ASK FATHER: Is the Sacrament of Confirmation valid if the minister uses an instrument, such as a stylus or a swab?

From a reader…


My son’s Confirmation is this Sunday and I just found out that the Bishop will be using a Q-tip because of Covid-19. Is this still valid? Thank you for all that you do. I find your blog very helpful.

I have dealt with this question before and, in fact, this question is a little dated.  I’m working through a massive back jam of email.

However… though I have dealt with it before, it merits more attention.

Is the Sacrament of Confirmation valid if the minister uses an instrument, such as a stylus or a swab?

In the past, the answer was resoundingly NO, it would be invalid.

BUT WAIT!  Here comes the Congregation for Divine Worship in a response to the USCCB saying that it is valid.  HERE

“The use by the minister of an instrument (gloves, cotton swab…), does not affect the validity of the Sacrament.”

Okayyyyyy…. hmmmmm…..

The problem with this is, of course, it really requires more than, “Because we say so!”, to resolve this.

I haven’t seen the entire response from the CDW.

Before saying anything else, we all know that the CHURCH – actually, the Vicar of Christ – gets to decide how sacraments are celebrated.  She can make changes to gestures and words that do not violate the divine origin of the sacraments or their essence, their essentials.   For example, a Pope can change the words, the form, for the Sacrament of confirmation.  Paul VI did that.

That change did not invalidate the previous, traditional form, a fact upheld by the CDF.

Back to the issue: Can an instrument be used in anointing a confirmand with chrism?

Some time ago when I posted on this, I also posted details from the amazing painting about the seven sacraments by the 15th c. Rogier van der Weyden.  In that painting, you clearly see the bishop using an instrument to anoint hands at an ordination and also to anoint the sick.  No problem there.  Anointing of hands is not of the essence of the sacrament of Orders and laying on of hands is not of the essence of anointing of the sick.  However, you also see the bishop anointing with an instrument for Confirmation.

BUT…. from the time of the Council of Trent, use of an instrument was forbidden.

In the traditional form, the bishop laid his hand on the head of the confirmand and then anointed the forehead with Chrism using the thumb of his right hand.  In an emergency, another finger could be used, but an instrument could not.   Paul VI lifted the obligatory laying on of the hand saying that the touching with the thumb in anointing accomplished that gesture as well.

Manuals reflected this.

Sabetti-Barrett’s 1919 edition of Compendium Theologiae Moralis,  says (in Latin):

669.  Query. – Question 2.  How is the [Confirmation] anointing to be done?

Response. It must be done with the right thumb of the Bishop in the manner of a cross on the forehead of the one confirmed.  However, the anointing would be valid if it were done by a different digit of the Bishop, and even if it were a digit of the left hand, because it would be an imposition of the bishop’s hand.  But a Bishop would sin, were he to do that without necessity, because he would be departing from the universal praxis of the Church; albeit it does not seem that an inversion of the aforementioned ceremony would reach the level of grave guilt. – Cf. S. Alphons. n. 165

Question 3.  Whether anointing can be done validly by means of an instrument?

Response. NEGATIVE., and the reason is, that the immediate imposition of the hand of the Minister would be lacking, which is absolutely required from what has been said.  On this in the new Code (1917):
§2. Anointing is not to be done with any instrument, but it is imposed properly by the hand of the minister on the head of the confirmand.

Prümmer in the 1953 Manuale Theologiae Moralis says:

156. 3. The anointing must be done with the thumb of the right hand, and not with a stylus or another instrument, as has already been said.  If, however, the bishop has a bad thumb, he can licitly anoint with the thumb of his left hand or with another digit.

We grant that THE CHURCH gets to determine how the sacraments are to be administered.

If there is going to be a change, the Congregation really doesn’t get to do that.

Keeping in mind that the touching of the head of the confirmand by the bishop with his thumb is, in effect, also the imposition of his hand, removing the touching with the hand is a serious problem.

Regarding imposition of the hand Ludwig Ott, in his section on Confirmation, reminds us that

There is no official dogmatic decision regarding the essential matter of the Sacrament of Confirmation.  Theologians are divided in their opinions.

a) Some, invoking the testimony of Holy Scripture (Acts 8,7; 19,6; Heb. 6,2) hold that the imposition of the hands alone is the essential matter (….) Cf. D. 424.
b) Other, appealing to the Decretum pro Armenis (D 697), the teaching of the Council of Trent (D 872), the Roman Catechism (II, 3,7), the traditional of the Greek Church and the teaching of St. Thomas…. declare that the anointing with chrism alone is the essential matter (St Bellarmine, …).

Ott explains that the latter view is erroneous and says:

The majority of modern Theologians, concurring with Church practice, see the essential matter in the imposition of the hands together with the anointing with chrism on the forehead.  That the imposition of hands belongs to the sacramental sign is evident from the clear testimony of Holy Writ and Tradition….

However, the 2020 CDW response seems to ignore the opinions of theologians which the Church has, hitherto, rested on for a contrary opinion.  I don’t think Tradition can simply be left aside.

It seems to me that what the CDW said is really hard to sustain.

Also, I believe that this really a question for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (validity of matter and form of the sacrament).  The CDF answered the question about the validity of the traditional rite after Paul VI’s changes.  That’s the venue.

Moreover, because this has to do with the validity of the sacrament, it seems to me that, just as Pius XII did in 1947 with his Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum ordinis about the rite of Ordination and the traditio instrumentorum, just as Paul VI did in his Apostolic Constitution Divinae consortium naturae in 1971 for Confirmation, a papal document, an Apostolic Constitution should deal with this.

So… what to do.

These days, because of the Wuhan Devil, confirmations have been postponed or cancelled.

However, if you want to be absolutely sure about the matter of anointing, which is in effect the laying on of the hand which is of the essence of the sacrament, then choose the TRADITIONAL rite when possible, or at least find out ahead of time if an instrument is going to be used.

Salvo meliore iudicio, of course.   If someone out there knows something clear or really helpful for this, I’d like to see it.  Write to me HERE

Just as an end note…

I find it deeply disturbing that in a time when…

  • demonic activity is on the rise and
  • when access to the sacraments is being sharply limited,
  • when big tech is exercising terrifying new control over information in conjunction with the news media and a political party which embraces the ghoulish evil of abortion and hellish gender twisting,
  • when the world seems to going absolutely insane around us,
  • when the Left is exerting massive force to silence any opposition with violence, both physical and psychological…

… there should come a statement from the Holy See which seems to contradict Tradition with regard to the sacrament of Confirmation, the sacrament that makes us sturdy and firm in the face of challenges.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. EC says:

    Unfortunately it is a timely question… with corona-scrupulosity… I have seen the cotton-swab thing recently…

  2. Unwilling says:

    I find it very distressing to think of what the consequences are for the apostolic succession of undetected (or malicious) and uncorrected invalid sacraments (esp. not confirmation but) ordination or even Baptism. Once the succession is invalidated by a cleric does the invalidity not endlessly grow and grow — like a poisoned root or branch? Or does time heal all wounds, or what? So distressing!

  3. Mark says:

    So… my son was confirmed this summer and the bishop used a cotton swab and no laying on of hands. I’m confused by this post if I should be concerned that the confirmation was not valid. And is there a conditional confirmation he can receive later when this is no longer an issue?

    [I think what we need is a fuller explanation from the Congregation rather than a snippet of a line saying, “‘Cause we say so.” An explanation would help a great deal to put people at ease about this.]

  4. pannw says:

    Yet my hair stylist (just like Nancy Pelosi’s, no doubt) scrubbed my scalp, touched my head all over, including my forehead, while combing, cutting and blow drying my hair, etc. with her bare hands…for a good half hour at least.

    I had a quite long rant written out, but then kept seeing the Think before posting warning, and so, out of respect for our host, I will keep my true thoughts to myself. I’ll just say what my elderly retired medical doctor father said when we were out and he looked around at all the mask wearers, plexiglass ‘barriers’, x marks on the floor telling us where to stand, etc… “You see all this? This is nonsense.”

    But when the nonsense is in the Church, the consequences are so much more dangerous.

    God have mercy.

  5. B says:

    What is scary is that with this confusion and if the sacrament is invalidly administered, won’t it affect the status of marriage and ordination? (I thought one had to have the sacrament of confirmation before getting married/ordained). Does that mean they are invalid too?

  6. cengime says:

    With all due respect to the eminent prefect, his thinking seems to be different from that of the Holy Office in a decision of January 14, 1885 concerning children of Latin Catholic men with Orthodox wives who, baptised in the Latin Church, were taken by their mothers to be rebaptised and confirmed by an Orthodox priest. The Church has always regarded confirmation by Orthodox priests immediately after baptism as valid, but there was a question of whether the confirmation after the sacrilegious repetition of baptism was valid. The Holy Office decided that such persons should not be confirmed again except if they are to be promoted to the clerical state, or if they or their parents request it. However, if, upon investigation of the manner in which confirmation was conferred, it should be found that a brush (penicillium) was used, the sacrament should be conferred secretly and conditionally. The Holy Office seems to have judged then that the use of a brush would endanger the validity of the sacrament. I am sure we all recall well that a diocese received a reply about the form of baptism in 2003 from an undersecretary of the CDW stating that “Employing the first person plural, rather than the singular…does not cast into doubt the validity of the Baptism conferred”, yet the CDF judged last summer upon more careful investigation that that reply was mistaken.

    @B: Confirmation is not the foundation of the other sacraments like baptism is and is not necessary to validity. If there is doubt about a man’s confirmation, it should be repeated before he receives holy orders, but not on pain of invalidity of his orders. A person with a doubtful confirmation is not obliged to have it repeated to get married.

  7. Suburbanbanshee says:

    As it happens, I was Confirmed by the late and unmourned Cardinal (then-Archbishop) Bernardin. And he did and ordered all kinds of modernist things, but he Confirmed us by laying hands on our heads as well as anointing us with chrism. Did a cheek slap, too. (Not a hard slap, but we felt it.)

    I know he did all kinds of creepy things for creepy reasons, but he Confirmed us in the right way. Just saying.

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