The Disposition of Priests
by Fr. William P. Saunders
If an ordained priest does not believe in transubstantiation, do the communicants receive the Body and Blood of Christ?
In answering this question, one has to wonder, "How could a priest not believe in transubstantiation?" Of course, the point here is not simply the word, transubstantiation (which the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) officially used in its Creed and which the Council of Trent repeated in its "Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist" (1551)). Rather, the important point is believing what the word transubstantiation signifies: "Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly His body that He was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now again declares that, by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of wine into the substance of His blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly named transubstantiation" (Trent). Succinctly, to deny the belief of transubstantiation is heresy.
However, such a disbelieving priest is not only a heretic but also has an identity crisis. Through the sacrament of holy orders, the priest shares in the priesthood of Christ and thereby, acts in the person of Christ. The identity of the priest becomes most clear when he offers the Sacrifice of the Mass. The Mass sacramentally makes present anew Christ's everliving, everpresent sacrifice on the cross: As our beloved late Pope John Paul II wrote, "The Church constantly draws her life from the redeeming sacrifice; ... this sacrifice is made present ever anew, sacramentally perpetuated, in every community which offers it at the hands of the consecrated minister"("Ecclesia de Eucharistia," No. 12). The faithful must not forget that without a priest, there is no Mass. The Catechism of the Catholic Church beautifully states, "The ordained minister is, as it were, an 'icon' of Christ the priest" (No. 1142).
So what if a priest, although validly ordained, does not believe in the holy Eucharist? Perhaps he believes that what happens at Mass is just symbolic and he is just role-playing. While the priest offers Mass or any other sacrament, in reality Christ Himself works through the sacraments. For instance, while a priest baptizes a baby, in full reality, Christ is baptizing the baby: "[Sacraments] are efficacious because in them Christ Himself is at work: it is He who baptizes, He who acts in His sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies" (Catechism, No. 1127). Therefore, all of the sacraments operate by the power of the completed sacramental rite. The technical theological term used for this understanding is ex opere operato, meaning that when a sacrament is validly performed, using the proper matter and form, then that sacrament conveys the grace signified.
The issue of the disposition of the priest has arisen in the past. In the early 300s, the heresy of Donatism arose, which asserted that the validity of a sacrament depends upon the minister's orthodoxy and state of grace. For the Donatists, a priest who is a heretic or in a state of mortal sin cannot validly perform a sacrament; therefore, a person baptized by such a priest would have to be re-baptized. St. Augustine (d. 430), one of the great opponents of Donatism, in his "In Ioannis evangelium tractatus," forcefully distinguished the action of Christ versus the action of the minister when performing a sacrament: Christ acts by His power, while the minister acts by his ministry entrusted to him by Christ. Therefore, " ... those whom Judas baptized, Christ baptized. So too, then, those whom a drunkard baptized, those whom a murderer baptized, those whom an adulterer baptized, if the Baptism was of Christ, Christ baptized" (5,18). Nevertheless, St. Augustine also sharply chastised the minister not properly disposed to perform the sacrament: "As for the proud minister, he is to be ranked with the devil. Christ's gift is not thereby profaned: what flows through him keeps its purity, and what passes through him remains clear and reaches the fertile earth. ... The spiritual power of the sacrament is indeed comparable to light: those to be enlightened receive it in its purity, and if it should pass through defiled beings, it is not itself defiled" ("In Ioannis evangelium tractatus," 5, 15). Therefore, the validity and efficacy of the sacrament do not depend upon the holiness or orthodoxy of the minister; rather the validity and efficacy are independent of the subjective constitution of the minister.
Therefore, in answering the question, two important principles govern: First, the sacrament must be performed validly with proper matter and form. Second, the minister must have the intention at least of doing what the Church intends, which is demonstrated by validly performing the sacrament, i.e. appropriately saying the specified Words of Consecration over the unleavened bread and wine. Therefore, if the priest in question is a heretic and has an identity crisis, but offers Mass validly, then the people indeed receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Without this assurance, the people would always be left in a state of uncertainty as to whether they actually received a sacrament.
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'Straight Answers' reproduced with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald
. Copyright © Fr. William P. Saunders. All rights reserved.