A reader offers some thoughts on the difficult issue of the reconfirmation and re-ordination of Anglicans who become Roman Catholic
As you enter the Sacrament Chapel you notice a host lying on the ground beneath the tabernacle: what do you do? The answer, naturally, is that you reverently consume the host, given the possibility that it may have fallen from the tabernacle – and consequently that it may have been consecrated. Whether or not it was consecrated you likely will never know: but the appropriate behaviour is obvious.
Now consider an Anglican clergyman who for many years has served faithfully, administering the Sacraments and preaching and teaching the Catholic faith, who nevertheless decides he must become a Roman Catholic. If he is to function as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, he must be re-ordained. But there exist two possibilities as to the means by which this re-ordination can happen: the ordination can be conditional or unconditional. Unconditional ordination is not re-ordination at all: it is ordination plain and simple, and presupposes that the matter of the sacrament, that is, the man in question, is straightforwardly appropriate for ordination, i.e. the man is a layman. Conditional ordination, on the other hand, admits the possibility that the matter of the sacrament may be unsuitable inasmuch as the man in question may in fact already have been ordained. That conditional and unconditional ordination both exist suggests that uncertainty as to the matter of the sacrament pertains only to the former: in essence, for any sacrament to be administered unconditionally reveals the mind of the Church in that instance not to admit of doubt as to the nature of the matter. Where there is doubt as to the nature of the matter, conditional administration of the sacrament is appropriate, otherwise there is no need for conditional administration at all.
In the mind of the Roman Catholic Church, there is no doubt as to the invalidity of Anglican orders. To
many converts to Roman Catholicism there may be no such doubt. But for other converts there is hesitancy: the Anglican clergyman is like the host found beneath the tabernacle. His context – his faith and his practice – is plausibly the context of Catholic priesthood.
A bad start
However, some would doubtless respond that while conditional ordination for former Anglican clergy (and, significantly, conditional confirmation for former Anglican laity) may be preferable, yet in the interests of answering the imperative to communion with the Holy See unconditional administration of the sacraments may be permissible. But to my mind this is to start one’s Roman Catholic life in bad faith.
The Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church states clearly that ‘the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and order cannot be repeated. If after diligent enquiry a prudent doubt remains as to whether [these] sacraments…have been conferred at all, or conferred validly, they are to be conferred conditionally.’ The convert who undergoes unconditional confirmation or ordination in the Roman Catholic Church must therefore satisfy himself that there is no ‘prudent doubt’ as to the validity of those sacraments conferred on him in the Anglican Church.
Two further responses are often made by those defending the actions of converts. The first is that conditionality is implied in the intention of the Roman Catholic Church as it administers these sacraments. But the form of words used suggests otherwise: the option is open to the Church to ordain with a preface of conditionality. As already suggested, there is no need for forms of conditional administration of the sacraments if conditionality can pertain to their straightforward administration.
The second response hinges on practicalities and priorities. It is argued that it is simply impractical to investigate the claims of former Anglicans to sacramental validity, and it is argued that greater priority attaches to communion with the Holy See than to the dogged pursuit of sacramental provenance. This objection too is problematic: the dignity of the sacraments is such that if there is any doubt as to (in)validity, the safest path should be followed. ‘[The] sacraments of baptism, confirmation and order cannot be repeated’: willingly to do so would, frankly, be as sacrilegious as to re-consecrate the host found beneath the tabernacle. The appropriate behaviour is to treat the host as if it were consecrated: no irreligion attaches to doing so if in fact that host was not consecrated (for one had good reason to suppose it might have been). Indeed, and very importantly, if Anglican orders are in fact invalid, a clergyman (re-)ordained conditionally is as much a priest as one ordained unconditionally.
Dignity of the sacraments
One former Anglican bishop spoke of re-ordination and re-confirmation as a form of kenosis or self-emptying. There is a heartfelt nobility to this idea: but it is mistaken. The identity conferred upon someone in the sacraments of (baptism and) confirmation and ordination is not an identity with which he can do with as he wills, because the character imprinted upon him in these sacraments is Christ’s character.
As Catholics in the Church of England we continue to fight for the dignity of the sacraments: we continue to testify to all that the sacraments may not be manipulated for one’s own ends – this is true both in the case of the revisionists who would admit women to holy orders, and in the case of the converts who would deny their share in Christ’s priesthood. ND