By Fr. Mark Perkins
Why did Pope Leo XIII declare Anglican orders "absolutely null and utterly void" in his 1896 papal bull Apostolicae curae? And why has Rome affirmed this declaration ever since (most explicitly through statements approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1998 and 2009)?
We have, of course, the rationale given by the sources themselves, Leo XIII and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As a matter of charity -- not to mention good historical and theological practice -- one should begin with the assumption that statements people give are honestly intended. It is uncharitable to engage in groundless or unnecessary speculation about motives and purposes. However, when the given explanations are manifestly insufficient or incomplete, or when concrete evidence exists to contradict a given statement, one may be pressed to ask what unstated purposes might be in play.
Such is the case with the Roman condemnations of Anglican orders. In both 1896 and more recently, the Roman declarations are so grossly incomplete, so blatantly selective in their uses of evidence, and so insufficient in theological argumentation that one must cast about for explanations other than those given.
In case you missed it, the latest episode of The Sacramentalists features a long interview with Bp. Chad Jones, Coadjutor of DEUS (APA), addressing doubts about the validity of Anglican orders. Bp. Jones provides an excellent overview of the historical and theological debates, especially those of Leo XIII's Apostolicae curae. Though never anything but charitable, he points out the numerous pieces of contrary evidence entirely elided by the papal bull -- whenever, that is, a piece of evidence exists to contradict the bull's declaration, it is simply ignored. Further, the evidence cited in Apostolicae curae is consistently cast in the manner most likely to undermine Anglican claims, often distorted beyond recognition.
Bp. Jones and Frs. Myles Hixson and Wesley Walker naturally focus on the contested Reformation-Era context, and the interview makes clear that the validity of orders was in no way impeded during that disputed and convoluted period. The Anglican Church, in all of its incarnations, is open to many valid critiques -- but Catholic doubts about the validity of orders simply are not among them.
What goes unmentioned in the interview -- and rightly so, because it is, frankly, superfluous -- is the intertwining of Anglican and Old Catholic lines of apostolic succession. This 20th-century development does not in any way impact the historical questions about the Reformation Era. It does, however, suggest that even if the claims of Apostolicae curae were not baseless when originally leveled (which they were), they are now quite irrelevant. Rome's reaffirmation of Apostolicae curae in 1998 and 2009, despite and with indifference to these 20th-century developments, exposes the historical and theological bankruptcy of the Roman position. Such condemnations are either remarkably ignorant or deliberately duplicitous; I'm not quite sure which is the more charitable interpretation.
What seems sufficiently clear, though, is that the original Roman condemnation was primarily driven by political questions of power and (misguided) pragmatic assumptions about the impact of the papal condemnation. John Jay Hughes' Absolutely Null and Utterly Void, a fascinating study of the historical background and emergence of Apostolicae curae, reveals the lack of integrity exhibited throughout the events antecedent to the bull. (Hughes, formerly an Anglican priest, was at the time of writing a convert to Rome serving as a lay theologian in Germany. He was subsequently conditionally ordained a Roman Catholic priest. Surprisingly, given that it covers a rather dry and academic subject, Absolutely Null and Utterly Void reads like a detective novel, with all of its fascinating twists and turns. The book can be read with pleasure by anyone interested in the underlying questions, and indeed by anyone who appreciates the careful use of historical argumentation.) In 1896 (as in 2009), various Roman Catholics believed that condemning Anglican orders would prompt Anglo-Catholics to convert in droves. Absolutely nothing of the sort happened after 1896, as Hughes notes. In 2019 it is now safe to say that the initial -- noteworthy but ultimately minor -- movement of Anglican parishes into the Ordinariate has subsided into a trickle.
Rome condemned Anglican orders on the basis of shoddy theological and historical reasoning and in the hope of enticing Anglicans to cross the Tiber. Instead, to shift metaphors, all they have done is poison the well of ecumenical relations, and they have given this Anglican, at least, more cause to doubt the integrity and veracity of Roman statements and claims.