Pope Leo XIII
Apostolic letter of His Holiness by Divine Providence giving judgement on Anglican Ordinations, 13 September 1896

1. The apostolic solicitude and charity with which, helped by His grace, We strive in the fulfillment of Our office to imitate 'the great pastor of the sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ', have been devoted in no small measure to the noble people of England. Our affection for them was shown particularly in the special Letter addressed by Us last year 'to the English who seek the kingdom of Christ in the unity of faith', wherein We recalled the memory of that nation’s ancient union with Holy Mother Church and appealed for earnest prayers to God that it might soon become happily reconciled to her. And again when, not long ago, We thought fit to treat more fully of the unity of the Church in an Encyclical Letter, We had England prominently in mind, hoping that Our words might bring not only encouragement to Catholics but also salutary guidance to those who are separated from Us. In that Letter We spoke emphatically and freely, urged thereto by no mere human considerations; and the fact that it received so warm a welcome from the English people shows a courtesy in that nation and a widespread concern among them for the salvation of souls to which We gladly pay tribute.

2. In the same spirit and with the same end in view We have resolved now to turn Our attention to an equally important matter which is connected with the aforesaid subject and with Our own hopes.

3. It has been the common theological opinion—and one confirmed on several occasions by the pronouncements of the Church and by her consistent practice—that the true sacrament of Order as Christ instituted it, and therewith the hierarchical succession, lapsed in England because, shortly after her secession from the centre of Christian unity, an entirely new rite for the conferring of sacred orders was publicly introduced in the reign of King Edward VI. In recent times, however, and especially during the past few years, a controversy has arisen whether sacred ordinations performed according to the Edwardine rite possess the nature and efficacy of a sacrament, the opinion in favour of their validity being held, with greater or less assurance, not only by a number of Anglican writers but also by a few Catholics, for the most part not English. The former have been moved by an awareness of the excellence of the Christian priesthood and a desire that their ministers should not be without its twofold power concerning the body of Christ, while the latter have been prompted by the wish to remove an obstacle in the way of the Anglicans' return to unity. Both have appeared to share the conviction that it would be opportune, now that time has matured the study of this subject and some documentary evidence has been newly rescued from oblivion, to have the question re-examined under Our authority.

4. Having regard to these proposals and desires, and paying heed above all to the bidding of apostolic charity, We resolved for Our part that nothing ought to be left untried which might seem to contribute in any way to averting harm to souls or promoting their well-being. We therefore decided to accede to the request for a re-examination of the question, in order that a complete and thorough investigation might remove even the least shadow of doubt for the future.

5. We accordingly commissioned a number of persons of eminent learning and erudition, known to differ in their views on this question, each to draw up in writing a reasoned report of his opinion; they were then summoned to Our presence and directed to communicate their reports to one another and to make such further investigations and studies as the subject seemed to demand. We further arranged that they should be afforded every facility to re-examine all the known relevant documents in the Vatican archives, and to bring any new documents to light; also that they should have at their disposal all the acts relating to the subject which were in the keeping of the Supreme Council, as well as the hitherto published works of learned writers in favour of either view. Thus equipped, We required them to hold special sessions, twelve of which took place under the presidency of a Cardinal appointed by Ourself, every member being allowed full freedom of discussion. We finally directed the findings of these sessions, together with the other documents, to be placed before Our Venerable Brethren the Cardinals of the same Council; these were to study the matter, then discuss it in Our presence, and each pronounce his opinion.

6. Such was the procedure determined upon. But a due pre-requisite for a thorough-going investigation was first to make a most careful inquiry to discover how the matter stood already in regard to the enactments and established custom of the Apostolic See. It was of great importance to consider the origin and the force of that custom.

7. In the first place, therefore, consideration was given to the chief documents by which Our Predecessors, at the request of Queen Mary, made special provision for the reconciliation of the English Church. For this task Julius III appointed Cardinal Reginald Pole, an Englishman of outstanding merits, to be his Legate a latere; he sent him as 'his angel of peace and love', giving him extraordinary instructions or faculties and laying down directions for his guidance, all of which were subsequently ratified and explained by Paul IV.

8. Now in order to grasp the exact force of these documents it is a necessary presupposition to understand that they were not abstract treatises, but were intended to deal with concrete and specific conditions. The faculties granted by these Popes to the Apostolic Legate had reference precisely to England and to the state of religion existing in that country. Consequently the instructions given by them to the same Legate in answer to his request could not have had the scope of laying down what was essential for the validity of sacred ordinations in general; they had to be specifically directed to making provision for holy orders in England itself, as required by the conditions and circumstances described. That this is so is abundantly clear from the nature and tenor of the documents themselves; moreover it would plainly have been quite incongruous to send such a lesson to the Legate, a man whose learning had been conspicuous at the Council of Trent itself, as if he needed to be told what was essentially required for conferring the sacrament of Order.

9. If these considerations are borne in mind it is not difficult to see why, in the letter of Julius III to the Apostolic Legate dated 8 March 1554, distinct mention is made first of those who, 'having been regularly and lawfully promoted', were to be retained in their orders, and, secondly, of those who, 'not having been promoted to sacred orders', might 'if found worthy and suitable, be promoted’ thereto. Two classes of persons really existing are plainly and definitely described: on the one hand those who had truly received sacred ordination, that is to say, who had received it either before Henry’s secession or, if after it and at the hands of ministers who were in error or schism, had nevertheless been ordained according to the customary Catholic rite; and on the other hand those who had been initiated according to the Edwardine Ordinal, and who wear able to 'be promoted' precisely because they had received an ordination which was invalid.

10. And that this was in fact the Pope's meaning is very clearly confirmed by a letter of the Legate himself, dated 29 January 1555, in which he delegates his faculties to the Bishop of Norwich. It is also of great importance to consider what Julius III himself says in his letter on making free use of the Papal faculties even for the benefit of those upon whom an [episcopal] consecration had been conferred 'irregularly(minus rite) and without the observance of the customary form of the Church'; an expression which undoubtedly indicated those who had been consecrated according to the Edwardine rite, since apart from this form and the Catholic form there was none other existing in England at the time.

11. Further evidence is provided by the delegation which the sovereigns Philip and Mary, on the advice of Cardinal Pole, sent to the Pope in Rome in the month of February 1555. The royal envoys, three 'illustrious and most virtuous men', among them Thomas Thirlby, Bishop of Ely, were charged to inform the Pope more fully concerning the state of religion in England, and in particular to ask for his ratification and confirmation of all that the Legate had done and caused to be done in the matter of reconciling that kingdom with the Church; for which purpose all the necessary written evidence, together with the relevant portions of the new Ordinal, was submitted to the Pope. Paul IV received the delegation with great ceremony and, the aforesaid documents having been 'carefully discussed' by certain Cardinals, 'after mature deliberation' he issued his Bull Praeclara carissimi on the 20th of June in the same year. Herein, after full approval and confirmation of Pole's action, the following instruction is given concerning ordinations: 'Those who have been promoted to ecclesiastical orders ... by any other than a bishop regularly and rightly ordained shall be bound to receive the same orders anew.'

12. Who these bishops were that had not been 'regularly and rightly ordained' had already been made sufficiently clear by earlier documents and by the faculties which the Legate had used in the matter: they were those who had been promoted to the episcopate, as others had been promoted to other orders, 'without the observance of the customary form of the Church', or, as the Legate himself had written to the Bishop of Norwich, without the observance of 'the Church's form and intention'. And these were certainly none other than those who had been promoted according to the form of the new rite, to the examination of which the appointed Cardinals had devoted careful attention. Another pertinent passage in the same letter is to be noted, in which the Pope mentions among the persons needing the benefit of dispensation those who 'had obtained both orders and ecclesiastical benefices nulliter and de facto'. To have obtained orders nulliter means to have obtained them by an act which is null and void, that is, invalidly, as both the etymology of the word and its ordinary use denote; indeed, this usage is confirmed here because the same term that is used in regard to orders is used likewise in regard to 'ecclesiastical benefices', which by certain provisions of the sacred canons were manifestly null because they had been conferred with a voiding defect.

13. Finally, a doubt having arisen as to who in fact might be said and held to be bishops 'regularly and rightly ordained' according to the mind of the Pope, the latter shortly afterwards, on the 30th of October, issued a further letter in the form of a Brief, in which he said: 'Wishing to dispel this doubt and, by explaining more clearly what was Our mind and intention in Our aforesaid letter, to make opportune provision for the peace of conscience of those who had been promoted to orders during the schism, We declare that the bishops and archbishops who cannot be said to be "regularly and rightly ordained" are only those who were not ordained and consecrated in the form of the Church.'

14. This declaration must have related precisely to the existing circumstances in England, that is, to the Edwardine Ordinal; otherwise the Pope would certainly have done nothing by his further letter 'to dispel doubt' or 'to make provision for peace of conscience’. Moreover, it was in this sense that the Legate understood the documents and instructions of the Apostolic See, and it was according to this sense that he duly and diligently observed them. The same is true also of Queen Mary and the others who cooperated with her in the work of restoring the Catholic religion and practice to its former condition.

15. The authorities which We have quoted of Julius III and Paul IV clearly show the origin of the rule, which has now been constantly observed for more than three centuries, of treating ordinations according to the Edwardine rite as null and void, a rule which is abundantly testified by many instances, even in this City, in which such ordinations have been repeated unconditionally according to the Catholic rite.

16. The observance of this customary rule is significant for the question before us. For if any doubt lingers as to the sense in which the aforesaid Papal documents are really to be understood, one may apply here the axiom 'Custom is the best interpreter of law'. As it has always been the unvarying and accepted teaching of the Church that it is unlawful to repeat the sacrament of Order, it was accordingly quite impossible that the Apostolic See should tacitly allow or tolerate such a custom. And yet in this matter she has not only tolerated it but has approved and sanctioned it whenever a particular case of this sort has come up for judgement.

17. We quote two such cases, out of the many which from time to time have been submitted to the Supreme Council: that of a certain French Calvinist in the year 1684, and that of John Clement Gordon in the year 1704 both of them ordained according to the Edwardine ritual.

18. In the first case, verdicts (or 'vota') were delivered in writing by many of the consultors after a careful examination, the remainder unanimously concurring with them in giving a verdict 'for the invalidity of the ordination'; it was only for considerations of expediency that the Cardinals decided upon the reply, 'Judgement postponed'.

19. In the second case the proceedings of the former were presented again and reconsidered; in addition further vota were obtained from consultors, leading doctors of the Sorbonne and of Douai were asked their opinion, and no measure which far-sighted prudence could suggest was neglected to ensure a thoroughly accurate knowledge of the question.

20. It is to be observed also that, although both Gordon himself, whose case was in question, and some of the consultors had included among the grounds of nullity the account of Parker's ordination as then alleged, this argument was in fact entirely set aside in arriving at a decision, as documents of incontestable authenticity show. No other reason was given weight than 'defect of form and intention'. And in order that the judgement on this form might be as complete and certain as possible, care had been taken to have a copy of the Anglican Ordinal available, and a comparison was made between this and the forms of ordination taken from various Eastern and Western rites. Thereupon Clement XI, with the unanimous vote of the Cardinals concerned, issued the following decree on Thursday, 17 April 1704: 'John Clement Gordon is to be ordained completely and unconditionally to all the orders, including sacred orders and especially the priesthood, and, inasmuch as he has not been confirmed, he is first to receive the sacrament of Confirmation. '

21. This decision, it is important to consider, was in no way influenced by the omission of 'the tradition of the instruments'; for then the direction would have been given, as usual in such cases, to repeat the ordination conditionally. It is still more important to notice that this same decision of the Pope applies in general to all Anglican ordinations; for although it refers to a particular case, yet the ground upon which it was based was not particular. This ground was the 'defect of form', a defect from which all Anglican ordinations suffer equally; and therefore whenever similar cases have subsequently come up for judgement this decree of Clement XI has been quoted every time.

22. It thus becomes quite obvious that the controversy which has been recently revived had already long ago been settled by the judgement of the Apostolic See; and the fact that one or two Catholic writers should have ventured to treat it as an open question is perhaps due to lack of sufficient knowledge of the aforesaid documents.

23. But because, as We observed at the beginning, it is Our most earnest desire to be of service to men of good will, by using the greatest possible consideration and charity towards them, We directed that the Anglican Ordinal, which is the crux of the whole question, should once more be very carefully examined. Need for due signification in a sacramental rite

24. In the rite for the performance and administration of any sacrament a distinction is justly made between its 'ceremonial' and its 'essential' part, the latter being usually called its 'matter and form'. Moreover it is well known that the sacraments of the New Law, being sensible signs which cause invisible grace, must both signify the grace which they cause and cause the grace which they signify. Now this signification, though it must be found in the essential rite as a whole, that is, in both matter and form together, belongs chiefly to the form; for the matter is by itself the indeterminate part, which becomes determinate through the form. This is especially apparent in the sacrament of Order, the matter of which, so far as it needs to be considered here, is the imposition of hands. This by itself does not signify anything definite, being used equally for the conferring of certain orders and for administering Confirmation.

25. Now the words which until recent times have been generally held by Anglicans to be the proper form of presbyteral ordination—'Receive the Holy Ghost'—certainly do not signify definitely the order of the priesthood (sacerdotium) or its grace and power, which is pre-eminently the power 'to consecrate and offer the true body and blood of the Lord' in that sacrifice which is no 'mere commemoration of the sacrifice performed on the Cross'.

26. It is true that this form was subsequently amplified by the addition of the words 'for the office and work of a priest'; but this rather proves that the Anglicans themselves had recognized that the first form had been defective and unsuitable. Even supposing, however, that this addition might have lent the form a legitimate signification, it was made too late when a century had already elapsed since the adoption of the Edwardine Ordinal and when, consequently, with the hierarchy now extinct, the power of ordaining no longer existed.

27. Some have latterly sought a help for their case in other prayers of the same Ordinal, but in vain. To say nothing of other reasons which show such prayers, occurring in the Anglican rite, to be inadequate for the purpose suggested, let this one argument serve for all: namely that these prayers have been deliberately stripped of everything which in the Catholic rite clearly sets forth the dignity and functions of the priesthood. It is impossible, therefore, for a form to be suitable or sufficient for a sacrament if it suppresses that which it ought distinctively to signify.

28. The case is the same with episcopal consecration. Not only was the formula 'Take the Holy Ghost' too late amplified by the words 'for the office and work of a bishop', but even these additional words, as We shall shortly declare, must be judged otherwise than in a Catholic rite. Nor is it of any use to appeal to the prayer of the preface 'Almighty God ...', since from this in like manner the words which denote 'the high priesthood' have been eliminated.

29. It is not relevant here to inquire whether the episcopate is the complement of the priesthood or an order distinct from it; or whether the episcopate conferred per saltum, that is, upon one who is not a priest, is valid or not. It is quite certain in any event that the episcopate by Christ's institution belongs most truly to the sacrament of Order 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'. Therefore, since the sacrament of Order and the true priesthood of Christ has been totally expunged from the Anglican rite, and since accordingly the priesthood is in nowise conferred in the episcopal consecration of the same rite, it is equally impossible for the episcopate itself to be truly and properly conferred thereby; the more so because a chief function of the episcopate is that of ordaining ministers for the Holy Eucharist and for the sacrifice.

30. But for a just and adequate appraisal of the Anglican Ordinal it is above all important, besides considering what has been said about some of its parts, rightly to appreciate the circumstances in which it originated and was publicly instituted. It would take too long to set out a detailed account, nor is it necessary; the history of the period tells us clearly enough what were the sentiments of the authors of the Ordinal towards the Catholic Church, who were the heterodox associates whose help they invoked, to what end they directed their designs. They knew only too well the intimate bond which unites faith and worship, lex credendi and lex supplicandi; and so, under the pretext of restoring the order of the liturgy to its primitive form, they corrupted it in many respects to bring it into accord with the errors of the Innovators. As a result, not only is there in the whole Ordinal no clear mention of sacrifice, of consecration, of priesthood (sacerdotium), of the power to consecrate and offer sacrifice, but, as We have already indicated, every trace of these and similar things remaining in such prayers of the Catholic rite as were not completely rejected, was purposely removed and obliterated.

31. The native character and spirit of the Ordinal, as one may call it, is thus objectively evident. Moreover, incapable as it was of conferring valid orders by reason of its original defectiveness, and remaining as it did in that condition, there was no prospect that with the passage of time it would become capable of conferring them. It was in vain that from the time of Charles I some men attempted to admit some notion of sacrifice and priesthood, and that, later on, certain additions were made to the Ordinal; and equally vain is the contention of a relatively small party among the Anglicans, formed in more recent times, that the said Ordinal can be made to bear a sound and orthodox sense. These attempts, We say, were and are fruitless; for the reason, moreover, that even though some words in the Anglican Ordinal as it now stands may present the possibility of ambiguity, they cannot bear the same sense as they have in a Catholic rite. For, as we have seen, when once a new rite has been introduced denying or corrupting the sacrament of Order and repudiating any notion whatsoever of consecration and sacrifice, then the formula, 'Receive the Holy Ghost' (that is, the Spirit who is infused into the soul with the grace of the sacrament), is deprived of its force; nor have the words, 'for the office and work of a priest' or bishop', etc., any longer their validity, being now mere names voided of the reality which Christ instituted.

32. The majority of Anglicans themselves, more accurate in their interpretation of the Ordinal, perceive the force of this argument and use it openly against those who are vainly attempting, by a new interpretation of the rite, to attach to the orders conferred thereby a value and efficacy which they do not possess. The same argument by itself is fatal also to the suggestion that the prayer 'Almighty God, giver of all good things', occurring towards the beginning of the ritual action, can do service as a legitimate form of Order; although, conceivably, it might be held to suffice in a Catholic rite which the Church had approved.

33. With this intrinsic defect of form, then, there was joined a defect of intention—of that intention which is likewise necessary for the existence of a sacrament. Concerning the mind or intention, inasmuch as it is in itself something interior, the Church does not pass judgement: but in so far as it is externally manifested, she is bound to judge of it. Now if, in order to effect and confer a sacrament, a person has seriously and correctly used the due matter and form, he is for that very reason presumed to have intended to do what the Church does. This principle is the basis of the doctrine that a sacrament is truly a sacrament even if it is conferred through the ministry of a heretic, or of one who is not himself baptized, provided the Catholic rite is used. But if, on the contrary, the rite is changed with the manifest purpose of introducing another rite which is not accepted by the Church, and of repudiating that which the Church does and which is something that by Christ's institution belongs to the nature of the sacrament, then it is evident, not merely that the intention necessary for a sacrament is lacking, but rather that an intention is present which is adverse to and incompatible with the sacrament.

34. All these considerations We weighed long and carefully in Our own mind and in consultation with Our Venerable Brethren the Judges of the Supreme Council, whom We also summoned to a special meeting in Our presence on Thursday 16 July last, the feast of our Lady of Mount Carmel. They unanimously agreed that the case proposed had already been adjudicated with full cognizance by the Apostolic See, and that the renewed investigation had only served to bring into clearer light the justice and wisdom with which the Holy See had settled the whole question. We nevertheless thought it best to postpone a decision, taking time to reflect whether it was fitting and expedient to make a further declaration on the same subject by Our own authority, and also to pray humbly for a greater measure of divine guidance.

35. And now, taking into consideration the fact that this matter, although it had already been duly settled, has by certain persons for one reason or another been called again in question, and that not a few may in consequence be led into the dangerous error of thinking themselves to find the sacrament of Order and its fruits where in fact they do not exist, We have resolved in the Lord to pronounce Our judgement.

36. Therefore Adhering Entirely To The Decrees Of The Pontiffs Our Predecessors On This Subject, And Fully Ratifying And Renewing Them By Our Authority, On Our Own Initiative And With Certain Knowledge, We Pronounce And Declare That Ordinations Performed According To The Anglican Rite Have Been And Are Completely Null And Void.

37. It remains for Us, still in the name and spirit of 'the great Pastor' in which We approached the task of setting forth the most certain truth of this grave matter, now to address a word of exhortation to those who with sincerity of will desire and seek the blessings of Orders and Hierarchy.

38. Hitherto perhaps, while striving after the perfection of Christian virtue, while devoutly searching the Scriptures, while redoubling their fervent prayers, they have yet listened in doubt and perplexity to the promptings of Christ who has long been speaking within their hearts. Now they see clearly whither He is graciously calling and bidding them come. Let them return to His one fold, and they will obtain both the blessings they seek and further aids to salvation; the dispensing of which He has committed to the Church, as the perpetual guardian and promoter of His redemption among the nations. Then will they 'draw waters with joy out of the fountains of the Saviour', that is, out of His wondrous sacraments; whereby the souls of the faithful are truly forgiven their sins and restored to the friendship of God, nourished and strengthened with the bread of heaven, and provided in abundance with the most powerful aids to the attainment of eternal life. To those who truly thirst after these blessings may 'the God of peace, the God of all consolation', grant them in overflowing measure, according to the greatness of His bounty.

39. Our appeal and Our hopes are directed in a special way to those who hold the office of ministers of religion in their respective communities. Their position gives them preeminence in learning and authority, and they assuredly have at heart the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Let them, then, be among the first to heed God's call and obey it with alacrity, thus giving a shining example to others. Great indeed will be the joy of Mother Church as she welcomes them, surrounding them with every mark of affection and solicitude, because of the difficulties which they have generously and courageously surmounted in order to return to her bosom. And how shall words describe the praise which such courage will earn for them in the assemblies of the faithful throughout the Catholic world, the hope and confidence it will give them before Christ’s judgement seat, the rewards that it will win for them in the kingdom of heaven! For Our part We shall continue by every means allowed to us to encourage their reconciliation with the Church, in which both individuals and whole communities, as We ardently hope, may find a model for their imitation. Meanwhile We beg and implore them all, through the bowels of the mercy of our God, to strive faithfully to follow in the open path of His truth and grace.

40. We Decree That The Present Letter And The Whole Of Its Contents Cannot At Any Time Be Attacked Or Impugned On The Ground Of Subreption, Obreption, Or Defect In Our Intention, Or Any Defect Whatsoever; But That It Shall Be Now And For Ever In The Future Valid And In Force, And That It Is To Be Inviolably Observed Both Judicially And Extra-judicially By All Persons Of Whatsoever Degree Or Pre-Eminence; And We Declare Null And Void Any Attempt To The Contrary Which May Be Made Wittingly Or Unwittingly Concerning The Same By Any Person, By Any Authority, Or Under Any Pretext Whatsoever, All Things To The Contrary Notwithstanding.

41. It is moreover Our intention that copies of this Letter, even printed copies, provided they are signed by a Notary and sealed by a person constituted in ecclesiastical dignity, shall be accorded the same faith as would be given to the expression of Our will by the showing of these presents.

Given at St. Peter's, Rome, on the thirteenth day of September in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1896, the nineteenth of Our Pontificate.

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