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Apostolicae Curae (Apostolic letter on Anglican Ordinations)
Author(s): Leo XIII
Dated: 13 Sept. 1896
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Apostolicae Curae

Apostolic letter of His Holiness by Divine Providence giving judgement on Anglican Ordinations, 13 September 1896

See the alternate translation below

1. The apostolic solicitude and charity with which, helped by His grace, We strive in the fulfillment of Our office to imitate ‘the great pastor of the sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ’, have been devoted in no small measure to the noble people of England. Our affection for them was shown particularly in the special Letter addressed by Us last year ‘to the English who seek the kingdom of Christ in the unity of faith’, wherein We recalled the memory of that nation’s ancient union with Holy Mother Church and appealed for earnest prayers to God that it might soon become happily reconciled to her. And again when, not long ago, We thought fit to treat more fully of the unity of the Church in an Encyclical Letter, We had England prominently in mind, hoping that Our words might bring not only encouragement to Catholics but also salutary guidance to those who are separated from Us. In that Letter We spoke emphatically and freely, urged thereto by no mere human considerations; and the fact that it received so warm a welcome from the English people shows a courtesy in that nation and a widespread concern among them for the salvation of souls to which We gladly pay tribute.

2. In the same spirit and with the same end in view We have resolved now to turn Our attention to an equally important matter which is connected with the aforesaid subject and with Our own hopes.

3. It has been the common theological opinion—and one confirmed on several occasions by the pronouncements of the Church and by her consistent practice—that the true sacrament of Order as Christ instituted it, and therewith the hierarchical succession, lapsed in England because, shortly after her secession from the centre of Christian unity, an entirely new rite for the conferring of sacred orders was publicly introduced in the reign of King Edward VI. In recent times, however, and especially during the past few years, a controversy has arisen whether sacred ordinations performed according to the Edwardine rite possess the nature and efficacy of a sacrament, the opinion in favour of their validity being held, with greater or less assurance, not only by a number of Anglican writers but also by a few Catholics, for the most part not English. The former have been moved by an awareness of the excellence of the Christian priesthood and a desire that their ministers should not be without its twofold power concerning the body of Christ, while the latter have been prompted by the wish to remove an obstacle in the way of the Anglicans’ return to unity. Both have appeared to share the conviction that it would be opportune, now that time has matured the study of this subject and some documentary evidence has been newly rescued from oblivion, to have the question re-examined under Our authority.

4. Having regard to these proposals and desires, and paying heed above all to the bidding of apostolic charity, We resolved for Our part that nothing ought to be left untried which might seem to contribute in any way to averting harm to souls or promoting their well-being. We therefore decided to accede to the request for a re-examination of the question, in order that a complete and thorough investigation might remove even the least shadow of doubt for the future.

5. We accordingly commissioned a number of persons of eminent learning and erudition, known to differ in their views on this question, each to draw up in writing a reasoned report of his opinion; they were then summoned to Our presence and directed to communicate their reports to one another and to make such further investigations and studies as the subject seemed to demand. We further arranged that they should be afforded every facility to re-examine all the known relevant documents in the Vatican archives, and to bring any new documents to light; also that they should have at their disposal all the acts relating to the subject which were in the keeping of the Supreme Council, as well as the hitherto published works of learned writers in favour of either view. Thus equipped, We required them to hold special sessions, twelve of which took place under the presidency of a Cardinal appointed by Ourself, every member being allowed full freedom of discussion. We finally directed the findings of these sessions, together with the other documents, to be placed before Our Venerable Brethren the Cardinals of the same Council; these were to study the matter, then discuss it in Our presence, and each pronounce his opinion.

6. Such was the procedure determined upon. But a due pre-requisite for a thorough-going investigation was first to make a most careful inquiry to discover how the matter stood already in regard to the enactments and established custom of the Apostolic See. It was of great importance to consider the origin and the force of that custom.

7. In the first place, therefore, consideration was given to the chief documents by which Our Predecessors, at the request of Queen Mary, made special provision for the reconciliation of the English Church. For this task Julius III appointed Cardinal Reginald Pole, an Englishman of outstanding merits, to be his Legate a latere; he sent him as ‘his angel of peace and love’, giving him extraordinary instructions or faculties and laying down directions for his guidance, all of which were subsequently ratified and explained by Paul IV.

8. Now in order to grasp the exact force of these documents it is a necessary presupposition to understand that they were not abstract treatises, but were intended to deal with concrete and specific conditions. The faculties granted by these Popes to the Apostolic Legate had reference precisely to England and to the state of religion existing in that country. Consequently the instructions given by them to the same Legate in answer to his request could not have had the scope of laying down what was essential for the validity of sacred ordinations in general; they had to be specifically directed to making provision for holy orders in England itself, as required by the conditions and circumstances described. That this is so is abundantly clear from the nature and tenor of the documents themselves; moreover it would plainly have been quite incongruous to send such a lesson to the Legate, a man whose learning had been conspicuous at the Council of Trent itself, as if he needed to be told what was essentially required for conferring the sacrament of Order.

9. If these considerations are borne in mind it is not difficult to see why, in the letter of Julius III to the Apostolic Legate dated 8 March 1554, distinct mention is made first of those who, ‘having been regularly and lawfully promoted’, were to be retained in their orders, and, secondly, of those who, ‘not having been promoted to sacred orders’, might ‘if found worthy and suitable, be promoted’ thereto. Two classes of persons really existing are plainly and definitely described: on the one hand those who had truly received sacred ordination, that is to say, who had received it either before Henry’s secession or, if after it and at the hands of ministers who were in error or schism, had nevertheless been ordained according to the customary Catholic rite; and on the other hand those who had been initiated according to the Edwardine Ordinal, and who wear able to ‘be promoted’ precisely because they had received an ordination which was invalid.

10. And that this was in fact the Pope’s meaning is very clearly confirmed by a letter of the Legate himself, dated 29 January 1555, in which he delegates his faculties to the Bishop of Norwich. It is also of great importance to consider what Julius III himself says in his letter on making free use of the Papal faculties even for the benefit of those upon whom an [episcopal] consecration had been conferred ‘irregularly(minus rite) and without the observance of the customary form of the Church’; an expression which undoubtedly indicated those who had been consecrated according to the Edwardine rite, since apart from this form and the Catholic form there was none other existing in England at the time.

11. Further evidence is provided by the delegation which the sovereigns Philip and Mary, on the advice of Cardinal Pole, sent to the Pope in Rome in the month of February 1555. The royal envoys, three ‘illustrious and most virtuous men’, among them Thomas Thirlby, Bishop of Ely, were charged to inform the Pope more fully concerning the state of religion in England, and in particular to ask for his ratification and confirmation of all that the Legate had done and caused to be done in the matter of reconciling that kingdom with the Church; for which purpose all the necessary written evidence, together with the relevant portions of the new Ordinal, was submitted to the Pope. Paul IV received the delegation with great ceremony and, the aforesaid documents having been ‘carefully discussed’ by certain Cardinals, ‘after mature deliberation’ he issued his Bull Praeclara carissimi on the 20th of June in the same year. Herein, after full approval and confirmation of Pole’s action, the following instruction is given concerning ordinations: ‘Those who have been promoted to ecclesiastical orders … by any other than a bishop regularly and rightly ordained shall be bound to receive the same orders anew.’

12. Who these bishops were that had not been ‘regularly and rightly ordained’ had already been made sufficiently clear by earlier documents and by the faculties which the Legate had used in the matter: they were those who had been promoted to the episcopate, as others had been promoted to other orders, ‘without the observance of the customary form of the Church’, or, as the Legate himself had written to the Bishop of Norwich, without the observance of ‘the Church’s form and intention’. And these were certainly none other than those who had been promoted according to the form of the new rite, to the examination of which the appointed Cardinals had devoted careful attention. Another pertinent passage in the same letter is to be noted, in which the Pope mentions among the persons needing the benefit of dispensation those who ‘had obtained both orders and ecclesiastical benefices nulliter and de facto’. To have obtained orders nulliter means to have obtained them by an act which is null and void, that is, invalidly, as both the etymology of the word and its ordinary use denote; indeed, this usage is confirmed here because the same term that is used in regard to orders is used likewise in regard to ‘ecclesiastical benefices’, which by certain provisions of the sacred canons were manifestly null because they had been conferred with a voiding defect.

13. Finally, a doubt having arisen as to who in fact might be said and held to be bishops ‘regularly and rightly ordained’ according to the mind of the Pope, the latter shortly afterwards, on the 30th of October, issued a further letter in the form of a Brief, in which he said: ‘Wishing to dispel this doubt and, by explaining more clearly what was Our mind and intention in Our aforesaid letter, to make opportune provision for the peace of conscience of those who had been promoted to orders during the schism, We declare that the bishops and archbishops who cannot be said to be “regularly and rightly ordained” are only those who were not ordained and consecrated in the form of the Church.’

14. This declaration must have related precisely to the existing circumstances in England, that is, to the Edwardine Ordinal; otherwise the Pope would certainly have done nothing by his further letter ‘to dispel doubt’ or ‘to make provision for peace of conscience’. Moreover, it was in this sense that the Legate understood the documents and instructions of the Apostolic See, and it was according to this sense that he duly and diligently observed them. The same is true also of Queen Mary and the others who cooperated with her in the work of restoring the Catholic religion and practice to its former condition.

15. The authorities which We have quoted of Julius III and Paul IV clearly show the origin of the rule, which has now been constantly observed for more than three centuries, of treating ordinations according to the Edwardine rite as null and void, a rule which is abundantly testified by many instances, even in this City, in which such ordinations have been repeated unconditionally according to the Catholic rite.

16. The observance of this customary rule is significant for the question before us. For if any doubt lingers as to the sense in which the aforesaid Papal documents are really to be understood, one may apply here the axiom ‘Custom is the best interpreter of law’. As it has always been the unvarying and accepted teaching of the Church that it is unlawful to repeat the sacrament of Order, it was accordingly quite impossible that the Apostolic See should tacitly allow or tolerate such a custom. And yet in this matter she has not only tolerated it but has approved and sanctioned it whenever a particular case of this sort has come up for judgement.

17. We quote two such cases, out of the many which from time to time have been submitted to the Supreme Council: that of a certain French Calvinist in the year 1684, and that of John Clement Gordon in the year 1704 both of them ordained according to the Edwardine ritual.

18. In the first case, verdicts (or ‘vota’) were delivered in writing by many of the consultors after a careful examination, the remainder unanimously concurring with them in giving a verdict ‘for the invalidity of the ordination’; it was only for considerations of expediency that the Cardinals decided upon the reply, ‘Judgement postponed’.

19. In the second case the proceedings of the former were presented again and reconsidered; in addition further vota were obtained from consultors, leading doctors of the Sorbonne and of Douai were asked their opinion, and no measure which far-sighted prudence could suggest was neglected to ensure a thoroughly accurate knowledge of the question.

20. It is to be observed also that, although both Gordon himself, whose case was in question, and some of the consultors had included among the grounds of nullity the account of Parker’s ordination as then alleged, this argument was in fact entirely set aside in arriving at a decision, as documents of incontestable authenticity show. No other reason was given weight than ‘defect of form and intention’. And in order that the judgement on this form might be as complete and certain as possible, care had been taken to have a copy of the Anglican Ordinal available, and a comparison was made between this and the forms of ordination taken from various Eastern and Western rites. Thereupon Clement XI, with the unanimous vote of the Cardinals concerned, issued the following decree on Thursday, 17 April 1704: ‘John Clement Gordon is to be ordained completely and unconditionally to all the orders, including sacred orders and especially the priesthood, and, inasmuch as he has not been confirmed, he is first to receive the sacrament of Confirmation. ‘

21. This decision, it is important to consider, was in no way influenced by the omission of ‘the tradition of the instruments’; for then the direction would have been given, as usual in such cases, to repeat the ordination conditionally. It is still more important to notice that this same decision of the Pope applies in general to all Anglican ordinations; for although it refers to a particular case, yet the ground upon which it was based was not particular. This ground was the ‘defect of form’, a defect from which all Anglican ordinations suffer equally; and therefore whenever similar cases have subsequently come up for judgement this decree of Clement XI has been quoted every time.

22. It thus becomes quite obvious that the controversy which has been recently revived had already long ago been settled by the judgement of the Apostolic See; and the fact that one or two Catholic writers should have ventured to treat it as an open question is perhaps due to lack of sufficient knowledge of the aforesaid documents.

23. But because, as We observed at the beginning, it is Our most earnest desire to be of service to men of good will, by using the greatest possible consideration and charity towards them, We directed that the Anglican Ordinal, which is the crux of the whole question, should once more be very carefully examined. Need for due signification in a sacramental rite

24. In the rite for the performance and administration of any sacrament a distinction is justly made between its ‘ceremonial’ and its ‘essential’ part, the latter being usually called its ‘matter and form’. Moreover it is well known that the sacraments of the New Law, being sensible signs which cause invisible grace, must both signify the grace which they cause and cause the grace which they signify. Now this signification, though it must be found in the essential rite as a whole, that is, in both matter and form together, belongs chiefly to the form; for the matter is by itself the indeterminate part, which becomes determinate through the form. This is especially apparent in the sacrament of Order, the matter of which, so far as it needs to be considered here, is the imposition of hands. This by itself does not signify anything definite, being used equally for the conferring of certain orders and for administering Confirmation.

25. Now the words which until recent times have been generally held by Anglicans to be the proper form of presbyteral ordination—’Receive the Holy Ghost’—certainly do not signify definitely the order of the priesthood (sacerdotium) or its grace and power, which is pre-eminently the power ‘to consecrate and offer the true body and blood of the Lord’ in that sacrifice which is no ‘mere commemoration of the sacrifice performed on the Cross’.

26. It is true that this form was subsequently amplified by the addition of the words ‘for the office and work of a priest’; but this rather proves that the Anglicans themselves had recognized that the first form had been defective and unsuitable. Even supposing, however, that this addition might have lent the form a legitimate signification, it was made too late when a century had already elapsed since the adoption of the Edwardine Ordinal and when, consequently, with the hierarchy now extinct, the power of ordaining no longer existed.

27. Some have latterly sought a help for their case in other prayers of the same Ordinal, but in vain. To say nothing of other reasons which show such prayers, occurring in the Anglican rite, to be inadequate for the purpose suggested, let this one argument serve for all: namely that these prayers have been deliberately stripped of everything which in the Catholic rite clearly sets forth the dignity and functions of the priesthood. It is impossible, therefore, for a form to be suitable or sufficient for a sacrament if it suppresses that which it ought distinctively to signify.

28. The case is the same with episcopal consecration. Not only was the formula ‘Take the Holy Ghost’ too late amplified by the words ‘for the office and work of a bishop’, but even these additional words, as We shall shortly declare, must be judged otherwise than in a Catholic rite. Nor is it of any use to appeal to the prayer of the preface ‘Almighty God …’, since from this in like manner the words which denote ‘the high priesthood’ have been eliminated.

29. It is not relevant here to inquire whether the episcopate is the complement of the priesthood or an order distinct from it; or whether the episcopate conferred per saltum, that is, upon one who is not a priest, is valid or not. It is quite certain in any event that the episcopate by Christ’s institution belongs most truly to the sacrament of Order and is the priesthood in the highest degree; it is what the holy Fathers and our own liturgical usage call ‘the high priesthood, the summit of the sacred ministry’. Therefore, since the sacrament of Order and the true priesthood of Christ has been totally expunged from the Anglican rite, and since accordingly the priesthood is in nowise conferred in the episcopal consecration of the same rite, it is equally impossible for the episcopate itself to be truly and properly conferred thereby; the more so because a chief function of the episcopate is that of ordaining ministers for the Holy Eucharist and for the sacrifice.

30. But for a just and adequate appraisal of the Anglican Ordinal it is above all important, besides considering what has been said about some of its parts, rightly to appreciate the circumstances in which it originated and was publicly instituted. It would take too long to set out a detailed account, nor is it necessary; the history of the period tells us clearly enough what were the sentiments of the authors of the Ordinal towards the Catholic Church, who were the heterodox associates whose help they invoked, to what end they directed their designs. They knew only too well the intimate bond which unites faith and worship, lex credendi and lex supplicandi; and so, under the pretext of restoring the order of the liturgy to its primitive form, they corrupted it in many respects to bring it into accord with the errors of the Innovators. As a result, not only is there in the whole Ordinal no clear mention of sacrifice, of consecration, of priesthood (sacerdotium), of the power to consecrate and offer sacrifice, but, as We have already indicated, every trace of these and similar things remaining in such prayers of the Catholic rite as were not completely rejected, was purposely removed and obliterated.

31. The native character and spirit of the Ordinal, as one may call it, is thus objectively evident. Moreover, incapable as it was of conferring valid orders by reason of its original defectiveness, and remaining as it did in that condition, there was no prospect that with the passage of time it would become capable of conferring them. It was in vain that from the time of Charles I some men attempted to admit some notion of sacrifice and priesthood, and that, later on, certain additions were made to the Ordinal; and equally vain is the contention of a relatively small party among the Anglicans, formed in more recent times, that the said Ordinal can be made to bear a sound and orthodox sense. These attempts, We say, were and are fruitless; for the reason, moreover, that even though some words in the Anglican Ordinal as it now stands may present the possibility of ambiguity, they cannot bear the same sense as they have in a Catholic rite. For, as we have seen, when once a new rite has been introduced denying or corrupting the sacrament of Order and repudiating any notion whatsoever of consecration and sacrifice, then the formula, ‘Receive the Holy Ghost’ (that is, the Spirit who is infused into the soul with the grace of the sacrament), is deprived of its force; nor have the words, ‘for the office and work of a priest’ or bishop’, etc., any longer their validity, being now mere names voided of the reality which Christ instituted.

32. The majority of Anglicans themselves, more accurate in their interpretation of the Ordinal, perceive the force of this argument and use it openly against those who are vainly attempting, by a new interpretation of the rite, to attach to the orders conferred thereby a value and efficacy which they do not possess. The same argument by itself is fatal also to the suggestion that the prayer ‘Almighty God, giver of all good things’, occurring towards the beginning of the ritual action, can do service as a legitimate form of Order; although, conceivably, it might be held to suffice in a Catholic rite which the Church had approved.

33. With this intrinsic defect of form, then, there was joined a defect of intention—of that intention which is likewise necessary for the existence of a sacrament. Concerning the mind or intention, inasmuch as it is in itself something interior, the Church does not pass judgement: but in so far as it is externally manifested, she is bound to judge of it. Now if, in order to effect and confer a sacrament, a person has seriously and correctly used the due matter and form, he is for that very reason presumed to have intended to do what the Church does. This principle is the basis of the doctrine that a sacrament is truly a sacrament even if it is conferred through the ministry of a heretic, or of one who is not himself baptized, provided the Catholic rite is used. But if, on the contrary, the rite is changed with the manifest purpose of introducing another rite which is not accepted by the Church, and of repudiating that which the Church does and which is something that by Christ’s institution belongs to the nature of the sacrament, then it is evident, not merely that the intention necessary for a sacrament is lacking, but rather that an intention is present which is adverse to and incompatible with the sacrament.

34. All these considerations We weighed long and carefully in Our own mind and in consultation with Our Venerable Brethren the Judges of the Supreme Council, whom We also summoned to a special meeting in Our presence on Thursday 16 July last, the feast of our Lady of Mount Carmel. They unanimously agreed that the case proposed had already been adjudicated with full cognizance by the Apostolic See, and that the renewed investigation had only served to bring into clearer light the justice and wisdom with which the Holy See had settled the whole question. We nevertheless thought it best to postpone a decision, taking time to reflect whether it was fitting and expedient to make a further declaration on the same subject by Our own authority, and also to pray humbly for a greater measure of divine guidance.

35. And now, taking into consideration the fact that this matter, although it had already been duly settled, has by certain persons for one reason or another been called again in question, and that not a few may in consequence be led into the dangerous error of thinking themselves to find the sacrament of Order and its fruits where in fact they do not exist, We have resolved in the Lord to pronounce Our judgement.

36. Therefore Adhering Entirely To The Decrees Of The Pontiffs Our Predecessors On This Subject, And Fully Ratifying And Renewing Them By Our Authority, On Our Own Initiative And With Certain Knowledge, We Pronounce And Declare That Ordinations Performed According To The Anglican Rite Have Been And Are Completely Null And Void.

37. It remains for Us, still in the name and spirit of ‘the great Pastor’ in which We approached the task of setting forth the most certain truth of this grave matter, now to address a word of exhortation to those who with sincerity of will desire and seek the blessings of Orders and Hierarchy.

38. Hitherto perhaps, while striving after the perfection of Christian virtue, while devoutly searching the Scriptures, while redoubling their fervent prayers, they have yet listened in doubt and perplexity to the promptings of Christ who has long been speaking within their hearts. Now they see clearly whither He is graciously calling and bidding them come. Let them return to His one fold, and they will obtain both the blessings they seek and further aids to salvation; the dispensing of which He has committed to the Church, as the perpetual guardian and promoter of His redemption among the nations. Then will they ‘draw waters with joy out of the fountains of the Saviour’, that is, out of His wondrous sacraments; whereby the souls of the faithful are truly forgiven their sins and restored to the friendship of God, nourished and strengthened with the bread of heaven, and provided in abundance with the most powerful aids to the attainment of eternal life. To those who truly thirst after these blessings may ‘the God of peace, the God of all consolation’, grant them in overflowing measure, according to the greatness of His bounty.

39. Our appeal and Our hopes are directed in a special way to those who hold the office of ministers of religion in their respective communities. Their position gives them preeminence in learning and authority, and they assuredly have at heart the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Let them, then, be among the first to heed God’s call and obey it with alacrity, thus giving a shining example to others. Great indeed will be the joy of Mother Church as she welcomes them, surrounding them with every mark of affection and solicitude, because of the difficulties which they have generously and courageously surmounted in order to return to her bosom. And how shall words describe the praise which such courage will earn for them in the assemblies of the faithful throughout the Catholic world, the hope and confidence it will give them before Christ’s judgement seat, the rewards that it will win for them in the kingdom of heaven! For Our part We shall continue by every means allowed to us to encourage their reconciliation with the Church, in which both individuals and whole communities, as We ardently hope, may find a model for their imitation. Meanwhile We beg and implore them all, through the bowels of the mercy of our God, to strive faithfully to follow in the open path of His truth and grace.

40. We Decree That The Present Letter And The Whole Of Its Contents Cannot At Any Time Be Attacked Or Impugned On The Ground Of Subreption, Obreption, Or Defect In Our Intention, Or Any Defect Whatsoever; But That It Shall Be Now And For Ever In The Future Valid And In Force, And That It Is To Be Inviolably Observed Both Judicially And Extra-judicially By All Persons Of Whatsoever Degree Or Pre-Eminence; And We Declare Null And Void Any Attempt To The Contrary Which May Be Made Wittingly Or Unwittingly Concerning The Same By Any Person, By Any Authority, Or Under Any Pretext Whatsoever, All Things To The Contrary Notwithstanding.

41. It is moreover Our intention that copies of this Letter, even printed copies, provided they are signed by a Notary and sealed by a person constituted in ecclesiastical dignity, shall be accorded the same faith as would be given to the expression of Our will by the showing of these presents.

Given at St. Peter’s, Rome, on the thirteenth day of September in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1896, the nineteenth of Our Pontificate.

Apostolicae Curae

His Holiness Pope Leo XIII
On the Nullity of Anglican Orders
September 15, 1896

An alternate translation, as found at

In Perpetual Remembrance.

We have dedicated to the welfare of the noble English nation no small portion of the Apostolic care and charity by which, helped by His grace, We endeavour to fulfil the office and follow in the footsteps of “the Great Pastor of the sheep,” Our Lord Jesus Christ. The letter which last year We sent to the English seeking the Kingdom of Christ in the unity of the faith is a special witness of Our good will towards England. In it We recalled the memory of the ancient union of the people with Mother Church, and We strove to hasten the day of a happy reconciliation by stirring up men’s hearts to offer diligent prayer to God. And, again, more recently, when it seemed good to Us to treat more fully the unity of the Church in a General Letter, England had not the last place in Our mind, in the hope that Our teaching might both strengthen Catholics and bring the saving light to those divided from us. It is pleasing to acknowledge the generous way in which Our zeal and plainness of speech, inspired by no mere human motives, have met the approval of the English people, and this testifies not less to their courtesy than to the solicitude of many for their eternal salvation.

2. With the same mind and intention, We have now determined to turn Our consideration to a matter of no less importance, which is closely connected with the same subject and with Our desires.

3. For an opinion already prevalent, confirmed more than once by the action and constant practice of the Church, maintained that when in England, shortly after it was rent from the centre of Christian Unity, a new rite for conferring Holy Orders was publicly introduced under Edward VI, the true Sacrament of Order as instituted by Christ lapsed, and with it the hierarchical succession. For some time, however, and in these last years especially, a controversy has sprung up as to whether the Sacred Orders conferred according to the Edwardine Ordinal possessed the nature and effect of a Sacrament, those in favour of the absolute validity, or of a doubtful validity, being not only certain Anglican writers, but some few Catholics, chiefly non-English. The consideration of the excellency of the Christian priesthood moved Anglican writers in this matter, desirous as they were that their own people should not lack the twofold power over the Body of Christ. Catholic writers were impelled by a wish to smooth the way for the return of Anglicans to holy unity. Both, indeed, thought that in view of studies brought up to the level of recent research, and of new documents rescued from oblivion, it was not inopportune to re-examine the question by Our authority.

4. And We, not disregarding such desires and opinions, above all, obeying the dictates of apostolic charity, have considered that nothing should be left untried that might in any way tend to preserve souls from injury or procure their advantage. It has, therefore, pleased Us to graciously permit the cause to be re-examined, so that, through the extreme care taken in the new examination, all doubt, or even shadow of doubt, should be removed for the future.

5. To this end We commissioned a certain number of men noted for their learning and ability, whose opinions in this matter were known to be divergent, to state the grounds of their judgement in writing. We then, having summoned them to Our person, directed them to interchange writings, and further to investigate and discuss all that was necessary for a full knowledge of the matter. We were careful, also, that they should be able to re-examine all documents bearing on this question which were known to exist in the Vatican archives, to search for new ones, and even to have at their disposal all acts relating to this subject which are preserved by the Holy Office or, as it is called, the Supreme Council and to consider whatever had up to this time been adduced by learned men on both sides. We ordered them, when prepared in this way, to meet together in special sessions. These to the number of twelve were held under the presidency of one of the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, appointed by Ourself, and all were invited to free discussion. Finally, We directed that the acts of these meetings, together with all other documents, should be submitted to Our venerable brethren, the Cardinals of the same Council, so that when all had studied the whole subject, and discussed it in Our presence, each might give his own opinion.

6. This order for discussing the matter having been determined upon, it was necessary, with a view to forming a true estimate of the real state of the question, to enter upon it, after careful inquiry as to how the matter stood in relation to the prescription and settled custom of the Apostolic See, the origin and force of which custom it was undoubtedly of great importance to determine.

7. For this reason, in the first place, the principal documents in which Our Predecessors, at the request of Queen Mary, exercised their special care for the reconciliation of the English Church were considered. Thus Julius III sent Cardinal Reginald Pole, an Englishman, and illustrious in many ways, to be his Legate a latere for the purpose, “as his angel of peace and love,” and gave him extraordinary and unusual mandates or faculties and directions for his guidance. These Paul IV confirmed and explained.

8. And here, to interpret rightly the force of these documents, it is necessary to lay it down as a fundamental principle that they were certainly not intended to deal with an abstract state of things, but with a specific and concrete issue. For since the faculties given by these Pontiffs to the Apostolic Legate had reference to England only, and to the state of religion therein, and since the rules of action were laid down by them at the request of the said Legate, they could not have been mere directions for determining the necessary conditions for the validity of ordinations in general. They must pertain directly to providing for Holy Orders in the said kingdom, as the recognised condition of the circumstances and times demanded. This, besides being clear from the nature and form of the said documents, is also obvious from the fact that it would have been altogether irrelevant thus to instruct the Legate one whose learning had been conspicuous in the Council of Trent as to the conditions necessary for the bestowal of the Sacrament of Order.

9. To all rightly estimating these matters it will not be difficult to understand why, in the Letters of Julius III, issued to the Apostolic Legate on 8 March 1554, there is a distinct mention, first of those who, “rightly and lawfully promoted,” might be maintained in their orders: and then of others who, “not promoted to Holy Orders” might “be promoted if they were found to be worthy and fitting subjects”. For it is clearly and definitely noted, as indeed was the case, that there were two classes of men; the first of those who had really received Holy Orders, either before the secession of Henry VIII, or, if after it, and by ministers infected by error and schism, still according to the accustomed Catholic rite; the second, those who were initiated according to the Edwardine Ordinal, who on that account could not be “promoted”, since they had received an ordination which was null.

10. And that the mind of the Pope was this, and nothing else, is clearly confirmed by the letter of the said Legate (29 January 1555), sub-delegating his faculties to the Bishop of Norwich. Moreover, what the letters of Julius III themselves say about freely using the Pontifical faculties, even on behalf of those who had received their consecration “irregularly (minus rite) and not according to the accustomed form of the Church,” is to be especially noted. By this expression those only could be meant who had been consecrated according to the Edwardine rite, since besides it and the Catholic form there was then no other in England.

11. This becomes even still clearer when we consider the Legation which, on the advice of Cardinal Pole, the Sovereign Princes, Philip and Mary, sent to the Pope in Rome in the month of February, 1555. The Royal Ambassadors three men “most illustrious and endowed with every virtue,” of whom one was Thomas Thirlby, Bishop of Ely were charged to inform the Pope more fully as to the religious condition of the country, and especially to beg that he would ratify and confirm what the Legate had been at pains to effect, and had succeeded in effecting, towards the reconciliation of the Kingdom with the Church. For this purpose, all the necessary written evidence and the pertinent parts of the new Ordinal were submitted to the Pope. The Legation having been splendidly received, and their evidence having been “diligently discussed,” by several of the Cardinals, “after mature deliberation,” Paul IV issued his Bull Praeclara Charissimi on June 20 of that same year. In this, whilst giving full force and approbation to what Pole had done, it is ordered in the matter of the Ordinations as follows:

Those who have been promoted to ecclesiastical Orders … by any one but a Bishop validly and lawfully ordained are bound to receive those Orders again.

12. But who those Bishops not “validly and lawfully ordained” were had been made sufficiently clear by the foregoing documents and the faculties used in the said matter by the Legate; those, namely, who have been promoted to the Episcopate, as others to other Orders, “not according to the accustomed form of the Church,” or, as the Legate himself wrote to the Bishop of Norwich, “the form and intention of the Church,” not having been observed. These were certainly those promoted according to the new form of rite, to the examination of which the Cardinals specially deputed had given their careful attention. Neither should the passage much to the point in the same Pontifical Letter be overlooked, where, together with others needing dispensation are enumerated those “who had obtained both Orders as well as benefices nulliter et de facto.” For to obtain orders nulliter means the same as by act null and void, that is invalid, as the very meaning of the word and as common parlance require. This is specially clear when the word is used in the same way about Orders as about “ecclesiastical benefices”. These, by the undoubted teaching of the sacred canons, were clearly null if given with any vitiating defect. 13 Moreover, when some doubted as to who, according to the mind of the Pontiff, could be called and considered bishops “validly and lawfully ordained,” the said Pope shortly after, on October 30, issued a further letter in the form of a Brief and said:

We, desiring to wholly remove such doubt, and to opportunely provide for the peace of conscience of those who during the aforementioned schism were promoted to Holy Orders, by clearly stating the meaning and intention which We had in Our said letters, declare that it is only those bishops and archbishops who were not ordained and consecrated in the form of the Church that can not be said to be duly and rightly ordained …

14. Unless this declaration had applied to the actual case in England, that is to say, to the Edwardine Ordinal, the Pope would certainly have done nothing by this last letter for the removal of doubt and the restoration of peace of conscience. Further, it was in this sense that the Legate understood the documents and commands of the Apostolic See, and duly and conscientiously obeyed them; and the same was done by Queen Mary and the rest who helped to restore Catholicism to its former state.

15. The authority of Julius III, and of Paul IV, which we have quoted, clearly shows the origin of that practice which has been observed without interruption for more than three centuries, that Ordinations conferred according to the Edwardine rite should be considered null and void. This practice is fully proved by the numerous cases of absolute re-ordination according to the Catholic rite even in Rome.

16. In the observance of this practice we have a proof directly affecting the matter in hand. For if by any chance doubt should remain as to the true sense in which these Pontifical documents are to be understood, the principle holds good that “Custom is the best interpreter of law.” Since in the Church it has ever been a constant and established rule that it is sacrilegious to repeat the Sacrament of Order, it never could have come to pass that the Apostolic See should have silently acquiesced in and tolerated such a custom. But not only did the Apostolic See tolerate this practice, but approved and sanctioned it as often as any particular case arose which called for its judgement in the matter.

17. We adduce two cases of this kind out of many which have from time to time been submitted to the Supreme Council of the Holy Office. The first was (in 1684) of a certain French Calvinist, and the other (in 1704) of John Clement Gordon, both of whom had received their orders according to the Edwardine ritual.

18. In the first case, after a searching investigation, the Consultors, not a few in number, gave in writing their answers or as they call it, their vota and the rest unanimously agreed with their conclusion, “for the invalidity of the Ordination,” and only on account of reasons of opportuneness did the Cardinals deem it well to answer with a dilata (viz., not to formulate the conclusion at the moment).

19. The same documents were called into use and considered again in the examination of the second case, and additional written statements of opinion were also obtained from Consultors, and the most eminent doctors of the Sorbonne and of Douai were likewise asked for their opinion. No safeguard which wisdom and prudence could suggest to ensure the thorough sifting of the question was neglected.

20. And here it is important to observe that, although Gordon himself, whose case it was, and some of the Consultors, had adduced amongst the reasons which went to prove the invalidity, the Ordination of Parker, according to their own ideas about it, in the delivery of the decision this reason was altogether set aside, as documents of incontestable authenticity prove. Nor, in pronouncing the decision, was weight given to any other reason than the “defect of form and intention”; and in order that the judgment concerning this form might be more certain and complete, precaution was taken that a copy of the Anglican Ordinal should be submitted to examination, and that with it should be collated the ordination forms gathered together from the various Eastern and Western rites. Then Clement XI himself, with the unanimous vote of the Cardinals concerned, on Thursday 17 April 1704, decreed:

John Clement Gordon shall be ordained from the beginning and unconditionally to all the orders, even Holy Orders, and chiefly of Priesthood, and in case he has not been confirmed, he shall first receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.

21. It is important to bear in mind that this judgement was in no wise determined by the omission of the tradition of instruments, for in such a case, according to the established custom, the direction would have been to repeat the ordination conditionally, and still more important is it to note that the judgement of the Pontiff applies universally to all Anglican ordinations, because, although it refers to a particular case, it is not based upon any reason special to that case, but upon the defect of form, which defect equally affects all these ordinations, so much so, that when similar cases subsequently came up for decision, the same decree of Clement XI was quoted as the norm.

22. Hence it must be clear to everyone that the controversy lately revived had already been definitely settled by the Apostolic See, and that it is to the insufficient knowledge of these documents that we must, perhaps, attribute the fact that any Catholic writer should have considered it still an open question.

23. But, as We stated at the beginning, there is nothing we so deeply and ardently desire as to be of help to men of good will by showing them the greatest consideration and charity. Wherefore, We ordered that the Anglican Ordinal, which is the essential point of the whole matter, should be once more most carefully examined.

24. In the examination of any rite for the effecting and administering of Sacraments, distinction is rightly made between the part which is ceremonial and that which is essential, the latter being usually called the “matter and form”. All know that the Sacraments of the New Law, as sensible and efficient signs of invisible grace, ought both to signify the grace which they effect, and effect the grace which they signify. Although the signification ought to be found in the whole essential rite, that is to say, in the “matter and form”, it still pertains chiefly to the “form”; since the “matter” is the part which is not determined by itself, but which is determined by the “form”. And this appears still more clearly in the Sacrament of Order, the “matter” of which, in so far as we have to consider it in this case, is the imposition of hands, which, indeed, by itself signifies nothing definite, and is equally used for several Orders and for Confirmation.

25. But the words which until recently were commonly held by Anglicans to constitute the proper form of priestly ordination namely, “Receive the Holy Ghost,” certainly do not in the least definitely express the sacred Order of Priesthood (sacerdotium) or its grace and power, which is chiefly the power “of consecrating and of offering the true Body and Blood of the Lord” (Council of Trent, Sess. XXIII, de Sacr. Ord., Canon 1) in that sacrifice which is no “mere commemoration of the sacrifice offered on the Cross” (Ibid, Sess. XXII, de Sacrif. Missae, Canon 3).

26. This form had, indeed, afterwards added to it the words “for the office and work of a priest,” etc; but this rather shows that the Anglicans themselves perceived that the first form was defective and inadequate. But even if this addition could give to the form its due signification, it was introduced too late, as a century had already elapsed since the adoption of the Edwardine Ordinal, for, as the Hierarchy had become extinct, there remained no power of ordaining.

27. In vain has help been recently sought for the plea of the validity of Anglican Orders from the other prayers of the same Ordinal. For, to put aside other reasons which show this to be insufficient for the purpose in the Anglican rite, let this argument suffice for all. From them has been deliberately removed whatever sets forth the dignity and office of the priesthood in the Catholic rite. That “form” consequently cannot be considered apt or sufficient for the Sacrament which omits what it ought essentially to signify.

28. The same holds good of episcopal consecration. For to the formula, “Receive the Holy Ghost”, not only were the words “for the office and work of a bishop”, etc. added at a later period, but even these, as We shall presently state, must be understood in a sense different to that which they bear in the Catholic rite. Nor is anything gained by quoting the prayer of the preface, “Almighty God”, since it, in like manner, has been stripped of the words which denote the summum sacerdotium.

29. It is not relevant to examine here whether the episcopate be a completion of the priesthood, or an order distinct from it; or whether, when bestowed, as they say per saltum, on one who is not a priest, it has or has not its effect. But the episcopate undoubtedly, by the institution of Christ, most truly belongs to the Sacrament of Order and constitutes the sacerdotium in the highest degree, namely, that which by the teaching of the Holy Fathers and our liturgical customs is called the Summum sacerdotium sacri ministerii summa. So it comes to pass that, as the Sacrament of Order and the true sacerdotium of Christ were utterly eliminated from the Anglican rite, and hence the sacerdotium is in no wise conferred truly and validly in the episcopal consecration of the same rite, for the like reason, therefore, the episcopate can in no wise be truly and validly conferred by it, and this the more so because among the first duties of the episcopate is that of ordaining ministers for the Holy Eucharist and sacrifice.

30. For the full and accurate understanding of the Anglican Ordinal, besides what We have noted as to some of its parts, there is nothing more pertinent than to consider carefully the circumstances under which it was composed and publicly authorised. It would be tedious to enter into details, nor is it necessary to do so, as the history of that time is sufficiently eloquent as to the animus of the authors of the Ordinal against the Catholic Church; as to the abettors whom they associated with themselves from the heterodox sects; and as to the end they had in view. Being fully cognisant of the necessary connection between faith and worship, between “the law of believing and the law of praying”, under a pretext of returning to the primitive form, they corrupted the Liturgical Order in many ways to suit the errors of the reformers. For this reason, in the whole Ordinal not only is there no clear mention of the sacrifice, of consecration, of the priesthood (sacerdotium), and of the power of consecrating and offering sacrifice but, as We have just stated, every trace of these things which had been in such prayers of the Catholic rite as they had not entirely rejected, was deliberately removed and struck out.

31. In this way, the native character or spirit as it is called of the Ordinal clearly manifests itself. Hence, if, vitiated in its origin, it was wholly insufficient to confer Orders, it was impossible that, in the course of time, it would become sufficient, since no change had taken place. In vain those who, from the time of Charles I, have attempted to hold some kind of sacrifice or of priesthood, have made additions to the Ordinal. In vain also has been the contention of that small section of the Anglican body formed in recent times that the said Ordinal can be understood and interpreted in a sound and orthodox sense. Such efforts, we affirm, have been, and are, made in vain, and for this reason, that any words in the Anglican Ordinal, as it now is, which lend themselves to ambiguity, cannot be taken in the same sense as they possess in the Catholic rite. For once a new rite has been initiated in which, as we have seen, the Sacrament of Order is adulterated or denied, and from which all idea of consecration and sacrifice has been rejected, the formula, “Receive the Holy Ghost”, no longer holds good, because the Spirit is infused into the soul with the grace of the Sacrament, and so the words “for the office and work of a priest or bishop”, and the like no longer hold good, but remain as words without the reality which Christ instituted.

32. Many of the more shrewd Anglican interpreters of the Ordinal have perceived the force of this argument, and they openly urge it against those who take the Ordinal in a new sense, and vainly attach to the Orders conferred thereby a value and efficacy which they do not possess. By this same argument is refuted the contention of those who think that the prayer, “Almighty God, giver of all good Things”, which is found at the beginning of the ritual action, might suffice as a legitimate “form” of Orders, even in the hypothesis that it might be held to be sufficient in a Catholic rite approved by the Church.

33. With this inherent defect of “form” is joined the defect of “intention” which is equally essential to the Sacrament. The Church does not judge about the mind and intention, in so far as it is something by its nature internal; but in so far as it is manifested externally she is bound to judge concerning it. A person who has correctly and seriously used the requisite matter and form to effect and confer a sacrament is presumed for that very reason to have intended to do (intendisse) what the Church does. On this principle rests the doctrine that a Sacrament is truly conferred by the ministry of one who is a heretic or unbaptized, provided the Catholic rite be employed. On the other hand, if the rite be changed, with the manifest intention of introducing another rite not approved by the Church and of rejecting what the Church does, and what, by the institution of Christ, belongs to the nature of the Sacrament, then it is clear that not only is the necessary intention wanting to the Sacrament, but that the intention is adverse to and destructive of the Sacrament.

34. All these matters have been long and carefully considered by Ourselves and by Our Venerable Brethren, the Judges of the Supreme Council, of whom it has pleased Us to call a special meeting upon the 16th day of July last, the solemnity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. They with one accord agreed that the question laid before them had been already adjudicated upon with full knowledge of the Apostolic See, and that this renewed discussion and examination of the issues had only served to bring out more clearly the wisdom and accuracy with which that decision had been made. Nevertheless, We deemed it well to postpone a decision in order to afford time both to consider whether it would be fitting or expedient that We should make a fresh authoritative declaration upon the matter, and to humbly pray for a fuller measure of divine guidance.

35. Then, considering that this matter, although already decided, had been by certain persons for whatever reason recalled into discussion, and that thence it might follow that a pernicious error would be fostered in the minds of many who might suppose that they possessed the Sacrament and effects of Orders, where these are nowise to be found, it seemed good to Us in the Lord to pronounce Our judgment.

36. Wherefore, strictly adhering, in this matter, to the decrees of the Pontiffs, Our Predecessors, and confirming them most fully, and, as it were, renewing them by Our authority, of Our own initiative and certain knowledge, We pronounce and declare that ordinations carried out according to the Anglican rite have been, and are, absolutely null and utterly void.

37. It remains for Us to say that, even as We have entered upon the elucidation of this grave question in the name and in the love of the Great Shepherd, in the same We appeal to those who desire and seek with a sincere heart the possession of a hierarchy and of Holy Orders.

38. Perhaps until now aiming at the greater perfection of Christian virtue, and searching more devoutly the divine Scriptures, and redoubling the fervour of their prayers, they have, nevertheless, hesitated in doubt and anxiety to follow the voice of Christ, which so long has interiorly admonished them. Now they see clearly whither He in His goodness invites them and wills them to come. In returning to His one only fold, they will obtain the blessings which they seek, and the consequent helps to salvation, of which He has made the Church the dispenser, and, as it were, the constant guardian and promoter of His redemption amongst the nations. Then, indeed, “They shall draw waters in joy from the fountains of the Saviour”, His wondrous Sacraments, whereby His faithful souls have their sins truly remitted, and are restored to the friendship of God, are nourished and strengthened by the heavenly Bread, and abound with the most powerful aids for their eternal salvation. May the God of peace, the God of all consolation, in His infinite tenderness, enrich and fill with all these blessings those who truly yearn for them.

39. We wish to direct our exhortation and our desires in a special way to those who are ministers of religion in their respective communities. They are men who from their very office take precedence in learning and authority, and who have at heart the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Let them be the first in joyfully submitting to the divine call and obey it, and furnish a glorious example to others. Assuredly, with an exceeding great joy, their Mother, the Church, will welcome them, and will cherish with all her love and care those whom the strength of their generous souls has, amidst many trials and difficulties, led back to her bosom. Nor could words express the recognition which this devoted courage will win for them from the assemblies of the brethren throughout the Catholic world, or what hope or confidence it will merit for them before Christ as their Judge, or what reward it will obtain from Him in the heavenly kingdom! And We, ourselves, in every lawful way, shall continue to promote their reconciliation with the Church in which individuals and masses, as We ardently desire, may find so much for their imitation. In the meantime, by the tender mercy of the Lord our God, We ask and beseech all to strive faithfully to follow in the path of divine grace and truth.

40. We decree that these letters and all things contained therein shall not be liable at any time to be impugned or objected to by reason of fault or any other defect whatsoever of subreption or obreption of Our intention, but are and shall be always valid and in force and shall be inviolably observed both juridically and otherwise, by all of whatsoever degree and preeminence, declaring null and void anything which, in these matters, may happen to be contrariwise attempted, whether wittingly or unwittingly, by any person whatsoever, by whatsoever authority or pretext, all things to the contrary notwithstanding.

41. We will that there shall be given to copies of these letters, even printed, provided that they be signed by a notary and sealed by a person constituted in ecclesiastical dignity, the same credence that would be given to the expression of Our will by the showing of these presents.

Given at Rome, at St. Peter’s, in the year of the Incarnation of Our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and ninety-six, on the Ides of September, in the nineteenth year of Our Pontificate.