Monday, March 05, 2012


A Defence of the Catholic Priesthood
by Michael Davies
1979 AND 1993

Appendix I
The Substance of a Sacrament

The Catechism of the Council of Trent, following St. Augustine and St. Thomas, emphasizes the nature of the seven Sacraments sacred signs, but signs which possess by Divine institution the power to effect what they signify. 1 They are, as the Penny Catechism explains, outward signs of inward grace. The outward sign of the Sacrament can be discerned by the senses, it is a sensible sign. This sensible aspect of the Sacrament constitutes but one sign, although this sign has two constituent parts-----the matter, which is called the element, and the form, which is commonly called the word. 2 In order to bring the Sacrament to completion a third element is necessary, the minister of the Sacrament, who effects it with the intention of doing what the Church does. All three things are essential, "and, if anyone of these three is lacking, the Sacrament is not effected" (D. 695).

The Council of Trent declares that the Church has always possessed the power-----in the dispensation or administration of the Sacraments-----to determine or to change those things which she judges to be more expedient for those receiving them or for the reverence due to the Sacraments themselves, according to the circumstances of time and place. An exception is made with regard to the substance of a Sacrament which the Church has no power to alter-----salva illorum substantia: provided their substance is retained (D. 93 1).

The question immediately arises as to what belongs to the substance of a particular Sacrament, and the answer will depend upon whether Our Lord instituted it generically (in genere) or specifically (in specie). In the former case, He left it to the supreme authority of His Church to decide the particular signs which should signify and effect the sacramental grace. Where Christ instituted a Sacrament in specie, as regards either matter or form, the Church has no power to change them. Our Lord chose water for the matter of Baptism and bread and wine for the matter of the Holy Eucharist; nothing else can ever be admitted. 3 But even here the Church enjoys a certain latitude in fixing the precise nature of the matter. Where bread for the Holy Eucharist is concerned, priests of the Latin rite are bound to use unleavened bread-----just as Our Lord did at the Last Supper. But there are other rites, Uniate and Orthodox, in which leavened bread is used-----and the Church recognizes this as equally valid. The Pope possesses the legal power to impose the use of unleavened bread upon the Eastern rites or of leavened bread upon the Latin Church-----but until the reforms of Vatican II it had always been the Catholic custom to hold fast to the traditions which have been handed down, liturgical traditions in particular, and never to change them even in minor matters without a compelling reason for doing so.

With regard to the form of a Sacrament, some Catholics have mistakenly identified the form itself with a particular formula employed by the Church to express it, and have concluded that this formula cannot be changed without invalidating the Sacrament. Hence they have fallen into the error of believing that the Church has no power to make changes in the matter and form of any Sacrament, having mistakenly identified the matter and form in current usage with the substance of the Sacraments themselves, which Trent taught could not be changed.

The view that the Church can make no change in the matter and form of any Sacrament is historically indefensible. "The custom of the Church in different ages and countries shows that the form is not fixed in its particular words." 4 The Armenian Decree of the Council of Florence (1439) is sometimes cited in defence of the view that the Church cannot change the form of a Sacrament (D. 695-702). Apart from anything else, this decree is not an infallible pronouncement. The Council was not teaching the whole Church but only the Armenians, and it was simply setting forth for their benefit an authoritative interpretation of the sacramental rites which they were to accept and implement. The decree sets out sacramental forms which they are to use; it does not preclude the possibility of c the Church modifying those forms without changing their essential meaning. Indeed, the Council of Florence clearly held that the Church has the power, within certain limits, to alter the matter and form of some of the Sacraments. For example, after stating that the form for Baptism is: "I Baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost", it adds: "But we do not deny that true Baptism is given by the words: 'This servant of Christ, N., is Baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost' ." The Council gave no explicit teaching on the extent of the Church's power to alter the matter and form of the Sacraments, but in justifying the variant forms of Baptism it clearly assumes that all permissible forms will be substantially identical in meaning. 5

The Sacrament of Order provides a clear example of the Church revising her teaching on what constitutes the matter and form of a particular Sacrament. The Decree to the Armenians states:

Its matter is that by the giving of which the Order is conferred; thus the priesthood is conferred by the giving of a chalice with wine and a paten with bread . . .The form of the priesthood is as follows: "Receive power to offer sacrifice in the Church for the living and the dead, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost" (D. 701). 6

The matter, in this case, is the act of handing over, or "tradition" (traditio), of the instruments. The imposition of hands by the ordaining bishop had been the matter of the Sacrament in Apostolic times, and this practice has been retained as the sole matter down to the present-day by all the Eastern rites, with the exception of the Armenians. The Latin rite itself did not possess the ceremony of the "tradition" until the tenth century, and until that time the imposition of hands constituted the matter in the Western as well as the Eastern Church.

But from that time the ordination rites in the Latin Church were expanded and developed by the addition of other significant ceremonies, which both enhanced the solemnity of the occasion and also brought out the sacramental symbolism more clearly.

So, throughout the history of the development of the sacramental liturgy, the tendency has always been towards growth-----additions and accretions, the effort to obtain a fuller, more perfect, more clearly significant symbolism. Thus many beautiful and highly appropriate ceremonies have from time to time been added to the ordinals in use in various parts of the Church, but nothing has been discarded; and notably, the imposition of hands holds in every one of them the same position, and has the same significance and import that it ever held and possessed. 7

The ceremony of the "tradition" consisted of the handing over to the candidate of those things used in the exercise of the Order in question, namely the chalice containing wine and the paten with bread for the Priesthood, and the book of the Gospels for the Diaconate, together with a form of words signifying the power conferred by ordination. By the thirteenth century the "tradition" of the instruments had been universally adopted throughout the Latin Church, so much so that the scholastics began to teach that this tradition of the instruments, with the respective form of words, belonged to the sacramental matter and form. 8 This was indeed the opinion of St. Thomas Aquinas; Pope Eugenius IV cited his very words in instructing the Armenians (D. 701).

It is not necessary to study in detail the long and complex theological disputes which took place on this question. The obvious problem was that, if the "tradition" of the instruments was necessary for validity, what of all the ordinations which had taken place in the centuries prior to its introduction and of those in the Eastern rites where there was no "tradition"? Pope Pius XII settled the matter in his constitution Sacramentum Ordinis of 30 November 1947 (D. 2301). He decreed that the sole matter of the Sacrament is the imposition of hands and the sole form consists of the words of the Preface of the rite, the essential words being:

Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty Father, to this Thy servant, the dignity of the priesthood; renew the spirit of holiness within him, that he may hold from Thee, O God, the second rank in Thy service and by the example of his behaviour afford a pattern of holy living.

Pope Pius XII thus taught conclusively that the tradition of the instruments is not necessary for validity, but he did not pronounce on whether it had been necessary for validity within the Latin rites up to the promulgation of Sacramentum Ordinis. He contented himself with observing that "if at any time the delivery of the instruments has, by the will and enactment of the Church, been necessary even for validity, everybody knows that what the Church has once ordained she can change and abrogate." This final comment refers, of course, to those aspects of the administration of the Sacraments over which the Church does have power, and not to the substance of the Sacraments, which can never be changed.

Pope Pius XII made no change in the rite of ordination itself, in which the tradition of instruments was retained. In this respect it is worth noting that the essential form as laid down by the Pope simply states that the candidate has been admitted to the dignity of the Priesthood. It does not state in specific terms (expressis verbis) what powers have been conferred upon the priest, just as the essential form in other Sacraments does not always state their specific effects. For example, the form of Baptism does not state specifically that the candidate has been cleansed from the stain of Original Sin. However, the powers conferred upon a priest and the effects of Baptism are signified specifically in other parts of the traditional rites. Thus the form itself can derive its signification from other parts of the rite into which it is incorporated. Pope Leo XIII explained that the Anglican Ordinal did contain certain words which might conceivably "be held to suffice in a Catholic rite which the Church had approved."

It is possible to find ancient ordination rites whose validity the Church does not contest, in which the intention of ordaining a sacrificing priest is made explicit neither in the essential form nor anywhere else in the rite. The fact that these powers are nowhere mentioned expressis verbis has no bearing on the validity of the rite. As was explained above, the history of sacramental liturgy is a history of development towards a fuller and more significant symbolism. There is no parallel at all between a primitive rite which had not developed to the point of clearly signifying its effects and a rite, such as that of the Anglican Ordinal, in which such developments had been deliberately discarded to manifest a rejection of Catholic teaching. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, additions or suppressions which change a rite from that which is recognized by the Church indicate an intention other than that of the Church and hence lead to invalidity. 9

Where the essential form, the "operative formula" of a sacramental rite, does not expressly mention the power and grace conferred by a Sacrament, but this power and grace is signified in other parts of the rite, this form of signification is termed determinatio ex adiunctis. Father Francis Clark explains that:

The sacramental signification of an ordination rite is not necessarily limited to one phrase or formula, but can be clearly conveyed from many different parts of the rite. These other parts could thus contribute, either individually or in combination, to determining the sacramental meaning of the operative formula in an unambiguous sense. Thus the wording of an ordination form, even if not specifically determinate in itself, can be given the required determination from its setting (ex adiunctis), that is, from the other prayers and actions of the rite, or even from the connotation of the ceremony as a whole in the religious context of the age. 10

All valid Sacraments are Sacraments of the Catholic Church and sacramental rites composed by separated Christians can be valid only in so far as their matter and form suffice to confect the Catholic Sacrament.

The only formulae that infallibly and necessarily contain the essential significance of a Sacrament are those which have been canonised by being instituted by Christ and His Church for that purpose. Such words, when exactly reproduced, are removed beyond the reach of ambiguity or private distortion. Thus for example the formula for Baptism and the words of consecration in the Eucharist are always and necessarily a sufficient sacramental form, even if included in a rite of obvious heretical purport. 11

However, validity could still be nullified by defect of matter or ministerial intention. But where a form and matter not specified by Our Lord are involved the presumption of validity is considerably lessened. The one, true Church alone can pronounce on its validity, and can do so with certainty: "a certainty based on the 'practical infallibility' of the Church's determining decrees, which in the sacramental sphere effectively guarantee what they declare." 12

Thus, the very fact that the Church declares a rite to be valid or invalid is proof that this is the case.