Apostolicae Curae 1896: A Vicar is not a Catholic Priest

by Philip Jones

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the famous (or infamous) papal letter concerning Anglican Orders. The centenary in 1896 was commemorated by an impressive collection of essays contributed by distinguished Anglican and Roman Catholic commentators, and edited by R William Franklin (‘the Centenary Essays’). This publication included English translations of both Apostolicae Curae and Saepius Officio, the Anglican response thereto.

Pope Leo XIII

Gioacchino Vincenzo Pecci (1810-1903) was elected Pope in 1878, and took the name Leo XIII. The choice of name presaged a confident and ambitious policy of advancing the position of the Church – and the Pope – in the hostile and atheistic modern world.

Despite physical frailty, he reigned for a quarter of a century (nearly as long as St. John Paul II) and lived longer than any of his predecessors. His aristocratic dignity, personal austerity, immense learning and political wisdom commanded the respect of his contemporaries. (Perhaps helped by an uncanny physical resemblance to Voltaire.) He easily outshone the unimpressive Head of the newfangled Kingdom of Italy. The latter grumbled peevishly that ‘[people] … come to see him, not me. It is he who still rules in Rome; I have only the edge of the chair to sit on’ (D.A Binchy, Church and State in Fascist Italy, OUP 1941, p.34).

Leo XIII’s greatest encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891), on the treatment of workers and their families, is moving to read and the cornerstone of modern Catholic social teaching:

‘To defraud anyone of the wage due him is a great crime that calls down avenging wrath from Heaven … workers are not sufficiently protected against injustices and violence … their property, being so meagre, ought to be regarded as all the more sacred’ (para 32).

He also shaped the intellectual life of the modern Church in 2 encyclicals

(1) Aeterni Patris (1879) concerned the study of theology, and the correct relationship between faith and reason. St Thomas Aquinas is commended as a role model for scholars, but the scholastic method is not compulsory. On the contrary, any scholastic thesis of ‘too great a subtlety’, or which is ‘improbable’, should not be followed (para 31).

(2) Providentissimus Deus (1893), on the Bible and the ‘historical’ method of interpretation. Biblical accounts of natural events may be accepted as ‘figurative’ and not literally true. But the Bible must be studied holistically. Heresy is essentially the result of reading particular Biblical passages out of their context. In studying the Bible, scholars should ‘by all means … make use of … apposite erudition of an external sort’ (para 13), and even non-Catholic commentaries may be studied, though caution is required (para 15).

Another 2 encyclicals should be required reading for all students of ecclesiastical governance

(1) Immortale Dei (1885), on the relationship of the Church to international law, and

(2) Satis Cogitum (1896), which explains the Apostolic constitution of the Church, and the relationship between the Pope and the bishops (and anticipated the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on this subject).

Leo XIII’s interactions with ‘the noble people of England’, as he described them, were generally happy. One of his first acts as Pope was to confer the Red Hat on Newman, vindicating the latter’s reputation after decades of Roman suspicion and hostility. As a young diplomat he had visited London and been received by Queen Victoria. As Pope he opposed the nationalist cause of Catholic Ireland. (His experience of its anti-clerical Continental equivalents would not have disposed him to favour it.) No doubt grateful for this support, the Queen even signed herself ‘de votre saintete la fidele amie‘, in a letter to him on the Golden Jubilee of his priesthood in 1887 (Binchy, p.33). Shortly before his death, he welcomed her son, King Edward VII, to the Vatican – the first ever meeting between the Successor of Peter and the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

Apostolicae Curae

However, in the context of Anglican – Roman Catholic relations, Pope Leo is now remembered only for his controversial conclusion that

‘ordinations performed according to the Anglican rite have been, and are, completely null and void’ (para 36).

The ‘Anglican rite’ is that contained in the Ordinal, which was first authorised in 1549.

The Pope gave 3 reasons for this withering conclusion:

(1) Custom, ‘the best interpreter of law’ (para 16). His predecessors had always refused to recognise Anglican Orders. Anglican clergy who wish to become Catholic priests were and are required to be ordained again. Yet the Sacrament of Orders cannot be repeated any more than Baptism. Therefore, if Anglican Orders were valid, ‘it was … quite impossible that the Apostolic See should tacitly allow or tolerate such a custom [of reordination]’. The Roman custom of reordination proves that the Anglican rite is not effective to confer the Sacrament.

(2) Intention. The very introduction of the 1549 Ordinal indicated a repudiation of Catholic priesthood. If the Church of England had intended to keep the Catholic priesthood it would have kept the mediaeval ordination rite, not introduced a new rite.

(3) Form. The Anglican Ordinal ‘ha[s] been deliberately stripped of everything which … sets forth the dignity and functions of the priesthood’ (para 27). This means that it lacks the form of the Catholic Sacrament.

In the original 1549 Ordinal, the ordination formula was merely ‘Receive the Holy Ghost’, with no explicit reference to priesthood. The clarifying words ‘for the office and work of a priest’ were only added in 1662, but this came too late to repair the defect of form, and ‘rather proves that the Anglicans themselves had recognised that the first form had been defective and unsuitable’ (para 26).

Saepius Officio

The then Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Temple and Maclagan, replied to Apostolicae Curae with a letter of their own, Saepius Officio (1897), an encyclical addressed ‘to the whole Body of Bishops of the Catholic Church’, rather than to the Pope personally.

Unsurprisingly, they rejected both the conclusion of ‘our Venerable Brother’ (para 3), and his reasons therefor

(1) Custom. The Holy See did not unequivocally reject the 1549 Ordinal during the brief revival of its authority over the English Church in the reign of Queen Mary Tudor (1553-1558). Papal instructions concerning the 1549 Ordinal ‘are imperfectly known’ (para 6). Of the clergy ordained according to that rite ‘some, and perhaps the majority, remained in their benefices without reordination’, though it is conceded that some clergy were reordained (‘how slippery and weak the judgment of the Church of Rome has been in this matter’ – not at all a good interpreter of law).

(2) Intention. Merely reforming the ordination rite does not amount to a repudiation of Catholic priesthood: ‘the intention of the Church must be ascertained … from its … definite pronouncements … not from its omissions and reforms’ (para 8). So far from repudiating Catholic priesthood, the Preface to the Ordinal manifests the intention that ‘these Orders of ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, priests and deacons … may be continued … in the Church of England …’ (cf para 20).

(3) Form. The validity of an ordination rite cannot be decided solely by reference to the contemporary Roman rite. Different forms of ordination have been practised at different times and places in the Church’s history, without any suggestion that the ordinations are invalid. Eastern ordination rites differ from the Latin rite, yet they have always been accepted as valid (cf para 20).

Moreover the Roman rite itself has changed over time. The references to priesthood to which the Pope attached such importance were not even Roman in their origin, but ‘Gallican embellishments … [with] added ceremonies borrowed from the Old Testament in order to emphasise the distinction between people and priests’ (para 19). The earliest Roman rite, like the 1549 Ordinal, made no explicit reference to priesthood. The compilers of the Ordinal ‘went back almost to the Roman starting-point’, i.e the early Roman rite was itself a model for the Anglican rite.

Fortified by these arguments, Their Graces delivered a robust retort to Leo XIII:

‘in overthrowing our Orders, he overthrows all his own, and pronounces sentence on his own Church’.

(Upon reading Saepius Officio, the Pope is said to have remarked that he wished his cardinals could write such good Latin. But he did not change his mind about Anglican Orders.)

A Century On

Despite the Archbishops’ professed indifference to Apostolicae Curae (‘we are not at all disturbed by the opinion expressed in that letter’ (para 2)), Leo XIII’s rejection of its Orders did touch a raw nerve in the Church of England. According to Paul Bradshaw it prompted ‘a firm desire to make 20th century revisions of Anglican ordination rites impregnable against any further attacks on the same grounds … throughout the processing of drafting [modern rites] the shadow of Apostolicae Curae hung over the drafters’. Apparently the drafters themselves admitted as much (Centenary Essays, p.75).

Apostolicae Curae also seems to have encouraged the involvement of ‘Old Catholic’ bishops in Anglican ordinations. The Old Catholics broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 18th and 19th centuries, but their Orders are nevertheless recognised by Rome, and they themselves recognise Anglican Orders. For this reason Old Catholic bishops have been invited to join in the laying on of hands of new Anglican bishops. Apparently all Church of England bishops can now claim an Old Catholic pedigree (p.70).

One Anglican commentator suggested optimistically that ‘the participation of Old Catholic bishops in Anglican consecrations during this [20th] century has meant that there has been a confluence of traditions through the mutual co-consecrations of Anglican and Old Catholic traditions … offer[ing] the Roman Catholic Church an opportunity to place [Apostolicae Curae] against the background of a broader canvas …’ (p.27).

However, Father Edward Yarnold SJ poured scorn on the practice: ‘it presupposes a crude ‘pipeline’ … it would be crassly materialistic to envisage Apostolic Succession as an unbroken chain of physical contact … reaching back to one of the Apostles’ (p.70). He evidently did not think much of Old Catholic bishops, dismissing them as ‘unattached dilettanti … episcopi vagantes‘ (pp.70-1).

Yet for all the Anglican defensiveness, Apostolicae Curae seems to have caused greater difficulty for the Catholic Church itself. It jarred painfully against the heady optimism and friendly engagement of the postwar ecumenical era. A Catholic commentator related that ‘Catholic theologians who have been engaged in ecumenical dialogue with members of the Anglican Communion are now considerably embarrassed by Leo XIII’s negative findings’ (p.123).

Nor is the embarrassment purely social. Modern research, impressively surveyed in the Centenary Essays, seems to vindicate Saepius Officio completely. Leo XIII’s criticisms of the Anglican Ordinal are now apparently destitute of scholarly support.

Thus a Catholic contributor observed of the Centenary Essays that ‘None of these papers has defended the contemporary adequacy of Apostolicae Curae‘s historical reasoning or theological arguments’ (p.123). Another Catholic was particularly critical of his late Supreme Pontiff: ‘Leo XIII was trapped in … a defective theology of tradition … indefinitely delaying the reconciliation of the Churches’ (p.47).

It is therefore not surprising that the suggestion ‘Is it not now time … to reopen the issue of Anglican Orders?’ (p.123) came to enjoy widespread Catholic support (even from some cardinals, apparently).

Papal Teaching Authority

The suggestion may seem plausible, in view of the scholarly consensus. But it faces a fundamental difficulty. Leo XIII was fully aware of the modern intellectual challenges to Catholic teaching (hence his 2 encyclicals mentioned earlier). He knew very well that he would be accused of being out of date and ‘trapped in tradition’. (Such criticisms of papal teaching are nothing new.) Yet in Apostolicae Curae he declared unequivocally that the question of Anglican Orders may not be reopened:

‘the present Letter and the whole of its contents cannot at any time be attacked or impugned on the ground of … any defect whatsoever … it shall be now and for ever in the future valid and in force, and … to be inviolably observed … by all persons …’ (para 40).

Canon law makes clear that Catholic faith demands trust in papal teaching. Canon 752 of the 1983 Code provides that

‘a religious submission (obsequium) of intellect and will is to be given to any doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff … declare[s] upon a matter of faith and morals … Christ’s faithful [must] avoid whatever does not accord with that doctrine’.

The official Latin word obsequium connotes obedience, not mere respect. Canon 754 also obliges the faithful ‘to observe the constitutions and decrees … issue[d] for the purpose of proposing doctrine or proscribing erroneous opinions: [especially] those published by the Roman Pontiff ….’.

So does acceptance of Apostolicae Curae mean retreating into an anti-intellectual papalism? Simply ignore the inconvenient modern research. Rome has spoken, the case is closed. Peter has spoken through Leo. No, that would be both absurd and wrong. Faith must not be divorced from reason (as Leo himself made clear).

Yarnold pointed the way out of the apparent Catholic difficulty (even if he was unaware that he did so), when he asked rhetorically ‘what does it mean to say [Anglican] Orders are invalid?’ (p.73).

This is the right question to ask. Leo XIII’s well-known phrase ‘absolutely null and void’ obviously has a negative and dismissive sound. It would not, presumably, appear in a papal document today. But never mind how it sounds. What does it actually mean?

It is argued that it means simply this: a vicar is not a Catholic priest.

If Leo XIII’s conclusion is understood thus, the difficulties with Apostolicae Curae fall away. Acceptance of it requires minimal, if any, Catholic obsequium. It requires no rejection of modern scholarship. The conclusion does no more than state an obvious – blindingly obvious – fact.

The fact was not obvious in the 1550s. This would explain any Roman inconsistency towards clergy ordained according to the 1549 Ordinal. Even today, of course, it is not obvious to quite everyone. Anglican clergy will say that they are Catholic priests. They are just not Roman Catholic priests. But it can hardly be denied that ‘the noble people of England’, including the majority of faithful Anglican churchgoers, recognise no distinction between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Roman Catholic’.

Apostolicae Curae closed the question ‘is a vicar a Catholic priest?’ (of course not), but not the question ‘why is a vicar not a Catholic priest?’. (Or perhaps, ‘why is a vicar not a priest in the Roman Catholic sense?’.) The modern reaction to Apostolicae Curae suggests that the question is much in need of fresh study.

To answer this question, it is necessary to distinguish between

(1) the constitutional structure of the Anglican ordained ministry (which is indeed Catholic) and

(2) its function (which is not).

To make this distinction, it is in turn necessary to read the Ordinal in the context of the other 2 ‘historic formularies’ of the Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles. The Ordinal defines the structure of Anglican ministry. The other 2 formularies define its function.

Anglican Ministry: Catholic Structure, Protestant Function

What is a priest? Jean Guitton (a Catholic) observed that ‘since the Reformation, the idea of the priest [has] been put in question. The whole Reformation centres around that’ (Dialogues (1967), English translation 1968, p.242).

The unique and essential function of the Catholic priest is to represent Christ. The priest is said to act in persona Christi. Canon 901 affirms that the priest ‘in the person of Christ can confect the Sacrament of the Eucharist’.

This function is closely linked to the mystery of the Crucifixion, hence to Christ’s Sacrifice. At the altar the priest re-presents Christ’s Sacrifice upon the Cross. Canon 897 refers to ‘the Eucharistic Sacrifice … in which the Sacrifice of the Cross is for ever perpetuated’. Canon 899 affirms that ‘In [the Eucharist] Christ the Lord, through the ministry of the priest, offers Himself, substantially present under the appearance of bread and wine, to God the Father …’.

The classic Protestant view of this priestly function is that it is blasphemous. A mere man cannot represent God, or mediate between God and man.

The pejorative English word impersonate may bring the Protestant objection into sharp focus. The word implies pretence and deceit. A fraudster impersonates someone else in order to practise a criminal deception. An actor or comedian does so to amuse an audience. To impersonate Christ is both fraudulent and a blasphemous mockery. Thus Western Christendom divided over a function essential to Catholics but intolerable to Protestants.

However, although united in their rejection of the ‘impersonating’ function of the priest, Protestants could not agree on how to reform the Church’s ministry. Some were so distressed by the blasphemy that they sought to eradicate all trace of Catholic priesthood, root and branch. This meant abolishing its structure as well as its function.

The Church of England, of course, declined to follow this fundamentalism. It was more sensitive to history. (Newman once observed that ‘to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant’.) The Preface to the Ordinal states that the Orders of bishop, priest and deacon have existed in the Church ‘from the Apostles’ time’. Therefore they should not be abolished but continued.

By retaining the Catholic ministerial structure, the Church of England distanced itself from other reformed Churches. The modern British Constitution bears witness to this. There is much talk now of Scottish independence. This refers to the secular states of England and Scotland, which were united by the Act of Union 1707. However, the ecclesiastical states of England and Scotland, i.e their Churches, have always been strictly independent of each other. Their separation, though little discussed, is a fundamental constitutional principle.

There are no bishops or priests in the Church of Scotland. It has a Presbyterian ministerial structure. The Anglo-Scottish Union was, in part, a religious settlement. Macaulay observed that ‘the nations [of England and Scotland] are one because the Churches are two’.

The Preface to the Book of Common Prayer records the Church of England’s tenacious adherence to its Catholic ministerial structure. The structure was triumphantly reasserted in 1662 ‘upon His Majesty’s [King Charles II’s] happy Restoration’, following ‘the late unhappy confusions’ and ‘usurped powers’ of the Cromwell era. The clarifying words of ordination ‘for the office and work of a priest’ were part of this reassertion.

The 24th August 1662 has been described ironically as ‘the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre’. The Act of Uniformity came into force on that day. All clergy who dissented from it were summarily ejected from their benefices (s.3), (though nobody was literally massacred, unlike the French Protestants in the previous century). Any would-be minister who lacked episcopal ordination was thenceforth ineligible for ecclesiastical preferment, and was also forbidden ‘to consecrate and administer the Holy Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper’ (s.10).

The Church of England undoubtedly bears a closer resemblance to the Catholic Church than do most other Reformed Churches, on account of its ministerial structure. Without this structure, the question of Anglican Orders would never even have arisen. (Certainly there does not seem to be much discussion of the validity of Scottish Orders!)

This resemblance to the Catholic Church was acknowledged by the Second Vatican Council, which met in the 1960s. It held that ‘Among those [Reformed Churches] in which some Catholic traditions and institutions continue to exist, the Anglican Communion occupies a special place’ (Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio 1964, para 13).

The then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote of the Anglican Communion that ‘the survival of the episcopate retains the fundamental structure of the pre-Reformation Church [which] assures a fundamentally positive attitude to the doctrinal tenets of the pre-Reformation Church’ (Church, Ecumenism and Politics (1987), English translation 1988, p.73).

On this modern Catholic view, then, the Anglican ministry is a sympathetic and respectful reminder of the pre-Reformation priestly function, on account of its Catholic structure. As such, it is a basis for ecumenical hope and engagement. (It also makes possible an imaginative reconstruction of the priestly function in Anglo-Catholic worship.)

Nevertheless, though it retained the Catholic ministerial structure, the Church of England, with the other Reformed Churches, did repudiate the function that originally went with it, that of representing or impersonating Christ.

The Priestly Function and the Formularies

It is true that the Ordinal itself contains no explicit repudiation of the Catholic priestly function. As we have seen, Pope Leo XIII’s arguments for an implied repudiation ran into strong counter-arguments.

However, the counter-arguments suffer from the same weakness as Apostolicae Curae. They consider the Ordinal only in isolation, or in the context of other, and earlier, ordination rites. They ignore the relationship between the Ordinal and its contemporaries, i.e the other Anglican historic formularies.

As canon A4 of the revised canons points out, the Ordinal is ‘annexed’ to the Book of Common Prayer. It must therefore be read in the context of the Prayer Book. And the Prayer Book itself must be read in the context of the 39 Articles.

The words of the 1662 Ordinal ‘for the office and work of a priest’ make clear that the priest is ordained to a function, not to a structure. But they also beg the question. What is the function of the priest? The Ordinal is concerned with ministerial structure. The ministerial function is determined by the other 2 formularies.

These 2 formularies repudiate the Catholic priestly function explicitly and unequivocally. They prove the obvious fact that Apostolicae Curae, whatever its limitations, sought to point out.

The 39 Articles, the most overtly Protestant of the formularies, contains a full-throated denunciation of

‘the sacrifices of Masses, in the which … the priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, [are] blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits’ (Article 31).

On the contrary, Christ’s Sacrifice is ‘once made … that perfect redemption … for all the sins of the whole world’. His Sacrifice is ‘finished upon the Cross’. It cannot be re-made or perpetuated by the priest.

In the Eucharist the consecrated bread and wine have ceased to be ordinary food. They are ‘the sign or Sacrament’ of the Body and Blood of Christ (cf Article 29). However, they are not the Body and Blood of Christ per se. ‘The Body of Christ is given, taken and eaten … only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten … is faith‘ (Article 28). This again denies the mediating or in persona Christi function of the priest.

The Prayer Book echoes the teaching of the Articles. The Eucharistic Prayer recalls Christ’s ‘full, perfect and sufficient Sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’. The Eucharist is ‘a perpetual memory of that His precious death, until His coming again’. The consecrated elements are administered to the communicant with the words ‘feed on [Christ] in thy heart by faith‘.

The final rubric of the Communion Service is even more explicit: ‘the Sacramental Bread [and] Wine remain still in their very natural substances, and therefore may not be adored … for that were idolatry …’.

Thus the communicant who receives the consecrated bread and wine with a faithful disposition thereby receives the Body and Blood of Christ in his heart, by a metaphysical grace.

The 2 Archbishops pointed out in Saepius Officio that the Communion Service does refer to a Eucharistic Sacrifice, notwithstanding the deprecatory reference to ‘the sacrifices of Masses’ in the Articles. The Anglican Eucharist is not merely ‘a bare commemoration of the Sacrifice of the Cross’:

‘[1] we offer a ‘Sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving

[2] then we set forth and reproduce before [God] the Father the Sacrifice of the Cross …

[3] finally we offer the sacrifice of ourselves [‘ourselves, our souls and bodies’] to the Creator … a sacrifice which we have already signified by the oblations of His creatures [of bread and wine]’ (para 11)

So what is the Anglican priestly function, and how does it differ from the Catholic equivalent?

It is argued that the critical difference is that the Anglican priest acts in persona Ecclesiae, in the person of the Church, not in persona Christi. He cannot act in persona Christi, because Christ’s Sacrifice is once for all, finished. Christ is the only true Sacerdos.

There is an Anglican Eucharistic sacrifice, but again, that sacrifice is radically different from the Catholic equivalent. The Anglican priest does 2 things at the altar (or ‘holy table’, as it is officially described in the revised canons):

(1) he recalls the Church, in the presence of God, to the once-for-all Sacrifice of Christ and

(2) he offers the Church’s own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, and also its practical self-sacrifice, in response to Christ’s Sacrifice.

Recalling Christ’s Sacrifice, and responding to it. The Anglican priestly function is good and edifying as far as it goes. But it still repudiates the Catholic function. It refers to 2 distinct sacrifices, that of Christ and that of the Church. The Catholic Eucharistic Sacrifice is indivisible, one and the same as the Sacrifice of Christ.

Thus, despite their similar constitutional structures, the Anglican priest and the Catholic priest are in different, indeed opposite, places. The function of the Catholic priest is to bring Christ to the Church. The function of the Anglican priest is to bring the Church to Christ.

This radical difference of function answers the question of Anglican Orders. A Catholic priest is a Catholic priest because he has been ordained to bring Christ to the Church. An Anglican priest is ordained to bring the Church to Christ. Logic dictates the inevitable conclusion: an Anglican priest is not a Catholic priest.

Theological opinion has, of course, changed considerably since the Reformation. Nobody in the Anglican Church now suggests that the Catholic priestly function is blasphemous and fraudulent. And since Victorian times there have been Anglo-Catholic clergy who genuinely and devoutly believe the Catholic doctrine of priesthood, and believe that they exercise the Catholic priestly function in the Eucharist.

However, the Anglican priesthood and the Anglican Eucharist remain constituted by the historic formularies. They are not determined by current theological opinion, nor by the opinion of the individual vicar (however devoutly held).

The Anglican priestly function is now mostly exercised according to modern liturgies, not the Book of Common Prayer. However, these liturgies are required by law to be doctrinally consistent with the historic formularies (Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974, s.4(1)). They do not in terms reinstate the Catholic priestly function.