Episcopal Conferences and Communion on the Tongue

Q1:  The US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued guidelines saying that we have the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, despite the virus … but my bishop has ordered all his priests to do the exact opposite.  He won’t allow them to distribute Communion on the tongue, only in the hand.  Our diocese is in the US, so isn’t my bishop required to follow the Conference’s guidelines?  What should we do?  –Olivia

Q2:  I enjoyed reading your text about the authority of a Conference of Bishops to cancel Masses in the whole country.  I completely agree … but I would like to have your opinion about the following argument.  Canon 455.4, which addresses the authority of a conference of bishops, seems to give the conference authority to do this, if all the bishops unanimously consent to a decision.

The very thing which you addressed in the article happened in my country, Croatia—all the bishops issued a declaration suspending all public Masses and the administration of sacraments. In this case one could try to justify the legality of the decision by simply stating that all the bishops have given consent, in order that the conference would proclaim a decision which all of them have agreed will be implemented in their own dioceses.

I would be thankful to have your answer on this issue. –Father T.

A:  It probably doesn’t look like it, but these two questions are directly related to each other.  At issue in both cases is the authority of an Episcopal Conference, vis-a-vis the authority of an individual diocesan bishop within his diocese.  Let’s look at the second question first, because this will then enable us to easily answer the first one.

In “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain From Meat Every Friday?” we took a look at what a Bishops’ Conference (also known as an Episcopal Conference) is, and what it can/should do.  But briefly, a Bishops’ Conference is a permanent institution comprising all the bishops of a country or a particular territory, that as a body exercises certain pastoral functions for the faithful of their territory (c. 447).  Generally, the bishops of each country together form their own Bishops’ Conference; but in some parts of the world, an Episcopal Conference may include the bishops of more than one country.  In Africa, for example, the bishops of Gambia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone together form a single Inter-Territorial Catholic Bishops’ Conference.  The Irish Episcopal Conference includes not only all the bishops of the Republic of Ireland, but those of the Catholic dioceses in Northern Ireland (which is part of a separate country) as well.

Father T. correctly observes that in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” we saw that Episcopal Conferences have absolutely no authority to decide for themselves that all public Masses in their territory are to be cancelled.  (In fact, quite apart from all the canonical issues, this sort of phraseology in itself makes no theological sense: see “Can Priests Cancel Public Masses and Say a Private Mass Instead?” for more on this.)  Canon 455.1 tells us clearly that a conference of bishops can only issue general decrees in cases where either (a) universal law has prescribed it, or (b) a special mandate of the Apostolic See has established it.  Needless to say, there is no provision in the Code of Canon Law that permits an Episcopal Conference to deprive the Catholic faithful of Mass and the sacraments—and Rome has certainly never issued a special mandate permitting them to do this either!  Thus any declaration, by any Episcopal Conference on earth, that Masses and/or sacraments will be withheld from the faithful because of the virus (or for any other reason, for that matter) is utterly invalid.

But then Father T. read canon 455.4, which gave him pause because it sounds like a possible loophole.  This paragraph says,

In cases in which neither universal law nor a special mandate of the Apostolic See has granted the power mentioned in canon 455.1 to a Conference of Bishops, the competence of each diocesan bishop remains intact, nor is a conference or its president able to act in the name of all the bishops unless each and every bishop has given consent.

If you’re not careful, it’s perilously easy to misread this paragraph and draw erroneous conclusions about its meaning.  The paragraph actually has two separate parts, which in the English translation are connected by the second “nor,” seen here in bold.  The first part is straightforward: it asserts that in those cases where the code does not grant power to an Episcopal Conference, and no special mandate has been issued by Rome, the Episcopal Conference cannot issue a decree—which means an individual diocesan bishop is not bound by anything that his Episcopal Conference might say on the subject.  This is simply the logical conclusion that anyone should reach from reading canon 455.1.

The second part of canon 455.4, following the bolded word “nor,” is what’s causing confusion here.  It says that an Episcopal Conference, or the head of the conference, only has authority to act in the name of all the bishop-members of that conference on a given subject, if the bishops have unanimously agreed.  What does this mean?

Maybe it’s easier to explain first what it doesn’t mean.  Canon 455.4 does not state that so long as the bishops agree unanimously, a Bishops’ Conference can issue a general decree even when neither the Code of Canon Law nor a special mandate from Rome provides for it.  That would not only contradict canon 455.1, but more importantly, it would come into direct conflict with the whole scope of Episcopal Conferences in general—which is set not by the bishops themselves, but by the Apostolic See.  In short, an Episcopal Conference doesn’t decide for itself what it can make decrees about; Rome does.

Think about it: if all the bishop-members of the Episcopal Conference of Country X unanimously agreed that starting today, it is possible for their priests to repeat the contents of a penitent’s confession with impunity, would that be a valid decree under canon 455.4?  Absolutely not!  It would conflict with both sacramental theology and the universal law on that sacrament, found in canons 983 and 1388 (see also “Can a Priest Ever Reveal What is Said in Confession? Part I” and “Part II”).  They have no authority whatsoever to make such a decree, and so it would be null and void.

The fact is, the second part of canon 455.4 does not refer to making “general decrees” like paragraph 1 does.  It is referring to other, lesser actions by a bishops’ conference; and the purpose of requiring unanimous consent is to safeguard the autonomy of a diocesan bishop within his own diocese.  If by this point you’re getting dizzy from all the procedural lingo, here’s another concrete example which should help to clarify things.

Let’s say that a large number of bishops in the Bishops’ Conference of Country X decide that a certain theologian, who is a native of their country, is objectionable for some reason.  He doesn’t teach heresy as defined in canon 751, so he cannot be sanctioned as a heretic under canon 1364.  But somehow he rubs many bishops the wrong way, and they want him to be banned from lecturing publicly in all the churches, Catholic schools, and other Catholic institutions of the country.

But now let’s imagine there’s one bishop in Country X who honestly doesn’t see anything wrong with this theologian.  Yes, maybe the theologian’s language is blunt and undiplomatic, but it isn’t contrary to Catholic teaching—and so this one bishop disagrees with the idea that the theologian should be prevented from speaking in his diocese.  Remember, a diocesan bishop is personally responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the Catholics in his diocese (cf. c. 387), and if he thinks that inviting this theologian to speak at Catholic events in his diocese is fine, that’s his call to make.

In this imaginary scenario, under canon 455.4 the Episcopal Conference of Country X cannot decide that as a matter of policy, this theologian is to be banned from lecturing throughout the entire country—because the decision is not unanimous.  Put differently, a majority of bishops does not have authority to overrule the decision of one bishop within his own diocese.  This is the type of situation that the second part of canon 455.4 addresses.

So now let’s look at the situation which Father T. describes in his question.  Every single diocesan bishop of Croatia decided (to their shame) to prevent all the Catholics of the nation from attending Mass or receiving the sacraments, in violation of their rights.  This decision is, of course, totally invalid, as they had absolutely no authority to make it—and the fact that their decision was unanimous does not change that.  That’s because no Conference of Bishops can enact decrees—even with unanimous consent!—that violate the law.

Let’s go back for a moment to canon 447, mentioned earlier, which gives us the definition of what an Episcopal Conference is.  Among other things, the canon notes that an Episcopal Conference is to promote, in accordance with the law, the greater good which the Church offers to mankind.  Even when the conferences are authorized by the Code of Canon Law to issue decrees as per canon 455.1, these decrees obviously have to be consistent with universal law.  And any policies that they may establish by unanimous vote, under canon 455.4, likewise cannot conflict with the Church’s universal law.  It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that deciding to prevent the Catholic faithful from attending Mass and receiving the sacraments, to their spiritual detriment, doesn’t fit the bill.

Whether you realized it or not, this just brought us directly to Olivia’s question.  Olivia is in the United States, and the Bishops’ Conference of that country has issued guidelines regarding the “restoration” of Masses and the sacraments (which obviously should never have been denied to the faithful in the first place).  The guidelines are the end-product of discussions among theologians and medical doctors, and they outline ways to arrange to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments while simultaneously limiting the potential dissemination of the virus as much as possible.

The paragraph which has the attention not only of Olivia, but of millions of other American Catholics, is the one addressing the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue—which is actually repeated several times, in different sections of the document:

We have carefully considered the question of Communion on the tongue vs. Communion in the hand. Given the Church’s existing guidance on this point (see Redemptionis Sacramentum, no. 92), and recognizing the differing judgments and sensibilities that are involved, we believe that, with the precautions listed here, it is possible to distribute on the tongue without unreasonable risk.

We have already discussed Redemptionis Sacramentum, no. 92 here in this space, in “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” but in short, this document, issued in 2004 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline

Communion on the tongue

Communion, by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, 1712

of the Sacraments and approved by then-Pope John Paul II (and still in force!), says unequivocally that “each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue.”  As was discussed at length in the article just mentioned, no lower authority can ever make a rule or issue a law that contradicts one made by a higher authority.  This means that the universal laws and rules established by Rome cannot be countermanded by any Episcopal Conference, diocesan bishop, or priest—period.  It cannot be overemphasized that legally, there is absolutely no grey area here whatsoever.

Consequently, it is clear that on this point, the document issued by the Episcopal Conference in the US is correctly deferential to the universal law.  But as Olivia tells us, her own diocesan bishop “has ordered all his priests to do the exact opposite.”  Can he do that?

Before answering Olivia’s question, it’s important to distinguish what exactly she is asking.  If she wants to know whether her bishop can disregard the guidelines issued by the Episcopal Conference, the answer is an unqualified yes, he can.  That’s because these guidelines, which are not laws (that’s why they’re called “guidelines”!), do not bind individual bishops if they decide not to follow them.  As per canon 455.4, if these guidelines had been approved unanimously by all the members of the Bishops’ Conference, they would be binding.  But they weren’t—so they aren’t.

That does not mean, however, that what Olivia’s bishop is doing is okay—far from it!  Her bishop is not required to follow the guidelines issued by the Episcopal Conference of which he is a member … but he certainly is obliged to obey universal law.  He doesn’t have to obey the recommendations provided by the team at the Bishops’ Conference that compiled them, but he does have to obey Redemptionis Sacramentum, no. 92, which those guidelines cite.  In short, Olivia’s bishop has no authority to forbid the clergy of his diocese “to distribute Communion on the tongue, only in the hand.”  As his order directly contradicts universal law, it must be disregarded by the clergy to whom it was given, as they (like everybody else in the Church) are required to obey higher authority.

Olivia wants to know what she can/should do about this.  Well, for starters, she might politely approach her own parish clergy and point this out.  If they nonetheless choose to wrongly follow an illegal command, and deny Olivia and the rest of her parish the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue if they so wish, then her next step should be to contact the Congregation for Divine Worship here in Rome, and explain (in writing) what is happening in her diocese and her parish.

In the meantime, of course, both Olivia and the rest of us should pray especially hard for our clergy.  Many of them are in a tight spot these days, as they are being bullied and sometimes even threatened by their bishops, who are demanding that they act in a way that directly violates the law.  May God give them the grace and the strength to manfully resist the temptation to do what is easy, rather than what is right.  Amen.

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