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

(Part I of this article was posted on April 28, 2022, and can be read here.)

We have been discussing a scenario described to us by John, who wanted to know if his confirmation was administered invalidly.  John was concerned about this because he concluded that before his confirmation, his parish priest had been excommunicated latae sententiae, on the grounds of schism.

In Part I, we saw that John’s fears are quite unfounded—because the priest’s words/actions do not constitute schism at all.  Consequently, there is no reason to worry that the priest was under excommunication when John received the sacrament of confirmation.

But the question that John brought up merits closer examination, at least in theory!  If a priest (or bishop, for that matter) has been excommunicated, does he administer valid sacraments?  The answer is actually a bit complex, for two basic reasons:
1) It depends on which sacrament we’re talking about; and
2) It depends on the way the excommunication was incurred, and/or whether it was publicly declared or not.

Let’s take a look at each of these points in turn.

1) We must start with canon 1331.1 n. 1, which tells us that an excommunicated person is prohibited from celebrating the Eucharist and the other sacraments.  This makes total theological sense: celebrating Catholic sacraments, in and of itself, implies a communion between those administering/receiving them—which obviously has been broken if the minister is under excommunication.  So this canonical prohibition makes it clear that if you’re excommunicated, you aren’t supposed to be doing these things—but what happens if you do them anyway?  Are the sacraments actually invalid?  Or are they “just” illicit?  (The distinction between validity and liceity was discussed in “Are They Really Catholic? Part II.”)

It may seem surprising that the code doesn’t explicitly answer this question!  But since all canonists are expected to be well versed in theology—and sacramental theology in particular—it really isn’t necessary for the code to spell all this out.  In a nutshell, it depends on the sacrament in question: as was discussed at length in “Are SSPX Sacraments Valid? Part I” and “Part II,” some of the sacraments can always be celebrated validly by any priest (or in the case of confirmation and holy orders, by any bishop), while other sacraments can only be administered validly if the priest has first been given the faculty to do so by his superior.

For example, with regard to the sacrament of anointing of the sick, canon 1003.1 tells us explicitly that every priest validly administers it.  And as for saying Mass and consecrating the Eucharist, we saw in “Can a Bishop Forbid a Priest to Say Mass?” that once a man has been validly ordained a Catholic priest, he always retains the power to celebrate a valid Mass, and nobody on earth can ever take that power away from him.  Thus if an excommunicated priest were to celebrate Mass and administer Holy Communion, or anoint a dying Catholic, it would indeed be valid (assuming he celebrated it properly, of course!), but would be illicit because as per the abovementioned canon 1331.1 n. 1, he’s not supposed to be doing these things.

And as we’ve seen many times in this space, anybody with the requisite intention can validly baptize (see “Laypeople Can Always Baptize—But When Should They?” among others).  “Anybody” would logically include excommunicated clergy.  Thus a Catholic priest who has incurred the sanction of excommunication after falling into schism would nonetheless baptize validly.

In contrast, when it comes to celebrating the sacraments of penance, confirmation, and marriage, a priest needs more than “just” the sacramental powers that came with his ordination to the priesthood.  As we saw in “Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?” a priest can only validly grant absolution if he has received the faculty to do so from his bishop/religious superior—the one exception to the rule being danger of death (c. 986.2, and see also “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?”).  When a priest holds the office of pastor of a parish, the law itself also gives him this faculty (c. 968.1).

With regard to confirmation, in certain circumstances a priest can administer this sacrament if he is the pastor of a parish; and in other circumstances he can confirm if he has been given the faculty to do so (c. 883, and see “Can a Priest Administer the Sacrament of Confirmation?” for an in-depth discussion of this).  And as for marriage, as we have seen so many times before in this space, a priest only celebrates this sacrament validly if he holds the office of parish priest, or has received delegation to celebrate the wedding (c. 1108.1, and see “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” among others).

So at first glance, it would appear that if a priest under excommunication still has the faculty to celebrate the sacrament of penance, confirmation, or marriage, he would do so validly, right?  This, however, brings us to the next point.

2) There’s another critical factor here which is directly referenced in the code, and which was discussed at length in “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?”  The law makes a distinction between latae sententiae penalties (like excommunication) which you have been formally declared to have incurred, and latae sententiae penalties which you have in actual fact incurred, but which have never been declared by anyone.  Let’s invent some examples, to make the importance of this distinction clear.

Let’s pretend that John’s parish priest really did incur excommunication because of schismatic acts.  But let’s say that his words/actions have never reached the ears of his bishop or any other church authorities, so none of them is aware of the situation—thus his bishop has never called him to task, giving him a formal warning and urging him to recant what he’s said and return to full communion with the Church.  Let’s say that the priest’s communion (or lack thereof) with the Catholic Church is in fact unclear to those around him, although he himself is well aware that he’s crossed the line and taken himself outside the bounds of communion, thus incurring excommunication.  In short, he really is excommunicated latae sententiae, but this sanction has not been formally declared.  Externally he is still the pastor of the parish, he still has faculties to celebrate weddings and hear confessions—and in specific circumstances (as per c. 883 n. 2) he also has the faculty to administer the sacrament of confirmation (as discussed in the abovementioned “Can a Priest Administer the Sacrament of Confirmation?”).

We can’t forget that as pastor of the parish, it is still this (excommunicated) priest’s responsibility to see to the spiritual welfare of the people entrusted to his care—and this of course includes ensuring that they can receive the sacraments when they need them.  For this reason, the sacraments he administers are valid, as if he were not under excommunication; but they are all illicit, because as we’ve just seen above, canon 1331.1 n. 1 prohibits him from celebrating them.  It’s important to note that any moral responsibility for this mess lies not with the faithful of the parish, who seek the sacraments from their parish priest as is their right; rather, it lies fully with the priest himself, who knows that he has incurred the sanction of excommunication but is doing absolutely nothing to rectify the situation, and is continuing to minister to the faithful as if everything is fine—knowing full well that it’s not.

But now let’s change the scenario, and imagine that the priest’s schism has indeed come out into the open, and now has the attention of his ecclesiastical superiors.  Let’s say that the diocesan bishop has privately been remonstrating with the priest for some time now, pointing out the canonical ramifications of his situation and urging him to come to his senses.  And let’s say the priest stubbornly persists in his schism, refusing to reconsider what he has said/done.

Let’s imagine that as a result, the bishop finally declares publicly that the priest has incurred excommunication latae sententiae for the crime of schism.  (This must be done in writing, with an official decree.)  Now think about this for a moment: is it really conceivable that the bishop will announce to the world that this parish priest is under excommunication … and yet leave him in his office as pastor of the parish?

The fact is, if a priest has removed himself from full communion with the Catholic Church, and this is being publicly acknowledged by his hierarchical superior, it is unthinkable that he could continue as the pastor of a parish, entrusted with the spiritual care of Catholic souls!  This is why canon 194.1 n. 2 tells us generally that when a Catholic publicly defects from communion with the Church, he is removed from any ecclesiastical office he may hold by the law itself.  That’s because it makes no sense for anyone to hold an office within the Church, if he is not in communion with the Church.

Note that technically, the bishop doesn’t even have to act to specifically remove the priest from his office as pastor (as was addressed in “When Can a Pastor be Removed From Office?”); instead, canon 194.1 n. 2 specifies that the law itself removes the priest from office.  Nevertheless, in order to clarify the situation for the faithful, a bishop who declares a priest to be excommunicated will invariably explain at the same time that the priest no longer holds the office of pastor—or parochial vicar, or seminary rector, or whatever other ecclesiastical position he may have happened to have.  In this way, the bishop makes it clear to the Catholic faithful that they should no longer approach this priest and ask him to hear their confessions, celebrate their weddings, baptize their children, bless their rosaries, teach theology courses, etc.  In fact, to avoid any confusion or ambiguity, the bishop may even tell the faithful point-blank that they should henceforth avoid doing this.

Now the excommunicated pastor of the parish isn’t the pastor any more, and so he no longer has the faculty to hear confessions that came with holding the office of pastor (c. 968.1, mentioned above); and since he most likely had also received the general faculty to hear confessions from his bishop back when he was first ordained, it’s inevitable that the bishop revoked it when he declared the excommunication (see c. 974).  The excommunicated ex-pastor now has no faculty at all to celebrate weddings, and can rest assured that nobody will be delegating him to marry anyone in the foreseeable future (see “Why Can’t These Priests Ever Celebrate a Valid Catholic Wedding?” for more on this).  And as for confirmation, the excommunicated former pastor has lost the faculty to administer this sacrament, which he previously possessed by virtue of his office (c. 883 n. 2), and he will certainly not be granted this faculty by the bishop in any other circumstances—although he can administer confirmation in danger of death as per canon 883 n. 3.  Confirmation is much like the sacrament of penance in regard to danger of death.

Let’s return now to John’s original question: if, in theory, his parish priest had been under excommunication for schism when he confirmed John, would John’s confirmation have been invalid?  Applying everything we’ve just discussed above, the answer should be clear.  If the priest had committed schism and been excommunicated latae sententiae, but the excommunication had not been formally declared by the priest’s bishop, then the priest continued in his office of pastor and confirmed John validly, although illicitly (with the illiceity being entirely the priest’s fault, not any fault of John’s).  If, on the other hand, the priest had been excommunicated for schism and the bishop had publicly declared this to be the case, then the priest would have immediately lost his office of pastor of John’s parish, and thus wouldn’t have even been there to celebrate confirmation, or any other sacraments for that matter.  The end-result is that John’s confirmation would have been valid no matter what.

If readers’ heads are spinning by this point, there’s at least one basic takeaway which should reassure us all: the Church’s laws are designed in such a way as to protect the faithful, and ensure as much as is humanly possible that they have access to valid sacraments.  Even if John’s pastor had really incurred excommunication (which, as we saw in Part I, he hadn’t), there’s no way that he would have been administering invalid sacraments as a result, without anyone else’s knowledge.  The canonical requirement that the excommunication must be publicly known constitutes a safeguard—so if the pastor had incurred this grave sanction, everyone would have known about it first, and he wouldn’t have been able to continue ministering to the faithful as if he were still a parish priest in good standing!  John has absolutely nothing to worry about here: his parish priest is not a schismatic and is thus not under excommunication … and his confirmation was valid.

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