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I was speaking with a friend last week and we came to a point of disagreement. In her view, the Catholic Church could amend doctrines that it had previously taught as infallibly true. I think she meant this more in the sense of “maybe there’s a loophole” than “let’s not actually say we’re overturning this, but do so in fact.” And, importantly, there are some things that are unclear at this point. One example is the status of Anglican clergy.

In 1896, Pope Leo XIII issued the papal bull “Apostolicae Curae”, in which Anglican holy orders were declared to be “absolutely null and utterly void.” The short of it is that after Henry VIII broke the Church of England away from the Holy Catholic Church, the form of ordination was changed so that those having valid Catholic holy orders didn’t validly ordain their successors. By the time the form was rectified, all the Anglican clergy had invalid ordinations and therefore, despite using the proper form, had no valid holy orders to pass on. In 1896, this was still the case. However, Anglo-Catholic clergy took note of this and started getting re-ordained by renegade Catholic, Old Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox priests who had valid (though illicit) holy orders themselves. Today, all or most priests of the Anglo-Catholic faction have been ordained or re-ordained so as to have valid-but-illicit holy orders. Thus, it’s important to know what Apostolicae Curae means today. Does it mean that Anglican holy orders are still invalid? Does it mean that they were invalid in 1896 but may not be today? If a new bull were to be put out in 2009 saying that Anglican holy orders are no longer necessarily invalid but are only presumptively so, this may or may not overturn the earlier bull, depending on what the answers to the above questions were.

Whether what has been infallibly defined as true is a crucial question. If the Holy Catholic Church can amend such teachings (not to be confused with those teachings which are thought to be correct but haven’t been infallibly defined as such), then it has ceased to be THE Church and has simply become A denomination. What drew me to the Catholic Church was this authority, or magisterium: I believe that the Catholic Church was entrusted with the authority to teach true Christian doctrine and that this authority is guided by and protected by the Holy Spirit such that false doctrine cannot be officially proclaimed. This doesn’t mean that individual Catholics, including the clergy, are incapable of teaching false doctrines or that any Catholic is going to live an impeccable life, but simply that when you get down to the bones of it, Catholic doctrine has been and always will be consistent and true.

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