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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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The Church’s Right to Regulate Her Sacraments

This is the fourth post in a discussion about the married priests movement.  This post deals with the authority of the Church to regulate her sacraments.


These comments about the sacraments initially came under a post about excommunicated clerics and a breakaway church. I asked the critic, “Have you left the Church?” Certainly, a view that dislodges the sacraments from the charge of the Church implies a movement toward the schismatic and/or Protestant confessions.


You wrote, “The teaching and governing Church has every right to regulate her sacraments as she see fit.”

Not really, Father. She has, rather, the obligation to administer the sacraments in a fashion consistent with the call to mercy so often issued by Jesus. “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” And again, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” Paul refused to ordain a man to the office of bishop unless he was a married man. He insisted on proof of maturity and the ability to raise a family. I’m not sure that we have anything that works as consistently as that to weed out unsuitable candidates.

Remember that the sacraments are gifts of grace poured out on the unworthy. You don’t regulate gifts. I know that God certainly doesn’t.


Sorry, but you are wrong. God does indeed regulate the sacraments, but through the instrumentality and secondary causality of the Church. Certainly, the Church has been given a great charge from Christ, but the statement about the regulation of the sacraments is not my private notion but the long-standing teaching of the faith.

Even history bears this out in such things as the evolution or development of the sacrament of penance [baptism for the remission of sins / second penance / petitioning the living martyrs who survived persecution / repeated auricular confession]. The keys are given to Peter and the Church, he and the Church can loosen and can bind.

The Church can say who can and cannot receive Holy Communion. The Church can require that only men, 25 years of age and older are ordained. The Church can add disciplines like celibacy to the vocation. The Church can mandate a priest or deacon as a witness to marriages. The Church can regulate by faculties what a priest can and cannot do— preach, offer Mass, hear confessions, etc. The Church can set requirements for baptism, particularly the faith and practice of candidates or that of the children’s parents. The bishop can offer confirmation or delegate this to a priest. These are only a few of the many instances of sacramental regulation.

Yes, sacraments bring God’s mercy to men, but it is through the vehicle of the Church and her faith and ministers.

Canon Law, Book 4 spells out various norms and regulations associated with the Church’s sacraments. Non-Catholic and breakaway communities might take from the Church facets of the faith and sacraments, but these elements properly belong to the Catholic Church (the faith community established directly by Jesus as the new People of God).

The universal catechism confirms what I say:

[CCC 1117] As she has done for the canon of Sacred Scripture and for the doctrine of the faith, THE CHURCH, by the power of the Spirit who guides her “into all truth,” has GRADUALLY RECOGNIZED this treasure received from Christ and, as the FAITHFUL STEWARD OF GOD’S MYSTERIES, has DETERMINED ITS “DISPENSATION.” Thus the Church has discerned over the centuries that among liturgical celebrations there are seven that are, in the strict sense of the term, sacraments instituted by the Lord.

[CCC 1118] The sacraments are “OF THE CHURCH” in the DOUBLE SENSE that they are “BY HER” and “FOR HER.” They are “by the Church,” for she is the sacrament of Christ’s action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit. They are “for the Church” in the sense that “the sacraments make the Church,” since they manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the God who is love, One in three persons.

Even some of the sacramental guidelines we find in St. Paul (regarding qualifications for bishops, women silent in churches, and his participation in the Council of Jerusalem in the baptism/circumcision debate) were simply the disciplines of the Church current at that time. The Sabbath itself, which you mention, was modified by the Church. The Hebrew Sabbath was moved to Sunday, not because of any utterance from Christ, but by the early regulation of the Church which celebrated the Lord’s resurrection and his Eucharist on Sunday morning.

There are assuredly certain givens about the sacraments granted us by God and distributed by the Church, having to do with their institution and purpose. The Church takes that into consideration but regulates the sacraments nonetheless. I have already given ample examples. But to help you I will offer the quick instance of Holy Communion. The priest might legitimately give you and the community the host alone or he might also give you the cup. Either way, you receive the complete Christ. That decision about distribution, just like receiving in the hand or on the tongue, standing or kneeling, etc. is a form of sacramental regulation.

Are we talking at cross-purposes? You contend that sacraments by their very nature as gifts are freely given and thus cannot be regulated. Well, indeed, the sacraments are gifts given to the Church, but not everyone is entitled to them. Non-Catholics and those outside the Church are not invited to receive Holy Communion or generally any of the sacraments. People who are not properly disposed are not welcome to receive the sacraments, either.

Since the sacraments are Christ’s gifts to the Church, and not per se to us as individuals, the Church has the authority to regulate them— giving them to some and withholding them from others.


Grace in whatever guise is a gift. All grace is without regulation. The only problem is what use the recipient makes of the gift. This is certainly in accordance with Catholic theology.


Yes, grace is always a gift, but not all grace comes solely with the sacraments. Even the movement toward faith and conversion is only possible through divine grace. The sacraments make possible our reception of both actual and sanctifying grace. However, since some graces are reserved to the life of the Church, as for instance with those associated with sacraments and indulgences, they can be regulated. Some graces are gifts both from God and in a secondary way from the administration of Mother Church. So you are wrong again, and increasing Protestant in your perspective. Martin Luther objected to the notion that the Church could make certain graces available in indulgences from the divine treasury of grace that comes from God through the meritorious work and lives of the saints. Further, prayer for the poor souls in purgatory is another case where the Church seeks grace for those souls who are helpless and in need of help regarding the residual temporal punishment due to sin and cleansing from the last vestiges of venial sin, sinful habits or disposition.

  1. The Church can regulate sacraments but sacraments cannot be distorted beyond the boundaries of institution (for example you cannot use pretzels and beer for Holy Communion). Neither can a bishop ordain women as priests!
  2. The disposition of a person, faithless, in mortal sin, etc. can make it a sacrilege to receive a sacrament and render it impossible to merit grace.
  3. While there are graces that one might receive outside the Church, like the gift of conversion, such graces draw people into a greater unity with the Church and Christ’s kingdom.

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