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Valid but illicit

This article is part of the series:
Legislation and Legal System of the Catholic Church
Canon Law Task Force

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. Rules laid down by the Church alone ("merely ecclesiastical law"), not by Christ himself or by God, do not apply to those who have not been baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it.[3][clarification needed]


"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."[4] and administration of baptism is one of the functions especially entrusted to the parish priest.[5] However, for validity in the eyes of the Catholic Church, "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".[6]


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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]


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,[10] or leavened wheaten bread in certain Eastern Catholic Churches.[11] 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.[12][13]

A priest who has been laicized or suspended or excommunicated is not to say Mass, but their Masses are still considered valid.[14]


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.[15]

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.[16]

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. 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.[17]

Holy orders

All bishops are able to ordain a deacon, priest, or bishop. A valid but illicit ordination, as the name suggests, is a non-sanctioned ordination in which a bishop uses his valid ability to ordain someone without having first received the required authorization. The bishop is therefore acting in a manner deemed illicit or illegal.[18][19]

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.[20]

Likewise, any and all subsequent ordinations or consecrations by someone thus consecrated may be considered valid but illicit.

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.[21]


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.[22] 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.[23] Other cases in which a marriage is not merely illicit but invalid are indicated in canons 1083-1094 of the Code of Canon Law.[24]

See also


  1. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 124 §2
  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 11
  4. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 862
  5. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 530
  6. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1256
  7. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 886
  8. ^ Code of Canon Law, canons 882-884
  9. ^ Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 696
  10. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 926
  11. ^ Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 707 §1
  12. ^ Cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 924 §2; Missale Romanum, Institutio Generalis, n. 320.
  13. ^ [1] The Catholic Legate (scroll down to "Valid or Illicit?" section.)
  14. ^ Frank K. Flinn, J. Gordon Melton (editors), Encyclopedia of Catholicism (Facts on File 2007 ISBN 978-0-8160-5455-8), p. 619
  15. ^ Code of Canon Law, canons 965-977
  16. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 967 §3
  17. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1003
  18. ^ Code of Canon Law, canons 1382-1383
  19. ^ 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."
  20. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1382
  21. ^ Decree remitting the excommunication latae sententiae of the. Bishops of the Society of St Pius X
  22. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1124
  23. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1086
  24. ^ Code of Canon Law, canons 1083-1094