Absolute Ordinations Revisited

It was in April 2012 that I wrote Absolute ordinations. I write again on this subject since someone has typed a question into my search box asking what “absolute ordinations” are. It’s a very good question.

The short answer is that the Church ordains men for canonical titles, usually a parish benefice. Current Roman Catholic canon law allows for two possibilities of incardination: in a diocese or as a fully committed member of a religious order or society of apostolic life with or without vows. There were / are also prebendary benefices for the decrepit old canons hobbling their way from the Bedern to their stall each day for the cathedral Offices. Everything was determined by how the priest would be financially supported. If this is the case, a priest who earns his own living doesn’t really need to be incardinated. Or is there a theological and spiritual dimension to being under a bishop’s jurisdiction?

What I call an “absolute” ordination is ordination conferred on someone who does not have a canonical title, who will simply do his own “thing”. One is a priest relative to the Church one is going to serve. There is a third possibility, that of a priest who has fallen “between the cracks” and believes he should be in a proper canonical situation, but which is made impossible by the concrete circumstances.

Only a couple of days ago a priest wrote to me about his concern to be in communion with a Church body, but was aware that actually doing something about it would disturb the delicate balance of the independent community he serves. In April 2012, a full year before I joined the ACC, I was also in a very uncertain position as a priest. I didn’t have the same issue as the priest who has written to me, but I was very concerned about the priesthood being exercised outside proper ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The gift of the priesthood is not the priest’s property but something with which he is entrusted by the Church for the sake of the Church.

As they said to us in seminary “You’re not a priest for yourself but for the Church“.

In one of the comments in the older posting I wrote, I found the words addressed to me:

I think you are in a particularly curious position, given your past history. You will never be truly a vagante priest.

Re-reading my old posts and the comment, I saw that I misunderstand the extremely fine nuance that was meant. It was not a question of whether or not I was under the jurisdiction of a bishop, belonging to an institutional Church or on my own as an “independent”, but whether I had the characteristics of many men who find themselves in the ranks of vagantes clergy. I have the credentials of a “professional” priest as opposed to the amateurism one finds here and there. I think that’s what he meant.

I wrote to the priest and included this paragraph:

I found with the Continuing Anglicans a smallness, intimacy and “personal” dimension that I could assimilate and accept, thus being in a communion beyond myself. It has given me a certain amount of “credibility” in France, since it is an “ethnical” option and not an act of dissidence. When I say credibility, it isn’t the kind that makes people want me to be their pastor, but which makes them consider me in other terms than those of the various “sulphurous” prelates here and there in France.

At least that was the reflection of my wife, who is aware of some of the less credible independent clergy in France. Naturally, the positive reasons for joining a Church must outweigh the negative reasons – though both may exist in someone’s motivation.

When I joined the ACC, our diocesan Board of Ministry asked me what use I would be to them. I answered that in material and pastoral terms, I would be of no use to them. All I could do was to go on with the Mass and the Office, blogging and corresponding with those who think I can be of help to them. Our Church has thus proven itself open to the notion of gratuitous contemplative life, interiority and the intercessory dimension of the priesthood.

There is another part of my response to the priest, which I think I can reproduce without betraying the said priest’s identity.

Things may be different for you – a choice between carrying on in your present situation with people counting on you to be their priest, adhering to traditional Roman Catholic standards of liturgy, doctrine and moral teaching – or joining a church body with its own interests and lack of care for your concerns, and risking destroying your community. There is clearly no solution for you with the official RC Church, the SSPX or “mainstream” sedevacantists. Many invent “foundational myths” for themselves. You are too honest and realistic to play such games! I hardly imagine you in the Episcopal Church with a much worse and deeper crisis than in the RC Church. The PNCC has its own problems, and my Orthodox Blow-Out Department is evidence of the difficulties faced by converts to Orthodoxy who want to be western rite. I found my place in Continuing Anglicanism, since there was no way I could return to the Church of England and I was never really acquired to the Papalist mind-set. For you to resort to Anglicanism would mean a lot of back-pedalling from the ecclesiology you have taught over the years and with its roots in your erstwhile Anglo-Papalism. Had you been on this path 7-8 years ago, the TAC with its pro-Ordinariate stance would have provided that justification. Where else to go without destroying your community and finding yourself having to find a new “job” and security in life?

I went on to suggest that the way ahead would be by way of “ecumenical dialogue”, by clergy and laity of the community in question and the institutional Church they are considering approaching getting to know each other on an informal basis. Only then would it be appropriate to go into formalities and official recognition of the priest’s ministry.

If that priest is unable to find a bishop or an ecclesiastical jurisdiction, what then? He has to exercise his conscience and discern whether “independent” ministry is justifiable in the absence of church bodies and bishops being prepared to receive and regularise a priest and community from outside. This is where the notions of “absolute” priesthood (without being relative to episcopal jurisdiction) and canonical regularity become blurred. What is to be gained by a priest giving up and telling his people to attend church where they are aliens or stay at home on Sunday mornings? Would any positive good come out of it?

We are living in a time when the old “mainstream” solutions are now impossible, or the requirement of jumping through hoops is so onerous to the priest in question as to be unreasonable. There will always be priests with tender consciences and a desire to do the right thing, and there will always be the charlatans and exploiters by whose example all are tarred with the same brush.

I am thankful to my Bishop for having taken me into his diocese and given me a canonical basis to my priestly life. I don’t lord it over others who go through the same agony as a went through in the spring of 2012, just as soon as my former TAC Ordinary was “out”. These are hard questions that bishops can only deal with case by case. It is particularly hard for a bishop to trust newcomers when he has already burned his fingers. Cardinal Siri of the Archdiocese of Genoa once said something to the effect of “I would rather be wrong twenty times than unjust one single time”.

It is a constant principle of law that “it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death“. A judge’s mind has to be clear and certain in ascertaining the guilt of each accused person brought before him, and not allow himself to pronounce guilt by association with the truly guilty, or on the basis of anything other than irrefutable evidence. This is also a part of a bishop’s responsibility when deciding which priests need a “break” and which ones should be told to be lay members of the Church.

My only advice to priests in this situation is to be humble, simple and completely sincere, open and totally honest. Make what the Jesuits used to call a “manifestation of conscience” so that no surprises remain. I think that such a disposition can go far with our Pastors who are concerned for the good of our Church and the flocks entrusted to their charge.

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