Difficult theological questions raised by O'Connor 'ordination'

The 'ordination' of Sinead O'Connor as a priest by a 'Tridentine bishop' is not recognised by the Catholic Church, and she remains a lay person.

The Irish Times/April 27, 1999

No wonder people are confused. The sensational news that Sinead O'Connor claims to have been ordained a priest by a "Tridentine bishop" raises all kinds of tricky theological and canonical issues which are difficult enough even for the expert in those areas to disentangle, not to mention the man or woman in the street.

The most healthy reaction might be to treat the whole thing as a big joke. And yet the issues are undoubtedly serious, comparable to somebody setting himself or herself up as a judge of the Circuit or High Court. This would be seen as outrageous. The sad thing is that, due to the general collapse of our religious culture, almost anything in the realm of faith can be claimed by anybody - and be taken seriously by the public media. As a result, the issues themselves are inevitably, albeit unintentionally, trivialised.

Michael Cox bases his claim to be a bishop on a succession that goes back to an excommunicated Vietnamese archbishop. That bishop ordained several priests and bishops in January 1976 in the village of Palmar de Troya, in Spain, acting, it would seem, on instructions from somebody claiming to be a visionary.

The Vatican reacted almost immediately (September 17th, 1976), drawing attention to the penalties - including excommunication - incurred by the archbishop and those he had ordained. Later, the archbishop requested and obtained absolution from the excommunication.

The repentance was short-lived. From 1981 onwards the archbishop attempted to ordain other priests and bishops, on the basis that "the See of the Catholic Church of Rome was vacant".

Since this was evidently not the case, evident, that is, to all but the devotees of Palmar de Troya, the Congregation for the Faith, "by a special mandate of His Holiness Pope John Paul II" reaffirmed in 1983 the original penalties incurred, including automatic excommunication of the archbishop and those he tried to ordain. They were forbidden to attempt to act as priests or bishops.

Most importantly, the Congregation for the Faith affirmed that "the Church does not nor shall it recognise their ordination".

Moreover, the document continues, the Church "considers them in the state which each had previously", in other words as laymen or priests. Thus, in the eyes of the Church, we are dealing with a Mr Michael Cox, a Father Pat Buckley, whom he attempted to ordain a bishop, and, most recently, a Ms Sinead O'Connor.

The document is one that is phrased in canonical terms, two of which have fascinated the public since last Saturday: "illicit" and "valid". The former means that a public and solemn act of the Church, such as the administration of a sacrament, was carried out in contravention of the legal conditions set down by the Church.

Validity in this context belongs to the sphere of sacramental theology and affirms that a sacrament, though not executed in accordance with the legal conditions set down by the Church is nonetheless effective as a sacrament, that is, God's intended effect takes place.

An example would be a priest who has been suspended from exercise of the priesthood, yet gives absolution or celebrates Mass. His act would be gravely evil, in fact sacrilegious, but the unsuspecting faithful would still have received absolution or attended a valid Mass.

The Vatican document quoted above does mention the question of the validity of those ordained by the excommunicated Vietnamese archbishop in an aside - effectively leaving it aside for further study. The Church is reluctant to deny the validity of any sacrament, irrespective of the circumstances, and generally takes its time before making an authoritative decision.

Central to the question of validity is the intention to do as Christ intended. It is unlikely that any sensible person could be persuaded that the antics of the Palmar de Troya cult could be seen to fulfil this condition.

Is Michel Cox a validly ordained bishop? In short the answer must be no.

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