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Holy Orders (Catholic Church)

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Deacon Ordination

Roman Catholic deacon candidates prostrate before the altar of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles during a 2004 diaconate ordination liturgy.

Holy Orders in the Catholic Church includes three orders: bishop, priest, and deacon. The Church regards ordination as a Sacrament. In the phrase "Holy Orders", the word "holy" simply means "set apart for some purpose." The word order (ordo, in Latin) designates an established civil body or corporation with a hierarchy, and ordination means legal incorporation into an ordo. In context, therefore, a Holy Order is simply a group with a hierarchical structure that is set apart for ministry in the Church.


For Catholics, it is typically in the last year of seminary training that a man will be ordained to the "transitional diaconate." This distinguishes men bound for priesthood from those who have entered the "permanent diaconate" and do not intend to seek ordination as a priest. Deacons, whether transitional or permanent. receive faculties to preach, to perform baptisms, and to witness marriages. They may assist at the Eucharist or the Mass, but are not the ministers of the Eucharist. After six months or more as a transitional deacon, a man will be ordained to the priesthood. Priests are able to preach, perform baptisms, witness marriages, hear confessions and give absolutions, anoint the sick, and celebrate the Eucharist or the Mass. Some priests are later chosen to be bishops; bishops may ordain priests.


Main article: Bishop (Catholic Church)

Bishops are chosen from among the priests in the Catholic Church. Among Eastern Catholic Churches, which permit married priests, bishops must either be widowers, unmarried or agree to abstain from sexual contact with their wives. It is a common misconception that all such bishops come from religious orders. While this is generally true, it is not an absolute rule. Catholic bishops are usually leaders of territorial units called dioceses.

Only bishops can validly administer the Sacrament of Holy Orders. In Latin-rite Catholic churches, only bishops (and priests with authorization by the local bishop) may lawfully administer the sacrament of confirmation, but if an ordinary priest administers that sacrament illegally, it is nonetheless considered valid, so that the person confirmed cannot be actually confirmed again, by a bishop or otherwise. Latin rite priests with special permission of the diocesan bishop or the Holy See can lawfully administer confirmation; every Catholic priest must administer confirmation, even without permission, to children in danger of death. In Eastern Catholic Churches, confirmation is done by parish priests via the rite of chrismation, and is usually administered to both babies and adults immediately after their baptism.


Main article: Priesthood (Catholic Church)

The word either derives ultimately from the Greek πρεσβύτερος/presbuteros meaning "elder" or the Latin praepositus meaning "superintendent." The Catholic church sees the Priesthood as both a reflection of the ancient Temple priesthood of the Jews and the person of Jesus. The liturgy of ordination recalls the Old Testament priesthood and the priesthood of Christ. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, "Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was a prefiguration of Christ, and the priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ" Summa Theologiae III, 22, 4c. See Presbyterorum Ordinis for the Second Vatican Council decree on the nature of the Catholic priesthood.


From the 3rd century AD up until seven years after the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the Roman Catholic church had four minor orders up to the order of subdeacon, which were conferred on seminarians pro forma before they became deacons. The minor orders and the subdiaconate were not considered sacraments, and for simplicity were suppressed under Pope Paul VI in 1972. Only those orders (deacon, priest, bishop) previously considered major orders of divine institution were retained in most of the Latin rite. Previously some included the subdiaconate into the major orders, and excluded mentioning the order of bishop, as this order was seen as the fullness of the priestly order already conferred. The total number of minor and major orders in the pre-1967 structure was however always considered to be seven, the number of perfection.

Ecumenical efforts regarding Holy Orders

The World Council of Churches undertook a major consultation amongst its members and with the Catholic Church on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM) published in 1982. It attempted to express the convergences that had been found over the years and six volumes of responses compiled. As a result some churches have changed their liturgical practices, and some have entered into discussions which in turn led to further agreements and steps towards unity. There is also a major study on the church (ecclesiology) being on the question 'What it means to be a church, or the Church?' It focuses on ecclesiology and ethics looking at the churches/Church's 'prophetic witness and its service to those in need'. [2].

Catholic teaching counts Holy Orders among three sacraments that make an indelible mark called a sacramental character on the recipient's soul (the other two are Baptism and Confirmation). This sacrament can only be conferred on baptized men.[1] If a woman attempts to be ordained, both she and the person who attempts to ordain her are excommunicated latae sententiae.[2]

Such titles as Cardinal, Monsignor, Archbishop, etc., are not sacramental orders. These are simply offices; to receive one of those titles is not an instance of the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Recognition of other churches' orders

The Catholic Church recognizes the validity of holy orders administered by the Eastern Orthodox, Polish National, Oriental Orthodox, and Old Catholic Churches and the Assyrian Church of the East because those churches have maintained the apostolic succession of bishops, i.e., their bishops claim to be in a line of succession dating back to the Apostles, just as Catholic bishops do. Consequently, if a priest of one of those eastern churches converts to Roman Catholicism, his ordination is already valid; however, to exercise the Order received, he would need to be incardinated either into a religious community or a diocese.[3] Eastern Orthodox bishops can, and frequently do, grant recognition to the holy orders of converts who were earlier ordained in the Catholic church (though there is much debate in the Orthodox Church about this); that is part of the policy called church economy.

A controversy in the Catholic church over the question of whether Anglican holy orders are valid was settled by Pope Leo XIII in 1896, who wrote in Apostolicae Curae that Anglican orders lack validity because the rite by which priests were ordained was not correctly performed from 1547 to 1553 and from 1558 to the 19th century, thus causing a break of continuity in apostolic succession and a break with the sacramental intention of the Church. Leo XIII condemned the Anglican ordinals and deemed the Anglican orders "absolutely null and utterly void".[4] Some Changes in the Anglican Ordinal since King Edward VI, and a fuller appreciation of the pre-Reformation ordinals suggest, according to some private theologians, that the correctness of the dismissal of Anglican Orders may be questioned; however Apostolicae Curae remains Roman Catholic definitive teaching and was in fact reinforced by Cardinal Ratzinger now Pope Benedict XVI.

Since 1896 many Anglican bishops have been consecrated by bishops of the Old Catholic Church whose holy orders were recognized by the Holy See. Nevertheless, all Anglican clergymen who desire to enter the Catholic Church do so as laymen and must be ordained in the Catholic Church in order to serve as priests. Catholics are, according to Ad Tuendam Fidem and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, obliged to hold the position, that Anglican Orders are invalid.

Catholics do not recognize the ordination of ministers in other Protestant churches that do not maintain the apostolic succession.

Anglicans accept the ordination of most mainline denominations; however, only those denominations in full communion with the Anglican Communion such as some Lutheran denominations, may preside at services requiring a priest.

Marriage and Holy Orders

The rules discussed in this section are not considered to be among the infallible dogmas of the Catholic Church, but are mutable rules of discipline. See clerical celibacy for a more detailed discussion.

Married men may be ordained to the diaconate as Permanent Deacons, but in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church may not be ordained to the priesthood. In the Eastern Catholic Churches and in the Eastern Orthodox Church married deacons may be ordained priests, but may not become bishops. Bishops in the Eastern Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches are almost always drawn from among monks, who have taken a vow of celibacy. They may be widowers, though; it is not required of them never to have been married.

In some cases widowed permanent deacons have been ordained to the priesthood. There have been some situations in which male converts previously married and ordained to the "priesthood" in an Anglican church or in a Lutheran Church have been ordained to the Catholic priesthood, sometimes sub conditione (conditionally), and allowed to function much as an Eastern Rite priest but in a Latin Rite setting; however, this may only happen with the approval of the priest's Bishop and a special permission by the Pope.

Chastity and celibacy

There is a difference between chastity and celibacy. Celibacy is the state of not being married, so a promise of celibacy is a promise not to enter into marriage but instead to consecrate one's life to service (in other words, "married to God"). Chastity, a virtue expected of all Christians, is the state of sexual purity; for a vowed celibate, or for the single person, chastity means the avoidance of sex. For the married person, chastity means the practice of sex only within marriage between a man and woman, and can carry the expectation of intercourse with the spouse that is open to conception.

Celibacy is the male counterpart to female virginity, implying that the celibate was not only not married, but that he had never been married.


  1. can. 1024 CIC/83
  2. CNS STORY: Text of Vatican congregation's decree on attempts to ordain women
  3. can. 265 CIC/83
  4. [1]Apostolicae Curae (36)

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