In light of the laicization of Theodore Mc-Carrick, some Catholics whose children or grandchildren were baptized or confirmed are wondering if the sacraments administered by McCarrick are still valid. “Must these individuals be re-baptized or reconfirmed?” Many couples who asked Mc-Carrick to officiate at their weddings are also puzzled by the sacramental status of their marriage. “Do they need to exchange vows again in front of a priest and two witnesses?” Then there are those, like me, who were ordained to the transitional diaconate and later to the priestshood by McCarrick. “Am I still a priest?” For all such people who received sacraments from priests or bishops who were laicized, apostasized (gone over to another faith) or embraced a schismatic faith, such as the Polish National Catholic Church, take comfort and know that you do not need to be re-baptized, re-confirmed, re-ordained or exchange your marriage vows again.
These very questions were addressed by the Church as early as the third century when a heretical group called in question the validity of sacraments, administered by priests and bishops who had been
traditores, a name given to clerics who handed over the Scriptures to civil leaders in anti-Christian territories as a sign of impunity. This North African heretical sect of Christians were known as the “Donatists.” The group takes its name from Donatus, a third century bishop who led this rigorous sect which held that the “Church is meant to be an assembly of saints, not sinners.” Any sacrament confected or administered by priests or bishops who weretraditores or “apostates” were perceived by the Donatists to be invalid. In fact, even if a priest repented and returned to the Catholic fold, the Eucharist he confected was still considered invalid. Two centuries later, when Augustine was consecrated Bishop of Hippo (present day Carthage), the Doctor of Grace taught that a sacrament was from God and ex opere operato ( “from the work carried out”). In other words, a priest or bishop in a state of mortal sin could continue to administer valid sacraments.
In reaction against the Donatists, Augustine developed a distinction between the “regularity” and “validity” of the sacraments. Regular sacraments are performed by clergy of the Catholic Church, while sacraments performed by schismatics are considered irregular. Nevertheless, the validity of the sacraments do not depend upon the holiness of the priests who perform them. Irregular sacraments are still accepted as valid provided they are done in the name of Christ and in the manner prescribed by the Church Ex opere operato is a Latin phrase meaning “from the work worked” referring to sacraments deriving their power from Christ’s work ( ex opere operato Christi) rather than the role of
humans. So much for the priest or bishop who confects or admin-isters the sacraments.
Ex opere operato is commonly misunderstood to mean that sacraments work independently of the faith of the recipient. Still, in order to receive sacraments fruitfully, it is believed necessary for the recipient to have faith. Today, the phrase often refers to the idea that sacraments are efficacious in and of themselves rather than depending on the attitude either of the priest or the recipient.
According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, to receive the fruits of the sacraments requires that a person be properly disposed. This means the efficacy of grace via the sacraments is not automatic. There must be, at least in the case of an adult, an openness to use the sufficient grace, which is available in a sacrament. When the recipient is properly disposed, “the sacraments are instrumental causes of grace.” To recapitulate, ex opere operato holds that the efficacy of the sacrament is a result not of the holiness of a priest or minister, but rather of Christ himself who is the Author of each sacrament. The priest or minister acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), even if in a state of mortal sin. Although such a sacrament would be valid, and the grace efficacious, it is nonetheless sinful for any priest to celebrate a sacrament while himself in a state of mortal sin.
The principle of ex opere operato affirms that while a proper disposition is necessary to exercise the efficacious grace in the sacraments, it is not the cause of the sufficient grace. Catholic Christians believe that what God offers in the sacraments is a gift, freely bestowed out of God’s own love. A person’s disposition, as good as it may be, cannot merit supernatural grace or divine life, which remains a gift of God.
Are the sacraments confected or administered by Theodore McCarrick, when he was a priest, bishop, archbishop or cardinal valid? Yes. Were they licit (done according to the laws of the Church)? Yes. Were they fruitful? Yes, provided that the recipient was properly disposed. The phrase Ex opere operatoshould bring solace to all who wonder about their sacramental standing in light of a priest or bishop who has been removed from the priesthood. However, it should also motivate us to approach each and every sacrament with humble hearts because, as St. Augustine taught, “sacraments are an outward sign instituted by Christ to effect grace.” Fr. Comandini is managing editor of The Catholic Spirit.