What is the intention to do what the Church does?




What is Required for a Valid Intention?

On the Feast of Corpus Christi, Pope Francis delivered a sermon in which he referred to the Eucharist as bread – “Bread that contains all sweetness within it”.  A Catholic blogger, who was apparently unaware that the phrase is taken from the Litany of the Blessed Sacrament, considered this to be definitive proof that Francis rejects the doctrine of transubstantiation. The blogger then raised the question of whether Francis “express denial” of transubstantiation would have the effect of invalidating his Masses due to a defect of intention.

The short answer is no.  A heretical understanding or even express denial of the sacramental effect – in this case, the conversion of the substance of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – will not render the consecration invalid due to a defect of intention.  The Holy Office has clarified this on two separate occasions in response to similar questions concerning baptism.

In 1872, the Holy Office responded to a dubium of Bishop of Oceana.  The bishop inquired as to whether baptism administered by a public heretic is invalid if the minister expressly warned the one being baptized that he is not to believe the sacrament will an effect on the soul.  The Holy Office responded by stating this explicit denial of the sacramental effect would not invalidate the sacrament; that is, it would not exclude the intention “to do what the Church does”.  

Sacred Concregation of the Holy Office, December 18, 1872: Dubium quoad Baptisma administratam ab haereticis: “In some places, some (heretics) baptize with the proper matter and the form simultaneously applied, but they expressly warn the baptizands not to believe that baptism has any effect upon the soul; for they say that it is merely the external sign of aggregation of the sects. And so often the Catholics in their crowd turn around their belief about the effects of Baptism, and call it superstitious.

“Question: 1. Whether baptism administered by those heretics is doubtful on account of defect of intention to do what Christ willed, if an express declaration was made by the minister before he baptized that baptism had no effect on the soul?

“Question 2. Whether baptism so conferred is doubtful if the aforesaid declaration was not expressly made immediately before the conferring of baptism, but had often been asserted by the minister, and the same doctrine was openly preached in that sect?"

“Reply to the first question: In the negative; because despite the error about the effects of baptism, the intention of doing what the Church is not excluded.
“Reply to the second question: Provided for in the answer to the first."
(Sacra Congregatio Sancti Officii. 18 Decern. 1872 - Vic. Ap. Oceaniae Centr. "Dubium quoad Baptisma administratam ab haereticis." Acta Sanctae Sedis, Vol. XXV, 1892-93, p. 246.)


Here we see that an express denial of the sacramental effect – namely washing away original sin and infusing grace into the soul – does not render a sacrament null due to a defect of intention.

A similar reply was given five years later in response to a question raised about baptism administered by Methodist ministers.  The reply was the same, but in this reply the Holy Office stated that the same reasoning applies to all the other sacraments as well.

The following is taken from The Dogmatic Theology on the Intention of the Minister in the Confection of the Sacraments, Rev. Raphael, O.S.B., S.T.L.:

“The Bishop of Nesqually had addressed to the Propaganda an inquiry concerning the validity of baptisms conferred by Methodists, against the validity of whose baptisms he alleged an insufficient and adverse intention and consequently the presumption of invalidity. The Bishop stated that the Methodists held so many errors about the necessity, the power, and the efficacy of the sacrament of Baptism that they considered it merely an indifferent rite which had been entirely omitted in the past and at a later time had been put into use again for the purpose of deceiving the faithful and attempting to show them that their false religion did not differ from the true religion. (Sacra Congregatio Sancti Officii, Jan.24, 1877-CSCPF, n.1465, Vol.11, pp.99-100.)

“To this question the Holy Office gave a very detailed answer which is one of the most explicit statements about the intention of doing what the Church does. In substance the reply lays down the following principles:

“1. It is a dogma of faith that Baptism administered by anyone, whether a schismatic, a heretic, or even an infidel, must be considered valid, as long as in their administration those things are present by which the sacrament is perfected, namely, due matter, the prescribed form, and the person of the minister with the intention of doing what the Church does. Hence it follows that the peculiar errors which the ministers profess either privately or publicly do not at all affect baptism or any other sacrament.

“2. The errors which the heretics profess privately or publicly are not incompatible with that intention which the ministers of the sacraments must have, namely, of doing what the Church does. Those errors in themselves cannot give rise to a general presumption against the validity of the sacraments in general and baptism in particular.

“From these principles taken from the decision of the Holy Office it must be concluded that as a general rule the baptisms of heretics are valid in spite of the fact that their ministers hold beliefs entirely incompatible with the Catholic doctrine concerning Baptism, and deny all power of regeneration in that sacrament. Their error does not offer sufficient reason to conclude that they have an insufficient or adverse intention in regard to conferring the sacrament." (De Salvo, Rev. Raphael, O.S.B., S.T.L. The Dogmatic Theology on the Intention of the Minister in the Confection of the Sacraments. 1949. pp.28-29)

As we can see, as long as the correct form and matter are used, the intention to “do what the Church does” is not excluded by a heretical belief concerning “the necessity, the power, and the efficacy of the sacrament,” or even by a public denial of the sacramental effect.

Another way to understand it is that the minister does not have to intend what the Church intends, but only what the Church does. The object of his intention is the action or ceremony performed, not the purpose of the action.  Bellarmine explains:

Bellarmine: “The Council of Trent does not mention the purpose of the sacrament or say that the minister ought to intend to do what the Church intends but what the Church does. Moreover, what the Church does refers to the action, not the purpose. There is required the intention with regard to the action, not in so far as it is a natural action, but in so far as it is a sacred action or ceremony, which Christ instituted or Christians practice. If one intends to perform the ceremony which the Church performs, that is enough.” (Bellarmine, de Sacramentis in genere chapter 27.)  link 

Bellarmine also explains that the minister does not have to intend to do what the Catholic Church does, but  what the true Church does (even if he is mistaken about which Church that is), or what Christ instituted.  He even says the positively intention not to do what the Catholic Church does, but instead to do what another church does (e.g., the Lutheran Church) will not invalidate the sacrament:

Bellarmine: "There is no need to intend to do what the Roman Church does; but what the true Church does, whichever it is, or what Christ instituted, or what Christians do: for they amount to the same. You ask: What if someone intends to do what some particular or false church does, which he thinks the true one, like that of Geneva, and intends not to do what the Roman church does? I answer: even that is sufficient. For the one who intends to do what the church of Geneva does, intends to do what the universal church does. For he intends to do what such a church does, because he thinks it to be a member of the true universal church: although he is wrong in his discernment of the true church. For the mistake of the minister does not take away the efficacy of the sacrament: only a defectus intentionis does that." (Bellarmine, de Sacramentis in genere chapter 27 paragraph 8, translated by Fr. Hunwicke).

What will render a sacrament invalid is the positive intention not to do what the Church does.  This was clarified by the Holy Office under Pope Alexander VIII:

“A Baptism is valid when conferred by a minister who observes every external rite and form of baptizing, but within in his heart, resolves to himself: not to intend what the Church does.” Pope Alexander VIII, Decree of the Holy Office, December 7, 1690, Errors of the Jansenists (Denz., 1318).

If the minister seriously intends to perform the religious ceremony, or the ceremonial action, and does not positively withhold the intention to do what the Church does, the validity of the sacrament will not be in doubt due to a defect of intention.
The simplest way to understand it, is that the general intention “to baptize” (whatever that means), or “say Mass” (whatever that means), or to “ordain a priest” (whatever that means), is sufficient to produce the sacramental effect – even if the one administering the sacrament publicly denies that the sacramental effect. 

Here are some more quotations that deal with the intention of the sacraments: 

Father Edward Yarnold: “A wrong understanding of the nature of a sacrament does not invalidate the sacrament... All that is necessary is 'the implicit intention of doing what the Church does without reference to the sacrament's effect, as if the minister were to say to himself: ‘I intend to perform the Christian rite of (say) baptism,’ and is therefore de facto doing what the Church does without attending to the fact... The traditional intention of doing what the Church does is apparently taken as synonymous with the intention of doing what Christ instituted (quod voluit Christus)... To sum up. There can be no doubt that Bellarmine held to the necessity of intending to do what the Church does only in the sense defined above: namely, that the minister is intending to perform a rite as practiced by what he takes to be the Church. To deny the purpose of the sacrament does not extinguish this intention; nor even does the intention not to produce an effect intended by the Church.”

Adrian Fortesque: "People who are not theologians never seem to understand how little intention is wanted for a sacrament … The ‘implicit intention of doing what Christ instituted' means so small and vague a thing that one can hardly help having it – unless one deliberately excludes it. At the time everyone was talking about Anglican orders, numbers of Catholics confused intention with faith. Faith is not wanted (needed). It is heresy to say that it is (this was the error of St Cyprian and Firmalian against which Pope Stephen I, a.d. 254-7, protested). A man may have utterly wrong, heretical and blasphemous views about a sacrament, and yet confer it or receive it quite validly." (Adrian Fortesque, The Greek Fathers, Catholic Truth Society, 1908, p. 94-95.


Fr. Hunwicke: “Cardinal Franzelin gives an extreme case: a daft priest who didn't want to confer grace when he baptised but actually believed that by baptising he would consign someone to the Devil - there was a seventeenth century rumour about this in Marseilles. Non tamen, he writes, sacramenti virtutem et efficaciam impediret. He quotes Aquinas in support. In nineteenth century, the Holy Office declared that Methodist missionaries in Oceania who explicitly denied in the course of the Baptism service itself that Baptism regenerates, did not thereby invalidate the Sacrament. Heresy or even total Unbelief is, in the traditional Theology of the Western Church, NOT the same as a Defect of Intention. Defect of Intention means a deliberate intention not to confer the Sacrament at all, NOT a mistake about what the Sacrament is or confers." (source

St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa, III, q. 64, art. 8: “Whether the minister's intention is required for the validity of a sacrament? …

“Objection 2: Further, one man’s intention cannot be known to another. Therefore if the minister’s intention were required for the validity of a sacrament, he who approaches a sacrament could not know whether he has received the sacrament. Consequently he could have no certainty in regard to salvation; the more that some sacraments are necessary for salvation, as we shall state further on (65, 4).” And here is Thomas’ reply that agrees with this objection:

“Reply to Objection 2: Some hold that the mental intention of the minister is necessary; in the absence of which the sacrament is invalid… Others with better reason hold that the minister of a sacrament acts in the person of the whole Church, whose minister he is; while in the words uttered by him, the intention of the Church is expressed; and that this suffices for the validity of the sacrament, except the contrary be expressed.”

St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa, III, q. 64, art. 9: “Whether faith is required of necessity in the minister of a sacrament? …

“I answer that, As stated above (5), since the minister works instrumentally in the sacraments, he acts not by his own but by Christ’s power. Now just as charity belongs to a man’s own power so also does faith. Wherefore, just as the validity of a sacrament does not require that the minister should have charity, and even sinners can confer sacraments, as stated above; so neither is it necessary that he should have faith, and even an unbeliever can confer a true sacrament, provided that the other essentials be there.

“Reply to Objection 1. It may happen that a man’s faith is defective… if his faith be defective in regard to the very sacrament that he confers, although he believe that no inward effect is caused by the thing done outwardly, yet he does know that the Catholic Church intends to confer a sacrament by that which is outwardly done. Wherefore, his unbelief notwithstanding, he can intend to do what the Church does, albeit he esteems it to be nothing. And such an intention suffices for a sacrament: because as stated above (8, ad 2) the minister of a sacrament acts in the person of the Church by whose faith any defect in the minister’s faith is made good.”

Rev. Raphael, O.S.B., S.T.L.: INTERPRETATION OF ST. THOMAS’ TEACHING ON INTENTION - … The two principal texts of St. Thomas used by the school of Catharinus are the following: “ ‘...in baptism and the other sacraments which have in the form the exercised act, the mental intention is not required, but the expression of the intention through the words instituted by the Church is sufficient: and therefore, if the form is observed, and nothing is said externally which would express the contrary intention, he (the catechumen in question) is baptized...’5

“‘Consequently, others with better reason hold that the minister of a sacrament acts in the person of the whole Church, whose minister he is; while in the words uttered by him, the intention of the Church is expressed; and that this suffices for the validity of the sacrament, except the contrary be expressed on the part either of the minister or of the recipient of the sacrament...’ 

“The latter quotation was the principal one used in the contention that the role of the minister was merely the external application of the matter and the form to a fit subject. This passage was in reply to the objection that if the mental intention were required, the subject would always be in doubt about having received the sacraments validly. Followers of Catharinus declared that the recipient can be certain that he has received the sacraments only if the bare external ceremonies duly applied constitute a valid sacrament.” (The Dogmatic Theology of the Intention of the Minister in the Confection of the Sacrament: MI, p. 65: “F.

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