A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Pedophiles and Ordination
ROME, 17 SEPT. 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Is it true that three things necessary to validate any of the seven sacraments are: 1) proper substance, 2) proper form, and 3) proper intentions? If true, could a man who is secretly a "hopeless" pedophile enter and complete the course of study, never having revealed his lifestyle (through deliberate omission), and become ordained? If your answer is "Yes, this is a valid sacrament," then how do we explain the proper intentions requirement? Finally, do you think this scenario has ever come to pass, is the Church legally responsible for his later misconduct, and what is your solution? — E.N., Penngrove, California
A: Our reader is correct regarding the general criteria for invalidating the sacraments. Some other sacraments have added criteria, but these three are common to all.
When the Church speaks of correct intention with respect to sacramental validity, the requirement is fairly minimal. It basically means that the person administrating the sacrament and the one receiving the sacrament want to administer and receive the sacrament as the Church understands it.
It does not require a full theological knowledge of the sacrament, nor is it necessary to desire all of its specific effects. Thus it is theoretically possible for a non-Christian to validly baptize a person by simply intending to give what Christians give when they perform this rite.
This fairly simple concept makes it hard to invalidate a sacrament from the standpoint of intention. To do so requires that at the moment of the celebration the person administrating the sacrament or the person receiving it mentally oppose and deny what externally they appear to accept.
There might be cases, however, when other outside factors make it impossible for the persons involved to intend what the Church intends. For example, the Catholic Church does not accept the validity of Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness baptisms for, although the rites are apparently the same, the difference in understanding who the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are make it impossible to intend to act as the Church understands.
This rather long premise is necessary in order to understand the answer to the specific question at hand.
Could a man who, during formation, deliberately hid pedophile tendencies, or indeed any other condition that would have prevented his ordination, be validly ordained? The answer, sad to say, is probably yes, for the intention required at the moment of ordination is the intention to receive the priesthood. Has this ever happened? Almost certainly yes.
In some concrete cases a hidden tendency might produce a spiritual or psychological condition so that the person becomes incapable of really intending what the Church desires when it gives priesthood. This would invalidate the sacrament but is extremely hard to prove. The Church has a special canonical process for judging the question of invalidity of sacred orders, but it is relatively rarely used.
Is the Church responsible? There is moral responsibility if any means of revealing this tendency was culpably neglected before ordination, or if it failed to act immediately once the problem became manifest. The Church would not be morally responsible if an astute man was able to overcome these preventive controls which by their very nature are fallible and subject to manipulation.
Legal responsibility depends on each country's legal system. Most countries have a concept of civil responsibility in which the Church, just as any juridical person, might be required to pay civil compensation even if not morally responsible for an action of one of its agents.
What can be done? I believe that in the last few years the U.S. bishops have put in place a series of vetting measures in seminaries and other institutions in order to assure that those who should never be ordained, effectively don’t reach ordination.
This, alongside an increase in the quality of the disciplinary and spiritual life in seminaries, makes for a very uncomfortable environment for anyone attempting to get through six years of formation without a sincere motivation.
No system is ever perfect, but the situation has improved greatly and should continue to improve in the years to come.
* * *
Follow-up: Pedophiles and Ordination [9-30-2008]
After our Sept. 17 column on the validity of the sacrament of holy orders with respect to correct intention, a reader suggested a broader approach. He wrote:
"One of your last question-answer e-mails dealt with the intention of a sacrament as it affects the efficacy of the sacrament. I have a sidebar to that question as it relates to giving Communion to infants and children who might not be at a 'mature' understanding of the sacrament of the Eucharist.
"You stated: 'When the Church speaks of correct intention with respect to sacramental validity, the requirement is fairly minimal. It basically means that the person administrating the sacrament and the one receiving the sacrament want to administer and receive the sacrament as the Church understands it.
"'It does not require a full theological knowledge of the sacrament, nor is it necessary to desire all of its specific effects. Thus it is theoretically possible for a non-Christian to validly baptize a person by simply intending to give what Christians give when they perform this rite.
"'This fairly simple concept makes it hard to invalidate a sacrament from the standpoint of intention. To do so requires that at the moment of the celebration the person administrating the sacrament or the person receiving it mentally oppose and deny what externally they appear to accept.'
"My question is: Why doesn't this relate to infants and children concerning Communion? There seems to be an inconsistency in the practice of paedo-baptism and in the non-practice of paedo-Communion. I know that it was practiced in the West until the Council of Trent at which time it was formally changed. I also realize that the East (including Eastern Catholics as well as Eastern Orthodox) still practice paedo-Communion. Please explain. Also, in your opinion, will this practice in the West change?"
A complete answer to this question would require a full-blown treatise, but I believe that rather than inconsistency we could speak of different theological emphases that have their origin in diverse pastoral practices.
First of all, I would say that the reason for the Western practice of delaying Communion until the age of reason is basically a pastoral decision.
I do not believe that it is possible to make any sound theological objections to the Eastern practice of administering all three sacraments of initiation to infants, and it is perfectly coherent from the perspective of Eastern sacramental theology. Indeed it would be inconsistent for an Eastern Church to attempt to adopt the Western practice as initiation is intimately tied to the Eastern concept of Church and what it means to be a Christian.
The present Latin practice developed over many centuries and is therefore deeply embedded in the mindset of pastors and faithful alike as well as being encoded in law. Thus, while I believe that there is no theoretical reason why the Latin Church could not adopt the Eastern practice, the probability of this occurring is slight.
Such a change would require deep adjustments in some basic pastoral, spiritual and social presumptions, many of which have proved to be of great value in bringing souls closer to God over the centuries.
Among the reasons why the practice of infant Communion disappeared from the Western Church was the different approach to the sacrament of confirmation. In the West, the desire to maintain the bishop as ordinary minister of this sacrament led to its separation from baptism.
For many centuries first Communion was still generally administered after confirmation, resulting in a further delay in this sacrament. Until the time of Pope Pius X most children received first Communion around age 12. After the saintly Pope lowered the age of reception to around 7, more children began to receive Communion before confirmation.
Another reason was the overall drop in the practice of receiving Communion itself. The number of regular communicants started to drop around the fourth century and did not start to pick up again until the 17th. It is hard to think of administering Communion to infants when their parents received only once a year.
A practical reason was the disappearance in the West of Communion under both species, making it well nigh impossible to administer the Eucharist to infants incapable of taking solid food. Communion under both species was never dropped from Eastern Christianity and it is administered to newborns under the species of wine.
These are just some of a complex web of causes that have led to the present practice. Reasons such as the need to ensure sufficient knowledge of the mystery one is to receive are sound, reasonable and valid in the context of the lived experience of the Latin Church. But they are practical and pastoral rather than doctrinal arguments.
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