Several people have raised the question of the effects of “invalid” sacraments.
Underlying this question are two views of God’s offer of salvation:
1. The existence of the Church and the sacraments narrows God’s offer of salvation (Augustine). That is, only those who are in the juridical boundaries of the Church and therefore receive valid sacraments have at least a chance at salvation – although few in fact will be saved. Outside the Church there is no salvation, and very little within.
2. The church is a sign and visible channel of God’s grace, but He is free to operate outside those channels. The Spirit came down on Cornelius and his household even before they were baptized. God loves all that He has created and wills to save all men.
The Augustinian view is full of contradictions. If baptism is necessary for salvation why is not reception of the Eucharist just as necessary (“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man etc.”)? But the Western Church does not offer communion to infants. Moreover, anyone, even a pagan, can baptize, if he uses the proper words, pours the water, and intends to do what the Church does. Traditionally this was justified because baptism is necessary for salvation. But isn’t the Eucharist just as necessary?
It is common Catholic teaching that a spiritual communion (that is, without the reception of the consecrated elements) has all the grace and fruits of a sacramental communion. Presumably Protestants, even if they are celebrating an “invalid” Eucharist because they lack orders, can and do make spiritual communions which are as efficacious as sacramental communions.
Similarly, one can confess one’s sins to a fellow Christian, not just to a priest. Or if one by mistake confesses to a person who is not really a priest, or the penitent’s sins not forgiven?
The sacraments are not ways to limit salvation, but to broaden it and make it visible. They establish a physical, historical continuity with the Incarnate Word, who is entirely free to operate outside them to achieve His saving purposes.
Why bother with the visible Church then? Why did not God save men without their visible cooperation?
The human race is not a collection of individuals but a communal project – there are no self-made men. Christ is the head and source of the regenerate human race, and the visible channels that bring his salvation are His will to establish His visible presence within history, although He also continues to work invisibly or in a half-hidden way to draw all men to Himself.