The validity of holy orders

This study by Fr. Douglas Laudenschlager was originally published in the February 1978 issue of The Angelus.

This piece was preceeded by an editorial of Fr. Carl Pulvermacher: "On rumors and their source".


Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, was ordained to the priesthood on September 21, 1929, and consecrated a bishop on September 18, 1947, by (the late) Cardinal Achille Lienart, bishop of Archbishop Lefebvre’s diocese of Lille (France).

Recently, it was revealed that Cardinal Lienart was apparently a Freemason. From this, certain naive persons with only the vaguest grasp of theological principles and with an obvious desire to interpret everything so as to confirm their own obsessive personal theories on the present crisis in the Church, have imagined that sacramental acts performed by the cardinal were invalid, that, therefore, the ordination and consecration of Marcel Lefebvre were invalid, since "a Freemason could not have the intention to ‘do what the Church does’", which intention they rightly declare necessary for the validity of a sacrament.

Since the specious arguments of these persons have distressed many loyal Catholics, it will be useful to consider the falsity of their arguments, and to establish the validity of the holy orders received by Archbishop Lefebvre, in the light of the definitions of the Church and of sound Catholic theology.

Before giving a response, it is necessary to formulate the question precisely.

For the valid confection of a Sacrament, it has always been believed and the Church has solemnly defined that three things are required: 

  1. The proper matter (e.g., bread and wine in the Eucharist);
  2. The proper form (i.e., the words pronounced over the matter, for example: "This is my Body", etc., in the Eucharist);
  3. And in the minister (i.e., in him who confects the sacrament), the proper intention.

In the case of the ordination and consecration of Archbishop Lefebvre, there can be no question that in such solemn and public ceremonies a mistake of matter or of form could escape unnoticed.

The question, therefore, if question there is—and such as the above-mentioned persons have posed it—is a question of the INTENTION of Cardinal Lienart when he administered the sacrament of holy orders to Marcel Lefebvre.

Before considering the case directly, it will be useful to consider in summary the teaching of the Church and of sound theology on the INTENTION OF THE MINISTER OF A SACRAMENT in general.

First of all, what the question is NOT. The Church has solemnly defined, and all Catholics must believe, that for the valid confection of a sacrament neither faith nor the state of grace is required in the minister. Therefore, both sinful and heretical, schismatical and apostate priests or bishops can still validly (though sinfully and illicitly) confect the sacraments, provided, of course, that they use the proper matter and form and have the necessary intention. The question, therefore, is NOT whether or not Cardinal Lienart, as a Freemason, could validly administer a sacrament at all, but whether he did in this case.

Secondly, let us formulate more precisely the question of the REQUIRED INTENTION. We shall distinguish the external intention (by which the minister wishes to accomplish properly the external ceremonies and rites of the sacrament, but inwardly wishes not to confect the sacrament); and the internal (by which the minister truly and interiorly wishes to do what the Church does). The question is, does the external intention suffice? That is, will a sacrament be valid if the minister properly performs all the necessary external rites and ceremonies (with the proper matter and form), if within himself he wishes not to confect the sacrament?

The Church has defined that the minister must have the intention of doing what the Church does (Trent, sess. 7, can. 11). Therefore, at least the external intention of doing what the Church does, and thus of accomplishing the ceremony properly, is required. For one reason, because the minister of the sacrament acts only as the minister of Christ, and thus must intend to act as such, and not simply to perform a natural action, or to act in his own name or by his own power.

But, furthermore, today theologians commonly hold, and the declarations of the Church seem to confirm, that the external intention does not suffice, but that to confect a sacrament validly, the minister must have, at least implicitly, the INTERNAL INTENTION of doing what the Church does.

Why?

The Church solemnly requires matter, form and intention for a valid sacrament. But if no internal intention were required, there would be no reason to include intention as the third element in the list, for the external intention of accomplishing the ceremony properly is actually nothing more than the use of the matter and form.

Therefore, this required intention must be something more:  internal.

Furthermore, if the minister had no internal intention, he would simply be acting in his own name, or by his own power, performing a natural and not a supernatural act.

The central question, then, will be: How are we to recognize the presence of this internal intention required in the minister for the valid confection of a sacrament?

Pope Leo XIII answers clearly and with solemn authority:

Concerning the mind or intention, inasmuch as it is in itself something internal, the Church does not pass judgment; but in so far as it is externally manifested, she is bound to judge of it. Now, if in order to effect and confer a Sacrament a person has seriously and correctly used the due matter and form, he is for that very reason presumed to have intended to do what the Church does. It is on this principle that the doctrine is solidly founded which holds as a true Sacrament that which is conferred by the ministry of a heretic or of a non-baptized person, as long as it is conferred in the Catholic rite."

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Prince of Theologians, says the same thing (III, Q. 64, A. 8 ad 2): 

In the words uttered by (the minister), the intention of the Church is expressed; and this suffices for the validity of the sacrament, EXCEPT THE CONTRARY BE EXPRESSED EXTERIORLY on the part of the minister [emphasis given by author]".

Therefore, in the conferral of the sacrament of holy orders (or of any other) as long as the ordaining bishop, be he Catholic or apostate, observes externally the rite prescribed for the sacrament, he MUST be presumed to have the right intention, and the sacrament MUST be accepted as valid.

Let us recall one more time that there is not the least question of the possibility of receiving valid ordinations from a bishop who has abandoned the Faith. In fact, such ordinations received from heretics or others are normally valid.

In defining this truth of faith, Pope Paschal II does not add the least qualification, not even an implicit reference to cases where such ordinations might not be valid:

Therefore, instructed by the examples of our Fathers, who at diverse times have received Novatians, Donatists, and other heretics in their orders [i.e., acknowledging the validity of the orders which they had received in their heretical sects]: We receive in the episcopal office [i.e., as valid bishops] the bishops of the aforesaid kingdom, who were ordained in schism..." (October 22, 1106)

Let us consider momentarily a few more points on the intention required in the minister of a sacrament.

A. We shall distinguish the intention of doing what the Church does, and the intention of doing what the Church intends. The Church does (performs) a sacred rite instituted by Christ, and by this rite she intends to confer grace—and in some sacraments, the character. The minister does not at all need to intend to confer grace by the rite which he performs. It suffices that he intend to perform a sacred rite. (So teach all theologians.) 

B. Indeed, he does not even have to believe that the rite which he is performing is sacred. It suffices that he intend to perform seriously a rite which Christians hold as sacred. Thus, for example, a Jew can validly baptize a Christian child, even though he believes that baptism is a completely meaningless ceremony, if he intends to perform a rite which Christians hold to be sacred. Thus, also a priest who has lost the Faith in the Sacraments can still confect them validly as long as he has the intention of performing seriously the rites which the faithful ask of him and which they consider sacred.

St. Thomas teaches the same thing (in IV Sent., dist. 6, Q. 1 A. 3, sol 2, ad 1): 

Sometimes he [the minister] intends to do what the Church does, although he considers it to be nothing."

The minimum intention required in the minister of a sacrament is, then, this: That he intend to perform a rite which the Church considers sacred, and to accomplish seriously all the prescribed externals.

Indeed, who could possibly lack this minimal intention in administering a sacrament? We have seen that the Church considers the presence of the required intention the normal case as regards sacraments administered by heretics, schismatics, etc.

According to the solemn teaching of the Church, therefore, and the conclusions of sound theology, there is ABSOLUTELY NO JUSTIFICATION for any doubts on the validity of the holy orders of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

As history records, Cardinal Lienart did not at any moment—neither before, nor during or after the ceremonies—give the least indication that he did not intend to do what the Church does in conferring holy orders upon Marcel Lefebvre.

IF there were any justification for questioning the validity of the archbishop’s orders—and we have seen that there is not—the question would concern his sacerdotal ordination rather than his episcopal consecration. (Let us recall, however, that cases where orders conferred by heretics, etc., are invalid are so rare that Pope Paschal II in defining the Church’s doctrine on this point does not even envisage the case.)

The question—if there were any—would concern his ordination to the priesthood more than his consecration to the episcopate, because a single minister, a single bishop—Cardinal Lienart—confers the holy priesthood, and thus all depends upon the intention of this single minister of the sacrament. (We have seen, however, that all are bound to presume that he had the necessary intention.)

If it is almost impossible for a sacerdotal ordination to be invalid, an invalid episcopal consecration would be even more impossible for this reason:

In accordance with the most ancient tradition of the Church, a new bishop is always consecrated by THREE other bishops. The Pontificale Romanum refers them as assistentes, but since, as the rubrics prescribe, all three bishops impose hands on the bishop-elect (the matter of the sacrament), and recite the form of consecration, Pope Pius XII (Episcopalis consecrationis, Nov. 30, 1944) insists that they are to be referred to as co-consecrators. Thus, as this was already obvious, all three concur in the consecration (where only one would suffice for validity), and, therefore, even in the unimaginable case where two of the three bishops would lack the necessary intention, the remaining bishop would still validly consecrate the elect. (Cf. also Pius XII, Allocution to the International Congress of Pastoral Liturgy, Sep. 22, 1956.)

If I remember correctly, based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the episcopate, Hugo Maria Kellner seems to be of the opinion that a bishop lacking jurisdiction cannot confer the episcopate on another. The constant practice of the Church, however, disproves this curious theory: if it were true, NO bishop consecrated in heresy or in schism would ever have been validly consecrated; but the Church has constantly received such bishops as valid bishops. (Cf. decree of Paschal II).

(In any case, though this has no relation to any question of holy orders, Cardinal Lienart never lost his jurisdiction as Archbishop of Lille. Even if a Freemason, and thus ipso facto excommunicated, he retained his jurisdiction as bishop until a declaratory or condemnatory sentence by a higher authority, which was never given.)

Once again, then, our conclusion:

We may and MUST presume that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre validly received the sacrament of holy orders. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING would permit or justify a conclusion to the contrary.