Author Topic: Regarding Confirmations performed by Priests.  (Read 96 times)


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Regarding Confirmations performed by Priests.
« on: November 16, 2017, 11:22:48 AM »
Several years ago I conducted some research into the validity of confirmations performed by priests.  Here are the sources and I'll comment on them at the end.

To begin, here are a few authors who give the bare bones of the matter:

Source: Frassinetti, Giuseppe.  A Dogmatic Catechism. 1872.  London.  Page 194.

It is an article of the Faith, declared by the Sacred Council of Trent, that Bishops alone are the ordinary Ministers of this Sacrament. The Supreme Pontiff can, however, delegate even a simple Priest to confer Confirmation. In such case, that Priest is the extraordinary Minister of this Sacrament.

Source: A Manual of Christian Doctrine.  13th ed.  1910.  Philadelphia.  Page 409

A mere priest can be the extraordinary minister if he be delegated by the Sovereign Pontiff and if he use chrism consecrated by the bishop.

Pohle goes into greater detail, and reminds us that priests in the east have the power to confirm.  He introduces us to some of the controversial aspects of priestly confirmations:

Source: Pohle, Joseph, Ph.D., D.D.. The Sacraments: A Dogmatic Treatise.  Trans. Preuss. 1917.  Herder: St. Louis.  Pages 310-13.

In extraordinary cases simple priests can administer Confirmation, but only with special powers granted by the Pope.  This Proposition may be technically qualified as "sententia certa."
Proof.  Hugh of St. Victor, Durandus, and other Scholastic theologians deny the right of the Supreme Pontiff to grant the special power referred to; but there is now no longer any reason to doubt it.  Thomists, Scotists, Bellarmine, Suarez and De Lugo, all regard Confirmation administered by simple priests with papal autority as valid.  Our thesis cannot be demonstrated directly from Sacred Scripture and we therefore have to rely on Tradition... [here follows a proof from the Eastern Tradition]...

b) In the Latin Church Confirmation, as a rule, has always been administered by bishops, and only in exceptional cases by priests.

This practice, which is far more in conformity with the dogmatic teaching defined at Trent, gained the upper hand in the West afther the thirteenth centutry, when Baptism and Confirmation gradually became separated by constantly lengthening intervals of time.  The administration of Confirmation by priests was and is comparatively rare, but cases have occurred in every century since the time of Gregory the Great, though always with express papal authorization and with chrism consecrated by bishops.  Since the Council of Trent the Holy See has at various times granted the right to administer Confirmation to Jesuit missionaries, to the Custodian of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, the Provost of St. Hedwig's Church in Berlin and other priests.

c) It is not easy to justify this exceptional practice in view of the fact that the validity of Confirmation has nothing to do with the power of jurisdiction, but depends entirely on the character of ordination.

A deacon, for instance, could not validly administer this sacrament even with papal permission, whilst, on the other hand, a heretical, schismatic, suspended or excommunicated bishop can do so even against the express command of the Pope.  How, then, is it possible for a simple priest to confirm validly, if the papal permit does not supply the lack of episcopal consecration?
Various attempts have been made to overcome this difficulty.

Some theologians have assumed that the papal delegation is not a mere extrinsic permission but implies an intrinsic perfectioning of the character of ordination by which the delegated priest receives the episcopal character.  Others hold with Suarez that the papal authorization merely gives to the delegated priest a higher extrinsic dignity which, together with his sacredotal character, suffices to enable him to administer the Sacrament validly.  Both hypotheses are unsatisfactory.  A simpler and more effective solution is that devised by Gregory of Valentia.  It was the will of Christ, he says, that both bishops and priests should be empowered to administer Confirmation, the former as ordinary ministers of the sacrament by virtue of the episcopal consecration the latter as its extraordinary ministers by virtue of the priesthood, leaving it to the pope to determine the manner of exercising this latent power.

Canon Smith's catechism provides its usual level of depth and brevity, and shares Billot's opinion on how it can be that confirmation pertains to orders but requires the Pope's permission for validity:

Source: Canon Smith, G. D.D., Ph.D..  The Teaching of the Catholic Church Vol II.  1950.  MacMillan co: New York.  Pages 832-833.

On the other hand the Church also teaches that, as extraordinary minister, the priest can confer this sacrament [confirmation].  This is shown by several undoubted facts, in particular by a number of past and present instances of priests being empowered by the Holy See to confirm; by the present discipline of the Church which, besides communicating this power to certain priests by special indult, allows it ipso jure to certain dignitaries enumerated in the Code of canon law; and by the more significant fact that the Church recognises, subject to some exceptions, the validity of the confirmation administered by priests of the Eastern communities, whether uniate or dissident.  Clearly, then, by indult, delegation, or dispensation of the Holy See (he terms seem in this matter to be used indiscriminately in ecclesiastical documents) a priest becomes able to confirm validly.  This fact gives rise to a theological problem which cannot be fully discussed here.  It is asked whether the inability of a priest to confirm validly without the commission of the Holy See is due to a lack of he power of order or to a lack of jurisdiction.  Authors differ on this question, described by Pope Benedict XIV as one of "great difficulty and complexity."  We must be content to state briefly an answer, given by Billot, which appears to meet the difficulty in a satisfactory way.  According to this theologian the character of the priesthood includes the power to confirm; but by divine ordinance the valid exercise of that power is made conditional upon a commission received from the Head of the Church.  Thus the fact that the Church acknowledges as valid the confirmation administered by priests in the East does not make them ordinary ministers of the sacrament; it implies only a tacit commission formerly granted to them by the Holy See.

However one explains it, the testimony of every author who discusses the matter makes it clear enough that confirmations can be performed by simple priests if the pope delegates them to, and that without such delegation, confirmations adminsitered by priests are invalid:

Source: McGill, John, D.D..  Our Faith, The Victory.  1865. Kelly & Piet: Baltimore.  Page 236.

A bishop is the ordinary minister of the sacrament of confirmation, as proved by the constant practice of the church, and by various declarations of Popes and‘ of the Council of Trent. With special powers from the Sovereign Pontiff, however, a priest may be the extraordinary minister of this sacrament. In these cases, he must use chrism which has been consecrated by a bishop. Confirmation administered by a priest, without having received authorization from the vicar of Jesus Christ, would be null. (emphasis added)

Source: Prummer, Dominic M. O.P.. Handbook of Moral Theology.  Trans. Shelton.  1957 (reprint).  Roman Catholic Books: Ft. Collins.  Page 263.

A priest has no power to confer the sacrament without delegation from the Holy See which may be granted in the form of a special indult (as, for instance, when the local ordinary is infirm) or by common law.  By common law the power of confirming belongs to cardinals, abbots and prelates nullius, vicars and prefects Apostolic (C. 702.3), that these may only administer the sacrament validly within the confines of their own territory and during the term of their office.  All priests of the Oriental rite have a tacit and habitual delegation to administer the sacrament but only to the faithful of their own rite (some emphasis added).

In 1947 Pope Pius XII published an indult which granted the power for priests to confirm under certain conditions.  If the conditions are not met, the confirmation is simply invalid:

Source: Connell, Francis, C.Ss.R., S.T.D., LL.D..  Outlines of Moral Theology.  1953.  Bruce: Milwaukee.  Page 194.

However, it is also evident from tradition and from the legislation of the Church that a priest can be deputed to administer Confirmation.  This faculty is given to cardinals who are priests and also to some missionaries.  Since January 1, 1947, a pastor may confer Confirmation within the limits of his parish on a person in danger of death from sickness or accident if a  bishop is not available

Source: Tanquerey, Adolphe.  A Manual of Dogmatic Theology Vol. II. Trans. Byrnes. 1959.  Desclee co: New York.  Page 236.

The extraordinary minister of Confirmation can be a simple priest especially delegated by the Apostolic See. This is certain.

1. From the Practice of the Roman Church-- Many Roman Pontiffs have granted this power to priests; thus, in the 6th Century St. Gregory the Great, and later Nicholas I, John XXII, Urban V, Eugene IV, etc. from the Code 782, the extraordinary minister is a priest to whom either by common right or a particular indult of the Holy See this faculty has been granted.  Cardinals, abbot or prelate nullius, vicar and prefect apostolic possess it.  In the decree "Spiritus Sancti Munera" concerning the administration of confirmation to those who are in danger of death from serious illness "according to the general indult of the apostolic see" then, this faculty is given as to extraordinary ministers to territorial pastors and to other priests who are equal to them (emphasis in original).

Source: Ott, Ludwig.  Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma.  Trans. Lynch.  4th ed.  1960.  Tan: Rockford.  Page 369

"By an indult of the Apostolic See special power was given, with effect from 1st January 1947: a) To parish priests within their own territory; b) to permanent Vicars (can. 471) and to the administrator of a vacant parish (can. 472); c) To priests to whom, in a definite territory with a definite church, the full spiritual care with all parochial rights and duties has been exclusively and permanently transferred.  These are empowered personally to confer the Sacrament of Confirmation on those of the faithful who live in their territory if, a) these, in consequence of serious illness, are in actual danger of death, so that their death is to be reckoned with, and b) the Diocesan Bishop is not available or is lawfully prevented from being present, and another bishop who could represent the Diocesan Bishop is not to be had (emergency Confirmation).  If anybody other than those named in the Indult are confirmed there results an invalidation of the Sacrament and the loss of the power to confirm (can. 2365).

Source: Woywod, Stanislaus, O.F.M., LL.B..  A practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law Vol I.  Rev. Smith.  1957.  Wagner: New York.  Pp. 406-07

The extraordinary minister [of confirmation] is a priest who, either by the common law or by special indult of the Apostolic See, has received the faculty to confirm.  The following have this faculty by law: Cardinals (Canon 239/1.23), abbots and prelates nullius, vicars and prefects Apostolic.  With the exception of the Cardinals, these clergy cannot validly make use of the faculty except within the limits of their respective territory, and during their term of office only.


Persons who have by law the power to confirm cannot delegate that power to a priest, for as we saw above, the Code does not grant bishops the faculty to delegate a priest to give Confirmation, and besides there is no question here of delegating jurisdiction but rather a power of orders.  No power of orders delegated to a person or annexed to an office can be committed to another, unless this is expressly permitted by law or by indult (Canon 210).  When necessary, the Holy See grants bishops and others (vicars and prefects Apostolic) the faculty to delegate a priest for the conferring of Confirmation (emphasis added).

Here is the actual law, courtesy of Woywod:

Source: Spiritus Sancti Murena, qtd. in Woywood, Stanislaus, O.F.M., LL.B..  A practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law Vol II.  Rev. Smith.  1957.  Wagner: New York. Appendix X, page 840.

1.By a general indult of the Holy See the faculty of conferring the Sacrament of Confirmation is granted to the following priests and to these alone, as extraordinary ministers (Canon 782/2), only in the cases and under the conditions herein enumerated:

(a) pastors entrusted with a proper territory, thereby excluding pastors of persons or families, unless they also have their own territory, at least cumulatively;

(b)the vicars mentioned in Canon 471 and administrative vicars;

(c ) priests to whom is committed, exclusively and permanently, within a certain territory and with a fixed church, the complete care of souls with all pastoral rights and duties.

2. The aforesaid ministers can themselves personally confer Confirmation validly and lawfulyy upon the faithful staying in their territory, not excepting persons residing in places withdrawn from parochial jurisdiction-- not excluding, therefore, seminaries, hospices, houses for the sick and other institutions of a similar nature even belonging to Religious, no matter how exempt (cf.r Canon 792)-- provided that these persons are in real danger of death by reason of serious illness, because of which hey may be considered as likely to die. If the aforesaid ministers exceed the limits of this mandate, let them clearly realize that they act in vain and administer no Sacrament, and that the statute of canon 2365 applies also to this case.

I also provide some discussion contained in Fr. Conway's Problems in Canon Law, where he entertains several "grey areas" about the indult for priests to confirm.  This discussion is relevant for attempts to apply the indult to those who may appear, act, or be confused with those persons named in the indult (mainly, parish priests). 

Source: Conway, William.  D.D., D.C.L.. Problems in Canon Law: Classified Replies to Practical Questions. 1956.  Brown and Nolan Ltd.: Dublin.  Pages 152-54.

[Question:] Some clarification of the following point in connection with the recent decree on Confirmation would be much appreciated.  The decree says that the new confirming power is enjoyed by all priests who are in exclusive charge of a distinct district with a church of its own and who are appointed to this charge in a stable manner.  What I wish to know is whether a curate who is in charge of a part of a parish, would qualify for the power under this paragraph?  In this parish I have been appointed as curate and the appointment is is likely to last for a number of years.  I have charge of clearly- demarcated part of a parish which has a church of its own, distinct from the main parochial church.  This church has its own baptismal font; the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in it.  I am in residence beside it and for the people living in this district this is the church which they attend for all religious ceremonies and I exercise all parochial functions in their regard (the parish priest has given me full faculties for marriages).  Of course I do not say a separate missa pro populo.  Have I the new confirming power within the territorial limits of my district? -- Curate.

[Answer:] The answer to 'Curate's' enquiry is that he has not the new powers of administering confirmation.  The paragraph in the new decree to which he refers contemplates an entirely different situation to the familiar phenomenon of a curate who is left in charge of part of a parish by the parish priest.

Perhaps the easiest way to underline the differences between the two positions is to point out that the paragraph in the decree deals only with priests who have the exclusive care of souls in a particular territory.  Now 'Curate'-- and others in the same position-- have not exclusive power.  It may be that de facto the parish priest does not interfere in the care of souls in the district in any way; but the fact remains that he has the right to do so if he chooses, that is is parish priest for the entire territory of the parish, including the district of which the curate has charge, and that the authority of the curate is entirely subordinate to that of the parish priest-- and, in fact, is partly delegated by him.  In no sense, therefore, can the curate be said to have the exclusive care of souls in his district.  Whatever his position de facto, de iure he is not independent. 

The situation which the paragraph contemplates is a piece of territory in a diocese which does not belong to any parish whatsoever, but which has a church of its own with a duly appointed priest, with all the rights and duties of a parish priest.  Many territorial units in England and Wales, which had not been canonically erected as parishes, were formerly of this kind.  the priest in charge, or 'rector,' was, however, immediately subject to the bishop of the diocese-- his authority was not subordinate to that of a parish priest for the simple reason that his territory did not form part of any parish.  He had all the rights and duties of a parish priest including, as was decided in a case which came before the Sacred Congregation of the Council in 1932, the obligation of the Missa pro populo.  Where such a situation still obtains, that is, where the priest in question is parish priest in all but name, the new power of administering confirmation will be enjoyed by the priest in charge.

[question] After the death of the parish priest and until the next parish priest is appointed, may the curate in charge of the parish confirm dying children?  May the bishop empower him to do so?  --P.P.

[Answer] The answer to this question is that the priest who has been given charge of a vacant parish by the local ordinary has the power to administer confirmation in danger of death, from the decree Spiritus Sancti Munera.

To appreciate the precise legal position on this point it is necessary to recall the dispositions of the Code for the charge of a parish during an interregnum.  The Code says that 'an acting parish priest', called the vicarious oeconomus, should be appointed as soon as possible by the local ordinary.  Pending the appointment of this vicarious oeconomus, however, the charge of the parish devolves, in the virtue of canon 472, on the senior curate or on the nearest parish priest.  Now, the important point is that it is only the vicarious oeconomus appointed by the local Ordinary, who has the power of confirming-- the priest who has charge of the parish, in virtue of canon 472, pending the appointment of vicarious oeconomus has not the power.  It may seem strange that it should be so, but there is little room for doubt on this point; the decree speaks only of the vicarious oeconomus and the Code makes it quite clear that the senior curate, who gets his power from canon 472 immediately the parish priest dies, is not a vicarious oeconomus.  The commentators on the decree generally agree that unless and until the is appointed vicarious oeconomus he has not the power of confirming.  Of course, it is very often the senior curate who is appointed vicarious oeconomus so that he will normally have charge of the parish for the complete interregnum, first from canon 472 and then in virtue of his appointment as vicarious oeconomus by the local Ordinary.  But it is only after he has been appointed to this office that he has the power of confirming.

A few takeaway points:

(a) The ability to confirm validly depends on orders rather than jurisdiction

(b) Priests evidently have some sort of latent power (of order, to confirm) which can be "activated" by express delegation through the Pope (or his law)

(c) The means to "activate" that power are incredibly strict, as evidenced by Conway's discussion of possible "stretchings" of the indult even to fully legitimate clergy.  This, of course, makes sense, given that confirmation is not of the same necessity as other sacraments.

(d) Given all of this, it would seem that any confirmation attempted by a traditional priest would be properly invalid; except and unless that priest was very old and managed to find himself in a situation where the conditions of Spiritus Sancti Murena were met.

There are both items of practical and theoretical implications contained in these findings.  On the practical side, don't accept confirmation from a priest (I am aware of at least one instance where a certain traditional bishop "delegated" one of his priests to confirm; thankfully, the priest did not go through with it).  It's not valid except under these most narrow of circumstances, none of which would apply to any priest who was ordained during the sede vacante period (except possibly if he managed to secure some office).

In the theoretical, it's very interesting to contemplate the very unique power of the pope, and how he is able to "increase" the sacramental potential of the power of order possessed by simple priests.  That is something of a mystery which theologians struggle to explain.  When we discussed this on Bellarmine Forums some years ago, John Lane had some good comments to that effect:

Quote from: John Lane
This question is one of those which reminds us of the primacy of faith over understanding. The factual data informs us that only the Roman Pontiff has the relevant power, so that if it isn't derived from him, invalidity is the result. Theology tries to explain this - hence the different reasons given. Billot's is analogous to the main school of thought on Holy Matrimony and invalidating impediments. But these are, at bottom, just theories. The fact is that the power is the Roman Pontiff's and that's that.

The men who approve confirmation by priests without the authorisation of the Roman Pontiff are taking essentially one or other of the theoretical explanations and making it the foundation for certitude in practice. This seems to me to be utter confusion.

I mentioned this type of thing recently in a general comment to the effect that the student of theology occasionally enjoys that lovely clarity, which is truly a joy, of coming across a doctrine which is certainly revealed and yet which theology cannot really explain. In this case theology cannot even define the revealed element in any intrinsic way, it just recognises that it is there. Divine revelation forms, as a whole, a tapestry of interlocking truths which the intelligence can synthesise to a great extent, but it also includes truths which don't appear to "fit" into the pattern, and this reminds us of the limits of the human mind. Theology presents and explains the faith, but these are two quite distinct functions. "This is certain - From the Practice of the Roman Church," as Tanquerey puts it, just as St. Thomas very frequently gives as his answer to an entirely plausible objection, "But the practice of the Church is..."

And, of course, this is one more proof of the vacancy of the Holy See, because nobody with the faith is able to take the decisions and practices of the Conciliar popes and curia as data of theology. The lawfulness of altar girls, the notion that marriage is invalidated by "immaturity" in persons with the use of reason, the validity of Confirmation in which oil other than olive oil is used, the consistent refusal of the Conciliar hierarchy to recognise the social kingship of Christ, the validity of the new sacramental rites (e.g. if this were a given, as it should be, theology would enjoy new data, such as that "This is My Body; This is My Blood" is a sufficient complete form for the Holy Eucharist, hitherto a disputed point in theology), the lawfulness of men who are recognised as non-members of the Church being given the Holy Eucharist, etc. Many of these things are in violent conflict with the already settled data of theology and cannot be accepted as new data without wrecking the faith. But "the practice of the Roman Church" is always a sufficient proof of a doctrine, so something is radically wrong - and there's only one possibility as to what that thing is: these practices are not truly approved by the Roman Church.


Also, thanks to tmw and Joe Cupertino who helped in the research.

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