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The validity of Sacraments (6): conclusions
June 28, 2011, 8:35 pm
Filed under: Opinion | Tags: ,

The validity of Sacraments is both more and less complicated than it might seem: more, in that many arguments commonly adduced over-simplify the principles involved; less, in that proper attention to the over-arching purpose of the Sacraments suggests that our Lord’s own requirements are rather straightforward. The Sacraments are given by our Lord for our benefit, to unite us with himself in his redemptive work. They are not hoops to be jumped through in order to prove our worthiness of salvation. While (because they are acts of Christ) they do require a properly authorised minister as Christ’s representative, and while each Sacrament has its own proper nature which must be expressed in its performance, the bar for validity is set fairly low in Catholic theology. There is no room for Gut Instinct Invalidation. The presumption is in favour of validity, unless there are powerful reasons against. The history of the Church shows a greater variety of practice than is usually acknowledged. Can we be sure that, in the earliest period, Baptism “in the name of Christ” was not judged sufficient, even without an explicitly Trinitarian formula? The Liturgy of Addai and Mari contains no explicit narrative of institution, yet is regarded as a valid Eucharistic form. There have been different opinions regarding the essential matter and form of Ordination, and so on.

While the practice of the Church is rightly to exclude doubt about Sacramental validity, if necessary by fresh authorisation of possibly defective rites, this does not preclude a private belief that, where Christians have celebrated Sacramental forms in good faith, with the overarching intention of doing what Christ intended (however understood, or even misunderstood), the Lord will not have stood aloof. And even if a given rite has not (through some real defect) given grace “ex opere operato”, it may yet, in response to the faith of the participants, have given grace “ex opere operantis”.

The purpose of this series of posts is in no way to question the right or propriety of the Church to regulate the administration of the Sacraments. To wilfully disregard these regulations would be wrong, and to do so even in ignorance may still have legal consequences. The question I have been posing is to what extent such regulation, a matter of prudent practice, may affect the inner nature of a Sacrament to the extent that it becomes completely void. This is a theological, not a canonical, question. When Pope Leo considered the Cranmerian Ordinal, he was not asking whether the alterations it had made were lawful. Of course they were not. But had they, by their actual nature, destroyed Sacramental validity? The Church is the guardian of the Sacraments, but it cannot change what Christ has instituted. Questions of validity cannot be settled merely by an appeal to Canon Law, which deals with practice, but does not settle the theoretical basis for that practice.

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