Apostolic letter of leo xiii on the question of the validity of Anglican ordinations, issued Sept. 13, 1896. It embodies the pope's conclusion that ordinations made according to the Anglican Ordinal are null and void. Although it calls itself an apostolic letter, it is sent in the name of Leo XIII (Leo episcopus, servus servorum Dei, ad perpetuam rei memoriam ), and the conclusion is formulated in the first person plural commonly used by the pope. The document was not signed personally by Leo, but by Cardinals Bianchi and De Ruggiero. For the historical background of the question and the history of the apostolic letter, see anglican orders; see also satis cognitum, Leo XIII's encyclical on the unity of the Church, published less than three months before Apostolicae curae, which sets the condemnation of Anglican ordinations in the horizon of Pope Leo's "unionism."
While no divisions other than unnumbered paragraphs appear in the text, it can be conveniently divided into an introduction and four parts. The introduction reviews the pope's benevolent regard toward the people of England, the "common view" that the sacrament of Order lapsed under Edward VI because of the new rite that was then introduced, and the fact that in recent times many Anglicans have judged their orders valid because they believed in "the excellence of the Christian priesthood." It notes that a few Catholics, "the majority of them not English," have wished to remove an obstacle in the way of the Anglicans' return to unity by having the bishop of Rome declare Anglican ordinations valid. The pope therefore agreed to reexamine the question and remove every doubt. Recalling that a special commission had been formed, the text goes on: "We finally directed the findings of these sessions, together with other documents," to be placed before the cardinals of the Holy Office. Following the introduction, part one gives the history of the question before the present pontificate. Part two studies the Ordinal, which it finds inadequate for the validity of ordination because of a defect of form, which is then interpreted as pointing to a defect of intention. Part three formulates Leo XIII's negative decision regarding the value of the ordinations given with this ritual. Part four is a pious exhortation to "those who sincerely desire and seek the blessings of Orders and Hierarchy: May they return to the one fold of Christ!"
There are three historical mistakes in the letter. First, it declares that there has been a constant practice of reordaining those Anglican ministers who have joined the Catholic Church and wished to function in the clergy; it then argues from the canonical principle, "Custom is the best interpreter of the law," that the question is already settled by custom. In reality, the instructions given by the popes to Cardinal Pole for the reconciliation of the Edwardian clergy stated a general principle and left the application to him. The practice of the cardinal included no systematic reordination. Second, as it speaks of the Gordon case the letter assumes that in 1704 Gordon was ordained according to the Edwardian ritual, whereas his ordination took place in Scotland, where the Ordinal of Edward VI was not legal. Third, it assumes, in part two, that an addition to the "form" that was made in 1662 was intended to remedy a perceived inadequacy of the Edwardian form in light of Catholic criticisms, whereas it was in fact made to respond to Puritan critics.
Drawing on the neo-scholastic theology that Leo XIII had strongly advocated in the encyclical aeterni patris (1879), the letter explains the Catholic doctrine on the essentials of a sacrament. It distinguishes between the ceremonial and the essential part, which includes "matter and form," and must "signify the grace that they cause." The "matter" of ordination is the imposition of hands, which needs to be supported by a "form" to make its meaning clear. The letter finds the Anglican form, "Receive the Holy Ghost … , " insufficient because it does not "signify definitely the order of the priesthood or its grace and power." The addition of 1662, it says, came too late, since Anglican orders derive historically from Matthew parker, the Elizabethan archbishop of Canterbury who was consecrated in 1559.
Defect of form. Pope Leo's judgment flows from his exclusive focus on the words of the form, where he expects the order or its essential purpose to be explicitly stated. This purpose is indeed mentioned in a general way by reference to the sacraments ("Receive the Holy Ghost; whose sins thou dost forgive they are forgiven, and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained; and be thou a faithful dispenser of the Word of God and his holy sacraments"), but there is no explicit mention of the eucharistic sacrifice. If, however, the form is understood in light of the preface to the Ordinal, its purpose is clear: It is intended to continue "the Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons," as "from the Apostles' times … they have been in Christ's Church." The reference to the apostolic tradition and its continuity implies the fullness of this tradition, even if the sacraments are not itemized and no allusion is made to the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist as it was understood in sixteenth-century theology. Apostolicae curae, however, takes no account of the preface.
The letter applies the same requirement of explicit mention to episcopal consecration: "Take the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Bishop in the Church of God [added in 1662], and remember that thou stir up the grace of God which is in thee by imposition of hands, for God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and love, and of soberness." Since references to the Episcopal Order are abundant in previous and subsequent prayers, the formula cannot be taken as meaning anything other than episcopal consecration, even without the addition of 1662. The apostolic letter, however, declares this context irrelevant because, in its estimation, "from them has been deliberately removed whatever sets forth the dignity and office of the priesthood in the Catholic rite." The preface that is included in the ritual of episcopal ordination "has been stripped of the words which denote the summum sacerdotium."
Defect of intention. Having established that the form of ordination in the Ordinal is defective, the pope argues from the axiom lex credendi lex supplicandi that the Anglican liturgy of ordination betrays a basic theology of Orders that is not compatible with the Catholic view of the sacrament. There is, on the contrary, a nativa Ordinalis indoles ac spiritus, a "natural character and spirit of the Ordinal," that is fundamentally opposed to the Catholic doctrine. The pope infers from this that the intention of the ordaining ministers is necessarily defective. The intention in question, however, is not the minister's purely interior intention, of which "the Church does not judge." It is the intention as externally expressed through the ritual, the intention of the Church which devised and chose the Ordinal, which the pope esteems to be contrary to the intention of the Catholic Church.
The exact scope of the defect of intention that the pope had in mind was the object of debate in the twentieth century among Catholic theologians who were persuaded of the invalidity of Anglican ordinations, yet disagreed as to the nature of the intention that would be required for validity. The general principle, explicitly cited in Apostolicae curae, is that the minister must intend "to do what the Church does." The faith and the doctrine of the minister is irrelevant, since, as Leo XIII points out, an unbeliever gives a valid baptism if he uses the proper matter and form, which express the intention to do what the Church does. The change of form in the Ordinal, however, denotes an intention to reject what the Church does, a point which Leo XIII has established by referring to the sacramental theology of the authors of the Ordinal and the ensuing nativa indoles of the text. One may then argue that the defect of intention lies in the theology of Thomas cranmer, the chief author of the Ordinal, or else in the ritual itself, or in the general intention of the Church of England or the Anglican Communion, which would be manifest in the imprecision of its doctrines and the tolerance of opposite interpretations (high-church, low-church, broad-church, etc.).
If, however, what Leo XIII had in mind was the intention of the minister to do what the Church does, this could be either the "external intention," identical with the exact meaning of the words used in the rite (a position defended in the sixteenth century by Ambrose Catharinus), or the "internal intention" by which the minister understands his own actions. Thus an Anglican minister will spontaneously intend either what the Church of Christ in general does or what the Church of England or the Anglican Communion or his own Province of the Anglican Communion does. It is evident that the pope demands that the Anglican minister intend what the Roman Catholic Church does in the sacrament. His decision is based on the assumption that the Ordinal includes a "positive exclusion" of the Catholic priesthood, and that those who used it endorsed this denial of the tradition regarding the sacrament of Orders, whatever their own personal conviction might have been as to the nature and purpose of the priesthood. In the circumstances of the ordination of Matthew Parker to the episcopate, however, when a growing conflict was brewing between Queen Elizabeth and the pope, the consecrating bishops could hardly have intended to do what the Roman Catholic Church did. Their intention was stated in the preface to the Ordinal: to continue in England the Orders that had always been in the Church since the Apostles. There is no reason to think that such an intention was based on the personal theology of Thomas Cranmer.
The Decision. Given the papal interpretation of the form of ordination in the Ordinal and of the intention objectively expressed by the rite and its context, along with the general impression that the Ordinal is of a piece with the Protestant doctrines that were enforced under Edward VI, the pope's decision was unavoidable: "We pronounce and declare that ordinations performed according to the Anglican rite have been and are completely null and void." While the negative conclusion was absolute, a degree of confusion was caused by the printed texts of Apostolicae curae. In the apostolic letter as it was printed by itself in Rome in 1896, the decision was called a caput disciplinae jure jam definitum, a matter of discipline already defined in law. The text that was printed in the Acta Leonis XIII in 1897, however, did not contain the word disciplinae, with the result that what was simply a matter of the discipline of the sacraments could now be considered a matter of unchangeable doctrine.
The last lines of the letter embody Leo's firm intention to give a final and definitive judgment that cannot be assailed at any time "on the ground of obreption, subreption, or defect in our intention, or any defect whatsoever." This was confirmed in a letter to the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Francis Richard, on Nov. 5, 1896: "It was our intention to deliver a final judgment and to settle the question completely…. All Catholics are bound to receive the decision with the utmost respect as being fixed, ratified, and irrevocable." The pope did not hint at infallibility, even though there were theologians who would have placed the question of the validity of Orders among possible secondary objects of infallibility.
The archbishops of Canterbury and of York, Frederick Temple and William Maclagan, published a Latin response, Saepius officio, addressed "to the whole body of the bishops of the Catholic Church," dated Feb. 19, 1897. The tone is more hurt than angry. Leo XIII is called "our venerable brother," "our revered brother in Christ," and the Roman Church "a Sister Church of Christ." The most telling point of their reply is that "Pope Leo demands a form unknown to previous bishops of Rome and an intention which is defective in the catechisms of the Oriental Church" (13).
Bibliography: Leonis XIII Acta, XVI, 258–275 (Latin text). r. w. franklin, ed., Anglican Orders: Essays on the Centenary of Apostolicae curae, 1896–1996 (New York 1996): English text of Apostolicae curae, 127–137; abridged English text of Saepius officio, 138–149.
[g. h. tavard]