Question: If someone does all that is expected of him in preparation for receiving a Sacrament, how would it possible for that person not to receive it just because of some error on the part of the priest or bishop? Wouldn’t God repair the problem?
Answer: First of all, it should be obvious that God does as God pleases! He is never subject to limitations imposed by his creatures, or even to those inherent in the material world. God can and does give grace apart from the Sacraments—the most obvious being the grace of Faith which moves an adult convert to receive Baptism some time later. God can forgive sins without Baptism or Penance; God can give the grace to publicly profess Faith in Jesus Christ, even without Baptism and Confirmation.[i]
God could have chosen to impart all graces in a purely spiritual manner. But man is a being of both body and soul, and tends to rely heavily on his bodily senses to recognize the state of his own being and the world around him. Therefore God has chosen to make use of physical signs when conferring many of His spiritual graces. Even in the Old Testament, God utilized physical rites like circumcision, sprinkling with blood, the sacrifice of animals and fine wheat flour, and personally appearing as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.[ii]
In the New Testament our Lord performed some of His miracles in what might be called a “sacramental” manner: He touched the eyes of the blind; inserted his fingers into the ears and touched the tongue of one deaf and dumb, while spitting and saying “be thou opened”; spat on the eyes of another blind man and laid hands upon him; and anointed the eyes of yet another blind man with clay made with His spittle and the dust of the earth.[iii]
The institution of the Sacraments is directly seen or implied in the Scriptures:
In His wisdom God has given us these tangible sources of grace so that we may be without doubt in following the courses of our spiritual lives. The Sacraments are objective, verifiable acts—not just subjective feelings of piety.
The man who has come to believe in Jesus Christ does not have to sit up at night agonizing over whether or not his belief is adequate to begin the path of his salvation. Instead he goes and receives Baptism, knowing that “those who believe and are baptized will be saved”; knowing that the Sacrament will give him graces sufficient to make up for any and all intellectual deficiencies in his faith.
The baptized man is not left wondering whether he has been seeking Christ adequately in his private prayers, for, though he is still encouraged to pray, he can come, every day, face to face with Jesus Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, even receiving Him into his body if he is in the state of grace. And that man can know that he is surely in the state of grace by receiving the Sacrament of Penance, rather than trusting his subjective contrition.
Given the possibility of knowing the state of our spiritual life through the objective realities of the Sacraments, we need only learn what is necessary to demonstrate that we have received them.
Our Lord established seven Sacraments—outward signs, which give grace infallibly when they are performed as He instituted them. God may give graces apart from the Sacraments as He sees fit, and to a degree which we may not know, but when the Sacraments are confected we have a positive assurance of the graces necessary for salvation. The physical cause to effect nature of the Sacraments gives us certainty—if the essentials of the rite are performed, we are assured of its effectiveness; if any essential is omitted, the rite can and must be repeated properly.
In the Sacraments, Jesus Christ acts through a human minister, conferring the corresponding graces as long as the essentials of the Sacrament are present. The Church’s understanding of these essentials is surprisingly liberal. Accidental mistakes in pronunciation do not invalidate the form of the Sacrament. Its minister may be a sinner, a heretic, or even a positive unbeliever as long as he intends to do what Christ’s Church does. In the absence of any repudiation, simply using the traditional rite of the Church is enough to demonstrate adequate intention. In times of necessity, the Sacramental formulas may be reduced to their bare minimums and still confer the entirety of the Sacraments. (The additional ceremonies, while not absolutely necessary, do serve to enhance our understanding and appreciation of the Sacrament, and must not be omitted without compelling reason—in some cases they are “supplied” after the fact if omitted by necessity.)
Nevertheless, since we are dealing with human acts, it is necessary to establish some norms for these bare minimums which are adequate to confect the Sacraments. A little reflection will reveal that four things are necessary for a given Sacrament to be valid: Minister, Matter, Form, and Intention. One must also consider the valid recipient of a Sacrament.
Minister: The minister for most of the Sacraments is an ordained priest. Baptism is so essential, though, that anyone can confer it (although not on himself!)—“even a pagan or a heretic can baptize provided he adheres to the essential rite of the Church and has the intention of doing what the Church does.”[iv] By law a priest must witness the marriage of Catholics, but the bridal couple are the actual ministers of the Sacrament. A bishop is required for sacramental Ordination or Episcopal Consecration. The other Sacraments are conferred by an ordained priest, although Confirmation is usually reserved to the bishop in the Western Church. Where necessary, deacons can be given permission to Baptize, distribute Holy Communion, and witness Marriages.
Matter: The matter of the Sacrament is the physical thing which expresses its “outward sign”: water for Baptism; laying on of the bishop’s hand and anointing with Chrism for Confirmation; bread and wine for the Holy Eucharist; sorrow, confession of sins, and desire for atonement for Penance; anointing with the Oil of the Sick for Extreme Unction; laying on of the bishop’s hand(s) for Holy Orders; the conjugal right for Matrimony.
Form: The form of a Sacrament serves to make the intended use of the matter more explicit. Water can be used for any number of purposes, the form of the Sacrament makes it explicit that it is being used for the Baptism of a particular individual. Laying on of hands is the matter of Confirmation and three different grades of Holy Orders, the form makes it explicit that someone is being confirmed, ordained deacon or priest, or consecrated to the fullness of the priesthood.
Intention: The intention of the minister ought to be to do what Christ intended in establishing each of the Sacraments. It is adequate to intend to “do whatever the Church does,” and this intention is manifested by using the rite established by the Church. The use of the correct ritual does not confect the Sacrament if it takes place in the context of mere role playing as in a movie or stage play.
Recipient: The recipient must be capable of receiving the Sacrament. Only the baptized can receive the other Sacraments, only men can be ordained, marriage is the union of a man and a woman. The recipient ought to be an intend to receive the Sacrament and its associated graces. It generally suffices that the recipient place no obstacle to receiving the Sacrament, thus the sleeping infant can be validly baptized and confirmed. Saint Thomas even raises the theoretical possibility of an infant being ordained, at least to the lower Orders![v]
Validly conferred, the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders place a spiritual mark or character on the soul of the recipient. The character enables the recipient to perform the functions associated with the state in life corresponding to the Sacrament.[vi] Sometimes called the Sacraments of indelibility, these three cannot be repeated for any reason without serious sin.
Ignorance, malice, or invalidity?
The confusion of the past fifty years ago has, on occasion, given rise to concerns about invalidly conferred Sacraments. Sometimes it is due to ignorance—the current writer was once accused of offering Mass invalidly because the vestment set lacked a maniple—another time because he didn’t drink all the wine in the cruet! The schismatic notion that “there is no salvation outside of my little group of traditionalists”(or outside of the Modernist church) has been accompanied by malicious charges of invalidity—“Bishop A’s ordinations are invalid because he once ordained a crazy man”—“Bishop B is not really a bishop because he was ordained by a Freemason”—“Bishop C is not, because he was ordained secretly.” At least one Modernist priest went around telling people that the Baptisms of traditional priests were invalid because they were not “approved” by the Modernist bishop! This sort of thing is as heretical as it was centuries ago, when condemned as the Donatist heresy by Pope Saint Melchiades in 312.[vii]
Nonetheless, it is possible for the Sacraments to be conferred invalidly—if, and only if, one of the essentials mentioned above is omitted or mutilated. The remedy is simple—an invalid Sacrament must be repeated. Even the Sacraments of indelibility may be repeated—conditionally if some aspect of the validity is prudently doubted; unconditionally if some essential was certainly missing.
[i] Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, Q72, A6, ad 1. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/407206.htm
[ii] Genesis xviii; Exodus xxiv; Leviticus i-vii Exodus xiii.
[iii] Matthew ix; Mark vi; Mark viii; John ix
[iv] Council of Florence, Decree for the Armenians, 22 Nov. 1439 (Dz. 696); cf. Concil of Trent, Session VII, canon 4 on Baptism