By John Martin

Pope Leo XIII’s papal bull Apostolicae Curae (1896), which declared Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void,” has long cast a shadow over the search for unity between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Anglican churches’ ordination of women as priests is a further complication, as Pope John Paul II made clear.

Now one of the Vatican’s top legal minds seems to have opened the way to reconsider Pope Leo’s teaching on Anglican orders. “When someone is ordained in the Anglican Church and becomes a parish priest in a community, we cannot say nothing has happened, that everything is invalid,” said Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

The disclosure comes in a volume of papers and discussions in Rome as part of an ecumenical forum on the Malines Conversations. Its title refers to a series of Anglican-Catholic conversations acting on the 1920 Lambeth Conference’s “Appeal to All Christian People,” a statement widely credited as foundational to modern ecumenism. The Malines Conversations received met with only lukewarm support from Rome and Canterbury but are now considered an important ecumenical stepping stone.

Cardinal Coccopalmerio argues that the Catholic Church has “a very rigid understanding of validity and invalidity” on Anglican orders, and he believes it could be revised. “One should be able to say: ‘this is valid in a certain context, and that is valid in another context.’”

“What does it mean when Pope Paul VI gave a chalice to the Archbishop of Canterbury? If it was to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, it was meant to be done validly, no?” the cardinal said, as reported by The Tablet, an international Roman Catholic newsweekly in London. “This is stronger than the pectoral cross, because a chalice is used not just for drinking but for celebrating the Eucharist. With these gestures the Catholic Church already intuits, recognizes a reality.”

The Rt. Rev. Geoffrey Rowell, retired as the Church of England’s Bishop in Europe, co-edited papers recording discussions between Anglicans and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He quotes Cardinal Ratzinger as saying, “We cannot do anything about Leo XIII’s words but there are … other ways of looking at things.”

Rowell said that Ratzinger, who served as Pope Benedict XVI from 2006 to 2013, accepts that an Anglican Eucharist has value.

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