Catholic Priests Who Become Non-Catholic Ministers

Q: Recently, a Catholic priest in our area left to become “pastor” of an Episcopal church.  If we assume for a moment that the Episcopal liturgy contains the valid words of Institution, and if we assume that valid matter was used, does he confect the Eucharist? –Patrick

A: Sad to say, the case cited by Patrick is far from unique. In certain countries with a sizeable Episcopal community, one far too frequently encounters priests who have left the Catholic Church to join the Church of England—often in order to get married while still remaining in some sort of ministry—and who now function as clergy in an Episcopal/Anglican parish. Since these men were, presumably, validly ordained as Catholic priests, does the Catholic Church regard their non-Catholic ministry as valid?

Before delving into this matter more deeply, it’s important to note that the Code of Canon Law says absolutely nothing about this phenomenon. That, in itself, is not surprising—because by its very nature, canon law presumes good faith on the part of those whom it binds. Put differently, the Church assumes that its members want to be good Catholics, and to do what the Church teaches is correct and just. The whole purpose of canon law is to clarify matters, so as to enable us Catholics to make right choices and to act correctly. Consequently it does not directly address the legal implications of the actions of renegade Catholics who freely and knowingly walk away from the Church, other than to make it clear that they shouldn’t do this!

That being said, however, it’s possible to draw some conclusions about what may metaphysically be happening in the scenario that Patrick describes, with a logical application of certain theological and canonical principles which we Catholics already possess. Let’s take a closer look.

First of all, as was already discussed in greater detail in “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” once a man is ordained a priest, his priesthood never becomes invalid (c. 290). This is a legal concept firmly rooted in Catholic theology: the Church teaches that ordination—like the sacraments of baptism and confirmation—confers a permanent ontological change on the person receiving it. That’s why these sacraments cannot be received more than once (c. 845.1; cf. also Catechism of the Catholic Church 1582).

It logically follows that once a man is validly ordained a priest, he will always be a priest, and (as per canon 1338.2) no one on earth can take that away from him! Nevertheless, it is canonically possible for an ordained Catholic priest to return to the lay state: Rome can, if it so decides, release a priest from the duties and obligations which are connected with being a cleric (see “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” for more on this). Sometimes this is done because the priest requests it; other times, as discussed in “What Does it Mean to Defrock a Priest?” it is imposed as a penalty—but regardless of who initiates it, the end-results are canonically the same.

One result, which is relevant to Patrick’s question, can be found in canon 292, which notes that a priest who has lost the clerical state is prohibited from exercising holy orders. This means, of course, that he must not administer the sacraments, is not permitted to preach, and may not bless anyone/anything. The canon observes that there is only one exception to this rule: in accord with canon 976, a laicized priest is able—and in fact is obliged—to hear the confession of a person in danger of death who requests it. This is because the spiritual well-being of a dying person “trumps” the laicized priest’s obligation to refrain from priestly ministry. (See “Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?” for more on this scenario.) But apart from this uncommon situation, a priest who has returned to the lay state is not permitted to celebrate the sacraments. Once he has been laicized he is, in short, supposed to be living his life as any other member of the laity.

This is true of any Catholic priest who has lawfully returned to the lay state by following the proper procedures. But what if a priest simply “goes AWOL,” without requesting laicization at all? Does this make any difference in his ability to confect the Eucharist? Not at all. If a priest simply walks away from the Church, it’s a safe bet that he’s been suspended by his bishop or religious superior—in which case he is undoubtedly under orders not to celebrate the sacraments. (See “Father Pavone’s ‘Suspension’: Priests for Life, Part II” for a detailed discussion of the penalty of suspension.)

So what happens if a Catholic priest who has been laicized, or has abandoned his ministry and been suspended as a result, wants to celebrate Mass? If he does so, he is clearly defying the ecclesiastical superiors who have forbidden him to exercise his ministry; but are the bread and wine truly consecrated into the Body and Blood of Christ?

The answer is yes, absolutely! As was discussed in “Can a Bishop Forbid a Priest to Say Mass?” a priest—even a laicized one—always retains the power to celebrate the Eucharist validly, even if he has been ordered by his superior not to do so. Provided that he says the proper words of consecration, with the right intention, over the correct matter (i.e., unleavened bread and wine, cc. 924 and 926), the consecration really does take place. It is valid, because it actually happens; but it is illicit, because a priest who has lost the clerical state is not supposed to do it. (See “Are They Really Catholic? Part II” for more on the distinction between validity and liceity.)

Armed with all of this information, let’s see what we can logically conclude about the priest whom Patrick mentions. If a Catholic priest becomes a cleric in the Church of England, and celebrates their liturgy, what happens?

For starters, we should note that the Catholic Church does not officially recognize that the communion service celebrated in Episcopal/Anglican churches is a valid Mass. But the Church reaches this conclusion, not because it has determined that the wording of their eucharistic consecration is invalid, but because Rome considers Episcopal/Anglican holy orders to be invalid. In 1896, after appointing a commission of experts to study the issue, Pope Leo XIII declared in Apostolicae Curae that “ordinations carried out according to the Anglican rite have been, and are, absolutely null and utterly void.” The Pope and his commission found that when “a new rite for conferring Holy Orders was publicly introduced under Edward VI [reigned 1547-1553], the true Sacrament of Order as instituted by Christ lapsed, and with it the hierarchical succession.” Consequently, the Catholic Church’s official position is that the communion service celebrated in Episcopal/Anglican parish churches cannot be valid—because the clergy who celebrate it are not true priests.

(Subsequently, some Catholic scholars sporadically continued to wrestle with the issue of the validity of Anglican holy orders, suggesting that because Leo XIII’s statement was not made ex cathedra, it could theoretically be overturned. But in 1998, this discussion was effectively quashed with the promulgation of John Paul II’s encyclical Ad Tuendam Fidem, and the accompanying “Doctrinal Commentary” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The CDF commentary, signed by the then-Prefect, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, stated that “the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in the Apostolic Letter Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations” is one of “those truths connected to revelation by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively” (11). Consequently, the Church today holds that this matter is closed, and so among Catholics it is not up for debate.)

Since the Catholic Church holds that clerics of the Church of England aren’t true priests, there has been no need for any official discussion of the validity of the wording of the consecration in their communion service. After all, since it isn’t being celebrated by a validly ordained priest anyway, the matter should be moot, right? But as we can see from Patrick’s question, situations can and do arise which make one wonder. And at this point, the Catholic Church’s official statements stop.

It’s easy enough to see why the Church would prefer not to address this theological question publicly! There is sufficient potential for confusion in the minds of ordinary Catholics already regarding the communion service celebrated by the Church of England, as the wording of the eucharistic prayer in general is amazingly similar to that found in the Catholic Mass. Externally, many aspects of the Episcopal/Anglican liturgy seem to be “just like ours,” so a confused Catholic might wrongly conclude that it makes no difference whether he attends a Catholic or an Episcopal parish on Sunday mornings. Theologically, however, it makes a tremendous difference, as the Church of England broke away from Rome centuries ago and (in the eyes of the Catholic Church) has no valid clergy, thus rendering it unable to validly celebrate any sacrament that requires holy orders. In short, an Episcopal communion service is not a Catholic Mass!

This is why under normal circumstances, the Catholic Church does not permit a member of the Church of England to receive the Eucharist if he attends a Catholic Mass (cf. c. 844, and see “Can a Non-Catholic Receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church?” for more on this). Similarly, a Catholic is not permitted under canon law to attend an Episcopal or Anglican liturgy and receive communion there.

Nevertheless, if a validly ordained Catholic priest becomes an Episcopalian, and ministers as the pastor of an Episcopal parish church, uttering words of consecration over unleavened bread and wine which turn out to be valid, and if he truly has the intention to consecrate them into the Body and Blood of Christ… it certainly would seem to be a valid consecration. We are entering dangerous territory here, because if this is the case, by distributing Holy Communion to Episcopalians, this Catholic-priest-turned-Episcopal-minister is giving the Body of Christ to many people who may not even believe in the Real Presence! The notion of transubstantiation, a term which has long been used to describe the Catholic understanding of the Eucharistic consecration, is accepted by some Episcopalians/Anglicans but does not reflect their official teaching on the subject.

What can we take away from all of this? In short, as Catholics, we already know that it is a tragedy when any Catholic priest leaves the Church and become a minister of a non-Catholic faith. But a priest always retains his ability to confect the Eucharist, even if he has left the priesthood and has been forbidden by his superiors to do so—so if all of the necessary conditions are met, he may actually be consecrating the Body and Blood of Christ for non-Catholics who don’t believe in the Real Presence. The Catholic Church has not officially drawn any conclusions about what is happening, in the metaphysical sense, at these non-Catholic services conducted by ex-Catholic clergy, and that is just as well! Catholics are not permitted to receive the sacraments from ministers of the Church of England, no matter who they are; and attendance at an Episcopal/Anglican Sunday service does not fulfill a Catholic’s duty to attend Sunday Mass—because it isn’t a Mass. Even if the service is celebrated by an ex-Catholic priest, we are required to avoid it. Let’s commend the whole sad situation to God, and pray for those priests who have left the Church.

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