Altar Wines and Their Validity

Date: July 1, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University.


Question: Several readers have asked for clarification regarding reports that, in an archdiocese in the United States, some parishes were found to have made long-term use of wines that were “invalid matter for the confection of the Eucharist.”


Answer: Since this practice continued for several years, the archdiocese said that “all Masses were invalid and therefore the intentions for which those Masses were offered were not satisfied, including the obligation pastors have to offer Mass for the people.” Hence, the archdiocese considers that “This is a gravely serious situation for which we must now petition the Holy See for guidance on restorative matters.”


I am not able to judge as to the specifics of the case nor what rendered these wines as invalid matter. But the archbishop seems to have no doubt as to this point. I will remain on the general principles involved as to what constitutes valid altar wine.


These principles for the determination of proper matter are relatively simple. The most recent official declaration on this point stems from the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 50, which basically sums up earlier laws and the Code of Canon Law, No. 924:


"The wine that is used in the most sacred celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances. During the celebration itself, a small quantity of water is to be mixed with it. Great care should be taken so that the wine intended for the celebration of the Eucharist is well conserved and has not soured. It is altogether forbidden to use wine of doubtful authenticity or provenance, for the Church requires certainty regarding the conditions necessary for the validity of the sacraments. Nor are other drinks of any kind to be admitted for any reason, as they do not constitute valid matter."


Almost a century earlier the Catholic Encyclopedia gave basically the same doctrine but added more details, all of which are still relevant.


"Wine is one of the two elements absolutely necessary for the sacrifice of the Eucharist. For valid and licit consecration vinum de vite, i.e., the pure juice of the grape naturally and properly fermented, is to be used. Wine made from raisins, provided that from its colour and taste it may be judged to be pure, may be used (Collect. S. C. de Prop. Fide, n. 705). It may be white or red, weak or strong, sweet or dry.


“Since the validity of the Holy Sacrifice, and the lawfulness of its celebration, require absolutely genuine wine, it becomes the serious obligation of the celebrant to procure only pure wines. And since wines are frequently so adulterated as to escape minute chemical analysis, it may be taken for granted that the safest way of procuring pure wine is to buy it not at second hand, but directly from a manufacturer who understands and conscientiously respects the great responsibility involved in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice.


“If the wine is changed into vinegar, or is become putrid or corrupted, if it was pressed from grapes that were not fully ripe, or if it is mixed with such a quantity of water that it can hardly be called wine, its use is forbidden (Missale Rom., De Defectibus, tit. iv, 1). If the wine begins to turn into vinegar, or to become putrid, or if the unfermented juice is pressed from the grape, it would be a grievous offence to use it, but it is considered valid matter (ibid., 2).


“To conserve weak and feeble wines, and in order to keep them from souring or spoiling during transportation, a small quantity of spirits of wine (grape brandy or alcohol) may be added, provided the following conditions are observed (1) The added spirit (alcohol) must have been distilled from the grape (ex genimime vitis); (2) the quantity of alcohol added, together with that which the wine contained naturally after fermentation, must not exceed eighteen per cent of the whole; (3) the addition must be made during the process of fermentation (S. Romana et Univ. Inquis., 5 August, 1896)."


In 2017, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued a Circular Letter that addressed some of the practical issues involved in the production of suitable altar wines. To wit:


“2. Until recently it was certain religious communities who took care of baking the bread and making the wine for the celebration of the Eucharist. Today, however, these materials are also sold in supermarkets and other stores and even over the internet. In order to remove any doubt about the validity of the matter for the Eucharist, this Dicastery suggests that Ordinaries should give guidance in this regard by, for example, guaranteeing the Eucharistic matter through special certification.


“The Ordinary is bound to remind priests, especially parish priests and rectors of churches, of their responsibility to verify those who provide the bread and wine for the celebration and the worthiness of the material.


“6. Those who make bread and produce wine for use in the Mass must be aware that their work is directed towards the Eucharistic Sacrifice and that this demands their honesty, responsibility and competence.


“7. In order to facilitate the observance of the general norms Ordinaries can usefully reach agreement at the level of the Episcopal Conference by establishing concrete regulations. Given the complexity of situations and circumstances, such as a decrease in respect for the sacred, it may be useful to mandate a competent authority to have oversight in actually guaranteeing the genuineness of the Eucharistic matter by producers as well as those responsible for its distribution and sale.


“It is suggested, for example, that an Episcopal Conference could mandate one or more Religious Congregations or another body capable of carrying out the necessary checks on production, conservation and sale of the Eucharistic bread and wine in a given country and for other countries to which they are exported. It is recommended that the bread and wine to be used in the Eucharist be treated accordingly in the places where they are sold.”


From the above documents the Holy See invites bishops to regulate and guide the question of the matter of the Eucharist. Wherever regulations or official guidance exists, this should be followed by priests even if the resulting altar wine is slightly more expensive.


I note, however, that this does not mean that only officially approved and denominated altar wines are valid material for the Eucharistic celebration. Indeed, there is nothing special about official altar wine except that it is guaranteed to be nothing special.


In fact, during most of Christian history priests would use whatever grape wine was available locally or which could be purchased from merchants in areas were local wine was not available.


Hence, unless the bishop has disposed otherwise, if a priest could be equally certain that a cheaper table wine is 100% grape with no additions of other substances or of non-grape alcohol, then it would also be valid matter. To be certain, and before using it, one should inquire from the manufacturer regarding the process involved in making the wine so as to exclude any doubt whatsoever.


While any priest could make such an inquiry, as seen above, it would be more prudent that it be done through the local ordinary who could then inform his clergy that, as well as official altar wines, such and such a brand of common table wine may also be considered as valid matter for the Eucharist.


If price is not an issue, kosher wines from Jewish stores are guaranteed as valid for Mass.


The presence of minute traces of sulphites found in most modern wines as preservatives does not affect validity as they do not change the nature of the wine, nor does the use of genetically modified grapes. This has been confirmed by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 2013. (Letter, Dec. 9, 2013, Prot. N. 89/78—44897).


It may also be noted that the wine used for the liturgy should not be fortified. "Fortified wine" usually means the likes of port, marsala and sherry.


Wine-based spirits should not be used, and the wine should be still -- hence, no champagne or spumante. This differs from the above-mentioned case when grape alcohol is added to weak wines to preserve them, provided that the alcohol level does not exceed 18%.


In some cases, these fortified wines could also constitute invalid matter if during the process non-grape elements have been added. Examples are when herbs and spices are added to some types of vermouth, and apricot and orange to some brands of muscatel.


Wines to which some non-grape element has been added for flavor would generally be of doubtful validity as material for the Eucharistic celebration and, hence, should not be used insofar as certainty is always required for the matter of the sacraments.


Also definitely invalid would be all wines that are entirely the product of other fruits and plants such as plums, dandelions, elderberry, pears, raspberry, strawberry, rice and even banana.


Finally, what should be done with the intentions of many years of invalid Masses? This will be the decision of the Holy See.


Since the Mass, as Christ’s sacrifice, is of infinite efficacy, it might not be necessary to repeat all the Masses in question. There was a similar case many years ago, albeit regarding the use of invalid altar bread. In this situation those who committed the error were told that they could not receive new Mass intentions for several years and that all their Masses were to fulfill the lost intentions.


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Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.


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