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Jurisdiction in Church

epikeia - licit - illicit - salvation - spirit

Rev. Rama Coomaraswamy


'Necessity makes licit what is illicit.'
Pope Gregory IX

'It is true that one sins against the rule who adheres to the letter and leaves aside the spirit'
Pope Boniface XIII

'The highest law is the salvation of Souls'
Pope Pius X

A person who receives valid 'orders' is imprinted with an 'invincible character' that cannot be removed from him. As a result of this he receives the power to offer to God the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and to dispense the Sacraments and all the means of sanctification that are found in the Church. So wonderful is this 'character' and so great are the 'powers' that go with it that the Catechism of the Council of Trent likens them to 'angels and gods.'

Nevertheless, under ordinary circumstances, priests are not free to use these powers without permission of a bishop who 'incardinates' them into his diocese (his area of governance), provides them with their 'office' (or function) and gives them 'jurisdiction' or the right to ply their craft. Ultimately all jurisdiction derives from Christ and is delegated to us through the pope who is, as the theologians say, 'one hierarchical person with our Lord.' The Pope, by appointing bishops, provides them with their powers of jurisdiction which in turn are dispensed to priests under their governance.

It is clear that the priest-presidents of the post-Conciliar Church have a certain jurisdiction. They may not have the Catholic faith, but they are in union with their 'bishops' who are in turn in union with John Paul II. Such a statement may seem offensive, but in so far as they accept Vatican II and the new 'mass,' the statement is just and is not meant to be polemical. Traditional priests - those who say the Tridentine Mass and reject the changes in doctrine and the sacraments introduced by Vatican II and what followed thereafter are clearly in disobedience and as such have lost their jurisdiction - at least that jurisdiction which derives from the present Rome.

Considerable confusion has been spread among traditional Catholics by individuals contending that they should not avail them selves of the services of traditional priests because said priests lack proper jurisdiction. The net result is that some formerly traditional Catholics are staying away from the Sacraments, and inducing others to act likewise. Those responsible for propagating such views are invariably weak in their knowledge of the Faith, and even weaker in their knowledge of Canon Law. It is my intention to examine this issue in the light of common sense. I shall try to do this without resorting to quotations from canon law as I do not consider myself either capable or authorized to provide definitive interpretations of said laws.

First of all, just what is jurisdiction? A priest and/or a bishop, when ordained/consecrated, is given both the power to confect the sacraments and the office that goes with this power. The office1, or more literally, the authority to use this power in the name of the Church, comes under the heading of jurisdiction. In essence Jurisdiction is the AUTHORITY to teach, govern and sanctify in the name of the Church. (The Church is the Body of Christ, and hence manifests His presence - teaching, governing and sanctifying - in this world.) Whence comes this authority?

Scripture informs us that 'all authority comes from God.' It is in turn delegated to appropriate individuals who - unless they be tyrants - wield their authority in God's name or on behalf of God. This is true in the family where the Father wields authority over his wife and children2; in the army where the general wields authority of lesser officers and ordinary soldiers. It is also true with the Catholic Church.

The Authority to teach, govern, and sanctify within the Church derives from God and no one else. However, as in other situations such as the army and the family, it is delegated in a hierarchical manner. It is invested in the Pope (or some might say, in the 'papacy'), and is in turn delegated by him to the 'bishops in union with him.' The bishops in turn are able to provide the priests they ordain with an office which is to say that they in turn provide the priests they govern with jurisdiction. Under ordinary circumstances no layman has the right to teach, govern, or sanctify in the name of the Church. This does not mean that a layman cannot state what the teaching of the Church is on a certain subject. Nor does it mean that he does not have the responsibility of teaching, governing and sanctifying himself and his family. It simply means that he is not a member of the teaching hierarchy of the Church. As such - and this is important - no layman should be telling other Catholics (outside his own family) to stay away from the Sacraments. His jurisdiction does not extend beyond his own family - and even within his family he cannot tell his wife and children to sin. Should he do so, he would be abusing the authority invested in him as a father, appropriating to himself God's authority, and as such he should be labeled a tyrant.3

Does jurisdiction exist in the post-Conciliar Church? As traditional Catholics know, the post-Conciliar Church teaches falsely. To say it has jurisdiction is to state that it has the authority to teach error in God's name. Such is of course impossible for it imputes to God an evil intention. (God may allow evil, but cannot intend it.) Hence traditional Catholics deny that the post-Conciliar Church has any real jurisdiction. Those who believe otherwise had best obey the teachings of this Church in toto which includes obeying all the post-Conciliar 'popes,' accepting the new 'mass' and all the errors embraced by Vatican II. None of us can have our cake and eat it.

Canon Law tells us that when a member of the hierarchy teaches heresy with pertinacity, he losses his jurisdiction. This follows logically from the fact that one cannot teach error with the authority of God. Like the Father in the family who commands his wife or children to sin, such a person is abusing authority and exercising jurisdiction in his own name.4

Those who would persuade us that traditional priests lack jurisdiction must face the following dilemma: if the post-Conciliar Church lacks jurisdiction, and if the traditional priests lack jurisdiction, we are led to the conclusion that the 'Gates of Hell' have prevailed. If there is no jurisdiction left, there is no Church left. To hold this is to deny the very promise of Christ. This is not an option open to Catholics.

Let us consider the issue from yet another angle. Supposing a Father, being sick or having died, is no longer available in a family. Does this mean that there is no authority in the family? Certainly not. In such a circumstance, the wife or oldest child 'steps in' to replace him. Or again, let us imagine that in a just war the general dies. Would this require that all the junior officers lay down their arms and cease to fight? Hardly. Coming back to the Church, let us ask what happens to jurisdiction when a pope dies. Do bishops stop ordaining? Do priests stop giving sacraments? Certainly not. Now, those of us who believe there is no reigning pope have no problem in the lesser hierarchy carrying on their proper functions. There have been long periods of interregnum (times when there was no pope reigning) in the past - up to 18 years in one situation. Did the Church come to an end? Again, one must answer, Certainly not.5

Consider yet another situation - that of the Greek Orthodox Clergy. From the Roman Catholic point of view, none of the orthodox have jurisdiction. How can they when they do not recognize the authority of Peter. Yet the Catholic Church has always recognized the validity of their sacraments and even allows Roman Catholics to receive the Last Rights from them when no Catholic priest is available. How is this possible when they have no jurisdiction? The answer is simple. The Church 'supplies' them with jurisdiction.

There have been many historical situations in which bishops and priests have wielded their (or rather, God's) authority without formal jurisdiction. Canon law allows for this in situations where Epikeia is present. What is Epikeia? In simple terms it is a situation where the rigid application of a law would frustrate the author of the law's intention. Now the author of the law regarding jurisdiction is God, and clearly the intention of God is the salvation of souls.6 The normal means by which this is achieved, i.e., the 'vehicles of grace,' are the teachings of the Church and the unquestionably valid sacraments. If the letter of the law frustrates God's intent, then the principle of Epikeia applies. As St. Alphonsus states, 'it is a presumption, at least probable, that the legislator [God] in a certain set of circumstances did [or, would] not wish to bind [the subject]. Where Epikeia applies, the Church always supplies the jurisdiction.7 Canonists would do well to at least read such texts as The History, Nature and Use of Epikeia in Moral Theology by Father Lawrence Riley (Catholic Univ. of America, 1948) before declaring -as they implicitly do - that Epikeia cannot apply to the present circumstances in the Church.

A final word on would be canonists that have appropriated to themselves the teaching function of the Church. This is a dangerous act, and one which they will have to answer to God for. Consider the fact that Canon Law is a series of Canons which cannot cover every circumstance. When a case comes up requiring adjudication, as in civil law, two lawyers are assigned; one as prosecutor and the other as defender. Both have access to the same laws or canons. Both argue before a judge and/or jury as to what would be the appropriate application of the law to the given circumstance. Both will seek out precedents where available. It is then for the judge or the jury to decide how the law is best applied. Now in the present circumstance in the Church we have the canon law and innumerable partially trained canonists. There is no higher authority (i.e., pope) who can decide the issues with certainty.8 These half-baked canonists in determining how we should behave on the basis of their interpretation of Canon law, are declaring themselves both lawyer, jury and judge. They are presuming to teach, to govern and to sanctify. But none of them have been invested with the triple crown. To them I say, it is all right for them to follow their own conscience (the application of God's law to specific circumstances), but totally inappropriate for them to try and form the consciences of their fellow Catholics.9 Fools walk where angels fear to tread.

Another issue which comes up are the limits of jurisdiction which traditional priests have. The answer is again quite simple. They have that amount of jurisdiction which allows them to function for the salvation of souls in the present circumstances. Claims on the part of any to 'universal jurisdiction' seem excessive and are beyond what is required by circumstance. And so it is that a priest can hear confession for example, without any universal jurisdiction. The claim to universal jurisdiction can only lead to futile arguments as no one can force another to accept the limits on his functioning and jurisdiction in the present circumstances. This of course does not mean that an individual priest cannot attach himself to a given bishop and in a sense therefore derive his jurisdiction from said bishop. But in general lay people should not involve themselves in these technical issues. They should rather avail themselves of the sacraments and thank God for their availability. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Nothing said herein should be taken as suggesting that Canon Law is not important, or that we can ignore it under the present circumstances. Clearly we must try, as much as is reasonable, to fulfill the requirements of Canon Law. The laws instituted by the Church have their purpose and our submitting to them submits our will to Holy Mother Church. However, we cannot let the entire end of religion depend upon any individual’s interpretation of these laws - we must above all be reasonable. As this always poses the risk of self-will, where a question arises, the solution is to discuss a given issue with one’s priest who under the present circumstances, represents the Church.

Let us then thank God that he has provided us with traditional priests. Regardless of their personal foibles - and they have many - they provide us with true doctrine and unquestionably valid sacraments. To refuse their services is equivalent to refusing to allow an otherwise fully qualified physician to see a dreadfully ill child because he is not licensed in the state where one resides.


1 The word office comes from the Latin 'opus' meaning work and 'facere' meaning to do. Webster's defines it as 'a special duty, trust, charge or position conferred by an exercise of governmental authority...'

2 It is pertinent that the term 'father' is shared by the head of a household, the priest, as father over the community, by the Pope as Father in the Church, and by God who is father over all creation. Some will object to my drawing a parallel with regard to jurisdiction in the family. But the family is just as much 'divinely constituted' as is the Church. This is more than adequately made clear in St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 5.

3 An individual must follow the dictates of his own conscience - conscience being the interpretation of God's law as applied to a given circumstance. He may guide the consciences of those under his authority (wife and children), but he cannot force them to violate their own consciences.

4 A caveat. Before declaring that any given individual or group of individuals are teaching error, we must be sure that they do so with full knowledge. A traditional priest may teach something in error - we are all capable of being mistaken - and such is called a 'material' heresy. Before we condemn the leaders of the post-Conciliar Church of being heretics, we must -as has been repeatedly done - show that they teach error with pertinacity. This means that the error has been pointed out to them repeatedly over a period of at least six months, and that they have refused to correct their mistakes. This makes them 'formally' heretics. 'Pertinacity' means that they have willingly persisted in their errors. The grounds for condemning the post-Conciliar hierarchy as heretical are beyond the scope of this paper.

5 This is not the place to discuss the differences between those who hold that the Chair of Peter is empty (sede vacantists) and those who believe the post-Conciliar 'popes' are 'material' but not 'formal' popes. Suffice it to say that both groups are in full agreement that whatever these individuals are, they do not wield authority in the name of God.

6 It should be clear that the proscriptions of the Church regarding the rights of the clergy to use their sacramental functions is part of ecclesiastical law. Some of the would-be canonists have claimed that it is part of divine law. (This would make it equivalent to proscription against murder.) This only shows their ignorance of the law as well as of history. The Apostles and early bishops did not check in with Peter when they decided to ordain local Bishops and priests - indeed, in the practical order such was impossible. They knew however that their actions were in accord with what Peter (and God) would have wished. I would ask the reader to imagine that by some means or other a true pope were to be established on the Chair of Peter. Would he condemn those priests and bishops who, despite persecution and tremendous difficulties, have persisted in their efforts to provide the faithful with solid doctrine and true sacraments. One may be permitted to doubt it.

7 As St. Thomas Aquinas says, 'the power of jurisdiction is not granted a man for his own benefit, but for the good of the people and for the glory of God' and further, 'since necessity knows no law, in cases of necessity the ordinance of the Church does not hinder' (Summa, Suppl. Q. 8, Art. 5 and 6)

8 None of these individuals are trained in Canon Law - there are in fact traditional priests who have doctorates (plural) in Canon law. Why people listen to unqualified individuals -individuals endorsed by no traditional priest - is beyond me. It is like letting an untrained surgeon operate on one.

9 While it is true that we must follow the dictates of our own conscience, it is also true that our conscience may err. Hence the importance of having a well formed conscience - i.e., one formed on the basis of Catholic principles.

latin - church - god - heresy - popes - souls - canon - catholics - jurisdiction - pope - gregory ix - boniface xiii - pius x - orders - authority - epikeia - licit - illicit - salvation - spirit

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