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Development of the Law?

March 30, 2012

I’m a little late getting to the news of the declaration by the CDF regarding the excommunication of four Greek-Catholic Ukrainian priests.  I’m not quite sure what the actual circumstances are: at one point the declaration speaks of them as self-proclaimed bishops and later speaks about not recognising the validity of their episcopal ordinations.  So I am not sure if they were, in fact, ordained as bishops, or did they ordain each other, did they just declare themselves bishops, etc.  It all, of course, makes a world of canonical difference. Reading the decree what stuck out for me was the line in which the Congregation formally declares, that it does not recognise the validity of their episcopal ordinations, or of any and all ordinations that have derived, or will derive therefrom.`

That line immediately brought to mind a declaration by the Secretary of State regarding the dismissal from the clerical state of Emmanuel Milingo, former bishop, who ran into all sorts of trouble with the Unification Church (the Moonies). That declaration said that:

Essa non riconosce e non intende riconoscere nel futuro tali ordinazioni e tutte le ordinazioni da esse derivate e pertanto lo stato canonico dei presunti vescovi resta quello in cui si trovavano prima dell’ordinazione conferita dal su menzionato Signor Milingo. (It, i.e. the Church, does not recognise and does not intend to recognise in the future these ordinations, i.e. the episcopal ordinations performed by then-bishop Milingo which led to his excommunication, and all ordinations derived from it and therefore the canonical status of the presumed bishops remains that in which they found themselves before the ordination conferred by the abovementioned Mr. Milingo. — my tranlsation)

Did you catch the difference?  The Milingo declaration states that it does not recognise the ordinations, without explicitly mentioning their validity or not.  The recent CDF declaration states that it does not recognise the validity of the ordinations. That is different still from the episcopal ordinations performed by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (nota bene: I will not allow comments on this last issue, so don’t even bother trying: we are all praying fervently that the situation of the Society of St. Pius X will be resolved soon, bringing it into full unity with the Church.)  The validity of those ordinations was never called into question.  (Remember to keep in mind the distinction between validity and liceity: something can be valid but illegal.)

Now, presumably, the episcopal ordinations performed by Milingo were valid, but the Church, who is the supreme earthly judge of the sacraments, chooses not to recognise them.  That does not mean that it declares them to be illegal.  That would be a statement of the obvious — those ordinations, done without Papal mandate, were illegal. So what could it mean to ‘recognise’ an ordination?  It certainly seems to be a new distinction.

A clue, I think, is found in the next part of the decree, namely, that those men, illegally ordained by Milingo, remain as priests — the state in which they were in before the ‘ordination’.  I don’t believe that the Church is saying that the men are invalidly ordained, but I could be wrong.  I think the Church is saying that even though these men might be sacramentally/ontologically bishops, the Church does not recognise, and never will recognise, their status as bishops.  Which is to say that, should these men be reconciled with the Church, they will reconciled as priests, not as bishops.  That is different, of course, from the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X whose excommunications were lifted a few years back.  The Church recognises the validity of their ordinations, and recognises their status as bishops (even if they remain irregular.)

That idea of recognition seems to be a new canonical nuance.  Canonists always speak about validity and liceity but never, until now, about ‘recognisability’.

So what do we make of the latest excommunication?  It states that it does not ‘recognise the validity of their episcopal ordinations’ [dichiara di non riconoscere la validità delle loro ordinazioni episcopali ].

Hmmm, a new twist or simply the imperfection of language?  Is it declaring the invalidity of ordination, which could have been done by stating: “we declare these ordinations to be invalid”?  Or is stating that it does not ‘recognise’ the validity (of something which is ontologically valid).  So is this a case of “Milingo”? or of “Society of St. Pius X” in reverse?  Is it saying that it does not give any legal status to an otherwise valid ordination? or is it saying that, because of some sort of defect, the ordinations are invalid.  Without the concrete details of how these men became ‘bishops’, I can’t tell.

Because validity of the sacraments is so important, a declaration of invalidity is a very strong statement.  I suspect that this is what the decree is establishing.  These ‘ordinations’ are invalid. period. Has anyone found a press report with more details about how these men ‘became’ so-called bishops?

Apart from these canonical distinctions, the important thing is that the unity of the Church has been wounded.  We need to pray for their reconciliation.


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  1. Fr. Richard permalink


    Keeping in mind that the excommunicated are Greek-Catholics, the following thread should be helpful: Note especially the differences between the Augustinian and Cyprianic theories regarding Holy Orders.

    Fr. Richard, UGCC

    • a very interesting thread! thank you for that. I shall read through it carefully and learn much. It may indeed change some of my out-loud musings in this post.
      Fr. MacD

  2. Richard C. permalink

    Thanks for starting your interesting blog, Fr. MacDonald!

    For background on the Pidhirtsi case, you can see the informative Wikipedia article on the subject; I wrote the first draft of it in April 2010.

  3. Dan S. permalink


    You said:
    “That does not mean that it declares them to be illegal. That would be a statement of the obvious — those ordinations, done without Papal mandate, were illegal. So what could it mean to ‘recognise’ an ordination? It certainly seems to be a new distinction.”

    This is a bit off topic, but I think it is related. What, then, of Eastern Orthodox Bishops? These Bishops all exist without papal mandate. Are, therefore, all Eastern, Oriental, and Assyrian Orthodox Bishops illegal? What exactly is their status, according to Rome? I’ve never quite understood this.

    Thank you.

    • This is a little more complicated. Certainly the ordination of Orthodox bishops is valid — we recognise their Orders and sacraments, calling them sister Churches. The liceity is almost a non-question: the schism has been in existence for so long. They are not subject to the Eastern Code, so in that sense, liceity does not apply. They are validly ordained bishops outside of communion with the See of Peter.
      Fr. MacD

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