More on Ecumenism, Valid Sacraments, and Cardinal Sarah

Pray Tell reader Max Johnson wrote in to call my attention to the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue in the United States of 2005, which is relevant to the dismissive comments on Anglican Eucharist and ministry made by Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

Cardinal Sarah recently said this:

[I]n the Anglican church is it not actually the Eucharist because there is no priesthood. … [A] Catholic cannot receive communion in the Anglican church, because there is no Communion; there is only bread. The bread is not consecrated, because the priest is not a priest.

The cardinal seems unaware of what the Second Vatican Council taught in this area, the new possibilities opened up by the Council, and the advances made since the Council by individual theologians and in official dialogues. His comments, both tone and content, are questionable.

The Dialogue, quoting Vatican II and Cardinal Ratzinger, spoke about the Lutheran Church, but its framework can fruitfully be applied also to the Anglican Church. The Dialogue said this at no. 107:

Catholic judgment on the authenticity of Lutheran ministry need not be of an all-or-nothing nature. The Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II distinguished between relationships of full ecclesiastical communion and those of imperfect communion to reflect the varying degrees of differences with the Catholic Church [Unitatis Redintegratio 3]. The communion of these separated communities with the Catholic Church is real, even though it is imperfect. Furthermore, the decree positively affirmed:

“Our separated brothers and sisters also celebrate many sacred actions of the Christian religion. These most certainly can truly engender a life of grace in ways that vary according to the condition of each church or community, and must be held capable of giving access to that communion in which is salvation.” [UR 3]

Commenting on this point, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote in 1993 to Bavarian Lutheran bishop Johannes Hanselmann:

“I count among the most important results of the ecumenical dialogues the insight that the issue of the eucharist cannot be narrowed to the problem of ‘validity.’ Even a theology oriented to the concept of succession, such as that which holds in the Catholic and in the Orthodox church, need not in any way deny the salvation-granting presence of the Lord [Heilschaffende Gegenwart des Herrn] in a Lutheran [evangelische] Lord’s Supper.” [Briefwechsel von Landesbischof Johannes Hanselmann und Joseph Kardinal Ratzinger über das Communio-Schreiben der Römischen Glaubenskongregation, Una Sancta, 48 (1993): 348.]

If the actions of Lutheran pastors can be described by Catholics as “sacred actions” that “can truly engender a life of grace,” if communities served by such ministers give “access to that communion in which is salvation,” and if at a eucharist at which a Lutheran pastor presides is to be found “the salvation-granting presence of the Lord,” then Lutheran churches cannot be said simply to lack the ministry given to the church by Christ and the Spirit. In acknowledging the imperfect koinonia between our communities and the access to grace through the ministries of these communities, we also acknowledge a real although imperfect koinonia between our ministries.

Between Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) and Sarah a great gap is fixed. Ratzinger is aware of what Vatican II made possible and what new paths have opened up since Vatican II, even as he is quite cautious. One gets the impression that Sarah is not well-informed in this area, perhaps even is unaware of ecumenical discussions and dialogues. He comes across as one of those whom Pope Francis scolds for being fundamentalist.

But Ratzinger/Benedict? Good for him and his observations on “the salvation-granting presence of the Lord” at Lutheran eucharist.




  1. Thanks for this further reflection. I think this is Ratzinger at his best, even if he was being characteristically very cautious. I do find it strange how apostolic succession (which parts of the Anglican Communion and some Lutheran churches have worked hard to maintain / restore) is sometimes reduced by some Catholic commentators to batten-passing, when we know that it is actually about the passing on of the faith we have received from the apostles. When I reflect on how little in the gospel accounts the apostles actually understand Jesus during his ministry, it seems both unsurprising and shocking that we can be so reluctant to be surprised by God’s revelation of his presence where, and in ways, that we don’t expect to find Him.

  2. The point of then Cardinal Ratzinger’s comments is surely that God’s grace is not limited to the sacraments, and thus Protestant rites which are not valid sacraments can still be channels of God’s grace. As of course can a great many things, of which Protestant Communion is not a particularly privileged example.

    The emphasizing of such positive things we can say, rather than the more negative, is not however any more sophisticated. Both are merely aspects of the matters at hand, similarly limited in scope.

    1. @Scott Smith:
      Scott, you missed the point. Ratzinger is not merely saying “grace is all over, even outside of sacraments, so of course there’s grace even where there’s no sacrament and no valid ministry.” The whole point of the quotation is to not say there is no sacrament and no valid ministry, but to propose that we talk about “real but imperfect” realities. This is how you start to talk when you realize that the category of “valid” isn’t really suitable to the purpose. What Ratzinger says about Lutheran eucharist is a particularly privileged example, for it only about Lutheran eucharist that he directed his comments. He did not direct them to anything whatsoever in the world, secular or what have you. He’s talking about Lutheran eucharist.

      I disagree with your assessment of what is more sophisticated. Cardinal Sarah’s comments are exceedingly unsophisticated in my opinion.


  3. Oh my…here we go again. I appreciate the thoughtful reflections on the Lutheran-Roman Catholic eucharistic conversations but I wanted to respond from a different angle then the comments above. First, as an Anglican priest I know I am a) a priest, and b) presiding at the eucharist, that’s not the question. The concern is teeaching in an ecumenical setting with undergraduates and the pastoral ramifications of these cyclical scoldings, and how confusing this is from their perspective. I have a large number of Roman Catholic students in a freshmen (first semester) class this year. When they read this, they ask. I tow the line and say nothing out of line. But they watch and listen and observe carefully, and the lack of charity, of grace, and above all, the plethora of conflicts has the opposite effect then Cardinal Sarah might hope for. It does not bring them back into line, it makes them throw their hands up in the air and say ‘the hell with it’. Among theologians we can have these conversations endlessly without the same results, I am concerned about those trying to figure out what it means to be a Christian away from home for the first time. I want for them to affirm their Roman Catholic affiliation, or their Anglican affiliation, or their United Church affiliation – and be at home in those manifestations of the body of Christ. All religious systems have these divisions, but here and now I am concerned as I watch these squabbles drive 18-22 year olds away from the church, the one holy catholic and apostolic church throughout the world.

    1. @Lizette Larson-Miller:
      Thank you for this. I have to confess that I find it difficult even to engage with Cardinal Sarah’s comments–they are so alien to my experience as an Episcopalian and as a Christian educator that I can’t quite believe we are speaking about the same religion. At the most I can summon a sort of distant curiosity. How can I possibly tell the teens I serve, in good faith, that they should take this sort of thing seriously?

  4. “[A] Catholic cannot receive communion in the Anglican church, because there is no Communion; there is only bread.”

    Ok. But there’s no law against receiving bread is there?

  5. All this talk of valid orders really refers to whether one church will accept the orders of someone coming from another church for ministry in their church. Rome has the right to deny Anglican orders, but Anglicans don’t have to give a hang about that decision. Mutatis mutandis, many Orthodox deny grace in Roman orders, but I doubt if any Roman clergy lose sleep over that assertion.

    I notice that most Anglicans do not have to wait too long to be reordained when they make the leap. Even Pius X fast tracked the ordinations of those involved in the Caldey conversions. Their orders may be defective, but it seems that Rome admires their preparation for after all the Anglican clergy once had the reputation as the stupor mundi.

  6. I’ve often wondered about the validity of Anglican sacraments. For most of the 19th and 20th Century certain areas (like the upper Midwestern United States) were very “High Church” – professing Catholic beliefs and traditional practices. I’ve heard it was common to include bishops from traditions recognized as valid by Rome in ordination ceremonies too, so as to alleviate any fears of invalid orders. This doesn’t even include the fact that there are Episcopal priests who converted from Catholicism (the one who baptized me was one such priest – and while I have no memory of that parish, I’ve been told it was basically the Tridentine Mass in English).

    1. @Jack Wayne:

      There was indeed a tradition of having other communities, believed to have valid orders, to participate in ordinations. An example is the ordination of Anglican Bishop Weller in the diocese of Fond du Lac Wisconsin; present as co-celebrants Orthodox Bishop Saint Tikhon of Moscow and Rt. Rev. Anthony Kozlowski of the Polish National Catholic Church (two Church’s with “valid” orders (There’s conveniently a photo on Wikipedia from ordination which i’ve attached below). During and following the Oxford movement in Anglicanism there seems to have been a real preoccupation among high church adherents of reestablishing apostolic succession as they understood it (of which they seemed to have a physicalist notion of transmission), as such they frequently invited not only orthodox and Polish national Catholic clergy, but also those ordained in the Utrecht Union (the so-called Dutch touch). Even today, Bishops have been ordained conditionally despite the supposed “invalidity” of Anglican ordinations.

      This has been an area of personal interest and reflection as my girlfriend is Anglo-Catholic; the clergy have been, to the best of my knowledge, ordained in the aforementioned lineages; They have magnificent masses and remarkable reverence for the Eucharist that would be the envy of many Catholic parishes, which often leaves me at a loss for words to explain why she and her fellow congregants are not welcome to receive in our tradition when they likely have more belief in the real presence than most Catholic parishes in general.

      Are we denying intercommunion for any reason other than pride? Even in the Catholic understanding of sacramental validity, the Roman church doesn’t have a monopoly.

      1. @Brandon Sanders:
        I read, with interest, the remarks of Robert Sarah about Anglican orders and receiving communion within the Anglican church. This sort of sad superiority complex resembles so much the kind of games we played as children in grade 1 . . . I am the king of the castle and you are the dirty rascal. Or to put it another way, my orders are valid, and my sacraments are valid, and yours are not – so ner! This kind of nonsense belongs in the playground – it is not the kind of games that adults should play.

        But the Anglican church and the Roman church have been playing these games for a long time. Perhaps the best example of this is the 1896 encyclical (Apostolicae Curae or AC) of Pope Leo XIII which was replied to in a similar style encyclical written in Latin (Saepius Officio).

        However, there are some implications of AC, in the kind of thinking shown by Sarah. There is an assumption here – that the priest is some kind of magician . . . that is, when he waves his hands in the air . . . says the right words . . . using the right materials (bread and wine), magic happens, and the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ.

        But in most church theory that I have read, it suggests that such a priest is the agent of Christ and/or the Holy Spirit, so it is not individual human being who effects the change. That is, it is God’s power, not the priest’s.

        A new doctrine could be described as The Doctrine of the Incompetence of the Holy Spirit, as the product of this kind of magical, mechanical thinking. It questions the competence of the Holy Spirit to act without human inputs, rather than God, acting through the Holy Spirit. In other words if we (human agents) do not perform the correct ritual actions, etc, then God cannot do God’s work, eg consecrating bread and wine.
        This kind of magical view of sacraments demotes God, exalting the human agents.

        So Robert Sarah is, IMHO, just bandying about ecclesiastical propaganda which belongs in the 19th…

  7. It would appear that Cdl. Sarah is becoming an embarrasment to the church catholic. Perhaps the Pope should consider an act of mercy permitting him to return to his African homeland and replacing him with Wilton Gregory? Ojala!

  8. Lizette Larson-Miller : I am concerned as I watch these squabbles drive 18-22 year olds away from the church, the one holy catholic and apostolic church throughout the world.

    I believe that this — the squabbles — is the real crux of the problem.

    The question is one of perpetual uncertainty more than right vs. wrong. Is it improper to expect that after 2000 years we could have resolved these issues?

    There was a time in which only a baptized Catholic in the state of grace could receive Communion. If that is changed, fine. But please publish the change and move on with things.

    1. @Sean Keeler:

      You, and it appears Cardinal Sarah also, are unfamiliar with the provisions of the 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (DAPNE), para 131.

      1. @Paul Inwood:
        Thanks for pointing us towards that document. The version published by the Bishops of England and Wales contained this paragraph
        Common liturgical texts
        Christians in the same cultural area should agree a
        common version of at least the most important prayers,
        psalms and scripture readings. A common collection of
        hymns, and co-operation in producing liturgical music,
        would be desirable as well. (187)
        I will just leave it hanging there.

      2. @Alan Johnson:
        Wasn’t this possibility of common texts largely given up with the new translation into English? One of the things this meant was that Christians in a particular area could no longer use common settings of the Eucharist, or the Canticles at morning or evening prayer.

        I understand that one of the people pushing for this, in involved in the linguistic contortions which produced the new English RC Mass, was Cardinal Pell. Pell has never been noted for his ecumenical interests, and has always been known in Australia as a person who would push RC superiority. So we understood that he was one of the people who particularly liked these changes in the words congregations used, because it differentiated the RC Eucharist from those of other churches.

        I completely agree with you, Paul, about the desirability of common liturgical music, and common hymns, as well as common prayers that most congregations can say and sing together . . . whether they are in their own church or someplace else.

        It has been said that we can only have genuine inter- communion when we all agree on the same things such as rules or dogmas. Excuse me! Never going to happen! This is the human race were talking about . . . not a bunch of automatons who can only parrot formulae learned in their childhood.

        I am feeling is that genuine inter-communion can only really happen when, at an emotional level, different groups of Christians wish each other well, and approach each other in a completely non-judgemental way. This happens best, often and in small groups.

        I have been present at some of these sorts of occasions, and this is when you have real “fellow feeling” from a genuinely emotional place. And the intercommunion is not just from sharing the sacrament itself.

  9. S. Tikhon did not participate as a consecrator but as an observer at that famous service. Notice that he is not wearing pontificals in that picture which shocked so many Episcopalians.

  10. I’m Anglican; my faith is ‘real but imperfect’ NOT because of that, but because all of us live in a ‘real but imperfect’ world. We see through a glass darkly.

    Individuals commonly speak of working out their salvation. The understanding that we have as new Christians changes–grows–over time. If we were to pin ourselves down to the understanding that we had as new converts, and decry any growth in that understanding, we would be counted fools.

    In a similar way, the Church has grown in its understanding over the centuries. While this is going on we are attempting to work out a common understanding of the Christian message of salvation.

    Just as, in prayer life and in my everyday experience I am often humbled by my lack of comprehension of God’s will and love, and find that the best response is to acknowledge the limits of my reason; so too, wouldn’t it be best to assume a good will and honest attempt among Lutherans, Catholics, Anglicans and others to best find the workings of the Spirit in our practices, while admitting that we are limited creatures who work within “real but imperfect realities”. And this goes across the board, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and otherwise.

    And yes, I’m changing the Pope’s sense of “real but imperfect” realities a bit, but still…

    I know Catholics and others whose dedication to Christ is undoubted. I know we share the same Spirit. For me, this is the bottom line.

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