Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Sacrament of Order

The Sacrament of Order
by Rama P. Coomaraswamy, M.D., 201 Otter Rock Drive, Greenwich, Conn. - 06830. U.S.A.

Edited by Prakash Mascarenhas. From the book "The Post Conciliar Rite of Holy Orders."

Considerable perplexity arises from the fact that while the Sacrament of Order is one, it is conferred in stages. In the Western Church these are divided into seven - the "Minor Orders" of acolyte, exorcist, lector and doorkeeper; and the "Major Orders" of the subdeaconate, deaconate and priesthood.

Almost at once, confusion enters the picture, for some of the ancient texts list six, others eight and nine major and minor orders. In the Greek Church, the rites of which are considered unquestionably valid, subdeacons are listed in the "Minor" category.

In all the Churches that recognise Orders as a Sacrament (the Protestants - which category includes the Anglicans - do not) we find both Deacons and Priests are "ordained" and that the Episcopate or rank of Bishop is included under the heading of Priests; it is in fact called the "summum Sacerdotium" or the "fullness of the priesthood," and it is through the Bishop that the Apostolic Succession is passed on. Higher ranks in the Church such as Archbishop, Cardinal or Pope are considered administrative and not Sacramental. Thus once a Pope is elected he is installed with appropriate ceremonies, but not with a sacramental rite. (Sacramentally speaking, there is no higher rank than that of Bishop. Such a statement in no way denies the Primacy of Peter.)

For the sake of completeness, it should be noted that an Ordinand (an individual about to be ordained) to any order automatically is the recipient of all the graces pertaining to a lesser order. (This is technically called "per saltem" or "by jumping.") Thus an individual consecrated to the priesthood automatically receives - if he has not already received them - all the power and graces that relate to the lesser orders such as exorcist or deacon. The post-Conciliar Church has (as did the Protestants,) abolished many of the minor orders, but if this Church validly ordains priests, then these priests automatically receive the powers of exorcism, etc., which pertain to the lower and "abolished" orders.

However, when it comes to Bishops, almost all theologians hold that they must be already ordained priests, lacking which the episcopal rite conveys absolutely nothing. The Church has never infallibly pronounced on this issue and the contrary opinion - namely that the Episcopal rite automatically confers on the recipient the character of priestly orders - exists. Cardinal Gasparri in "De Sacra Ordinatione," and Lennertz in his "De Sacramento Ordinis" both hold that the recipient of Episcopal Orders automatically receives - if he does not already have it - the powers of the priesthood.

The issue is discussed in "Anglican Orders and Defect of Intentions," (Francis Clark, Longmans & Green, London, 1956.) So critical is the Apostolic Succession that it is the customary practice of the Church to ordain a bishop with three other bishops. The rule is not absolute, for validity only requires one, and innumerable examples of where this custom has been by-passed can be given.

It is of interest that many traditional theologians have questioned whether the elevation of a Priest to the rank of Bishop is a sacramental or juridical act. The point is important because

  1. It implies that an ordinary priest has the ability (not the right) to ordain (make other priests,) and because,
  2. If the Episcopal rite involves no "imprinting of a sacramental character," the question of validity can hardly arise.

However, in so far as the ordination of Bishops has a "form" and a "matter," the greater majority hold that it is in fact a Sacrament - or rather that it is the completion of the Sacrament of Orders and confers on the ordinand the fullness of priestly powers and functions.

Pope Leo XIII clearly taught that such is the case. To quote him directly: "the episcopate, by Christ's institution, belongs most truly to the Sacrament of Orders and is the priesthood in the highest degree; it is what the holy fathers and our own liturgical usage call the high priesthood, the summit of the sacred ministry." (Apostolicae Curae.)

Distinctions Between Priest and Bishop.

In the traditional ordination rite of the priest the Bishop instructs him that his function is "to offer sacrifice, to bless, to guide, to preach and to baptize." (In the post-Conciliar rite this instruction has been deleted, and he is consecrated to "celebrate" the liturgy which of course means the Novus Ordo Missae.)

Such an instruction is not all-inclusive, for it mentions nothing of the power of absolution - its intention being to specify the principal function of the priest. The power to absolve is however clearly specified in other parts of the traditional rite. (Again, the post-Conciliar rite has abolished the prayer that specifies this power).

Bishops however have certain powers over and beyond those of the priests. According to the Council of Trent, "Bishops, who have succeeded to the position of the Apostles, belong especially to the hierarchical order; they are set up, as the same Apostle (St. Paul) says, by the Holy Ghost to rule the Church of God; they are superior to priests, and confer the sacrament of Confirmation, ordain ministers of the Church, and do several other functions which the rest who are of an inferior order have no power to perform." (Denzinger 960) Again, the seventh canon on the Sacrament of Orders says: "if anyone says the bishops are not superior to priests, or have not the power of confirming and ordaining, or have that power but hold it in common with priests... let him be anathema!" (Denzinger 967)

However, as Father Bligh in his study on the history of Ordination states: "from the practice of the Church it is quite certain that a simple priest can in certain circumstances (now not at all rare) administer Confirmation validly, and it is almost certain that with Papal authorisation he can validly ordain even to the deaconate and priesthood.

"The Decree for the Armenians drawn up by the Council of Florence in 1439 says that a Bishop is the ordinary minister of Confirmation and the ordinary minister of Ordination - which would seem to imply that in extra-ordinary circumstances the minister of either sacrament can be a priest.

"Since the decree Spiritus Sancti Munera of 14th September 1946, it has been the common law of the Latin Church that all parish priests may confer the sacrament of Confirmation on their subjects in danger of death. And there exist four Papal Bulls of the fifteenth century which empowered Abbots, who were not Bishops, but simple priests, to ordain their subjects to Sacred Orders; two of them explicitly give power to ordain even to the priesthood." (John Bligh, S.J. "Ordination to the Priesthood," Sheed & Ward, New York, 1956.)

Some have held that such ordinations were invalid because the popes were acting "under duress," but the fact remains that, at least with regard to the Deaconate, these powers were exercised for centuries without papal objection.
In the Greek and other "Eastern" Churches, the priest is the ordinary minister of Confirmation and the Bishop is the Ordinary minister of Ordination. Canon Law (1917) states that "the ordinary minister of sacred ordination is a consecrated bishop; the extra-ordinary minister is one, who, though without episcopal character, has received either by law or by a special indult form the Holy See power to confer some orders." (CIC 782 & 951)

Now the term "extra-ordinary" minister is important, for it is commonly used with regard to the priest who administers the Sacrament of Confirmation; in the post-Conciliar Church it is used to describe lay-persons who distribute the bread and wine. And so it seems necessary to conclude that a simple priest can be given by Apostolic indult certain powers, or, since no additional ceremony is involved, the right to exercise certain powers that normally are not considered appropriate to his status. One could draw a parallel with the Sacrament of Baptism which any Catholic can administer, but which in fact is usually administered by a priest.

How can we resolve these seeming conflicts? One solution is to consider the right of conferring Orders as juridical. When Pope Pius XII gave permission for parish priests to become extraordinary ministers of Confirmation he did not confer this power by means of a sacramental rite, but through the media of a mandate. Thus, one could hold that by his ordination every priest receives the power to confirm and ordain, but cannot utilise this power without episcopal or papal authorisation.

As Father Bligh says, "by his ordination to the priesthood a man receives no power whatever to confirm or ordain..." He, however, is stamped with an indelible character so that "he is a fit person to whom episcopal or Papal authority can communicate power when it seems good."

On the assumption that the matter is jurisdictional, several questions can be raised. Did Christ our Lord Himself lay down the rule that in normal - or perhaps all - circumstances only bishops should confirm and ordain? Was this rule laid down by the Apostles in virtue of the authority received from Christ? Is the rule sub-Apostolic, which would make it part of ecclesiastical law rather than revelation?

Further the necessity for episcopal authorisation can be conceived of as arising either from an ecclesiastical law restricting the priest's valid use of his power, or from a Divine Law requiring that a priest who exercises these powers must receive a special authority or some kind of jurisdiction from a bishop or the Pope.

The Council of Trent deliberately left the answer to these questions open and undecided. In its sixth Canon on the Sacrament of Order it simply states: "If anyone says that in the Catholic Church there is not a hierarchy, instituted by divine ordination and consisting of bishops, priests and deacons, let him be anathema!"

Before adopting the phrase "by divine ordination" the Council considered the phrases "by divine institution" and "by a special divine ordination," but rejected them because it did not wish to decide the question. Reference to the practice of the early Church suggests that normally the sacraments were administered either by the bishop or by priests explicitly delegated by the bishops. Bligh quotes De Puniet as saying that priests in Apostolic times administered the churches under the direction of the Apostles and almost certainly enjoyed the fullness of sacerdotal power which included the power of ordination.

St. Jerome (Hieronymus) taught that at his ordination, the priest received the power to ordain which was immediately restricted ecclesiastically. Even in mediaeval times, after the bishops ordained a priest, the other clergy present would place their hands on the head of the ordinands and repeat the consecratory prayer - thus acting as "concelebrants" in the rite. In current practise, the priests bless the ordinands by placing their hands on their heads, but no longer repeat the consecratory form. The point is important for under such circumstances, it is only the bishop who ordains. The post-Conciliar Church retains this practice.

Is the Bishop Ordained or Consecrated?

The question as posed is illegitimate, for Pope Pius XII uses both terms inter-changeably in his Sacramentum Ordinis (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 28th January 1958.) The real issue is whether or not raising a Priest to the rank of Bishop involves a sacramental act.

According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia (1908) "most of the older scholastics were of the opinion that the episcopate is not a sacrament; this opinion finds able defenders even now (e.g., Billot, "De Sacramentis"), thought the majority of theologians hold it as certain that the Bishop's ordination is a sacrament." (The Catholic Encyclopaedia, Appleton, 1911, Vol. XI, section on "Orders.")

Whatever the answer, two points are made:

  1. The Council of Trent defines that Bishops belong to a divinely instituted hierarchy, that they are superior to priests, and that they have the power of Confirming and Ordaining which is proper to them." (Session XXIII, c. iv, can. 6, 7)
  2. Pope Leo XIII, as already noted, clearly teaches that the episcopate "belongs most truly to the Sacrament or Order," and Pope Pius XII in defining both the Matter and the Form to the used in the rite implicitly teaches that it is, indeed, a sacramental act.

The position taken in this paper is that while the issue as to whether a simple priest receives the power (not the right) to ordain remains open, the episcopate remains part of the Sacrament of Order. Despite the fact that the power to ordain is a lesser power than that of offering the propitiatory sacrifice of the living and the dead (i.e. the Mass), and despite the fact that the priest may indeed already have this power, one can certainly hold that special graces are required of a Bishop properly to perform his functions, and that these graces are transferred by means of a sacramental act.

It is thus that the Bishop receives within this sacramental what is called the "summum sacerdotium" or the "fullness of the priesthood." Again, it should be stressed that in the ordination of priests, regardless of earlier practise, both in the traditional and the post-Conciliar practise, it is only the Bishop who repeats both the matter and the form. Consequently, when a Bishop ordains, the "validity" of his own orders and of his sacramental act remain essential.


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