In discussing sacramental problems, you might hear the terms “invalid” and “illicit”. They sound like they mean the same thing — a sacrament gone wrong. But the two words have distinct meanings, and cannot be used interchangeably:
Illicit means, roughly, “illegal”. In the case of a sacrament, it means performed in a way that is not permitted by the rules or laws of the Church.
Invalid means it just didn’t happen at all. No sacrament took place.
But how can something be illicit but still valid? Or invalid but not illicit? It helps to think about salad.
Sacraments are like salad — within limits, you can add or leave out certain parts and still have a salad, or a sacrament. (There is far more flexibility for salad than for sacraments.) And like sacraments, for the most part, we just know a salad when we see it, and unless there’s a consistent problem, no one tries to legislate salads too closely. Still, you can have a salad that is illicit, invalid, or both. Here are some examples of each case:
Licit and valid salad: Lettuce, tomatoes, blue cheese dressing.
Illicit but valid salad: Lettuce, tomatoes, blue cheese dressing, marijauna. It’s a real salad. But it’s an illegal salad. Neither the cops nor your DRE will be amused.
Licit but invalid salad: Nuts, bolts, sheet metal. Perfectly legal, but your guests will still be hungry, no matter how artfully you arrange your piece parts to look exactly like a real salad.
Illicit and invalid salad: Nuts, bolts and sheet metal from that car you stole last week. (Hint: Get yourself to a valid sacrament of confession.)
Sacraments follow the same pattern. A valid baptism requires water, the use of the trinitarian formula (“I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”), and the intent to baptize. If you decide to skip the Church and baptize all your kids in the creek out back, under non-emergency circumstances, it’s probably an illicit baptism*, but it isn’t invalid. The kids are still baptized.
Try to baptize the kids with Coca-Cola? It’s both illicit and invalid. Have a person dressed as a priest reenact a baptism scene for a movie, following exactly the procedures used in the Rite of Baptism? Or dressed as a nurse, reenacting a valid emergency baptism at a hospital? It’s not illicit, but it’s not a baptism, either — you aren’t trying to baptize, you’re trying to film a scene for a movie. An atheist actor having no desire to join the Church could not accidentally be baptized because he took a role in a film and the character he played was baptized.
If you can keep straight the difference between invalid and illicit, you can then analyze any sacrament. Don’t do it on the internet, you’ll drive people crazy. But when you run across these terms in real life — perhaps when consulting your priest about a thorny marriage situation — staying calm and keeping your facts straight makes all the difference in knowing what you need to do next.
*Consult a canon lawyer for the particulars of your situation. Or just call your local parish and have it done the normal way, eh?
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