It Only Takes One

by Jimmy Akin

in Sacraments

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.

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bearing May 4, 2006 at 1:59 am

Ed Peters linked to a Vatican document denying the validity of LDS Church (Mormon) baptism, but that document doesn’t explain. Ed says the invalidity must stem from the lack of proper intention, since the form and matter are present and the recipients are eligible.. I’m curious — what is the difference between the intention behind Mormon baptism and the proper intention necessary for sacramental validity? (And please don’t just tell me that they are “not really Christians,” I am looking for the precise canonical reason that the baptisms are invalid.)

Francis DS May 4, 2006 at 5:02 am

I’m still confused why Protestant baptism is considered valid when it’s known that their intention is not to confer a ‘rebirth’. In fact, many clearly reject the notion that baptism is nothing more than symbolic.
As for the Chinese bishops, although Hong Kong Cardinal Zen has previously explained that they are valid (as explained by Jimmy), he is currently blistering at the actions of Beijing:
Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, elevated by the pope in March, issued a strongly worded statement condemning Beijing’s actions and called for a halt to talks aimed at normalizing ties.
Accusing the Patriotic Association of using “pressure, threats and, it seems, also deceit” in consecrating Ma, Zen said China’s action had “destroyed the atmosphere of mutual trust so necessary for a successful dialog.”
The Vatican had requested Ma’s consecration be postponed but Beijing told the Vatican not to interfere in its internal affairs.
Zen said the Vatican would react strongly to Beijing’s decision, but did not elaborate on what action would be taken.

Jason May 4, 2006 at 5:35 am

This document gives a very good (and long) explanation of the Mormon baptism and why it is invalid:
Jimmy, I think your contrasting this to the Anglican orders is perhaps a more direct example, but from what I understand, the Anglicans had changed the understanding on the purpose of the priesthood, and that was reflected in the form of the sacrament. Thus they had a defect in intention (making the wrong kind of priest), manifested in the form of the sacrament.
Without a defect in form or any evidence of a change in outward intention (such as a doctrinal change as with the Anglicans), I think we must believe the sacraments are valid.

Barbara May 4, 2006 at 5:43 am

To respond to the issue above concerning Mormon baptism, it is their lack of a dogma of the Trinity, which makes their baptism invalid. Most other Christians use a Trinitarian form, making their baptisms valid.

Mike May 4, 2006 at 5:51 am

Barbara is right. One of the most important conditions for a valid baptism is that it be done “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” where those specific words are used. I’ve heard of denominations (not the Mormons) that baptise, e.g. “in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier” or something along those lines, and that wouldn’t be valid either.

mt May 4, 2006 at 6:26 am

THIS IS ALL MOOT since the bishops and those who ordained them have been EXCOMMUNICATED (today, Thursday May 4).

Ryan C May 4, 2006 at 7:03 am

I don’t get why Jimmy’s discussion is all moot – being that they were excommunicated does not mean the ordinations are invalid, so Dr. Peters and Jimmy are free to ponder the question.
Great post Jimmy. I especially liked the Tonka Truck analogy in your great explanation of why the sacraments are difficult to make invalid.

Francis DS May 4, 2006 at 7:22 am

“Most other Christians use a Trinitarian form, making their baptisms valid.”
Even if their intentions are false? I still don’t get it.

Francis DS May 4, 2006 at 7:24 am

“THIS IS ALL MOOT since the bishops and those who ordained them have been EXCOMMUNICATED (today, Thursday May 4).”
Let us pray for our Chinese Catholic brothers and sisters. They will be in the middle of an impending war between the Communists in Beijing and the Church.

bearing May 4, 2006 at 7:32 am

Thanks for the linked article, Jason. Very helpful and straightforward.

Barbara May 4, 2006 at 8:17 am

Even if their intentions are false? I still don’t get it.
The Church is the final arbitor of what another denominations “intent” is, so even if a minister thinks the act is symbolic, as long as matter and form are valid, the Catholic Church makes the determination that sacramental grace has been imparted in the act of baptizing.
Same is true of marriage. Even though another denomination may not consider marriage to be a sacrament, if the couple converts to Catholicism, they do not have to get remarried if they were married in most churches. Their marriage is sacramentally valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

Prof. Antonio Basto May 4, 2006 at 10:44 am

I don´t agree with the secular media that they have been excommunicated. Navarro Vall´s declaration on this point is dubious, it is not explicit. He says that the act that they performed carries with itself grave consequences, mentioning the canon on latae sententiae excommunications; but then he goes on to say that the Holy See understands that those priests were under duress, according to reports that they were forced to perform the ordinations against their will and under extreme pressure. Those factors, according to Canon Law itself, can exclude one´s culpability for the action, and thus exclude the penalty.

Charles R. Williams May 4, 2006 at 11:33 am

I think Mormons use a “trinitarian” formula when they baptize but the problem is that their understanding of the Trinity is too different from that of Christian churches.
I think with respect to Protestant baptisms where a trinitarian formula is used and where there is some kind of Christian trinitarian theology, it is sufficient to intend to do what the Church does when it baptises.
Personally, I think people baptized in churches who do not believe in baptismal regeneration should be conditionally baptized upon conversion precisely because the intention in such cases is unclear. I think the Church today routinely accepts such baptisms as valid. Rome doesn’t ask for my advice in these matters.

Charlie May 4, 2006 at 2:41 pm

Jimmy Atkins has a one-of-a-kind post here.Very innformative…my question is : If intent is one of the things that makes the sacrament valid and indeed it does..what about the case of a priest who is told to hear confessions, does so but does not believe in the sacrament.I know of such. Are his confessions valid?Are ‘grave’ sins in that case forgiven?

Karen May 5, 2006 at 2:05 am

I’m not sure motive and intention must be separated. Motive can be a part of the intention, if you only elaborate on the intention is stated. If you elaborate on the intention while still framing everything in terms of “intention”, what will betray an illegitimate action will be how it will defeat its own purpose in denying, ignoring, or defying what is expected to be brought about from the action.
Legitimate: Intention to consecrate a host to be used in the ordinary way: to be consumed by Mass participants for salvific purposes and all that. The priest intends, then, to not only consecrate the hosts, but also to administer a sacrament in the usual way.
Not legitimate: Intention to consecrate a host as a means of desecrating Jesus. Besides intending to consecrate a host, included in the intention is also the intention to desecrate a host.
Legitimate: Intention to cooperate with Rome to ordain a bishop who, as all Catholics bishops are meant to be by definition, will also be subordinate to Rome.
Illegitimate: Intention to ordain a bishop in order to stick it to Rome with the intention to defy what a bishop really is supposed to be and how the process is really supposed to take place.
In legitimate cases, you have textbook procedural criteria being fulfilled; what is supposed to be happening is happening. In illegitimate cases, textbook criteria is being defied, ignored, denied–resulting in actions that, in falling short of what they’re expected to be, defeat their own purpose, and herein we find the illegitimacy of the action(s).
Absurdity can sometimes illustrate best: A person who intends to be consecrated a bishop so that he can marry, would be a clear example of someone whose intentions do not fit what ordination is expected to bring about. Nevermind motive. Such an ordination wouldn’t be legit. A person who would be consecrated a bishop in defiance of a pope is not properly subordinate to a pope as bishops are expected to be in these matters by definition, by virtue of being Catholic, and therefore, the action of ordination is illegitimate.
If you just frame the intention a certain way, motive doesn’t even need to come into play, does it? Sure, motive can be said to exist, but we do not have to distinguish motives when simply restating the intention to be more clear and thorough, suffices. In the above two examples the intention is simply elaborated upon.

Mary May 6, 2006 at 2:54 pm

I’m still confused why Protestant baptism is considered valid when it’s known that their intention is not to confer a ‘rebirth’.
Because you don’t have intend exactly all the details. You have to intend to baptize the person as Christ said to. If you think it’s symbolic, that’s because you think that’s what Christ said to do.

martin May 8, 2006 at 11:28 am

what about the case of a priest who is told to hear confessions, does so but does not believe in the sacrament
The sacraments do not rest in the personal faith or holiness of the priest presiding. They rest in Christ, thus if a priest walks into a confessional, hears confessions and pronounces the absolution then you are forgiven irrespective of his faith, knowladge, or personal intregrety.
EG: I do not believe in gravity so I jump off a 12 story building. Gravity happens inspite of my lack of understanding or faith.

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