QUAERITUR: Is Mass valid if the priest is in mortal sin?

From a reader:

Sometime ago, I was told by a priest that if the priest is in mortal sin, the mass (primarily Holy Communion) is still valid, his argument being that you wouldn’t know that he was in mortal sin. I was taught if a priest is in mortal sin, he should not celebrate mass, but if he were, would it be valid?

It is a great mystery and a sign of God’s unfathomable love that He entrusts the most sacred thing imaginable to the hands of the most unworthy sinners.

The older form of Mass in the Roman Rite often reminds the priest that he is a sinner.  The newer form…. not so much.  Perhaps this is part of our problem today.  But I digress….

The efficacy of our sacraments and rites do not depend on the holiness of the human priest.  Christ is the true actor in the liturgy.  The holiness and efficacy of the rites depend on Christ’s holiness and action.   The priest, by his ordination, acts in Christ’s person, but Christ is the only Holy One.

So, even when a sinful priest, even a very sinful priest, says Mass or absolves sins, the Mass is valid and the sins are forgiven.

Would it be better were the priest only to fulfill his priestly duties when in the state of grace?  Sure.  But this is real life, friend.  Priests have work to do and they can’t always get to confession.  As a matter of act, for lots of reasons it can be harder for priests to get to confession than it is for most lay people.

Should the priest, a frail human being like everyone else, refuse to say Mass for the congregation who come to church on schedule to fulfill their own obligations?  Of course not.  He should make as perfect an act of contrition as he can and say Mass on schedule.  He should then try to get to confession as soon as he can…. just like everyone else who is aware of mortal sins.

Priests have to face judgment too, you know.  Their judgment will be more exacting because of what is entrusted to them.

I want to add a warning:

Don’t attach too much to the person of the priest or to his own holiness.  Priests don’t transmit their holiness to you.  This was an error that St. Augustine dealt with during the Donatist controversy in the 4th and 5th centuries.  Priests are God’s instruments and the holiness is entirely HIS.

The bottom line: When a priest who has committed mortal sins says Mass, Mass is valid.

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Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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33 Responses to QUAERITUR: Is Mass valid if the priest is in mortal sin?

  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I think Donatism is a very natural heresy to fall into…
    My daughter (9) recently told me that after a recent confession she didn’t ‘feel forgiven’ because the priest was ‘weird.’ (Meaning that she had to ask to say her act of contrition and he gave one of those fuzzy ‘smile at everyone you meet today’ penances.)
    He did, however, use the proper form of absolution. (We asked her about that.) So we had a long conversation about how the grace from sacraments comes from God, not the priest, and how it doesn’t matter if you like the priest, if the matter, form, and minister are valid, it’s a valid sacrament.

    (My kids have been lucky in pastors in their short lives, so their definition of ‘weird priest’ is a lot like my definition of ‘not as bad as one would fear.’ Their baseline for normal is ‘unusually reverent and orthodox. :) )

  2. acardnal says:

    Thanks be to God and his Church for ex opere operato.

  3. Supertradmum says:

    Just talking about this today as there are some priests who are coming out for same sex marriage.

  4. THREEHEARTS says:

    Here is a point of view that should have been considered years ago when despite denials it happened a young man enters the seminary and is a practising disordered fellow. This is known to the vocation director both in the Diocese and at the Seminary. He continues along quite happily practising his passions and is ordained while in a state of obvious mortal sin. Is he ordained ? He was not in a state of grace and therefore does the grace of the ordination appear in His soul? Is this something Father you can answer. I think, like merits they can only be advantageous for our salvation when the Man truly repents, receives sanctifyinggrace and the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, only then what He desires will come to him, namely the priesthood. Of course I hear the liberal obscurantists saying it would be scandalous not to let him act as a priest and no one will know. I personally do not like to scandalize God. Another question soon those who have the right chromosones and have been changed to be the opposite to what they were created. Man and woman He creates them. These transgendered as we now call them will ask demand to be priests. What will we say then?

  5. Unwilling says:

    from Volume 1 of The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Chapter 38, 23. “Once, while approaching to receive Communion, I saw with my soul’s eyes more clearly than with my bodily eyes two devils whose appearance was abominable. It seems to me their horns were wrapped around the poor priest’s throat, and in the host that was going to be given to me I saw my Lord with the majesty I mentioned placed in the priest’s hands, which were clearly seen to be His offender’s; and I understood that that soul was in mortal sin. What would it be my Lord, to see Your beauty in the midst of such abominable figures? They were as though frightened and terrified in Your presence, for it seems they would have very eagerly fled had You allowed them. This vision caused me such great disturbance I don’t know how I was able to receive Communion, and I was left with a great fear, thinking that if the vision had been from God, His Majesty would not have permitted me to see the evil that was in that soul. The Lord Himself told me to pray for him and that He had permitted it so that I might understand the power of the words of consecration and how God does not fail to be present, however evil the priest who recites them, and that I might see His great goodness since He places Himself in those hands of His enemy, and all out of love for me and for everyone. I understood well how much more priests are obliged to be good than are others, how deplorable a thing it is to receive this most Blessed Sacrament unworthily, and how much the devil is lord over the soul in mortal sin. It did me a great deal of good and brought me deep understanding of what I owed God. May He be blessed forever and ever.

  6. acardnal says:

    ThreeHearts wrote, “. . . is ordained while in a state of obvious mortal sin. Is he ordained ? He was not in a state of grace and therefore does the grace of the ordination appear in His soul?”

    In my view, yes, he was ordained even though he was not in a state of grace at the time. The sacrament occurred but the graces were held in abeyance until such time as the person receives sacramental absolution in Confession. The same applies to one who is married or confirmed while in a state of mortal sin; the grace is held in abeyance at that time because of the obstacle of mortal sin on one’s soul. Once the person is absolved and no longer in a state of mortal sin, the grace is conferred; the sacrament does not have to be repeated.

    Fr. John Hardon,S.J.’s, Catholic Dictionary states that “Provided no obstacle is placed in the way, every sacrament properly administered confers the grace intended by the sacrament. In a true sense the sacraments are instrumental causes of grace.”

  7. Bea says:

    “Priests don’t transmit their holiness to you.”

    Perhaps they don’t transmit their holiness to us through the Sacraments, however, for advise and spiritual counsel, I would certainly seek out the holiest priest I could find.

    ThreeHearts wrote, “. . . is ordained while in a state of obvious mortal sin. Is he ordained ? He was not in a state of grace and therefore does the grace of the ordination appear in His soul?”

    interesting question, I would think the greater sin would fall on the rector and/or bishop who gave the go-ahead to ordain him, knowing the danger he could be in advising future souls under his care.

  8. johnnyDmunoz says:

    I went to confession yesterday and every time I go it just has the most immediate and uplifting effect. The sure sign for me that The Church was authentic was when I made my first REAL confession four years ago, thank God for such a gift. I also received communion, it’s been a few months… True food indeed.

    My home parish has the contemporary form, too much noise! I like everything else in my life to be loud, I know now I don’t want my Mass to be. Can the TLM be preformed in a post Vatican II church that has no tabernacle on the main altar?

  9. Gail F says:

    The priest is a priest forever! The Mass is still valid. There is a great story about St. Francis, which I can’t find at the moment (Google “St. Francis priest murder” and see what YOU get), about what St. Francis said to someone asking what he would do if he knew a priest had just murdered someone. He said he would kneel and kiss his holy and anointed hands. If we had to wonder whether every priest everywhere was always in a state of grace, where would we be? It couldnt’ be done.

  10. jacobi says:

    St Francis kissed the hands of a priest known to be in sin, and presumably would have received Holy Communion from him. I’m pretty sure however that the good saint would not have received Holy Communion from the un-anointed hands of a lay distributer, whether in sin or not, and however many were in the queue.

  11. Ryan says:

    I read somewhere that a priest must have the intention of transforming the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in order for the transubstantiation to occur.

    Is this true? If so, does a priest’s intention affect any other sacraments? I’m not sure where to find the answer.

  12. I have had a personal experience of how a priest’s personal state is not an obstacle to grace: I had a spiritual director who was an alcoholic. He was already probably borderline when he became my SD and got progressively worse in the 6 or so years that followed. He passed away since; as far as I know, from the complications. And yet, he was an excellent SD and God granted me many graces through his direction and the confessions I made to him. God is not limited by sin.

  13. o.h. says:

    What about a priest who is manifestly not a Christian? Some years ago I attended a mass in another town, at a historic church full of tourists, on Trinity Sunday; the priest openly preached modalism, affirming that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all a single person manifesting in different ways. He acknowledged that “this isn’t what the Church teaches” but is what he believed, and invited ach of us to decide for ourselves also what the Trinity meant to us.

    This seemed to me to go beyond merely sin and into the deep weeds of not being a Christian. Can a priest who openly denies the Trinity nevertheless say a valid Mass?

  14. KosmoKarlos says:

    Thanks Fr. Z!
    We all need to be reminded that we are sinners; thanks for that clarification.
    sometimes our “holiness” gets in the way of remembering that. ;)

  15. Moro says:

    It is amazing how God can work through us inspite of our sins. I had a regular confessor who left priestly ministry but gave me some solid advice that has helped me immensely. There are many stories of people, clergy and lay, who despite their sinful ways were able to help others immensely. Never underestimate how the mercy of God can work.

  16. frjim4321 says:

    And of course we cannot assume or presume that any other person is or is not “in mortal sin’” on the basis of our own observations or prejudices. Such as presuming a person is “in mortal sin” because they are an alcoholic, gay or supportive of equal civil rights for all, as we see above. Let’s see, what did Jesus say about throwing stones?

    [Nice try! When people come forward for Communion in some kind of public protest, using Mass and moment of Communion to make a protest or some sort of statement - for example, homosexuals or their advocates wearing "rainbow sashes" - we make determinations about reception of Communion because the matter is open and public, not because we think we know they committed a mortal sin. And then there are those who truly are public SINNERS.]

  17. *Sigh*…

    It is a bit maddening that people look for reasons to doubt the reality and efficacy of sacraments.

    Not being in a state of grace is not an impediment to orders. It’s obviously a bad thing, yet nevertheless…

    A validly ordained priest validly performs a sacrament when he intends to do what the Church does. Even if he is a heretic. Again, this is a bad thing, yet nevertheless…

    Try thinking of it this way. Salvation is something God wants the world to have, and therefore he set up the sacramental system in such a way that while free will isn’t overridden, his purpose isn’t easily frustrated.

    Don’t agonize over these things. Trust the Savior! He’s got it figured out pretty well.

  18. NobisQuoQue says:

    Ex opere operato

  19. acardnal says:

    NobisQuoQue, I think some one already said that at 11:48 am. ;-)

  20. robtbrown says:

    frjim4321 says:
    And of course we cannot assume or presume that any other person is or is not “in mortal sin’” on the basis of our own observations or prejudices. Such as presuming a person is “in mortal sin” because they are an alcoholic, gay or supportive of equal civil rights for all, as we see above. Let’s see, what did Jesus say about throwing stones?

    You’re right. We cannot know when someone is in mortal sin. We can, however, identify public sinners.

    And your comment about civil rights for all indicates you think that Charlie Manson and the Unabomber should be voting.

  21. Ryan says:

    Fr. Fox, can you elaborate on the intent to do what the church does? What if he doesn’t believe in transubstantiation-can he still intend to do what the church does? I’m not being argumentative, I’m most curious.

  22. robtbrown says:

    Ryan,

    Minimal intention, to do what the Church does, is always general and is the same for every Sacrament. The reason it is sufficient for consecration is because the Sacramental Form (e.g., This is My Body) specifies the Sacrament.

    A priest at ordination is given the power to confect the Eucharist. That power always remains in his soul even if he loses the faith. Thus minimal intention and proper Sacramental Form (words) and Matter (Bread and Wine) are sufficient.

  23. chantgirl says:

    frjim4321- No one has the right to an impossibility. Gay marriage is an impossibility, even from a purely physical point of view.

    I am reminded that Jesus sent His men out two by two. I know we are short on priests, but it would be so much better if they weren’t alone, had a brother priest to live with, and had someone to which they could confess in an emergency.

  24. Salvatore_Giuseppe says:

    Purely out of curiosity, does a priest commit an additional mortal sin when he receives communion while not in a state of grace?

    and robtbrown, why should Manson or the Unabomber vote? They are American citizens, and presumably have an opinion about how the country should be run….

    As for knowing public sinners, unless you follow them around on a regular basis, you can never know for certain whether they have confessed or repented at some point unknown to you. The requirement that a public sinner make an equally public recantation, so far as I understand, is not a prerequisite for absolution, but simply one to prevent scandal.

  25. robtbrown says:

    Salvatore_Giuseppe says:

    Purely out of curiosity, does a priest commit an additional mortal sin when he receives communion while not in a state of grace?

    Of course, just as a layman does. cf 1 Cor 11:27

    and robtbrown, why should Manson or the Unabomber vote? They are American citizens, and presumably have an opinion about how the country should be run….

    When I was 12, I had an opinion on how the country should be run. Should I have been able to vote?

    In most states felons lose the right to vote during incarceration.

    As for knowing public sinners, unless you follow them around on a regular basis, you can never know for certain whether they have confessed or repented at some point unknown to you.

    If you don’t know for certain, then they’re not public sinners.

    The requirement that a public sinner make an equally public recantation, so far as I understand, is not a prerequisite for absolution, but simply one to prevent scandal.

    Who said that it was?

  26. Random Friar says:

    If the OF priest recites the secret prayers, he is reminded of his condition, but sadly, these prayers are often neglected.

  27. beej says:

    This article really strikes a nerve. I completely understand the reasoning behind the article and it makes sense. But I really think that people under estimate how much damage this does to the parish, and the church as a whole.

    The priest, as I see it, is the heart beat of the parish and when they are in mortal sin it affects everything. The guilt and emptiness that they feel inside get’s projected outside to almost every ministry that is going on their parish. Feelings of paranoia, anger and resentment materialize. Parishioners, good faithful parishioners, trying to do good works, don’t know what hit them when a priest lashes out, become discouraged. Some quit trying some persevere. Some leave feeling disillusioned.

    I know that we can’t put everything that’s wrong with our church on the back of the priest. Lay people, myself included, carry so much of the blame too. My local parish had standing room only at 2 masses each sunday. Ten years of our pastor, bitterly chasing people away. Good and faithful people! It hurts to see it. It hurts when it happens to you. I’m struggling to hang on, but I AM hanging on. Several of my life long friends have left. most have just turned into bench warmers.

  28. Marc M says:

    There was a comment above asking if a priest commits a mortal sin by receiving the Eucharist while in mortal sin… but is it required that the priest first receive before distributing? Do the rubrics allow the celebrant to defer if he knows full well that receiving would be a sin?

    [No. The priest must receive at the moment indicated in the rubrics: before everyone else.]

  29. NoahNehm says:

    Underscoring your point, Saint Augustine, in “Tracts on the Gospel of John 6″, wrote: “When Peter baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes. When Judas baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes.”

  30. Clo Mhuire says:

    “Priests have work to do and they can’t always get to confession.” And what would Padre Pio have said to such a lukewarm remark?

  31. Fr AJ says:

    Clo Mhuire, Padre Pio didn’t live over an hour from the nearest priest either as I do – who you may or may not wish to confess to. Lighten up a little, Fr. Z didn’t say priests never get to confession just that they may not be able to go at a moments notice.

  32. Mary Jane says:

    The question was asked if a priest commits an additional mortal sin when he receives communion while not in a state of grace. If the priest in question is celebrating mass (and therefore is required to receive communion) he does not commit any additional mortal sin by receiving at the mass he celebrates. See here: http://www.ewtn.com/library/liturgy/zlitur68.htm

  33. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    There seems to be (if I may use the expression) a ‘thread’ of matters here which are not the question addressed and answered in the post, but about which another post would probably be welcome:

    Fr AJ speaks of a priest “who you may or may not wish to confess to”,
    o.h. tells of a priest who “openly preached modalism”,
    beej tells of a “pastor, bitterly chasing people away”,
    Salvatore_Giuseppe attends to the importance of preventing (priestly) “scandal”,
    Fr. Z speaks of instances where “the matter is open and public,” and where “there are those who truly are public SINNERS”,

    all of which seem to be distinctly different from St. Teresa’s experience (quoted by Unwilling) “while approaching to receive Communion” (which left her not knowing ” how I was able to receive Communion, and [...] with a great fear” until directly illuminated by the Lord Himself).

    What is good for a ‘potential communicant’ to do, in such situations?