Sacramental Theology: Matter, Form, and Intention Required for Validity

Sacramental Basics: Matter and Form

All seven Sacraments were instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ. While some may incorrectly think that St. John the Baptist instituted the Sacrament of Baptism or that the Apostles instituted the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, the Church’s clear teaching is that Christ alone instituted all seven Sacraments.

For a Sacrament to be validly conferred (i.e., for the recipient to receive the inward grace it signifies), it is necessary for the Sacrament to be conferred using valid matter and form,[1] together with the intention to do what the Church does. The Catechism of the Council of Trent explains:

“Every Sacrament consists of two things: matter, which is called the element, and form, which is commonly called the word…In order to make the meaning of the rite that is being performed easier and clearer, words had to be added to the matter. Water, for example, has the quality of cooling as well as of making clean, and may be symbolic of either. In Baptism, therefore, unless the words were added, it would not be certain which meaning of the sign was intended. When the words are added, we immediately understand that the Sacrament possesses and signifies the power of cleansing…

“But although God is the author and dispenser of the Sacraments, He nevertheless willed that they should be administered by men in His Church, not by Angels… Since the ministers of the Sacraments represent in the discharge of their sacred functions, not their own, but the person of Christ, be they good or bad, they validly perform and confer the Sacraments, provided they make use of the matter and form always observed in the Catholic Church according to the institution of Christ, and provided they intend to do what the Church does in their administration.”


Validity of the Sacraments in Practice

Baptism, for instance, is only valid when it has the proper matter (i.e., water poured thrice over the head of the baptized) and proper form (i.e., the words, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”).[2] Without proper matter and form, there is no valid Sacrament and thus no reception of a Sacrament at all.

While matter and form are both essential for the validity of each Sacrament, the form of the Sacraments may vary slightly according to the different Rites of the Catholic Church. For example, the Latin (or Roman) Rite observed the following form of words for Confirmation for many centuries (prior to Vatican II): “N., signo te signo crucis + et confirmo te chrismate salutis, in nomine Patris + et Filii + et Spiritus + Sancti” [Name, I sign thee with the sign of the cross and confirm thee with the Chrism of Salvation]. In the Byzantine Rite, however, Chrismation (as Confirmation is called throughout the Christian East) is administered with these words: “The sign of the seal of the Holy Spirit…” Despite the difference in form (words), both are valid, provided that valid matter and right intention are also employed.

While anyone may baptize validly in cases of necessity (assuming they use the proper matter and form), only a priest is able to confect the Holy Eucharist, confirm souls in Confirmation (although a bishop is the ordinary minister in the Latin Rite), absolve sins in Confession, and administer Extreme Unction to those in danger of death. A validly ordained priest is necessary for these Sacraments. The Sacrament of Holy Orders, in turn, requires a bishop to administer it.

Matrimony is unique in that the spouses administer the Sacrament to one another by means of their mutual free consent to enter into a permanent union, with the primary end of their union being the procreation and education of children. However, as the Roman Catechism teaches (in accord with the Council of Trent), “there can be no true and valid marriage unless it be contracted in the presence of the parish priest, or of some other priest commissioned by him, or by the Ordinary [local bishop], and that of a certain number of witnesses.”


Intention Required for Validity

As the Council of Florence defined: “In a case of necessity not only a priest or a deacon but also a lay man or woman or even a pagan or a heretic have the power to baptize, provided that they observe the form prescribed by the Church and have the intention of doing what the Church does.” This is why many baptized in non-Catholic sects are “conditionally” baptized upon converting to be 100% certain their soul has actually received a valid Baptism. Since Baptism is necessary for salvation and for all future Sacraments, this common sense conditional Baptism should often be done by priests.

The so-called “baptisms” of certain pseudo-Christian sects such as Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, are not valid due to the lack of correct form (words) and/or intention. Questions of validity may also arise in relation to certain Protestant baptisms due to their erroneous conceptions of Original Sin and the role of Baptism. Anyone seeking to convert to the Catholic Faith who was baptized in a Protestant denomination should consult with a priest on whether they might need to be conditionally baptized, in the event that the validity of their Protestant baptism is doubtful.

Yet since Vatican II, churchmen generally accept Protestant baptisms as valid since a Catholic minister is not required for validity, provided that valid matter, form, and intention are employed. To receive Baptism, it must be administered with proper matter, proper form, and the minister must perform the Baptism with the intention of doing what the Church does in Baptism (i.e., washing away Original Sin, restoring the soul to God’s friendship, etc.) However, the standard Catholic pastoral practice prior to Vatican II was to conditionally baptize all Protestants who converted to the Catholic Faith. The reason is that many Protestants actively deny Original Sin. If they deny its reality, then how can they intend for the Sacrament to cleanse man of it?


Summary of Required Matter and Form for Each Sacrament

The Catechism of the Council of Trent states it this way: “Every Sacrament consists of two things, matter, which is called the element, and form, which is commonly called the word.” 

Sacrament Matter Form Ordinary Minister
Baptism (Flowing) water “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Priest or deacon (in emergencies anyone may baptize)
Confirmation Anointing with Sacred Chrism “I sign you with the Sign of the Cross and Confirm you with the Chrism of Salvation” or “Be Sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Bishop (but he may delegate this to priests)
Eucharist Wheat-based bread and pure grape wine The words of institution: “This is My Body… This is My Blood…” A priest is absolutely needed to confect the Eucharist. No exceptions.
Anointing of the Sick (i.e., Extreme Unction) Anointing with Oil of the Sick on the forehead. Prayer of the priest from the Roman Rituale Priest
Penance (i.e., Confession) The Acts of the Penitent:

Contrition (i.e., real sorrow for sin), confession of sins in number and kind (i.e., what you did and how many times you did it), desire to amend one’s life, and the making of reparation by doing what the priest gives as penance.

“…I absolve you of your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Priest
Marriage One man and one woman who are free to contract the marital union (i.e., they are unmarried, not related to each other within the third degree,[3] etc.). The exchange of vows Priest or deacon
Holy Orders Laying on of hands The prayer of ordination according to the particular order to which the man is being ordained. This prayer differs for priests, deacons, and the lesser known minor orders (i.e., exorcists, acolytes, porters and lectors). Bishop


[1] Fr. John Hardon’s Catholic Pocket Dictionary provides some essential definitions to help us understand Sacramental validity:

VALID MATTER. That which is required, along with the prescribed words, for the valid conferral or production of a sacrament. The valid matter is, therefore, some sense-perceptible material or perceivable action that must be joined with the form, i.e., words or signs, to produce a sacrament. Thus the valid matter in baptism is natural water that “washes” the person being baptized, by pouring, sprinkling, or immersion.

VALID FORM. That formula of words or prescribed signs that are required for the valid conferral or production of a sacrament. Thus the valid form of baptism is, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” For actually conferring a sacrament, the matter (material or action) must be united with the form.

VALIDITY. Having not only legal force but actually producing the effect intended. Applied to the sacraments, it refers to the conditions of matter, form, and circumstances required for valid administration. In ecclesiastical law it means that certain prescriptions must be fulfilled for the law or contractual agreement to bind or take effect.

[2] We should all be aware of two common modern errors which invalidate Baptism. One is to not use the names of the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost, but rather something like “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.” The magisterium of the Church has ruled that such a formula renders the Sacrament invalid. Another is not to say, “I baptize you…” but rather something like “We baptize you…” or “The Church baptizes you…” Incidentally, this is one great advantage to using the traditional rite, where all the words are said in Latin according to the centuries-old formula. While validity is not affected by the proper words may being said in the vernacular (English, Spanish, French…), it is highly uncommon for a priest to alter the words in Latin. In fact, most priests who would be inclined to adjust the official form ‘on the fly’ would not even have the knowledge of the Latin language to be able to do so.

[3] Second cousins are in the third degree of blood relationship, and persons whose relationship is nearer than second cousins are in closer degrees of kindred. It is unlawful for persons thus related to marry without a dispensation or special permission of the Church.