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A note on the “spiritual” reception of sacraments

November 7, 2017

Had it not made repeated appearances on the website of the always-thoughtful New Oxford Review, Prof. Ines Angeli Murzaku’s essay suggesting “spiritual communion” for Catholics denied sacramental holy Communion (usually per Canon 915, and usually because of a civil marriage following divorce) would not have occasioned my comments. But in light of Murzaku’s repeated assertions that all the sacraments she has received were received “spiritually” I think some clarifications are in order.

First, of course, I cannot imagine the hardships faced by Catholics who lived under the Communist government of Albania. Those who kept the faith under that regime have my admiration; those who fell away from it have my sympathetic prayers.

Now, on to Murzaku’s personal narration.

Murzaku writes: For our wedding [in Albania, my grandmother] invited me and my husband to the kitchen/altar to bless our union, which, due to political circumstances, could not be a sacramental-canonical marriage celebrated in a church. Our marriage was a spiritual marriage. The same was true for the other sacraments I received: baptism (which was a baptism of desire), confirmation (or chrismation), and the [E]ucharist, which came in the form of spiritual communion. Murzaku later repeats: As a Byzantine Catholic who received baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, and matrimony spiritually due to the extraordinary circumstances of persecution in my homeland, I can say that receiving the sacraments spiritually was enormously beneficial.

From the above passages one cannot tell whether Murzaku is, in fact, baptized, confirmed, communicated, confessed, or sacramentally married.

So-called “baptism of desire” is a term of art used to describe not baptism (fervently received or otherwise) but rather the assurance of salvation accorded those who, intending to be baptized, die before they can receive that desired sacrament. CCC 1259. The phrase “baptism of desire” is thus a this-world term for an other-world phenomenon. No one walking around today is considered “baptized by desire” or even “baptized”.

But, if Murzaku is not sacramentally baptized, then she cannot have been confirmed (Canon 842) either; moreover even if she had been sacramentally baptized at some point, if her Confirmation was merely “spiritual”, as she said, then again she has not received that sacrament. The same must be said about her reception(s) of the Eucharist and Confessions.

There is not enough information in Murzaku’s essay to assess the canonical status of her marriage but, whatever “work-arounds” were available to her in terms of the (imho, now out-dated) requirement of canonical form for marriage (and yes, Church law offers some alternatives to form in Canons 1112 and 1116, etc.), if Murzaku was not baptized, then her marriage, even to a baptized person, cannot be a sacrament for her or for her spouse, even if he is Catholic. Again, without sacramental baptism no other sacraments are even possible.

All of this boils down to: if Murzaku’s baptism really was, as she repeatedly states, merely a “baptism of desire”, then none of the other sacraments she claims took effect. Now my personal guess (and hope) is that some heart-felt emotions became mixed up in Murzaku’s description of her sacramental history, and that at some point she really did receive these sacraments, but, even so, the ambiguities in her story should be clarified as they have now appeared, more than once, before a very wide electronic audience that can be confused by how she has repeatedly expressed herself.


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