There has been some discussion at PrayTell about what ‘validity’ means. Perhaps this excerpt, “Validity, sacramental,” from the New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship is helpful. The author is Fr. Peter Fink SJ, editor of the dictionary. Note that this article was written before the statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, itself not an infallible statement, making the claim that the invalidity of Anglican orders is an infallible teaching. The first paragraph of the excerpt below refers to the change in definition of matter for ordination by Pius XII and the change in the sacramental formula for confirmation under Paul VI.  –  Ed.

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… Since the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy maintains that all liturgy “expressed the mystery of Christ” (SC 2), the church must determine the validity of sacraments to the extent that they truly express, or fail to express, this mystery. Yet, since the mystery itself can be variously understood at different periods of the church’s life, its judgment of validity will always be subject to change. Witness, for just two examples, the redefinition of essentials in the current reform in regard to ordination (the laying on of hands rather than the assignment of instruments of office) and confirmation (the adoption of the Eastern form of prayer). …

It is probably the case that the sharp line drawn between valid and invalid is no longer the most helpful way to assess the truth or untruth of the sacraments. Both are minimalist judgments; either the essentials are there or not. They are also judgments which presume we can have a clear understanding of what the essentials are. That is in fact not as easy as might ordinarily be assumed. Nonetheless, even where the essentials are judged to be present, there is a large spectrum of sacramental truth that stretches between the “bare necessities,” and the full liturgical action envisioned by Vatican II. Minimalist judgments are not adequate to the Vatican II liturgical reform. …

[E]specially in this ecumenical era, the Roman Catholic judgment that Anglican orders are “null and void” (Leo XIII), or the Orthodox judgment that Catholic confirmation is ineffective, rings more untrue than true. It may be proper for Roman Catholics to re-ordain priests who come to the Roman church from Anglicanism, and it may be proper for Orthodox to chrismate (confirm) Roman Catholics who enter Orthodoxy, but this could be done for reasons other than that the original ordination or confirmation was null and void. …

Vatican II did in fact retreat from the clear and harsh judgments of earlier days. With regard to the realities within other churches, and in its desire to promote Christian unity, rather than stall or hinder it, the council advised that every effort be taken “to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent the conditions of our separated brethren with truth and fairness” (UR 4). …

Nevertheless, the church does have both the right and the responsibility to make judgments, however historically conditioned they might be, that “this act” is in conformity with the truth of Christ and “that act” is not. … What is required, however, for this judgment to be made with gospel integrity, is that the church … pass such judgment softly and tentatively…

Peter Fink, “Sacramental Validity,” New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1990), 1298-1300.





10 responses to “Validity”

  1. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    I would agree that saying an Anglican Liturgy is invalid or a Methodist one invalid, to be a rather indelicate and shrill sort of statement. Certainly something happens in these services where Jesus is present in some way, but not perhaps in the way Catholics believe it to be true in our own “fullness of validity”.

    Perhaps someone can correct me. My understanding is that if it were discovered that I was invalidly ordained a priest some 30 years ago, (let’s say the bishop forgot to lay hands on my head) and no one noticed, not even poor me, would all of the Masses and other sacraments I celebrated be invalid? I believe that somewhere in Catholic theology, there is the belief that the “Church supplies” in these cases and that even the Masses I celebrated were valid, even though I’m not!
    I’m writing off the top of my head and without checking for specifics. But if my premise is correct, could even the Church universal “supply” what is lacking in Protestant services? Just wondering.

    1. Jim McKay Avatar
      Jim McKay

      The ARCIC agreement on the Eucharist boils down to Catholics and Anglicans believe in the Eucharist in the same way. I think that that means the same thing happens in Anglican liturgies that happens in Roman Catholic liturgies, in the same fullness of Christ. Granted there are differences coming from the denominations, the liturgy is the work of the whole Church, and even more of Christ and His Church.

      Apparently, Catholics are to hold that together with the judgment of Leo XIII on the invalidity of Anglican Orders. I cannot see a way to reconcile the two notions, but there is a lot I do not see or understand. Why do the Popes keep giving episcopal rings and pectoral crosses,etc. to Anglican bishops-who-are-not-bishops? There is something to Anglican ritual, even if null and void applies. And Methodist and Lutheran and on and on.

      I remember hearing Georges Tavard, the great ecumenist of blessed memory, talk about Ecclesia Supplet, the church supplies what may be defective for those who are innocent of the defect. He thought it had application in ecumenism, but that is getting pretty technical.

      All liturgies are defective in some way, and it is only Christ and His Church that make them instances of prayer. We can only rely on God’s giving nature to make the liturgies full of grace for all.
      that is my opinion. I hope it is accurate in some way.

    2. Joel Walkley Avatar

      What a gracious and humbling view of the economy of the church, the whole church. I will certainly ruminate over this concept. This idea will help me to be more gracious to those worship events I find to be lacking. God can handle it.

      Perhaps another analogy would be a parent who loving receives a work of art from a child though it is not of the same quality as the Masters.

      I have a difficult time thinking of a category for invalid worship . “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.” Ps 150:6.

      Although the scathing OT reading of 2 weeks back challenge me here (RCL: Isaiah 1:11-20) “your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them…When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen…”

  2. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    Epikeia – An indulgent and benign interpretation of law, which regards a law as not applying in a particular case because of circumstances unforeseen by the lawmaker. The lawmaker cannot foresee all possible cases that may come under the law, and it is therefore reasonably presumed that were the present circumstances known to the legislator he would permit the act, e.g., a mother presumes that she may miss Mass on Sunday when there is no one present to care for her baby. Epikeia is not permitted, however, no matter how grave the inconvenience, if violation of the law would render an act null and void, e.g., to presume that marriage may be contracted because of grave inconvenience in spite of an existing diriment impediment.

    My favorite part of canon law class – probably the only time I paid attention.

    Fr. McDonald – your example would fit perfectly – 30 years of masses would not be invalid.

  3. John Finn Avatar
    John Finn

    An important distinction is made by Sacred Heart Seminary Professor of Canon Law Dr. Ed Peters in his February 22, 2007 posting on The principle of Ecclésia Supplet is restricted to matters of jurisdiction. It does not apply to matters of Sacramental Form.

  4. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    His opinion only!

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      Ed Peter’s opinion is pretty consistent with what I’ve read on the subject in the Catholic context; Ecclesia supplet has historically been fairly narrowly applied.

    2. Jeffrey Pinyan Avatar


      The opinion of a learned Canon Lawyer, who probably paid more attention in his canon law class than you. 😉

      But in case you had not read Dr. Peters’ full post, he also says:

      “Well, even though Ecclesia supplet seems of no avail here, nevertheless, we may hold that, in some way, Deus providet, that is, God provides, or God foresees. If tragedy were to befall a hapless penitent, I think, like Fr. Hoffman, that one’s efforts to seek absolution for sins in this life would somehow be rewarded by God in the next.”

      He does end with this precaution: “Meanwhile, the rest of us need to be wary lest we assume too quickly that Ecclesia supplet will remedy serious mistakes in ministry just because they were not the fault of the faithful.”

      I find it similar to the precaution ever before us as evangelists: yes, God may have a way to save those to whom we are unable to preach the Gospel, but that should not deter us from the task of spreading that Gospel to all the ends of the earth!

  5. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    You already answered and supported my response – epikeia is different from Ecclesia Supplet altho they both work off the same principle.

    Canon law only applies to the external forum; not to the internal or moral judgment of an individual. My response was to a moral question from Fr. McDonald. The purpose of canon law is not to substitute for common charity in the life of the church.

    Thus, the salvation of souls is the supreme law. Canon law is there to protect the rights of the catholic individual.

    1. Jeffrey Pinyan Avatar


      “Canon law only applies to the external forum; not to the internal or moral judgment of an individual.”

      I may be misunderstanding you and/or Canon Law — completely possible! — but Can. 144.1 explicitly refers to the “internal forum”:

      “In factual or legal common error and in positive and probable doubt of law or of fact, the Church supplies executive power of governance for both the external and internal forum.”

      But like I said, I may be missing the point completely.

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