Valid but Irregular?

Square Peg in a Round HoleI have been getting some new responses to an earlier article, Vagante Bishops and Aping Rome, about a small number of individuals who get themselves ordained and consecrated bishops by prelates on whom they count for getting themselves recognised as valid by Rome in the hypothesis of their taking steps to find a back door into the official Roman Catholic clergy.

The men in Rome who occupy positions of responsibility in the Curia know about this trick. Many have tried it, and there is no reliably proven example of it “working”. Two examples in recent history are cited.

The first is that of Bishop Barbosa Ferraz, who was one of those who were consecrated by Bishop Carlos Duarte Costa in the 1940’s. He was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1963 in his Orders as a bishop. Some allege that he had been a Roman Catholic, and that Rome made an exception from the normal rule, namely that anyone who has been a Roman Catholic and has committed heresy, apostasy or schism, or has received orders from schismatic bishops is definitely grilled, as we termed it in seminary. The evidence points to Ferraz having come from a Protestant background and never having been a Roman Catholic. He was treated in the same way as any Old Catholic or an Orthodox bishop swimming the Tiber. Once the orders are ascertained to be valid, the man goes over like any other convert.

The second case is that of bishops and priests ordained and consecrated by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and who are all Roman Catholics. In the early 1980’s, deacons and priests leaving the Society of St Pius X were treated as if they were in the usual inextricable canonical situation. As Cardinal Ratzinger took over at the CDF from Cardinal Seper in 1983, the padlocks began to fall away. Clerics were regularised and traditionalist priests doing their doctorates in Rome began to mount “ratlines” to get the former SSPX clerics incardinated into Italian, Polish, Lithuanian, etc. dioceses. Eventually, after the SSPX consecrations in 1988, Rome allowed communities like the Fraternity of Saint Peter and the Institute of Christ the King to be set up.

There have been other maverick Roman Catholic bishops ordaining and consecrating outside canonical norms, three to my knowledge:  Archbishop Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục, Bishop Alfredo Méndez-Gonzalez and Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo. In the cases of the first and third of these prelates, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pronounced: “does not recognize and does not intend to recognize in the future such ordinations or any ordinations derived from them, and therefore the canonical state of the alleged bishops remains the one they were in before the ordination conferred by the aforementioned N.“. This standard formula means that whether or not the orders in question are valid, they are canonically irregular and will never be regularised, except by the person in question returning to his Church as a layman. Bishop Mendez-Gonzalez seems to have slipped under the net, as he avoided provoking the media, and there were no blogs in those days (1983). The bishop he consecrated, Clarence Kelly, is a sedevacantist and would be unlikely to be looking to Rome to be regularised!

I have followed all this kind of thing for many years, and hoped an exception was going to be made for Archbishop Hepworth on the basis of his leading a significant ecclesial body. It was not to be so, and the way he has been dealt with by the CDF is nothing exceptional. Go wrong in this way and there is no way back except as a layman! The question remains as to whether one believes that the Roman Catholic Church is the “true Church”. If that is so, rather than “trying it” for pragmatic reasons, belonging to it without any condition outweighs any kind of sense of vocation or attachment to one’s priestly orders. This is really what it comes down to.

I find this world of men looking for orders and trying to justify themselves more than a little sickening, and I relate to it less and less well. Some independent Catholic clerics take a humble attitude and don’t try to justify themselves, and are realistic about not being able to be a cleric of a “mainstream” Church. Some of them have a few souls to minister to and others lead more contemplative lives of differing degrees of authenticity. Those are people I can relate to.

But, when it comes to men like Bishop Bell in England, mentioned in the older article, and a certain prelate, consecrated by ex-Archbishop (Rome laicised him) Milingo, looking for regularisation with Rome, then my reaction is that they can bloody well go through the front door on their knees and go to the crappiest Novus Ordo they can find! These poor men tie themselves up in knots with something with which they will never get anywhere. I do not mock them or take any pleasure in their lot. Mine would be just the same if I pursued the wait-wait-never-never game with Rome – or the local Bishop or parish priest – all the same thing as such cases are always referred to Rome – it’s the law. We just have to know what we want in life.

I have nothing against Rome or Roman Catholicism. It’s a fact and that institution has its rules, which it always applies. Just try committing a traffic offence and try negotiating with the policeman who catches you! The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The realist trims his sails!

The more realistic of us know that we can settle into a Church who will accept us and find use for our gifts, or we can do as most do – retire into secular life and seek to live another form of spiritual life. We all have our choices to make, and no one is beyond the pale of God’s mercy even if he is beyond that of the institutional Church. Most of us mature and grow up over the years, and see through the charade of clericalism. We cannot go back in life, but forwards. None of us can afford to be triumphalistic, and I have nothing to be triumphalist about.

For me, it comes to the notion of Christian anarchy, separating priesthood from clericalism. The distinction may seem fine, but it is vital – otherwise the priesthood is thrown out with clericalism and tacky nineteenth-century churches which finally get their appointment with the demolition company and their bulldozer.

The message is simple, all the wannabe Romans have to do is become rank-and-file lay Joe Catholics and go and find out what’s going on at the local parish. Alternatively, they can take a deep breath and think things over, and then make a realistic decision.

* * *

I will end this reflection with a few theological notions. The first is the absurdity of considering the ordinations of men like David Bell as valid whilst denying that of the bishops of Anglican communities, who, they, have souls to minister to and accountability. Usually, men like Bell are of interest only to themselves and what I might be tempted to term as “episcopi vagantes spotters” searching on Google. He has managed to attract a lot of attention to himself by claiming to be a regular Roman Catholic and sneaks in to get himself photographed with the Pope.

The notion of being valid but irregular / illicit leads to an absurd notion of the Sacrament of Order and the Catholic priesthood. The Orthodox deny that such a state of things could be possible – if you’re illicit, you’re also invalid. That is the Cyprianic notion – Sacraments being possible only within the Church. What has to defined is the notion of regularity and licitness. For whom? Is the Roman Catholic Church or the canonical Orthodox Churches the only judges, therefore the only true Churches outside of which the taps of grace are turned off and sealed?

I have often attempted to write on notions of ecclesiology, to demonstrate the possibility of the unique Church subsisting in several ecclesial bodies that are divided from each other in human terms. Call this the “branch theory”! I don’t care. What I do care about is that ecclesial bodies that are much smaller than the Roman Catholic Church or the Patriarchate of Moscow can also participate in the mystery of the Church. If this is so, licitness and regularity are simply the ecclesial context of an ordination. It’s not an easy one to judge, and the big Churches have every right to deny the ordinations of anyone coming to them or to ignore the marginal church bodies that keep away and to themselves.

I find it absurd that someone like Bell should be seeking to get Rome to say he is valid, yet not go to the CDF, lay aside his orders, do a penance and go back to London or wherever and find a job. He is not the only one. Other guys have been to get “kosher” orders in the hope the CDF will accept them as an episcopal package. The situation of individuals outside any ecclesial context other than imaginary or fictitious, is quite clear. They are simply charlatans. All such men applying to Rome will be turned down unless they agree to be reconciled as laymen with a perpetual irregularity against exercising orders.

In recent times, the Roman Catholic authorities, like the Orthodox, are very careful about commenting on the orders of those who are outside their communion and canonical chain of command. They just say “whatever might be the question of validity – quidquid ad validitatem” and say that those men have nothing to do with them.

A part of being an independent Catholic, or being in a Church where Catholicism subsists in sacramental and theological terms, is not to misrepresent oneself as what one is not. We in the Anglican Catholic Church are clear about not being in communion with Canterbury or being part of the “official” Anglican Communion. We are tiny and marginal, but we have the characteristics of a Church, at least for our own. We don’t need Rome or Constantinople to “recognise” us. We should be prepared to enter into dialogues and common efforts to unite churches in accordance with the explicit will of Christ. But, if we are shrugged off, it won’t be our fault.

We are much more likely to have an ecclesial life and valid Sacraments by belonging to Churches that “are what it says on the jar” than chasing around with fantastic pretensions and seeking to get recognition from Rome (unless we have never been one of theirs).

In any case, we’re fiddling as Rome burns… What’s the use?

* * *

As a post scriptum, I received an e-mail from “Edson” who complains that I said that the CDF Thuc and Milingo in the same boat.He said it was not true that the CDF only made a statment about Thuc, and the statement was unsigned and merely issued by the Vatican Press Office not legal authority. He tells me the first bishops Milingo ordained were already valid though the Old Catholic line but that the offical spokesman for the Vatican declared the Milingo ordinations as valid, unlike Thuc. See:

And later in the message:

And later they were compared to the illicit Chinese ordinations. Perhaps you can correct the statement on your site about comparing Thuc to Milingo in this regard.

OK, the man has a right to a response, but it is not very coherent. In his comments to the other posting, he advances theories that are off the mark, like a laicised bishop ordaining invalidly or that validity is compromised by there being several “links of a chain” between the original Roman Catholic ordaining prelate and the ordinand in question. Almost as if ordinations were like photocopies of photocopies, each generation being less perfect than the previous one. That’s a new one on me! Fortunately, when digital files are copied, the copy is just as good as the original.

We’ll see when “Edson” gets his own situation sorted out and finds his name in the Annuario Pontificio. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I waited long enough to find out the truth with Archbishop Hepworth! Again, we’ll see…

Another one has just come in giving a link about the Chinese Patriotic bishops. The article cites Archbishops Milingo and Thuc, but in a very imprecise way, and this article is what it is, a news article. Whether Thuc is called a schismatic and Milingo not – by a journalist – is of no consequence. I see no substantial difference between the way Milingo and his bishops and Thuc and his bishops in Palmar de Troya and Toulon as far as Rome is concerned.

I can see what “Edson” is getting at, a loophole by which he can get through the net and become an official Roman Catholic bishop. It is not for me to decide. We’ll see what Rome decides.

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