17 March 2023


I repeat this from 2017 in response to a query.

Bishop Richard Williamson of SSPX published some months ago an article arguing (these are his words) that in the post-conciliar Church, sacraments are increasingly going to be invalid. "If [a priest's] ideas of what the Church is and does do not correspond to the Catholic realities, how can he intend to do what the Church does, and so how can he administer true sacraments?"

I hesitate to criticise a Wykehamist - many of my best friends are Wykehamists - but this quite simply is not what the teaching and praxis of the Western Church has always been. It has, for example, been held and taught (see Apostolicare curae, the sentence beginning "Quo sane principio") that even a Moslem could administer baptism validly if he used adequate form and matter - perhaps in baptising a baby about to die in the delivery room whose mother has asked for this to be done. The unbeliever believes nothing about Baptism except that this is something Christians do. His only intention is to do what Christians do. His action is valid, but if it in any way depended on his personal beliefs, it would be invalid.

The Church's standard teaching is graphically expressed by S Robert 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."  

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 qotes 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 any Sacrament at all, NOT a mistake about what the Sacrament is or confers. Bishop Williamson's theology, despite his admirable desire to be Traditional, is NOT the teaching of Catholic Christendom. Pope Leo XIII reiterated this truth in his Bull Apostolicae curae in the section which begins "De mente vel intentione ...".

This has to be right; otherwise the validity of any sacrament would be at the mercy of any rubbish that some fool of a cleric had mistakenly got into his daft head because he misunderstood what he was taught in seminary or was just a perverse nutter anyway; every Mass celebrated by a 'liberal' priest who believed that it was merely a community supper, would have to be invalid. 


Williamson's view superficially seems common sense; but Catholic teaching, since the anti-Donatist controversy, has been firmly on the side of believing that it is very difficult for a minister to invalidate a sacrament by his own sin or stupidity or schism or even heresy or total unbelief ... as long as he Does the Red and Says the Black with at least a habitual intention of Doing Stuff (and not, for example, of performing a didactic demonstration or a blasphemous parody). And all this is ultimately based upon a very simple truth: the Sacraments are not ours, but the Sacraments of the Lord Christ.

I am of course quite aware that this teaching presupposes the use of adequate Form and Matter. Do not bother to write in and explain that to me. I simply wish to establish what the Western Church teaches about sacramental intention qua intention.


  1. Ah yes, this old question. I would take an even more extreme position than you father. I would say that outward performance of the ceremony is enough, nothing more. I would also say that a priest can validly ordain another priest in extremis but that is another question. On the former point I have had at least one long and heated argument over the refectory table hehe.

  2. Surely there must be at least some intention, or the "outward performance" would hardly be a human act at all (actus humanus, not simply actus hominis). And the extremity would need to be extreme indeed- for instance, if one knew one was virtually the last priest alive, all the bishops having somehow been exterminated. But then, I suppose, the priest would become in effect a bishop, maybe even Pope, if he really was the last priest. What fascinating topics we raise!

  3. In response to your comments, I remember reading on another site that at the height of the Cold War, one American Bishop ordained several young (lay) men in the military as Bishop in case of nuclear attack.

  4. Sadly, I have to say: the victory of Apostacy is people with no Faith.

    Apostates do not even want 'sacraments': when those apostates are Roman Catholic priests, they are just as indifferent as the layity, more interested in their golf scores--to be kind--than in what they pretend to do in 'church'. The last thing on their minds is doing what the 'true' Church intends, much less doing what the Church 'truly' intends.

    +Williamson is right.

    (You should've seen the bored on the face of a 'catholic' friend of mine when I asked her to describe Fatima; she started aluding to Lourdes, but even go that mixed up.
    The point was, it was spoken with contempt, being a Feminist. Does she want the Sacraments? Would she care if her female 'priest' gave communion to her dog, like one did recently here in Canada? This is what +Williamson is talking about: Apostasy.)

    All your points are correct Father; but when your readers take them in, it is like a swimmer going toward the 'diving board'.
    Like +Williamson, I fear I fall off the far right.

  5. It shocked me that many people from European countries that identify strongly with Newchurch, being deeply involved in its activities, do not fear to advocate "ordination" of women. Many so called educated people who have degrees from the so called catholic Institutes or Universities. Vatican II mentality prepares one to such things. SO then; this indicates what they think about the priesthood- can there be grace where the Right Faith is not only not confessed but flounted? Grace and Heresy are incompatible.

  6. Considering Bishop Williamson's views on things secular (Holocaust, World Trade Center conspiracies, etc), and the fact that he is a bishop in the SSPX, I would think he'd be a prime example of how a schismatic nutter can still perform valid sacraments.

    With all due respect to those who attend masses given by SSPX clergy: I love the Latin mass, traditional catholic piety and theology, etc., but it was people like him that kept me far away from anything traditional for a long time.

    What gains Catholic traditionalism has made in recent years are made IN SPITE of people like him, not because of them.

  7. I find it truly remarkable that people can claim to be defending the Catholic Faith against Modernism ... by denying what the Magisterium teaches! I think such people should sort themselves out. Williamson does NOT teach what the Church teaches on this subject. Whether that makes him a formal heretic in canonical terms, I doubt; because he has not, I presume, received and rejected the formal admonitions. But it remains true that what he teaches is HERESY contrary to the infallible Ordinary Magisterium of the Church of the last )at least) sixteen centuries.

  8. I find it truly remarkable that people can claim to be defending the Catholic Faith against Modernism ... by denying what the Magisterium teaches! I think such people should sort themselves out. Williamson does NOT teach what the Church teaches on this subject. Whether that makes him a formal heretic in canonical terms, I doubt; because he has not, I presume, received and rejected the formal admonitions. But it remains true that what he teaches is HERESY contrary to the infallible Ordinary Magisterium of the Church of the last )at least) sixteen centuries.

  9. I was going to allude to the Donatist Heresy but you made the point, Father.

    The Church's response to the DH established the principle: sacraments do not depend upon the character, defective intentions or the moral quality of individual clerics but rather upon the intention of the Church.

    This principle applies as well to the suggestions in other threads that Anglican orders are defective following the Dutch Tutch due to the faulty theology of bishops. We'd all be in a pickle if that were the case, Romans as much as Anglicans.

  10. Magisterium notwithstanding, how can grace and heresy coexist? Ex opere operato must at least require the confession of the Right Faith, otherwise 'tis but an empty word.

  11. "how can grace and heresy coexist?"

    What and tares, brother, wheat and tares: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mt%2013:24-30,36-43&version=KJV

  12. Something to chew on:


    written by Luis Ladaria SJ, now the Secretary of the CDF, to explain the decision of the CDF (given in the time of Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect) to declare Mormon baptisms as invalid.

    The essay does imply that even when the form and matter used in Mormon baptisms are correct, the doctrinal divergence of the Mormons from that of Catholicism / mainstream Christianity is so vast as to render the intent defective.

  13. With respect to the note above about Mormon baptisms: It's worth noting also that Mormons are not just some other Christian sect, but actually believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are essentially three DIFFERENT gods, united in *purpose* (as I've had Mormon friends explain it), but not in substance. They believe that the Father became incarnate, but with his own body, and then had physical relations with Mary (at which point, obviously, she was no longer a virgin -- but it's ok to call her that as she was chaste) in order to conceive Jesus, who is a different god. Note well, when Mormons pray publicly, they end a prayer with "In Jesus' name, Amen." They say (this is Mormons, not anti-Mormon polemics, that I reference here) that this is to avoid breaking the command to worship the LORD only, as it's praying TO the LORD (Father), but only "in the name" of Jesus, to indicate that he helps out but is not being addressed directly.

    Mormon history and beliefs are fascinating, if for no other reason than because they are so very, very different from anything else you'll ever get from someone thumping a Bible and asking if you'd like to spend some time talking about Jesus.

    I add this here only because I know that, whereas I live among Mormons here in Arizona, many in other far-flung lands may have never even met one, and false understandings of Mormon teaching and practices (both positive and negative) are far more common than the truth. But, as one former Mormon catholic writer I came across once put it (more or less): When trying to talk to Mormons about the Catholic Church, be careful to avoid taking in all the nonsense that is said about them, because it won't get you anywhere. However, don't feel bad about it, because what Mormons actually believe is so bizarre that you won't have to look further than the truth anyway.

    So, no, I don't think that the declaration of the invalidity of Mormon baptisms comes even CLOSE to the embrace of "liberal theology" that some of my fellow readers might be imagining would invalidate the sacraments within the Catholic church.

  14. my understanding of the 1872 ruling on Methodist baptisms is that they were not declared valid but that each individual case would need to be considered for lack of due intention rather than all condemned out of hand.See Francis Clark Anglican Orders and Defect of Intention1956 pp152-153. Clark argues a powerful case for the Anglican Reformers' heretical disbelief leading to a defect of ministerial intention through what he calls " the principle of positive exclusion" and that this is what has been said about Anglican orders from the 16th century on;

  15. Father H., I do need some help on the Form and Matter. The Anglican minister who uses correct Form and Matter in the Eucharist, like the Methodist baptizer, need only have sufficient intention. Do I receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord from him?

    If the question then becomes whether he is validly ordained with correct Form and Matter, I can surely find one (you, perhaps, good sir?). So then if the question becomes whether that minister's ordaining ministers were validly ordained so that they have the power to ordain, have I not now created a regressive argument that disappears unresolved into the mists of unrecorded Church History?

    To avoid all this, am I not forced to take as a corollary to the Methodist baptizers that the Anglican minister's Eucharist is also valid, because he has correct Form, Matter and sufficient intention?

    Please help this poor layman,


  16. May I be permitted, Father, to offer this poem of Robert Le Brunne:
    "Y shall you telle of a mydwyfe that loste a chylde both soule and lyfe,
    When she sawe that hyt should dye she began loude for to crye
    And moan, and sayd 'God and Seynt Joune crysten this child both flesshe and bone.'
    The Prest asked the mydwyfe
    If hyt were cristenede when it had liffe?
    And who hyt cristened? And on what manere?
    And what was seyde that any myght here?
    The mydwyfe seyde unto the Prest,
    'This herde they that stood me next,
    That God Almighty and Sent Joune
    Give the child cristendom in flesshe and boune.'

    Then seyd the Prest 'God and Sent Joune
    Give thee both sorrow and shame
    In evyi time were you y bore
    For yn thy defaulte a soule is lorn.'
    She was commanded she should no more
    Come elfesones where chyllyn were y bore.
    '[If] thou see a chylle yn swyche perel
    That none may save hyt wyth no wylle
    Say thou thus - 'Give thou in haste
    Y crysten thee yn the name of the
    Fadr and Sone and Holy Gast.'
    And gyve what thou wylt hyt a name
    And kast on water on hyts frame.
    Mydwyves! that wyth wymman wone
    Alle these poyntes behove thou kone."
    -Robert Le Brunne d.1338

  17. About the Mormons- their beliefs are even weirder than people realize. What interests me is that they have their origins in Western New York, which had long been a hotbed of demonic activity, which would explain a lot.

  18. Dear Father. Beautiful. God Bless you

  19. A very fine and concise summary by Fr Hunwicke, if I may say so!

  20. Father, you are absolutely correct, and thank you for statinf this age old orthodox cstholic principle, thst the only thing needed to validly confect a sacrament, preuming valid matter and form, is that the minister proper to the sacrament have the intention to do what the Church DOES (this Not "believes what the Church believes", and so forth).This means than when a priest pronounces the words of consecration, unless he states that he is pretending to celebrate Mass, such as for a theatre production, then one can safely presume that he is doing what the Church does when consecrating. For Christ is slways the principal Celebrant, the human minister being only His and His Church's instrument. It is truly very easy to understand, and yet many Catholics, even priests, seem not no longer know this basic sacramental principle.

  21. Father, you know better than to correct a Wykehamist. You have forgotten that they are infallible in all matters.

  22. Richard Williamson was expelled from SSPX in 2012. And excommunicated again after his previous excommunication was lifted. I suppose once a bishop always a bishop, after all Talleyrand when receiving Extreme Unction murmured "remember I am a bishop".

  23. Us Catholics must be prepared to preach the truth to Mormons when they knock on our doors.

    I think the key is for the Catholics to listen politely to their initial come on , Friend, we are living in troubled times. Would you like to hear some good news?

    Their pause in waiting for an answer is your opportunity to take control of the conversation.

    A few days ago three LDSs came to my door and after their opening I asked them how they worshipped God. They didn't have a response so I began to speak with them about how in Numbers God taught His chosen people how He wished to be worshipped and if His chosen people worshipped Him another way they would be punished, even by death.

    I again asked them how they worshipped God and the lead man began to speak of the Sermon on the Mount and I asked where in the Sermon on the mount Jesus taught His followers how to worship Him.

    As they began to drift away I told them tha one day each of them would be standing before the Judgment Seat of Christ and they would have to answer for their denial that Jesus is God and their proselytising for a false faith.

    Joseph Smith was a fasle prophet and today I was reading Deuteronomy 13 in which God orders His chosen people to kill false prophets.

    I didn't get a chance to share that scripture with them before they left.

  24. Interesting posts/questions. I'm siding with Fr. H on this question.

    I wonder if this post has any relevance to some people's take on Benedict's abdication. I would think the See of Rome empty even if B16 has some fairly odd mystical theories of the papacy. I realize an office isn't a sacrament, but still. Don't mean to open a rabbit hole.

  25. If S Robert Belarmine is correct that only a defect of intention invalidates the sacrament, then surely the recent rulings on "We baptize ..." are in error.

  26. Surely, e sapelion, Talleyrand's famous last words (after insisting on the episcopal privilege of being anointed on the palms of his hands) were "Le Bon Dieu me pardonera. C'est Son m├ętier". Which reminds me of the famous words of a more recent bishop, "I am the Bishop of Southwark. It's what I do".

  27. Dear Michael, The most famous of the BISPers (Benedict is still Pope) while he was alive was a well known woman.

    Unfortunately for her claims, she accepted the election of Francis for quite some time - I once read her blog and it was moths and moths before she rejected his election - but her acceptance of his election made her part of the Universal Acceptance of the election of a Pope which Cardinal Ratzinger taught as Prefect of the Holy Doctrine of the Faith was a Dogmatic Fact, the rejection of meant one was on longer Catholic.

    The universal acceptance is moral not numerical: that is, if a few Catholics can be identified who did not accept his election that in no way effects the UA.

  28. Dear e sapelion,

    if St. Robert says that only defect of intention makes a defect of intention (to summarize with tongue in cheek), this doesn't mean that there are no other grounds for invalidity.

    The thing here at issue is defect of form: The form is "I baptize". The Church says so, for one thing; and this upon closer inspection (it was this closer inspection that whoever ruled these rulings, the CDF probably, did) this really is essential* to it: It is Christ who baptizes, and He is one man, not many.

    The point of this error being that the form was changed according to the error, and the result of the change cannot be read in a way that excludes the error; which differs from the cases both St. Robert and Bp Williamson (the former being right, the latter wrong about them) have in mind.

    Think about it this way: If the Anglicans never had done any change to the ritual of Ordination, they could have taught whatever nonsense about this sacrament, denied its sacramentality, etc., and Leo XIII. would certainly have said "yes, theirs are validly priests and bishops". It's only because they changed the ritual to make it accord to their theories (and then, I hear, changed it back, but when all real bishops had passed away) that he reached the contrary conclusion.

    (* It would be unessential, for instance, if the baptizer when using English says "I baptize thee" or "I baptize you"; "you", whether one likes the fact or not, is no longer unequivocally the plural it once was.)