When a Priest Is in Mortal Sin

Author: Father Edward McNamara


When a Priest Is in Mortal Sin

ROME, 8 FEB. 2005 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: If a priest is in the state of mortal sin, is his Mass and/or consecration of the Eucharist viable? I understand someone would not know if a priest is in this state, but Our Lord would know. — A.A., Springfield, Massachusetts

A: When receiving or celebrating the sacraments, the priest is subject to the same requirements of sanctity and state of grace as every other Catholic; that is, the state of grace is required for fruitful reception of all sacraments except those that actually forgive sins.

Therefore a priest who is in a state of mortal sin should seek to confess as soon as possible and refrain from celebrating the sacraments until he has done so.

Normally, to celebrate Mass or receive Communion while in a state of mortal sin would be to commit a sacrilege. Yet, the sacrament would be valid; that is, there would be a true consecration and a true sacrifice.

The reason is: Christ is the principal actor of the sacraments, so they are efficacious even when performed by an unworthy minister. As St. Thomas Aquinas says: Christ may act even through a minister who is spiritually dead.

However, a priest who has fallen into mortal sin, but who is unable to make his confession despite his desire to do so, may celebrate Mass for the benefit of the faithful without adding a further sin of sacrilege.

Thus, as Canon 916 of the Code of Canon Law states: "A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible (see also Canon 1335)."

Note that the code requires a grave reason in order to avail of this exception.

One such grave reason is based on the principle of the good of souls. If a priest is required to celebrate Mass or a soul requests the sacrament of reconciliation, the anointing of the sick, or indeed any other sacrament from this priest that would have to be performed before he can avail of confession, then he may, and usually must, administer the sacrament.

A second grave reason stems from the danger of infamy by publicly revealing the state of one's soul.

This can occur in the case of a priest in isolated circumstances when there is no one else to perform the usual celebrations. There is no need for him to do anything that might lead people to suspect his lack of a state of grace.

Even in the case that the priest, or any other person, has secretly committed a grave crime, which would normally lead to his or her being automatically forbidden to receive the sacraments, Church law (in Canon 1352) foresees the possibility of the penalty being suspended to avoid infamy or scandal, to wit:

"§1. If a penalty prohibits the reception of the sacraments or sacramentals, the prohibition is suspended as long as the offender is in danger of death.

"§2. The obligation to observe an undeclared 'latae sententiae' penalty which is not notorious in the place where the offender is present, is suspended totally or partially whenever the offender cannot observe it without danger of grave scandal or infamy."

While the possibilities of a layperson or a religious in a state of mortal sin being placed in a similar dilemma as the priest are far rarer, the same basic principles would apply should they occur.

Furthermore, while it is nobody else's business why somebody does not approach Communion, pastors should do all that they can to avoid creating public pressures that might induce a person in a state of mortal sin — or otherwise unable to receive Communion — to receive out of an objective fear of infamy or even out of human respect.

For example, when parish ushers move down the aisles during Communion to assure an orderly procession, it becomes very difficult for someone, especially if well known to the other parishioners and who for some hidden reason cannot receive Communion, not to go forward with the others because staying in the pew is often the equivalent of making a public self-denunciation.

In such cases, a less organized procession at Communion allows such people to pass unnoticed. ZE05020822

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Follow-up: When a Priest Is in Mortal Sin [02-22-2005]

Our reply on the validity of Mass celebrated by a priest in mortal sin (Feb. 8) spurred several related questions.

One Arizona reader asked: "If a seminarian enters preparation for the priesthood for the purpose of its cover for his homosexual drives, is his vow of holy orders valid?"

Meanwhile, a correspondent from South Africa asked if validity of the sacrament was affected by certain illicit practices such as breaking the host during the consecration, or omitting or replacing the Creed and other texts with other songs.

As the Holy See is currently preparing a document on the overall question of admitting homosexuals to sacred orders, I will limit my comments strictly to the question of possible invalidity.

In general, the sacraments retain the presumption in favor of their validity providing the essential conditions are met.

These essential conditions are both external, respecting the rite to be followed, and internal, at least in the case of adults, regarding the minimum intention required in administrating and receiving a sacrament.

The essential external conditions differ for each sacrament but usually involve the use of proper matter, the essential rites and the essential words to be used.

Consequently, should a minister baptize by immersion, but without wetting the head of the baptized, then the baptism would be invalid, as would for example a Mass celebrated using rice wine, or corn bread, or omitting the laying on of hands during ordination. Omissions or changes to nonessential rites, while gravely illicit, do not invalidate the sacrament.

The same principle applies to the words used: A change to the essential words of a sacrament that basically alters its meaning, renders a sacrament invalid. But minor changes would not do so.

Accordingly, if a minister were to baptize "In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier," or attempt consecration saying "This symbolizes my body," the sacrament would be rendered invalid.

Therefore, the examples furnished by our South African writer do not endanger the validity of the sacrament. But, of course, assuring validity is an insufficient criterion for a worthy, reverent and truly Catholic celebration.

With respect to the intention required for the valid administration and reception (by an adult) of the sacraments, the Council of Trent requires only that the minister or subject intend to do at least what the Church does.

This is a fairly minimum intention and means that a sacrament would be valid even if a minister lacked faith in the sacrament, or were in a state of mortal sin. It is enough for him to intend to do what the Church does when administrating this sacrament.

This refers only to the intention; some sacraments, such as matrimony and hearing confessions, have additional requirements for validity such as formal authorization or proper canonical procedures.

Normally the celebrant's and subject's intention may be presumed. Indeed, in order to invalidate the sacrament, either one would usually have to make a positive act of rejection in the very moment that he was administrating or receiving the sacrament.

For example, a bishop would have to say to himself, while in the very act of laying his hands on the ordinand, "I do not intend to ordain this man," or the subject "I do not intend to receive ordination."

Such a simulation of a sacrament would be extremely grave and is severely punished in canon law.

For this reason, declarations of nullity of sacraments such as ordination or baptism are rare, basically because it is difficult to make them invalid.

In the case presented by our Arizona reader, I believe it is impossible to give a general answer. It would be necessary to see how far, in the case of the person involved, the motivation of entering the seminary as a cover for his condition affected his will and his capacity to make a correct intention.

In general, I would say that the presumption would be in favor of the validity of the ordination. But there could be concrete circumstances that would render it invalid. ZE05022220

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