When Can You Get a Dispensation, and Who Can Grant It?

Q1: I have a question regarding St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), when it falls on a Friday in Lent. A friend says that although a dispensation may or may not be given, one may dispense oneself due to the fact that it is a saint’s feast day. Is there any truth to that claim? —Joanna

Q2: My non-Catholic husband agrees that our baby will be baptized a Catholic, but he’s insisting that his brother and sister-in-law (both non-Catholics) have to be the godparents.  I already knew that would be impossible because I read your article… I met with our parish priest to try to figure out some acceptable way to finesse this with my husband.

To my surprise, the priest said it’s perfectly fine to have two non-Catholic godparents, he can grant a dispensation from the rule.  Is that true?  You didn’t say anything about this in your article and so I now I am confused… –Maddy

A: In “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic,” we looked at the concept of dispensation from church laws.  As a rule, of course, the Church makes laws and expects us to obey them.  But sometimes, circumstances are such that it can be possible to obtain a dispensation from obeying a law, which means it doesn’t have to be observed.  But who has the authority to grant a dispensation?  And which laws can be dispensed?

Canon 85 gives us a basic definition: a dispensation is the relaxation of a merely ecclesiastical law in a particular case.  Since the notion of dispensation isn’t normally found in civil law, most people don’t have a natural “feel” for what it really means, and for how and when it can be used.  Let’s examine the issue more closely.

First of all, a dispensation is the relaxation of a law in a particular case.  It is not an across-the-board, wholesale permanent abrogation of a law (as was discussed in “How Can You Get a Permanent Dispensation From Sunday Mass?”), nor is it to be applied to entire communities/ categories of Catholics.  Think about it: if it were possible to grant open-ended, blanket dispensations for whole groups of people, this would ultimately amount to a two-tiered system of justice, with some people bound by the law and others not.  In other words, the Church’s legal system would be fundamentally unjust.

Secondly, the canon states that dispensations can be granted for merely ecclesiastical laws.  As we saw in “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” the Code of Canon Law contains some laws which were created by men, and others which the Church holds were given to us by God.  The former are described as “merely ecclesiastical,” and the code provides that since they were written by church officials—who are only human beings—they can logically be changed or dispensed.  In contrast, laws which are said to be of divine origin were established by God Himself, and therefore no man has the power to change them.  For clarity’s sake, it’s worth looking at a couple of examples of these two types of laws.

The Church’s rules regarding the canonical form for marriage, which all Catholics are obliged to follow (c. 1108.1), are unquestionably of human origin.  As was discussed in “Who Decides What Constitutes a Valid Sacrament?” the requirement that Catholics observe canonical form when they get married was established by the Council Fathers at the Council of Trent in the 16th century—i.e., relatively recently in the history of the Church.  Bishops can, and frequently do, dispense individual Catholics from canonical form if there is a good reason to do so.

On the other hand, the Church’s law also says that marriage is between a man and a woman (cf. c. 1055.1), and holds that this definition of marriage was established by God Himself (cf. Gen. 2:23-24).  That’s why, as we saw in “Could Canon Law be Changed to Permit Gay Marriage?” there is no way that the Church could ever change this—and thus there’s no way that this element could ever be dispensed, either.

But divine laws are not the only laws which cannot be dispensed.  Canon 86 gives us another important norm: laws which define elements that are essentially constitutive of institutes or of juridic acts are not subject to dispensation.  Superficially this may sound like legalistic mumbo-jumbo, but the concept is actually quite straightforward: you can’t give or receive a dispensation from elements of something which are absolutely essential to it.

So, for example, imagine that you’re out in the desert where there’s no water, and an unbaptized person is dying.  You want to baptize him, but without any water, can you do it?  Is it possible to be dispensed from using water to perform a baptism, if you haven’t got any?  According to canon 86, the answer is an unqualified no.  That’s because conferring the sacrament of baptism (one of the “juridic acts” mentioned in the canon) necessarily involves water by definition.  The use of water can be said to be an essential element of the juridic act of baptizing someone—and thus nobody could ever give or obtain a dispensation to perform a “waterless” baptism.  Canon 850 confirms this, as it notes that baptism is to be administered according to the rite found in the liturgical books; and even though some parts of the rite can be eliminated in urgent cases (generally involving danger of death), the elements required for validity—like using water—must be observed.

Let’s look at another example.  Imagine that you want to become a member of a religious institute, but you don’t want to vow poverty, chastity or obedience.  Let’s say that you want to become a member while continuing to live in the world with your spouse, and working for a living until you retire.  And let’s say the religious superior is willing to accept you as a member under these very unusual conditions.  Can you get a dispensation enabling you to become a religious without making these vows?

Laws governing religious institutes can be very complex, because each institute has its own proper law on many matters—but the answer is still no.  Vowing the evangelical counsels is an essential element of the religious life (one of the “institutes” mentioned in the canon, cf. c. 573.1); and so becoming a member of a religious institute and being dispensed from taking these vows would be canonically impossible.

But once again, these aren’t the only laws which cannot be dispensed, because the very next canon mentions even more.  There is no dispensation from procedural laws or penal laws (c. 87.1), two very broad categories of laws which are probably applied at least a million times a day in the Church all around the world.  Consequently, it would (for example) be impossible for someone seeking a marriage annulment to obtain a dispensation from the procedural obligation to notify the other spouse of the proceedings, as is required by canons 1507-1508 (discussed in “Can I Get an Annulment Without My Spouse Knowing About It?”).  It would likewise be impossible to dispense someone who has committed the crime of apostasy, heresy or schism from incurring the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae, as per canon 1364.1 (see “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?” for more on what a latae sententiae penalty is).

So we can see that there are quite a few church laws which can never be dispensed.  Let’s take a look now at who has the authority to grant dispensations—and who doesn’t.

The same canon 87.1 just mentioned gives us the general rule about who can dispense from church laws.  It’s the diocesan bishop, and he can dispense the faithful from disciplinary laws whenever he judges that it contributes to their spiritual wellbeing.  Canon 87.1 adds that the bishop can dispense from universal laws (such as those contained in the code), as well as from particular laws that might govern the faithful of his territory—but not from laws whose dispensation is reserved to the Holy See. A good example of a law whose dispensation is reserved to Rome is found in canon 291, which addresses the dispensation of a cleric from observance of celibacy (see “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” for more on this).

The bishop can, if he chooses, delegate this power to someone under his authority; but canon 89 notes specifically that parish priests, other priests and deacons cannot grant dispensations unless that power is expressly granted to them.

Apart from this delegation, when is the power to dispense expressly granted to other clergy besides the diocesan bishop?  Well, canon 1245 gives us a case where it is granted by the law itself: it provides that the pastor of a parish can, in individual cases, dispense the faithful from the obligation of observing a feast day (attending Mass, in other words), or from a day of penance (fast and/or abstinence, in other words).

Now that we’ve gone over the basic rules, it should be fairly easy to figure out the answers to our two questions.  Many readers were probably already skeptical about Joanna’s suggestion that “one may dispense oneself” from church law, if only because such a possibility would obviate the whole point of having laws in the first place.  After all, if canon law required the faithful to do X, and the faithful could dispense themselves from X whenever they wanted, then why bother making the law?

If St. Patrick’s Day is an important feast in a particular parish, and the date falls on a Friday in Lent (when the faithful are required to abstain from meat), we just saw that the parish priest can dispense the parishioners from this obligation if he sees fit, as per canon 1245.  Note that while St. Patrick might be an important saint in your part of the world, there are plenty of countries where his feast prompts no particular celebration whatsoever—and so there is no reason why a parish priest in, say, Argentina or Malaysia or Greece would conclude that granting a dispensation is appropriate.  If you happen to live in a parish where the priest has not dispensed the faithful from the Friday Lenten abstinence, and you want to celebrate by eating meat on that Friday anyway… you’re out of luck.

(It may be worth noting at this point that, as was discussed in “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?no Catholic is expected to abstain from meat or do any other sort of Friday penance whenever a solemn holy day—like Christmas, or All Saints’ Day—falls on a Friday.  On such occasions there is no need for a parish priest to dispense his parishioners in accord with canon 1245, since the requirement to abstain from meat simply does not exist on that particular day.)

As for Maddy’s situation, we’ve just seen that a parish priest has no authority whatsoever to grant any dispensation, unless the law specifically allows him to, or the diocesan bishop has delegated to him the power to do so.  The pastor of her parish has absolutely no power to dispense anybody from the requirement that baptismal sponsors have to be Catholics, because the diocesan bishop didn’t authorize him to grant such a dispensation.  And how can we be so sure of that?  Well, we can safely assume this, because being Catholic is an essential element of being a baptismal sponsor to a Catholic—and as such, it can’t be dispensed by anybody, let alone a parish priest acting without authorization.  Canon 874 gives us the requirements for godparents of a person who is going to be baptized a Catholic; and one of them, unsurprisingly, is that the godparent must be a Catholic himself (c. 874.1 n. 3).  As was discussed in the article which Maddy mentioned (“Can Non-Catholics Serve as Baptismal Sponsors?”), there are basic theological reasons for this: the whole purpose of a baptismal sponsor is to help the newly baptized Catholic in his spiritual journey through life.  How can you help someone be a good Catholic, if you don’t embrace the Catholic faith yourself?

For the very same reason, it’s impossible to grant or receive a dispensation to permit a Catholic living a scandalously sinful life, and/or someone who has been excommunicated or suspended, to serve as a baptismal sponsor (c. 874.1 nn. 4-5).  The requirement that the godparent be living as a good Catholic is a constitutive element of the role of a godparent, and to dispense from it would make the whole concept of baptismal sponsors meaningless.  (See “Can a Lapsed Catholic Be a Godparent?” for more on this.)

In Maddy’s case, the failure to have at least one Catholic godparent for her child’s baptism will not affect the baptism’s validity; so if it has already taken place, with two non-Catholics erroneously listed in the baptismal registry as the child’s “baptismal sponsors,” Maddy can at least rest easy that her baby was indeed baptized a Catholic.  But note that if Maddy’s parish priest is wrongly telling her that he has the power to dispense her from canon 874, the odds are high that this is not an isolated case, and he’s been wrongly telling other parishioners the same sort of thing in other situations.

It’s quite possible that when celebrating other sacraments, the pastor of Maddy’s parish has falsely “dispensed” parishioners in ways that would render a sacrament invalid.  For this reason, the diocesan bishop should be made aware of what happened in Maddy’s case.  In some cases, it has indeed happened that diocesan canonists have had to examine carefully the circumstances surrounding every single wedding and baptism celebrated at a particular parish—to make sure that a parish priest with a proven disregard for church law didn’t wrongly permit something to happen which invalidated those sacramental celebrations.

We finally have full answers to both questions, as well as the Church’s reasoning behind them.  The law on the abstract issue of dispensation can definitely become rather complicated; but that’s generally because the Church is trying to maintain a balance between observing the law, and granting permission in select circumstances to refrain from following it.

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