EWTN Catholic Q&A
Ecclesia Supplet
Question from Gerard on 09-18-2004:


How does "ecclesia supplet" work and when does it apply? I once got to confession and the priest went: "I forgive you your sins, in the name of the Father...etc, etc." If course the correct form is "absolve". Does "ecclesia supplet" apply? If not, when and how?



Answer by Rev. Mark J. Gantley, JCL on 09-19-2004:

No. "Ecclesia suplet" ("the Church supplies") does not make up for invalidity when the matter or form (the essential elements and correct words) are omitted or altered.

For example, if water is not used in baptism, then the baptism is invalid. If bread and wine are not used for the Eucharist, then the consecration is invalid. If chrism is not used for confirmation, then the confirmation is invalid.

Or regarding the words, if the words of the consecration are changed, then the consecration is invalid. If the correct words for confirmation or anointing of the sick are paraphrased, then the sacrament is invalid.

The Church does not supply for these causes for invalidity.

The Church can supply the executive power of governance or a faculty in very, very limited circumstances (canon 144).

For example, if a priest from a religious order arrives to work in a new diocese, and he is issued the faculty to hear confessions effective July 1. But he hears confessions on the last day of June, not realizing that his faculties from his prior diocese had expired but the faculties from his new diocese were not yet in effect. In this circumstance, the Church would supply the faculty so ensure that the confession is valid.

Or another example, priests have the faculty to administer confirmation at the Easter Vigil to those adults that they baptized or receive into the full communion of the Catholic Church (who were previously baptized into a non-Catholic community). But included among the candidates for confirmation is an adult who was baptized as a Catholic as an infant. The law assumes that such persons were long ago confirmed by a bishop, so a priest does not have the faculty to confirm adult Catholics at the Easter vigil. A priest would need to get the faculty from his bishop. If he fails to get the faculty, then the Church would supply the faculty in this circumstance.

Or maybe a bishop is transferred to a new diocese, but before he has taken canonical possession of the new diocese, he signs a letter of appointment naming a new pastor to a parish. He technically does not yet have the authority to appoint pastors, but the Church would supply the executive power of governance so that the pastor's appointment would be valid.

The idea of the Church supplying the executive power of governance or a faculty for a sacrament is meant to protect people from such mistakes errors or in matters of doubt. But it is a very limited idea, and it is not meant to cover for situations of malice.

For example, if I went to another diocese and simply walked into an unlocked church and performed a wedding of people I knew, the Church would not supply the faculty. The wedding would be invalid.

I have been a priest for over 13 years, and in my experience, I have heard many priests use the term "ecclesia supplet" as if it were functioning in many situations where it just does not apply. I would never recommend that anyone rely on the "Church supplying" when it comes to issues of validity in order to be sloppy or lazy about doing things correctly. It is only supposed to be a safeguard for the protection of the faithful.

This is not an easy concept to understand, and there are debates amongs canonists even about the proper application of this canonical principle. I hope that I have explained it somewhat clearly.