This post will likely be uninteresting to most people. Yet I write it for the sake of those to whom it is interesting. It seems convenient to place a public response detailing why I refuse to give what some have asked of me.
In short, a handful of bishops have asked me whether I’d confer conditional or sub conditione consecration, owing to the fact I possess Traditional Roman Catholic lines of apostolic succession (to my knowledge) not found in the Independent Sacramental Movement, among them the Sedevacantist lineage of José Ramon Lopez-Gaston and José Urbina Aznar.
Under the right circumstances, I would be willing to consider laying hands on a candidate for Orders. Under the right circumstances, I would be willing to ordain or consecrate sub-conditione (“sub-con”) on a case-by-case basis. However, it is not, will not, and should not be a common occurrence under any circumstances.
The Sacrament of Ordination
We’ll start by talking about what Ordination is and what it does to the person ordained. A lot of this is a summary of what I wrote in The Magic of Catholicism, so if you’ve read that book you can feel free to skip this section.
Protestant communities will say the ordination is effectively either the public endorsement of a calling God has for the individual minister, or a public confirmation of a community’s giving the minister formal permission to preach and act as its representative, or that it’s one of several “states of life allowed in the Scriptures” and “not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles.” This is a direct result of both the Protestant rejection of the sacramental system and the Protestant insistence on the priesthood of all believers (i.e. rejecting the distinction between the baptismal and ministerial priesthood).
Just as both premises are wrong, so also is their conclusion. Ordination is not merely formal permission to represent and/or be a leader in one’s community, or a public confirmation of God’s calling on the individual, or merely a “state of life allowed in the Scriptures.” Just as much as the other six Sacraments, Ordination is “a visible sign of an invisible grace” and contains its own inner reality.
The kernel of the Sacrament is found in two places, the Last Supper when Jesus told the Apostles to confect the Eucharist “In Memory of me” – seen as the moment the Sacrament was instituted – and Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 4:14:
“Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate.”
And 2 Timothy 1:6:
“For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.”
On the one hand there seems a contradiction as to who laid hands on Timothy, whether it was Paul himself or the presbytery (council of elders in his local city). One could reconcile these texts by supposing Paul was present and participated, or one could point to higher-critical scholarship which tells us that 1 Timothy was written after Paul and during a time where the Apostolic Church was seeking to gain some framework of order. This would seem likely especially since the term presbytery implies the priesthood was already in existence at the time the letter was written, when historically the priesthood as a separate order was instituted by the bishops toward the end of the first century as Christianity grew and the Apostles’ immediate successors needed someone to help provide sacramental nourishment for the people flocking to them.
The general scholarly consensus is that 2 Timothy was written by somebody who knew Paul during his last days, and scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor makes a case that 2 Timothy may even be an authentic Pauline Epistle. In either case, the scholarship indicates that 2 Timothy is closer to the real deal and is corroborated by the fact ordinations have historically been carried out by bishops ever since the first century, and not by councils of priests or elders.
Once we’ve worked through this potential roadblock, we see that both texts mention a “gift” bestowed through the “imposition (laying on) of hands.” The mention of a divine or spiritual gift indicates that ordination isn’t merely a “state of life” or a public confirmation of an already-existent calling, because then there’d be no gift given that the person didn’t already have. Hence the Sacrament of Order actually bestows something that’s not accounted for in Protestant explanations, meaning their explanations are debunked by the plain words of Scripture.
So what is this “gift?” As the Church as studied and striven to understand the contents of her faith over the centuries, she came to describe this gift as a sacramental character, which by the fourth century came to be understood as an indelible mark placed on the soul of the recipient, which cannot be removed or surrendered under any circumstances.
This understanding is a result of centuries of debate prior to that, not about Ordination but about Baptism (and by extension Confirmation). The issue was whether to accept the baptisms of those in heretical sects when they converted to Catholicism, or whether to re-baptize or readmit somebody who renounced their faith to avoid being beheaded or thrown to the lions by the Pagans. Without going into detail, I’ll simply state the mainstream practice won out: simply accepting the person’s original baptism so long as it was done with water and the invocation of all three Persons of the Trinity. In the wake of the Donatist controversy during the fourth century, the question arose as to whether the Church should re-ordain priests under similar circumstances. This is what led to the doctrine of the Sacramental Character.
The character finds its best early expression in St. Augustine in his Three Books Against Parmenianus, who likens it to the tattoo a soldier receives. If the soldier deserts but is granted mercy by his commander, re doesn’t receive a new tattoo, but “is the mark again re-impressed upon the man now freed and corrected, or is not the [original] mark more ably recognized and approved?”
While Augustine provided an explanation behind the Church’s practice of not repeating any Sacrament that imprints a character, later theologians made the case that such Sacraments, once validly received, cannot be received again without committing sacrilege.
Conditions of Ordination
When a layperson approaches me seeking ordination, I insist that he be of canonical age and have completed a program of education and formation; “reading for orders” is acceptable provided the candidate passes examination, and I’ve created one such training program that takes a minimum of two years. Even then, I require that he have a community of persons, a chaplaincy position, or some form of actual ministry; I do not have religious orders under my care (i.e. I deal with canonical exemptions by not admitting them into my household), and I see no reason to confer orders if the candidate is not “necessary and useful” in a position of ministry.
This is in accordance with Canon VI of the Council of Chalcedon, which established every cleric shall be ordained for a community:
“Absolutely no one is to be ordained – neither priest, nor deacon, nor any others in ecclesiastical orders – unless they be especially appointed to the church of a city or neighborhood, or a martyry or monastery. Those absolutely ordained (i.e. ordained without connection to a community), the Holy Synod has decreed such ordination to be invalid to the injury of him who conferred the ordination, and such ordained may nowhere be permitted to officiate.” (My translation)
Of course, the part about such an ordination being “invalid” is an example of the Church attempting to assume power over the substance of the Sacraments and therefore patently false, because even Peter doesn’t have authority over Jesus. That “the Church has no power over the Sacraments” is a teaching the Western Church holds sacrosanct, and a refrain we encounter frequently all the way up to Pope Pius XII. In fact this and the Vincentian Canon – “that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” – served as Catholicism’s limiting principles until their de-emphasis in the aftermath of Vatican II (i.e. the Modernist takeover).
This injunction is repeated in the XXIII Session of the Council of Trent:
Whereas no one ought to be ordained, who, in the judgment of his own bishop, is not useful or necessary for his churches, the holy Synod, adhering to the traces of the sixth canon of the council of Chalcedon, ordains, that no one shall for the future be ordained without being attached to that church, or pious place, for the need, or utility of which he is promoted; there to discharge his duties, and not wander about without any certain abode.
(Chapter xiv, Decree on Reformation. Emphasis mine.)
Now understand that this condition of “useful and necessary” comes on top of these other common-sense requirements:
“1. The reception of sacred Confirmation; 2. Moral conduct appropriate for the order being received; 3. Canonical age; 4. Requisite knowledge.”
(1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 974.1; my translation. The 1983 Code expands on this in Canons 1026-1032.)
So what this means is that if you don’t have the requisite knowledge, the appropriate moral conduct (and I have to know this over a period of YEARS), old enough, AND/OR I don’t find it necessary or useful to lay hands on you for service to a specific community, then I cannot in good conscience admit you to Sacred Ordination, nor will my conscience permit me to incardinate or extend canonical protection to those already ordained.
The above conditions apply to what’s called absolute ordination; that is, laying hands on a candidate who’s not previously been ordained. The most common request I receive is for conditional or sub conditione ordination or consecration, in which case the ceremony is performed over a person already ordained.
For background, sub conditione ordination is a common practice in what’s known as the Independent Sacramental Movement, a loose collection of clergy and organizations descended from bishops who split from the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches in various waves (and for various reasons) over the centuries between roughly 1700 (when the Jansenist movement was condemned) and 2007 (the excommunication of Emmanuel Milingo). The movement at present contains every theological and political orientation imaginable, from card-carrying Marxists to die-hard Traditionalists and everything in between. While there’s an ongoing debate over their reasons, we can safely agree that this is not the same world as the larger churches.
One distinctive of this movement is the tendency to use sub conditione to “collect” lineages, whether for theological reasons or personal interest (like how some people have an interest in collecting stamps or baseball cards). Here the process becomes known as “cross-consecration,” and one notable person associated with this practice is Hugh George de Willmott Newman, who around 1955 is said to have received every successional lineage known to be in the Independent Movement at that time. In some sections of the movement it’s just standard operating procedure.
Now here’s the thing: I am not a product of the Independent Sacramental Movement. I am a product of the Roman Catholic Church – and specifically Traditional Roman Catholicism – which has very specific limits on sub conditione ordination or consecration.
In the first place, if a person has already validly received the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, or Order, it’s a sacrilege to repeat them. Sub conditione exists, but is to be used only when there’s a positive doubt about whether the sacrament was validly received the first time around. In a situation where one’s validity is known, then the obligation is to leave well enough alone.
This means that if a person were to come before me with a positive doubt about the ordination they received (and be able to produce evidence of it) and meets all the requirements about knowledge, character, and so forth, then I’d be willing to confer a conditional ordination. I refuse to commit sacrilege, so if even one of those requirements is lacking, the whole operation’s a no-go.
Damn, This Is Getting Long!
This post is getting longer than I’d planned, so I’ll close up with a summary.
If somebody approaches me seeking ordination, be advised that I generally adhere to the Traditional Roman Catholic standards for vetting a candidate. I don’t insist on formal seminary so long as the level of knowledge is there, I’m willing to ordain a married man, and I’m undecided on women’s ordination (saving that for another post), but outside of that I’m strict to the point of looking for reasons not to ordain you.
It’s not because I don’t like you – in fact I’m willing to work with you if it’s something that can be worked out – but it’s that I take the priesthood extremely seriously and have seen first-hand the damage an unprepared candidate can do. Not on my watch.
The priesthood is about more than just saying Mass and doing baptisms, and the faithful deserve only the best from their ministers. If you come before me I want you to be the best and will help you become exactly that.
If you’re already ordained, however, I’ll happily help you with any self-improvement you feel you need and insofar as I’m able, but asking me to lay hands on you without good reason is going to be a non-starter.