Will the Real Apostolic Succession Please Stand Up? Recognition of Lineages

We’ve discussed Apostolic Succession in general, and we’ve seen how it came to exit even outside established churches, while still remaining valid.  As with most things in life, however, it’s more complicated than it seems at first.  That’s what I want to discuss in this post.

For the churches that claim Apostolic Succession, there are two interrelated but distinct issues regarding valid clerical lineage, the internal and external.  The internal issue is whether the men (and for some churches, women) whom the church in question chooses to serve as bishops (and secondarily, priests and deacons) are in fact validly ordained in that church’s lineage.  In the vast majority of cases, this is a non-issue.  All churches claiming Apostolic succession have some form or other of training and “quality control”* system for would-be clerics.  There are lengthy periods of training (usually in a seminary), advanced degree requirements, various types of screening and vetting, and so on.  Thus, an existing bishop doesn’t ordain just anyone as bishop, priest, or deacon.  Furthermore, a minimum of three bishops is required to ordain another bishop (usually, many more than three are involved) as an extra level of caution in making sure the lineage is valid.  That is, even if one or two of the bishops are somehow not in a legitimate line of succession, there are enough others involved that there is almost complete certainty of Apostolic Succession being passed on to the new bishop.

The external issue with Apostolic Succession is which purported Apostolic lineages in other churches a given church recognizes.  This is where it gets interesting, and sometimes complex.

In Catholic theology (I begin with it because the Catholic Church is the biggest and most well-known Apostolic church in the West, and because its theology is laid out with greater precision), the validity of orders is in principle easy to determine.  To recap what I’ve said before, it’s a matter of proper matter (what is done or used), proper form (what is said), proper minister (who does it), and proper intention (intending to do what the Church intends to do).  The first three of these are usually not an issue.  The matter of Holy Orders is the laying on of hands to someone to be ordained.  All apostolic churches agree that men can be legitimately ordained.  Some allow women to be ordained, too.  This, obviously, can call the matter of the sacrament into dispute, but we’ll return to that later.  There are various formulas for the prayer of consecration (form of the sacrament), but most are considered valid (we’ll come to the possible exception later).  All apostolic churches agree that only a bishop (minister of the sacrament) can ordain someone to Holy Orders.  Thus, the intention of the sacrament is where we have to look in order to determine, from the Catholic perspective, if a line of succession in another church is indeed validly Apostolic.

The general understanding of the intention of the sacrament of Holy Orders could be summed up as follows:

  1.  To perpetuate the lineage of authority descending from the Apostles.
  2.  To select men to celebrate the Sacraments.
  3.  In particular, to select men to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass.
  4.  To do all this for the sake of and in union with the universal Church.

If the matter, form, and minister of an ordination are correct, then all that remains to be determined is if the intention is correct, as well.

In sacramental theology in general, intention is usually a non-issue.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, the assumption is that the intention is implicit in the act itself.  If a priest didn’t intend to make the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, why would he bother to say Mass?  If a person performing a baptism didn’t intend to baptize someone, why would he do it?  In fact, not only is intent usually assumed, it is not necessary that it entail deep understanding or even an explicit formulation.  For example, a baptism performed by a rural minister of an independent church, if done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and using water, would be considered valid if the baptized person later became Catholic.  That the minister might not have had quite the same understanding of baptism as the Church does, or that he might not even have a deep understanding of theology at all, would not be an issue.  The basic intention is there, and that’s enough.

Likewise, a priest does not have to collect his mind and explicitly think “I intend during this Mass to make the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.”  The intention is habitual, as the priest says Mass frequently, and he doesn’t have to re-formulate said intention every single time.  This makes intuitive sense:  If too rigorous a standard were required, it might be that few if any sacraments were valid, since the mind of the holiest priest can wander and the Sacraments, being mysteries, can never be fully understood, anyway.

Thus, in the case of churches with which it was formerly united and which claim Apostolic Succession, the Catholic Church almost always recognizes their clerical lineages on the grounds that the validity was unquestioned at the beginning and that schism is not sufficient reason to call the intent of the Sacraments into question.  Thus, the Catholic Church fully recognizes the ordinations–and all other sacraments–of the Eastern Orthodox churches.  A priest who converts need not be re-ordained.  In fact, a Catholic with no access to a Catholic parish may receive the sacraments from an Orthodox priest, with his bishop’s permission.  The separation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches does not invalidate Apostolic Succession.

I don’t know as much about the details of the non-Chalcedonian churches, but I believe that the Catholic Church also recognizes the sacraments of the Oriental Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church of the East on the same grounds.  It definitely recognizes the orders of most Old Catholic churches, and of the Polish National Catholic Church.

Most Protestant churches are non-starters, since they don’t claim to maintain a historical line of Apostolic Succession in the first place.  Thus, though they were once part of the Catholic Church, they never have claimed to have valid orders, so there’s nothing for the Catholic Church to recognize in their case.

The Anglican communion of churches is the sticky point.  While unquestionably Protestant, the Anglican Church, unlike almost all other Protestant Churches, retained the hierarchical structure and clergy of the Catholic Church, and continued to claim Apostolic Succession.  Thus, by the 19th Century, when the relationship between the Catholic and Anglican Churches had improved, there was a legitimate question as to the validity of its orders, at least from the Catholic perspective.  In 1896, Pope Leo XIII settled the matter with his encyclical Apostolicae curae, which declared Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void”.

There was no question that the Anglican Church had once been part of the Catholic Church, just as with the Orthodox Church; and was no question that the lineage had been unbroken, with formerly Catholic bishops ordaining men as Anglican bishops.  The issue was with intention.  The theology of the Anglican Church ceased to view the Eucharist unambiguously as a sacrifice.  Thus, the intent to make men into priests, who, by definition, offered the Sacrifice of the Eucharist, was lacking in the early Anglican ordinals (the books containing the prayers for ordination).  Since this was the case, the line was broken; and once broken, it could not be restored, since the ordaining bishops were no longer themselves valid minsters.  Thus, the Catholic Church has not recognized Anglican orders as being valid.

There are two twists with this.  First, as a result of Apostolicae curae, some Anglican clerics later sought out ordination by Old Catholic or Orthodox bishops.  Since these are considered valid by the Catholic Church, and since their lines spread throughout the Anglican clergy through Anglican bishops so ordained, some have argued that the Anglican Church does indeed have a valid priesthood again.  Certainly, even some Catholic theologians have suggested that a re-assessment of Anglican orders may be necessary.  On the other hand, there is some concern that the Anglican understanding of the Sacrifice of the Eucharist may still be defective.  In any case, this has been a matter for ongoing study.

The second twist is the ordination of women in the churches of the Anglican Communion, beginning in the 1970’s and becoming increasingly widespread.  Women have been ordained not only to the priesthood but to the episcopate since 1989.  This, of course, throws a monkey wrench into the works since the Catholic Church does not ordain women††, and does not view the ordination of a woman to the priesthood or episcopacy (the diaconate is still unclear) as valid, even if performed by a bishop with valid orders.  As a result, Anglican orders are called into question for two reasons:  One, the ordination of women calls into question the theology, and thus the intent, of Anglican ordination; two, since many bishops are now women, ordinations which they perform on others would lack validity (these same issues apply to all other Apostolic churches that ordain women, e.g. some branches of the Old Catholic Communion–see above–some branches of the Liberal Catholic Church, and others).  Thus, for all these reasons, the upshot of the matter is that the Catholic Church does not recognize Anglican orders (including Episcopal orders in the United States) and is unlikely to do so any time soon.

As to wandering bishops and the small churches some of them serve, the Catholic Church has no consistent policy.  This is unsurprising, as such churches and lineages are extremely small, and generally don’t attract the attention of major churches.  The only time the issue comes up is in the case of occasional conversion or specific inquiry.  In these instances, the Church handles it on a case-by-case basis, studying the lineage of the orders in question and making a decision on that basis.  There are some lineages the Church has declared to be valid; some invalid; and with most, there has been no expressed opinion either way.

Having covered what Apostolic lineages are recognized by the Catholic Church, we will look at those recognized by the Anglican Communion.  It will be a short excursus:  The Anglican Communion recognizes the lineages of almost all Apostolic Churches:  Catholic, Orthodox, non-Chalcedonian, and so on.  The only exception is among some breakaway Anglican groups (so-called “continuing Anglicans”) which reject the ordination of women in the Anglican communion and elsewhere.  I’m not aware of any cases in which the Anglican Church or any of its branches has rendered an opinion on the lineages of wandering bishops or the tiny churches they serve; but my assumption is that, as with the Catholic Church, such a matter would be dealt with on a case-to-case basis.

Wandering bishop lineages and small Apostolic churches are all over the map as to what lineages they do or do not recognize.  In general, they tend to be fairly inclusive, recognizing the majority of lineages out there; but it depends on the individual church, or even the individual bishop.

I have to say that I am not that familiar with the theology and practice of the non-Chalcedonian churches.  Thus, I don’t know what the official views of the Oriental Orthodox churches or the Assyrian Church of the East are in regard to the orders of the Catholic, Orthodox, and other Apostolic Churches.  Therefore, the last church to look at is the Orthodox Church.  Since the theological approach of the non-Chalcedonian churches is generally more similar to that of the Orthodox Church than to that of the Catholic Church, I suspect that their stance towards the sacraments of other churches is similar to that of the Orthodox.

Though the Orthodox Church has never defined the requirements for sacramental validity quite as precisely as has the Catholic Church, there is still, in actual practice, the necessity for proper matter, form, minister, and intention.  In short, you have to do the right thing, say the right thing, have the right person do and say it, and have the correct motivation for doing it.  The subtle difference in Orthodox thought as opposed to Catholic thought is the way in which intention is understood, which has an effect on the concepts of validity and liceity.

Orthodox theology would tend to see the purpose of all the Sacraments as existing to sustain and build up the Church and maintain its unity throughout history.  Baptism makes new members of the Body of Christ; Chrismation (Confirmation) seals this; Matrimony and Holy Orders propagate the Church (in a physical and spiritual sense, respectively); Confession and Anointing of the Sick restore members of the Body of Christ to spiritual or physical health; and the Eucharist maintains the Church as the Body of Christ through reception of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.  In short, in the Orthodox perspective, the Sacraments have no function and don’t even make sense outside the context of the One Church.  Several things flow from this perspective.

First, it blurs the distinction between liceity and validity.  A sacrament celebrated by a renegade wandering bishop or in a breakaway sect is not contributing to the unity of the Church.  So much the opposite, it is perpetuating disunity.  In this sense, it’s not doing what the Church intends for it to do.  Thus, from the Orthodox perspective, it’s mistaken to say that in some abstract way a sacrament outside the purview of the Orthodox Church is somehow valid, though not licit.  Since such sacraments are not building up the unity of the Church, they cannot be considered to be doing what sacraments are by their nature supposed to do.  They are mere empty actions, devoid of effect.  To put it another way, all sacraments are, by their very nature, communal and oriented towards the unity that is the Church.  Any kind of sacramental freelancing violates this ipso facto and thus cannot be viewed as efficacious.

There is a further wrinkle, though, in the actual practice of the Orthodox Church in this matter, though.  This occurs when a person baptized in another Christian church converts to Orthodoxy, and also when a Catholic priest converts to Orthodoxy.  The practice in these cases varies according to the specific Orthodox jurisdiction.  Some jurisdictions re-baptize a lay convert and re-ordain a priest.  Thus, it is sometimes said that these jurisdictions do not “recognize” non-Orthodox baptism or ordination.  On the other hand, some jurisdictions merely chrismate††† a convert without rebaptism and vest a deacon, priest, or bishop without re-ordaining him.  It is sometimes said that these jurisdictions do recognize non-Orthodox sacraments.  The truth of the matter isn’t quite as simple as this, though.  Note the quotation from this site, my emphasis:

The Orthodox Church makes no judgment concerning the efficacy or validity of baptisms performed by other denominations, as regards people who are members of those respective denominations. The precise status and significance of such baptisms has not been revealed by God to the Orthodox Church; however, as a practical matter, they are treated as non-efficacious unless and until the person joins the Orthodox Church. Persons coming to Orthodoxy from other denominations, and who had been baptized with water in the name of the Trinity, are generally not received by holy baptism, but instead through holy chrismation, after which their former baptism is deemed to be efficacious. The final decision as to the mode of reception to be used in each case rests with the bishop.

Thus, it’s not quite the case that Orthodox jurisdictions that receive converts by Chrismation (or clerics by vesting) view the previous baptism (or ordination) as “valid” in the way the Catholic Church does.  Rather, the reception into the Orthodox Church and the Chrismation (or vesting) of the convert is deemed, through the Church’s gracious action of economy to retroactively validate a baptism or ordination.  To speak of a non-Orthodox baptism or ordination as valid in and of itself, without reference to the Orthodox Church, would be incoherent in terms of Orthodox theology.  Certainly, Catholic or Protestant Confirmation is not deemed efficacious, since even in jurisdictions that don’t practice rebaptism, there is always Chrismation of converts, even if they come from churches that practice Confirmation.

Thus, in summary, it could be said that the Orthodox Church does not in general “recognize” non-Orthodox orders in the sense in which that term is used in by the Western churches.  The question that arises then is what would happen in the case of a reunion of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  Could all existing Catholic lineages be collectively recognized by the Orthodox Church in a single act of economy?  Or not?  I have no idea what the answer to this is; and tragically, it probably is irrelevant, since the chances of corporate reunion of the Eastern and Western churches is vanishingly small.  If it does happen, we’ll see how it’s handled then; but don’t hold your breath.

All that remain to consider, then, are the various schismatic and independent lineages.  As discussed above, the Catholic churches takes such lineages and individuals within them on a case-by-case basis, as does (I think) the Anglican Communion.  By the logic just discussed, the Orthodox Church (and most likely the non-Chalcedonian churches) would most likely not recognize them.  As to whether or not individual converts from such churches to Orthodoxy would be received by baptism (or ordination), this would be a question for individual bishops, and would likely vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  The independent lineages and churches themselves are all over the map on whom they would recognize.  From my experience online and with some people in Independent lineages whom I personally know, my general perspective is that most Independent bishops and churches would recognize the mainstream Catholic and Orthodox lineages, and vary as to others.

One final note:  In recent years, the Catholic Church has given some indication that, with regard to Holy Orders, at least, it is moving in a direction similar to that of the Orthodox Church.  In the past, the Catholic Church might excommunicate a schismatic bishop, such as Marcel Lefebvre, without denying the validity of the orders of the bishops ordained by him and the clerics further ordained by them for the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).  By contrast, an Orthodox bishop attempting such an action would be immediately considered to have lost his authority to ordain, and no clerics ordained by him would be recognized.  Thomas Kocik, in his excellent book Apostolic Succession in Ecumenical Context, suggests, in the final chapter, that in the future the Catholic Church adopt a similar policy, recognizing only the “first generation” of schismatics:

Applying this recommendation to our own day, the Catholic Church could follow Augustine in affirming the retention of the apostolic succession (and thus a valid sacramental ministry) in those episcopal Churches which have broken communion with the Roman Church, while following Cyprian in denying that this process is infinitely extensible.  In effect, “the Augustinian principle operates for one sacramental generation, after which the Cyprianic principle takes over.”  The Catholic Church would recognize the orders of schismatic bishops who had been ordained as Catholics, but would not recognize the ordinations conferred by them in schism.  A bishop who breaks communion with the Catholic Church, who establishes another communio and hence another Church, would lose the ability to pass on the apostolic priesthood (p. 126).

Farther along he makes explicit the connection with sacramental intention:

Does a bishop who ordains illicitly, with the intention of setting up a “parallel” Church apart from the episcopal college, really intend to continue the true apostolic succession? (pp. 131-132)

This book was published in 1996.  In the current century, the case of Zambian Archbishop Emmanual Milingo became a cause célèbre.  After having risen to popularity as a folk exorcist and faith healer in the 1980’s, Milingo was recalled to Rome and forbidden to continue these practices.  In 2001, he married, in a wedding celebrated by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church.  After pleas from the Vatican, Milingo left his wife and returned to Rome for awhile, then returned to his wife.  In 2006 he ordained a number of bishops without Rome’s permission, and started a movement of married priests.  Eventually, in 2009, the Vatican announced that Milingo had been reduced to the lay state, and:

Today’s Vatican statement indicated that the Catholic church does “not recognize these ordinations, nor does she intend to recognize them, or any subsequent ordinations based on them,” and that “the canonical status of the supposed bishops remains as it was.”   A Vatican spokesperson said this morning that since Milingo has been removed from the clerical state, any future ordinations he performs will be not only illict, but invalid. (my emphasis; see here)

This is exactly in line with the suggestions outlined by Kocik.  This makes sense–in the modern age, with easy travel and communication, it is much easier for episcopal lineages to proliferate like kudzu.  In light of this fact, the Church may have decided there is a need to clamp down and move in a more Orthodox direction by refusing to recognize such lineages, on the grounds that they lack the proper intention of church unity.  As time progresses, we will see if this becomes the new default policy of the Church.  In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how the opposed forces of ecumenism and schism play out over time with the hopes for church unity pitted against the tendency towards schism that seems to bubble below the surface of so many denominations.  Interesting times ahead!

Part of the series Church, “Churches, and Church History


*Of course, as has become evident in scandal after scandal, in the Catholic Church and to a lesser degree in others, “quality control” has, alas, been all too lax all too often.  In this context, I’m referring strictly to the validity of the sacrament of Holy Orders, and not to the worthiness of the recipients thereof.

†Some Scandinavian branches of the Lutheran Church claim to have valid Apostolic Succession, but I don’t know many details.  As far as I know, the Catholic Church does not recognize these, but once more, I don’t know.  It is claimed in some Methodist quarters that John Wesley was secretly ordained by an Orthodox bishop, and that the Methodist Church thus contains a valid succession.  I don’t know how widely accepted this claim is, or what standards of proof, if any, exist for it.  Suffice it to say that the Church does not recognize Methodist orders.

††I don’t intend to tread into the morass of competing arguments for and against the ordination of women. I may discuss my personal opinion on that, which is a bit complex, at some future date. Here all I want to do is examine the issue of the validity of orders from the point of view of the various churches involved, without taking sides on the correctness of that viewpoint at the present time.

†††”Chrismation” is the Orthodox term for what in Western churches is known as “Confirmation”. This illustrates another difference between the Western and Eastern practice. In the West, Confirmation is considered to be one of the sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination) that is like a “seal” and which thus cannot be repeated. In the Orthodox Church, Christmation can be conferred more than once. In jurisdictions that don’t rebaptize, it is used to receive converts; but if an Orthodox leaves the Church and then returns to it, she, too, is chrismated, though she would have already been chrismated as an infant, immediately after Baptism. Whether Chrismation is considered to be a repeated sacrament in this case, or whether the second “Chrismation” is to be a sacramental instead, is a matter of some debate.

Posted on 03/04/2019, in Catholicism, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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