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The validity of Sacraments (4): Strengthening and Healing
June 27, 2011, 8:11 am
Filed under: Opinion | Tags: , , , , , ,

Given the presence of an “authorised minister”, what is necessary for the validity of other Sacraments? This varies with the nature of the particular Sacrament. The Eucharist was discussed in the previous post: the taking of bread and wine, with the Dominical words of institution, certainly suffice. Similarly, for the Anointing of the sick, the use of oil and an appropriate formula are enough. For Confirmation, a little more is required, for which I will try to suggest a reason. As noted earlier, Baptism may be administered by anyone, and it effects a radical association with Christ (making a person a “member of the Church”). But the Church is an organised Body, with particular persons authorised to represent Christ in a special way. In Confirmation, initiation is completed by making a more explicit relationship with the Church as Body. The Bishop in person (or his representative using chrism consecrated by the Bishop) “confirms” what has been done in Baptism. More need not be said here.

Rather, I want to consider problems relating to another Sacrament, that of Reconciliation (confession and absolution). In Anglican practice, the power to absolve is seen as belonging to every priest in virtue of ordination; in Catholic practice it is seen as requiring for validity a specific authorisation (“faculties”) from the Bishop or other Ordinary (I do not know what the Orthodox view is). How are we to understand this?

I quite see the point that, since the ministry of reconciliation often involves spiritual guidance of one sort or another, it should be subject to close supervision by the principal pastors of the Church (that is, the Bishops). It is right that priests undertaking this “extended” ministry of reconciliation, as I will call it, should be trained, examined and properly authorised for it. However, this is something other than the bare sacramental ministry of absolution. In case of emergency (danger of death, for instance) it is accepted that any priest, even one inhibited from ministry by law, may give absolution. It is radically included in the authority of Orders. My question is this: given the general salvific will of Christ, and given that the priest is given (through the indelible character of ordination) the authority to forgive sins in his name, can we suppose that Christ would fail to forgive a truly repentant sinner who seeks absolution, even though the priest should for good and proper reasons be forbidden to go beyond bare absolution? Would the penitent who in good faith approached a priest without “faculties to hear confessions”, and who was given absolution in due form, still be unforgiven by Christ? I am talking about the validity of the priest’s action, not its lawfulness.

There are practical implications here. Non-Catholics may request sacraments from Catholic priests provided that they (a) understand and accept the Catholic faith regarding the Sacrament in question; and (b) cannot in practice approach a priest of their own communion. Where does that leave Anglican penitents who (if the Catholic position on Anglican Orders is accepted) do not have priests of their own to approach, at least not priests with jurisdiction to hear confessions? What should a Catholic priest say to them? I am making the supposition that the penitent has committed a grave sin, which he/she wishes to confess. Would this in itself constitute an “emergency”? At the very least it would seem that the priest would have to hear the confession, and refuse absolution only if it were not a grave matter, if it were one that could wait. I would very much appreciate a Catholic view on this.

(to be continued)


2 Comments so far
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As I understand it, the Orthodox view is similar to the Catholic view. An Orthodox priest, once ordained, is not authorised to administer *any* Sacraments. In practice, the Bishop automatically authorises him to celebrate Mass. Authorisation to baptise, marry, anoint and bury usually follows within a year. It may be several years before the Bishop judges him wise enough to hear confessions. Of course, in extremis the normal rules of order are suspended.

We may extend your argument ad extremum by asking “What happens if someone, completely isolated and in danger of death, wishes to make their confession? Are they unforgiven by Christ simply because there was no priest (by any definition) available?” In such cases, I think that we can only rely upon the infinite compassion and mercy of God.

Comment by Stephen Morris

This is only helpful up to a point; it does not really address the distinction between lawfulness and validity. A Mass celebrated by an “unauthorised” priest would not (in Western theology) be invalid; nor would a Baptism, and I am not sure what would count as an “invalid” burial! Of course, in danger of death one should seek the grace to make an act of “perfect contrition”.

The question is what happens if a priest is available, but would not normally be permitted to administer a sacrament to one not in communion. Modern Roman Canon Law does allow such a person to request a Sacrament in certain circumstances: my question is how narrowly such circumstances are to be understood.

Comment by Fr Paul Spilsbury SSC

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