Q. My wife is a serious Christian and a faithful churchgoer. She is a member of a reverent and active congregation. Her pastor is a man who gave up a lucrative profession to become a priest. My wife receives the Eucharist every Sunday, and she believes fervently in the real presence.
As I understand my own Catholic Church’s teaching, the Eucharist my wife receives is invalid because she is an Episcopalian and her priest’s ordination is invalid. I have a hard time not believing that Christ is present in the bread and wine consecrated by an Episcopal priest. Jesus is supposed to be present when people gather in his name. Doesn’t that apply to my wife’s church service? (Lynchburg, Va.)
A. As is commonly known, the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of the sacrament of baptism when it is administered according to many non-Catholic rites — including the Orthodox Church and all the main-line Protestant communities.
When someone from one of those traditions decides to enter the Catholic Church, no “rebaptism” is needed. All that is required is a simple profession of faith and acceptance into the Catholic Church.
With the Eucharist, though, it is a different matter. The sacrament of the Eucharist can be confected only by a priest, and so the validity of the Eucharist depends on the validity of that particular priest’s ordination. And here, as you point out, is where the problem occurs.
The position of the Catholic Church is that ordination to the priesthood, according to the Anglican ritual is invalid. (The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.) The history of this position is long and involved, but I will summarize it.
In the late 1800s Pope Leo XIII established a commission to study the question. It concluded that in the 16th century when King Henry VIII broke with Rome, the bishops who first joined him had been Roman Catholic bishops and had clearly been ordained validly.
But under the reign of Henry’s son, King Edward VI, the makeup of the Anglican ordination ritual took a decidedly Protestant swing. The intent of the ritual was no longer to confer the sacrament of holy orders as the Catholic Church had viewed it stemming from the time of the apostles. The papal decree “Apostolicae Curae” in 1896 confirmed that position.
In the late 20th century, under the impetus of the ecumenical energy generated by the Second Vatican Council, scholars began to revisit the issue with the encouragement of Pope John Paul II. But after considerable research, no reason could be uncovered for reversing the findings of Leo XIII’s time.
In a papal document in 1998 (together with a companion elucidation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), the issue was laid to rest, and the invalidity of Anglican orders was held by the Catholic Church to be a settled matter. (As a corollary to that theological position, today when Anglican clergy wish to become Roman Catholic priests, they are ordained once more in a new ceremony.)
It is important to note that this position on the validity of orders is intended in no way to question the sincerity of Anglicans. God can minister his grace in all sorts of ways and through many channels. I have no doubt that the Lord is touching your wife’s life though her participation in the Episcopal liturgy. My inclination would be not to trouble her with deep theological distinctions.
Questions to Father Doyle may be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.