Episcopi vagantes (singular: episcopus vagans, Latin for wandering bishops or stray bishops) are persons who have been consecrated as Christian bishops outside the structures and canon law of the established churches, and who are not in communion with any generally recognized diocese. Also included are those who have in communion with them small groups that appear to exist solely for the bishop's sake. Those described as wandering bishops often see the term as pejorative.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church mentions as the main streams of succession deriving from episcopi vagantes in the twentieth century those founded by Arnold Mathew, Joseph René Vilatte, and Leon Chechemian. Others that could be added are those derived from Aftimios Ofiesh, Carlos Duarte Costa, and Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục
In Western Christianity it has traditionally been taught, since as far back as the time of the Donatist controversy of the fourth and fifth centuries, that any bishop can consecrate any other baptised man as a bishop provided that the bishop observes the minimum requirements for the sacramental validity of the ceremony. This means that the consecration is considered valid even if it flouts certain ecclesiastical laws, and even if the participants are schismatics or heretics.
Some theologians, within the Roman Catholic Church and elsewhere, question whether all such consecrations have effect, on the grounds that an ordination is for service within a specific Christian church. Therefore an ordination ceremony that concerns only the individual himself does not, they say, correspond to the definition of an ordination and is without effect. The Holy See has not commented on the correctness or erroneousness of this theory. Other theologians also, notably those of the Eastern Orthodox Church, dispute the notion that such ordinations have effect, a notion that opens up the possibility of valid but irregular consecrations proliferating outside the structures of the "official" denominations.
A distinction is also made in Catholic theology between the conferral of the sacramental powers associated with the episcopacy and the conferral of jurisdiction: the authority of a bishop to govern his people. In Roman Catholic canon law, a bishops's sacramental power is to some extent entwined with his jurisdiction (or lack of it): jurisdiction is required for valid celebration of the sacraments of Penance and Matrimony. Jurisdiction can be conferred only within the official structures of the church under the Pope. Catholic episcopi vagantes sometimes appeal to the principle that, in emergency situations, jurisdiction is automatically "supplied" even where it has not explicitly been conferred ("ecclesia supplet").
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