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Faith/Spirituality Forum: Validity of priestly ordination

by Catherine Frakas 09 May 2001

Validity of priestly ordination QUESTION from Jane McL August 25, 2001 Dear Brother JOhn-Paul,
I am writing, sort of as a secretary, for a study group; so I hope I can phrase this properly. The study group is made up of all Catholics; some of whom are converts to the Faith.
The question of which churches have a valid sucession of bishops and priests came up. (a)Most of us believe that only the Catholic and the Orthodox churches can make this claim. (b)One of us believes that only the Catholic church has valid orders. (c) A few thought that various protestant churches have valid bishops and priests--notably mentioned were Lutheran, Anglican, and Episcopalian.
Can you comment and give us any enlightenment?
Blessings, Jane
ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius, OLSM on August 29, 2001 Dear Mrs. McL:
This is subject that confuses many people, and indeed it is confusing at times.
We first have to differentiate the difference between VALID and LICIT.
Valid means the issue under question has been correcly accomplished, done according to the proper means. Valid means that the issue under question is genuine.
Licit refers to whether the issues under question is LEGAL. Something can be genuine but not legal.
In this case of ordination, the question becomes whether the ordination was genuine, REAL. If the bishop who ordains the priest according to the proper rubrics and means is indeed a valid bishop himself who received ordination from a valid bishop, who received it from a valid bishop, etc, going all the back to St. Peter and the Apostles, then the ordination is genuine or real.
But, what if a valid bishop becomes a heretic or a schismatic and leaves the Catholic Church and starts his own private church? Are the priests and bishops he ordains VALID? Yes, because the schismatic bishop is valid. But is it licit? No, what the bishop is doing is illegal. He is using his VALID power as bishop for ILLEGAL purposes.
Think of it this way perhaps. Do you know how to drive a car? Do you have a license to drive a car? If you don't have a license does that mean you no longer know how to drive? Of course not. You are still a driver. The problem is you can't drive LEGALLY.
Or perhaps think of a doctor who is retired and no longer has a license to practice medicine. He is STILL a doctor and he can STILL validly perform medical treatment (that is, the medical treatment he gives is real medical treatment), but it is not LEGAL for him to give you the treatment. This doctor knows how to remove your appendix and he can validly perform (that is, properly perform) the surgery, but it is ILLEGAL for him to do the surgery because he is no longer licensed.
This is the same with a schismatic bishop. He knows how to ordain priests or bishops, and he can actually ordain them with the proper ceremonies and rubrics, but he no longer has a license from the Pope to do it legally, and thus he does it illegally.
Those schismatic groups which maintained valid sacraments, such as the Orthodox, Old Catholic, even the SSPX have kept their validity of orders even after they abandoned the Catholic Church. And, as long as they make sure that future priests and bishops are ordained by valid bishops, the may keep a validity of orders, but they are not licit (legal) Orders.
(By the way, as long as the Priest is validly ordained, he CAN confect the Mass as long as he does the Mass properly. Although such a Mass is valid, it is not licit.
But groups like the Lutherans did NOT maintain proper succession of Orders and thus lost any hope of having valid Orders or valid Sacraments. Same is true for the Anglicans. Their communion is just a cookie. It is not the Eucharist.
ALL Protestant groups fail in having valid Orders. The Anglicans, in general, also fail in having valid Orders, though some Anglican Priests are getting valid Orders through the back door by going to schismatic, but valid, bishops, for ordination.
Thus the only groups that have valid orders are the Catholics, the Orthodox, and the various schismatic groups where a rebellious bishop or bishops left the Catholic Church and started their own churches. But, while these splinter groups have valid orders, they are not licit (legal) in the eyes of the Catholic Church or of God.
I hope that cleared the mud at least a little.
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