Sacraments and Faculties

by Questing Beast

by Daniel Quinan

Can a laicized priest administer the sacraments validly? This question will serve as a stimulus to the following investigation. Of course a laicized priest might administer the sacraments illicitly, if the law has forbidden him from doing so for some reason – but this is certainly not the same as suggesting that the law could render his sacraments invalid. Indeed, I suspect that many (if not most) people would naturally assume that (given valid matter, form, and intention) sacraments administered by an ordained priest will always be valid, even if they are not always licit. And this is not an unreasonable assumption; nor, as we will see, is it a very wrong assumption. After all, if the man is a validly ordained presbyter, and ordination cannot be undone, then it follows that he must retain the power of orders, and therefore (in principle) he cannot fail to have the ability to transubstantiate bread and wine, hear sacramental confessions, and the like.

Unfortunately, however, the reality of the situation is not quite so simple: the truth is that some sacraments can always be administered validly (given nothing more than the proper matter, form, and intention), while other sacraments cannot. To understand how this happens, we must take some time to examine what canon law has to say about the minister of the four following sacraments: baptism, Eucharist, confession, and confirmation. The first two will serve as examples of sacraments that can always be administered validly; the last two as examples which involve sacramental faculties.

Turning to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, we find first that “the ordinary minister of baptism is a bishop, a presbyter, or a deacon” (c. 861 §1); this simply informs us that any person other than a priest or deacon is to be considered an extraordinary minister of the sacrament. The canon then proceeds to state that “when an ordinary minister is absent or impeded, a catechist or another person designated for this function… or in a case of necessity any person with the right intention, confers baptism licitly.” (c. 861 §2) Here we should note that the absence of a priest or deacon is required only for the licit conferral of baptism by an extraordinary minister – the law makes no mention of validity, only liceity. Thus (provided that the conditions for matter and form are otherwise met) the law implicitly recognizes that baptism can always be validly administered by anyone with the right intention. The sacrament might be conferred illicitly, if the conditions noted in the canon are ignored, but (just as we would expect) the law adds no conditions which would affect the valid conferral of baptism by an extraordinary minister.

Similarly with regard to the Eucharist, canon law informs us that “the minister who is able to confect the sacrament of the Eucharist in the person of Christ is a validly ordained priest alone.” (c. 900 §1) Naturally, since an ordained priest is the only possible minister, there is no distinction made between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” ministers. However, the canon continues: “a priest not impeded by canon law celebrates the Eucharist licitly”. (c. 900 §2) Here again, it must be noted that the law mentions only liceity – not validity. Thus a priest who is impeded by canon law from celebrating the Eucharist (such as a laicized priest) would – all other conditions being presumed equal – celebrate the Mass illicitly, but nevertheless validly. This is true not only because he retains the power of orders as a irreversible result of his ordination, but also because (again) the law puts no restraint upon his power to validly confect the Eucharist.


In order to validly confirm (just as in order to validly hear confessions) such priests must be given the faculty to do so, either by law or by the competent authority.


With regard to sacrament of confession, however, the situation is notably different: in this case the law explicitly establishes that “the valid absolution of sins requires that the minister have, in addition to the power of orders, the faculty of exercising it for the faithful to whom he imparts absolution.” (c. 966 §1) The details of exactly how this faculty can be obtained must remain a topic for another time; for our purposes it will suffice to say that, in summary: “a priest can be given this faculty either by the law itself, or by a grant made by the competent authority” (c. 966 §2). However, the significance of the first paragraph of the canon cannot be understated: without the faculty to hear confessions, an ordained priest cannot validly absolve the sins of a penitent. This goes far beyond merely rendering the exercise of a certain sacrament illicit, as we saw with baptism and the celebration of the Eucharist.

Surprising as it might be, we now have an example of how canon law has actually added a condition for validity to the sacrament of confession. The power of orders is, as it were, restrained by the law; thus a laicized priest cannot validly grant absolution, since he does not possess the faculty to hear confessions. (It should be noted that, by way of exception, canon 976 permits that “even though a priest lacks the faculty to hear confessions, he absolves validly and licitly any penitents whatsoever in danger of death”.) And further, even if a priest does have the faculty to hear confessions, the law might prevent him from granting absolution on other grounds – canon 977, for instance, states that “the absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is invalid except in danger of death”. In any case, however, the fact is clear: church law can (and does) limit the valid exercise of certain sacraments under certain conditions.

Finally, we turn to the sacrament of confirmation: “the ordinary minister of confirmation is a bishop; a presbyter provided with this faculty in virtue of universal law or the special grant of the competent authority also confers this sacrament validly”. (c. 882) Here the law not only makes a distinction between ordinary and extraordinary ministers, but further defines that an extraordinary minister requires a faculty in order to confer the sacrament validly. Bishops, as ordinary ministers of the sacrament, require no such faculty. In some cases a bishop might administer the sacrament illicitly – for instance, per canon 866, bishops illicitly confirm the faithful of another diocese against the will of that diocesan bishop – but nevertheless, assuming that the conditions for matter, form, and intention are fulfilled, the fact remains that a bishop can always administer the sacrament of confirmation validly. However, the same cannot be said of non-bishop priests: in order to validly confirm (just as in order to validly hear confessions) such priests must be given the faculty to do so, either by law or by the competent authority. Further, even if presbyters do have the appropriate faculty, canon 887 prevents them from validly confirming anyone outside of their assigned territory. (Although again, it should be noted that canon 883 gives an exception: “as regards those who are in danger of death… any presbyter [possesses] the faculty of administering confirmation by the law itself”.)

But perhaps the most interesting observation comes from a comparison of the code of canon law for the Latin Catholic church with the code for the Eastern Catholic churches. For although the Eastern code parallels the Latin code by requiring its priests to obtain a faculty in order to validly hear confessions, it does not reserve the conferral of this sacrament to bishops, nor does it require that Eastern Catholic priests obtain a faculty in order to administer the sacrament validly. Instead, because of the Eastern tradition that chrismation is to be administered in conjunction with baptism, the Eastern code of canon law simply states that “all presbyters of the Eastern Churches can validly administer this sacrament, either along with baptism or separately, to all the Christian faithful of any Church sui iuris, including the Latin Church” (CCEO c. 696 §1), and conversely “the Christian faithful of Eastern Churches validly receive this sacrament also from presbyters of the Latin Church, according to the faculties with which these are endowed”. (CCEO c. 696 §2) Thus the Eastern code does not restrict the valid conferral of confirmation by requiring a faculty, and even further it implicitly affirms that the faculty required by the Latin code does restrict the valid conferral of the sacrament.


The requirement to obtain a faculty in order to administer certain sacraments is fundamentally a matter of ecclesiastical law, not divine law; the law could have been written otherwise, and (in principle) there is nothing to prevent it from being changed in the future.


In conclusion, taking all of these observations together, we ought to make three general observations. First: it would be a mistake to think that a sacramental faculty truly gives the priest any new power to perform a sacrament, which he had not already received through the power of orders. Priests do not receive the power to hear confessions upon obtaining the faculty to hear confessions, nor do they truly lose that power when the faculty is taken away. Rather, sacramental faculties are simply a method which the Church uses to restrain the valid exercise of certain sacraments, when deemed appropriate. By way of analogy – and to help resolve our consideration of the laicized priest – we ought to say that the loss of a required faculty only “removes” the power of a priest to perform that sacrament in the same way that a blindfold “removes” the power of a man to see with his eyes; and conversely, the reception of a faculty merely authorizes a priest to validly exercise the power that he has already received through ordination.

Second: the requirement to obtain a faculty in order to administer certain sacraments is fundamentally a matter of ecclesiastical law, not divine law; the law could have been written otherwise, and (in principle) there is nothing to prevent it from being changed in the future, if the Church saw fit to do so. Just as the Supreme Pontiff decided not to require that priests in the Eastern Church receive a faculty in order to validly administer chrismation, so too he could have chosen not to require this faculty of presbyters in the Latin Church. Likewise, it seems that the Church could remove the requirement of obtaining a faculty to hear confessions, or even add a requirement that priests obtain a faculty in order to validly consecrate the Eucharist (although in both cases, it must be acknowledged that there are good reasons this has not been done, and quite possibly never will be done).

Third, and finally: surprising as it might initially be to realize that canon law has the power to render a sacrament invalid (rather than merely illicit), it actually makes good sense if we simply recall that the power of the law comes from the power of the legislator, and the legislator (in the case of canon law) is the Roman Pontiff: the Pope, possessing the fullness of power in the Church. Thus, wherever canon law prohibits certain sacraments from being validly administered, we must simply understand, in agreement with canon 841, that its power to do this is ultimately derived from the supreme authority of the Church itself.