A Critique of Apostolicae Curae

Leo XIII Leo XIII, the Pope who declared Anglican Orders "absolutely null and utterly void."

A Question of Validity

In Apostolicae Curae (A.C. hereafter) the Pope addressed the validity of the Form of Anglican Orders thus:

Sacraments of the New Law … ought … to signify the grace which they effect" (Paragraph 24).

But the words which until recently were commonly held by Anglicans to constitute the proper form of priestly ordination namely, "Receive the Holy Ghost," certainly do not in the least definitely express the sacred Order of Priesthood (sacerdotium) or its grace and power” (Paragraph 25--it is unclear whether this means the rite must specify both the Order and its particular “power”, or one or the other).

The simplest error of fact is the Pontiff’s implication that Anglicans relied upon the words “Receive the Holy Ghost” to be an absolutely sufficient form for ordination of priests and consecration of bishops. He does not quote the words that come after in each case, which are clearly an attempt to do what he requires: “signify the grace which [the Sacraments] effect”. And we will show that these words do “express … the grace and power” relevant to each circumstance. In other words, while we agree with the theological principle, we must challenge the presentation of the associated facts.

That the words after “Receive the Holy Ghost” specify which order is referred to in the case of priesthood is shown by comparison with the Tridentine canon referred to by the Pope (Council of Trent, Sess. XXIII, de Sacr. Ord., Canon 1). The connection of priesthood with the power of absolution is common to both Trent and the ordinal. The ordinal Form has the quotation of our Lord, “Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained”, while the said Canon condemns those who deny the priest has the power to “forgive and retain sins”. Note: the words in the Ordinal come straight from the pre-Reformation Sarum rite, undoubtedly a Catholic rite. Compare this fact to the second papal statement in the next section.

There is therefore a clear reference to a power peculiar to the sacerdotium, as required by A.C. There are also other places in the rite where the words “priests” and “priesthood” are used. The reference to ministering the Sacraments immediately after the Form in the ordinal obviously refers primarily to the Eucharist, which is consecrated by the priest, and always has been in Anglican tradition, in accordance with the Prayer Book. For more on this point, see the section on the Delivery of the Instruments.

As for the qualifying words in the order for consecration of bishops, they are derived from Paul’s words to Timothy concerning the laying on of hands he had received (2 Tim. 1.6-7), since the traditional interpretation was that Paul had made Timothy a bishop when he had thus laid hands on him. This was based on the fact that Timothy ruled (1 Ti. 5.19-21) and ordained (1 Ti. 5.22) presbyters. They refer to the “grace of God … [given] … by the imposition of hands”. They deliberately “signify” the same grace given to Timothy by Paul, which is that of episcopal character, thus meeting the demands of A.C.

If the Church of England had not believed the two orders were different, it would not have given different services. The numerous references in each rite to the order being conveyed are not the only reason to deny the claim that the “forms” deliberately avoid stating which order so as to obfuscate the distinction. If the framers of these services had wanted to show the presbyterium and episcopate were basically equivalent, and differing only nominally, they would have used identical or near identical forms. Instead, they use two dissimilar parts of the New Testament: one traditionally associated with a power of priesthood, the other with one of the earliest consecrations to the episcopate.

Defining the Character of the Priesthood

It may be objected that we have not addressed the main objection in A.C., namely, the deliberate deletion of the most important element of the ministerial priesthood, offering the Eucharistic sacrifice. This argument is said to “suffice for all”, that is, to close the issue so that lesser objections need not even be considered.

[T]he sacred Order of Priesthood (sacerdotium) … its grace and power, … is chiefly the power "of consecrating and of offering the true Body and Blood of the Lord" (Paragraph 25).

From [the prayers of the Anglican Ordinal have] been deliberately removed whatever sets forth the dignity and office of the priesthood in the Catholic rite. That form consequently cannot be considered apt or sufficient for the Sacrament which omits what it ought essentially to signify (Paragraph 27).

The unbiblical imbalance of the first statement is confirmed even in recent studies by Roman Catholic theologians. The role of the presbyter or Apostle in offering a Eucharistic sacrifice for Christians is not emphasised in the New Testament, and, in fact, is not explicitly mentioned at all (this does not mean the concept is wrong or lacking implicitly as well, of course). If there is a theological error in A.C., it is here in the word “chiefly”. The essence of the priesthood or presbyterate, that is, the unifying principle from which all other aspects of ministry proceed, is pastoral authority. The shepherd leads and tends the flock, guiding and disciplining. But he also feeds it with Word and Sacrament. He is willing to lay down his life for the sheep sacrificially, and symbolises the Great Shepherd in this role. Yet, it can hardly be denied, in the New Testament he is primarily a leader and teacher. The Eucharistic presidency, where he acts in persona Christi, derives from this. So, the Anglican ordinal’s focus on pastoral aspects of ministry is justifiable.

The second quote falsifies itself by the use of the sweeping generalisation highlighted in bold. We have already shown above that one very important “dignity” of priesthood, absolution, has been inserted into the main part of the service! And the points made in the previous paragraph also prove that the “dignity and office” of the priesthood is manifest in the service. The second quote is therefore another error in fact rather than theology.

The Fundamental Objection: Defective Intention

According to Pope Leo XIII, it would seem that what has been done to the rite, even more than the rite as it is in itself, whatever its intrinsic deficiencies of form, proves both a lack of sincere intention to confer the historic orders and a deliberate intention not to do so.

The Church of England acted with the following design. “[I]f the rite be changed, with the manifest intention of introducing another rite not approved by the Church and of rejecting what the Church does, and what, by the institution of Christ, belongs to the nature of the Sacrament, then it is clear that not only is the necessary intention wanting to the Sacrament, but that the intention is adverse to and destructive of the Sacrament” (Paragraph 33).

[T]he Sacrament of Order is adulterated or denied, and … all idea of consecration and sacrifice has been rejected” in the Anglican Ordinal (Paragraph 31).

The English Reformers acted “under a pretext of returning to the primitive form” (Paragraph 30).

The application of statement 1 (which is true in itself) to the Church of England at the Reformation is refuted in the next section and the third paragraph of the last section.

Statement 2 is untrue, as will be shown below in the sections “Delivery of Instruments and Article 36” and “Sacerdotalism and the Church of England at and after the Reformation”.

Statement 3 assumes the purported attempt to restore a primitive form was not, as claimed, a reflection of a desire for primitive or true Catholicism but an ingenuous ruse. This is unjust. See the response to statement 1.

Original Intent and Original Rite

Before dealing with what the Rite does say, another point must be made about omissions from it. The preface to the Prayer Book of 1549, “Of Ceremonies”, which has continued throughout all its revisions, states that some omissions are justified, not because the things in themselves were wrong, but because they had been abused so much “that the abuses could not be taken away, the thing remaining still.” While referring particularly to ceremonies rather than rites, the principle may be assumed to have been applied more generally, as words as well as actions can be misinterpreted or artificially invested with incorrect connotations. Therefore omissions in themselves are not necessarily proof of anything in this historical context.

The intent in the ordinal to “do what the Church does” is stated unambiguously in its Preface, where it has said from the beginning: “It is evident unto all men, diligently reading Holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles' time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. … And therefore, to the intent that these Orders should be continued and reverently used and esteemed in this Church of England, it is requisite that no man … shall execute any of them, except he be called, tried, examined and admitted according to the form hereafter following.” [Spelling and punctuation modernised. Emphasis added.]

The priestly functions emphasised in the rite are “to teach, to premonish, to feed”, as it says in the longest exhortation by the ordaining bishop, through Word and Sacrament and absolution, as it makes clear in the part of the service generally accepted as the Form. In other words, priests are seen as pastors whose authority extends to kerygmatic, didactic, sacramental and benedictory roles.

The Episcopal position is compared to the Apostolic in an address to the congregation, where the chief consecrator says: “BRETHREN, it is written in the Gospel of Saint Luke, that our Saviour Christ continued the whole night in prayer, [before] he did choose and sent forth his twelve Apostles. It is written also, in the Acts of the Apostles, that the disciples which were at Antioch did fast and pray before they laid hands upon or sent forth Paul and Barnabas. Let us, therefore, [follow] the example of our Saviour Christ, and his Apostles”. The Form accompanying the laying on of hands makes a similar connection with the ordination of the “Apostolic Man”, St Timothy, as noted above. Apart from this, it may fairly be said that the pastoral and teaching aspects of ministry are stressed even more in the rite for the Consecration of Bishops than in that for the ordination of priests, which accords well with the ancient emphasis on the bishop’s special responsibility for discipline and preaching.

Delivery of Instruments and Article 36

In A.C. it is said that “every trace” of reference to “the power of consecrating and offering”, among other things, “was deliberately removed”. In fact, the original Edwardine Ordinal contained the Delivery or Tradition of the Instruments, though this was removed in the second. However, the first Ordinal is defended in these terms in the 39 Articles: “[it] doth contain all things necessary … neither hath it any thing, that of itself is superstitious and ungodly.”  Therefore the omission of this ceremony cannot be used as evidence that the consecratory aspect of the priestly ministry was being rejected, since the ceremony is implicitly defended.

The Prayer Book has always reserved Eucharistic consecration to the priest or bishop, As for whether this power of consecration was seen as excluding any concept of offering, see below.

Sacerdotalism and the Church of England at and after the Reformation

The early English Reformers universally accepted the Eucharist was a sacrifice of thankful remembrance, but universally rejected the description “propitiatory sacrifice for the quick and the dead”, and thus deleted, as A.C. notes, all references to such sacrifice by the priest. To know precisely what they meant (and didn’t mean) by this we need to attend to the detail of their doctrinal statements and the liturgy they created or accepted. Among the ideas specifically and vehemently rejected by the Reformers and their successors under Elizabeth are the following:

That Christ’s historical and redemptive Sacrifice is repeated in Holy Communion.

That any action is really performed upon Christ (as a passive object in the Host) by the human priest after consecration which constitutes an independent immolation or “slaying”.

That Christ performs any action in the Eucharist which involves a new offering of himself. Instead, his active self-offering is seen as complete, as demonstrated by the frequent reference to the relevant verses in Hebrews underlining the “once for all” character of Christ’s offering.

However, they affirmed that the Eucharist is a sacrifice of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, and that it also sacramentally represents and commemorates the Sacrifice of the Cross.  In this context we apply the benefits of that One Sacrifice by intercessory prayer to the whole Church, and by Communion to receivers of the Sacrament.

Now, it can not be denied that various errors regarding the Sacrament were widely held in the English Church, including denial of the Real Presence, though even in that matter the Calvinist opinion was not universal among the “Reformed” bishops (nor, certainly, the lower clergy), which is why the authoritative Anglican Formularies deliberately allowed a range of interpretation. And it must also be admitted that the intimate connection between 1b and 2a above is not apparent in the earliest Reformers, but neither is it denied. Later writers made the connection very clear from early in the 17th Century, for example, Richard Field, Lancelot Andrewes and Francis White. 

That the doctrine these men taught was not only permitted in the 17th Century Church of England but encouraged is shown by their consistent preferment subsequent to preaching or writing in accordance with these beliefs. This “High Church” approach to the Eucharist was coupled with a Catholic conception of Orders and their necessity, and has continued within the Church of England (and its derived churches) from that time onwards. In other words, even if a committed and definitive rejection of orthodoxy is detected in the 16th Century (which is here disputed), it can not be fairly ascribed to Anglicanism after this. Ambiguities, yes. Outright negation, no. To the objection that this does not matter if the Apostolic Succession was already lost, we respond by referring the reader to the next two sections.

It is also important in judging the intention of Anglican churches (compared to the wider Catholic tradition) to note that, unlike many European Reformed bodies, Anglicans have always recognised the validity of Roman and Orthodox Orders and never re-ordained those Roman Catholic priests who have come to them – whereas they have consistently re-ordained ministers from Protestant churches without episcopal succession. This is despite the offence this has caused fellow heirs of the Reformation. These practices demonstrate that the Church of England always saw its clergy as being in the same orders as Roman Catholic clergy, thus signalling its acceptance of Roman Catholic rites as valid and effective, despite its preference for its own reformed versions. This is hardly “rejecting what the Church does,” even if “the Church” be interpreted as the Roman Catholic Church simpliciter!

It may be objected at this point that we have gone too far afield to help us in understanding the intent of the Ordinal itself. But this has been necessary for two reasons. First, this larger context was appealed to in A.C. in paragraph 30. Second, the references to “ministering the Sacraments” in the Ordinal receive their full significance from the rest of the Prayer Book as understood by the Church using and authorising it, not merely as understood by the individuals who had a hand in writing Anglican rites. Indeed, whether it is the Ordinal, Liturgy or Articles we are considering, they must be taken to mean what the Church of England has interpreted them to mean, not necessarily what the original authors have.  This is the same for any Church’s rites.

Insertions of Universally Accepted Lines of Succession in England

The Italian line was inserted in the seventeenth century through Archbishop de Dominis. Eastern Orthodox lines were inserted in the nineteenth century. These consecrations occurred after the Caroline Divines had strengthened the doctrines of Eucharistic Sacrifice and Holy Orders in the Church of England. The Eastern insertion occurred after 1662, when the Ordinal’s forms had been made more explicit and the Prayer of Consecration explicitly named so in the Eucharistic Canon.

The Chambers Succession and Episcopalian Form and Intent

Bishop Chambers, the chief consecrator of the first ACC bishops, had as one of his consecrators a bishop of the Polish National Catholic Church, whose orders are recognised by Rome, as we understand it. The rite used was that in the American 1928 Book of Common Prayer. This Prayer Book has re-inserted explicit sacrificial language in the Eucharistic Canon and refers to the “sacerdotal” ministry of the priest in its form for the letter of induction into a parish. Therefore the wider context of the Ordinal proves a deliberate intent to convey a sacerdotal ministry in ordination. These changes obviate the objections of A.C., even if one admitted they applied to the English rites. So, a rite and a consecrator in conformity with Rome’s demands are undeniably present in the recent past of our Succession. Even if the Apostolic Succession had not been present in this Anglican “line” up till then, it would have been so since that time.

The status of A.C.: What even the pope cannot be infallible about

While the infallibility of the Church is not restricted to occasional statements defining what is de Fide for Christians, that is formulating dogmas, there are limits, even on Roman theory, to its extent. For example, in excommunicating a heretic and anathematising his purported heresy, it is generally acknowledged that it is possible for even an Ecumenical Council to err in ascribing the said heresy to the person involved, through misinterpretation or misreporting of his words or intent.

Similarly, even if all or most of the strictly theological assertions in A.C. were considered to be infallible, as may have been implied by Cardinal Ratzinger in a note appended to a recent Papal document, their application to the historical situation at the English Reformation could not possibly be so. This is because the application of general principles to particular historical cases is intrinsically inerrant only insofar as the understanding of those cases is inerrant. But the only history that the Church is guaranteed indefectible knowledge of is that tied up with and essential to Divine Revelation. And this rules out infallible interpretations of the works or words of anybody after the Apostolic age.

Therefore, if it can be shown that the Church of England did not intend to stop ordaining priests and bishops of the Catholic Church to perform the ministrations proper to these orders, including Eucharistic sacrifice, then the conclusion of A.C. fails, however correct the theological syllogisms contained therein. That the Church of England had a positive and explicit intention to continue Catholic episcopacy and priesthood for the purposes of ministering Word and Sacrament, particularly the Eucharist, and absolving sinners is conclusively shown above.

That it did not intentionally reject the Catholic doctrine regarding priesthood and sacrifice, as represented by the consensus Patrum, is clear from statements such as the following by Cranmer in his Declaration of August 1553, “we will join with them [i.e., the ‘Papists’] in this point that that doctrine and usage is to be followed which was in the Church fifteen hundred years past. And we shall prove that the order of the Church set out by this realm … is the same that was used fifteen hundred years past.” Similarly, there is a Canon made by a Synod in England, A.D. 1571:—“Let Preachers above all things be careful that they never teach aught in a sermon to be religiously held and believed by the people, ex­cept that which is agreeable to the doctrine of the Old and New Testaments, and which has been collected from the same doctrine by the Catholic Fathers and ancient Bishops.” And, of course, there is the previously quoted preface to the Ordinal.

The three crucial questions then are these.

  1. Did the Church of England in practice have an intention to create new orders to replace the old because of formal rejection of a fully orthodox conception of the presbyterate and episcopate (with respect to their sacerdotal powers)?
  2.  Or was their intention unreserved and sincere but vitiated by such an error in belief concerning what Catholic Orders were?
  3. And would either deficiency be enough, if proven, to invalidate the sacramental intention?


To answer the first question, as noted above, the constant claims of the English Reformers and those that followed them that they believed themselves to be keeping continuity with the Catholic Church’s ministries and to be in conformity to Catholic doctrine regarding these ministries should be assumed to be true. Otherwise we pretend the ability to judge men’s hearts in spite of their words and actions, which only God can truly do. Pope Leo XIII disclaims such powers in the Bull (Paragraph 33), but, unfortunately, also makes no reference to the abovementioned written, public claims of the English Reformers.

As to the second question, we hope it is clear from the discussion above that, despite verbal denials of propitiation, the Anglican Church, as a Church, did not deny the essential elements of Eucharistic sacrifice. In other words, their “error” related largely to logomachies, related confusion, and imperfect integration of insights in the areas of propitiatory sacrifice and, hence, the ministry.

However, coming to the third query, even if a genuinely heretical understanding of Holy Orders was substantiated at the earliest stages, it is by no means obvious that this would undermine an admitted intention “to do what the Church does”, which is all that is normally asked for in the way of intention. For example, the clear denial of Baptismal Regeneration by most Protestants has not prevented the Roman Catholic Church from recognising the validity of their Baptisms.

Nevertheless, it has been asserted by some Roman Catholic scholars in the Twentieth Century, e.g., Francis Clarke SJ, that it is in fact this heterodox understanding of Holy Orders that the author of the Bull says cancels out the intention to do what the Church does. This interpretation of the Bull claims the general intention is admitted to be present, but that a simultaneous positive and deliberate intention not to convey a primary effect of the sacrament is identified as the reason the general intention is insufficient in this case.

The problem with this interpretation, designed to counter the traditional Anglican appeal to clear evidence in the Ordinal of their intention (which is not even referred to let alone refuted or disputed in A.C.), is that the document itself nowhere admits such a sincere general intention. Instead, it implies such an intention is absent by stating that there was a “manifest intention … of rejecting what the Church does” and that the claimed motive of returning to more primitive forms was a “pretext”. Clarke’s interpretation assumes the Pope is arguing that the Anglican hierarchs using their Ordinal did intend to do what the Church did in ordaining, but, because of the deletion of sacerdotal language, also intended consciously and specifically to withhold or prevent the execution of sacrificial ministry in the Eucharist. Not only does the Bull not give clear evidence of any such nuanced reading of the situation, but this rationalisation lacks intrinsic plausibility in that it tries to prove a positive and deliberate intention to prevent or actively deny a certain result from omissions, rather than overt statements.

Given that the omissions were made by one person or group of people responsible for the formation of the rite, whereas the rite so modified was used by a later and different group of people, it is impossible to simply identify the intentions in making the omissions with the intentions of those using the rite. The users of the rite had their intention “informed” (in the technical sense) by the rite itself, not the authors’ intentions, so what it has rather than what does not have is all that matters. The only way the authors’ intentions could constrain the users is indirectly. If the objection is made that both groups belonged to the same Church, the obvious answer is that the Church is just as little committed to authorial intentions in construction of the rite. The Church’s approval of a rite does not depend primarily on the process leading up to the production of a rite, but on the product itself.

In addition, if someone did not believe that a particular grace was effected by a sacrament because that grace did not exist, e.g., the power to immolate Christ, they could not intend to withhold or refuse to convey it. If I do not believe giving someone a spacesuit makes them safe from radiation, I do not give them the suit with the explicit intention of denying them that property. There is a difference between not explicitly intending to cause the effect of a sacrament while still intending to really perform the sacramental act, and explicitly intending to inhibit that effect while still having the correct general intent.

The former would leave validity unaffected, as acknowledged by all theologians in treating Protestant baptisms, whereas the latter is quite a juggling act, and the Pope gave no indication he posited such complex ambivalence in the original Anglican Ordinals. The more natural reading of A.C. is that it says there is no real intent in the Edwardine Ordinals to do what the Church does because all essential and distinctive effects of the Sacrament are omitted, no indications of the precise Sacrament being ministered are included, and the Catholic terminology that is used is a nominal remnant given different meanings and referents. It is a purported lack of Catholic intent, rather than a mixture of a genuine general intent and a qualifying specific “anti-intent”, so to speak, of which we were accused.

And so, if the answer to the first crucial question asked above -- which assumes particular, deliberate denials of elements known to be essential to the order being conferred -- was yes, it would be difficult to deny the sacramental intention was insufficient. Hence, the answer to the third question would be yes with respect to this deficiency.

But what would happen if the answer to the second question (which assumes material but not formal error in the minister’s understanding of the effect of the sacrament) was yes is also fairly clear – validity would not be affected. Hence, the answer to the third question would be no, unless the error was imprinted positively on the rite, especially the Form, such that it explicitly denied some or over-wrote all essential elements. Omission of good elements is not enough. A.C. assumes all essential elements are missing (over-written) or entirely re-defined.

Given that a good case can be made that Pope Leo XIII erred in his assessment of the “native spirit” and intent of the Anglican Ordinal, as well as ignoring some of its particular ingredients, that the precise nature of the purported deficiency of intent is not made clear therein, and that historical developments since the occurrence of the problems identified by the Pope have made the question of whether the Succession was maintained at that point of time moot, we assert that, at the very least, the Roman Catholic Church could recognise our Orders as valid at present and possibly valid in the past without abandoning its principles.