Is the Consecration of Bread and Wine Outside of Mass Valid?

August 23, 2019
Source: District of the USA

Concerns have been raised in some circles recently with respect to off-the-cuff remarks given by His Excellency Bishop Bernard Fellay in 2011 regarding the consecration of bread and wine outside of the Mass.

These concerns are both misplaced and betray a lack of knowledge regarding the theology of the Sacraments.

Bishop Fellay, during his time as Superior General of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), sought to clarify the Church’s teaching on form, matter, and intention with respect to the Eucharist by recalling anecdotes concerning wayward clerics who consecrated an entire bakery and a wine cellar. The Bishop’s point was that threshold for intention is not as high as some Catholics suspect and that even illicit consecrations are still presumed valid.

In response, some murmurers have opined that a minister who attempts to consecrate a bakery or wine cellar outside of Mass can never have the right intention, that is to do what the Church does, because the act is intrinsically sacrilegious. Others have expressed incredulity toward the idea that a priest could validly consecrate such a vast amount of bread and wine, whether or not the consecration was performed in a sacrilegious manner.

Both of these objections are without merit. Instead of casually speculating about such things on the Internet or leaning on théologie de bistrot, it is far more prudent to look to the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, who addresses both topics in his Summa Theologiae (ST).

On the Quantity of the Sacrament

In ST IIIa, q 74, a 2, c, St. Thomas writes:

Some have maintained that the priest could not consecrate an immense quantity of bread and wine, for instance, all the bread in the market or all the wine in a cask. But this does not appear to be true, because in all things containing matter, the reason for the determination of the matter is drawn from its disposition to an end, just as the matter of a saw is iron, so as to adapt it for cutting. But the end of this sacrament is the use of the faithful. Consequently, the quantity of the matter of this sacrament must be determined by comparison with the use of the faithful. But this cannot be determined by comparison with the use of the faithful who are actually present; otherwise the parish priest having few parishioners could not consecrate many hosts. It remains, then, for the matter of this sacrament to be determined in reference to the number of the faithful absolutely. But the number of the faithful is not a determinate one. Hence it cannot be said that the quantity of the matter of this sacrament is restricted.

In other words, there is no a priori limit on the quantity of the Eucharist and the Church has never taught otherwise. Although this issue rarely arose in practice historically, over the last few decades several popes have presided over large outdoor Masses held in arenas, stadiums, and parks where Communion was distributed to all of those who attended.

Such large-scale celebrations raise a host of issues, not the least of which being the opportunity for non-Catholics to receive (or steal) the Eucharist and the heavy reliance on unconsecrated “Eucharistic Ministers” to distribute Communion. And whatever doubts may arise regarding the validity of the Eucharistic consecrations at these Masses, the quantity of the sacrament should not be among them.

On the Intention of the Priest

In ST IIIa, q 64, a 10, St. Thomas responds to the query, “Whether the validity of a sacrament requires a good intention in the minister?” Here is how he responds:

I answer that, the minister's intention may be perverted in two ways. First in regard to the sacrament: for instance, when a man does not intend to confer a sacrament, but to make a mockery of it. Such a perverse intention takes away the truth of the sacrament, especially if it be manifested outwardly. Secondly, the minister's intention may be perverted as to something that follows the sacrament: for instance, a priest may intend to baptize a woman so as to be able to abuse her; or to consecrate the Body of Christ, so as to use it for sorcery. And because that which comes first does not depend on that which follows, consequently such a perverse intention does not annul the sacrament; but the minister himself sins grievously in having such an intention.

Here, St. Thomas makes an important distinction between a perverse intention at the outset, such as a priest wishing to perform a “mock Mass,” and a perverse intention that follows after the sacrament. In the anecdotes recounted by Bishop Fellay, the priests sought to perform the bakery and wine-cellar consecrations in order to vex their bishops. Obviously such behavior carries with it a perverse intention, but not one that would invalidate the Eucharist.

Accordingly, it cannot be said that Bishop Fellay’s words on this issue were errant or reflect a misunderstanding of Catholic theology. On the contrary, the Bishop, along with the SSPX, holds to the safer, more authoritative teachings of St. Thomas on the quantity of the sacrament and its validity, even following an illicit consecration accompanied by a perverse intention.