Nov 11, 2020

Q: At times, in situations where the validity of a sacrament is questioned—such as in the recent cases of the invalid baptisms of certain priests—some claim that ecclesia supplet takes care of the validity of the sacrament that would otherwise be invalid. What is ecclesia supplet, and does it make a sacrament valid when the necessary elements are not there?

A: The notion of ecclesia supplet (literally “the Church supplies”) is a canonical notion where, in certain situations, the Church herself supplies for a required grant of the power of jurisdiction or executive power of governance to a capable person to place an act (such as a sacramental act) validly where such a necessary grant is either missing or was granted defectively. Canon 144 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) lists several situations where the “Church would supply” for a missing or defective necessary executive power of governance.

With regards to the Sacraments, recall that canonically a “faculty” is a grant of a power of governance (a.k.a. “jurisdiction,” CIC, can. 129). A “faculty” is granted by a competent canonical authority for an ordained cleric to be able to exercise certain powers of his holy orders validly. Though ordination confers the ability for a cleric to be able to celebrate certain sacraments, some sacraments require the additional grant of a “faculty” in order for the sacrament to be celebrated validly by the ordained person. In the Latin Church, sacraments that require a “faculty” for their valid celebrations are the sacraments of Confirmation, Reconciliation, and Marriage (See e.g., CIC, cann. 882-883; 966-976; and 1111).

It is important always to keep in mind that the notion of ecclesia supplet only applies to the very limited situations outlined in canon 144 and that, for the sacraments, it only supplies a missing grant of faculty where one was lacking. In no way does it nor can it supply for any of the other essential elements of a sacrament. In other words, ecclesia supplet does not and cannot supply for the lack of a required proper person, proper matter, proper form, or proper intent necessary for the valid celebration of a sacrament.

Thus, since the June 2020 Response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dealt only with clarifying the proper form of the baptismal formula, ecclesia supplet does not apply. Situations where an incorrect formula of baptism is used—regardless of error, doubt, or ignorance—are always considered invalid conferrals of the sacrament. This is why the required, sacramental formula (proper form) for a valid baptism is referred to as the forma absoluta.

—Answered by Benedict Nguyen

Chancellor, Diocese of Corpus Christi

Benedict Nguyen

Benedict Nguyen is a canon and civil lawyer and serves as the Canonical Counsel & Theological Adviser for the Diocese of Corpus Christi (Texas). He also serves as an adjunct professor for the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation.