Saint Alphonsus: When it is morally licit to receive the Sacraments from unworthy ministers?

by Br. Alexis Bugnolo

Many Catholics, who remain in communion with Pope Benedict, but have no clergy in their area who do so, ask me whether it be morally licit for them to receive the Sacraments from these clergy. I also get this question from Catholics who live in the Mid-East, where many Catholics receive the Sacraments in both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, which for long centuries have not been in communion with the Apostolic See.

Here I will present the doctrine of the Doctor of the Church, Saint Alphonsus dei Liguori, C.Ss.R., from his Theologia Moralis, by citing what he says on diverse questions. The Roman Church, by raising Saint Alphonsus dei Liguori to the dignity of a Doctor of the Church in questions of moral theology, gives at least a tacit approval to those opinions. This does not mean that they are the teaching of the Church or that they are, by that fact alone, opinions which form part of the ordinary magisterium. But it is a strong indication that if the Church ever judge such questions, that she will likely side with the opinions of the Saint, even though on one of his opinions, She has expressly withdrawn her approval — I am told.*

Here is Saint Alponsus teaching, which regards clergy who are public sinners or excommunicated or under some censure. He does not speak of heretics, of whom it is the teaching of the Church at all times, that we cannot receive any Sacrament from condemned heretics.

Saint Alphonsus de Liguori

Theologia Moralis

Tome III, Book VI

Tract I — On the Sacraments in General

Doubt II

n. 88 — There is asked 2nd.: Whether it be licit to receive the Sacraments from an unworthy minister? — Here it is necessary to distinguish between a minister who is unworthy because of some censure and/or inability, and a minister and one unworthy because of mortal sin.

I respond 1st.: If a minister is unworthy through a censure etc., and is not to be tolerated, most of all if he be excommunicated as one to be avoided and/or publicly and by name suspended, or irregular through a judicial sentence, certainly it is not licit to seek the Sacraments from him, except in extreme and/or in the greatest of necessity in which all say it is licit to receive Baptism and Penance … {Editor’s note: here follows a citation of authorities from whom the Saint drew his opinion. I will omit these in this translation with the symbol …}.

Likewise, probably also the Sacrament of the Eucharist as say … . And adhering to this opinion is Tournely, who citing Pope Innocent III, in Gratian, chapter Quod in te, de poenitent. et remission, who though he denied Extremunction to the dying in the time of a general interdict, did not deny Penance and Viaticum.

Likewise, concerning the Sacrament of Extremunction think … by this that such a Sacrament can be the cause of grace. But better do those not admit this with … except when the infirm is not able to receive any other sacrament.

Equally, say … that it is licit to receive the Sacrament of Orders from a Bishop who is excommunicated, when in some remote province, he alone can be found, and such an ordination redounds to the common good.

Likewise, the aforesaid authors say regarding the Sacrament of Matrimony, in the case in which it would be necessary either for the spiritual salvation of one who is dying and/or for the great temporal utility of the children, and when no other minister is at hand.

But whether a  priest who has been excommunicated as one to be avoided can minister the Sacrament of Penance in extreme necessity? This is to be denied, see …

I respond 2nd.:  But if the minister is excommunicated and/or suspended, as one to be tolerated: there is a question among the doctors whether it be licit to receive the Sacraments from him without grave cause. — Some deny this. — But more truly is it to be affirmed, because the Council of Constance conceded in an absolute manner to the faithful that they could receive communion with those to be tolerated. See ….

n.89 — I respond 3rd. But when the minister is unworthy on account of mortal sin, Saint Thomas seems to indistinctly concede that the Sacraments can be received from someone whose sin is hidden from us, saying:  So long as he is tolerated by the Church in ministry, the one who receives the Sacraments from him does not share in his sin. — And the same is had in Gratian, in the chapter, Vestra 7, de cohabitatione clericorum etc., where there is said:  Without a doubt . . . hold that from clerics and bishops, even though they be fornicators, so long as they be tolerated and there not be had evidence of their works (that is, as the Gloss has, they have not been condemend nor have they confessed before the law), the Divine Mysteries are licitly heard and the other Sacraments of the Church are received. But this must be sanely understood, to be valid only to excuse from sin, not to contravene the prohibitions of the Church.

Otherwise, to receive the Sacraments from a sinner, always requires a reasonable cause, in accord with the words in Gratian, Book II, n. 47, v. Secunda et n. 49; and as is otherwise taught by Saint Thomas, where he says: Besides the occasion of necessity, it would not be safe, that he induce him to fulfill anything of his Order, while having such knowledge that that one be in mortal sin.  Moreover, under the name of “necessity” the Continuator of Tournely rightly explains that in this case one is to understand a moral necessity. — Wherefore, to excuse (from sin) there probably also suffices a causae of grave utility; as is most commonly taught by … .

Discussion

As can be seen, Saint Alphonsus speaks of priests who are either public sinners or who have been punished with a decree of excommunication or censure. When he speaks of those to be tolerated, he is referring to the previous discipline, before Vatican II, which distinguished between those who were to be shunned or not to be shunned, on account of the punishment imposed upon them. Holy Mother Church imposed the punishment of shunning, since the time of Saint Paul the Apostle, when She judged that the person was very dangerous or because their conscience required this punishment to bring it back to a right state. In the new Code the punishment of shunning as been abolished, so all excommunicates and censured persons are to be considered to be tolerated, under Saint Alphonsus’ classification.

What is lacking in Saint Alphonsus is any question regarding what is to be done during a schism in the Church.  I think we can extrapolate from the present Code of Canon Law which imposes excommunication upon all schismatics ipso facto, and thus classify them as excommunicated but to be tolerated.

However, the present case of the Bergoglian schism has to do also with public heresy and immorality. And so if the clergy who are schismatic are also heretics, then one should under no condition receive the sacraments from them. The Council of Trent holds as to be excommunicated, also, those who say or teach or practice the giving of the Sacraments of the Eucharist, to those who are public sinners: which certainly applies to the author of Amoris Laetitia and all who accept that doctrine. I would hold such a teaching also to be heretical, but since the Council of Trent did not classify it as heretical, I think we cannot on our own authority regard it as such, until a Council so condemns it.

However, the Bergoglians teach many other heresies. And so the determination if this or that minister is unworthy or not on account of heresy, depends on each individual case of each minister. And in cases in which you do not know if the minster agrees with or accepts any particular heresy, Saint Alphonsus says elsewhere, that you should presume that he is not a heretic.

Regarding, the question of mere schism, however, if a priest has not accepted that Benedict validly resigned, but simply goes by that opinion, he is probably not a formal schismatic, just in error. But if he is shown the evidence that Benedict is still the true pope and examines it, and rejects it publicly or privately to your knowledge, he should be presumed to be formally a schismatic. However, if he refuses consideration without examination, he is more likely just lazy or as of yet psychologically indisposed to consider that such a great lie or error was made, as I was for 6 years. Likewise, if he rejects the arguments that Benedict is still the pope, but does not refuse you the Sacraments, whom he knows publicly or privately to be in communion with Benedict, then he is probably not a formal schismatic, because by his behavior he shows that your opinion is one which can be licitly held.

What Saint Alphonsus does not explain here, is the duty to avoid public scandal. If you are not known to be in communion with the true Pope, and attend the liturgy of schismatics, then no scandal is given, because scandal is only a sin on account of someone knowing of it and being scandalized. But if you are known to be in communion with the true pope and go to the liturgies of Schismatics, and on that account even one poor soul would take scandal and consider it not important for salvation whether they be or not be in communion with the true pope, then you must omit going to those liturgies. Because as Saint Paul teaches in his letters to the Corinthians, we should prefer the salvation of the weak to any desire we have of liberty.

What Saint Alphonsus says here is mostly the repetition of others opinions, though he makes some personal judgement on the questions. However, these principles should be used with prudence and precision, and not taken to be license for the lax or exaggerated in their severity by the super-scrupulous. That is, if you are inclined not to follow rules and do as you please and fudge on definitions of words, then what Saint Alphonsus says should not be interpreted by your conscience, but you should follow the interpretation of a more prudent and upright man of good counsel who respects the Divine and moral law as a minimum duty of every Christians. However, if you are inclined to consider everything a sin or every sin a mortal sin, then you should not follow your understanding of what St. Alphonsus says here, but that of a man with a better understanding of the proper ability to distinguish between what things are and what things might be according to one’s fears.

Finally, what Saint Alphonsus does not discuss is what is the holier or more perfect thing to do. I think that testifying to the truth, right now, in the Church, is a grave necessity for the salvation of all souls. Each of us should do that. How we do it, God leaves to our own initiative. But we should not conceal the truth under a bushel basket, especially on account of only caring for ourselves and the reception of sacraments by ourselves, and not caring for the salvation of priests and our fellow brothers and sisters in the Faith. That is why I write all that I write. And that is why I wrote a Handbook for Converting Priests back to allegiance to Pope Benedict.

That being said, Saint Alphonsus gives us good counsel as to when and under what circumstances we can act without hiding the truth, and avoiding sin, when we have to make personal decisions about receiving the Sacraments.

__________

FOOTNOTES:

* I was told by Fr. Alphonsus Sutton, STD, my professor in moral theology, that Saint Alphonsus at one time held that if one intended out of revenge to burn down the house of one’s enemy and by accident and confusion or ignorance burned down the house of someone who was not one’s enemy, that one would not be obliged to pay restitution. That opinion was censured in his own day, and he withdrew it. The Church holds with the Fathers of the Church that restitution must be paid by all in all circumstances when they are the cause of the damage, either directly or by intended that which is its cause, especially in cases of arson.

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8 thoughts on “Saint Alphonsus: When it is morally licit to receive the Sacraments from unworthy ministers?”

  1. Is it possible to be schismatic and not heretic?
    Other way: isn’t rejection of dogma about papal primacy (rejecting reigning pope) puts you right away in heresy?

    Do I understand correctly that if somebody who does accept Bergolio out of lack of knowledge (even if by laziness) is simply in error not in schism?
    What about person/priest who suspects that BiP but deliberately avoids that subject all together to avoid any complications? I know we have no access to anybody’s internals but sometimes you just feel such a thing – although you may be wrong.

    This is very important topic to understand and thank you for bringing it up. I remember somebody reposted words of Marshall/Skojec (if I’m not mistaken) denying access to Mass for anybody BiP. This is of course wrong but puts a lot of pressure on somebody who is not quite sure.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is possible to be a schismatic and not a heretic. Such are for example Sedevacantist Bishops who are validly ordained and their clergy, who hold all the teachings of the perennial magisterium. And yes, if you reject Vatican I on the papal office, in any particular of the definition, you are a heretic. But not every schismatic denies the papal primacy. Even sommeone who rejects Benedict and accepts Bergogio as pope probably is not rejecting papal primacy, he is just disagreeing over some fact or law. Someone who accepts Bergoglio as the pope over lack of knowledge is objectively in error, but may not be personally guilty for it. The priest who suspects Benedict is the pope but pretends that Bergoglio is the pope may or may not be at moral fault, because suspicion of fact is not yet grounds for moral action, only for investigation. A priest who names Bergoglio as pope, hence, might think there is a very high bar for him to name Benedict instead. But this is because he does nto examine where the news of Benedict resigning came from and how it was both canonically invalid as per canon 40 and canonically not binding as per canon 41. And many of these might not look at canons 40 and 41, because they also err in thinking the Declaratio was a juridical act, which it was not, because to be a juridical act a renunciation of ministry has to be listed as a juridical act in canons 125 and the following, which it is not. There is such a nest of errors, therefore, that I think we should be patient with priests who might not know how to think or where the authoritative principles to cut through them are found.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My family and will stick with the SSPX. At least the SSPX keeps the faith. Novus Ordo bishops and clergy- not so much.

        Like

  2. I saw today a picture of a Mass with Bergoglio in Casa Maria Marta. Is it not more so, that Bergoglio hates the common catholic? That they aren’t worthy to recieve the sacraments, don’t achieve any good with it and aren’t worthy to kiss his ring and they do only have wrong motives?

    It certainly wasn’t a private mass, because quite a lot of people were in attendance. Do they feel good that they can have what they refuse the whole rest of the country? And then leave the door open for donations, to raise ‘funds’ for the victims of corona. To be given by the same people they despise.

    I am not sure which saint was it, who adviced a Pope who was in doubt of the saintliness of a certain prioress. He would go and check, so he went there as a begger complaining about pain in his feet and asking the prioress in question to help him take off his shoe, which she refused, and showed him the door, upon which he went to the Pope and advised. No Saint there.

    I just wonder what would happen with Bergoglio in that situation. It’s actually on camera all the time. He disdains common catholics and common men. But loves the Bono’s and diCaprios. You have to be initiated otherwise Bergoglio won’t want to have anything to do with you.

    This is nothing new. Throughout history Popes have complained against the Jesuits for refusing to ordain priests from their foreign flocks. The Jesuits have always refused the common man and created their own flock of initiates and artists who they used for their own ploys.

    It is even true that in some respect Mother Theresa was one of their creations. I have seen in England how houses were left almost empty, just a few homeless men, and when the batteries of the clocks in their house was finished (I was helping there) the sisters just shook their heads. They don’t need any time. They only had the right to die..

    Bergoglio church doesn’t have any Saints. Because if they really were, they would have serious trouble…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brother Alexis, save Mary!

    I am very grateful for the charity in responding not only to me, but to a countless number of Catholics who have somehow been chosen by Providence to live these moments, receiving the grace to “see and hear” the truth.
    In my specific case I attend Mass and confess in a place where people, including the priest, know that I am Pope to BXVI, but although no one mentions anything about it, perhaps because of the doubt they have about this issue, it could happen without my knowing of anyone being scandalized.
    Since I have some characteristics mentioned (scruples, independence of rules, etc.), I will ask a friend to faithfully translate his answer in order to analyze it with the attention he deserves.
    On this occasion I ask for your prayers throughout Brazil, where the apparitions of Our Lady of Anguera take place, which before the “renunciation” predicted the present situation and many others.
    And for me in particular, that I am studying the possibility of translating your texts into Portuguese for speakers of this language (I translate only from Spanish, which I have already done with some texts from your blog that have a Spanish version). If you can indicate where to localize your text to the priests, thank you.
    God pay you for everything. In communion of prayer!
    Long live the Pope!

    Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Can I just say to readers to be careful in judging your priests? Always assume positive intent, acknowledging weakness and incompleteness of thought. Pray for all priests. Sometimes the intent is obvious. Do penance for them. Their eternity may be hell otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

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