Often, I will hear the notion that Catholics have a right to the sacraments based on canon 843.1. However, the Sacrament of Orders is clearly not a right according to paragraph 1578 in the Catechism. What is the proper way to understand access to the sacraments?
Canon 843 doesn’t quite say that Catholics have a right to the sacraments. Rather, it poses the situation in the other direction. The canon states that 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.”
The Church wants to be liberal (with the proper understanding of that term) in Her use of the sacraments. They are the ordinary means of grace given to Her by the Lord for the sanctification of the world. Sacraments are meant to be “used”. Therefore, clerics should not refuse access to the sacraments to those who need them AND who are – wait for it! – properly disposed, able to receive them, and who request them at appropriate times.
No, Mrs. Nettlehammer, 11:00 PM on 12 August under the Perseid meteor shower is NOT an appropriate time for your daughter to get married.
The terminology of “rights” and the Church, while an argument can be made that it is useful at times and, yes, the Church does use this language, is not an easy or a natural fit. Language of “rights” is an attempt to take a relatively recent civil concept and shoehorn it into something that is mystical and divine.
The baptized have a dignity given them through Baptism. They truly become sons and daughters of God. Their dignity permits them access to those treasures, helps, tools, means, which the Lord entrusts to Holy Church to assist them on their journey. As members of the divine family, this Church Militant, they should have access to the sacraments when they are properly disposed and reasonable in their request.
Let’s use an analogy. Little Johnny is a member of the Smith family. His parents feed him and clothe him. They permit him access to the family bookshelf, to the bathroom, to toys and to games. Does he have a “right” to food? Any food in the house? Does he have a “right” to his toys? At any time? Does he have a “right” to use the bathroom? How about when someone else is using it? Well yes, sure, Johnny of has rights…. sort of. At the same time, we reasonable people see limits to those rights. We can all see how the concept of rights is not an easy or a natural fit within the context of the family. In a similar way, with the Church, yes, sure, we have a “right” to the sacraments, properly understood. It’s not the same thing as our constitutional right to free assembly, or our civil right to vote. Furthermore, our access to sacraments is quite reasonably hedged about with propriety of time and place and other circumstances, as we as proper disposition.