ASK FATHER: Do Catholics have a “right” to sacraments?

From a reader…


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.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:


    Would this formulation make more sense:

    The faithful have the right to receive the sacraments according to the method and mind of the Church, and not according to the “personal restorations” of individual clergy?

    Thank you for your priesthood.

  2. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Everything Fr Z. has in his post is, as usual, correct. I would just add that Canon 213 does expressly assert the right of the faithful to the sacraments, and that Canon 223 (along with the whole canonical tradition of the Church) regulates access to the sacraments in accord with a variety of factors.

    [Thanks! And thanks for the additional points.]

  3. mrshopey says:

    Can. 213 Christ’s faithful have the right to be assisted by their Pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the word of God and the sacraments.

  4. dcs says:

    We have a duty to receive the Sacraments therefore we have the right to receive them.

  5. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Re: the example, it would of course be perfectly fine for Miss Nettlehammer to get married at 3 PM in church, and then to adjourn to the state park with the wedding party for a reception accompanied by the Perseids. If Mrs. Nettlehammer is really ambitious and she can find an agreeable priest and the pastor’s okay with it, it might even be arranged for her to get married at the itsy-bitsy Catholic parish or chapel that’s right outside the state park.

    There’s usually an option that will include a lot of the stuff that people want to do, and a lot of that is called “reception” or “bachelor party.” Ironically, people seem to be a bit more rigid about reception customs, to the point of making receptions cold and boring, whereas they often tend to think church should be anything goes. Maybe this is because receptions are under more control by the parents and relatives?

  6. The Sicilian Woman says:

    I have bookmarked this post for the next time a non-Catholic (or even, sadly, a “Catholic”) and I discuss this. How I wish I had this explanation almost a couple years ago, and even more recently, when discussing this with two politically and religiously liberal women who think that no one should be denied or “excluded” from anything, ever. I didn’t explain “proper dispensation” clearly. Or I did, and being liberals, they simply heard, “No,” and tuned out after that.

  7. Without denigrating the genuine rights as laid out by the Church, the use of ‘a right to the sacraments’ nowadays makes me cringe as it is often used in a way that assumes contention or apathy between the faithful and clergy. Things aren’t perfect (ie, we’re not in heaven) but the majority of priests delight in celebrating the sacrament just as much as those do who ask for them. Presuming good will, on both sides to be sure, makes this and most things easier.

  8. Scott says:

    Not quite sure that “right” is the proper expression. But one does (rarely) come across situations in which the laity are treated in a distinctly off-hand manner. I recall friends — 50 years ago — who were newly minted lawyers. They had both been away at law school and suddenly one was offered a position with the Government. The imminent displacement required that their engagement be ended and a marriage celebrated. They went to the priest of the appropriate church and explained their situation. He was perhaps new, did not know them, and refused to schedule a marriage. They explained again; the time frame for the celebration was short, and they were serious, accomplished adults with solid reputations (which he could have verified) and clear commitments to Christian marriage. This cut no ice. I am not quite sure what most couples in such a situation could do. The pastor seemed to think that his decision, however hastily arrived at, was without appeal. But in this case the woman called her father — who had been of significant service to the Church in the Washington diocese. He knew the Nuncio, the Nuncio called the pastor, and the marriage was celebrated. I told this story once to an old-friend, a priest. “Do you know how much a pastor would resent being trumped by the Nuncio?” I replied that I could imagine he would not be best pleased. But why should respectable, informed and adult Catholics be treated so casually. If a pastor does not want to be trumped, then perhaps treat the laity with somewhat greater respect. Not that many of us know a Nuncio. (I am happy to report that they are still married 50 years later.)

    My wife and I, on the other hand , met in VietNam four months before it fell. She was English, I American. I had a posting coming up, as did she (if there was no immediate marriage) as a nurse with a British charity working overseas. We too needed to get married within a very limited window of time. We had the blessing of her parents, and happily, her pastor, an aged, experienced priest, waived some of the usual time requirements. And my pastor in the States agreed that given my background he would take a chance and dispense with the normal Cana Conferences. So we (still married 49 years later) were welcomed at the altar — and her pastor, being a man of taste, allowed us to use Douai-Reims texts for the readings. As Father Maurer remarks above “Presuming good will on both sides….”

  9. Pnkn says:

    Scott – it is hard to believe that there are circumstances that necessitate an immediate marriage OR without the marriage both man and woman will go to Hell and never have another opportunity to marry.

  10. In confession, the priest has the right to “deny” it certain ways:

    * He can tell the penitent to see another priest unless he’s their pastor

    * He can insist on a confessional with a screen and can refuse the sacrament outside of the confessional, or even completely if a confessional is not available. (For example, a priest should insist on a screen for a women practicing poverty more than modesty in her clothes.)

  11. vandalia says:

    I think it is important to note that when “rights” are spoken of in the Church, they do not exist in isolation. Rights always imply an obligation. (And an obligation conversely implies a right.)

    The faithful have a right to receive the Sacraments. They also have the obligation to make the necessary preparation to receive that Sacrament. The right the faithful have to receive a Sacrament implies an obligation on the part of the proper Pastor to provide this Sacrament in the appropriate circumstances. This obligation the Pastor has is linked with his right to receive appropriate support. This right of the Pastor implies an obligation on the part of the faithful to support the Church. The obligation on the part of the faithful then comes full circle and is linked with the right of the faithful to receive the Sacraments.

    Now, as previously mentioned, this “right” and “obligation” are not those that we might speak of when we are talking about contract law. The fact that an individual may make a donation to his parish does not give him the legal, unfettered, right to receive any Sacrament in any circumstance. Nor does the fact the priest’s paycheck bounced relieve him of his obligation to fulfill his duties.

    The disconnect between right and obligation is one of the causes of many of our problems in contemporary American society. It is also true that the right/obligation language is probably not the best terminology to speak of these types of issues in the Church. However, if we are gong to use this language, it is critical to keep in mind the linked nature of right and obligation in the Church.

  12. Pingback: Can’t refuse a sacrament to somebody? | The Catholic Legate

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