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What every Catholic should know about intentions, motives, and what makes for a valid sacrament…

What every Catholic should know about intentions, motives, and what makes for a valid sacrament…

The question of invalid baptisms has been in the news recently. In my commentary on the question in La Civiltà Cattolica, I pointed out that the Vatican’s most recent document on the question, Gestis verbisque, gives renewed attention to the minister’s intention. For a sacrament to be valid, a minister must intend to do what the Church does when celebrating that sacrament. And that means that if he changes what the Church prescribes in her official liturgical texts–by inserting his own words or deleting something required to be there–then he manifests an intention to do something else. It’s just as straightforward as it sounds. The proof is not in the pudding, but in the action.

Baptismal font, St. Peter’s Basilica

Last week, however, another question was sent to the Vatican about what sort of intention might invalidate a sacrament, this time an ordination. The question proposed the distasteful case of a bishop who ordained a man with whom he had engaged in an illicit sexual relationship. Could he possibly have the right intention? Wouldn’t such a sinful situation invalidate the ordination?

The article in which this question was raised described it as “potentially explosive.” Fortunately, this grenade was defused by St. Augustine in the fifth century. The great theologian was responding to controversy about the validity of baptisms, whether the sinfulness of a minster invalidated the sacrament. He responded no. Augustine’s principle has remained a bedrock of sacramental theology ever since. It is really Christ who baptizes, Augustine said, and he can do so even through profoundly imperfect human instruments. The same goes for ordinations. Augustine sagely realized that if perfection were required of ministers in order for sacraments to be valid, then we simply wouldn’t have sacraments.

So how does Augustine’s principle fit with the requirement that one has to have the right intention to celebrate a sacrament validly? Here we have to make what might at first seem like a rather technical distinction but is, once you’ve thought the question through, also rather straightforward. The distinction is between intention and motive.

Intention is tied strictly to the action itself. It requires very little psychologically. It’s merely the act of the will to complete a given action.  Motives are all the possible reasons one might have for wanting to do that action. Motives can vary immensely and be so hopelessly mixed that not even Dr. Frasier Crane could sort them out. (Dating myself there, I know.)

The necessity of intending to complete the sacramental action means that we can’t celebrate a sacrament accidentally . When I’m teaching seminarians how to celebrate Mass and show them what gestures to make during the Eucharistic prayer, I usually say explicitly, “I do not intend to consecrate the Eucharist.” I intend to teach, but not to complete a sacramental act. Intention is important because it means that the sacraments are human actions and can’t be celebrated by machines or AI.

But one can celebrate the sacraments for all sorts of reasons–good, bad, and mixed. These reasons are what we mean by motives. These aren’t strictly tied to the action itself. One might be motivated to celebrate any of the sacraments for any number of ambiguous motives–to get a stipend, to show off to benefactors, to make Grandma happy, to solidify one’s ecclesial faction, to get the overly-chatty penitent out of the confessional–but that doesn’t change the fact that one does indeed intend to celebrate the sacrament, that is to complete the action that the Church defines as the sacrament.

The worst motives include things like simony, essentially buying and selling the sacraments, as happened all too often in the Middle Ages. Evil motives are clearly abuses and involve serious sin, but they don’t change whether a sacrament is valid or not. Whether the sin is against the seventh or sixth commandment doesn’t change the underlying theology. While celebrating a sacrament for all the wrong reasons doesn’t make it invalid, it certainly does affect whether or not the sacrament will be fruitful in the life of the person celebrating it. The same warning St. Paul gave about receiving the Eucharist when not living according to Christian teaching–that one is eating and drinking condemnation upon oneself (1 Cor 11:29)–would also apply in the case of an ordination celebrated for nefarious motives.

All of this means that it is possible to abuse the sacraments. This reality may make people uncomfortable–it probably should make us uncomfortable–but it reflects two rather profound truths: the vulnerability Christ assumed in the Incarnation and the seriousness of the gift of human freedom.


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Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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