The Sacramental Law of the Church

The Sacramental Law of the Church


By Fr. Jaime B. Achacoso, J.C.D.

There is an anti-juridic tendency in people—and the ecclesiastical world is no exception—that leads them to do (as somebody once put it) what they damn please. At bottom it is really nothing but an echo of that cry of rebellion at the dawn of human history, that led our first parents to disobey a simple commandment, with the diabolic pretension to be like God, determining good and evil. It is the same tendency that lies behind the lack of care with the liturgy, such that every minister feels himself empowered to do what he likes, with little regard for the rubrics.

What would really be painful would be to see this same phenomenon in the realm of the sacraments established by Jesus Christ. Thus, the bulk of the canons of Book IV of the Code of Canon Law deal with sacramental discipline—constituting a veritable Sacramental Law of the Church.


The juridic nature of the sacraments

The sacraments of the New Testament, instituted by Christ the Lord and entrusted to the Church, as they are the actions of Christ and the Church, stand out as the signs and means by which the faith is expressed and strengthened, worship is rendered to God and the sanctification of humankind is effected, and they thus contribute in the highest degree to the establishment, strengthening and manifestation of ecclesial communion (c.840).

Substantially, then, the sacraments are those actions of Christ to which He himself had wanted to bind the sanctifying efficacy of his Life, Death and Resurrection, manifesting them thus to His Church, so that by carrying them out in His name, it may apply the fruits of the Redemption to individual persons. From this we can appreciate the multiple juridic dimensions of the sacraments.

On the one hand, the root of the juridic nature of the sacraments is the Will of Christ the founder for His Church—i.e., how His disciples are to be sanctified through these visible signs. This gives rise to a series of rights and duties corresponding to the relation between the flock and the sacred ministers who are the active subjects of the constitution and administration of the Sacraments.

On the other hand, the sacraments are the cause of juridic effects to the extent that they constitute the Church as a society which is structured and organized precisely around the sacraments.

Finally, the sacraments are especially valuable elements of the common good of the Church, and thus are principal objects of canonical regulation.


The canonical regulation of the sacraments

Without affecting their very substance (as instituted by Christ), it is the competence of ecclesiastical authority to posteriorly determine the elements required for the validity of the sacraments. In this regard, the following distinction of competencies is established by the Code:

1) Requirements for validity: Since the sacraments are the same for the whole Church and pertain to the divine deposit, it is for the supreme authority of the Church alone—i.e., the Roman Pontiff or the Ecumenical Council—to approve or define those things which are required for their validity supreme authority of the (c.841).

2) Requirements for licitud:  Other than the requirements for the validity of the sacraments, the Episcopal Conference and the diocesan Bishop within their respective jurisdictions are also competent to determine what pertains to their lawful celebration, administration and reception and also the order to be observed in their celebration (c.841).

It must be pointed out that some of these requirements are really of Divine Law but only expressed and formalized by ecclesiastical law. This is the case, for example, of the general requirement that the recipient be properly disposed (cf. c.843, §1) as applied to the requirement for state of grace in the reception of Holy Communion (cf. cc. 915 & 916).

3) Duty of sacred ministers: As a consequence of the above, it is incumbent on the sacred ministers as such, and other faithful who may actively participate in the celebration of the liturgy, to faithfully observe the liturgical norms established by the competent authority. Thus, c.846, §1 (literally quoting SC, 22, §3) declares: The liturgical books approved by the competent authority are to be faithfully observed in the celebration of the sacraments; therefore no one on personal authority may add, remove or change anything in them.

Nevertheless, in case of urgent necessity, the sacraments may be administered omitting those elements that are not essential for validity (cf. cc.850; 883, 3º; 889, §2; 961-962; 976; 999; 1000).


Relation of the ministers and the faithful to the sacraments

An important aim of sacramental discipline is to establish the relationship between the sacred ministers and the faithful to the sacraments themselves. In this regard, we can point out the following:

1) Norms for the valid and licit celebration and administration of the sacraments on the part of the sacred ministers. This is expressed in c.843 in the following terms:

  • 1. The sacred ministers cannot refuse the sacraments to those who ask for them at appropriate times, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.
  • 2. Pastors of souls and the rest of the Christian faithful, according to their ecclesial function, have the duty to see that those who seek the sacraments are prepared to receive them by the necessary evangelization and catechetical formation, taking into account the norms published by the competent authority.

2) Norms for the valid, licit and fruitful reception of the sacraments by the faithful. Some of these norms are really of Divine Law, even if elaborated by the canonical legislator, as for example the different levels of the use of reason for different sacraments. Thus, the Code does not require the use of reason for Baptism, Confirmation and Penance (at least not explicitly required); it requires it explicitly for the Holy Eucharist (c.914), Annointing of the Sick (c.1004) and Marriage (c.1095, 1º); and requires it implicitly (given the high intellectual requirements) for Holy Orders.

3) Right of the faithful to receive the sacraments. It is also the aim of sacramental discipline to justly order the administration of the sacraments, so as to conveniently satisfy the rights of the faithful to receive them. At this point, however, one may ask whether the sacraments can be the object of a right, strictly speaking, considering that as goods pertaining to the economy of salvation, they are gratuitously given and are a grace as far as God is concerned.

This question is answered by remembering that the Will of God is that all men be saved, and that Christ instituted the sacraments and entrusted them to the Church precisely to be administered to men. Thus, there exists in the Church a hierarchical order whose most radical duty is of a ministerial character, the objective of which is to give men the Word of God and the sacraments. Thus, the right of the faithful to the sacraments is not with respect to God, but rather with respect to the sacred ministers. Put another way, even if grace is not material and therefore not susceptible of distribution (and therefore not an object of justice), the channels for grace established by Christ are. These are the sacraments.

This is well expressed by c.213: The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual good of the Church, especially the Word of God and the Sacraments.



From the foregoing discussion, the following would constitute a violation of the right of the faithful:

Lack of an adequate sacramental pastoral care that makes access to the sacraments impossible or very difficult—e.g., lack of fixed and regular hours for confession in the parishes. Now that we are approaching the Easter Season, it would be good to be reminded of the Church Precept that binds the faithful (and the sacred ministers) to receive the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year. As I have repeatedly pointed out, for this to be obeyed, every priest needs to hear on the average 20 confessions daily, which translates to sitting in the confessional for about three hours every day. Thus, the practice in many parishes of limiting confessions to less than an hour before or after daily Masses is sorely inadequate.

Pastoral praxis that unduly delays the reception of the sacraments—e.g., scheduling baptisms very rarely in the year, or not scheduling confirmation.

Pastoral praxis that unduly imposes obligations for the reception of the sacraments which Canon Law does not impose. Examples of this would be making attendance to the so-called Pre-Cana Seminar an absolute requirement for marriage, such that a veritable impediment (i.e., the non-attendance to such seminar) is constituted, contrary to the tenor of c.1075; or the imposition of fees for certain sacraments (e.g., baptism, confirmation and marriage) that make them inaccessible to the poor, contrary to the tenor of c.848.