Canonist Edward Peters has a disturbing question:
The excommunications consequent to the illicit episcopal ordinations (1983 CIC 1382) staged by Chinese Communists are so obvious that few commentators have mentioned them. Here I raise a different question: In the face of some sacraments being so obviously celebrated with no discernible pastoral sense and, in fact, driven by little besides a "let’s stick it to the Catholic Church" animus, has the time come to step back and ask some hard questions about the canonical validity of such sacraments?
Dr. Peters (I’m using his title here to underscore his credentials; in personal conversations he’s "Ed") elaborates by raising the question of whether the episcopal consecrations recently performed at the behest of the Chinese government contain the form of intention that is required for sacramental validity.
He cites the recent case of Mormon baptism being ruled invalid apparently on grounds of inadequate intention as a parallel case.
One could further add the invalidity of Anglican orders due (in part) to a defect of intention.
While it is true that correct intention is an essential element that must be present for the valid celebration of a sacrament, I am not sure that grounds have been offered to question the validity of the Chinese episcopal consecrations.
It is true that these consecrations seem to have a "Let’s stick it to the Catholic Church" motive, which renders them not only illicit but also sacrilegious, but the motive leading one to commit a sacrilegious act does not invalidate one’s intention in performing the act.
Suppose, for example–and God forbid–that a priest was really mad at Jesus and decided to say Mass and consecrate a Host so that he could spit on it and thus "stick it to Jesus" by his act of defiance. In this situation the priest’s motive for performing the consecration is sacrilegious, but it does not affect his intention to really and truly bring about the consecration of the elements. Indeed, his ability to "stick it to Jesus" by spitting on the host is predicated on him really and truly performing the consecration of the elements so that Jesus will be present to be spat on.
We needn’t even go so far as this kind of outright sacrilege to illustrate the issue. In principle, priests should always celebrate Mass for pious spiritual reasons, like fulfilling the will of God and bringing salvation to the world, but in particular cases they may have much more mediocre motives, like showing up to say Mass just because it is expected of them by their bishop or by the congregation who will be present.
In this case we have a situation where the motive is sub-ideal but is not the kind of direct sacrilege mentioned in the first example.
In fact, they may have a mediocre motive alongside a dim awareness that they are saying Mass also for spiritual reasons, in which case we have a situation of mixed motives.
Humans often have mixed motives for the same act–some good, some indifferent, and some bad–and this applies across the board to the sacraments.
But the Church has never judged that the motive for performing a sacrament is essential to its validity.
It thus seems to me that we have to distinguish between two different things: the intention to perform the sacrament and the motive for performing the sacrament. It’s the difference between what you’re trying to do and why you’re trying to do it. The first affects the validity of the sacrament; the second does not. You can have a good or bad or indifferent motive for performing a sacrament. What counts for validity is whether or not you intend to do what the Church does in performing the sacrament.
If you want to stick it to the Vatican by consecrating a bishop then that entails the intention to consecrate a bishop, just as if you want to consecrate a Host so you can spit on it then that entails the intention to consecrate a Host.
I thus do not see a theoretical basis for challenging the validity
of the Chinese episcopal consecrations on the grounds that the Chinese
government ordered them in order to stick it to the Vatican.
But let’s switch from the theoretical to the practical for a moment.
Here’s what Catholic News Service is reporting about who did the ordaining:
Nine papally approved bishops from the government-approved church ordained Bishop Ma, UCA News reported. Of the five government-approved bishops named as ordaining Bishop Lui, at least four are known to have reconciled with the Vatican. Other concelebrants included about 30 Chinese priests and some visiting priests from overseas [SOURCE].
So in the case of both consecrations, bishops who are approved by or otherwise reconciled with the Holy See were serving as consecrators of the new bishops.
While we can never know the heart of another with certainty, I find it likely that–in a delicate situation like this one where bishops who are reconciled with Rome are being ordered by a totalitarian government to perform an episcopal consecration–that some of them would be saying to themselves, "Y’know, I really, really hate the fact that I’m being ordered to do this, and the guy being consecrated may hate it, too, but the reality is that he’s going to have to function as a bishop from here on out, and I’m going to do my part to ensure that he becomes one, lest further confusion and chaos be sown into an already bad situation. I want the situation of the official church in China to be made better, not worse, when the hoped-for full reconciliation with Rome finally happens, and so I’m really and truly intending to consecrate this guy as a bishop."
All it takes is one such person for the intention in conferring the consecration to be valid.
Switching from the practical mode to the legal mode, Dr. Peters of course knows that the Catholic Church would (barring anything unforeseen coming to light) regard these episcopal consecrations as illicit but valid. His point was to question whether this presumption on the part of the Church should be re-thought, and it is reasonable to ask what kind of intention is needed for the performance of the sacraments.
This is an area where there is still room for clarification, though the Church’s historic presumption has been that only a very general kind of intention is needed for sacramental validity–which I think is both a good thing and by divine design, for if we had to have narrowly particular intentions in performing sacraments then there would be massive numbers of invalid sacraments out there. Knowing our weaknesses and our fallen state–and, in fact, having given us the sacraments precisely in order to address our weaknesses and our fallen state–God made the sacraments like Tonka Trucks: They’re hard to break, even for play-fast-and-rough kids like us.
We can abuse them–by things like liturgical abuses or sacrilege–but it’s hard for us to destroy them. Illiceity is easy; invalidity is hard.
I’m thus pleased to say that, while Dr. Peters’ question is a good one, I don’t see a theoretical or practical reason for challenging the validity of these consecrations.