The Validity of the Eucharist and Mortal Sin

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: A question on celebrants and recipients of Holy Communion while in a state of grave sin.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano distributes Holy Communion during the "Pro Eligendo Pontifice" Mass, or the Mass for the election of a new pope, in St. Peter's Basilica on March 12, 2013, before entering the Sistine Chapel for the papal conclave.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano distributes Holy Communion during the "Pro Eligendo Pontifice" Mass, or the Mass for the election of a new pope, in St. Peter's Basilica on March 12, 2013, before entering the Sistine Chapel for the papal conclave. (photo: Jeffrey Bruno / CNA)

Q. To validly celebrate the sacraments all that’s needed is the saving grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is independent of the spiritual condition of the minister. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that when it comes to receiving the sacraments “the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them” (1128). Why does the efficacy of the reception of a sacrament depend on the spiritual condition of the recipient? The message that I, unhappily, see here is “we clergy do not need to be holy to confect the sacraments but to receive them you must be”! Sin is all right for us but not for you. — John

A. The Catholic Church does indeed teach that the moral condition of a priest does not invalidate the sacraments he effects and confers. Thus priests who are in a state of mortal sin do validly consecrate the Eucharist and absolve sinners. 

But the Church does not teach that the obligations of Christian discipleship are lesser for him and flatly rejects the claim that sin is “right” for him, but not for you and me.

The doctrine behind this teaching on sacramental validity is referred to in shorthand as ex opere operato, which literally means that grace is “conferred by the performance of the rite itself” (Council of Trent, see Denzinger 1608). This means that when a sacramental rite is performed correctly, that is, performed in accordance with the norms mandated by the Church for its performance, grace is conferred always and to all. 

The doctrine is an entailment of the nature of the sacraments which are firstly God’s acts, not man’s. They are acts in which the Father sends the Spirit to make Christ present to his Church so his Church and each member can be in communion with himself and form up his Body (see Catechism 1105, 1108). 

The priest’s role, extraordinary though it is, is secondary. On behalf of the Church, he invokes — “begs” — God to do all this:

Lord, make holy these gifts by sending down your spirit, so they may become the body and blood …

He invokes the Father to send the Spirit to make present the Son. 

A poor but helpful analogy is with an authorized court messenger. Just as a mortally sinful messenger can successfully deliver his message to the king if he knows the instructions, so a mortally sinful priest can effect and confer the sacraments if he intends to do what the Church does when she effects and confers the sacraments (Denzinger 1611). He is a special kind of messenger, standing in persona Christi relative to the receiving Church faithful. But God and not the priest is the source of sacramental grace: “The sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God’” (Catechism 1128).

Taken out of its historical context, the ex opere operato doctrine may imply that the moral life of a priest is neither a help nor hindrance to grace. This is not true. A bad priest leads people into sin, confuses and disunifies his flock, betrays his vocation to image Jesus to the people of God, undermines the Church’s witness to the Gospel, and rarely celebrates the sacraments in a way that raises the hearts of the faithful. A good priest models Christ for us and so opens us to grace.

The Council of Trent solemnly defined the ex opere operato doctrine in its response to the Reformers’ bitter attacks on the sacraments. Luther denied the Church’s authority to establish the rites by which the sacraments are validly conferred, as well as the necessity of the sacraments for salvation (Denzinger 1604, 1613). Faith alone, he said, was sufficient to obtain grace. Following John Wycliffe, he also argued that priestly power to effect and confer a sacrament was subordinate to grace in the minister. Thus, if the minister is in a state of mortal sin, which means he has lost grace, he loses the power to effect and confer the sacraments (Denzinger 1154, 1262, 1612). 

Trent replied: God gives grace to anyone who rightly receives the sacraments; the conferral of grace is not limited by the moral condition of the minister; when a priest, even in mortal sin, intends to do what the Church does in her solemn administration of the sacraments, sacramental grace is “conferred by the performance of the rite itself (ex opere operato)” (Denzinger 1607, 1608, 1613).

But it’s important to see that ex opere operato gets nobody off the hook for living a Christian life and receiving the sacraments with proper disposition. For both priest and layman are also recipients of the sacraments. And an unrepentant mortally sinful recipient who approaches the Eucharistic table, be he priest or layman, is “guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord”; “he eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Corinthians 11:27, 29). And if the same goes to confession without contrition, the grace conveyed by the sacrament passes him by.

So Trent teaches that we must receive the sacraments “rightly,” that we must “not place an obstacle in the way” (Denzinger 1451, 1606). Unrepentant mortal sin is just such an obstacle. Referring to the Eucharist: 

Lest so great a sacrament be received unworthily and hence unto death and condemnation, this holy council determines and decrees that those whose conscience is burdened with mortal sin no matter how contrite they may think they are, first must necessarily make a sacramental confession if a confessor is available. If anyone presumes to teach or preach or obstinately maintain or defend in public disputation the opposite of this, he shall by the very fact be excommunicated. (Denzinger 1661)

St. Augustine says when Judas received the First Eucharist at the Last Supper, it was to him as poison: “When he took it, the enemy entered into him: not because he received an evil thing, but because he being evil received a good thing in an evil way. … Bring innocence to the altar” (Tractate 26, paragraph 11), he urges.

The USCCB’s new document, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” repeats what we’ve been saying about proper disposition for receiving Holy Communion; but the text also mentions celebrants: 

One is not to celebrate Mass or receive Holy Communion in the state of mortal sin without having sought the Sacrament of Reconciliation and received absolution. [note omitted] (47, emphasis added)

The text reiterates the truth that anyone “who receives Holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin not only does not receive the grace that the sacrament conveys; he or she commits the sin of sacrilege by failing to show the reverence due to the sacred Body and Blood of Christ.” His act, the text says, is “a lie,” a “counter-sign,” meant to express an ecclesial communion that’s not actually present (47).

If it’s sacrilegious to receive Holy Communion in mortal sin, how much graver the sacrilege for the mortally sinful priest who both celebrates and receives this most august sacrament?

José Benlliure Ortiz, “Leaving Mass in Rocafort,” 1915

On Suffering and Hope and Forever

‘In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering.’ (CCC 1368)