We often invoke the expression Eccelsia supplet to cover up our mistakes or to justify our shortcomings. But does the concept do all we attribute to it?
Canon 144 §1 says: “In factual or legal common error and in positive and probable doubt of law or of fact, the Church supplies executive power of governance for both the external and internal forum” (supplet Ecclesia, pro tam externo quam interno, potestatem regiminis exsecutivam).
As we know, there are three powers of governance—legislative, executive and judiciary (Can. 135 §1). However, the Church can only supply executive power of governance in order to protect the faithful from the ill effects of invalid acts and for the common good. The law further restricts it to cases of common error and positive and probable doubt of law or fact. What do these mean?
Error is a false judgement concerning some matter. Ignorance is not the same as error, although it may lead a person to error. An error is common if in a public circumstance, all reasonable people would naturally conclude that something is true even if it was not actually true.
For instance, if a priest is not properly delegated to assist at a wedding (the people gathered for the wedding would naturally assume that he was properly delegated, otherwise he would not be at the altar), the Church supplies the executive power required to be properly delegated so that the marriage celebrated will not be invalid. Ecclesia supplet does not count if someone pretends to be a priest and celebrates the mass. The mass is invalid because the Church cannot supply the priestly character when it is absent.
Doubt is a state of indecision regarding two contradictory conclusions. It is positive when there is a sound reason to believe one or both decisions. It is probable when the reason in question is serious and well-founded. The doubt might concern a law—its existence, binding force, meaning, extension, or cessation. It might also concern a fact—for instance, whether a particular individual is in danger of death.
Having understood to what extent the Church supplies, we are invited to be diligent in our pastoral duties, especially regarding the sacraments. Ignorance or an omission of some requirements can lead to an invalid celebration of a sacrament.
In Italy, there is a concordat between the Church and State that regulates canonical marriages so much so that when validly celebrated, they are automatically valid in the civil law as long as the canonical marriage fulfils some requirements (This also exists in Nigeria, confer Marriage Act §§21-29).
To this effect, before each marriage is celebrated, some dioceses in Italy require all parish priests (even if they have been parish priests for 50 years) to send the marriage documents to the Chancellor to double-check and approve. This is to avoid an invalid marriage in civil law for which the Church can be sued for damages.
My dear brothers, a mistake or an omission by a priest or seminarian or layperson can put the entire diocese in difficulty. Therefore, if we are ignorant or in doubt, let us not be ashamed to always seek help because it is honourable and salvific to be diligent in ensuring the best for the faithful.
May God continue to help us.🙏🏾