The Apostolic Ministry and the Sacramental Economy: a “second order issue” in Ecumenism?

The Archbishop of Canterbury was in Rome recently, not to meet the pope (which he did, but) to give a speech at the Willebrands Symposium at the Gregorian University as the guest of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.The full text of this speech can be found here. 

In this speech, Rowan Williams asks the following questions:  

The strong convergence in these agreements about what the Church of God really is, is very striking. The various agreed statements of the churches stress that the Church is a community, in which human beings are made sons and daughters of God, and reconciled both with God and one another. The Church celebrates this through the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion in which God acts upon us to transform us ‘in communion’. More detailed questions about ordained ministry and other issues have been framed in this context.  

Therefore the major question that remains is whether in the light of that depth of agreement the issues that still divide us have the same weight – issues about authority in the Church, about primacy (especially the unique position of the pope), and the relations between the local churches and the universal church in making decisions (about matters like the ordination of women, for instance). Are they theological questions in the same sense as the bigger issues on which there is already clear agreement? And if they are, how exactly is it that they make a difference to our basic understanding of salvation and communion? But if they are not, why do they still stand in the way of fuller visible unity? Can there, for example, be a model of unity as a communion of churches which have different attitudes to how the papal primacy is expressed?  

The central question is whether and how we can properly tell the difference between ‘second order’ and ‘first order’ issues. When so very much agreement has been firmly established in first-order matters about the identity and mission of the Church, is it really justifiable to treat other issues as equally vital for its health and integrity?”  

He attempts to build a case for ecclesial recognition and closer communion upon the “eucharistic” or “communion ecclesiology” that has generally come to be accepted in the dialogues between Catholics, Anglicans and Orthodox in the 20th Century:  

In broad outline, the picture is something like this. God is eternally a life of threefold communion; and if human persons are to be reconciled to God and restored to the capacity for which they were made, they must be included in that life of communion. The incarnation of God the Son recreates in human persons the possibility of filial relation with the Father, standing in the place of Christ and praying his prayer; and only the Holy Spirit, which animates and directs the entire human identity of the Incarnate Word, can create that filial reality in us. To be restored to life with God is to be incorporated into Jesus Christ by the Spirit; but because the gift of the Spirit is what takes away mutual fear and hostility and the shutting-up of human selves against each other, it is inseparably and necessarily a gift of mutual human communion also. The sacramental life and the communal disciplines of the Church exist to serve and witness to this dual fact of communion, with the Father and with all believers. To take only one of the countless formulations referred to in the Harvesting document, in this case from the 1993 Lutheran-Catholic statement on Church and Justification (#6), ‘According to the witness of the New Testament, our salvation, the justification of sinners and the existence of the church are indissolubly linked with the triune God and are founded in him alone.’  

There is nothing wrong with this ecclesiology. It is quite genuine. The difficulty is that the Archbishop attempts to play this off against another, slightly different, traditional Roman ecclesiology:  

Part of what Vatican II turned away from is a way of talking about the Church as primarily an institution existing because of divine decree, governed by prescription from the Lord, faithfully administering the sacraments ordained by him for the salvation of souls – ‘an external, visible society, whose members, under a hierarchical authority headed by the pope, constitute with him one visible body, tending to the same spiritual and supernatural end, i.e., sanctification of souls and their eternal happiness’ (Pietro Palazzini, s.v. ‘Church (Society)’ in the Dictionary of Moral Theology, ed. F. Roberti and P. Palazzini, originally published in 1957).  

Did Vatican II in fact turn away from such an ecclesiology? Lumen Gentium has it as follows:  

This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth”. This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.  

So the answer to the question “Did Vatican II in fact turn away from an ecclesiology which describes the Church as “an external, visible society, whose members, under a hierarchical authority headed by the pope, constitute with him one visible body, tending to the same spiritual and supernatural end, i.e., sanctification of souls and their eternal happiness” is: Obviously not.  

Eucharistic or Communion ecclesiology is right and true and helpful as far as it goes, but it is (at least as Catholics and Orthodox would understand it) dependant upon the validity of the Eucharistic life of an ecclesial community – which is itself dependant upon the validity of the bishop and the priesthood which administers the Eucharist in that community. These are not “second order” issues. It was a central issue for St Ignatius in the early 2nd Century and remains a central – first order – issue today.  

(One might add, but it is not the main focus of my post on this subject that neither is the issue of the Petrine Ministry “second order” – at least in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.)  

Only if the Apostolic Ministry is seen in purely functional terms and only if the ecclesial community which that Ministry serves is seen to have the authority to constitute that ministry as it sees fit to best to serve the purpose of the gospel, could issues of Apostolic Ministry be seen as “second order”. Williams said:  

The summary on pp.137-8 of Harvesting [Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of the Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue. PCPCU, edited by Cardinal Walter Kasper] puts it very well in describing convergence around the belief that ‘the ministry and the ministries in the Church are not an end in themselves’; the Church is called to obedience, and thus to the discerning conservation of the authentic gospel in its teaching and preaching. But is that obedience, discernment and conservation in some sense the task of the entire body of the baptised or essentially that of a group designated as having binding power?

His answer in the following paragraphs is quite definitely: this is the “task of the entire body of the baptised” and not “a group designated as having binding power”, by which he quite clearly refers to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.  

Williams argument is that the “the essential character of filial and communal holiness as set out in Scripture and tradition and ecumenical agreement” that is going on in Anglican Churches is the same as that which is going on in Catholic Churches and should be recognised as such, despite the fact that many Anglican Churches ordain women as priests and even bishops. Williams gets to the hub of the matter when he asks:  

The challenge to recent Roman Catholic thinking on this would have to be: in what way does the prohibition against ordaining women so ‘enhance the life of communion’, reinforcing the essential character of filial and communal holiness as set out in Scripture and tradition and ecumenical agreement, that its breach would compromise the purposes of the Church as so defined? And do the arguments advanced about the “essence” of male and female vocations and capacities stand on the same level as a theology derived more directly from scripture and the common theological heritage such as we find in these ecumenical texts?

In other words, the prohibition of the ordination of women is a second order issue to the primary issue of a life of filial and communion holiness. He describes this “prohibition” as the result of “recent determinations on the Roman Catholic side”. Here is how he puts the question:

All ordained ministers are ordained into the shared richness of the apostolic ministerial order – or perhaps we could say ministerial ‘communion’ yet again. None ministers as a solitary individual. Thus if the ministerial collective is understood strictly in terms of the ecclesiology we have been considering, as serving the goal of filial and communal holiness as the character of restored humanity, how much is that undermined if individuals within the ministerial communion are of different genders? Even if there remains uncertainty in the minds of some about the rightness of ordaining women, is there a way of recognising that somehow the corporate exercise of a Catholic and evangelical ministry remains intact even when there is dispute about the standing of female individuals? In terms of the relation of local to universal, what we are saying here is that a degree of recognizability of ‘the same Catholic thing’ has survived: [my emphasis]

How are we to reply to this? One would be to point out that a genuine ecclesiology of communion, a genuine Eucharistic ecclesiology, cannot allow any room for “uncertainty” in relation to the Sacraments of the Church. The reason for this is, as the Catechism puts it in a most significant passage:

1076 The Church was made manifest to the world on the day of Pentecost by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit [cf. SC 6; LG 2]. The gift of the Spirit ushers in a new era in the “dispensation of the mystery” the age of the Church, during which Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates his work of salvation through the liturgy of his Church, “until he comes” [1 Cor 11:26]. In this age of the Church Christ now lives and acts in and with his Church, in a new way appropriate to this new age. He acts through the sacraments in what the common Tradition of the East and the West calls “the sacramental economy”; this is the communication (or “dispensation”) of the fruits of Christ’s Paschal mystery in the celebration of the Church’s “sacramental” liturgy. 

The preservation of the “Sacramental Economy” as instituted by Christ is therefore A FIRST ORDER ISSUE, for apart from the Sacraments, there is no other means by which “Christ now lives and acts in and with his Church”.
For all the Archbishop of Canterbury’s valiant attempts to say “It really doesn’t matter”, the answer that we must give is: “Oh yes it does.” 

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2 responses to “The Apostolic Ministry and the Sacramental Economy: a “second order issue” in Ecumenism?

  1. I am reminded of what Festus, governor of Judæa, said to St Paul: Thy great learning hath driven thee mad. (Not that I would consider Williams another Paul, LOL!)

    He just doesn’t get it – how rude, and what chutzpah, to claim that Rome’s supposedly “recent” prohibition of female ordination stands in the way of communion, when every man knows that the Church has never ever ordained women, and that it is an extraordinary innovation on the part of the Anglicans (whose orders the Church long past judged null and void anyway) to pretend to ordain women -who are certainly invalid matter. All this is but applying the Vincentian Canon to Holy Orders.

    Even if all Anglicans were to be ordained properly tomorrow, none of their priestesses could be, for they are not capable of receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders – as the Church East and West has always taught. So, even if, for the sake of argument, Anglican orders were recognized as valid, we would still be dealing with a body some of whose clergy were real, and really celebrated Mass, and some who would be imposters, dispensing bread.

    In a way, women’s ordination is the ultimate reductio ad absurdum, and the final vindication of Apostolicæ curæ: Anglicans long having abandoned the proper form of the sacrament (by reason of denying one essential part of the priesthood – that it is a sacrificing priesthood – and by vitiating their Ordinal accordingly), now they have abandoned the matter as well (as they will lay hands on those unordainable).

    It is transparently obvious that, even if every other issue were dealt with and fine, the Catholic Church could never unite the Anglican Communion to herself, let alone indulge in the Protestant fantasy of mere inter-communion, since she could never unite herself to a body half-sacramental, and half-pretend. If Anglican clergy really were properly ordained by valid bishops, nonetheless, so long as they have lady ministers, any given celebration of the sacraments by such a one would be a grave imposture, a sacrilege.

    And as for women bishops – they are doubly scandalous, since even if Anglican orders were valid, theirs certainly would not be, and their hands stretched forth to bless, to consecrate, to absolve, to ordain, would effect precisely nothing.

    If the Church Catholic is Christ’s Mystical Body, then to dare to unite her to the false Anglican body would be, in St Paul’s words, to dare take the members of Christ and couple them with a harlot. Me genoito!