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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 03, 2024
Pope Francis baptizes a baby during Mass in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican Jan. 7, 2024, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued a doctrinal note approved by Pope Francis that aims to counteract deviations in the administration of the sacraments, especially of baptism and the Eucharist. The document, “Gestis Verbisque” (“Deeds and Words”), reaffirms the Catholic Church’s traditional teaching on the administration of the sacraments and insists that it is essential to use the correct form of words and the proper matter to ensure the validity of the sacraments.

The 13-page text is described as a “note,” a lower-level document than a declaration. (The document on blessings for couples in “irregular situations published by the dicastery in December, for example, was a declaration.) It was published only in Italian on Feb. 3, but translations in English and other languages are expected to come later. The document has been under discussion since the dicastery’s plenary assembly in 2022 and was unanimously approved by the plenary assembly in January 2024.

The text was prompted by the phenomenon of priests not following the liturgical directives for the administration of sacraments, particularly baptism and the Eucharist, thereby rendering them invalid, as Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the dicastery, notes in his two-page introduction to the text. He recalled that the dicastery’s plenary assembly in January 2022 had already expressed concern at having to declare the invalidity of the sacraments on many occasions and said many people had to be contacted and rebaptized or re-confirmed, “and a significant number of the faithful have rightly expressed their distress.”

The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued a doctrinal note approved by Pope Francis that aims to counteract deviations in the administration of the sacraments.

Cardinal Fernández reported that some priests had used the formula “I baptize you in the name of the Creator…”; others said, “I baptize you in the name of Mama and Papa…” He said that some priests discovered after their ordination that they had been invalidly baptized. 

In 2020, a priest in Detroit discovered to his dismay that he had not been validly baptized after watching a video recording of his 1999 baptism. A priest in Phoenix, Ariz., resigned in 2022 after he was found to have rendered the baptisms of thousands of people invalid because he used the phrase (in both English and Spanish) “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” when he should have said “I baptize...” The diocese explained at the time, “It is not the community that baptizes a person and incorporates them into the Church of Christ; rather, it is Christ, and Christ alone, who presides at all sacraments; therefore, it is Christ who baptizes.” 

[Explainer: What is an invalid baptism?]

America has learned from an informed source that there have also been cases, though not many, of the invalid celebration of the Eucharist where, for example, a priest used honey and baking soda instead of flour and water for the wafer.

Cardinal Fernández explained that “while in other areas of the Church’s pastoral action there is ample room for creativity,” in the realm of sacramental celebration this “turns instead into a ‘manipulative will,’ and so [creativity] cannot be invoked.”

Therefore, he said, “to modify the form [formula of words] of a sacrament or its matter [such as the water, oil or bread] is always a gravely illicit act and merits an exemplary punishment, precisely because such similar arbitrary acts are capable of causing serious harm to the faithful People of God.” 

“We ministers [of the sacraments] are asked to overcome the temptation to feel that we are owners of the church,” the cardinal said. On the contrary, he said, “the treasures of the sacraments are entrusted to Mother church. They are not ours. And the faithful have a right to receive them as the church lays down, and it is in this way that their celebration corresponds to the intention of Jesus.” 

He said ministers of the sacraments should acknowledge the truth that “the head of the church, and therefore the true presider of the celebration, is only Christ.” 

The document recalls that the sacraments are “masterpieces of God” that are “instituted by Christ” and make it possible for human beings “to participate in the divine life.” Noting that celebrations of the liturgy and sacrament “are not always done in full fidelity to the rites prescribed by the church,” it laments that the deviations are often presented under the guise of pastoral motivations.

“Gestis Verbisque” recalls that the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the liturgy reminds us that “the church, in Christ, is the sign and instrument of the intimate union with God, and of the unity of the whole human race.” It reaffirms that the church “receives and expresses itself in the seven sacraments, through which the grace of God concretely influences the existence of the faithful, so that all life, redeemed by Christ, may become a pleasing worship of God.”

The document from the D.D.F. recalls that Christ constituted the church as his mystical body and “makes believers participants in his own life, uniting them in a real but mysterious way to his death and resurrection through the sacraments.” 

The text does not appear to contain anything new. It reaffirms the traditional doctrine of the church, based on Thomistic theology, which identifies the three elements necessary for the validity of a sacrament: matter, form and intention. It restates that the correct intention is not sufficient to ensure the validity of a sacrament; the matter (water, oil, wine, laying on of hands) and form (words accompanied by gestures) are also essential and must correspond to what is prescribed in the liturgical texts.

The document recalls that the matter “consists in the human action through which Christ acts,” which at times is the water, oil, wine or bread and at other moments is a particularly eloquent gesture—the sign of the cross, laying on of hands, immersion, infusion, consent or anointing. This material element “is indispensable, because it roots the sacrament not only in human history but, also, fundamentally in the symbolic order of the Creation and leads to the mystery of the Incarnation and of the Redemption done by [Christ].”

The Vatican text states that the form “is constituted by the word, which confers a transcendent meaning to the matter, transfiguring the ordinary meaning of the material element and the purely human sense of the action performed. Such a word always draws inspiration to various extents from Sacred Scripture, finds its origins in the Church’s living Tradition, and has been authoritatively defined by the Magisterium of the Church.”

The document notes that for some sacraments “the matter and form appear to have been substantially defined from the origins [of the church] and so their foundation comes immediately from Christ,” while for other sacraments “the definition of the essential elements has taken place over a complex history.” 

It emphasizes, however, that when the church intervenes in determining “the constitutive elements of the sacraments,” it does so “always rooted in Tradition, to better express the grace conferred by the sacrament.” It recalled that Vatican II asked the church to do just that.

The  D.D.F. document insists that “for all the sacraments, in every case, the observance of the matter and of the form is always required for the validity of the celebration.” The matter and form are codified in canon law and promulgated in the liturgical books by the competent authorities and “must be observed faithfully without adding, subtracting, or changing in any way.”

It goes on to remind the faithful that “linked to the matter and the form is the intention of the minister who celebrates the sacrament.” It emphasizes that “the subject of intention is to be distinguished from that of personal faith and the moral condition of the minister, which do not impact on the validation of the gift of grace.” What is essential is that the minister “must have the intention at least to do what the church does.” Since the church does nothing other than what Christ instituted, “the intention, too, together with the matter and the form, contributes to making the sacramental action the prolongation of the saving work of the Lord.” The document says that “the intention becomes the unifying principle of the matter and the form, making them a sign through which grace is conferred.” It notes, however, that serious modification to the essential elements of the form and matter by the minister throws into question the minister’s intention.

The document concludes by restating that the liturgy allows for variety that preserves the church from “rigid uniformity,” as stated in the Vatican II constitution on the liturgy (“Sacrosanctum Concilium”). But it insisted that this variety and creativity, which can promote a greater intelligibility of the rite and the active participation of the faithful, cannot change what is essential to the celebration of the sacraments.

The D.D.F. document applies to churches in both the Latin and Oriental rites. It states clearly that certain aspects are not negotiable in the sacraments and says priests and bishops are not the owners of the liturgy. It reaffirms that one has to follow the liturgical books and emphasizes that the people of God have a right to have valid sacraments.

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