Prince-Bishops without Holy Orders

Time for some history! :slight_smile:

I have just learned that, especially in the German dioceses, there have been historical examples of Prince-Bishops who never received Holy Orders. Examples of these are Ferdinand von Bayern (1577-1650), Prince-elector and “Archbishop” of Cologne, and Bishop of Hildesheim, Lüttich, Münster und Paderborn, as well as Otto Graf von Schaumburg(1517-1576), Count of Schaumburg and “Bishop” of Hildesheim.

I checked with and it appears that neither of the two ever received Holy Orders and were thus laypeople holding the title of Bishop.

Now, Cardinal-elect (?) Gerhard Ludwig Müller said in a recent interview that the power of jurisdiction is reserved to those who have received Holy Orders. His words were:

In matters of Church governance, there are tasks that are reserved to the Apostolic office. Matters of jurisdiction are reserved to those who have received Holy Orders.

These “Bishops” apparently exercised jurisdiction, I am told. Can somebody explain this? Is Archbishop Müller right, and if so, what are we to think of the men mentioned above?

I don’t know anything about the two men you mention, but I would note that just because they don’t show up on doesn’t necessarily mean that they did not receive holy orders. doesn’t list every bishop ever ordained since the foundation of the Church. We simply don’t have the records that would be necessary to do that. For example, most current bishops can only trace their succession back to Scipione Cardinal Rebiba, who was ordained a bishop in 1541. The records for before that time have been lost to history.

I know, but it is commonly agreed upon that these people were never ordained.

I think this would have constituted grave sin in all who participated in these false installations, and some of the actions of these “bishops” would have been invalid. I can’t think of any ramifications it would have beyond that.

This claim seems unlikely. Ever since the Council of NIcea (323 AD), any Episcopal ordination would ordinarily be celebrated by no less than three Bishops (though MANY MORE were typically in attendance, as is the case today).

If just ONE of these consecrators is a valid Bishop, then the Ordination is valid.

Your question seems to imply that certain “Prince-Bishops” were ordained outside of the prescribed norm of three consecrators. Can you cite such an example?

For background, I will quote myself (

The Emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which ended persecution in the Roman Empire. Constantine himself became a Christian, and suddenly it was very fashionable (and perhaps profitable) to be a Christian (whereas, before, it would get you killed). The Church was confronted with an unprecedented wave of conversions, and possibly with the problem of some people misrepresenting themselves as Christian priests and Bishops. Credentials were difficult to verify back in those days.

The problem was not really so much about a few illicit “bishops,” but what would happen if those “bishops” “ordained” other men as “bishops” (who were not aware of the illicit nature of their “consecrators”). Suddenly, the whole Apostolic foundation of Catholic Orders could be called into question.

The Church needed a solution to this problem - some way to guarantee that Episcopal Ordinations were valid, even if the validity of the consecrators could not be assured. The Church turned to mathematics.

Twelve years after the Edict of Milan, the Church convened the very first full Ecumenical Council, the great Council of Nicea. This topic was on the agenda.

Only one Bishop is needed to validly ordain another Bishop. But the very first Ecumenical Council, Nicea, imposed a rule (Canon 4) which remains in place to this day - a licit Episcopal Ordination requires at least three Consecrators. As long as just one is valid, the Ordination is valid (FWIW, it is customary for an Episcopal Ordination to be celebrated by many Bishops (ten or more), simply because they want to be present).

Suppose that there were invalid bishops running around in 325 AD (we don’t know that there actually were - there are no records of spurious bishops - but it could have happened). Suppose we accept the ridiculous idea that as many as 1 in 20 bishops was invalid. What is the probability of selecting three invalid bishops? It’s 20 x 20 x 20 (assuming there are at least 22 invalid bishops). That is a probability of 1 in 8000. The first generation of Bishops had 1 in 20 invalid bishops, but the second generation has only 1 in 8000 invalid bishops.

The probability of selecting three invalid bishops from such a pool is 8000 x 8000 x 8000, which is 1 in 512,000,000,000 (that’s 512 billion). As you see, the line of succession actually purifies itself over time. There have been hundreds of generations of Bishops, meaning the probability of having even one invalidly ordained bishop is staggeringly improbable. It’s what physicists call a “small but nonzero probability.” That is about the same probability that all of the air will disappear from your living room (it could happen, but it is staggeringly unlikely).

The math wins, every time. The only way the math could not win is if 2/3 + 1 of all bishops were invalid at any point in time, and Episcopal ordinations never had more than three consecrators (whereas it is common to have many more). For this extreme situation to occur in the twelve-year window of opportunity between the Edict of Milan and Nicea-1 is patently absurd.

It is therefore unnecessary that we know (and can prove) any Bishops episcopal lineage. We don’t need knowledge of history, or even the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to know that every Bishop has valid Apostolic succession. We know this by simple math.

You ask about “invalid” Episcopal Ordinations. I say that such a thing is not remotely possible.

That’s not what I mean. The two examples I gave in the OP never even attempted to receive Holy Orders. They had no ordination ceremony, yet they held the “office” of Bishop in that area.

Hildesheim has a history of bishops, prince-bishops, and administrators.

Otto Graf von Schaumburg
1531-1537 Appointed not confirmed, became Lutheran 1559.

Ferdinand von Bayern
1612-1650 Administrator without canonical qualification.
The principle is that the laity as such have no share in the spiritual jurisdiction and government of the Church; but they may be commissioned or delegated by ecclesiastical authority to exercise certain rights, especially when there is no question of strictly spiritual jurisdiction, for instance, in the administration of property.

Boudinhon, A. (1910). Laity. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Under the so-called Holy Roman Empire, Germany was a collection of hundreds of fundamentally independent states. In most places, the position of ruler was hereditary within a family. In a number of places, though, the bishop had acquired secular power over a territory, and in addition to being the ordinary of the diocese, he was also a territorial ruler (and his secular principality often was not coterminous with the ecclesiastical diocese.) When one became, for example, Archbishop of Cologne, one also became the ruler of a territory – which had its capital in Bonn, by the way, because the city of Cologne itself resisted the secular authority of the Archbishop! After the rise of Protestantism, it became not uncommon for the ecclesiastical states to be regarded by nobles as just so many more territories to be ruled by a secular prince, and especially by a younger son of a noble family who would not be inheriting the family’s hereditary lands. It would thus be arranged that a man would be elected “Bishop” of such a territory, but he would rule it strictly as a secular prince, and would never be ordained a priest.

You might want to consider as a prime example the Bishopric of Osnabrueck, which was conquered by Sweden in the Thirty Years War. As part of the Peace of Westphalia, which restored it, it was specified that succession to the Bishopric of Osnabrueck would pass alternately between Catholic and Protestant bishops; when a Protestant bishop was in charge, the ecclesiastical (but not secular) authority over Catholics in the territory was exercised by the Catholic Archbishop of Cologne. The last Prince Bishop of Osnabrueck was the Protestant Prince Frederick, son of George II of Great Britain and Hanover, who became “bishop” at the age of six months. You can be quite certain that Frederick never was a cleric, despite his collection of the income from his “see”.

The lady in question refers to the Decretum Gratiani, about which she says the following:

In connection with the Decretum Gratiani (about 1140), the understanding arises that certain juridical exercises of the office, i.e. Excommunication (!), are not counted as relating to the potestas ordinis, but rather as a separate potestas iurisdictionis. Even Papal Legates, who were sometimes neither priests nor Bishops, were authorised in those times to pronounce the Excommunication and to lift it. They thus had the right, due to their function, to use the sharpest form of the Power of Binding and Loosing.

It does shown the difference between potestas ordinis and potestas iurisdictionis. For example for the valid execution of the sacrament of Penance requires holy orders and the power of governance (formerly called jurisdiction) by law or delegation.

And potestas iurisdictionis can be divided further into potestas executionis and potestas administrationis.

Excellent post. Just to add that there are two separate entities in Cologne at that time, the Archdiocese of Cologne and the Electorate of Cologne: the former is ecclesiastical and the latter is secular and in territory is a part of the area of the Archdiocese. They were both headed by the same person - the Archbishop-Elector until the political reorganisations of Germany in 19th century. However, if you see the list of Archbishops-Elector, many of them are non-clergy, the last one being an Austrian duke. So, while Ferdinand von Bayern was pushed into a church career by his family, he was never ordained and I believe it was really to protect the family’s extensive land holdings.

So, I guess this is very much the vestige of cesaro-papism, with confusion arising as to whether a post is secular or religous in nature. The archdiocese of Cologne was re-established in 1824 along the lines we know today.

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