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Talk about being in error!

Did the Council of Florence Teach Error? A Response to Athanasius Schneider’s Attempt to Save Vatican II

No matter how one looks at it, the only way one can ever justify or excuse the abominable Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is by trashing the Catholic Church prior to the council. Mr. Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary “bishop” (why the quotes?) of the diocese of Maria Santissima in Astana, Kazakhstan, has just shown that that goes not only for open Modernists but also for some “traditionalists.”

In a newly-released text, the Kazakh prelate once again repeats his claim that there is historical precedent for the idea that a Pope can correct the errors of a prior ecumenical council. The case he has in mind is the 15th-century Council of Florence, specifically its Decree for the Armenians, which Schneider asserts erred on identifying the matter of the sacrament of holy orders, something allegedly corrected by Pope Pius XII in 1947.

The former Vatican nuncio to the United States, “Abp.” Carlo Maria Viganò, publicly criticized Schneider for this recently, noting that his argument “undermines the Catholic edifice from its foundation. If in fact we admit that there may be Magisterial acts that, due to a changed sensitivity, are susceptible to abrogation, modification, or different interpretation with the passage of time, we inevitably fall under the condemnation of the [anti-Modernist] Decree Lamentabili [of Pope St. Pius X], and we end up offering justification to those who, recently, precisely on the basis of that erroneous assumption, declared that the death penalty ‘does not conform to the Gospel,‘ and thus amended the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (source).

In this post, we will examine Mr. Schneider’s claims that (1) the Council of Florence taught error, that (2) Pope Pius XII corrected this error, and that (3) this serves as historical precedent for saying that Vatican II contains error which must be corrected by a subsequent Pope.

The Argumentation of Athanasius Schneider

We begin our critical examination with a link to Schneider’s latest article, relased on June 24, 2020, and published in English exclusively by The Remnant. It is, in part, a response to “Abp.” Vigano’s recent critique:

The same text was published simultaneously in other languages at other authorized blogs, all on the same day:

Let us now look at what Schneider argues with regard to error being taught by the Council of Florence that was later corrected by Pope Pius XII:

An opinion different from what the Council of Florence taught on the matter of the Sacrament of Orders, i.e. the traditio instrumentorum [handing over of the instruments, i.e. the paten and chalice], was allowed in the centuries following this Council, and led to Pope Pius XII’s pronouncement in the 1947 Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis, whereby he corrected the non-infallible teaching of the Council of Florence, by stating that the only matter strictly necessary for the validity of the Sacrament of Orders is the imposition of hands by the bishop. By this act, Pius XII did not implement a hermeneutic of continuity but, indeed, a correction, because the Council of Florence’s doctrine in this matter did not reflect the constant liturgical doctrine and practice of the universal Church. Already in the year 1914, Cardinal W.M. van Rossum wrote concerning the Council of Florence’s affirmation on the matter of the Sacrament of Orders, that this doctrine of the Council is reformable and must even be abandoned (cf. De essentia sacramenti ordinis, Freiburg 1914, p. 186). And so, there was no room for a hermeneutic of continuity in this concrete case.

…Pope Pius XII corrected the error of the Ecumenical Council of Florence regarding the matter of the Sacrament of Orders. The foundations of the faith were not undermined by these rare acts to correct previous affirmations of the non-infallible Magisterium, precisely because these concrete affirmations (e.g. of the Councils of Constance and Florence) were not infallible.

(Athanasius Schneider, “Some reflections on the Second Vatican Council and the current crisis in the Church”, in Diane Montagna, “55 YEARS LATER: Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s Appraisal of Vatican II”, The Remnant, June 24, 2020; italics given.)

Schneider also gives other examples from Church history that supposedly prove that “the papal magisterium or an ecumenical Council has corrected non-infallible doctrines of previous ecumenical Councils (this has rarely happened)”, but in this post, we will focus only on this one argument concerning holy orders, which is complex enough to disentangle.

The Kazakh pseudo-bishop had made the same argument already in his 2019 book, Christus Vincit, boldly asserting that “the Ecumenical Council of Florence in its decree for the Armenians, which was not meant to be a definitive dogmatic judgment, made an objective doctrinal error in saying that the matter of the sacrament of Order is the ‘handing over of the instruments'” (p. 129; underlining added). He then added that this “error” of the council

later caused some Catholic theologians to assert in their dogmatic manuals that the traditio instrumentorum is necessary for validity. Even the Holy See [!] did this in some of the editions of the Pontificale Romanum [the book containing the official rite of ordination], in which one can find it stated that, if the handing over of the instruments had been omitted, it had to be supplied for the sake of the validity of the ordination. In 1947, Pope Pius XII officially corrected the objective theological error of the Ecumenical Council of Florence, which was also the error of St. Thomas Aquinas, by stating that the imposition of the hands is the only valid matter for diaconal, presbyteral, and episcopal ordinations.

(Athanasius Schneider, Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph Over the Darkness of the Age [Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2019], p. 129; italics given; underlining added.)

Before we go any further, a point of clarification is in order for people who are not familiar with ordination ceremonies and therefore may not understand what is being said.

The Church teaches that there are two visible elements to every sacrament which are necessary for its validity. These are called the matter and the form of the sacrament. For example, in the sacrament of baptism the matter is the water being poured over the head of the person being baptized, whereas the form of the sacrament is the words being pronounced by the minister as he pours the water, to wit: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” These two elements, together with the requisite intention of the minister to do what the Church does, are what make the sacrament to be what it is, and should any one of these elements be lacking, the sacrament does not actually take place, no matter what else occurs in the ceremony (rite).

With regard to priestly ordination, until 1947 there was a long-standing controversy in the Church as to what constitutes the matter of the sacrament in the Roman (Latin) rite. Some theologians held that it was the part of the ceremony known as the traditio instrumentorum, the “handing over of the instruments” — that is, the giving of the paten and the chalice by the ordaining bishop to the one being ordained, which the latter touches with his hands. An instance of this can be seen quite beautifully in the following picture, in which the ordinand, kneeling before the ordaining bishop, touches the paten with the (unconsecrated) host and the chalice with wine being handed to him:

The handing over of the instruments during priestly ordination
(screenshot from 1963 movie The Cardinal)

Other theologians argued that the matter was not this giving of the instruments but rather the imposition (laying on) of hands by the bishop on the head of the ordinand. Since, however, the bishop imposes hands as many as three times during the ordination ceremony, the question then became which of these three impositions constitutes the matter, and that point was disputed as well.

This disagreement among theologians over the centuries was aggravated by the fact that at the Council of Florence, Pope Eugene IV approved a decree for the Armenian church that identified the matter of the sacrament of holy orders for priestly ordination in the Roman rite as the handing over of the instruments, making no mention at all of the imposition of hands:

The sixth [of the seven sacraments] is the sacrament of [holy] orders. Its matter is the object by whose handing over the order is conferred. So the priesthood is bestowed by the handing over of a chalice with wine and a paten with bread; the diaconate by the giving of the book of the gospels; the subdiaconate by the handing over of an empty chalice with an empty paten on it; and similarly for the other orders by allotting things connected with their ministry.

(Council of Florence, Session 8, Decree Exsultate Deo; underlining added. See also Denz. 701.)

In stating this, the ecumenical council followed St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the Universal Doctor of the Church, whose instruction on this sacrament it repeated almost verbatim:

The matter of this Sacrament is that matter which is handed over to the candidate at the conferring of the order. Thus, priesthood is conferred by the handing over of the chalice, and so each order is conferred by the handing over of that matter which in a special way pertains to the ministry of that particular order.

(The Catechetical Instructions of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. by Rev. Joseph B. Collins [Manila: Sinag-Tala Publishers, Inc.], pp. 152-153; italics given.)

So far, so good.

Since then, however, historical research has shown that up until 900 A.D., the Roman ordination rite only included the laying on of hands but not the delivery of the instruments. Furthermore, in the Eastern churches, which have their own ordination rites, there is no traditio instrumentorum, only the imposition of hands.

This conundrum has vexed theologians for centuries: Was the Council of Florence, together with St. Thomas Aquinas, mistaken? Or can the matter of a sacrament be one thing in the Latin church and another in the Eastern churches? Or did the Church perhaps change what constitutes the matter of holy orders? Can the Church even make such a change? Etc. These are difficult questions, and, not surprisingly, theologians did not agree among themselves on how to answer them.

Athanasius Schneider acts as though there were only one answer, obvious to all. He confidently maintains that not only were the Council of Florence and St. Thomas in error, but so was the Holy See in the liturgical directives the Popes had approved. The Kazakh prelate purports to glean this from the Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis Pope Pius XII issued on Nov. 30, 1947.

Surely only a clear, definitive, and infallible declaration by Pope Pius XII that the prior teaching had been erroneous, could account for Schneider’s strong conviction and brazen argumentation on such a delicate matter, no?

The Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius XII

One would think so, but one would be wrong. It is true that Pope Pius XII settles the controversy in Sacramentum Ordinis, but he only does so for the future, not for the past. Far from purporting to correct an error of the Council of Florence, the Pope actually says very little about the ecumenical council.

Here is what Pius XII decreed:

Wherefore, after invoking the divine light, We of Our Apostolic Authority and from certain knowledge declare, and as far as may be necessary decree and provide: that the matter, and the only matter, of the Sacred Orders of the Diaconate, the Priesthood, and the Episcopacy is the imposition of hands; and that the form, and the only form, is the words which determine the application of this matter, which univocally signify the sacramental effects – namely the power of Order and the grace of the Holy Spirit – and which are accepted and used by the Church in that sense. It follows as a consequence that We should declare, and in order to remove all controversy and to preclude doubts of conscience, We do by Our Apostolic Authority declare, and if there was ever a lawful disposition to the contrary We now decree that at least in the future the traditio instrumentorum is not necessary for the validity of the Sacred Orders of the Diaconate, the Priesthood, and the Episcopacy.

The provisions of this Our Constitution have not retroactive force; in case any doubt arises, it is be submitted to this Apostolic See.

(Pope Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis, nn. 4,6; italics and underlining added.)

These are strong words, and they are in stark contrast to the impression given by Schneider: Although Pius XII determined definitively that henceforth the matter of the sacrament of holy orders for the priesthood would be the imposition of hands, he made no decision with regard to the question about the handing over of the instruments in the past (i.e. before the Apostolic Constitution would go into effect), declaring explicitly that if that was ever necessary for validity before — and therefore would have constituted the matter of the sacrament at least in part –, it would be so no longer.

In short: What “Bp.” Schneider pompously declares to have been an error in prior Church teaching and practice, Pope Pius XII did not condemn or correct at all. Pius XII deliberately avoided making a definitive pronouncement about the past and only concerned himself with defining the matter and form for ordinations in the future. It is therefore rash, temerarious, and plainly wrong for the Kazakh auxiliary to go around proclaiming that Pope Pius XII corrected the Council of Florence, which had been approved by Pope Eugene IV on Nov. 22, 1439.

Nevertheless, Pope Pius XII did bring up the Council of Florence directly in Sacramentum Ordinis. He declared:

All agree that the Sacraments of the New Law, as sensible signs which produce invisible grace, must both signify the grace which they produce and produce the grace which they signify. Now the effects which must be produced and hence also signified by Sacred Ordination to the Diaconate, the Priesthood, and the Episcopacy, namely power and grace, in all the rites of various times and places in the universal Church, are found to be sufficiently signified by the imposition of hands and the words which determine it. Besides, every one knows that the Roman Church has always held as valid Ordinations conferred according to the Greek rite without the traditio instrumentorum; so that in the very Council of Florence, in which was effected the union of the Greeks with the Roman Church, the Greeks were not required to change their rite of Ordination or to add to it the traditio instrumentorum: and it was the will of the Church that in Rome itself the Greeks should be ordained according to their own rite. It follows that, even according to the mind of the Council of Florence itself, the traditio instrumentorum is not required for the substance and validity of this Sacrament by the will of Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. If it was at one time necessary even for validity by the will and command of the Church, every one knows that the Church has the power to change and abrogate what she herself has established.

(Pope Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis, n. 3; italics and underlining added.)

Far from conceding that the Council of Florence was mistaken and in need of correction, thus, the Pope actually declared that (a) the council itself did not look upon the handing over of the instruments as instrinsically necessary for the validity of an ordination, as though it were a matter of divine institution; and that (b) if the council considered it necessary for validity, then it did so only as a matter of Church law, not divine law.

Thus we see that a careful reading of Pope Pius XII’s decree on the subject does not back up Schneider’s position with regard to what the Council of Florence said constitutes the matter of the sacrament of priestly ordination. The Pope merely determined what the matter and form of the sacrament would be going forward, and he made no determination about the past except to say that if the handing over of the instruments ever belonged to the matter of the sacrament, then it was so by the disposition of the Church and not because our Lord instituted it so.

Florence vs. Pius XII? What the Theologians Say

To further confirm our thesis that “Bp.” Schneider’s position that Pope Pius XII corrected an error of an ecumenical council cannot be sustained, and to demonstrate how complex the whole controversy about it is, we will now examine the writings of some pre-Vatican II theologians on the subject, both before and after the release of Sacramentum Ordinis (1947).

To understand better what the theologians are talking about, let’s keep in mind that the document in question that the council issued is known as the Decretum pro Armenis (Decree for the Armenians) and is entitled Exultate Deo. For the sake of theological accuracy, we must underscore that this document is a decree, not a dogmatic constitution, and it was addressed to the Armenian church, which the Council of Florence was in the process of reintegrating into the Catholic Church after a history of schism and heresy. The Armenians had their own ordination rite, which included the laying on of hands but not the delivery of the instruments.

The Nature and Authority of the Decree for the Armenians

Writing for The Clergy Review in 1950, Canon George Smith gives a very brief description of the various positions taken by different theologians over the centuries with regard to the nature and authority of the council’s Decree for the Armenians:

Some have continued to abide by the Decree as authoritative, but restrict its bearing to only one part of the essential matter of the sacrament; others disclaim for it any intention of defining what is the matter and form of the sacrament and see in it only a disciplinary instruction from which the Armenians might learn what were the Roman ceremonies of ordination. [Cardinal Pietro] Gasparri, finally, whose authority has greatly influenced the trend of modern opinion, cuts the Gordian knot by rejecting as erroneous a decision which he acknowledges to be doctrinal but considers to lack the conditions necessary to make it infallible. According to the Cardinal the sole essential matter of Order is, and always has been, the imposition of hands, and the Decree pro Armenis was mistaken in declaring that it had ever been otherwise.

(G. D. Smith, “The Church and her Sacraments”, The Clergy Review, vol. 33, n. 4 [Apr. 1950], pp. 221-222)

Fr. Walter Clancy provides more detail in his summary of the different views proposed by theologians:

The Cancellor of Louvain, Ruard Tapper (1487-1599), was the first to claim the pronouncement of the Council of Florence to be de fide in support of his argument that the traditio instrumentorum, beyond all doubt, constituted the essential rite of the sacrament of Orders. Others, following the opinion of St. Thomas, used this decree together with the [13th century] Decretal of Pope Gregory IX … to vindicate their position.

Not all authors, however, considered the decree [of the Council of Florence] to have such force. St. Alphonsus (1696-1787) and Pope Benedict XIV (Prospero Lambertini [1675-1758]) were of the opinion that Eugene IV did not intend to determine the essential matter of the sacrament, but desired simply to present a practical instruction to the Armenian Church concerning the use of the delivery of the instruments, and in no way sought to settle the question. This opinion presumes that the Armenians were in ignorance of the use of the traditio instrumentorum in the West. There is good evidence to show, however, that the use of the chalice and the paten in the ordination ceremony had been the custom in the Armenian Church for two hundred years before the decree was issued. In a reply to this specific question proposed by Pope Benedict XII (1334-1342), the Armenians, gathered at Sis in 1344, sent to Rome a Latin translation of their ordination ceremony, which did include the delivery of the paten and the chalice.

Among the modern authors this sharp difference of opinion continued. Gasparri (1852-1934) termed the decree doctrinal, but neither definitive nor infallible. Cardinal Van Rossum (1854-1932) took the extreme view that the decree contained doctrinal error. De Guibert (1877-1942), P. Galtier (1872-[1961]), Billot (1846-1931) and others defended the full conciliar authority of the Decretum pro Armenis and concluded that the Pope effected a change in the matter and the form of the sacrament of Orders. Their arguments, upholding the power of the Church to change the essential rites of the sacrament of Orders, or the matter and the form of this sacrament, are convincing. They do not, however, explain the action of the Council with regard to the Greek Church as taken a little before the Armenian envoys arrived, nor the lack of insistence that this conciliar decree settled the matter once and for all. Another author [Fr. John Bligh, S.J.] proposed the opinion that the decree was intended by the Council to constitute the traditio instrumentorum as the essential matter in the Armenian Church only.

There is no question of papal infallibility. Pope Eugene IV, in issuing the decree, was acting not as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, but only as teacher of the Armenian Church to whom the decree was addressed. The most weighty argument against the binding force of the Decretum pro Armenis was the continuation of the controversy in the West. Certainly the writers before, during and after the Council of Trent did not consider the matter closed.

(Rev. Walter B. Clancy, The Rites and Ceremonies of Sacred Ordination [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1962], pp. 36-37; italics given; underlining added.)

In his contribution for the Sacrae Theologiae Summa dogmatic theology collection, Fr. Francis Solá summarizes the various positions in a way similar to Fr. Clancy and then defends his own:

There are four main interpretations about the worth of this document. 1. It has to do with a definitive decree determining the faith. This is the view of Tapper, Billot, Galtier. 2. It is not a decree, but a practical instruction in the part that concerns the sacraments; the Supreme Pontiff is not deciding, but only teaching the Latin rites to the Armenians. D’Annibale, Denzinger and especially Quera have embraced this opinion. And it is a fairly common opinion among modern authors. 3. It is indeed a doctrinal decree, but not definitive or infallible, because Eugene IV is not speaking ex cathedra, as is clear from his way of acting and speaking. Card. Gasparri proposed this solution. 4. Finally, Michel tries to work out some kind of reconciliation of opinions by referring this document to the power of the Supreme Pontiff in reference to the sacraments; but perhaps this opinion is the same as the second one.

It seems to us that the second opinion is the one to be defended. The main reasons for this are: a) The Council of Florence, after many long and painful disputes with the Greeks, approved their sacramental rites; can it be possible that then immediately it approved a decree against the Armenians? To this question Billot and Hugon respond that Eugene IV published the decree by changing the matter of Orders for the Latin Church, but not for the Oriental Church. But really, it would be unheard of that a change in such a serious matter was given to the Orientals for the Latin Church; and also that it would have been given in such a way that it was not made public with the decrees of the Council, but remained secret. Also it should be noted that among the decrees of Eugene IV never was any allusion made to this change.

b) If the Council of Florence had passed a solemn and doctrinal decree, then at the Council of Trent without doubt the theologians would have spoken about it in favor of the handing over of the instruments when they were considering the matter of the sacrament of Orders. However, even though the Fathers and Theologians knew about the Florentine document (the sacrament of Orders was handled in 1563), it seems that they did not attribute any authority to it. Otherwise, in all probability, there would have been a significant debate about this matter.

c) After the Council of Trent, theologians still debated about the matter of the sacrament of Orders; this could not have happened if the Council of Florence had made a solemn decree on this matter; for, the Church would not have permitted disputes of this kind; for she is wont fervidly to protect her solemn definitions.

d) Then the form itself of the document, in which it is not so intent on giving a decree as it is in recommending some quasi formulas, indicates that it is not giving a decree but an instruction. At that time the teaching about the handing over of the instruments as the matter of the sacrament of Orders was actually quite frequent; therefore it is not surprising that the theologians or Fathers at the Council of Florence composed a brief summary from the small book of St. Thomas on the sacraments and gave it to the Armenians by way of an instruction.

e) Furthermore, as is stated in D[enzinger] 701 in the note, the Supreme Pontiffs always preserved the Oriental rites and they did not impose anything new on them. At the very time when the document was read at the Council of Florence during one of the sessions, the Greeks and Armenians explained their rites.

(Rev. Francis a P. Solá, Sacrae Theologiae Summa IVB: On Holy Orders and Matrimony, n. 92, pp. 85-86; italics given; underlining added.)

Fr. Clarence McAuliffe states more concisely:

The decree more probably has no dogmatic value. It is simply a directive issued to the Armenians. The council merely meant: “Since you Armenians wish to be united with Rome and would like to administer the sacraments in the same way that Rome does, we offer you the following norms for your guidance.”

(Rev. Clarence McAuliffe, Sacramental Theology: A Textbook for Advanced Students [St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1958], p. 363)

The view of Fathers Clancy, Sola, and McAuliffe is also that of Mgr. Joseph Pohle, who wrote before Pius XII’s Sacramentum Ordinis:

…[T]he Decretum pro Armenis…, while it possesses very high authority, is not an ex-cathedra decision, but merely a papal instruction issued for the purpose of effecting conformity between the Armenian and the Roman rites. Hence its characteristic reference to the Roman Ritual, which expressly prescribes the imposition of hands, a practice that had long been in use among the Armenians. [Pope] Benedict XIV correctly estimates the import of the Decretum for our purpose when he says: “It is therefore necessary to admit that Pope Eugene spoke of the integrating and accessory matter and form [of the Sacrament], which he desired the Armenians to add to the imposition of hands long employed by them, in order that they might conform themselves to the custom of the Latin Church.”

(Mgr. Joseph Pohle, The Sacraments: A Dogmatic Treatise, vol. IV, 3rd ed. [St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1920], pp. 65-66; italics given. An earlier edition is available online here.)

It is easy to see that this controversy about the Council of Florence is far from settled. By accusing the council of error, “Bp.” Schneider simply expressed the view held by Cardinal Willem van Rossum (1854-1932) and apparently Cardinal Gasparri; a view which was not shared by most and which comes with certain dangers attached:

Cardinal van Rossum, indeed, declared bluntly that the Decree for the Armenians was mistaken, since the sole matter of Orders has always been an imposition of hands. But it would seem hazardous thus to reject the authority of the Decree for the Armenians. Canon Smith writes:

De Guibert has vindicated the Decree in a series of articles devoted to a study of its history, ‘Le décret du concile de Florence pour les Arméniens, sa valeur dogmatique.’ And its full conciliar authority has been vigorously defended in more recent times by Fr P. Galtier, S.J., who has few rivals in the field of sacramental theology. ‘If it is not strictly a definition de fide,’ he wrote in 1944 [i.e. before Pius XII’s Sacramentum Ordinis], ‘it is at any rate a real conciliar decree, promulgated by the Pope in Council, and therefore issued by the highest doctrinal authority that has ever been accepted in the Church. Consequently the teaching it contains must be recognized as that which the Church has solemnly proclaimed as her own and has imposed as such on those who wish to be received into her communion.’ [Rev. Paul Galtier, “Encore un mot sur la nature du décret ‘pro Armenis'”, Gregorianum, vol. 25, p. 184]

[Canon George D. Smith, “The Church and her Sacraments”, The Clergy Review, vol. 33, n. 4 (Apr. 1950), p. 220]

Many others, too, such as Billot and Hugueny defend the full conciliar authority of Florence.

(Rev. Bernard Leeming, Principles of Sacramental Theology [London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1956], n. 462, p. 420; italics given.)

By accusing the council of Florence of doctrinal error, Schneider is on shaky ground. But by claiming that Pope Pius XII understood himself to be correcting a conciliar error, he is definitely mistaken.

Pope Pius XII did not purport to be correcting the Council of Florence

We will now look at what various pre-Vatican II theologians have written about how Pope Pius XII’s Sacramentum Ordinis impacts the dispute about the Council of Florence.

Fr. Emmanuel Doronzo is quite clear that the Pope did not correct anything but left the controversy about the past untouched:

…[T]he only opinion now excluded in this controversy is that of those doctors, especially among the ancients, who held that the tradition of the instruments had a divine origin as being essential to the rite of ordination, whether totally or even partially.

The Pope directly brings up the Council of Florence, as approving the ordinations of the Greeks, in which there was no tradition of the instruments, and also indirectly refers to the Decree for the Armenians itself, not indeed as discerning anything about the proper sense or the right interpretation of this Decree (and thus leaving untouched this controversy among theologians) but in order to put to rest two arguments, adduced by some theologians to prove the necessity of the tradition of the instruments.

(Rev. Emmanuel Doronzo, De Ordine, vol. II [Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1959], p. 760; underlining added; our translation.)

This is confirmed also by Fr. Bernard Leeming, who writes that “the Constitution leaves untouched the question whether in the Western Church, from about the eleventh century onwards, the presentation of the sacred vessels was or was not the matter of the sacrament” (Principles of Sacramental Theology, n. 461, p. 419; underlining added.).

Thus also Fr. Franz Hürth, S.J. (1880-1963), who says that Pius XII did not settle the dispute about the Decree for the Armenians and thus the controversy about its sense and authority remains (see “Commentarius ad Const. Apostolicam”, Periodica de Re Morali Canonica Liturgica, vol. 37, n. 1 [1948], pp. 17-18).

Canon George Smith takes the same view:

The state of the controversy seems to be in no way altered by the Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis of Pius XII…

as to the past no pronouncement is made. Had the imposition of hands previously, and always, been essential? Was it so determined by Christ himself? Was the Decree pro Armenis authoritative? And was the delivery of the instruments ever in fact essential? To these questions, which are of purely theological interest, no definite answer has yet been given.”

(G. D. Smith, “The Church and her Sacraments”, The Clergy Review, vol. 33, n. 4 [Apr. 1950], pp. 223-224; underlining added.)

Canon John McCarthy echoes this assessment as well and provides more information:

…[T]he Holy Father gave no decision in regard to the requirements in the past for valid ordination in the Latin rite. His pronouncement has no retroactive force. The Church may, in the past, have legitimately demanded the traditio instrumentorum as part of the essential rite.

The Apostolic Constitution does not contain a decision that the imposition of hands pertains to the substance of the sacrament of Holy Orders…. This is only another way of saying that the Holy Father has not given a decision that the imposition of hands was appointed by Christ as the matter of this sacrament. It is, however, stated in the Papal document that the imposition of hands was the ancient and universally recognized manner of efficaciously signifying the sacramental effects of Holy Orders…. But, we repeat, the Holy Father does not affirm, or deny, that the imposition of hands was appointed by Christ.

(Canon John McCarthy, Problems in Theology, vol. 1: The Sacraments [Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1956], pp. 338, 340; italics given.)

Clearly, then, Pope Pius XII did not see himself as correcting an error of the past. That is wishful thinking on Athanasius Schneider’s part, entirely without foundation.

How, then, is the Council of Florence best to be understood? Here, too, different answers have been given.

Why the Council of Florence did not mention the Imposition of Hands

Thankfully, we do not only have mere theologians to consult on this question but also theologians who are canonized saints and Doctors of the Church — specifically St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) and St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787).

Dr. Christian Washburn summarizes Cardinal Bellarmine’s position as follows:

Bellarmine offers several explanations for the omission. First, he notes that the Council of Florence simply did not explain the entirety of the rite of ordination but simply addressed one part that was under dispute, a common practice of councils. The Fourth Council of Carthage (256), for example, had only mentioned the laying on of hands and did not mention the rite of the presentation of the vessels. Therefore, there is no necessary logical conflict between the teachings of these two councils. Each council simply addressed a different issue. Second, Bellarmine offers the rather obvious point that the Council of Florence was not contesting the laying on of hands, which the Armenians and Greeks practiced, but the absence from their rite of the presentation of the vessels.

(Christian D. Washburn, “St. Robert Bellarmine’s Theology of the Sacrament of Ordination”, Josephinum Journal of Theology, vol. 19, n. 2 [2012], p. 277-278)

St. Alphonsus explains that according to Pope Benedict XIV, who was contributing to the discussion as a private theologian,

[Pope] Eugene had spoken in this place only of the integral matter and form which he intended to give to the Armenians, who wished to be joined to the Latin Church; and therefore there was no need to signify to them the imposition of hands, as according to the Greek rite, in which they had previously been ordained, they already were accustomed to employ it. Therefore we say that Eugene did not change the matter and form of this sacrament, but to the imposition of hands he only superadded the tradition of the instruments, as an integral part….

(St. Alphonsus Liguori, Theologia Moralis, ed. by P. Leonardi Gaudé [Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1954], vol. 3, book 6; n. 749, p. 755; our translation.)

In his response to Fr. Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890), who was eventually excommunicated by Pope Pius IX for refusing to accept the dogma of papal infallibility, Cardinal Joseph Hergenröther (1824-1890) echoes the teachings of the two Doctors of the Church and rebuffs the idea that the Decree for the Armenians contains error:

If the tendering of the vessels is stated to be the matter of holy orders, this does not certainly exclude the imposition of hands, which was already in use among the Armenians, and was prescribed in the Roman Pontifical also, to which express reference is made. [Pope] Eugenius spoke of the integral and accessory form and matter, which, for greater conformity with the Roman Church, the Armenians were yet to adopt. …As this Instruction had for its object to bring the Armenians as near as possible to the Roman rite in the administration of the sacraments, its mode of speech has nothing remarkable; still less is it chargeable with error.

(Cardinal Joseph Hergenrother, Anti-Janus: An Historico-Theological Criticism of the Work entitled “The Pope and the Council” [New York, NY: The Catholic Publishing Society, 1870], pp. 90-91; underlining added.)

Lastly, Fr. Leeming offers a somewhat unique opinion on the whole matter (no pun intended):

Indeed, as has often been pointed out, the theologians who drew up the Decree for the Armenians were fully aware that the Greeks used only the imposition of hands; and yet they had no difficulty in telling the Armenians that the matter was the porrectio [=traditio] instrumentorum. The explanation seems to be that they felt that the difference between the imposition of hands and the presentation of the chalice and paten was by no means ‘substantial.’ … If they had believed that the difference between an imposition of hands and a presentation of the sacred vessels were substantial, their conduct in admitting the validity of Greek Orders, and yet declaring to the Armenians that the matter was the presentation of the sacred vessels, is inexplicable….

(Leeming, Principles of Sacramental Theology, n. 461, pp. 419-420; italics given.)

So, which of all these explanations is the correct one? We simply do not know with certainty. The Church has not told us.

Some Conclusions

Given all of the above, we see that the controversy about the subject at hand is quite complex, and the Church simply has not settled the issue, except by what Pope Pius XII decreed in Sacramentum Ordinis for that point forward.

We conclude, therefore, as follows:

  • The nature and intent of the Council of Florence’s Decree for the Armenians is disputed among theologians
  • What constituted the matter of the sacrament of priestly ordination at the time of the Council of Florence is disputed among theologians
  • It is extreme and rash to accuse the Decree for the Armenians of error, and by no means is it the general consensus of theologians that the decree is erroneous
  • Even if one were to hold that the Decree for the Armenians contains error — which appears to be possible, as the Pope was not intending to make an infallible pronouncement — it nevertheless reflected the common theological position of the day, which the Church had never definitively settled and on which different positions were permitted; in other words, it did not contradict dogma or doctrine that had already been settled
  • Pope Pius XII did not claim to be correcting an error in the Council of Florence
  • Pope Pius XII did not in fact correct an error in the Council of Florence, he merely determined what the matter and form of the sacrament of holy orders would be going forward; he deliberately and explicitly left the controversy regarding the Council of Florence untouched

We have demonstrated, therefore, that “Bishop” Athanasius Schneider’s claim that “Pope Pius XII corrected the error of the Ecumenical Council of Florence regarding the matter of the Sacrament of Orders” cannot be sustained. It is false and unsupportable. We challenge Schneider to produce even a single approved pre-Vatican II theologian who agrees with him that with Sacramentum Ordinis Pope Pius XII corrected an error promulgated by the Council of Florence.

It is clear that Schneider is desperately trying to find historical precedent for the Catholic Church teaching error so that he can sustain his position that Vatican II taught error but was nevertheless a legitimate ecumenical council promulgated by a valid Pope (“Saint” Paul VI). His careful caveat that such magisterial error is “rare”, cannot help him any, for that would make no difference in kind, only in degree (frequency); and in any case, error is certainly not rare in the magisterium of the Novus Ordo Church.

Final Remarks

The objective of this post has not been to settle the controversy about the Decree for the Armenians. Only the Church herself could settle it, and she has not done so. Rather, the goal has been to refute “Bp.” Schneider’s claims that the Council of Florence taught error, that Pope Pius XII corrected it, and that this serves as historical precedent allowing one to hold Vatican II to be legitimate but erroneous and subject to correction by a subsequent Pope.

Having established that Schneider is not justified in accusing the council of error (there are, as we saw, many other alternatives), and having seen that Pius XII did not claim to be correcting an error in the prior magisterium, it remains for us now to demonstrate that even if the Decree for the Armenians were erroneous on the matter of priestly ordination, it would still not serve as precedent for the errors of Vatican II being corrected by a future Pope.

The reason is that, even if we suppose for the sake of argument that Florence did teach error, it would have been error on a matter that had never been settled before. There is no magisterial teaching before 1439 that declares the matter of the sacrament of holy orders to be the imposition of hands alone, and the fact that up until 1947 theologians were still not in complete agreement as to what constitutes the matter for priestly ordination, shows the complexity of the theological issue and the historical record.

In fact, the use of the terms “matter” and “form” with regard to the essential visible elements of a sacrament was not introduced until William of Auxerre (ca. 1140-1223), as pointed out by Mgr. Joseph Pohle (The Sacraments: A Dogmatic Treatise, vol. I, 4th ed. [St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1923], p. 62; earlier edition available online here). The concepts were present before then, however inchoately, but these precise terms were not used. The first magisterial use of “matter” and “form” is the bull Inter Cunctas of Pope Martin V, issued in 1418 (see Denz. 672).

Thus Florence stands in stark contrast to Vatican II, which promoted errors against settled Catholic doctrine, such as: religious freedom, ecumenism, collegiality, and an ecclesiology that made the Catholic Church present “in elements” in heretical sects. There is, therefore, no comparison whatsoever between the (hypothetically conceded) error on holy orders by Florence and the new religion of Vatican II.

In his monograph of June 24, “Bp.” Schneider argues that “[t]he foundations of the faith were not undermined by these rare acts to correct previous affirmations of the non-infallible Magisterium, precisely because these concrete affirmations … were not infallible.” This may sound quite perceptive at first, but it is totally absurd. It would mean that no error or heresy can threaten the Catholic Faith as long as it isn’t put forward under conditions of infallibility. But that would mean, in turn, that Arius, Photius, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Cornelius Jansen, Alfred Loisy, Hans Küng, etc. — none of these men posed a serious threat to the Faith, since none of them had the ability to teach infallibly! The Kazakh pseudo-bishop can’t seriously mean what he said.

A final question may be permitted. Notice that Schneider’s resistance theology is conveniently one-way: He says Pius XII corrected Florence. Why does he not argue that Pius XII is wrong since he is contradicting the “traditional” teaching of the Council of Florence? Why not reject the later in favor of the earlier, as he does with Vatican II? Keep in mind that Schneider accuses Paul VI of being wrong because he stands in contradiction to the traditional teaching from before Vatican II. He does not claim that Paul VI corrected the pre-Vatican II tradition, which is more or less what everybody else in the Novus Ordo Church believes.

Schneider might respond by saying that, like Vatican II, Florence contradicts what came before. But it’s not that simple. After all, Florence was repeating the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas from 200 years prior, who was already a canonized saint, and even the Catechism of the Council of Trent, published over 100 years after Florence, still treats the traditio instrumentorum as being the matter of priestly ordination, at least in part. Besides, Paul VI and his defenders claim that the Vatican II Church is in sync with the beliefs and practices of the Church Fathers, thanks to their ressourcement theology (aka Nouvelle Théologie or New Theology). If Pius XII can correct the past, as Schneider believes, why not Paul VI?

Ladies and gentlemen, don’t let these “false apostles” (2 Cor 11:13) mislead you. The Kazakh prelate is not arguing from traditional Catholic theology or from genuine historical precedent. His much sought-after “missing link” in Church history that would justify rejecting the magisterium of true Popes, is still missing — and he will never find it.

Exit Athanasius Schneider.

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