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About the Abuse of the Sacraments for Pastoral Motives: A Call to Attention and a Brief Catechesis of the Holy See for Priests

Summary and context of the Note on the validity of the sacraments of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith

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(ZENIT News / Roma, 04.02.2024).- It was the year 2019 when young Zachary Boazman of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma, received priestly Ordination. A few months later he found out that, in reality, despite the celebration of the Rite, he wasn’t a priest.

Seeing a video of his Baptism, he saw that the priest who “baptized him” used some inadequate words: instead of saying “I baptize you” he said “we baptize you.” The Baptism was invalid  and, without it, the majority of the other Sacraments received, including Priestly Ordination, were also invalid. A few days later, Boazman was Baptized, Confirmed  and Ordained a Priest validly.

Cases such as this have arrived at the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) with an added difficulty: the “need to locate the individuals involved [in order] to repeat the Rite of Baptism or of Confirmation.” The same Dicastery rates acts such as this  one as “a seriously unlawful act,” and worthy of “an exemplary punishment.” And it adds: “Hence, we ministers are asked to overcome the temptation to feel ourselves owners of the Church.”

As a result, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has seen it fit to publish a Note on the validity of the Sacraments, a note that “doesn’t  address (. . . ) a merely technical or even rigorist question,” but intends above all to express “luminously the priority of God’s action and humbly safeguard the unity of the Body of Christ that is the Church in her most sacred gestures.

The Note has an Introduction (numbers 1 to 5), three chapters (numbers 6 to 27) and a Conclusion (numbers 28 to 29), and a body of footnotes almost the same size as the Document. In other words, very well backed up: quotes of Trent, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Vatican Council II.

In face of the discovery that “the liturgical celebration, in particular of the Sacraments, is not always carried out in full fidelity to the Rites prescribed by the Church,” the DDF states that “Several times this Dicastery has intervened, in the framework of the Roman Rite, to resolve doubts about the validity of Sacraments celebrated, in the inobservance of liturgical rules, having to conclude sometimes with a painful negative answer, noting, in those cases, that the faithful have been robbed of what is due to them” (n. 2).

It alerts that, when a priest adduces pastoral motivations to change essential elements of the Sacraments, ”he masks, even unconsciously, a subjectivist drift and a manipulative will. Thus, manifested also, is a formative lacuna, especially in regard to awareness of the value of the symbolic action, essential feature of the liturgical-sacramental act” (n.3).

Hence, the objective of the Note is to offer “some elements of a doctrinal character to discern the validity of the celebration of the Sacraments, paying attention also to some disciplinary and pastoral aspects” (n. 4).

The first chapter (“The Church receives and expresses herself in the Sacraments”), recalls that “The Church receives and, at the same time, expresses herself in the seven Sacraments, through which the grace of God influences concretely the existence of the faithful so that the whole of life, redeemed by Christ, becomes a pleasing worship to God” (n. 7), adding that: “the sanctifying force of the Holy Spirit acts in the faithful through the sacramental signs” (n. 8). Quoting the Council of Trent, which declared “the seven vital gestures” of divine institution (n. 9), passes when speaking of the eagerness of the care that the Church has had with them, the reason why “The interventions of the Magisterium in sacramental matter have always been motivated by the fundamental concern for fidelity to the mystery celebrated” (n. 10).

The second chapter (“The Church guards and is guarded by the Sacraments”) stresses that the power that the Church exercises with the Sacraments, is analogous to that which she has over Sacred Scripture. And specifies: “the Church is conscious that to administer the grace of God does not mean to appropriate it for oneself, but to make oneself an instrument of the Spirit in the transmission of the gift of the Paschal Christ” (n. 11).

After acknowledging that it has not always been indicated unequivocally that the gestures and words that are the substance of the Sacraments (n. 12), it recalls the matter (n. 13) and the form of the Sacrament, saying: “The matter and form, due to their rootedness in Scripture and in Tradition, have never depended nor can depend on the will of the individual or of the individual community” (n. 15).

Further on the Note points out that “Exacted always for all the Sacraments . . . is the observance of the matter and of the form for the validity of the celebration, adding that “Both the matter as well as the form, summarized in the Code of Canon Law, are established in the Liturgical Books promulgated by the competent authority, which, therefore, must be faithfully observed, ‘without ‘adding, removing or changing anything’” (n. 17).

In regard to the minister’s intention, n. 18 refers to him as “unifying principle of the matter and the form, making of the a sacred sign by which the grace is conferred ex opere operato.” In n. 20 it specifies: “Matter, form and intention are always situated in the context of the liturgical celebration, which does not constitute a ceremonial adornment of the Sacraments, not even a didactic introduction to the reality that is not fulfilled, but that, on the whole, it is the event in which the personal and community encounter between God and us continues being realized.”

Finally, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith recalls that “to modify by one’s own initiative the celebratory form of a Sacrament does not constitute a simple liturgical abuse, such as a transgression of a positive rule, but a “vulnus” inflicted at the same time both to ecclesial communion as well as to the acknowledgement of Christ’s action, which in the most serious cases makes the Sacrament itself invalid” (n. 22).

The third chapter (“The liturgical presidency and the art of celebrating”) addresses the question of the liturgical presidency: in persona Christi (Capitis) and in nomine Ecclesiae.

Explaining the meaning of “in persona Christi,” it states that it “means that the priest represents Christ Himself in the event of the celebration,” and it stresses “Those that in virtue of the sacramental grace are configured with Him, participating in the authority with which He leads and sanctifies His people, are called, therefore, to adjust themselves in the Liturgy and in all the pastoral ministry, to the same logic, having been constituted Pastors not to lord it over the flock but to serve it” (n. 24).

N. 26 synthesizes it thus: “The double and combined function expressed by the formulas “in persona Christi — in nominee Ecclesiae,” and the reciprocal fruitful relationship between baptismal priesthood and ministerial priesthood, united to the awareness that the essential elements for the validity of the Sacraments must be considered in their own context, namely, the liturgical action, will make the minister increasingly conscious that the liturgical actions are not private actions but celebrations of the Church.”

Finally, the DDF states that it is “increasingly urgent to mature an art of celebrating, keeping at a distance both a rigid rubric nature as well as an unbridled fantasy, leading to a discipline that must be respected, precisely to be authentic disciples” (n. 27).

To conclude, the Note on the validity of the Sacraments reminds priests that it is up to them to “guarantee that “the beauty of the celebration of Christianity “ is kept alive and not “disfigured by a superficial and reductive understanding of its value or, worse yet, by its instrumentalization at the service of some ideological vision, regardless of what the latter is” (n. 29).


In the July 16, 2021 Letter, with which Pope Francis accompanied the publication of the Motu Proprio Traditiones Custodes, the Pontiff acknowledged: “I am equally grieved by the abuses of one side and the other in the celebration of the Liturgy. Like Benedict XVI, I also deplore that ‘in many places it is not celebrated in a faithful manner to the prescriptions of the New Missal, but that the latter was understood as an authorization and even as an obligation to creativity.’” This Note can also be placed on this horizon.

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Jorge Enrique Mújica

Licenciado en filosofía por el Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum, de Roma, y “veterano” colaborador de medios impresos y digitales sobre argumentos religiosos y de comunicación. En la cuenta de Twitter:, habla de Dios e internet y Church and media: evangelidigitalización."

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