This subject often comes up in the blogosphere, and reactions tend to be like those of orthodox Old Testament Jews in regard to people like the Samaritans. Uncanonical clergy are often seen as a kind of parasite and a threat to the regular churchgoers of the parishes and dioceses of the mainstream Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. The “correct” attitude is to despise irregular clergy and exhort them to convert to a mainstream Church as laymen. What is worse is the ridiculous spectacle of hearing about men styling themselves with exalted titles of prelates of churches existing only in their imaginations and in their web sites.
One pastoral consideration would tend to mitigate such a sharp judgement, and that is one for the men concerned and the emerging notion of the Church existing in a different “mode” in the modern world. One often speaks of “communities of faith”, “emerging churches” and “new monasticism” – categories of ecclesial communities that cater for people who are marginalised from mainstream culture. The mainstream Churches have over time developed chaplaincies for special groups of faithful outside the standard parish system, for example in schools, prisons and the Armed Forces. It is for this reason that I think some marginal clergy have a valid conception of the Church and the work of evangelisation. It is for this second reason that I write this article.
The old caricatures are found in the famous book by Peter Anson, Bishops at Large, notably through the phenomenon of illusions of grandeur and self-styling and consecrating, re-consecrating bishops and multiplying their “lines of succession”. Some of those men are people we would not invite to dinner! Some are frauds or are suffering from psychological problems of one form or another understood only to members of the specialised medical profession. Such “independent” churches discredit themselves through the lack of accountability and the bishop having the obvious need of money to live on without having to be in secular employment.
On the other hand, we ask ourselves whether Jesus was an official priest of the Temple with his place in the Sanhedrin or among the Scribes and Pharisees. The question is a difficult one to resolve. There are several passages in which he said that the Law was to be observed, but yet lambasted the Pharisees for their adhesion to the letter and not the spirit of the Law. Jesus and his band of apostles and disciples appear to have been itinerant groups of people outside the control of official Judaism. Jesus preached in the synagogues and even the Temple of Jerusalem. Did people have to have special credentials from the Temple clergy and the High Priest, or could they just go in and express their prophetic inspirations at will?
One can understand those who try to replicate mainstream jurisdictions by the desire to make themselves acceptable to be accepted as a package by the Church in question. This is what the TAC tried with Rome. As most of the TAC’s clergy had never been Roman Catholics and consequently never incurred canonical irregularities, they could be accepted on an individual basis by the Ordinariates established by Rome – not exactly what was anticipated at a meeting in Portsmouth in 2007. It has to be observed that no such jurisdiction emulating the ways of an “official Church” has ever been accepted and integrated in anything like a “corporate reunion”. The question is invariably – why not simply be a priest of the Church you want to belong to? Frequently, the answer to that question is – canonical irregularities. Such clergy who get ordained by “vagante” bishops go nowhere, ever. Their churches and any material effects go to the rubbish heap or the auction market when they die. There is no perennity or long-term stability, no tradition to transmit to future generations. A man live and dies.
If such clergy have a different vision of the Church, then they can be people who cannot fit into any church serving people who cannot fit into any church. Where two or three are gathered together in my name… We find the Church defined in terms of small communities and not as national establishments walking hand in hand with the secular authority of that country and enjoying wealth and power. There is the concept of Old Catholicism, which can mean many things. I would tend to understand the concept as mainstream Catholicism before the “Ultramontanist” trend of inflating the Papacy to the extent to which it was promoted in the late nineteenth century, hearkening back to the Undivided Church of the Fathers, Quod unique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus… Now, some would make of the term Old Catholicism a euphemism for communities that cater for homosexuals and women who are attracted to the priesthood.
The phenomenon of independent bishops and priests is made possible by the “Augustinian” notion taught in scholastic Roman Catholic theology that an irregular priest is not to be allowed to minister in the Church, but is recognised to be a validly ordained priest. Other theological opinions postulate the invalidity of any ordination conferred outside an ecclesial and canonical context, and more extreme theologians (Cyrille Vogel for example) would deny the inadmissible character of the Sacrament of Order – even a regular priest who becomes irregular through canonical faults ceases ontologically to be a priest, or the priesthood is not ontological but a legal nomination to a given ministry. These ways of viewing the priesthood are common among contemporary Roman Catholic clergy, and the default belief of uninstructed lay people. The push for women’s ordination must come largely from this view, for denying the ontological nature of ordination removes any objection on sacramental and theological grounds to the ordination of women.
The number of Old Catholic jurisdictions, especially in America, has exploded. It was almost unknown until approximately the second half of the nineteenth century. A traditionalist Roman Catholic priest, writing in the same cynical tone as Anson, produced an article by the title Two Bishops in every Garage. Self-styling is the first thing that bodes credibility ill. The notion of the Episcopate can vary between the self-styled ersatz and the humble priest doing what he can with new wine in new bottles, even if he happens to have episcopal orders which he keeps discreet.
The worst thing for credibility is misrepresentation, actually pretending to be a Roman Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox priest, and not merely appealing to the Tradition of that Church which the mainstream had cast away in the modernising movement since the 1960’s. This category would include irregular priests hearing confessions in Roman Catholic churches, showing up for concelebrations at places like Lourdes – and perhaps running off with the collection plate, etc. Many of those men are con-pure men in it purely to obtain money by deception and the self-satisfaction at having deceived people.
Over the years I have observed “vagante” priests and bishops, my attitude is weary and sceptical. Perhaps most of those clergy would do better to become laymen in a mainstream church and apply for the ministry in the same way as ordinands. Others should give it up altogether, and others still have their rightful place in prison. For those who go this way, the best thing to advise would be that they carefully reflect about “For what?”, “Bishop of what?” Are they doing something completely pointless? The application of canon law does not always deal with the stories of people. Men get broken by the system, but yet are driven with a sense of vocation to serve as a priest or a contemplative – in some way other than as ordinary layfolk. “Independent” Catholicism has become something of a modern equivalent of the medieval Goliards. Modern church Christianity has little time for the prophetic voice, the itinerant life of the old Franciscans and various groups in dissidents in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries which often fell foul of the Inquisition. Many complain that the Constantinian Church has become an obstacle to the propagation of the Gospel. Most people have abandoned institutional Christianity, either because they are no longer believers, or because they aspire to a more personal and individual spiritual life. Rightly or wrongly? It is not always easy to judge.
Whatever, there are more and more voices calling for a new way of expressing the notion of the Church, and the Churches find it difficult to adapt or see the danger of having to move with the signs of the times – if they are truly the signs of the times. Irregular priests show the limits of a Church built up on a slightly misunderstood notion of Christ’s priesthood, and that transmitted to the Apostles and generations of bishops and priests ever since. What seems to make sense to me is that this phenomenon exists because there is a need for it, notably for a greater diversity of ministries and “expressions” in the mainstream churches. How is the idea of vocation to be understood? Is it the call of the official diocesan Bishop to those who have come from the right families, been to the right schools and universities and so forth? Is there a spiritual and personal dimension to the priestly vocation like the calling to the religious life or the less usual vocations to become a fool for God?
I end this piece with the thought that the western Churches have been affected by excessive rationalism or a “classical” spirit like the pre-Romantic era of the end of the eighteenth century. In the medieval Church, and more recently in some parts of the world, and in the Eastern Orthodox countries, there is a greater diversity of the use to which the Church puts priests between parish ministry, monastic and collegial life, teaching in universities, the life of the chantry priests and the more marginal, the Goliards and similar movements of more or less dubious orthodoxy. The humanity of a society is judged by how it deals with the weak. The Nazis sought to “cleanse” humanity by destroying the weak and practising eugenics to provide a “master race”. Most modern democracies provide care for the sick, benefits for those who are out of work and various programmes of aid. Welfare systems are vulnerable to be abused by the unscrupulous elements, but should the Welfare system be abolished because a minority of people cheat and swindle? Abusus non tollit usum. Unfortunately, the Church is in a time when its authorities begin to react from a forty-year long stranglehold by tightening the screws according to conservative principles, but to make an elite Church of the strong, in which the weak have no place.
Can the Church afford to ordain those who are not up to the usual standards? She has done so before, and there were many abuses in the Middle Ages and a lot of superstition among the laity. For all the tightening up by the Council of Trent, Vatican II and recent Papal legislation, there are still abuses, and I have met many who are no less superstitious than “Piers Ploughman”, perhaps more so in their crass materialism. Could the Church reabsorb or reintegrate the hundreds of bishops and priests? Certainly they would be unsuitable for parish work and teaching, but perhaps for living among the marginalised and bizarre of life like the various subcultures of young people and the alienated. Human liberty is hard to administer and channel. There is no hard and fast answer, but no one can fail to notice that the “classical” Church can only reach a very small minority of people…