What Makes a Mass Invalid? (Part II)

Q: At Mass, one visiting priest, consistently and with full intention, refuses to elevate the Eucharist at the consecration, rather he offers it to the congregation.  He says this is in line with the theology brought about by Vatican II; the focus should be on the sharing and communing with God as community rather than a sacrificial offering.

As a middle-aged Catholic with some self-education on such things, it seems to me he is missing proper intent and proper form required for a valid sacrament.  The Bishop has been approached on the matter and laughed.

What recourse do the faithful have in such a case? Clear and intentional rejection of the rubrics of the Mass is a sacrilege, or at the very least heretical, isn’t it?  If he does not intend to turn bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus, then what is it, if not wrong intent?  Again through self study, the rubrics are very specific on the elevation.  He clearly is protesting the form. –Stephen

A:  As we just saw in “What Makes a Mass Invalid? (Part I),” there are all sorts of liturgical irregularities which, unfortunately, have been and are perpetrated during Masses all over the world—but as objectionable as they may be, they don’t necessarily render the Mass invalid.  When it comes to the validity of a Mass, what’s key is the priest’s consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

We also saw that unsurprisingly, canon law is in full accord with Catholic sacramental theology, which teaches that for a valid sacrament, what’s needed are valid form (this involves the words spoken by the minister of the sacrament), matter (such as bread/wine, water for baptism, etc.), and intention of the minister (to do what the Church intends).  These are, of course, different for each sacrament.

Stephen is suggesting that a priest who says Mass at his parish is not celebrating valid Masses, because of a defect in his intention.  Let’s take a closer look at what exactly is happening at the Mass, at what the priest told Stephen, and at what the Church teaches, and then we’ll see what conclusions can be drawn.

According to Stephen, the problem is that the priest in question does not elevate the Host after the consecration.  Note that Stephen doesn’t indicate that the words of consecration as spoken by the priest are irregular in any way; rather, at issue is what the priest does with the Host after he consecrates it.  Instead of elevating the Host for the faithful to see and adore, the priest “offers it to the congregation,” which presumably means that he holds the Host out, rather than up.

Stephen asserts that the priest is “missing … proper form required for a valid sacrament,” but as we saw in “Part I,” when it comes to consecrating the Eucharist, the form required for validity is the words of consecration.  What a priest does with the Sacred Species after the consecration should of course be in accord with the rubrics—but it doesn’t affect the validity of the consecration, which at that point has already been effected by the priest’s words.

And in actual fact, Stephen’s assertion that the elevation is required by the Mass rubrics is incorrect.  The Ordo Missae, which contains the rubrics for the celebration of Mass, states exactly the same thing at the moment of consecration in every one of the four Eucharistic Prayers found in the Missal: “He [the priest] shows the consecrated host to the people, places it again on the paten, and genuflects in adoration,” and “He shows the chalice to the people, places it on the corporal, and genuflects in adoration” (nn. 89-90 [EP I], 102-103 [EP II], 110-111 [EP III], 119-120 [EP IV]).  Traditionally, of course, “showing” involves elevating the Sacred Species so that everyone present can see and adore them; but as can be seen here, this is not what is explicitly required by the rubrics.  Stephen says that the priest at his parish “offers” the Host to the congregation, which certainly sounds like he is “showing” the Host to them.  Consequently, it sounds like the priest isn’t violating the rubrics at all.

(It’s worth observing at this point that Stephen referenced “self study” and “some self-education on such things” to explain how he reached his conclusions.  But if you’re going to accuse a priest of celebrating an invalid Mass because of a defect of intention, since he fails to follow the rubrics—an extremely serious accusation!—wouldn’t it make sense if your “self education” involved first of all determining what the rubrics actually require?  Stephen asserts that “the rubrics are very specific on the elevation,” but as just seen this is untrue, and he does not explain where he got this misinformation.)

But for the sake of argument, even if the rubrics did specifically require the priest to elevate the Host and Chalice, failure to do this would not constitute a defect of intention, as Stephen clearly seems to think.  A big part of Stephen’s confusion here appears to be the failure to distinguish between (a) intending to follow liturgical rubrics, and (b) intending to validly consecrate the Eucharist.  As a rule, of course, they should always go together; but that doesn’t mean they are the same thing!  Thus Stephen’s generic question, “Clear and intentional rejection of the rubrics of the Mass is a sacrilege, or at the very least heretical, isn’t it?” can be answered with an unqualified no.  This is presumably why, when Stephen raised this issue with the bishop, he laughed at the notion that the priest’s Mass was invalid simply because of the way he holds the Host after the consecration.  True, it may have been tactless for the bishop to react in this way to a concerned member of the faithful (although it’s hard to say without having been present to see and hear the whole exchange), but the bishop’s position is, in fact, the theologically correct one.

Since the issue here involves an alleged defect of intention, let’s continue to look at what Stephen tells us, particularly when the priest was asked to explain his reason for handling the Eucharist the way he does.  According to Stephen, the priest “says this is in line with the theology brought about by Vatican II; the focus should be on the sharing and communing with God as community rather than a sacrificial offering.”  Once again, without having been present at the discussion, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions—but can one infer from this statement that the priest is denying the sacrificial nature of the Mass, and thus has no intent to consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ? Put differently, what exactly does a priest have to intend, when he administers a sacrament?

Theologians have been discussing the niceties of this question for centuries, so the issue is nothing new.  Speaking broadly, the general consensus has been that the priest—who in many cases throughout history hasn’t necessarily been all that well educated in theological matters!—simply needs to have the intention to do what the Church teaches, whatever that happens to be.  In 1547, for example, the Council of Trent decreed this:

If any one saith, that, in ministers, when they effect, and confer the sacraments, there is not required the intention at least of doing what the Church does; let him be anathema. (Session VII, Canon XI, emphasis added)

And this isn’t true only of priests; the same holds for non-priest ministers of the sacraments.  As we saw in “When Can Catholic Soldiers Receive Sacraments from Non-Catholic Chaplains?” and “Do Converts Have to be Rebaptized?anybody can validly baptize, even if he isn’t baptized himself, provided that he has the requisite intention (c. 861.2).  Yes, it has indeed happened that at the scene of a horrific car accident, for example, where a mother and her infant appear to be dying, the mother has asked a non-Christian paramedic to quickly baptize the baby.  People who work for many years in the world of emergency-services can actually become quite used to doing this sort of thing.  The minister of the sacrament in this case is obviously not a Catholic priest, or a Catholic at all, and so he doesn’t believe what the Catholic Church teaches; and in fact he may not really understand what exactly it is that the Church teaches about baptism—but having the intention to do whatever it is that he’s supposed to do is sufficient.

Therefore, in general, when a Catholic priest pronounces the words of consecration over the bread and wine at Mass, so long as he has the basic intention to do what the Church teaches, that’s quite enough for validity.  If, on the other hand, a priest decided for some wild reason that he absolutely did not intend to consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, that would be different!  But how could we reasonably extrapolate from what Stephen has told us about the priest at his parish, and conclude that this is what he is thinking?

Stephen is on the right track when he asks the general question, “if he does not intend to turn bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus, then what is it, if not wrong intent?”  But nothing that the priest has said (as reported by Stephen) gives the slightest indication that this is his intention.  Thus there is absolutely no justification here for concluding that the priest is failing to consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and thus saying an invalid Mass.

So if this priest’s attitude toward the Mass doesn’t render his consecration invalid because of a defect of intention … what would a genuine defect of intention look like?  Remember that as noted above, all that is needed for validity is a basic intention to do what the Church intends.  An example of a defective intention, therefore, would involve the priest denying (at least interiorly) that he intends to do what the Church teaches.  If the priest actually decides that he does not intend to consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, that he does not want to effect a consecration in the way that the Church intends, well, that would be pretty defective!  Certainly this kind of thing could happen; but it would require the priest to deliberately conclude that he is theologically going to swim upstream, against the current of the entire Catholic Church.  This would be a far cry from a priest “just” making comments about the nature of the Mass that aren’t verbatim repetitions of the Church’s traditional statements.

All that being said, if we assume that Stephen is faithfully repeating the priest’s words regarding “the theology brought about by Vatican II,” it does sound like this priest (like so many others!) may have a general misunderstanding of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on the Mass.  Anyone who searches the conciliar documents for a statement to the effect that “the priest should not focus on the Mass as a sacrificial offering” will look in vain.  On the contrary, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy promulgated in 1963, reaffirms that the Mass is indeed a sacrifice:

Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, Who formerly offered Himself on the cross,” but especially under the Eucharistic species. (SC 7, emphasis added)

It is a shame, to put it mildly, that there are so many Catholics out there who cite Vatican II in support of liturgical/sacramental novelties and irregularities, when in fact it’s painfully obvious that they’ve never even read the conciliar documents!  Then-Pope Benedict XVI lamented this fact, at a Mass in 2012, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, in which he himself had participated as a theological expert:

… [W]e can understand what I myself felt at the time: during the Council there was an emotional tension as we faced the common task of making the truth and beauty of the faith shine out in our time, without sacrificing it to the demands of the present or leaving it tied to the past: the eternal presence of God resounds in the faith, transcending time, yet it can only be welcomed by us in our own unrepeatable today. Therefore I believe that the most important thing, especially on such a significant occasion as this, is to revive in the whole Church that positive tension, that yearning to announce Christ again to contemporary man. But, so that this interior thrust towards the new evangelization neither remain just an idea nor be lost in confusion, it needs to be built on a concrete and precise basis, and this basis is the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the place where it found expression. This is why I have often insisted on the need to return, as it were, to the “letter” of the Council – that is to its texts – also to draw from them its authentic spirit, and why I have repeated that the true legacy of Vatican II is to be found in them. Reference to the documents saves us from extremes of anachronistic nostalgia and running too far ahead, and allows what is new to be welcomed in a context of continuity. The Council did not formulate anything new in matters of faith, nor did it wish to replace what was ancient. Rather, it concerned itself with seeing that the same faith might continue to be lived in the present day, that it might remain a living faith in a world of change. (Emphasis added)

In other words, if you want to know what Vatican II really said, read the documents!

So what’s the take-away here?  There are several.  First of all, if you want to accuse a priest of violating the rubrics of the Mass, you should read the rubrics yourself first, to make sure your accusation is sound.  Secondly, a priest’s violation of the Mass rubrics (even if done consciously and deliberately) does not necessarily prove that the priest lacked the requisite intention to consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ.  Thirdly, to reference the documents of the Second Vatican Council on the liturgy and the sacraments is to reaffirm what the Church has taught on these important topics for centuries—but if you want to cite “what Vatican II teaches,” it’s important first to read the conciliar documents to determine what they really say (which might surprise you).  Lastly and most importantly, Catholic theologians for centuries have fundamentally agreed that in general, when administering a sacrament or consecrating the Eucharist, it can be hard for a priest to have an intention that is defective and thus invalidating, since it requires him to actively make the decision that he does not want to do what the Church teaches.  In short, there’s no denying that there are all sorts of liturgical problems that arise nowadays, during the celebration of the Mass; but it’s dangerous to leap to the conclusion that the Mass is, for that reason, automatically invalid.

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