Sacraments’ Validity Amid Coronavirus

COMMENTARY: The sacraments become more, not less, important in a time of distress.

(photo: AS photo studio/Shutterstock)

Regarding confession and canon law in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic: If I get to confession, is there a chance it will be invalid?

Catholics can be at peace on that important canonical point.

The sacraments become more, not less, important in a time of distress.

That why bishops who have restricted the public celebration of the sacraments have described the decision as “excruciating.”

A question has arisen that might disturb the peace of the Catholic faithful. If a bishop restricts, or even “suspends,” the sacraments, does that mean that a sacrament administered is invalid?

It’s not a theoretical question. The Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, had said that priests could administer the anointing of the sick by reciting the sacramental formula while someone else (a nurse) anointed the sick person with the oil. That separation of the two acts renders the sacrament invalid, which was clarified within days by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

That grave error — even if well-intentioned — meant that anyone who was anointed in such a fashion did not in fact receive the sacrament. It was invalid.

The validity of the sacraments is of utmost importance. When it is discovered, for example, that a priest or deacon did not celebrate baptisms properly, perhaps making up his own formula, a diocese will go back years, even decades, to ensure that the people invalidly baptized are now properly baptized. That is extremely rare, but it has happened.

Thus one would presume that Springfield has seen to it that any such people anointed invalidly — if still alive — were later properly anointed. But perhaps not, as the diocese “suspended” the anointing of the sick entirely.


Suspending the Sacraments

It is not clear what exactly that means; there are no exactly applicable precedents. It is certainly a counterintuitive measure to suspend the anointing of the sick in a time of widespread sickness. But the decision of Bishop Mitchell Rozanski does not appear to invalidate any anointings that might be done in his diocese. The priest would clearly be going against the will of Bishop Rozanski if he administered an anointing. He would have to answer to the bishop and his conscience for that. But the anointed person would have received the grace of the sacrament. It would be valid.

An announcement of restrictions by the bishop does not invalidate the sacrament of anointing or baptisms or the Holy Mass. In the normal course of events, a bishop should be obeyed, but in strict canonical terms, those sacraments would still be valid.

For example, if a priest celebrated a public Mass against the current restrictions, the Mass would be valid, and the Eucharist would be confected. That’s not new; after ordination, a priest always has the authority to celebrate Mass.

That’s because Mass, like the anointing of the sick, is valid if the right minister (a bishop or priest) does the right actions. But if a deacon were to celebrate Mass or, for example, were to say the right formula and do the anointing correctly, it would be invalid. Deacons are not valid ministers for those sacraments.


Confession Requires Faculties

The sacrament of reconciliation is different, though. For that sacrament to be valid — for absolution to be validly granted — there are the usual requirements. A validly ordained bishop or priest needs to say the right formula, and the penitent needs to confess his sins, be sorry for them and have a purpose of amendment. But there is another condition.

The bishop or priest must have the “faculties,” or permission, to hear confessions. Usually bishops grant this to all their priests. But if a priest does not have faculties, the confessions he hears are not valid. It is a most grave matter. Not that long ago, priests who were traveling would write ahead to the local bishop to get “faculties” to hear confessions. Now, with more frequent travel, a priest who has faculties in his own place is presumed to have them where he travels, but they are still necessary.

So what happens if a bishop “suspends” all confessions, or restricts the sacrament to certain circumstances only? Does that mean that Father Smith, hearing the confession of a parishioner who asks him to do so, no longer has faculties because the bishop has suspended all confessions? Would that confession be invalid? For a soul in mortal sin, it is a matter of spiritual life and death.

(Leave aside the circumstance of danger of physical death. When a penitent is dying, even a laicized priest can validly grant absolution. In fact, he is obligated to do so.)

That question requires a clear answer. The validity of confessions is of the highest importance.

No one has suggested that a suspension of the sacrament of reconciliation removes the faculties of a priests to hear confessions. No bishop has indicated that that is what he has in mind. And given that faculties for confessions are granted to priests in a formal act — usually an official letter from the bishop — it would require a clear and formal act for the bishop to remove those faculties.

Confessions remain valid.


Should Confessions Be Heard?

Should they be offered, then? It seems clear that priests should do their utmost to offer confessions subject to whatever guidelines the bishop indicates. So if they are only to be outdoors, 10 feet apart, then the priests should offer them outdoors, 10 feet apart.

What if the bishop suspends all celebration of the sacrament, in every circumstance — apart from danger of death? That would seem to require a formal canonical decree of the bishop. It is possible that canon law might permit that in the most extraordinary of circumstances. There are canons and precedents that might apply. But that circumstance has not yet arisen.


St. Damien, a Confessor

On April 15, the death anniversary of St. Damien of Molokai will fall during the Easter octave. His feast day is May 10, but April 15 is kept in Hawaii as a civic observance.

St. Damien might be considered an apt saint for a time of pandemic. Living among the lepers until he became one of them, he demonstrated deep Christian charity and solidarity with the sick and outcast. But he might also be a patron saint of confession in difficult circumstances. Isolated in the leper colony with no other priest to confess to, he once went out to meet a ship bringing supplies. But he was not allowed to board, nor was the priest on board allowed to disembark. How, then, was he to make his confession?

Damien stood in his boat and shouted his confession to the priest on the supply ship. It’s possible that, because the two priests spoke French, those who could overhear did not fully understand. Still, it demonstrates a great reverence for the holiness — and necessity — of the sacrament.

Do we need St. Damien confessions now, with penitents shouting their confessions from outside the rectory to the priests indoors? One would try to avoid such situations, but things could be worse. There could be no confessions at all.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.