THE ORDER OF MELCHISEDECH
A Defence of the Catholic Priesthood
by Michael Davies
1979 AND 1993
The Power to Confirm and Ordain
The teaching of the Council of Trent, that the power to confirm
ordain which belongs to bishops is not common to them and to priests,
requires some explanation (see Chap. II). The canon in question must be
understood as referring to the exercise of this power as a matter of
ordinary jurisdiction in the case of confirmation and even, perhaps, in
the case of ordination.
"Ordinary" jurisdiction is an ecclesiastical term used to denote
authority attached to an office. A parish priest has ordinary authority
to exercise those functions attached to his office, such as hearing the
confessions of his parishioners.
Trent itself makes clear in the canons on confirmation that when
referring to the power to confirm, it is ordinary authority which is in
question. Canon III states: "If anyone says that the ordinary minister
of Holy Confirmation is not the bishop, but any simple priest; let him
be anathema." (D. 873). But in the Eastern Churches priests have acted
as the ordinary ministers of Confirmation, and the validity of these
confirmations has never been questioned by Rome. Since 1 January 1947,
parish priests of the Roman rite have been empowered to administer the
Sacrament of Confirmation under certain circumstances, for example
where the recipient is in immediate danger of death. 1
The same faculty
had been granted to some missionary priests long before that date.
Although there is no doubt that a priest can be granted the
extraordinary power to confirm, it is a disputed question as to whether
even the Pope has the right to grant a simple priest the authority to
act as an extraordinary minister of ordination. It is certain that a
few popes have delegated such authority to abbots who had not received
episcopal consecration. 2
Some theologians believe these popes may have exceeded their authority
and that isolated papal acts do not constitute a law or make a dogma.
This view is held by Professor J.P.M. van der Ploeg, O.P. If correct it
would mean that the ordinations performed by these abbots were invalid.
The problem is discussed by Dr. Ludwig Ott in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. His
view is that despite the fact that "most theologians, with St. Thomas,
hold the opinion that a simple priest cannot validly administer the
orders of the Diaconate and Priesthood, even with plenary power from
the Pope", the more probable view is that a simple priest can act as an
extraordinary minister of the Sacrament of Order.
Unless one wishes to
assume that the Popes in question were victims of the erroneous
theological opinions of their times (this does not touch the Papal
infallibility, because an ex cathedra
decision was not given), one must take it that a simple priest is an
extraordinary dispenser of the Orders of Diaconate and Presbyterate,
just as he is an extraordinary dispenser of Confirmation. In this
latter view, the requisite power of consecration is contained in the
priestly power of consecration as potestas
ligata. For the valid exercise of it a special exercise of the
Papal power is, by Divine or Church ordinance, necessary (p. 459).
Even if it is accepted that these ordinations by abbots
were valid they do not provide an argument in favour of the validity of
the orders of certain Protestant denominations conferred by men who had
received priestly ordination but had not been consecrated as bishops
(see p. 73). Given that a priest
has the power to ordain, he could not do so validly without papal
authorization. It is not even the case that the powers
definitely conferred by the Sacrament of Order can always be exercised
validly. The power to consecrate
can always be exercised validly. An unfrocked or excommunicated priest
can celebrate a valid Mass but would sin gravely in doing so. His Mass
would be valid but illicit. But this is not the case with the power to
absolve. There are a number of restrictions regarding the use of this
Sacrament, and there are certain sins which the Pope and bishops have
reserved to their own tribunals and which cannot be absolved validly by
ordinary confessors unless the penitent is in immediate danger of death.
1. For a more detailed treatment of this question, see Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by
L. Ott, p. 369.
2. See CDT, Vol. I, the entry: Abbot, Ordination by.