Monday, November 10, 2008

Defective form in SSPX ordinations? I don't think so.

Anselm, our sometime contributor to this blog who is currently residing in Gaming, Austria at the International Theological Institute, reported to me last week that a fellow student there challenged the validity of the 1988 SSPX episcopal ordinations. The supposed reason for the invalidity was the argument that all episcopal ordinations need be done by three bishops, and that since Archbishop Lefevre ordained the four bishops alone, the ordinations were therefore invalid.

Anselm was beside himself with amusement with this assertion, which he and I both laughed off as pretty stupid. But, as the week went on, he and I decided to do a little research and clarify this issue once and for all. After all, if somebody at the ITI is spouting this idea, I'm sure there must be more out there. After a few hours of research this past week, I put together the following brief synopsis.

Question: Whether or not an episcopal ordination is invalid due to lack of three consecrating bishops?

Answer: Negative. An episcopal consecration done by one bishop alone is certainly not invalid, though it is irregular/illicit.

Sacramental & Canonical Reasons

1. The sacrament of Holy Orders resides in fullness in the office of Bishop (CCC 1558; LG 21§2), which is called the summa of the sacred ministry. This fullness resides not in a collegiality of Bishops, but in each Bishop in particular. There are no sacraments that require the presence of more than one minister for valid confirmation. Each Bishop alone possesses (by virtue of his episcopal ordination) the power to confer Holy Orders on others, even by creating other Bishops. As canon 1012 says, “The minister of sacred ordination is a consecrated Bishop.” Notice it specifies only one, “a consecrated Bishop.” Therefore, it is false to assert that three bishops are needed for valid episcopal consecration. This is what can be called the sacramental-theological reason: i.e., that fullness of orders resides in the office of Bishop individually.

2. The CIC 1014 and the CCC 1559 make reference to the practice, since Nicaea, of having a Bishop consecrated by three bishops. However, the Catechism says that this practice was only to evidence the “collegial nature” of the episcopate (CCC 1559) – it is a symbolic recalling of the unity of the College of Apostles. The commentary in the official CIC says that this was instituted “for organizational reasons” (p 635). While canon 1014 mandates three bishops present, the Catechism and the CIC commentary make clear that this does not affect validity. Thus, we have (in addition to the sacramental reason why the above assertion is false) a canonical reason as well.

3. As evidence that lack of three bishops does not affect validity, we can read the words of canon 1014, which begin, “Unless a dispensation has been granted by the Apostolic See, the principal consecrating Bishop at an Episcopal consecration is to have at least two other consecrating bishops with him.” If the two other bishops were absolutely necessary for validity, the Apostolic See could not dispense them under any circumstances, just like it cannot dispense with the form and matter of any sacrament.

4. Furthermore, we know in fact that bishops are regularly consecrated by a single bishop in the nation of China, where the Church exists in a state of persecution. No one asserts that Chinese bishops are invalidly ordained because of this point. The CIC commentary also points out the dispensations from this practice were regular going back even to Nicea and before (p. 635). The only difference between Chinese ordinations and SSPX ordinations is pontifical mandate.

5. Furthermore, though multiple bishops are present and participating, the CIC (can. 1014) recognizes only one bishop as the consecrator, for it makes a distinction between the “principal consecrating bishop” and “other consecrating bishops,” which are also referred to as “assistants” in the commentary, as opposed to the “primary minister.” By this language, we see that the Church recognizes a difference between the primary bishop who is conferring Holy Orders and the other bishops who, though assisting, are not actually conferring the sacrament.

6. Furthermore, if three bishops were required for validity, how could any bishop trace his episcopal lineage and apostolic succession? But we do know that in fact bishops trace their apostolic succession through one predecessor only: as in the Diocese of Lansing, MI., Bishop Earl Boyea is listed as being ordained by Adam Cardinal Maida, not by three bishops, though there probably were three in attendance (see

7. Furthermore, we understand this principle in celebration of the Eucharist very simply. If more than one priest is present, they concelebrate, although only the priest who is the principal celebrant is really confecting the sacrament. The same is true for episcopal ordinations.

8. Furthermore (and finally), the commentary on the CIC on the same page as canon 1014 (page 635) says at the bottom of the page: “it is highly appropriate that all bishops present participate in the ordination together with the principal consecrating bishop; however, a single bishop is sufficient for validity.” This should lay the matter to rest.


9. No one has ever claimed seriously that the SSPX ordinations are invalid due to lack of three bishops. Canonically they are irregular (i.e., illicit) due to proceeding with solitary ordination without a dispensation from the Holy See, as stipulated in canon 1014. The SSPX ordinations were illicit by reason of lack of co-consecrating bishops (can. 1014), but more importantly because they had no papal mandate at all (can. 1013), and therefore Archbishop Lefevre and the four bishops incurred latae sententiae excommunication, as stipulated in canon 1382. However, their ordinations are perfectly valid, as even the CIC commentary on 1014 points out plainly.

Can anybody think of any other arguments to add to this? Have you ever come across this position yourself? I find this idea even more strange since Anselm told me that the same person who asserted this also claimed that the Greeks were not in schism.


Jeffrey Pinyan said...

I would only ask, against reason #3: isn't a sacrament performed without a necessary dispensation invalid? For example, isn't a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, without the necessary dispensation, an invalid marriage?

Your other reasons seem rather airtight to me (a layman with very little knowledge in these areas).

Anonymous said...

I find it odd that you do not mention that there were two bishops at the SSPX consecrations - Bp de Castro Meyer also was present and also incurred excommunication for this.


Anonymous said...

As this is his year, please wake up Paul, and tell him he needs help to lay-on-hands with Timothy. Otherwise we can perhaps discredit "faith alone", huh?


By the way, I once attended a wedding where 7 priests and 2 bishops concelebrated..... awesome. However, I still doubt the validity of the two bishops. Me thinks they may have been imposters..... neither ever moved diagonally.

Phillip said...


I actually did not think about Bishop de Castro Meyer, but I don't think it affects the argument since the person in question asserted that there had to be THREE bishops performing the consecration.


As to your question, I'll have to think about it...however, in your example, though the lack of a dispensation can mean invalidity, I think we have to ask, "What is being dispensed from?" It is not the form, because (unless I am mistaken) the form of matrimony is the exchange of vows ("I do", CCC 1626-1628) and the matter is the mutual consent and the covenant contracted by the two parties, coupled with the consummation of the marriage (CCC 1626, 1640).

When a dispensation is granted, it is not dispensing with the matter or the form, but only the canonical obligation for the ceremony to be done a certain way, which is a matter of positive ecclesiastical law. However, why failrue to obtain a dispensation results in invalidity and not just illicitness (is that a word?) is something I have not fully grasped.

Anonymous said...

I read this and thought back to Cardinal Lienart who ordained Archbishop Lefebvre a priest, and consecrated him a Bishop. There has been much written about him possibly being a freemason and not validly conferring sacraments to Lefebvre. ONE of the arguments suggesting the ordination was valid was that though Lienart was the principal consecrator there were two other bishops present, if they were not actually conferring the sacrament though, could this call into question the Lefebvre line of bishops and priests?