The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Bishop McGrath’s lacking letter on sacramental service

Whether or not Bp. McGrath’s letter was really a ‘response’ to Bp. Paprocki’s recent decree, the latter’s document is a much more complete and accurate presentation of Church discipline on sacramental administration than is the former’s.

Bishop Patrick Joseph McGrath consecrating the Sacraments with Pastor George Aranha at Saint Albert the Great Church in Palo Alto, California in 2007. (Frederick Manligas Nacino [Opusdeiphotography]/Wikipedia)

In 1977, during the darkest period of canonical confusion that ran from the end of the Second Vatican Council until the promulgation of the 1983 Code, then-Fr Patrick McGrath earned a doctoral degree in canon law from the Lateran University in Rome. Now-Bp Patrick McGrath of San Jose is surely aware, then, that multiple canonical requirements for sacramental participation exist and he would, I imagine, be distressed to learn that his recent letter, implying that “good faith” is the only criterion for admission to the sacraments, could be pastorally misleading.

A key—not the only, but a key—norm controlling the administration of sacraments to the faithful is Canon 843 § 1 which states: “Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.” Phrased negatively (because, given the fundamental right of the faithful to receive the sacraments established elsewhere in the Code, the burden is on ministers to demonstrate why they should refuse someone requesting a sacrament), this canon sets forth three factors that can require a minister to withhold sacramental services from a member of the faithful, namely, a petitioner’s: (1) bad timing; (2) inadequate disposition; and/or (3) canonical ineligibility. Bp. McGrath’s letter, expressing only one criterion (“good faith”), is already confusing, therefore, for those who do not know that at least three factors, and not just one, impact sacramental administration.

Now, about those three requirements.

1. That requests for sacraments be made at “appropriate times” is not an issue here and so I pass over it.

2. That “proper disposition” for sacraments must be shown by a member of the faithful is contested by some and unappreciated by many in the Church these days. Thus, failing even to mention this requirement does not advance the cause of pastoral clarity.

A closer look at the pastoral tradition on “proper disposition” for sacraments (or “worthiness” for them, per most older commentators) suggests that two questions are involved here, specifically, what we might call ‘external disposition’ (e.g., completion of catechesis, public comportment with the Faith, even dress and decorum) and ‘internal disposition’ (e.g., the state of one’s soul, level of belief, advertence to the act). While, as will be seen shortly, some aspects of the third requirement (canonical eligibility, below) can impact one’s disposition for sacramental service, in brief, the failure to show a suitable external disposition (including, therefore, public comportment with the Faith) leaves a minister little choice but to withhold sacramental service; in contrast, one’s internal disposition can, in most cases of public administration, be presumed. None of these important nuances would be apparent, of course, if one is told that “good faith” alone (even if that phrase is understood as something akin to proper internal disposition) suffices for sacramental administration.

3. Finally, that one must be canonically eligible for a sacramental service would, in earlier days perhaps, be so obvious as to not need restating. But these are not those days and, again, failing to mention this requirement does not advance the cause of pastoral clarity.

But that we might be clear, for example, Catholics who do not repent of extra-marital sexual acts (whether heterosexual or homosexual) cannot be absolved in Confession; Catholics who undergo a “sex-change” operation cannot receive a new Baptism; two Catholics of the same-sex cannot marry each other (nor can a Catholic cleric officiate at such a ceremony); and Catholics who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin” as that phrase is understood by the tradition and those who take the time to study itmust not be given holy Communion or granted Christian funeral rites.

Bp. Paprocki’s decree, unlike Bp. McGrath’s letter, underscores the exclusion of certain persons (more precisely, of persons who have taken certain public actions) from sacramental services based on the express or implied canonical requirements established by the Legislator. And Paprocki (a canonist, too, Gregorian Univ. 1989) goes on to indicate the canonically recognized conditions under which some or all sacramental services might be restored to such persons—information omitted from McGrath’s letter as being, one supposes, unnecessary if “good faith” is really all that is needed for sacramental service.

I do not know whether McGrath’s letter was really a ‘response’ to Paprocki’s decree, but I do know that the latter’s document is a much more complete and accurate presentation of Church discipline on sacramental administration than is the former’s.


(This post originally appeared on the “In the Light of the Law” blog and appears here with kind permission of Dr. Peters.)

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.


  1. “Catholics who undergo a ‘sex-change’ operation cannot receive a new Baptism.” This line could have been written better. Obviously a baptized Catholic of any kind cannot be baptized again. Is Dr. Peters talking about an unbaptized person repenting and receiving baptism? That, of course, can happen. Is he talking about someone standing as godparent? Probably, because that would be inappropriate, but it is also a rather tangential participation in a sacrament, more on par with the best man in a wedding than the groom and more on par with an altar boy in the Eucharist than either the priest or the recipient.

    • Who knows, and under current circumstances, it is not wise to take anything for granted. It certainly is not inconceivable that a group of priests or bishops might petition some day on behalf of people who have ‘changed’ sex to be re-baptized with their new names and sexes. I don’t expect a rebaptism, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they come up with some kind of ceremony. You have to remember, it is not the Faith that determines what they do in the Vatican.

    • “Howard”. My line is written perfectly soundly. (1) There is talk in some Christian groups about, yes, rebaptizing persons after sex-change operations. My line addresses that exact issue, correctly. (2) How can a “non-baptized” persons BE Catholic in the first place? (3) How does a godparent receive baptism? Please, read what I wrote, not what you think I wrote.

    • Every so often a Catholic pastor gets a letter from someone who desires to have his baptismal record sticken because he rejects affliiation with the Catholic Church for one reason or other. When a baptized child is adopted the pastor may get a request to change the child’s baptimal record to reflect the new family name. What is a pastor to do with a request from John Doe to have his baptismal record changed to Jocelyn Doe due to a sex change? That was not covered in my seminary training.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Bishop McGrath’s lacking letter on sacramental service - Catholic Daily

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.