“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.