Q: Can you please tell me what intention the minister of a sacrament must have for a sacrament to be valid? The reason I ask is that many years ago I was talking with a priest who seemed to have doubts about the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. Would such a doubt render the consecration invalid, so that those who received Communion in his Mass would be receiving only bread?
You ask an important question, one which others have also asked me over the years. Fortunately, the Church has a very clear and simple answer.
The minister of a sacrament must have the intention of doing what the Church does when administering a sacrament. In the case of the Eucharist, the Church intends that the priest brings about the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Thus it is sufficient for the priest to have the intention of doing what the Church does, even though he may privately harbour doubts about the Real Presence.
From time to time any person, whether a priest or a lay person, may be assailed by a doubt about some matter of faith, including an important matter such as the existence of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Such a passing doubt should be looked upon as a temptation, not as a deliberate doubt of an article of faith. A temptation is not a sin; a deliberate doubt is.
But even if the priest himself should harbour deliberate doubts about the Real Presence, he would still celebrate Mass validly, provided he had the habitual intention of doing what the Church does. It is possible that for a period of time – months or even years – a priest might have such doubts, but he will continue to celebrate Mass validly, as he did before the doubts began.
It is interesting to recall that the priest who was celebrating Mass near Orvieto, Italy in the 13th century when the host began to drip blood, had had difficulty believing in the Real Presence. Clearly, his doubts did not prevent the bread and wine from being transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. This Eucharistic miracle of Orvieto led to the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi by Pope Urban IV the following year.
In general, if the minister of the sacrament uses the prescribed words, actions and matter for the sacrament, and he has the intention of doing what the Church does, the sacrament will be valid and effective. The minister does not even need to be in the state of grace, nor to believe in the efficacy of what he is doing. The sacrament confers grace, according to the traditional expression, ex opere operato, by virtue of the power of the sacrament itself, independently of the dispositions of the minister.
An example of this is the case of a non-believing nurse who has been asked to baptise a new-born infant in danger of death. As long as she pours the water and pronounces the proper words, the baby will be validly baptised, even though the nurse herself does not believe in the efficacy of Baptism.
Another way of looking at it is that the principal minister of the sacraments is Christ himself. The Second Vatican Council, quoting St Augustine, teaches: “…when anybody baptises it is really Christ himself who baptises.” (SC 7; St Augustine, Tractatus in Ioannem VI, ch. 1, n. 7)
This criterion gives great certainty both to the minister of the sacrament and to the faithful who receive it. No one need have any qualms of conscience or doubts about the validity of the sacrament as long as the minister uses the proper words, actions and matter and has the intention of doing what the Church does.