A Defence of the Catholic Priesthood
by Michael Davies
1979 AND 1993

Appendix V
The Power to Confirm and Ordain

The teaching of the Council of Trent, that the power to confirm and 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.

-------Contact Us-------NEXT