It’s true: the Church has the power to change the form and matter of sacraments. So does this mean we may someday receive Doritos and Pepsi at Mass?
One of the crowning moments in my life was during the ritual of crowning, when I heard my priest chant three times, “The servant of God, Michael, is crowned in marriage for the servant of God, Stacy, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” It was in this moment that I was given over to my wife to a life of sacramental union.
As important as these words are to the sacrament of marriage in the Byzantine Catholic Church, it is likely something most Latin Rite Catholics have not heard of. This is because the sacrament of marriage, like some of the other sacraments, is celebrated with great diversity in the Catholic Church.
The differences are especially seen when someone compares the minister of the sacrament in the Roman Rite to the Byzantine Rite. In the Roman Rite, the current Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) notes that the spouses are the ministers, who confer the grace of the sacrament upon one another (1623), whereas an older version of the Catechism notes that in the Byzantine Rite, “the priest or bishop” confers the sacrament upon the spouses (1623).
The difference in the minister of the sacrament in these two traditions raises many questions. For example, how can the Church have two different ministers in two different rites for the same sacrament if Christ instituted the sacraments, as the Council of Trent proclaimed?
To make matters even more complicated, the Catholic Church has altered conditions for the validity of this sacrament—formerly recognizing secret marriages as valid, whereas after the Council of Trent’s twenty-fourth session, clandestine marriages are considered invalid. The council explicitly states,
Although it is not to be doubted that clandestine marriages made with the free consent of the contracting parties are valid and true marriages . . . the holy Church of God has for very just reasons at all times detested and forbidden them. . . . Since the Church . . . cannot correct this evil unless a more efficacious remedy is applied, therefore . . . in the future . . . those who shall attempt to contract marriage otherwise than in the presence of the parish priest or of another priest authorized by the parish priest or by the ordinary and in the presence of two or three witnesses, the holy council renders absolutely incapable of thus contracting marriage and declares such contracts invalid and null.
This means the Church openly added a condition for validity to a sacrament that had not been previously there!
Fr. John W. O’Malley shares this interpretation of Trent:
In actual fact, however, the council made changes that were innovations, not simply a burnishing of past laws. The decree Tametsi is the clearest example of such innovations. It stipulated that henceforth the church would consider no marriage valid unless witnessed by a priest.
To top it off, Pope Paul VI altered the form and matter of anointing of the sick. In his apostolic constitution on the sacrament, the pope changed the formula used to administer the sacrament and expanded the matter to include oils other than olive oil.
With changes to the minister of a sacrament, impositions of additional requirements for validity, and alterations to the matter and form of a sacrament, someone may wonder where the line is drawn! Is everything up for grabs? Can the Church change the matter of the Eucharist from bread and wine to Doritos and Pepsi, for example? Lastly, how can the Church determine different sacramental standards for different rites?
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s first define a couple of terms. Professor and Theologian Dr. Lawrence Feingold offers an excellent summary of form and matter:
The sacramental sign is composed of (a) sensible elements and/or gestures, and (b) a formula of words that further determines the meaning of the sensible elements (p. 134).
In fine, the sensible element is the matter, and the meaning given to the matter is the form. For example, in the sacrament of baptism for the Roman Rite, the matter is water, and the form is “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1240). Whereas in the Eastern liturgies, the matter is water, but the form is “The servant of God, N., is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (ibid). In both cases, the substantial meaning added to the matter is the same.
The good news is there is a method to the madness of “changing sacraments.” First, let’s note in what way Christ instituted the seven sacraments. Feingold rightly observes that the Council of Trent teaches that Christ instituted all seven sacraments, but he did not specify their particular matter and form in every case (p. 106). This means that the Church has been given considerable power over the administration of the sacraments. This is why Pope Pius XII says, in the context of the Church adding requirements for sacramental validity, “Everyone knows that the Church has the power to change and abrogate what she herself has established.” Where did the Church get this power? The Council of Trent answers,
It [the council] furthermore declares, that this power has ever been in the Church, that, in the dispensation of the sacraments, their substance being untouched, it may ordain, or change, what things soever it may judge most expedient, for the profit of those who receive, or for the veneration of the said sacraments, according to the difference of circumstances, times, and places.
Some may wonder how far this power extends. In other words, at what point does this power given to the Church run out?
Feingold offers an answer: “if a sacramental form is so changed that it no longer signifies the substantial meaning, purpose, or effects of the sacrament, then it will cease to be valid” (p. 169).
This is one of the reasons why the sacrament of the Eucharist cannot be changed to use Doritos and Pepsi. In this case, the body and blood of Christ are no longer signified by the signs of chips and soda, which means that the substantial meaning has been lost. Moreover, though Christ gave the Church significant power to alter the sacraments in certain cases, he personally determined the matter and form of the sacrament of the Eucharist on the night in which he was betrayed. This means, even if Doritos and Pepsi do not alter the meaning of the sacrament, the church does not have the authority to undo what Christ has determined.
To answer the final question, about the sacramental diversity among the various rites, this is how the Church can account for different conditions for validity in different rites: it has the authority from Christ to determine how and when a sacrament can be conferred, with a few exceptions, as noted above. For this reason, the Church, which is the steward of the “mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1), is most certainly able to alter various aspects of the sacraments when it sees fit.