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How do we know whether a sacrament is valid or not?

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 Contents - May 2000AD2000 May 2000 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference - Michael Gilchrist
Australian Catholic University student survey - Michael Gilchrist
News: The Church Around the World
How do we know whether a sacrament is valid or not? - Fr Peter Joseph
The priesthood: John Paul II's Holy Thursday Letter sets guidelines - Pope John Paul II
What are the foundations of a good Catholic education? - Dr. John J. Haldane
Understanding the Incarnation - Msgr Peter J. Elliott
Books: Francis Thompson: author of 'The Hound of Heaven' - Michael Daniel
How the future John Paul II saved a Jewish girl's life - Zenit News Service
Letters: Women's report: a reply (letter) - Dr Marie McDonald
Letters: Nothing to do? (letter) - Frank Mobbs
Letters: More on Adelaide (letter) - Margret E. Mills
Letters: Women in the Church (letter) - Marie Kennedy
Letters: 'Day of Pardon' (letter) - Paul MacLeod
Letters: Reply to Fr Frank Brennan (letter) - Richard Egan
Letters: God's love (letter) - Justin Ford
Letters: EWTN visit (letter) - Mike Keating
Letters: Mixed marriages (letter) - John Schmidt
Letters: Archbishop Pell defended (letter) - Fr Kevin Ryan
Letters: Year of the Lord (letter) - Fr Chrysostom Alexander
Books: 'Three Inns of Everlasting Happiness' by Fr Fabian Duggan - Catherine Sheehan (reviewer)
Books: 'The Wisdom of Adrian Fortescue' ed. Michael Davies - Michael Daniel (reviewer)
Books: 'The Legacy of Pope John Paul II' ed. Geoffrey Gneuhs - Anthony Cappello (reviewer)
Books: 'The Ever-Illuminating Wisdom of St Thomas Aquinas' by Peter Kreeft et al - Tracey Rowland (reviewer)
Reflection: Mary's divine motherhood: central to God's plan of salvation - Sr Mary Augustine Lane OP

The sacraments play a crucial role in Christian life, conferring that most precious gift of divine grace, restoring it if it has been lost, or increasing it where the soul seeks further sanctification. To the conscientious Catholic, nothing is more upsetting than to receive a sacrament invalidly, or to have a doubt whether the grace was given or not.

A sacrament can be rendered invalid by various causes: from some defect or other in the matter, form, minister, or recipient.

The matter employed could be useless. One could not baptise with fruit juice or any other liquid than water. Or the form or formula could be defective. Thus, if one says, "I baptise you in the name of the Holy Family," then no Baptism has taken place; it is invalid, and it would have to be repeated properly. Or there might be some defect in the minister, the person performing the rite.

Minister of the sacrament

A layman posing as a priest, for example, even if he says the correct words, is incapable of absolving anyone. Or it could be that the recipient is unable to receive the sacrament for some reason, e.g., an unrepentant sinner at confession, or an unbaptised person wanting Anointing of the Sick; in which cases the rite would have no effect.

Here, I would like to focus, in particular, on the minister of the sacrament, since there is some confusion on this question, and some points are not well known.

By the minister, I mean the one who performs the sacramental rite: lay person, or cleric.

The first qualification of the minister is that he be qualified for his office. For all the sacraments except Baptism and Marriage, he must be in Holy Orders. Baptism may be administered in necessity by a layman; Marriage is conferred by the Christian man and woman upon each other. All the other sacraments require a priest or bishop to be genuine or valid.

Outwardly, the minister must employ the proper form of words (or words of the same meaning), perform the prescribed action and use the prescribed substance (e.g., water for Baptism; oil for Anointing of the Sick).

Inwardly, the minister must intend to do what the Church does, or to do as Catholics or Christians do. If the minister is duly qualified, and if the other conditions are fulfilled, the sacrament is validly, or truly, conferred. The Council of Trent defined, "If anyone says that when they confect and confer the sacraments there is not required in ministers at least the intention of doing what the Church does, anathema sit [may he be anathema]" (DS 1611).

This "intention" of the minister needs some explanation.

Intention is defined as, "the act of the will, by which one decides to do something" - in the present case, the deliberate will to confer a sacrament. We distinguish intention from attention, which is an act of the intellect, "the application of the mind to what one is doing here and now."

For the validity of a sacrament, attention is not required because it is not always possible to avoid distractions completely. We also distinguish intention from knowledge. One can have intention without clear knowledge of what is going on. For the validity of a sacrament, it is sufficient to have an implicit and indistinct intention "to do what the Church does".

I have heard people ask, in cases of abuses: "How can those Masses be valid? The celebrant openly denies the Real Presence. Doesn't he have to intend what the Church believes?" The answer lies in the meaning of the crucial phrase in Trent: "to do what the Church does" (facere quod facit Ecclesia). The true meaning of this formula must be understood from history, from theologians who used it and from the ancient practice of the Church. The formula, which, was first used in the 13th century, was eventually adopted by magisterial documents and finally canonised by Trent.

"To do what the Church does": note it says to do what the Church does, but not what the Church intends or believes. For validity, the minister does not have to intend what the Church intends, or believe what the Church believes, just intend to do what the Church does.

The Church intends and believes a whole range of things when baptising someone: remission of sin, conferral of grace, membership of the Church, eternal salvation, baptismal character, etc. But the baptiser need not be aware of any of these. It is enough if he wants to baptise, as the Church does.


It is not required for the minister to intend to confer grace by means of the rite; nor does he even have to believe that this rite contains the power to cause grace. Fundamentalists today generally believe Baptism is a mere outward ceremony, causing absolutely no change in the soul. But if they give Baptism properly, i.e., washing with water and pronouncing the Trinitarian formula, then Baptism truly takes place. If the recipients want to become Catholics later on, the Catholic Church will receive them but not re-baptise them; they are validly baptised already.

For a sacrament to be valid, therefore, it is not necessary for the minister to have either faith or sanctity. That faith is not necessary for the validity of Baptism is a dogma defined by the Council of Trent: "If anyone says that Baptism, even given by heretics, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, with the intention of doing that which the Church does, is not true Baptism, anathema sit" (DS 1617). The Church teaches likewise that Baptism given by a Jew or pagan is valid (DS 646, 1315, 2536). What applies to the minister of Baptism regarding faith applies equally to the other sacraments.

That the state of grace is not required in the minister of the sacrament is also defined by Trent: "If anyone says that a minister who is in mortal sin, though he observe all the essentials which pertain to the confecting or conferring of the sacrament, does not confect or confer the sacrament, anathema sit." (DS 1612; cf. 1315, 1262, 793). So, according to Trent, Mass offered by a priest in sin is a valid sacrifice. The Donatists of the 4th-5th centuries rejected as invalid sacraments conferred by a public sinner. The Waldensians (12th century), Wycliff (14th century) and the Anabaptists (16th century) repeated the same error.

This helps us to understand the meaning of the phrase, adopted by the Council of Trent: the sacraments work ex opere operato "by virtue of the rite performed." It is not by virtue of the minister's holiness or belief. Baptism given by heretics or unbelievers is valid because the condition of their soul does not affect the validity of their act. The reason is that the virtue of what they do comes, not from them, but from Christ. Christ is the principal minister of all the sacraments: i.e., He works through the voice and hands of the earthly minister. St Augustine says that whether it be Peter or Paul or Judas who administers Baptism, it is equally Christ who baptises (Tract on St John, 5, 18).


This teaching on the minimum intention required is taught by Aquinas. He says, "Just as the validity of a sacrament does not require that the minister have charity, and even sinners can confer sacraments, as stated above, so neither is it necessary that he have faith, and even an unbeliever can confer a true sacrament, provided that the sacrament's other essentials be present. Notwithstanding his unbelief, the minister can intend to do what the Church does, even if he esteems it as nothing. And such an intention suffices for a sacrament, because, as said above, the minister of a sacrament acts in the person of the whole Church by whose faith any defect in the minister's faith is made good." (Summa, III, 64, 9 c., ad 1).

Even a priest who has lost faith in the Real Presence offers Mass validly. Such a doctrine is a consolation to the laity who can, therefore, have perfect confidence in the rites of the Church without needing to know the personal state of the minister. It would be impossible to ascertain the personal belief of every priest, every time he administers a sacrament. It is enough to know if he uses the necessary matter and form, and performs the rite. Christ acts through him to perform the rest.

Father Joseph is vice-rector at Vianney College seminary, Wagga Wagga, and lectures in Dogma.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 13 No 4 (May 2000), p. 6

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