What is the intention to do what the Church does?

What is Required for a Valid Intention?

Robert J. Siscoe

(Revised 12-31-19)

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.  This is one of the errors of Archbishop Lefebvre that has spread throughout the traditional movement and been embraced by nearly everyone.  

The Holy Office clarified on two separate occasions that an express denial of the sacramental effect does invalidate a sacrament due to a defect of intention. The following reply was given in response to a dubium concerning baptism but it applies to all the sacraments.

In 1872, the Holy Office responded to two questions submitted by Bishop of Oceana, who inquired as to whether baptism administered by a public heretic will be invalid due to a defect of intention if the minister expressly warned the one being baptized that he is not to believe the sacrament will have an effect on the soul.  The Holy Office responded in the negative:  

Sacred Congregation 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:

“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 

He continues:

"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).

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 the effect that the sacrament is intended to produce (e.g., washing away Original Sin, changing bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, etc.).. 

What will render a sacrament invalid is the positive intention not to do what the Church does.  This was addressed by the Holy Office under Pope Alexander VIII, which condemned the following proposition:

“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.” - CONDEMNED,  (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.

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

Hunter, Outlines Of Dogmatic Theology, Volume 3: “The Intention of the Minister . — The Council of Trent (Sess. 7, De Sacrum . can. 11; Denz. 735) condemns all who deny that the minister of the Sacraments must have at least the intention of doing what the Church does. This declaration seems absurd in the eyes of those who do not admit the Catholic doctrine as to the action of the Sacraments (n. 672), but who prefer to hold that the actions performed are mere empty symbols and the words spoken are nothing but exhortations. But it follows from the paragraph just quoted that the sacramental action is the action of Christ, and the human minister is the deputy of the Divine Head of the Church, and must act in that character: the action of the man is in itself indifferent, and is done by him on his own behalf or on behalf of Christ, as may be determined by the act of his will : this act is what is called his intention. If the act is performed without any intention at all, as by an idiot or a somnambulist, then it is not a human act, proceeding from the intellect and the will (n. 585), and it cannot have sacramental efficacy (n. 681); if it be done with the explicit intention of not performing the act which the Church does, then the minister is acting on his own account, and not as the deputy of Christ, and therefore there is no Sacrament. (See n. 739.)

“The intention of doing what the Church does is not necessarily an explicit intention of doing an action that is efficacious of grace, for we have seen that the validity of the Sacrament does not depend on the faith of the minister (n. 682); a general intention of performing the rite in use among Christians is sufficient.

“It is objected to this doctrine that it makes the validity of every Sacrament depend upon a purely internal fact, namely, the intention of the minister who may perform the outward acts with the interior intention of not acting as deputy of Christ. We admit the consequence, but deny that there is anything in it out of harmony with other parts of revealed doctrine; it is perfectly true that, without special revelation, no one can have absolute certainty that he has received a Sacrament or that he is in the state of grace (n. 639): but his assurance on the subject may approach so nearly to this absolute certainty as to make any misgiving on the subject foolish and vain; and it must always be remembered that God, who has bound Himself to give grace when the Sacraments are duly received, has nowhere limited His power, disabling Himself from giving grace apart from these holy rites. One, therefore, who acts in good faith may hope that no disaster will befall himself or those dear to him through the deceit of a wicked minister. (See n. 696.)

“The reply just given to the difficulty about the uncertainty of the Sacraments seems perfectly sufficient ; but there have been theologians who, not being content with it, maintain the possibility of having absolute certainty that a Sacrament has been validly administered; and thus making some approach to the Lutheran assurance of the presence of habitual grace in the soul. This doctrine attracted attention at the time of the Council of Trent, being put forward by the Italian theologian, Ambrose Catharinus, who avowed that he was influenced by a desire to secure peace of mind to the faithful but one who feels a wish that a doctrine should be true maybe suspected of not being a fair judge of the arguments bearing on it. The decree of the Council left the question open, and it is still debated, although the followers of Catharinus grow fewer in number and authority as time goes on.

“In the view of Catharinus, no other intention is required in the minister of a Sacrament than that he should deliberately go through the outward acts required by the rite ; and this is held to be sufficient, though the minister have no interior intention of doing what the Church does, and even if he interiorly form an explicit act of not intending so to do. But this theory fails to secure the absolute certainty that the Sacrament is valid, for it is easy for the minister to change the words of the form (n. 680) in an essential particular without this fraud being detected.

“The theory, therefore, does not possess that advantage which was its chief recommendation, and it is open to grievous theological difficulties. The man who does not at least implicitly intend to act as agent for Christ cannot do so, for the character of his action depends on his intention ; the words of the Council are most naturally applicable to the internal intention, and it is certain that this suffices; for if the matter and form of Baptism be duly applied to a child by one who interiorly intends to perform the Christian rite, the Baptism is valid, even though the minister pretend exteriorly that he went through the ceremony in mockery : and lastly, if the priest saying Mass intends to consecrate ten Hosts and no more, but has eleven before him, then not one is validly consecrated, as is declared in the rubrics of the Missal. (De Defectu I ntentionis.) For these and other similar reasons, most modern theologians reject the doctrine that the exterior intention is sufficient, but they confess that it has not been condemned by the authority of the Church.

“Pope Alexander VIII., in 1690, condemned the following proposition (n. 28 ; Denz. 1185): “A Baptism is valid which is conferred by a minister who observes all the external rite and form of baptizing ; but who interiorly in his heart is resolved, I do not intend to do what the Church does.” Pope Benedict XIV. (De Synod Dioeces. 7,
4, 8) observes that this condemnation inflicts a grave wound on the doctrine of Catharinus, and the wound would indeed be fatal, if the proposition be understood as dealing with a Baptism to which no objection could be raised except that specified; but it may be understood even of the case where the ceremony is performed in open and obvious mockery of the Christian rite, in which case it would be certainly invalid as wanting both the interior and the exterior intention; and since all these condemnations must be understood in the strictest sense, the matter is still undecided by authority.

“Recapitulation . — The truths established in this chapter as to the requisites of the Sacraments in regard to the recipient, the rite, and the minister, follow easily from our doctrine respecting the mode of action of the Sacraments, which has been established already. The domestic question which we treated in the last paragraph as to the sufficiency of a purely external intention in the minister is the only point on which serious controversy is possible, when once the nature of a Sacrament as held in the Catholic Church is grasped.”

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).” (...)

On the contrary, What is unintentional happens by chance. But this cannot be said of the sacramental operation. Therefore the sacraments require the intention of the minister.

I answer that, When a thing is indifferent to many uses, it must needs be determined to one, if that one has to be effected. Now those things which are done in the sacraments, can be done with various intent; for instance, washing with water, which is done in baptism, may be ordained to bodily cleanliness, to the health of the body, to amusement, and many other similar things. Consequently, it needs to be determined to one purpose, i.e. the sacramental effect, by the intention of him who washes. And this intention is expressed by the words which are pronounced in the sacraments; for instance the words, "I baptize thee in the name of the Father," etc. (...)

Reply to Objection 2: "On this point there are two opinions. For some hold that the mental intention of the minister is necessary; in the absence of which the sacrament is invalid: and that this defect in the case of children who have not the intention of approaching the sacrament, is made good by Christ, Who baptizes inwardly: whereas in adults, who have that intention, this defect is made good by their faith and devotion.

This might be true enough of the ultimate effect, i.e. justification from sins; but as to that effect which is both real and sacramental, viz. the character, it does not appear possible for it to be made good by the devotion of the recipient, since a character is never imprinted save by a sacrament.

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 of either of the minister or of the recipient of the sacrament.”

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: “ ‘ 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.