When is a Sacrament not a Sacrament? Validity and Liceity

In the process of looking at Apostolic Succession, we’ve looked at some of the (occasionally complex) terminology involved, and we’ve looked a bit at the major churches that claim Apostolic Succession.  I want to look next at how the various churches recognize–or refuse to recognize–these claims.  In order to do that, though, I’m going to have to talk a little bit about sacramental theology.

A sacrament, in the words of the Baltimore Catechism, is “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace“.  The churches claiming to have Apostolic Succession have (with a few nuances in one or two cases) retained the sacraments as part of their worship and practice.  The number is traditionally set at seven:  Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist (or Communion), Confession (or Reconciliation), Matrimony, Holy Orders (ordination of a man as deacon, priest, or bishop), and Anointing of the Sick (or Extreme Unction).

The Eucharist is considered to be the central Sacrament (which from now on I’m capitalizing in line with traditional Catholic practice, though much of what I have to say applies to other churches, too), in which the believer truly receives Christ, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.  Therefore, it has been called “the source and summit of Christian life”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1324; available online here).  In a sense, though, two other Sacraments are more important, or more precisely, more foundational.  These are Baptism and Holy Orders.

No one who has not received Baptism can receive any other Sacrament.  Baptism is held not only to wash away Original Sin and any personal sins (for someone baptized beyond the age of reason), but to make one part of the Body of Christ, i.e., the Church.  Thus, without Baptism, not only are no other Sacraments possible, but there isn’t even a Church!  Once one is Baptized, one may–and should, in some cases must–receive at least some of the other Sacraments.  However, most of the Sacraments require a priest or bishop.  To unpack, a Sacrament, in order to be valid (we’ll define that term in a bit), requires four things.

1. The proper matter.  This is what is actually done.  The matter of baptism, for example, is water in which one is immersed, or which is poured over one’s head.  The matter of the Eucharist is bread and wine; and so on.

2. The proper form.  This is what is said.  For example, the form of baptism is, “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  The form of the Eucharist is when the priest says “This is my body,” over the bread and “This is the chalice of my blood,” over the wine.

3. The proper intention.  There has to be the intention to do what the Church expects to be done.  For example, a couple getting married intend to live with each other as man and wife until “death us do part”.  If a man and woman were actors in a play or movie, however, they don’t intend to do that–it’s just a play or a movie.  Thus, even if everything is done right and said right, they aren’t married.  Similarly, in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, two characters are baptized.  Once more, it was just a movie, so it doesn’t count .

4.  The proper minister.  The right person must perform the action, say the words, and have the right intention.  This is key to the importance of Holy Orders and the propagation of the Sacraments.

Only with two Sacraments can a lay person be the minister:  in emergency with Baptism, and always with Matrimony.  Normally, a priest, bishop, or (sometimes) deacon is the minister of Baptism (the Catholic term is “ordinary minister”, i.e. the one that normally does it).  In cases of emergency, though, anyone–even a non-Christian, in Catholic theology (Orthodox theology would permit any Christian to do so, but not a non-Christian) can validly baptize.  With Matrimony, the bride and groom are the ministers of the Sacrament to each other, with the priest, bishop, or deacon merely serving as a witness on behalf of the Church (Orthodox theology disagrees on this, too, asserting that only a priest or bishop can perform a wedding, and that it is he, not the couple, who is the minister of Matrimony).

A priest or bishop may administer the Sacraments of Eucharist, Confession, or Anointing of the Sick.  A bishop is the ordinary minister of Confirmation, but can delegate it to a priest.  Only a bishop may confer Holy Orders, i.e. ordain a man (aside from the Episcopal and some branches of the Old Catholic Churches, no major church of the ones I’ve mentioned ordain women) as deacon, priest, or bishop.  This last point shows the vital importance, for sacramental churches, of having Apostolic Succession.  Without Apostolic Succession, there are no bishops; without bishops, there are no priests or deacons, either; without bishops, priests, and deacons (collectively referred to as clergy or clerics), there are no Sacraments, except for Baptism and Matrimony.  The Church in Japan had to exist this way for two hundred years between the closing of the country to missionaries and the banning of the Church in the 17th Century and the reestablishment of foreign trade and missionary efforts in the 19th Century.  This, of course, is highly unusual, and not the normal way the Church is supposed to work.

Thus, a sacramental church requires deacons, priests, and bishops who are validly ordained in a lineage of Apostolic Succession.  All other Sacraments must be celebrated validly, too, of course; but the one on which the others depend (Baptism and Matrimony excepted) is Holy Orders.  Thus, the validity of a church’s orders is a matter of great importance and concern.  More subtle is the issue of liceity.  Having set the background, we can discuss these two terms now.

“Validity” means simply, “Does it work?”  Does the water of Baptism wash away Original Sin?  Is the Eucharist the Body and Blood of Christ?  Does absolution after Confession take away your sins?  The answer is, “Yes, if it’s valid.”  What makes it valid?  The four things mentioned above:  matter, form, intention, and minister.  Thus, for example, the matter for the Eucharist must be bread and wine–not “beer nuts and Jack Daniels” as Robin Williams suggested in a comedy routine many years ago.  The matter of Baptism must be water, not motor oil or Coca-Cola.  After the matter comes the form:  the correct words must be said correctly in whatever language is being used.  For example, the priest of bishop saying Mass must say “This is my body,” and “This is the cup of my blood”, or “Hoc est enim corpus meum,” and “Hic est calix sanguinis mei,” if he’s using Latin, or whatever the equivalent is in any other language.  If he omitted these words, or said something else, the Mass would be invalid–the bread and wine would not become the Body and Blood of Christ.  After form and matter come minster and intention.  We’ve already seen who is the appropriate minister for each of the Sacraments.  Thus, for example, if I, a layman, tried to celebrate Mass or hear Confessions, they would not be valid, even if I did everything correctly.  In general, intention is assumed, but we’ll come back to it in a future post.

“Liceity” means “Is it allowed?”  Note well:  Something can be not allowed–illicit–and perfectly valid–that is, it “works”.  A secular analogy:  Annie goes to college and then medical school, graduates, takes her board exam and passes, gets her medical license, works as an intern, and eventually sets up her own clinic.  A patient comes to her suffering from a certain condition, and Annie is able to heal her.  Now, consider Betty, who also goes to college and then medical school and graduates, but who does not take the exam and get her medical license.  She sets up a clinic, anyway, and a patient, suffering from the same condition as the patient who came to Annie, comes to Betty, who heals her.

Annie and Betty both had the proper knowledge to heal their patients–their work was equally valid.  However, Betty practiced medicine without a license.  This is against the law, and Betty could go to jail if found out.  Practicing medicine without a license is highly illicit, even if the patient gets better, even if Betty is a better doctor than Annie.

It’s the same way with Sacraments.  The ability to perform the Sacraments (except for Baptism and Matrimony) depends on the minister having valid Holy Orders.  Even a valid minister is not always allowed to perform a Sacrament, however.  For example, in a non-emergency situation, a layperson is not supposed to baptize.  If my infant child is in danger of death before I can get her to the church to get her baptized, I may–and very much should–do so.  If I just don’t like the priest or don’t feel like going to the church, or some such, and baptize her at home, that’s illicit–I’m not supposed to do that.  However, the baptism is perfectly valid–it takes away Original Sin and incorporates my child into the Body of Christ.  If I get over my issues and we return to church attendance, it would not be necessary for her to be rebaptized by a priest.  Even though I wasn’t supposed to do that, it still “counts”.

For purposes of our discussion, this is most relevant to Holy Orders.  Under Catholic Canon Law, a bishop wishing to ordain another man as bishop must have the permission of the Pope, on pain of automatic excommunication (or excommunication latae sententiae).  Such an ordination is highly illicit.  Thus, when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X (often abbreviated as SSPX), after a long period of conflict with Rome, consecrated four men as bishops, both he and they were automatically excommunicated.  However, despite this fact, the consecrations were totally valid.  The Vatican recognized–and still recognizes–the men ordained as legitimate, if schismatic, bishops, the men ordained as priests by them as legitimate priests, and so on.

There are many subtleties and ins and outs on this.  One example is that, for reasons too complex to go into, schismatic bishops and priests, while holding valid orders, may be unable (from Rome’s perspective, at least) to validly witness weddings or hear confessions.  The main point I want to make is that although the Catholic Church and most of the other major sacramental churches consider only their church to be the “One True Church”, nevertheless, because of the theology whereby fulfilling the proper form, matter, and minster makes a sacrament valid (we’ll return to intention in a later post), they nevertheless recognize certain priestly lineages outside their own church as having valid Apostolic Succession.  We will briefly look at how some of these irregular lineages arise, and then return to see which churches claim Apostolic Succession, and whom they recognize as having it aside from themselves.

Posted on 12/02/2019, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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