What are the implications of conditionally repeated sacraments?

“The Church does not tell you to believe anything so absurd.”

Valid Sacraments
Doubtful Baptisms – reflections on the necessity for widespread access to conditional sacraments
Is it Valid? The Proximate Matter of Baptism – a comprehensive guide to possible defects
Is the Church Infallible in her Discipline? by l’Abbé Hervé Belmont
What are the implications of conditionally repeated sacraments? – Text by Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, with commentary

Image: Wiki Commons CC: The dream of St Joseph.

Introductory commentary

The following text is from Mgr Robert Hugh Benson’s 1906 novella The Religion of the Plain Man.

The novella follows John, an archetypal “average man” in England at the time, through the various stages of his intellectual journey to the Roman Catholic Church. On the cusp of his reception into the Church, and realising that he must be conditionally baptised, John asks the priest to explain how he is to view the “sacraments” which he received throughout his life in the Church of England.

Must he think that all movements of grace, which he had hitherto thought that he had perceived, were illusions?

I have also included the text about confession immediately following this passage, as it is very beautiful – not to mention useful.

Following this extract are some comments on its contemporary relevance to traditionalists.

The Religion of the Plain Man
Fr Robert Hugh Benson
Burns and Oates, London, 1910
The Conclusion

Among the questions that he puts there is the following:

“What am I to think about Anglican sacraments? My friends tell me that I must be rebaptized, and that this is contradictory to the Church’s teaching on the subject. She teaches, I understand, that even lay-baptism is valid. Now I was baptized by a clergyman when I was a child. Why then need I be rebaptized? Then there are the other sacraments –”

“One moment,” answers the priest, “let us settle baptism first. Can you tell me for certain that the clergyman baptized you properly? Of course if you can prove this, there will be no question of my baptizing you.”

“What do you mean by ‘properly,’ father?”

“Well, our LORD said ‘Water and the Spirit.’ Some people are very careless about water. I remember once seeing a clergyman sprinkle water towards a boy and a girl who stood about two yards from the font, and I doubt very much whether it even touched them. You see some Church of England clergy honestly do not believe that it matters very much; so of course they are not very particular about it. Why should they be? But in that case the candidates did not have done to them what our LORD meant when He said ‘Water.’ Of course some people differ from us; but the Catholic Church does not pretend to be more spiritual than JESUS CHRIST; she says ‘water’ because He did.”

“I see. Well, I can’t prove that I was properly baptized. I have no witnesses, and the clergyman is dead.”

“Then you must be baptized conditionally. I shall pour water on your head and say that if you are not baptized, I baptize you. If, after all, you were baptized, no harm is done; and if you were not, well, it will be true baptism. There is no question of repeating baptism. Do you understand?”

“Yes; I understand, father. And about the other sacraments?”

“Yes; put it as strongly as you like.”

“Well,” answers John, “my friends are at me for what they say is my repudiation of grace. It is perfectly true that I was very often very happy after receiving Anglican sacraments. When I made my confessions, I never doubted for a moment that I was properly absolved. When I came down again from communion, I was often full of holy thoughts and desires, and was quite sure that I had received JESUS CHRIST. Now, is it really true, father, that I have got to say that all that was nothing at all, or even that it was Satan who made me feel happy in order to keep me back from thinking of the Catholic Church?”

“No, no; nothing so ridiculous. Your friends do not know what they are talking about. The Church does not tell you to believe anything so absurd. When you went to confession and communion in the Church of England, you did your best, I am sure, to be in proper dispositions, to love GOD, and to be really sorry for your sins. Well, then, GOD rewarded you by giving you those holy feelings and thoughts. Every time you were truly contrite He forgave you your sins; and every time you went to communion, because you wished to please Him, He gave you grace. But it was not sacramental grace; the clergyman had no authority to bind or to loose, and no power to consecrate the Body of the LORD; but all that grace was real grace to help you. All that you have to repudiate is your ideas about it, your intellectual conception of it; not the grace itself. Is that any clearer?”

“It is perfectly clear; thank you very much.”

“Tell your friends that, the next time they talk. Tell them that they have simply no idea of what the Church does teach. Why St Gertrude once said that a good spiritual communion often gave more grace than a lukewarm sacramental communion, and the Church expressly teaches that an act of perfect contrition wins forgiveness in the absence of a priest. Of course you have got to confess all your sins again — to carry out your acts of contrition (an act of contrition includes the intention to fulfil all God’s requirements); and now you are able to do that, you must, of course, do it. But your feelings of forgiveness after Anglican absolutions were perfectly true and genuine. God forgave you, because you loved Him and wished to conform to the Sacrament of Penance, not because you actually received it.”

“I understand… Please tell me about my confession.”

“There is very little to tell beyond what I have told you already. You must not be scrupulous and torment yourself. It is probably impossible for you to remember every mortal sin you have ever committed; and GOD only asks you to do your best. You must, as you know, tell anything that you can remember and then leave it. I advise you not to bring a paper with you; it is apt to breed scruples, and you can be as informal as you like. It is very simple.”

John sighed.

“Yes,” he said, “and very hard.”

“No, not so hard, if you look beyond it… I remember as a boy coming home from school I had a very long drive from the station in a dog-cart. I lived in the north, and the drive was terribly cold sometimes in winter. But, you know, I did not mind it much. Of course, it was not pleasant; but then there was the home-coming to look forward to – the lights, the warmth, my mother – in fact, home. Do you understand?”

“I understand, father.”

“Well, then, shall we say next Thursday at 4 o’clock?”

As John kneels in the Church on the following Thursday a few minutes before four o’clock he is conscious of great excitement and great fear.

It is a dingy little place, wholly unimpressive in itself; yet it has the strange silence that he has so often noticed there before. From outside come the murmur of wheels, the patter of feet on the pavement, the rumour of a world that goes about its business; and he has the sensation of a swimmer who stands poised on the edge of a deep-flowing stream. He wishes he had not come, or that he had come sooner, or that the day had been fixed a week hence; and although he is physically free to get up and go out, it is a morally impossible act. The shock of the plunge is imminent; he will be presently among those mysteries half seen through the wrinkled swirl of the surface; and he knows they will look very differently then, but he is not certain whether they will be more or less inviting when he is amid the medium that half discloses, half conceals, their nature.

But the silence becomes vivid and alive as he stares disconsolately at the steady little red spark overhead above the tabernacle, and finds at last a supersensual voice.

“It is I: Be not afraid.”

From Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, The Religion of the Plain Man, (and for UK readers), Burns and Oates, London, 1910, Conclusion. Available at the Internet Archive.

Contemporary Relevance to Traditionalists

Having enjoyed Mgr Benson’s moving prose, let’s consider its relevance for today.

It is well known that traditionalists have historically been uneasy about the sacramental rites which were changed in their essentials following Vatican II. This is based on concerns about factors such as changes themselves, ministerial intentions, defects of form, and defects of matter.

This uneasiness continues to exacerbated as time goes on: for example, in 2020, there were revelations that thousands of baptisms have indeed been administered invalidly due to changes made by the ministers involved. Needless to say, this has implications far beyond the dioceses in question.

This general sentiment of suspicion and doubt was described by Fr Peter Scott SSPX in 2007, in reference to the new rites of ordination:

“For regardless of the technical question of the validity of a priest’s holy orders, we all recognize the Catholic sense that tells us that there can be no mixing of the illegitimate new rites with the traditional Catholic rites, a principle so simply elucidated by Archbishop Lefebvre on June 29, 1976:

“‘We are not of this religion. We do not accept this new religion. We are of the religion of all time, of the Catholic religion. We are not of that universal religion, as they call it today. It is no longer the Catholic religion. We are not of that liberal, modernist religion that has its worship, its priests, its faith, its catechisms, its Bible.'” 

As a result of this sense – which Fr Scott in fact calls “the Catholic sense” – traditionalists have long been used to the conditional repetition of the sacraments of Confirmation, Holy Orders and even Baptism, in accordance with Canon 732:

Canon 732 § 1. The Sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and orders, which imprint a character, cannot be repeated.

§ 2. But if a prudent doubt exists about whether really and validly these [Sacraments] were conferred, they are to be conferred again under condition. (Trans.: Dr Ed. Peters)


Some find this practice surprising for a variety of reasons.

One reason is that it seems to imply, as it did to John in the extract above, that all the sacraments received hitherto were invalid; and that any graces which the person believes himself to have received were nothing but illusions.

These ideas are especially difficult for those who might have genuinely grown in virtue and the love of God, whether apparently thanks to the new rites and men ordained with these rites. These ideas are difficult for such priests themselves, who might have seen the effects of grace on their parishioners, at least apparently, as a result of their sacramental ministry and pastoral care.

It is not surprising that this seems totally unacceptable to most. It is also a thoroughly unnecessary and unhelpful way expressing the relevant points.

Resolutions and Double-edged arguments

The extract from Mgr Benson given above addresses these unhelpful expressions of the ideas. It might give us a better way of thinking about things, which could lead to peace and unity for the common good.

Let’s go to the root of the question, and consider the vexed question of the validity of the new rites of holy orders.

While some are very certain that they are valid, and others are very certain that they are invalid, the reality is that it is more complicated than some studies suggest. Some conclusions in the crisis are truly certain and are based on simple, profound principles. Others, such as the validity of these rites, are considerably more complicated, and leave us in a position of doubt.

The situation which Benson describes is analogous to our own, although not identical. We know that Anglican orders are invalid, but the questions around the rites of the sacraments changed after Vatican II are not so clear.

In a position like this, it is arguably for the Church, not us, to resolve – at least if it is to be resolved in favour of validity.

Against this, some might suggest that the Church has already decided, by promulgating the rites in the first place. This argument is a double-edged sword when used by those who also reject the Novus Ordo and the other conciliar rites, or at least criticise them as bad in themselves. It presumes that the Church can promulgate defective rites, so long as they are nonetheless valid – but this is quite a claim, and itself stands in need of proof (to put it mildly).

On the contrary, rites which are bad or unsafe cannot be said to have come from the Church. Indeed, when when challenged on this point, Archbishop Lefebvre declined to say that they did.[1]

An SSPX study on the liturgy also affirms as much:

“Equally, one cannot say that the rite of Mass resulting from the reform of 1969 is that of the Church, even if it was conceived by churchmen.”[2]

In other words, it is difficult to see how those who argue that the conciliar changes are bad or defective can insist that everybody recognise them as valid. If such rites have not come from the Church, then they have no intrinsic guarantee of validity.

As a result, for those who argue that the Novus Ordo Mass is bad in itself, doubt about the other post-conciliar sacramental rites is at least probably “in possession,” with the burden of proof falling on those who assert validity.

Such assertions will only be as probable as the arguments on which they are based – and acting on a merely probable opinion of the validity of these rites (in terms of receiving or administering the sacraments) is not a legitimate moral choice.

Certainty and doubt

However, it may well happen that individuals or groups satisfy themselves, not only of validity through examination of the rites in light of sacramental theology, but also that the rite was correctly administered in any particular case. But even if individuals or groups believe that they have attained such moral certainty, they should recognise that this remains a complicated open question, and will probably remain so until unambiguously resolved by the Church. Until that point, the advocates of either side should not try to impose their opinion on anyone else in the speculative or practical realms.

That said, the very nature of it being an open question points towards the conditional repetition of these sacraments.

Resolving the existence of doubt does not call for anyone to take any opinion on the prior validity of these sacraments. Given these arguments and the ideas in Benson’s extract, the conditional repetition of baptism, confirmation and holy orders does not need to imply that they were invalidly received before – notwithstanding the arguments made by those on all sides.

It is certain that there are many Catholics who will suffer a crisis of conscience if the only option for receiving the sacraments is from a priest whose orders appear invalid or doubtful to them. On the other hand, conditional repetition for the reasons above need harm nobody’s conscience, and will achieve the great goods of certainty and peace.

This is surely a justified pastoral response based on Fr Scott’s “Catholic sense”, and is surely more than sufficient grounds for conditional repetition of the sacraments in question.

Valid Sacraments
Doubtful Baptisms – reflections on the necessity for widespread access to conditional sacraments
Is it Valid? The Proximate Matter of Baptism – a comprehensive guide to possible defects
Is the Church Infallible in her Discipline? by l’Abbé Hervé Belmont
What are the implications of conditionally repeated sacraments? – Text by Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, with commentary


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[1] Consider the following:

QUESTION (from the CDF): Do you hold that a faithful Catholic can think and say that a sacramental rite, in particular that of the Mass, approved and promulgated by the Sovereign Pontiff, can be out of conformity with the Catholic faith or “favoring heresy”?

ANSWER (from Archbishop Lefebvre): That rite in itself does not profess the Catholic faith in as clear a manner as did the old Ordo Missae, and consequently it can favor heresy. But I do not know to whom to attribute it, nor if the Pope is responsible for it.

What is astounding is that an Ordo Missae savoring of Protestantism and therefore “favoring heresy” should be spread abroad by the Roman Curia. (Emphasis added)

Archbishop Lefebvre, in Michael Davies, Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre Vol II, Examination before the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, January 11 and 12, 1979. https://web.archive.org/web/20210801190211/https://www.sspxasia.com/Documents/Archbishop-Lefebvre/Apologia/Vol_two/Chapter_32.htm

[2] The Society of St Pius X, The Problem of the Liturgical Reform, Angelus Press, Kansas City, Missouri, 2001. N. 122.

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