Does an Excommunicated Priest Administer Valid Sacraments? (Part I)

Q:  I was confirmed as an adult convert by a priest who had faculties to do so.  Recently, I have noticed that this priest has voiced his personal opinions about Pope Francis that are arguably schismatic. For example, that the Pope has shared heretical opinions in interviews and audiences.

It is my understanding that a schismatic incurs excommunication latae sententiae.

My question then, is does the potential latae sententiae penalty render the sacraments I have received illicit (albeit valid)?  Or does the continued presence of formal faculties protect the legality of the sacraments? Would I need to be confirmed again? –John

A: There’s quite a lot going on in John’s question—more than he realizes, in fact.  In the course of describing the situation regarding the priest at his parish, John makes some assumptions which themselves merit closer examination.  Before we can address his specific question about the validity of his confirmation, we first have to take a look at his suggestion that the priest at his parish has incurred excommunication for schism.

John tells us that the priest who confirmed him “has voiced his personal opinions … that the Pope has shared heretical opinions in interviews and audiences.”  John concludes that voicing such an idea has rendered the priest a schismatic, and thus caused him to be excommunicated latae sententiae (see “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?” for an in-depth discussion of what latae sententiae penalties are).  It is true that a Catholic who deliberately commits a schismatic act can incur a latae sententiae excommunication, as per canon 1364.1.  But what is schism, anyway?  And does a Catholic who states openly that “the Pope has shared heretical opinions in interviews and audiences” commit an act of schism?

As was discussed at length in “When Does Disobedience Constitute Schism?canon 751 defines schism as “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”  Schism by definition involves a refusal to acknowledge the authority of the Holy Father as Vicar of Christ, and/or to remove oneself from communion with him (as the visible head of the Catholic Church, cf. CCC 882) and/or of others in authority who are subject to him, such as diocesan bishops (CCC 886).  Note that “refusing submission” is not synonymous with “making negative comments about the Pope” (see “Excommunication and Bad-Mouthing the Pope” for more on this), and still less with “making a factual statement which puts the Pope in a negative light.”

So what exactly did this priest at John’s parish do?  John doesn’t provide specific quotations, but it sounds like the priest asserted that on certain occasions Pope Francis has made public statements which are not theologically orthodox.  And what might have prompted the priest to say such a thing?  Here are a couple of possible reasons.

During a press conference on September 15, 2021, Pope Francis declared off-the-cuff that “the good Lord will save everyone.”  This certainly sounds like a direct contradiction of what Our Lord Himself tells us in Matthew 22:14 (“Many are called, but few are chosen”), in Matthew 7:13-14 (“Enter through the narrow gate: for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many.  How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life.  And who find it are few”), and in Luke 13:23-24 (“Someone asked Him, ‘Lord, will only a few people be saved?’  He answered them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.’”).  And the Catholic Church has asserted for centuries that “outside the Church there is no salvation,” a teaching that was famously explained in greater detail in paragraph 8 of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s  Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (a very thorough discussion of which can be found here).

Thus it is pretty hard for a Catholic to argue that when Pope Francis declared that “the good Lord will save everyone,” he was making a theologically sound statement.  And if you look at his full sentence, it quickly becomes clear that even the Pope himself realized that what just came out of his mouth was not sufficiently precise—because he instantly corrected himself, laughingly acknowledging that what he just said was not accurate:

The good Lord will save everyone—do not say this aloud [laughs]—but the Lord wants to save everyone.

Think about it: if the Pope’s first statement was indeed in accord with Catholic theology, then why did he feel the need to immediately correct it?

Here is another example.  In 2019, Pope Francis and a leading Muslim cleric signed the “Document on Human Fraternity for world peace and living together,” a joint statement which included the following assertion:

The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.

Declaring that God willed that mankind consist of multiple colors and races, and two different sexes speaking numerous languages is one thing; but announcing that God willed “the diversity of religions” around the world today is quite another.  A number of Catholic bishops, theologians and other scholars quickly denounced this statement, with Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó describing it bluntly as “blatant heresy.”  As Bishop Athanasius Schneider put it,

This phrase is in itself erroneous and contradicts Divine Revelation, since God has revealed to us that He does not want diverse religions, but only the one religion, which He commanded in the First Commandment of the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…” (Exodus 20:2-5).  Our Lord Jesus Christ confirmed the perennial validity of this commandment saying: “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve’” (Matthew 4:10).  The words “Lord” and “God,” expressed in the first Commandment, mean the Most Holy Trinity, Who is the one Lord and the one God.  Hence, what God positively wills is that all men should worship and adore only God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the one Lord and God.

In fact, Bishop Schneider soon confronted Pope Francis on this subject in person, evidently prompting the Pope to walk the statement back during a papal audience soon after.  At the papal audience, the Pope declared that his intention in his original statement was to acknowledge God’s permissive will, whereby God allows a variety of religions to exist worldwide without actually wanting this to be the case.  Once again, we see that Pope Francis had to correct a previous statement—thus indicating, obviously, that the original statement warranted correction.

Returning now to the scenario John describes, here’s the pivotal question: how does pointing out the theological heterodoxy of some of the Pope’s statements constitute schism—which, as noted above, is “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him”?  Far from constituting a schismatic act, according to countless solid Catholic theologians around the world it is simply an objective statement of fact!

Since John tells us that he is a new Catholic, it is understandable that he may not yet have a good “feel” for the whole concept of deference by the Catholic faithful to authority, and acceptance of the Church’s doctrinal teachings as they are explained by the Catholic hierarchy.  To long-time Catholics, however, it should be perfectly clear that when the Pope or any other Catholic authority figure makes a comment which is theologically heterodox, we are certainly not expected to ignore the error, much less to embrace it!  On the contrary, as we saw in “Using (And Misusing) Donations to the Church,” this sort of blind, irrational mentality smacks more of cult-behavior than of Catholicism.

One of the main differences between a legitimate religion and a cult is that the leader of a cult generally demands absolute loyalty to himself as a person, forbidding members even to question, much less to criticize him/his actions.  Cult members, in turn, blindly obey every command of their leader, without question—no matter how absurd or even dangerous it may be.  (Remember the 1978 “Jonestown Massacre,” when hundreds of cult members willingly committed suicide because Jim Jones told them to?)

The Catholic Church has never taught that Catholics must accept as infallible everything that comes out of the Pope’s mouth—see “When Does the Pope Speak Infallibly?” for more on this.  And to be fair, Pope Francis himself has never wrongly insisted that every Catholic should accept everything he says without question.  Quite the contrary!  On the issue of challenging/criticizing the words and actions of Catholic officials, he has pointed to a 14th-century female saint and Doctor of the Church, who made a regular habit of (respectfully) pointing out the faults and errors of the Popes and other bishops of her era.  As the Pope put it, “Saint Catherine of Siena criticized cardinals and, at times, beat up on the pope. And she was a saint!”

It is entirely possible for a Catholic to say, “Pope Francis is the head of the Catholic Church on earth, and as a Catholic I am under his spiritual leadership,” and also say, “Pope Francis has made some sloppy, confusing statements which conflict with orthodox Catholic theology.”  There is no inherent contradiction here—and no schism, either.

To sum up, we can safely conclude that the priest who received John into the Church and confirmed him is not a schismatic because he has found fault with some of Pope Francis’ many public statements.  But for the sake of argument, and in order to address John’s ultimate question, let’s imagine that the priest did somehow manage to incur excommunication latae sententiae before administering the sacrament of confirmation to John.  Would John’s confirmation (and any other sacraments the priest may have celebrated) have been valid?

The answer to this question is more complicated than one might think!  We’ll take a look at it in the next column.

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