Sacramental validity

Sacramental Validity

Sacraments are outward signs, instituted by Christ, that give sanctifying grace. They are a huge gift to the Church that build and sustain us. Some time ago, I discussed the basics. In understanding the sacraments, we also see that certain requirements must be met for validity. That is, to receive the intended graces, the sacrament must meet certain requirements.

Various causes may render a sacrament invalid such as some defect in the matter, form, minister or recipient. One very interesting requirement is intent. If the intent is absent then the sacrament is not received.

For example, if a priest were to demonstrate the sacrament of baptism for an RCIA class. He might pour water over an unbaptized person and say the trinitarian formula – “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Since his intent was to demonstrate the process and not actually baptize the person, the sacrament is not received and the person remains unbaptized.

Another example: an engaged couple is asked to recite their vows in Church the week before their wedding for a movie documentary. A participating priest expects the couple to receive the Sacrament of Matrimony the following week, but unbeknownst to him, they can not wait any longer. Before the ceremony the couple discuss their intent to marry then. Are they married? Probably! While a terrible idea, this appears to be valid because in the case of matrimony, the couple administer the sacrament – they marry each other. The priest or deacon only assist and act as a witness. If everything else is in order (per the Church, not the state), they would be married by their intent. Sure, this is an unlikely and contrived example, but illustrates the point!

This raises another good question, who exactly administers the sacraments? For the most part it is a priest acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). In other words, it is Christ himself administering the sacrament through the priest. When we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation (i.e. “confession”) and the priest says “I absolve you from your sins” it is NOT the priest who is absolving your sins. He is not God. Rather, by virtue of Holy Orders it is Christ acting through the priest who absolves you.

Of the 7 sacraments, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Anointing the Sick require a priest with faculties to administer. Only a bishop may administer Holy Orders (ordain a priest or, with the permission of the pope, another bishop).

Christ Himself created His Church and gave her authority. That authority has been passed by the Apostles, the initial recipients of this authority, in an unbroken chain to today’s bishops. We refer to this as Apostolic succession. Faculties are legal instruments under cannon law that grant permission to ordained priests to perform certain actions such as administering certain sacraments. Priests and deacons receive faculties from their bishop (and at his pleasure, may be removed).

There are only three levels of Holy Orders: deacon, priest and bishop. All bishops are first priests and all priests are first deacons. Faculties increase from one level to the next. Only bishops have full faculties, priests generally have the faculties of bishops except Holy Orders (ordination) and deacons generally have the faculties of priests outside of acting in persona Christi.

Deacons can hatch, match and dispatch (sometimes referred to as carried, married and buried). Those are not the formal terms, of course! Deacons can baptize, assist at / witness marriages and perform funerals. They are also ordinary ministers of Holy Communion and can preach the Gospel.

Baptizing, if done with intent in the proper form, can be done by anybody in extraordinary circumstances. That includes non-Catholics and even non-Christians. The Church therefore recognizes the baptisms of other Christian communities, properly performed. We see their baptism as sacramental, even if they do not. Although they are not in full communion with us, through their baptism they join us in the Communion of Saints, the Church Militant, the Body of Christ.

Likewise, when two baptized people validly (per the Church, not the state) marry each other, their marriage is sacramental. The Church also recognizes the validity of proper (per the Church, not the state) non-sacramental marriages (e.g. one or both parties are unbaptized). BTW, I stress “per the Church, not the state” because sadly, the state and secular society in general increasingly have little idea what marriage is.

The validity of marriage is a big topic that I will save for a future post.


  1. George,

    I was concerned in this whole transition process that I may need to obtain a baptismal certificate on behalf of my son. There’s going to be an issue with getting it from my previous congregation’s session. We’re still feuding and by releasing a certificate of baptism would make them participants in an activity they find abhorrent — joining the Catholic Church. However, the priest of the parish I want to join will not require a baptismal certificate. He told me that an affidavit that I witnessed my son’s baptism will be sufficient documentation. He also said that by being received into the Catholic church, all bonds to other denominations will be broken. At this point, my session is still willing to put up with me. I’m still with them in their eyes, even if I told them that I plan to move on.

    • Since “we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” this is an important item to resolve. If a parent remembers where / when and the Christian community is known to baptize properly, then documenting that may be accepted. While we are not particularly keen on it, in uncertain cases a “conditional baptism” may be necessary The condition being only that the person was in truth unbaptized, in which case there is nothing conditional about it!

      I am sorry this has been difficult for you. Your current faith community, out of ignorance (I mean that in the most charitable way), really believes evil is pulling you away. They are wrong however, it is the grace of God through the Holy Spirit that is doing the leading.

      Institutional bonds to your denomination may be broken, but as baptized Christians they remain our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, fellow pilgrims in the Church Militant wing of the Communion of Saints. To that extent I like to think of them as partially Catholic (I bet they would hate that!), but through schism are separated from the sacraments and suffer doctrinal error. We pray for unity.

  2. Good post as always George. I always wondered if two baptized non-Catholics’ marriage was considered sacramental. An interesting situation occurred when I went to revert to the Church after 31 years away. The priest said “you were living in fornication with your late wife, as well as your new wife.” He was not known for his tact, but his issue was that he felt I was still a Catholic (though I hadn’t considered myself one for over 31 years since young teenage hood) and I was married the first time in my late wife’s Lutheran church. He essentially said, because I was a catholic, my marriages were not valid because I had been married outside he Church. Initially my ego was really hurt and I was so ticked that I almost considered not returning to the faith! But I went to this very same priest for confession and God did an amazing thing and broke through my bitterness and I couldn’t wait to have my marriage con-validated so we could receive the Eucharist, which we did about an hour later. That was 7 years ago, and I am thankful now that the priest was basically just doing his job, not trying to sugarcoat the fact that I voluntarily left the church as a teenager for evangelical protestantism. One may argue that at that age, I really didn’t know what I was dosing, but even so, I was glad we did as the priest instructed(having our marriage convalidated) and our marriage has never been better!

    • Thanks Russ! Please allow me to give some background for non-Catholic readers…

      Once Catholic, always Catholic! At one time there were provisions in canon law to “defect,” but they have been abolished. An attempt at marriage outside the Church by a Catholic without dispensation would be invalid. Non-chaste sexual relations (i.e. outside of marriage) are sinful. Convalidation (when necessary and where possible) brings a previous attempt at marriage into a genuine marriage recognized by the Church.

      These are not arbitrary “rules.” Matters of discipline are set by the Church and may be changed by her as necessary. This is the living Church.

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