Ecclesia Supplet: Making Invalid Sacraments Valid

Q:  You mentioned in “Invalid Baptisms and Unaccountable Clergy” that when Father Hood [of the Archdiocese of Detroit, Michigan] discovered that his own baptism was invalid and he was not a priest, that meant all the weddings, confirmations, and anointing of the sick which he had celebrated were invalid too.

I’m wondering why Ecclesia supplet does not apply to these sacraments?  The Church supplies validity when there’s a doubt, and there certainly was a doubt here … [because] everyone assumed Father Hood was an ordained Catholic priest.  Not arguing with you, just trying to understand… –Maria

A: The legal principle that in certain situations “the Church supplies,” which Maria references in her question, might possibly be the most misunderstood concept in all of canon law.  Questions about whether and how it applies routinely require even the most experienced canon lawyers to stop and think for a while before answering!  While there are many situations where legal scholars can find themselves unsure about applying the principle of Ecclesia supplet, the particular situation raised by Maria is not one of them.  Let’s look at what this term means, and then see why it does not pertain in this particular case.

The Latin phrase Ecclesia supplet, or “the Church supplies,” is found in canon 144.1, the wording of which is exceptionally tricky to grasp:

In factual or legal common error and in positive and probable doubt of law or of fact, the Church supplies [Ecclesia supplet] executive power of governance for both the external and internal forum.

If you love legalese, with this canon you’ve won the jackpot.  Fortunately, this law has been with us for generations, so scholars established long ago what the various components of this canon actually mean.  Understanding the different elements is critical, so let’s take this canon apart.

First of all, the canon states that the concept of Ecclesia supplet is applicable in two cases:
(1) common error, whether an error of fact or an error of law; or
(2) probable doubt of fact or doubt of law.

(1) “Common error” doesn’t equate to “ignorance of what the law says and how the Church functions.”  Let’s pretend, by way of example, that a family contacts the parish because an elderly relative is dying, and a permanent deacon arrives to administer the sacrament of anointing of the sick.  Everyone knows that he is a deacon, so there is no “error” there; but let’s say that the family does not understand that only an ordained priest can validly celebrate this sacrament (as per c. 1003.1, and see also “What Can (and Can’t) a Deacon Do?”).  Does this therefore constitute “common error”?  Not at all—because there are literally millions of people all around the world who could tell them immediately that a deacon has no ability to administer this sacrament—including, of course, the pastor of the parish.  Thus if a deacon attempted to celebrate the sacrament of anointing of the sick, it would be invalid, and canon 144.1 would not apply.

So what would constitute “common error”?  Well, let’s reuse the same example, and now imagine that everyone is convinced the elderly relative is at death’s door—including his doctor.  Any reasonable person would look at the situation and conclude that yes, the death of this sick person is likely coming soon.  The family calls the parish, and the pastor (or some other priest of the parish) arrives to administer the sacraments.  And let’s say that during the course of his visit, he discovers that the person has never received the sacrament of confirmation.

Canon 882 tells us that the ordinary minister of confirmation is a bishop—but as was discussed at length in “Can a Priest Administer the Sacrament of Confirmation?” the same canon adds that a priest can validly administer this sacrament if he has the faculty to do so.  And the next canon tells us that in danger of death, the pastor or any other priest has the faculty to confirm ipso iure (c. 883 n. 3).  In our imaginary scenario, therefore, the priest who comes to the dying parishioner does indeed have the faculty to confirm him validly, so he does just that.

So far, so good.  But now let’s pretend that the person doesn’t die—in fact, he lives for another 23 years!  Later medical advances subsequently help both doctors and the public at large to understand that certain conditions which were once thought to amount to a deathbed situation may look frightening, but aren’t life-threatening at all.  Back when this elderly relative was thought to be “dying,” that thought was just plain wrong.

At the time of the event, any reasonable person would have thought that this parishioner would soon be on his way to the next life.  This amounts to “common error of fact,” because the man seemed to everyone to be dying, but he really wasn’t.  In this sort of case, canon 144.1 would indeed apply (we’ll see exactly how in a moment).

(2) We looked at a case involving “doubt of fact” in “Are SSPX Sacraments Valid? Part II.”  In that fictional situation, the pastor of a parish went on vacation from August 16 until September 1, and delegated another priest to celebrate weddings at the parish, in full accord with canon 1111.  But the pastor worded his written delegation poorly, saying that the priest was delegated “for the next couple of weeks”—and thus it wasn’t clear whether the priest had delegation to celebrate a wedding on August 31 or not.  Since the pastor intended to delegate him to celebrate all weddings until his own return from vacation on September 1, it would seem that the delegation continued through the end of August; but that wasn’t what the pastor actually wrote.

This sort of scenario constitutes a “doubt of fact,” since the written delegation isn’t 100% clear.  If the pinch-hitting priest does celebrate a wedding at that parish on August 31, canon 144.1 will definitely apply (again, we’ll see how in just a moment), and thus Ecclesia supplet.

Unfortunately, not all situations are as clear as these!  It’s possible for sincere, competent canon lawyers to legitimately disagree about a particular case, which can of course be headache-inducing for everyone involved.  And even when they do agree that Ecclesia supplet, they might nevertheless differ on how or why (“You think that’s a case of common error? It sounds more like doubt of fact to me,” e.g.).

Secondly, when we say that “the Church supplies,” this naturally raises the question, “supplies what?”  Maria wrongly asserts in her question that “the Church supplies validity.”  In actual fact, canon 144.1 tells us that in either of the two scenarios just discussed, the Church supplies executive power of governance.

What does this term mean?  It might be hard to believe, but there are plenty of frustrated canonists out there who sometimes wonder exactly the same thing.  The references in the Code of Canon Law to “power of governance” and “executive power” can sometimes (though not always) be hopelessly murky, mostly for theological/philosophical reasons having to do with the nature of “power” and the origins of authority in the Church—and their arguable connection, or lack thereof, to reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders.  It is a topic which has left many a law student wanting to bang his head against the wall, as any broad generalizations and basic rules about how it works invariably have to admit multiple exceptions.  In short, if the concept confuses you, that may simply mean you’re looking at it correctly.

All that being said, within the specific context of canon 144.1, and particularly with regard to the administration of the sacraments as in Maria’s question, the term “executive power of governance” is refreshingly clear.  In cases like those we’ve just discussed above, involving common error or doubt of fact or law, the canon tells us that the Church supplies the faculty to celebrate a sacrament validly.

Many Catholics—and unfortunately some poorly educated priests are among them—wrongly think that the mere fact that a man has been ordained a priest automatically renders him able to administer validly all the sacraments that priests normally celebrate.  But as we saw in the abovementioned “Are SSPX Sacraments Valid? Part II,” such is not the case, because there are some sacraments routinely celebrated in every Catholic parish on earth which require more than that.  The sacraments of Penance (discussed at length in “Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?”) and Marriage (see “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel Be Invalid?” and “Why Can’t These Priests Ever Celebrate a Valid Catholic Wedding?” among others)  require not only that the minister of the sacrament is validly ordained, but also that he have the faculty required by law to celebrate the sacrament.  And only in certain specific circumstances does a priest have the faculty to administer the sacrament of Confirmation, addressed in “Can a Priest Administer the Sacrament of Confirmation?” which was already cited above.

If a priest doesn’t have the faculty to hear confessions, he does not have the power to grant valid absolution under ordinary circumstances (c. 966).  If a cleric isn’t the local bishop, pastor of the parish, or by a priest delegated by either of them, he cannot validly celebrate the sacrament of matrimony  (c. 1108).  Lastly, canons 883, 884, and 887 list the situations in which a priest has the faculty to confirm, a faculty given to him either by the bishop or by the law itself—and without that faculty, his confirmation is invalid.

So now let’s put all this information together, and answer Maria’s question in the process.  If there exists a sacramental situation involving common error of fact or of law, or doubt of fact or of law, as per canon 144.1 the Church supplies the faculty needed for the valid administration of the sacrament.  At this point it might be helpful to go back and re-read the imaginary examples given above, to see how the supplied faculty would render the confirmation and the marriage valid.

While we’re on the subject, it’s important to understand what the Church doesn’t supply.  First and foremost, it doesn’t supply holy orders.  If a non-cleric administers a sacrament, and the minister of the sacrament must be a cleric for validity, canon 144.1 is of no use.  This is why all the confessions, confirmations, and marriages celebrated by the unbaptized Father Hood were invalid—and in these cases nobody can claim that Ecclesia supplet, because it doesn’t.

Regular readers may remember the situation recounted several years ago in “How Can You Tell a Real Priest From a Fake?”  In that case, a man who hadn’t been ordained at all was masquerading as a Catholic priest, and had convinced many clergy that he was the real thing.  When his true identity became known, all the sacraments which he had supposedly administered were acknowledged to be invalid—with the exception of baptisms, since anyone with the right intention can validly baptize (c. 861.2, and see “Laypeople Can Always Baptize—But When Should They?” and “What Happens When the Clergy Refuse to Baptize, Because of the Virus?”).  That case differed tremendously from Father Hood’s in terms of culpability, because the man knew full well that he wasn’t a priest, and was deliberately deceiving both clergy and faithful; but in terms of the sacramental effect of his actions, the result was the same.  Ecclesia supplet didn’t help in those cases either.

Secondly, in the situations described by canon 144.1 the Church does not supply proper form or matter, in sacramental celebrations where either was invalid.  For example, as we saw in “Is My Confession Valid, If the Priest Changes the Words of Absolution?” altering the words of absolution can invalidate the sacrament of Penance—and there is nothing that canon 144.1 can do about that.  Similarly, if a priest were to use invalid matter for Mass (see “The Eucharist and Sacramental Validity, Part I” and “Part II” for the requirements), the Mass would be invalid and canon 144.1 would not apply.

Think about it: if Ecclesia supplet meant that the Church supplied form/matter when a sacrament was administered invalidly, what would be the point of ensuring that the sacraments are celebrated correctly?  Why bother doing it right, since even a sloppy and invalid sacrament would be rendered valid by canon 144.1 anyway?

Here’s an old, but interesting and directly relevant exchange between Catholic priests, with a real-life example of an elderly and confused priest who consecrated the Host at Mass, but then forgot to say the words of consecration over the chalice.  Apparently a second priest wrongly assured the questioner that Ecclesia supplet in this case; but input from a third priest rightly notes that what was missing here was not a faculty (which isn’t needed to celebrate Mass validly anyway!), but sacramental form.  Canon 144.1 is inapplicable here and thus the Mass was not validly celebrated.

So now Maria has the answer to her question, and let’s hope that other curious Catholics do too.  In sacramental celebrations, the Church supplies a missing faculty if the conditions specified in canon 144.1 are present; but it doesn’t supply anything else.  All the more reason, then, why our clergy have to be especially careful to administer the sacraments with care, so that there is no doubt as to their validity.

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