Valid but illicit

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Valid but illicit and valid but illegal are descriptions applied in Roman Catholicism to an unauthorized celebration of a sacrament that nevertheless has effect. While validity is presumed whenever an act is placed "by a qualified person and includes those things which essentially constitute the act itself as well as the formalities and requirements imposed by law for the validity of the act",[1][2] Roman Catholic canon law also lays down rules for lawful placing of the act.


"Except in a case of necessity, it is unlawful for anyone without due permission to confer baptism outside his own territory, not even upon his own subjects."[3] and administration of baptism is one of the functions especially entrusted to the parish priest.[4] However, for validity in the eyes of the Catholic Church, in an emergency situation "any person, even someone not baptized, can baptize, if he has the required intention. The intention required is to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes, and to apply the Trinitarian baptismal formula".[5]


A bishop is the ordinary minister of confirmation and he may licitly administer it to his own subjects everywhere and, in his own territory, even to Catholics who are not his subjects, unless their ordinary has expressly forbidden it.[6] In the Latin Church, simple priests (presbyters) can validly and licitly confirm in some circumstances, such as when they baptize adults or receive them into the Church and when there is danger of death.[7] Priests of the Eastern Catholic Churches can validly confer the sacrament on any Catholic, even a Catholic of the Latin Church; but they can do so licitly only on those who belong to his own particular Church and on other Catholics who meet the conditions of either being his subjects or are being lawfully baptized by him, or of being in danger of death.[8]


A prime example of valid but illicit celebration of a sacrament would be the use of leavened wheaten bread for the Eucharist in the Latin Rite,[9] or leavened wheaten bread in certain Eastern Catholic Churches.[10] If, on the other hand, rice or rye flour are used instead of wheat, or if butter, honey, or eggs are added, particularly in large quantities, the Mass would be invalid and transubstantiation would not occur.[11][12]

Likewise, wine used for the Eucharist must be valid and licit. Invalid wine would be any wine containing high levels of volatile acidity (vinegar) or to be made of non-grape fruits. Valid but illicit wines would be any containing water (amelioration), non-grapes sugars such as corn syrup, cane sugar, beet sugar and non-grape flavorings, and those wine fortified with grain alcohol and other non-grapes distilled spirits.

A priest who has been laicized or suspended or excommunicated is not to say Mass, but their Masses are still considered valid.[13]


Church laws regarding confession require that priests who are hearing confessions must have valid faculties and jurisdiction. As penance is not only a sacramental act, but one of jurisdiction, a tribunal of binding and loosing, these faculties are considered to be required for both for validity and liceity.[14]

Those who are provided with the faculty of hearing confessions by reason of office or grant of a competent superior of a religious institute or society of apostolic life possess the same faculty everywhere by the law itself as regards members and others living day and night in the house of the institute or society; they also use the faculty licitly unless some major superior has denied it in a particular case as regards his own subjects.[15]

As a case of valid but illicit penances, one might consider such Confessions wherein the Confessor, who is a priest but does not have the faculties to hear Confession, knowingly and without good reason pretends to have them, resulting in an error of the penitent (as in this case the Church supplants the faculties leading to validity of the sacrament, can. 144, but the priest cannot justify what he does).

However, in danger of death or a very grave emergency, any priest anywhere, even a suspended or interdicted or excommunicated or laicized priest, who would not have faculties anymore, or a priest who for some reason does not have them yet, may still validly and licitly absolve the person, even in those cases where a priest in good standing with faculties is nearby.

A Bishop or other superior can allow someone, in certain limited cases, whose faculties for confession have been taken away to make exceptions to exercise them for a time or for certain purposes, as Pope Francis did when he allowed priests of the schismatic breakaway Lefebvrist Society of Saint Pius X to hear confessions during the Year of Mercy, in 2015 and 2016. However, those instances are the exception to the norm.

Anointing of the sick

Every priest can administer the sacrament of anointing of the sick validly. While the duty and right to administer it pertains to the priest to whom the spiritual care of the person concerned is entrusted, any other priest may, for a reasonable cause administer it instead, provided he has the presumed consent of the priest who has the duty and right.[16] Without that presumed consent, he is in the same position as a priest who has been laicized or suspended or excommunicated and whose administration of the sacrament, though valid, is illicit.

Holy orders

All bishops are able to ordain a deacon, priest, or bishop. In the sacrament of holy orders, a valid but illicit ordination, as the name suggests, is an ordination in which a bishop uses his valid ability to ordain someone a bishop without having first received the required authorization. The same would apply to a bishop's ordaining of a man who has not undergone and completed necessary seminary schooling as required by Canon Law. The bishop is therefore acting in a manner deemed illicit or illegal.[17][18]

A Catholic bishop who consecrates someone to the episcopate without a mandate from the Pope is automatically excommunicated according to canon law, even though the ordination may be considered valid. The person who receives consecration from him is also automatically excommunicated. The excommunication can only be lifted by the Holy See.[19]

In the 20th century, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre is said to have earned automatic excommunication for his valid but illicit ordinations of four bishops without a papal mandate. However, his defenders argue that he acted under grave fear, which, according to canon law, excuses him from automatic excommunication. After Lefebvre's death, the Holy See on 21 January 2009 lifted the excommunication of the four bishops whom he ordained.[20]


A marriage celebrated in due form, but without express permission of the competent authority of the Catholic Church, between a Catholic and another baptized person enrolled in a Church or ecclesial community not in full communion with the Catholic Church is "prohibited" (illicit), but is valid.[21] On the other hand, a marriage celebrated in due form between a Catholic and an unbaptized person is invalid, unless dispensation has previously been obtained from the competent Church authority.[22] Other cases in which a marriage is not merely illicit but invalid are indicated in canons 1083–1094 of the Code of Canon Law.[23]

See also


  1. Code of Canon Law, canon 124 §1
  2. Apostolicae curae, "Whenever there is no appearance of simulation on the part of the minister, the validity of the sacrament is sufficiently certain"
  3. Code of Canon Law, canon 862
  4. Code of Canon Law, canon 530
  5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1256
  6. Code of Canon Law, canon 886
  7. Code of Canon Law, canons 882-884
  8. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 696 Archived November 3, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  9. Code of Canon Law, canon 926
  10. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 707 §1 Archived November 3, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  11. Cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 924 §2; Missale Romanum, Institutio Generalis, n. 320.
  12. The Catholic Legate (scroll down to "Valid or Illicit?" section.)
  13. Frank K. Flinn, J. Gordon Melton (editors), Encyclopedia of Catholicism (Facts on File 2007 ISBN 978-0-8160-5455-8), p. 619
  14. Code of Canon Law, canons 965-977 Archived April 18, 2016, at the Wayback Machine.
  15. Code of Canon Law, canon 967 §3 Archived April 18, 2016, at the Wayback Machine.
  16. Code of Canon Law, canon 1003
  17. Code of Canon Law, canons 1382-1383 Archived March 27, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  18. Dr. Ludwig Ott,(1952), Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. p. 456. "Every validly consecrated bishop, including heretical, schismatic, simonistic, or excommunicated bishops, can validly dispense the Sacrament of Order, provided that he has the requisite intention, and follows the essential external rite (set. Certa). Cf. D 855, 860; CIC 2372."
  19. Code of Canon Law, canon 1382 Archived March 27, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  20. Decree remitting the excommunication latae sententiae of the. Bishops of the Society of St Pius X Archived September 12, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  21. Code of Canon Law, canon 1124 Archived July 17, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
  22. Code of Canon Law, canon 1086 Archived June 24, 2014, at the Wayback Machine.
  23. Code of Canon Law, canons 1083-1094 Archived June 24, 2014, at the Wayback Machine.
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