Two recent incidents in my family have provoked this letter. The first had to do with our handyman, who has been living-in with his girlfriend for more than a year. When I finally convinced him to get married in Church, he came back to me with a problem: His parish has a fee of P4,000 for the cheapest wedding! He couldn’t afford it yet and will have to save till next year. The second incident had to do with my cousin, who wanted to get married, but couldn’t attend the pre-Cana seminars since they were spread out to two Saturday mornings, and both he and his fiancée had work on Saturdays. Despite their pleadings, they were not given any considerations, so in a huff they got “married” in an Aglipayan church. In contrast, I also know that in my parish, even if there is a requirement for parents from other parishes to attend a seminar for the baptism of their baby, the parish waives the requirement when the parents can produce proof of an equivalent catechetical instruction or formation received elsewhere.
What does Canon Law really establish for these cases?
There are several issues at stake in these incidents, and we have to tackle them separately. From the most general (and fundamental) to the most specific (and accidental), we can enumerate them as follows: 1) The fundamental right of the Catholic faithful to the sacraments; 2) the consequent optional nature of pastoral programs for their reception—e.g., the Pre-Cana seminar and the pre-baptismal seminar; 3) the absolute injustice of charging a fee for the administration of any sacrament.
The Fundamental Right of the Faithful to the Sacraments.
At first glance, no man should have a right to the channels of grace—which are what the sacraments really are—since nobody has a right to grace itself, which is freely given by God. Nevertheless, God has wanted to redeem mankind by the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who instituted the Catholic Church as his continuing presence—Sacramentum magnum—in human history, giving her the mandate to preach the Good News of salvation to all men, to baptize them and to lead them towards the fullness of Christian life. Concretely, Christ instituted the sacraments of the New Law as means of salvation for men (sacramenta propter homines), in order to enable each of them to participate in the fruits of the Redemption. Thus, through baptism, the faithful acquire the right—indeed not towards God but towards the Hierarchical Church—to have access to all the means of salvation. This fundamental right is enunciated by the Code of Canon Law in the following terms:
Can. 213 — The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments.
This juridic principle is complemented by another one, which stems from the need to safeguard the sanctity of the sacraments and the fact that their celebration always constitutes an act of public cult of the whole Church. This is enunciated by the Code in the following terms:
Can. 843 — §1. The sacred ministers can not refuse the sacraments to those who ask for them at appropriate times, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.
§2. Pastors of souls and the rest of the Christian faithful, according to their ecclesial function, have the duty to see that those who seek the sacraments are prepared to receive them by the necessary evangelization and catechetical formation, taking into account the norms published by the competent authority.
Can.843, §1 makes it clear that the right of the faithful to the sacraments—which are the means of salvation and sanctification—is limited only by three factors: 1) appropriateness of time, 2) proper disposition of the passive subject, and 3) absence of a prohibition by law.
Furthermore, the second paragraph, far from adding another factor that may bar the faithful from receiving the sacraments—i.e., their possible lack of preparation—in fact only strengthens their right to them by precisely declaring the duty of the pastors of souls and the rest of the Christian faithful to make sure that those who seek the sacraments are adequately prepared to receive them—i.e., through the necessary evangelization and catechetical formation.
The Optional Nature of Pastoral Programs
for the Proper Reception of the Sacraments.
Because of the above, whatever pastoral programs or requisites may be formulated by the pastors of souls to assure the proper disposition of the faithful cannot be converted into sine qua non conditions for their access to the sacraments. The only exception would be if such indispensable condition is expressly stated by the Local Ordinary, subject to the approval of the Supreme Authority in the Church who is the only one competent to regulate the sacraments. This is stipulated by the Code:
Can. 841 — Since the sacraments are the same for the universal Church and pertain to the divine deposit, it is for the supreme authority of the Church alone to approve or define those things which are required for their validity; it is for the same supreme authority of the Church or other competent authority in accord with the norm of c.838, §§3 and 4 to determine what pertains to their lawful celebration, administration and reception and also the order to be observed in their celebration.
This acquires special importance for some sacraments, to wit:
1) The so-called Pre-Cana Seminar. The ius connubi—the right to marry, which is a consequence of marriage being a natural institution—is limited only by the so-called impediments. As we had previous seen, only the supreme authority of the Church can fix such impediments. Making attendance in the so-called Pre-Cana Seminar an indispensable requirement for marriage would be tantamount to adding a new impediment to marriage—that of non-attendance to the seminar—something which nobody save the supreme authority in the Church is competent to do.
2) The seminars for parents and godparents (or sponsors). Can. 851, 2º provides that the parents of an infant and likewise those who are to undertake the office of sponsor are to be properly instructed in the meaning of this sacrament and the obligations which are attached to it; personally or through others the pastor is to see to it that the parents are properly formed by pastoral directions and by common prayer, gathering several families together and where possible visiting them.
While such seminars are indeed desirable, it is clear from the tenor of the canon that the obligation is laid on the pastor to facilitate such instruction; but in no way does it say that he is to deny administering the sacrament if such previous instruction somehow were not feasible.
The Sacraments cannot be conditioned by a Fee.
A consequence of the fundamental right of the faithful to the sacraments is the absolute prohibition of conditioning their administration to the payment of some fee or some other temporal good—which is tantamount to simony: the buying and selling of spiritual goods or realities attached to such goods.
The Code is quite explicit on this point, typifying simony even as a crime in c.1380: A person, who through simony celebrates or receives a sacrament, is to be punished with an interdict or suspension. So strong is this prohibition against simony, that even the semblance of it is proscribed—e.g., c.947: Even the semblance of trafficking or trading is to be entirely excluded from Mass offerings.
A different matter are the alms (stipends) which the faithful voluntarily give—even based on a fixed suggested rate—on the occasion of the celebration of some sacraments and sacramentals (e.g., Mass stipends, baptisms, weddings, funerals). This is what happens in the Philippines, where the bishops have adopted the so-called Arancel System, which lists fixed amounts for stipends to be offered to the Pastor on the occasion of every celebration of the sacraments, with an additional clause that free administration should be extended to the poor. Such stipends are not a payments or fees for the administration of the sacraments, but rather a practical way of quantifying another right-duty of the faithful—stipulated by c.222,§1 of the Code of Canon Law—namely that of supporting the ministers in particular and the whole evangelizing work of the Church in general.
1) It is licit for a parish to have a fixed amount for the celebration of marriage—as decided by the Archdiocese and approved by the Holy See. It is even understandable for the parish to stipulate an additional amount to defray the cost of utilities and décor that may go into more elaborate weddings. A tiered system of contributions can also be established, whereby those who can afford subsidize those who can’t. However, nothing stands in the way of celebrating it (and any sacrament for that matter) without such costs, and thus without any stipend, for indigent parties.
2) The Pre-Cana Seminar should never be made an indispensable requirement for marriage. The same can be said of what somebody has called Pre-Jordan Seminar—i.e., the seminar for parents (desiring to have their infant child baptized). They should be waived, when there is proof of a similar preparation acquired another way, thereby reasonably combining the pastoral aim of assuring proper reception of the sacrament with the right of the faithful to receive the means of salvation.