Intersection of canon law and sacramental theology (purpose of illicit in canon law)


I get the difference between a sacrament being illicit vs invalid (i.e. against the law vs not happening), but what is the actual purpose of declaring an act illicit?

Since most illicit acts have no defined repercussions, are they listed simply to provide clarity on acts that are wrong, but do not invalidate the sacraments? Would any illicit act be considered grave matter?

Really I am trying to build my understanding between the interplay of canon law and sacramental theology.


The point of an act being illicit is to make sure people don’t do it. Brown is not a liturgical color therefore it is illicit to wear brown chasubles, this being implicit in that brown is not listed anywhere. Glass vessels are not supposed to be used because of, well, because of a whole litany of reasons listed in the GIRM and Redemptionis Sacramentum. Wearing a chocolate brown chasuble and celebrating Mass using shot glasses doesn’t invalidate it, but it’s wrong because it just is wrong. (Someone once wrote about having a crystal chalice and wondered if it can be used in Mass because it’s expensive and rare or something… You can buy lead crystal at just about any TJ Maxx or those Tuesday Morning stores. /rant)

If a bishop wants to enact particular consequences in his diocese for disobeying this or that liturgical law, he can certainly do so. I think the main reason this isn’t codified on a universal CIC level is because 1. it would be really hard to ensure compliance and 2. people who are going to disobey are going to disobey are going to disobey are going to disobey are going to disobey (they will find a way).

If you are trying to build your understanding the interplay between canon law and sacramental theology I think you should ask particular questions. Liceity and validity, while they are different things, are related. A spirit towards non-liceity may predispose towards actions or attitudes that invalidate sacraments. Thinking with the Church and all that. I really dislike those, “Well at least Mass was valid,” kinds of threads. Well, yeah, that’s great, but isn’t that the bare minimum we could hope for, really? As if everything else doesn’t matter.


And that, only because DeDefectibus allows a lot of leeway in terms of validity.


Don’t forget the moral aspect. Illicit can also mean sinful, even mortally sinful.


This is the greatest point of declaring an act illicit. In fact, I would say that contrary to your opinion, the repercussions are severe and very well defined.

For example, a Priest who leaves the Church and then consecrates the Eucharist is doing something valid but illicit. The repercussion? Putting his soul in jeopardy.


Take the ordination of a bishop, for example. It is illicit to ordain a bishop without a papal mandate, but if it does happen from a valid bishop, the ordination is valid sacramentally because sacraments are the work of God, not man. Any sacrament done illicitly is considered grave matter and an abuse of the sacrament, which carries both penalty of sin and automatic excommunication for the ordaining bishop and the ordainee under Canon Law. In this case, a Papal Mandate is required for the ordination of a bishop. Making ordination without a Papal Mandate illicit not only keeps the person from sinning/usurping the authority of the Pope (and thus the Church), but the added automatic excommunication (an added consequence to the taken action) tells the person(s) who committed the act just how grave/serious it is and how much they need to reconcile themselves to God and His Church.


I’m not sure if you’re limiting your question to canon law, but I think considering liturgical law is useful here.

The GIRM spells out how mass is to be celebrated. Ideally the GIRM should be followed, and deviating from it is illicit. But is it necessarily wrong to do so? I seem to recall various documents exhorting priests and the faithful to adhere to liturgical laws, ascribing serious weight to not following these laws, perhaps even defining it as grave matter.

Let’s consider dismissal formulas. Prior to the adoption of the translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, by far the most common dismissal I heard was “The mass is ended. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” Only problem: the missal instructed the celebrant to choose one of those sentences. Choosing both was not an option. But the majority of priests saw no problem illicitly combining the two - hey, if one is good, two is better! Some even went further, coming up with creative if illicit dismissals like “Go forth and spread the Good News.” Pope Benedict was apparently inspired by all these illicit dismissals to add new dismissal options which are now in use.

I would suggest that the gravity of an illicit act, even one touching on a sacramental liturgy, can vary quite a lot. Canon law, and liturgical law, is there to provide order and keep the wheels from falling off. But just because a rule is broken doesn’t automatically make it grave matter, nor is it necessarily wrong in and of itself - it is sometimes wrong only because it is illicit.


Correct. And the moral component here surrounds obedience, simply because the Church has bound something. To willfully disobey, for example, a liturgical rubric in a relatively minor matter, like omitting the Gloria when it’s called for is probably a venial sin. There’s nothing inherently wrong with omitting the Gloria; the sin lies in disobeying a legitimate law of the Church.

Same thing goes for things like Friday abstinence. There’s nothing wrong with eating meat, but if the Church has bound you to it, then it is sinful to disobey.


Stolen money is illicit; Counterfeit money is invalid; both are illegal. :wink:


However, keep in mind that the interpretation of Canon Law as well as Liturgical Law is viewed through a Roman lens and not a Germanic lens. The “Roman” way is commonly referred to as the “Spirit of the Law” and the “Germanic” was is referred to as the “Letter of the Law.”

It is illustrated this way:

There once were two seminarians who wanted to take a smoke break. They each separately asked their superior. Later, one of them saw the other outside smoking and asked, “How did you get the superior to allow you to smoke while saying your prayers?” The other seminarian replied, “That was your mistake. I asked the superior if I could pray while smoking.”

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