Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent/Session XXIII/Sacrament of Orders

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Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent  (1851) 
by the Council of Trent, translated by Theodore Alois Buckley
Session XXIII. The true and Catholic Doctrine touching the Sacrament of Orders, in condemnation of the errors of our time, decreed and published by the Holy Synod of Trent, in the Seventh session


Being the seventh under the Sovereign Pontiff Pius IV., celebrated on the fifteenth day of the month of July, 1563.



On the Institution of the Priesthood of the New Law.

Sacrifice and priesthood are, by the ordinance of God, in such wise conjoined, as that both have existed in every law. Whereas, therefore, in the New Testament, the Catholic Church has received, from the institution of our Lord, the holy visible sacrifice of the Eucharist; it must of necessity also be confessed, that there is, in that [Church], a new, visible, and external priesthood, into which the old has been translated.[1] And the sacred Scriptures show, and the tradition of the Catholic Church has always taught, that this was instituted by the same Lord our Saviour, and that to the apostles, and to their successors in the priesthood, the power was delivered of consecrating, offering, and administering His Body and Blood, as also of remitting and of retaining sins.


Touching the Seven Orders.

But whereas the minister of so holy a priesthood is a divine thing; to the end that it might be exercised more worthily, and with greater veneration, it was meet that, in the most well-ordered arrangement of the church, there should be several and diverse orders of ministers,[2] to minister unto the priesthood, by virtue of their office, [orders] so distributed as that those who were already marked with the clerical tonsure should ascend through the lesser to the greater orders. For the sacred Scriptures make open mention not only of priests, but also of deacons;[3]and teach, in the most weighty terms, what things are especially to be attended to in the ordination thereof; and, from the very beginning of the Church, the names of the following orders, and the proper ministrations of each one of them, to wit, those of subdeacon, acolyth, exorcist, reader, and door-keeper, are known to have been in use; though not of equal rank: for the subdeaconship is classed amongst the greater orders by the fathers and sacred councils, wherein also we very often read of the other inferior orders.


That Orders is truly and properly a Sacrament.

Whereas, by the testimony of Scripture, by apostolic tradition, and the unanimous consent of the fathers, it is clear that grace is conferred by sacred ordination, which is performed by words and outward signs, no one ought to doubt that Orders is truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the holy Church. For the apostle says, I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the grace of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands. For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of sobriety.[4]


Touching Ecclesiatical Hierarchy and Ordination.

But, inasmuch as in the sacrament of Orders, as also in Baptism and Confirmation, a character is imprinted, which can neither be effaced nor taken away; the holy synod with reason condemns the opinion of those, who assert that the priests of the New Testament have only a temporary power; and that those who have once been rightly ordained, can again become laymen, if they do not exercise the ministry on the word of God. But if any one affirm that all Christians indiscriminately are priests of the New Testament, or that they are all mutually endowed with an equal spiritual power, he seems to do nothing but confound the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which is as an army set in array;[5] as if, contrary to the doctrine of the blessed Paul, all were apostles, all prophets, all evangelists, all pastors, all doctors,[6] Wherefore, the sacred and holy synod declares that, besides the other ecclesiastical degrees, bishops, who have succeeded unto the place of the apostles, principally belong to this hierarchical order; that they are placed, as the same apostle says, by the Holy Ghost, to rule the Church of God;[7] that they are superior to priests; confer the sacrament of confirmation; ordain the ministers of the Church; and that they are able themselves to perform very many other things; over which functions the rest of an inferior order have no power. The sacred and holy synod further teaches, that, in the ordination of bishops, priests, and of the other orders, neither the consent, nor vocation, nor authority, whether of the people, or of any secular power or magistrate soever, is required in such wise as that, without this, the ordination is invalid: yea rather it doth decree, that all those who, being only called and instituted by the people, or by the secular power and magistrate, ascend to the exercise of these ministrations, and those who of their own rashness assume them to themselves, are not ministers of the Church, but are to be accounted as thieves and robbers, who have not entered by the door.[8]These are the things which it hath seemed good to the sacred synbod to teach the faithful of Christ, in fueneral terms, touching the sacrament of Orders. But it hath resolved to condemn things contrary thereunto, in express and specific canons, in the manner which follows; to the end that all men, with the assistance of Christ, using the rule of faith, may, amidst the darkness of so many errors, more easily be able to recognize and to hold Catholic truth.


Canon I. If any one shall say, that there is not in the New Testament a visible and external priesthood: or that there is not any power of consecrating and offering the true body and blood of the Lord, and of remitting and retaining sins; but only an office and bare ministry of preaching the Gospel; or that those who do not preach are not priests at all let him be anathema.

Canon ii. If any one shall say, that, besides the priesthood, there are not in the Catholic Church other orders, both greater and lesser, by which, as by certain steps, advance is made unto the priesthood; let him be anathema.

Canon iii. If any one shall say, that orders, or sacred ordination, is not truly and properly a sacrament instituted by Christ the Lord; or, that it is a certain human figment devised by men unskilled in ecclesiastical matters; or, that it is only a certain kind for choosing ministers of the word of God and of the sacraments; let him be anathema.

Canon iv. If any one shall say, that, by sacred ordination the Holy Ghost is not given; and that the bishops do therefore vainly say, Receive ye the Holy Ghost; or, that a character is not thereby imprinted; or, that he who has once been a priest, can again become a layman; let him be anathema.

Canon v. If any one shall say, that the sacred unction which the Church makes use of in holy ordination, is not only not required, but is to be despised and is pernicious, as likewise the other ceremonies of Order; let him be anathema.

Canon vi. If any one shall say, that, in the Catholic Church there is not a hierarchy instituted by divine ordination, consisting of bishops, priests, and ministers; let him be anathema.

Canon vii. If any one shall say, that bishops are not superior to priests; or, that they have not the power of confirming and ordaining; or, that that power which they possess is common to them with the priests; or, that orders, conferred by them, without the consent or vocation of the people, or of the secular power, are invalid; or, that those who have neither been rightly ordained, nor sent, by ecclesiastical and canonical power, but come from elsewhere, are lawful ministers of the word and of the sacraments; let him be anathema.

Canon viii. If any one shall say, that the bishops, who are assumed by authority of the Roman Pontiff, are not legitimate and true bishops, but a human figment; let him be anathema.

  1. Heb. vii. 12, seq.
  2. See Matt. xvi. 19; Mark xiv. 22–24; Luke xxii. 19; John xx. 22, with Hooker, E. P. v. 78.
  3. See Acts vi. 5, xxi. 8; 1 Tim. iii. 8, seq.
  4. 2 Tim. i. 6, 7.
  5. Cant. vi. 3 (4: "terrible as an army with banners").
  6. Ephes. iv. 11.
  7. Acts XX. 28: "to feed the church of God."
  8. John x. 1.