Everything is Relative – Except for the Ordination

“Neither presbyter, deacon, nor any of the ecclesiastical order shall be ordained at large, nor unless the person ordained is particularly appointed to a church in a city or village, or to a martyry, or to a monastery. And if any have been ordained without a charge, the holy Synod decrees, to the reproach of the ordainer, that such an ordination shall be inoperative, and that such shall nowhere be suffered to officiate.” (Council of Chalcedon 451, canon 5)

This law was finally annulled under Pope Innocence III (1198–1216). Even today relative ordinations – where someone is ordained for a certain task in the Church – are quite rare in the Catholic Church. In most cases, we find absolute ordinations, where someone is ordained to become part of the clergy – and afterward he is assigned to any of the tasks for clergymen.

Well, to be precise: The Council of Trent (1545–1563) confirmed Chalcedon’s canon and prohibited absolute ordinations, but essentially the aftermath was different: The title that a priest needs for a legitimate ordination can be his diocese or the religious order the priest belongs too. Obviously, that is quite different from what Chalcedon meant, and that is my point. It that sense we can say that the Catholic Church today has the absolute ordination even if that technical term is rejected (the entire issue is similar to the titular sees for auxiliary bishops).

I remember what priests from a German diocese told in the 1980s: Right after the ordination service (no minute earlier!), the newly ordained priests were told where their first occupation as assistant priests would be. This was sort of an obedience test: You will only be ordained if you are willing to go wherever the Church sends you. This procedure might be a characteristic expression of a typical “priestly mind” in the 2nd millennium. But all those ordinations are invalid according to the Council of Chalcedon.

It is hard to imagine what the Catholic Church would look like without any absolute ordination. Many developments over the last centuries are based on that idea:

  • In Catholic seminaries, young men are trained to become priests, but they do not know for which people they are going to become spiritual advisors.
  • The entire clergy is regarded as an episcopal task force: If you need a pastor, do not try to find the perfect person in order to get him (let alone her!) ordained, but ask the bishop to send someone from his personnel pool.
  • Since priesthood exists independent from any service for anybody and is mainly defined by the mandate to offer Mass, people (and theologians!) regard priesthood as a metaphysical ability or an ontological quality.
  • A Catholic man can have an experience of “vocation to priesthood” without knowing any people who might need him as their pastor.
  • Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit, and lots of other religious orders have priests who are not bound to any local bishop. They can be sent around as a worldwide (or papal) task force anywhere in the Catholic world. Priesthood exists independent from episcopacy.
  • Breviary obligation: the idea that the Liturgy of the Hours is a clerical duty, independent from any community (parish, monastery, cathedral).

In all debates around the ordained ministry of the future, the difference between relative and absolute ordination is a crucial point. Returning to canon 5 of Chalcedon would change almost everything.

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4 comments

  1. It is interesting that the law against absolute ordinations was annulled by Innocent III right around the time that the mendicant orders were emerging. I wonder if there is any causality behind this correlation, and if so, in what direction it flowed (i.e. did the abrogation of the law facilitate the rise of mendicant orders or did the rise of mendicant orders create pressure for the abrogation of the law?).

  2. 1. It’s a moot point whether the sixth canon of Chalcedon meant to declare absolute ordinations invalid or simply illicit. It all depends on how you translate “irritam”. The injunction that “they shall not operate anywhere” seems a bit superfluous to me if the ordinations were invalid. If you read the sixth canon alongside the fifth, it would appear to be that the council’s main concern was to put a stop to the episcopus vagans or presbyter vagans, but I stand ready to be corrected by the Church Historians on this point.

    2. I don’t know about the practice in Germany, but in the UK, most diocesan seminarians know where they’re going to be sent before their priestly ordination. It’s fairly common here for the bishop to make an announcement to this effect at the end of the ceremony. My own situation is slightly different, in that I am a member of a Society of Apostolic Life (of Pontifical Right) which has been entrusted with the care of a particular parish by the bishop. I certainly knew where I was going, and indeed had been formed by my experience of the particular community before my diaconate and priestly ordinations.

    3. I don’t think it’s fair to say the priesthood exists independently of the episcopacy. Canon Law would appear to indicate the contrary. Both religious (CIC 678 §1) and members of Societies of Apostolic Life (CIC 738 §2) are “subject to the diocesan bishop in those matters which regard public worship, the care of souls, and other works of the apostolate.” And CIC 678 § 1 says in addition that religious are “bound to follow [the bishop] with devoted submission and reverence” a desideratum which is cross-referenced in CIC 738 § 2. Moreover only the bishop can grant faculties to a priest to hear confessions (CIC 969 § 1) in his diocese, and the bishop has an overriding right to intervene pastorally for the good of those committed to his care (CIC 383 § 1).

    4. Finally, I think it’s stretching the point to say that priesthood exists independent of service to anybody. I don’t see how such a…

  3. Oops! Something went wrong with the cutting and pasting. I meant to say:

    4. Finally, I think it’s stretching the point to say that priesthood exists independent of service to anybody. I don’t see how such a view is consistent with the statement in Lumen Gentium n 10 that “the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: [since] each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ” to say nothing of Pope Francis’ frequent exhortations to priests to give themselves generously and joyfully to the service of the People of God.

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