London’s left leaning Catholic paper The Tablet reports here that Cardinal Cocopalmerio– described laughingly as “one of the Vatican’s top legal minds”– thinks there should be a re-think on Pope Leo XIII’s ruling that Anglican orders are “absolutely null and utterly void.”

In a recently published book, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, calls into question Pope Leo XIII’s 1896 papal bull that Anglican orders are “absolutely null and utterly void.”

“When someone is ordained in the Anglican Church and becomes a parish priest in a community, we cannot say that nothing has happened, that everything is ‘invalid’,” the cardinal says in volume of papers and discussions that took place in Rome as part of the “Malines Conversations,” an ecumenical forum.

“This about the life of a person and what he has given …these things are so very relevant!”

“One of the Vatican’s top legal minds” has this opinion. Just think of it!

As someone who has lived with this problem, and dealt with it for seven years working with the St Barnabas Society (a charity in England that assists covert clergy) you can be sure that I, and others like me, have thought it through pretty clearly.

In fact, although we are not among “the Vatican’s top legal minds” I think we were able to discern a few things. First of all, nobody suggests that “nothing happens” at an Anglican or Protestant ordination. If that were the case, why are men like me given dispensations to be ordained as Catholic priests although we are married? Is “the Vatican’s top legal mind” unaware of the Pastoral Provision? Is he unaware of the existence of the Anglican Ordinariates and Anglicanorum Coetibus? 

No one has suggested that “nothing happens”. What we do say is that it is up to the Anglicans and the Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Four Square Gospel of the Church of God, the Hallelujah Holiness Church and every other Protestant sect to tell us what they think happens at ordination. If they then say, “We have ordained validly Catholic priests” we correct them and say, “No. I’m sorry. In terms of the Catholic religion, you have not ordained Catholic priests and here’s why…”

Even though we are not some of “the Vatican’s top legal minds” we still have something called “common sense” in which we can well see that a Protestant minister may do much good in the world. We can acknowledge that there is some sort of transaction at ordination and that what takes place may be holy, good and part of our larger Christian heritage. That person, in fact, in their situation, may be more holy and Christ like than many Catholic priests. No argument there.

But this was not the question presented to Pope Leo XIII. He was asked to rule on the formal validity of Anglican orders. Are they validly ordained Catholic priests or not? He answered in the negative.

Soon after I entered the Catholic religion someone said, “But what about your Anglican orders? Are you saying that they were worthless and everything you did was pointless? What do you think you were?”

I answered, “Of course everything I did there was not worthless, and what was I? I honestly don’t know. But what I do know is that I was not a Catholic priest.”

The lack of common sense in these discussions is maddening. Simply ask a Protestant minister a straightforward question. “Pardon me sir. Are you a Catholic priest?” He will probably splutter with indignation and reply, “Of course not!” and he would be right.

Ask an Anglican priest or priestess whether, after the Eucharist, they have turned the bread and wine into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” You might find the odd Anglo Catholic who would profess to having done so, but the vast majority would deny such a truth and even most Anglo Catholics would take refuge in the squidgy term “Real Presence”. (Go here to read an article I have written about this.)

So when we say, “Anglican orders are absolutely null and utterly void” we’re simply affirming what  honest Anglicans also believe. Furthermore, the Anglicans who are honest about their Protestantism–the Evangelicals–have no problem with Pope Leo XIII’s ruling. They understand quite clearly that they are not Catholic priests and have no desire to be. They are far better partners in the ecumenical discussions than all the wishy washy liberal Anglicans and Catholics who pretend there is no problem.

Cardinal Cocopalmerio pushes the envelope further when he tries to load doctrinal significance into previous popes’ gifts to Archbishops of Canterbury

Cardinal Coccopalmerio also recalled Pope Paul VI’s meeting with then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in 1966. It was a famous meeting as the Pope gave the archbishop his episcopal ring and also, according to the cardinal, a chalice.

“What does it mean when Pope Paul VI gave a chalice to the Archbishop of Canterbury? If it was to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, it was meant to be done validly, no?” he explains. “This is stronger than the pectoral cross, because a chalice is used not just for drinking but for celebrating the Eucharist. With these gestures the Catholic Church already intuits, recognises a reality.”

What does this mean? Come now “great legal mind of the Vatican” it means that the pope gave the Archbishop a gift. It was a way of saying, “You are awful, but I like you.” That’s all. It was not a secret statement about the validity of Anglican orders.

Finally, The Tablet comments on Pope Francis’ own ecumenical stumbles

Pope Francis has also pushed ahead with a number of symbolically important ecumenical initiatives such as traveling to Sweden to mark the 500th anniversary of the reformation. The Pope has also called for Christian denominations to act as if they are already united and leave the theological disagreements to be resolved later.

The liberals on both sides of the Tiber clearly think the ecumenical work is over. They believe we are all already united in a World Council of Churches kind of way. This is, of course, a lie, and The Tablet goes on to point out one of the pebbles in the shoe–or perhaps one of the Frankenstein monsters in the vestry…

Yet the major difficulty for the Catholic Church in recognizing Anglican clergy would be the perception of validating women priests, something that was strongly ruled against by John Paul II.

I was going to say, “Add to that Anglican gay clergy and bishops” but realize we have already achieved a certain ecumenical unity on that issue…

This limp article concludes with “the Vatican’s great legal mind” offering further opinion.

Elsewhere in his contribution, Cardinal Coccopalmerio distinguishes between the “differences” and “divisions” between Christians: the latter, he stresses, should only be over fundamental things such as the divinity of Christ.

Is he aware of the major denials of the divinity of Christ by Anglican theologians and bishops as far back as the 1970s and 80s?

“Today, Churches are divided, or, rather, they say that they are divided because they lack common elements which, however, are not fundamental because they are not a matter of faith,” he explains.

“We say: ‘you don’t have this reality, which is a matter of faith, and therefore you are divided from me. But in fact it isn’t a matter of faith, you only pretend it to be.”

Is the Eucharist one of these things which is “not a matter of faith” which is not fundamental? It would seem so.

While a revision of Leo XIII’s position on Anglican orders would be a milestone, the cardinal also stresses the situation is currently somewhat “unclear.”

At least about this we can be agreed.

I was informed after writing this post that the news was first reported a rather long time ago. Sorry about that!