An Elephant in the Sacristy!: Is Apostolicae Curae still in force?
One of the most intractable issues in ecumenical dialogue is the question of the mutual recognition of apostolic ministry. From an official Roman Catholic perspective, the Orthodox have valid ministry. The ministries of some other, much smaller, groups, like the Old Catholics and the Society of St. Pius X, are generally considered valid as well. (I say “generally” because there are obvious exceptions to this. The Catholic Church does not recognize Old Catholic ordinations of women any more than when its own bishops attempt the same thing.)
The ecclesial communities stemming from the Reformation, on the other hand, are considered to have no valid ministry. The Anglicans, who most observers believe would have the best claim of all the Reformation communities to valid ministry, had their ministries declared “absolutely null and utterly void” by Apostolicae Curae back in 1896. Now, if the Catholic position is that Anglican clergy are simply laypersons in priest’s clothes, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out the Catholic position on Pentecostal ministers.
Apostolicae Curae seems to be still in force. Kind of. At an official level, Catholics are still taught that Anglicans (and other Reformation communities) do not have valid ministry. On the other hand, many have noted that when the Archbishop of Canterbury visits the Pope he visits him as a brother bishop and not as a layman dressed in clerical garb.
Most ecclesiologists suggest that what is going on in practice is that the theology of Vatican II regarding the “real but imperfect communion” between non-Catholic Christians and the Catholic Church is being quietly extended to the treatment of ministry. In other words, what was before an all or nothing question has become a matter of degrees. The Catholic Church still officially says that Anglican orders are “absolutely null and utterly void,” but it doesn’t act that way.
There is another area where this dynamic has taken an interesting turn. It regards the question of married clergy. Catholic men not of the Roman Rite may be married priests (though not bishops) as a matter of course. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, can only be both married and a priest in extraordinary circumstances. The most common of these circumstances is when an Anglican priest, who is already married, converts to Catholicism and is granted permission to be ordained as a Catholic priest.
Father Dwight Longenecker is, in fact, one such priest. He has frequently written on the question of married clergy and is an interesting voice in this important conversation. In one article I recently came across, Father Longenecker notes that former Anglicans are not the only ones who have been able to take advantage of this pastoral provision. He writes:
“Faced with a new wave of converts from a whole range of denominations, Catholic bishops in the USA have pressed the Vatican on an important and interesting question: ‘If Anglican orders are “null and void”’ they argue, ‘why should their convert clergy be given special treatment? Why not ordain married former clergy of other denominations too?’
Rome has taken the point and now the Coming Home Network . . . reports that after suitable training, married pastors from the Methodist, Lutheran, Pentecostal and Presbyterian traditions have all been ordained as Catholic priests.”
This strikes me as a very fascinating development. If Anglican orders are null and void and former Anglican clergy can be ordained to the Catholic priesthood, then for the sake of consistency the same privilege must be extended to former clergy of other ecclesial communities whose ministries Rome does not recognize.
Fair enough, but I can’t help thinking that there is a rather large elephant in this room.
The traditional interpretation of “absolutely null and utterly void” is that there is no difference between an Anglican priest and an Anglican layperson. (There is no debating that the chosen adjectives do lend themselves to a strong rendering.) Furthermore, as Rome has acknowledged by the decision in question, there is no difference between an Anglican priest and a Pentecostal pastor.
But is there really no difference between an Anglican priest and an Anglican layperson? To put the question in its blunt form: could an Anglican layperson who is married and converts to Catholicism be ordained to the Catholic priesthood? Could a married lay Presbyterian do the same? If Rome insists that “absolutely null and utterly void” means what it has always been understood to mean, I find it hard to answer these questions in the negative.
But this leads us into an intolerable position: what disqualifies a married man from ordination to the presbyterate of the Catholic Church is the simple fact of having always been a Catholic!
Now it is entirely possible that I am missing something here, and I am happy to hear what that something might be, but, as far as I can tell, Rome has put itself in a bit of a bind. The practice of ordaining married former clergy from other Christian communities says at least one of the following two things:
1. People ordained in Anglican and Protestant communities are not simply lay people.
2. Married Roman Catholic men can be ordained to the priesthood as long as they are converts from another Christian community who converted after their marriage.
Inasmuch as option #2 looks nonsensical, it appears as if the Magisterium is quietly reinterpreting “absolutely null and utterly void” even as it claims to be applying it.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.