major stumbling blocks in Catholic-Anglican unity efforts, as it seemed to offer very little room for interpretation or revision. 

But the cardinal, whose department is charged with interpreting and revising Church laws, argued the Church today has a  “a very rigid understanding of validity and invalidity” which could be revised on the Anglican ordination question. 

“The question of validity [regarding the non-recognition of Anglican orders, while the Pope would give pectoral crosses, rings or chalices to Anglican clergy], however, is not a matter of law but of doctrine,” he explains in a question and answer format. “We have had, and we still have 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’.”

Cardinal Coccopalmerio also recalled Pope Paul VI’s meeting with then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in 1966. It was a famous meeting as the Pope gave the archbishop his episcopal ring and also, according to the cardinal, a chalice.  

“What does it mean when Pope Paul VI gave a chalice to the Archbishop of Canterbury? If it was to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, it was meant to be done validly, no?” he explains. “This is stronger than the pectoral cross, because a chalice is used not just for drinking but for celebrating the Eucharist. With these gestures the Catholic Church already intuits, recognises a reality.”

Pope Francis has also pushed ahead with a number of symbolically important ecumenical initiatives such as travelling to Sweden to mark the 500th anniversary of the reformation. The Pope has also called for Christian denominations to act as if they are already united and leave the theological disagreements to be resolved later. 

Yet the major difficulty for the Catholic Church in recognising Anglican clergy would be the perception of validating women priests, something that was strongly ruled against by John Paul II. 

The new collection of papers also includes the records of two discussions that took place between Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI - when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - and the former Anglican Bishop of the Diocese in Europe, Geoffrey Rowell. 

On Anglican orders, Bishop Rowell quotes Cardinal Ratzinger as saying: “we cannot do anything about Leo XIII’s words but there are, however, other ways of looking at things.”

While the Pope Emeritus does not follow up with any suggestions, he does accept that Anglican eucharist services have value.

“When an ecclesial community, with its ordained ministry, in obedience to the Lord’s command, celebrates the eucharist, the faithful are caught into the heavenly places, and there feed on Christ,” he says. 

Elsewhere in his contribution, Cardinal Coccopalmerio distinguishes between the “differences” and “divisions” between Christians: the latter, he stresses, should only be over fundamental things such as 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,” he explains.  

“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.”

While a revision of Leo XIII’s position on Anglican orders would be a milestone, the cardinal also stresses the situation is currently somewhat “unclear.” 



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