· Vatican City ·

Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith releases doctrinal Note

For validity of Sacraments, formulas cannot be modified

 For validity of Sacraments, formulas cannot be modified  ING-006
09 February 2024

On Saturday, 3 February, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith published the Note, “Gestis verbisque”. Pope Francis approved the text after it was discussed and approved unanimously by the Cardinals and Bishops who are Members of the Dicastery and were present at the recent Plenary Assembly. The Note reaffirms that the formulas and material elements established in the essential rite of each Sacrament cannot be changed at will in the name of creativity. Doing so, in fact, renders the Sacrament itself invalid; therefore, it never existed and no Sacramental grace was conferred.

Presenting the document, Cardinal Victor Fernández, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, explained the Note’s genesis. He said there has been a “multiplication in the number of situations in which it was necessary to declare the invalidity of the celebrated Sacraments”, due to modifications that “then led to the need to track down the individuals involved to repeat the rite of Baptism or Confirmation”, and that “a significant number of the faithful have rightly expressed their disturbance”. As an example, he cited modifications to the baptismal formula, including: “I baptize you in the name of the Creator...” and “In the name of the dad and the mom... we baptize you”. These same circumstances have also caused concern among some priests who, “having been baptized with such formulas, painfully discovered the invalidity of their ordination and of the Sacraments celebrated up to that moment”. Cardinal Fernández explained that “while in other areas of the Church’s pastoral action there is ample room for creativity”, in the realm of sacramental celebration this “turns instead into a ‘manipulative will’”.

“With intimately connected events and words”, reads the doctrinal Note, “God reveals and carries out His plan of salvation for every man and woman”. Unfortunately, the Cardinal added, “it must be noted that not always does the liturgical celebration, especially that of the Sacraments, take place in full fidelity to the rites prescribed by the Church”. The Church “has the duty to ensure the priority of God’s action and to safeguard the unity of the Body of Christ in those actions that are unequalled because they are sacred ‘par excellence’ with an efficacy guaranteed by the priestly action of Christ”. The Church, he noted, is also “aware that administering God’s grace does not mean appropriating it, but becoming an instrument of the Spirit in transmitting the gift of the Risen Christ. It knows, in particular, that her power (potestas, in Latin) in relation to the Sacraments ends at their substance” and that “in Sacramental actions she must preserve the saving acts that Jesus entrusted to Her”. The Note then explains that the “matter of the Sacrament consists in the human action through which Christ acts. In it, a material element is sometimes present (water, bread, wine, oil), other times a particularly eloquent gesture (sign of the cross, laying on of hands, immersion, infusion, consent, anointing)”. The form of the Sacrament, says the Note, “is constituted by the word, which confers a transcendent meaning to the matter, transfiguring the ordinary meaning of the material element and the purely human sense of the action performed. Such a word always draws inspiration to various extents from Sacred Scripture, finds its origins in the Church’s living Tradition, and has been authoritatively defined by the Magisterium of the Church”. Therefore, matter and form “have never depended nor can depend on the will of the individual or the individual community”.

The document reiterates that “for all the Sacraments, in any case, the observance of matter and form has always been required for the validity of the celebration, with the awareness that arbitrary changes to either one and/or the other — whose gravity and invalidating force must be ascertained in each instance — jeopardize the actual bestowal of Sacramental grace, with evident damage to the faithful”.

That which is read in the promulgated liturgical books must be faithfully observed without “adding, removing, or changing anything”. The liturgy allows for variety that preserves the Church from “rigid uniformity”, as read in the Conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium. However, this variety and creativity, which promote a greater intelligibility of the rite and the active participation of the faithful, cannot concern what is essential to the celebration of the Sacraments.