The Vault

T.C. Hammond: On the unworthiness of ministers (Article 26)

The twenty-sixth article is of considerable importance because it defines a very sharp line of cleavage between the Church of England and the Church of Rome.

The controversy clusters round the very vexed problem of intention in the performance of the sacraments of the Church.

The Council of Trent is quite explicit in the necessity of intention. Canon XII of Session VII reads:

“If anyone saith, that, in ministers, when they effect (literally, ‘make’) and confer the sacraments, there is not required the intention at least of doing what the Church does; let him be anathema.”

Further, in Session XIV, Chapter VI, the same council warns the penitent that he “ought not to confide (a note points out that the words used are sibi blandiri, ‘flatter himself upon’) in his own personal faith, as to think that—even though there be no contrition on his part, or no intention on the part of the priest of acting seriously and absolving truly—he is nevertheless truly and in God’s sight absolved, on account of his faith alone. For neither would faith without  penance bestow any remission of sins; nor would he be otherwise than most careless of his own salvation, who, knowing that a priest but absolved him in jest, should not carefully seek for another who would act in earnest.”

“A judicial act”

Canon IX of the same Session reads:

“If anyone saith, that the sacramental absolution of the priest is not a judicial act, but a ministry of pronouncing and declaring sins to be forgiven to him who confesses; provided only he believes himself to be absolved, or (even though) the priest absolve not in earnest, but in joke; or saith, that the confession of the penitent is not required, in order that the priest may absolve him; let him be anathema.”

Cardinal Bellarmine discusses this matter at length in his treatise on the sacraments (Chapter XXVII, pp. 101-2 and p. 106 in the Lyons Edition, 1589). The Cardinal makes a most careful analysis of the decrees of the Council of Trent. He points out that Ambrose Catharinus appears to approach nearly to a heretical opinion, in his judgment, which teaches that the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend at all on the intention of the minister. He credits Chemitz with teaching that the action of the sacrament is not bound up with farcical mockery or absurd mime in which it may seem to us to be combined.

Catharinus distinguishes two intentions in the minister. One is the performance simply of the external act which the church does; the other is the performance of the external act not simply but as a sacrament, or celebrating the mystery that Christ instituted and the church celebrates. Catharinus taught that the first of these intentions is required; the necessity of the latter he denies.

According to Bellarmine, Catharinus is only delivered from heresy in that at the end of his little work he submits himself to the Apostolic See and the council. The heretics ridicule both.

Intention—general and particular

Bellarmine proceeds to discuss the opinion, which he accepts as the Catholic opinion, that an intention is required to do what the church does. Here he introduces a distinction. The minister may have a general intention of doing what the church does, or he may have a particular intention to confirm the sacrament of baptism, absolution, confirmation or of consecrating the Eucharist. He concludes that while it is better to have this particular intention, yet anyone who does not know the Roman Catholic mysteries fulfils the requirement if he in ends to do what the Church does.

But the question arises; suppose a person intends to do what a particular Church, say the Genevan, does, and does not in tend to do what the Roman Church does, would the sacrament be valid?

Bellarmine answers yes—because the minister believes himself to be a member of the true universal Church. He may be deceived in his knowledge as to the true Church, but an error of the minister about the true Church does not remove the efficacy of the sacrament. It is not a defect of intention.

Further, Bellarmine points out that actual intention is not a necessary requirement, and on the other hand, habitual intention is not enough. Virtual intention at least is necessary for the efficacy of the sacrament.

Virtual intention

By virtual intention Bellarmine means a conscious determination to do what the Church does even though we may be distracted from our direct intention by something else even when performing sacred acts.

Habitual intention is distinguished from virtual intention as an infused habit of action which may be manifested in drunkenness or sleep. Since such an action is present in sleep there can be no doubt that it is not sufficient to give efficacy to the term habitual intention when he meant to speak of virtual intention. Bellarmine asserts that all “Catholic” doctors wonderfully agree in this doctrine with the one exception of Catharinus.

One other point is expanded in this exposition of Bellarmine. Referring to the exhortation regarding absolution conferred in joke, the Cardinal makes an important distinction. It was suggested to him by the old story that Athanasius was baptised in jest by his schoolmates, and yet the bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, treated his baptism as valid.

Sacraments in joke

The distinction he makes is between two modes by which it is possible to confer the sacrament in a joke. In one mode those who play intend truly to confer the sacrament, but for the purpose of refreshing their mind in that manner, as it is possibly to intend truly to confer the sacrament for the purpose of acquiring gain. And in this play does not impede the truth of the sacrament because the joke is extrinsic to the action of the sacrament itself.

In the other mode those who play do not intend truly to confer the sacraments but to play and to deceive in the same way as those who clothed Christ in purple and said to Him: “Hail, King of the Jews,” did not intend to make Him King, but to make sport of Him. And this play impedes the truth of the sacrament because this joke is intrinsic to the action.

Bellarmine concludes that the play of Athanasius was of the former type. He willed truly to be baptised, but received that action as a matter of sport and humour.

It is important to bear this discussion in mind as it enables us to understand the motive lying behind Article XXVI and throws into bold relief its pertinence to the problems created by the Roman Catholic Church at the period of the Reformation.

From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, 18 February 1960. This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to TC Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.