The Episcopalian Eucharist

And More on Priests Living in Public Sin

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ROME, AUG. 31, 2010 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Regarding the Episcopalian eucharist: I have recently become the music director of an Episcopalian church. As a Catholic I feel strange not reverencing (at least bowing) as I walk by the tabernacle in the sanctuary of the church. What if one day the Catholics and the Episcopalians come to an agreement about the validity of the Episcopalian eucharist? What should I do? — R.H., Cincinnati, Ohio

A: I believe there are two underlying questions involved: One is Episcopal eucharistic doctrine, and the other is the validity of Anglican orders.

It is not easy to nail down official Episcopalian eucharistic doctrine and as a consequence there is a wide range of both theology and practice. Most Anglicans will say they believe in the «real presence» but understand this in such a way as to deny his bodily presence, or else they believe that this presence is physically localized in the bread and wine. Some hold a theory that is similar to Martin Luther’s sacramental union, or consubstantiation, in which Christ’s real presence in the bread and wine is limited to the time of the celebration.

On the other hand, some so-called High Church Anglicans hold doctrines quite close to the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation. These Episcopalians often have impressive liturgies, reserve communion bread, and have Catholic-like devotions such as benediction. In doing so, they do not feel themselves bound by Article 28 of the Anglican 39 Articles of Belief which clearly states that «The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.»

In 1971 the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, a semiofficial group of Catholic and Anglican bishops and scholars, published a «common agreement» on their mutual understanding of the Eucharist. While not representing official doctrine for either Catholics or Anglicans, the members of the commission believed they had reached a formulation that could be acceptable to all. With respect to the Real Presence, the agreement said:

«6. Communion with Christ in the Eucharist presupposes his true presence, effectually signified by the bread and wine which, in this mystery, become his body and blood. (see note 2) The real presence of his body and blood can, however, only be understood within the context of the redemptive activity whereby he gives himself, and in himself reconciliation, peace and life, to his own. On the one hand, the Eucharistic gift springs out of the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, in which God’s saving purpose has already been definitively realised. On the other hand, its purpose is to transmit the life of the crucified and risen Christ to his body, the church, so that its members may be more fully united with Christ and with one another.»

The above-mentioned Note 2 attempts to clarify the Catholic term transubstantiation:

«2. The word transubstantiation is commonly used in the Roman Catholic Church to indicate that God acting in the Eucharist effects a change in the inner reality of the elements. The term should be seen as affirming the fact of Christ’s presence and of the mysterious and radical change which takes place. In contemporary Roman Catholic theology it is not understood as explaining how the change takes place.»

Therefore it could be said that at least some Episcopalians share the Catholic notion of the Eucharist. This is certainly true of those Episcopalians who have accepted the Catechism of the Catholic Church and are seeking corporate unity with her. It cannot be said of all Episcopalians, and there are often different shades of belief even within High Church congregations.

No matter what the doctrine, however, Christ’s real presence depends on the existence of a valid priesthood. Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) named a commission to study the question of Anglican orders and finally declared them invalid with the bull Apostolicae Curae in 1896. The complex doctrinal and historical reasons for the papal decision are beyond the scope of this article but were considered definitive.

Some Anglicans reacted with indifference to the papal declaration. Others took his points into account and attempted to re-establish apostolic succession by inviting validly ordained bishops from several small splinter groups to participate in Anglican Episcopal ordination. It is therefore quite possible that some Anglican clergy are validly ordained priests, but it is extremely difficult to determine who.

For this reason the Catholic Church insists that any Anglican clergyman who becomes Catholic and desires to continue in ministry must receive ordination. The Church is fully aware that this demand is often quite painful for the incoming Anglican who has considered himself a priest for many years. This is done because the Church requires absolute certainty with regard to the validity of the sacraments and cannot accept even the slightest risk. This certainty of being a priest should also comfort the Anglican clergyman.

We hope that with this our reader can make a correct judgment. In spite of the closeness of theological views on the part of some Episcopalians, there are many reasons that make it practically impossible for the Catholic Church to recognize the validity of the Anglican eucharist.

Insofar as how to behave, I believe that our correspondent should show courtesy and respect in deferring to Anglican customs of reverence, just as a courteous Protestant might kneel at a Catholic Mass even if he did not believe in the Real Presence. Specifically Catholic gestures of personal adoration, such as genuflection when passing the place of reservation, should not be done.

* * *

Follow-up: When a Priest Lives in Public Sin

After our response on a priest living in public sin (see Aug. 17), a priest asked: «Father, are you sure about your assertion that the sacraments of marriage and penance would be invalid if administered by a priest who had incurred automatic excommunication by procuring an abortion for someone?»

I think our reader is correct to doubt my reasoning and I need to nuance the reply a little. Canon 1331 deals with excommunication:

«Can. 1331 §1. An excommunicated person is forbidden:
«1/ to have any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of worship whatsoever;
«2/ to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments;
«3/ to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions whatsoever or to place acts of governance.
Ǥ2. If the excommunication has been imposed or declared, the offender:
«1/ who wishes to act against the prescript of §1, n. 1 must be prevented from doing so, or the liturgical action must be stopped unless a grave cause precludes this;
«2/ invalidly places acts of governance which are illicit according to the norm of §1, n. 3;
«3/ is forbidden to benefit from privileges previously granted;
«4/ cannot acquire validly a dignity, office, or other function in the Church;
«5/ does not appropriate the benefits of a dignity, office, any function, or pension, which the offender has in the Church.»

However, Canon 1336 §1.3, regarding expiatory penalties, specifies:

«Can. 1336 §1. In addition to other penalties which the law may have established, the following are expiatory penalties which can affect an offender either perpetually, for a prescribed time, or for an indeterminate time:
«2/ privation of a power, office, function, right, privilege, faculty, favor, title, or insignia, even merely honorary;
«3/ a prohibition against exercising those things listed under n. 2, or a prohibition against exercising them in a certain place or outside a certain place
; these prohibitions are never under pain of nullity.»

Therefore, according to the canons, especially 1336 §1.3 the priest’s excommunication would not automatically render confessions and matrimonies he celebrated invalid. This would be especially true if they were received in good faith and in ignorance of the priest’s situation.

However, if the excommunication is declared and public, then I would say that there is a real probability of invalidity. Canon 1331 §2.1 declares that the offender who wishes to act against the prohibitions in order to celebrate the sacraments should be prevented from doing so.

It should also be remembered that the validity of the sacraments of reconciliation and matrimony requires, besides priestly ordination, some other official authorization.

Thus no priest may validly hear confessions until he has received faculties from his bishop. If a priest performs a wedding without the delegation from the pastor, such a wedding is technically invalid. It is, however, relatively easy to canonically correct the error without having to go through the celebration again.

It is true that the ministers of matrimony are the couple themselves, but the Church links the validity of the celebration to the presence of an authorized official witness. In virtue of his office the pastor and associate pastors have habitual faculties to officiate at weddings. Other priests and deacons may validly do so only if delegated by the pastor. In special cases, due to a shortage of clergy, the bishop may delegate a layperson to act as official witness.

An exception to these limitations is the case of imminent danger of death of a penitent or of a person who desires to get married.

If anyone, except for the case of imminent danger of death, were to knowingly request these sacraments from an excommunicated priest (instead of impeding the celebration as required by the canon), they would be guilty of participating in a sacrilegious act.

For this reason, although the canon itself does not declare that these sacramental acts are invalid in virtue of the excommunication, I believe there is a high probability that they would be invalid because those who seek the sacraments know that the minister lacks the necessary authority and communion within the Church to act as a true minister of grace.

After all, a confession that entails committing a sin could hardly bring about reconciliation.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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