ASK FATHER: Could an invalidly ordained priest, be validly consecrated bishop?

From a reader…


Would an invalidly ordained priest who became a bishop be able to validly ordain a priest? If one of Bella Dodd’s 1000+ Communist, homosexual and apostate seminarians were ordained, who rose to the rank of bishop, would any of the Sacraments they officiate at be valid and would their ordaining of a new priest be valid? I suppose it would also be possible, I suppose, for a complete apostate seminarian to falsify a birth certificate and and then receive an invalid ordination might also perpetuate priests or would be bishops from possessing valid Holy Orders. I can find nothing covering this in my searches.

This question opens up a can of worms.

First, for those who don’t know, Bella Dodd was a Communist activist who eventually entered the Catholic Church.  She testified that as a Communist she worked to get committed radicals to enter seminaries in order to undermine the Church from within.  Alice von Hildebrand said that Dodd told her that she knew of cardinals in the Roman Curia were working for the Communist Party.   Someone else made claims along these lines.  Marie Carré wrote a book called AA-1025 which is problematic, but which still describes an eerily accurate vision for destroying the Church from within.

Before the Council of Trent, some Scholastic theologians thought that the consecration of a bishop did not so much confer additional powers, but rather additional jurisdiction, namely, to ordain.  In fact, though in the ancient Church some sources said that priests could not ordain, there are examples in history of non-bishops being allowed to ordain.

There was a dispute wherein some theologians held that consecration as a bishop itself conferred the fullness of priesthood, absolutely.  So, any baptized male could go straight to episcopal ability to confect the Eucharist, forgive sins, confirm, and ordain.  Other theologians held that consecration was not so absolute, but rather an extending of priestly power, adding the authority to ordain.  That would mean that a man had to be a priest before being consecrated bishop.

I don’t have the skill or space to try to resolve that.  Suffice to say that by Pius XII and his Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum ordinis the consecration of bishops is assumed to be sacramental, not just jurisdictional.  Many centuries of practice of consecrating only priests as bishops suggests also a theological reality.

I suspect that there are some with greater knowledge about this issue could chime in.  In the meantime, salvo meliore iudicio, I also suspect that most theologians today would say that for episcopal consecration to be valid, the man would have to be already validly ordained to the priesthood.

Of course the scenario that you bring up is pretty awful to contemplate.   Were some invalid but supposed bishops to slither in to undermine the Church for various motives (e.g., infiltration by masons, communists, homosexuals) they could do a lot of damage.    Think about the question, above.  If the theologians who tie consecration to an extension of jurisdiction are right, then perhaps “Ecclesia supplet” might play some sort of role.  If consecration confers the whole nine yards absolutely, then it wouldn’t matter.

Consider, therefore, with what great care Holy Church takes in verifying that men can be validly ordained.  When I was ordained, I had to assemble some dozen documents, from an authenticated or long form birth certificate to, diplomas, letters saying that I had been made a lector and acolyte, to being admitted as a candidate for orders, to attestations of my canonically required examinations, my professions of faith and adherence to doctrine and law, and even a dimissorial letter from the bishop saying to the Cardinal Vicar of Rome that the the Pope could ordain me!

However, another sore spot in this nasty bit of business must be considered: For sacraments to be valid, there must be a proper intention to administer the sacrament.  If bishop were to withhold his intention, purposely choose even while in the act of ordaining a priest or consecrating a bishop that he didn’t intend to ordain despite going through the actions, the ordination would be invalid.  If the man receiving ordination made a full act of will to refuse to be ordained while being ordained, that would also result in invalid orders. In these cases, “Ecclesia supplet” wouldn’t pertain.

This, too, is one of the reasons why the Church requires that at least three bishops consecrate a new bishop.  At least one of the three would not have a flaw in his own valid consecration or intention.

And another thing… no, on second thought, I should stop.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. AAJD says:

    These are complicated questions, as Fr Zed notes, subject to considerable historical change and variance across the Church both East and West. I give an overview of this history, and review the changes made by Pope Pius XII as well as other popes and councils in my chapter “The Sacrament of Orders Dogmatically Understood” in the Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology, eds. M. Levering and H. Boersma (Oxford UP, 2015/2018).

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  2. thomistking says:

    This is scary stuff, but I think it helps to remember that the bar for intention needed to validly confer sacraments is relatively low. A priest doesn’t need to have a perfect understanding of the mass — indeed none do — to say it validly. He just needs to intend to “do the mass thing”, whatever that is. In fact, I’ve read that St. Robert Bellarmine said that a validly ordained priest could say the Calvinist eucharistic service and validly celebrate mass, as long as he intended to do what Christ did at the last supper. Similarly with a bishop, it seems that as long as he is intending to make a Catholic Bishop or priest, the ordination is valid. At least, this is my understanding.

  3. MrsMacD says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I understand that St. Nicholas went straight to bishop from layman.

  4. rbbadger says:

    If you wish to read more about this, another good book is The Sacraments and Their Celebration by Nicholas Halligan, O.P. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004). Father Halligan gives a good overview of the different kinds of intention (habitual, virtual, and actual) as well as the minimum that is required for validity in each of the sacraments. The book is recommended by both Karl Keating and Patrick Madrid.

  5. Any spreading of the idea that false bishops invalidly ordained “priests,” who may or may not have therefore become false bishops, who then falsely ordained such and such numbers of priests, is exactly what the Evil One wants in our age: the schism of the Church into one with a “false” clergy and another with a “true” clergy, with sectarian laity lining up against each other. I don’t think Fr. Z. is doing this, but the question itself suggests others are thinking along those lines. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

  6. John Grammaticus says:

    I remember reading somewhere that St Ambrose made the leap from laymen to Bishop, I know that St Thomas Becket was ordained a Priest first and then a Bishop

  7. JesusFreak84 says:

    So what if the priest himself doesn’t know the Bishop withheld the intention to ordain and only had the external actions to go by? What happens to him?

  8. Antonin says:

    Agree with Fr. Augustine and as far as intentionality goes, surely the Church never expected us to have to engage in depth psychology to determine validity. A big reason why liturgical rites were standardized with matter, form (including words)was for the faitfhful to know that when the sacred minister follows what the CHURCH intends the sacrament is valid. We don’t need to inquire into his personal character (that was the Donatist controversy) nor engage in psychoanalysis around his motives

  9. robtbrown says:

    thomistking says

    This is scary stuff, but I think it helps to remember that the bar for intention needed to validly confer sacraments is relatively low. A priest doesn’t need to have a perfect understanding of the mass — indeed none do — to say it validly. He just needs to intend to “do the mass thing”, whatever that is. 

    Disagree. There is not a specific minimal intention for each Sacrament. Minimal intention is always general and always the same: It is the intention to do what the Church does. Specificity is found in the Sacramental Form.

  10. Geoffrey says:

    I have always wondered this, but in relation to the (very remote) possibility of a layman being elected Pope. “Universi Dominici gregis” mentions that if the newly elected Pope is not already a bishop, he must be ordained one pretty immediately, and that only at the moment of episcopal consecration does he become Pope. No mention is made of whether he is already a priest or not…

  11. Matamoros says:

    This is the same purpose of the Marranos (Jews) and Moriscos (Moslems) in entering the Church – to subvert it, and render the Mass invalid. One should read William Thomas Walsh’s “Characters of the Inquisition” wherein he talks much of this problem within the Church. Indeed, it was the primary reason for the founding of the Spanish Inquisition.

  12. Since it’s not humanly possible for us to read each other’s thoughts, we could drive ourselves nuts worrying about what every priest and every bishop intends at the celebration of every Sacrament, until we forget Who it is that is really in charge. If, in the workings of His inscrutable will, God has permitted infiltrators to penetrate the hierarchy, then He has provided for the preservation of His Church in their despite. The devil and his tools can only do as much as God permits them to do, and He has all eternity in which to punish them.

    Besides, what are we going to do? Leave? It’s not as if we will find more uprightness and purity and good will outside the Church.

  13. cengime says:

    If you read in the life of some saint that he was elected bishop while still a layman (or a catechumen), it means he was advanced briskly through all the grades in order.

    And so [Ambrose]…when he understood God’s will in his regard and that he could no longer resist it, he asked to be baptized by no one but a Catholic bishop, for he was wary of the perfidy of the Arians. Once he was baptized he is said to have fulfilled all the ecclesiastical offices, and on the eighth day, with great grace and to the joy of everyone, he was ordained a bishop. (Paulinus of Milan, The Life of Saint Ambrose, tr. Boniface Ramsey)

    Most of the Scholastics hold that the priesthood is a prerequisite for valid reception of the episcopate. Louis Thomassin, Edmond Martène, and Herman Schell are defenders of the opposite opinion, though of course it cannot be followed in practice.

  14. TonyO says:

    Would an invalidly ordained priest who became a bishop be able to validly ordain a priest? If one of Bella Dodd’s 1000+ Communist, homosexual and apostate seminarians were ordained,

    I know that Fr. Z didn’t write the question, and didn’t mean this, but the question itself is potentially ambiguous. A person can be a communist, a homosexual, and materially fail to believe many of the teachings of the Church, and still be validly ordained a priest. Being these things does not formally preclude the necessary intentions in the recipient to receive orders, it seems to me. A badly malformed Catholic, one who was raised to be communist from his youth, who was turned into a homosexual by early abuse by his pastor way back when, and who was corrupted in the terrible seminary to believe all sorts idiotic non-Catholic beliefs from Richard McBrien and Edward Shillebeeckx, can still validly receive orders. He will be a sorry excuse for a priest, but really a priest for all that.

    It is slightly different for a person who formally intends to enter the priesthood to destroy it, but not as much as you might think. A real priest who says a valid mass to confect the holy Eucharist so that it can be used for satanic purposes really does confect the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. His intentions to misuse the sacrament does not distort his intention to REALLY confect the sacrament so that it fails to be the required intention. Similarly, a seminarian who intends to become a priest in order to do damage from within might, (at least arguably) have the necessary intention to really become a priest, in which case his ordination rite really does confer orders. It would take a more developed intention contrary to orders to defeat the sacramental conferral, i.e. an willed intention NOT to receive orders, it seems to me. I could be wrong though.

    A non-Christian heathen who baptizes a child in danger of death, intending to “do what the Church intends” by the action, validly baptizes the child. If an apostate seminarian intends to go through with the “mumbo-jumbo of the Church’s ordination rite”, not because he wants to be an alter Christus but because he wants to “be able to do what Catholic priests do”, to me that does not seem like a will contrary to the sacrament, but merely deficient in willing clearly to receive the sacrament. And, as I have heard it, at least for baptism and confirmation, it takes an actually contrary will in order to not receive what would otherwise be conferred by the valid minister using valid form.

  15. Sonshine135 says:

    I don’t believe that God intends the people of His Church to be so scrupulous. Scary indeed, but fear arises out of a lack of faith. I ultimately have faith that God will not let the gates of hell prevail against His Church. I ultimately trust that he would not lead me to such a bishop or priest that could not validly offer the sacraments, because he loves me. Would your own Father or Mother hand you off to a babysitter that they knew would beat you the minute they left? If this is true, then He is not a God I want to spend one second with, never mind eternity.

  16. From what I’ve read and have always been taught, the office of bishop was instituted by Christ. It in itself is the priesthood in as much totality as can be had on Earth noting that Christ is the one and only true priest.

    The office that we call priest in English is an office created by the Church and as such is a contingent office. The Church is very careful about what it says it has the power to do and the Church has said it has the power to create offices like priest and Deacon, Grant them a portion of the ordained power the bishops have from Christ but not all of it.

    Additionally we see in the Acts of the apostles that a man was raised from layman directly to bishop to replace Judas.

    So I would say that while the normal convention is to go through the course of offices to get to bishop, the Church can and has directly ordained men as bishop.

    That said the Church in my opinion needs to have a conversation about how a bishop gains office and what the duties of that office is. Missionaries should be bishops with the power to create priests and bishops in the areas they visit. Bishops should have the power to create new bishops just as we see Paul did.

    There is too be an idea that some one too on the full authority of their office. A baker trained future Baker’s for that important work. A knight trained and elevated future knights without Royal permission or approval. So it used to be so with bishops and still is in the Eastern Rite churches in Communion with Rome.

  17. robtbrown says:


    It is best in such a matter to use the Latin distinctions. Episcopus (bishop) and Presbyter (priest) are both Sacerdotes.

    Although some think that Presbyter was a later invention, an argument can be made that the Presbyteroi were the seventy two disciples (or among them) sent forth by Christ (Luke 10). This is a very old approach and advanced, if memory serves, in the Supplement of the Summa Theologiae.

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