Written by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
On April 20, 2020, we wrote a column on the use of cotton balls for confirmation in the light of the COVID pandemic.
In our reply, hitherto shared by many sacramental theologians, we stated that the weight of theological opinion was against the validity of using an instrument for confirmation due to the importance of laying on of hand while anointing as well as express prohibitions in official liturgical books against using an instrument.
We also pointed out that there were some theologians who argued that the use of an instrument was possible.
Then, on June 8 in a memorandum to all U.S. bishops, the chairman of the bishops’ conference Committee on Divine Worship informed them that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments had replied to a dubium (a doubt) on the question of whether an instrument could be used in the anointing that is an essential part of the sacrament of confirmation in a letter dated June 2. The congregation had replied as follows: “The use by the minister of an instrument (gloves, cotton swab …), does not affect the validity of the Sacrament.”
This reply has obviously caused some surprise among sacramental theologians, and we have received several inquiries regarding it.
I think that there can be no doubt that the response is correct. The Congregation for Divine Worship would not risk a reply that would in any way endanger the validity of the sacrament. It is also to be supposed that they consulted with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as the CDF usually responds to general questions regarding the validity of the sacraments, as in the recent note declaring the invalidity of changing the baptismal formula to “We baptize you in the name of the Father ….”
If I have a bone to pick with the competent authorities, it would be that I think that, knowing the wide difference of opinion, the answer deserved a more complete development of the reason behind it than the one line that has been published.
Indeed, some theologians have publicly requested further study of the matter and even a possible revision.
Even though I am unaware of the internal discussions of the Congregation for Divine Worship, I will attempt to deduce the theological reasoning behind for the benefit of those readers who inquired.
First, I would point out that the reply is in negative form. It says that the use of these instruments does not affect the validity of the sacrament. Thus, it is not an endorsement of their use but an acceptance that the sacrament is valid if they are used.
As mentioned in the article in April, the liturgical books in use before the liturgical reform (and still extant in the extraordinary form) contained an express prohibition of the use of an instrument for confirmation.
This prohibition, however, did not explicitly state the invalidity of the use of an instrument. This invalidity was inferred by later theologians and clearly stated in many theological manuals. This inference of invalidity was not unreasonable but was not the only possible conclusion.
The principal argument for the invalidity of instruments stems from its impeding the sign of the imposition of hands when anointing during confirmation.
We must, therefore, ask if physical contact is essential to the sign of the imposition of hands. With respect to the sacrament of holy orders at least, there are solid arguments that demonstrate that this contact is not essential to sacramental validity.
For instance, for many centuries, and indeed even today in the extraordinary form, the bishop would often be wearing ceremonial episcopal gloves for this part of the rite.
Moreover, Pope Pius XII, when he solemnly decreed in the 1947 apostolic constitution “Sacramentum Ordinis” that the imposition of hands formed the only matter of the sacrament of holy orders, stated:
“In order that there may be no occasion for doubt, We command that in conferring each Order the imposition of hands be done by physically touching the head of the person to be ordained, although a moral contact also is sufficient for the valid conferring of the Sacrament.”
If a moral contact is sufficient for the valid conferring of the sacrament of orders, it could well be understood that this applies to the imposition of hands in the sacrament of confirmation. That is, not something very desirable, but not of such nature that it would invalidate the sacrament.
A further argument could be proposed from the fact that the Church has always recognized the validity of confirmation (chrismation) conferred by some Eastern Churches that habitually use an instrument while anointing various parts of the body: forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, ears, breast, hands, and feet, of the newly baptized, or, more rarely, of a previously baptized adult. In some of these rites, the laying on of hands follows the anointings.
There is also some indirect evidence of the use of similar instruments in the Western Church in medieval times, such as Roger van der Weyden’s seven sacraments altarpiece painted around 1445-1450.
If there were never doubts regarding the validity of these celebrations, then it can be inferred that the aforementioned law forbidding the use of instruments in the Roman rite was not under pain of invalidity.
Rather, it could be suggested that the prohibition was similar to Pius XII’s mandate regarding the physical laying on of hands for holy orders. This was not so much a question of validity but an effort to remove any source of confusion with regard to the importance of the gesture of laying on of hands for the sacrament of confirmation.
These might or might not have been among the considerations broached by the Congregation for Divine Worship in preparing its brief reply. But I think they are sufficient to show that the reply is on solid theological grounds even though my original view was different.
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Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.