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Hello Father Angelo.

I was pleasantly surprised by the amicidomenicani website where it answers many questions very precisely, and I think it is really good and right that a person with knowledge and talent actively works for the good of others. I state that I am not a great expert in religious matters (who can be anyway?). But I am interested in it occasionally.

A doubt haunts me: I will not specify the specific circumstances that led me to give importance to the question, because I want your answer to be of general usefulness.

Suppose a Catholic finds himself living in a place where there is the total absence of Catholic priests, but there are churches of other Christian denominations, which could be indicated as heretical, schismatic, excommunicated. Assuming that such Christians recognize the sacrament of the Eucharist, would it be legitimate for the Catholic in question to approach it?

St. Thomas in the Summa, III.82 affirms that such priests do not lose the power to consecrate, but that the act is illicit (7), and also specifies that it is not even licit to receive the sacrament from them (9). Furthermore, communion “needs” (often) the previous penance, and (assuming that such heretics etc. recognize the sacrament of penance), one could not even receive this sacrament (supplement, 19.6).

In short, a Catholic in this sad condition, how should behave? Deprive himself of the sacraments or participate in the sacraments of heretics?

I suppose quite similar issues arose at the Council of Trent, but I haven’t had time to study the proceedings yet, and I rely on someone who knows more, like you. How was the problem faced at the time?

If you want, for the sake of completeness, you can also tell me what the current positions of the church are, but I would be more interested in the pre-contemporary ones (I don’t think being interested in history is a sin, right?). I know that in recent decades the “openness” has been great and that now Rome is in communion or almost with 99% of Christians.

I thank you in advance, and I address my prayers, and I pray the Lord that He will always give you the strength to persevere.


The priest’s answer

Dear friend, 

your question allows me to make some clarifications.

1. First of all it must be said what the Church teaches about the validity of the sacraments celebrated by heretics, schismatics, …

Well, if the priests in such churches have the power of order guaranteed by the apostolic succession (that is, by an uninterrupted chain of ministers who finally received this power from the apostles) the sacraments they celebrate are valid.

2. Here is the motivation brought by St. Thomas: “The power to consecrate the Eucharist belongs to the character of the priestly order.

But character, being given with a consecration, is always indelible, as we have seen, just as the consecration of anything is perpetual, indelible and unrepeatable.

It is therefore clear that the power to consecrate is not lost with degradation. In fact, St. Augustine writes: “Both”, that is baptism and order, “are sacraments and are conferred on man through a consecration: the first when one is baptized, the second when one is ordained. Therefore, for neither of the two, the repetition is lawful for Catholics ”(Contra Parmen. 2,13).

It is therefore evident that a degraded priest has the capacity to consecrate this sacrament ”(Summa theologica, III, 82, 8).

3. St. Thomas then adds: “The bishop does not give the power of the priestly order by virtue of his own, but instrumentally as a minister of God; and the effect of God cannot be canceled by man, conforming to the words: “What God joined, man does not do apart”. Therefore the bishop cannot take away this power: just as the one who baptizes cannot take away the baptismal character ”(Ib., Ad 2).

4. However, heretics as such are excommunicated.

Therefore, although they validly celebrate the sacraments, they nevertheless celebrate them illicitly and therefore by themselves carrying out a mortal touch.

Therefore it is not lawful to ask them to administer the Sacraments or participate in their celebrations.

5. Here, too, what St. Thomas teaches: “Priests who are heretics or schismatics or excommunicated or even sinners, although, as mentioned above, they have the power to consecrate the Eucharist, nevertheless exercise it illegally and sin by exercising it.

Now, whoever communicates with another in sin, comes to share the guilt, so that St. John, speaking of the heretic, says: “Whoever greets him shares in his evil works” (2 Jn 11).

Therefore it is not lawful to receive communion from the aforementioned priests nor to listen to their mass ”(Summa theologica, III, 82, 9).

In principle, this is also valid today and remains valid always

6. It may happen, however, that over time the Church removes the excommunication in order to bring these brothers together in the faith and start a dialogue. It does so because the initial controversies have ceased and these brothers of ours are in good faith.

This is what the Second Vatican Council intended to do with all the “separated brothers”. So they were called 50 years ago.

The mutual elimination of excommunications was carried out by Paul VI with the patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.

So it is permissible to participate in the celebrations of the Sacraments (Confession and Communion) made by Orthodox priests because they have kept the apostolic succession.

While Protestants in general, having denied and interrupted apostolic succession, do not celebrate valid sacraments except for Baptism.

7. Here, therefore, is the current legislation of the Church expressed in the Code of Canon Law:

“Can. 844 – § 1. Catholic ministers licitly administer the sacraments only to the Catholic faithful, who likewise receive them licitly from Catholic ministers, without prejudice to the provisions of §§ 2, 3 and 4 of this canon and of can. 861, § 2.

§2. Whenever a necessity requires it or a true spiritual utility advises it and provided the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, it is licit for the faithful, who are physically or morally impossible to access the Catholic minister, to receive the sacraments of penance of the Eucharist and of the anointing of the sick by non-Catholic ministers, in whose Church the aforementioned sacraments are valid

§ 3. Catholic ministers licitly administer the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and the anointing of the sick to members of the Eastern Churches, who do not have full communion with the Catholic Church, if they request them spontaneously and are well disposed; this also applies to members of other Churches which, in the judgment of the Apostolic See, with regard to the sacraments in question, are in the same condition as the aforementioned Eastern Churches.

§ 4. If there is a danger of death or if, in the judgment of the diocesan Bishop or of the Episcopal Conference, there is an urgent need, Catholic ministers licitly administer the same sacraments to other Christians who do not have full communion with the Catholic Church,  those who cannot access the minister of their own community and ask for them spontaneously, as long as they manifest the Catholic faith regarding these sacraments and are well disposed ”.

Thank you for your appreciation for our site.

I entrust you to the Lord and I bless you.

Father Angelo