The Virus and the Bishops: Twisting a Vatican Document to Further an Agenda

Q:  The priests of our parish have been [illegally refusing us the sacraments], so we wrote respectfully to our Bishop.  We quoted some canons which you discussed in your articles.

The Bishop replied to our letter and defended the priests.  He quoted a new letter from Cardinal Sarah of the Vatican, saying that Catholics must obey everything the Bishops say and do.

We are astounded.  Did Cardinal Sarah say these things? … How is it possible that Bishops have the authority to violate canon law, and we are required to accept this?  Why do we have canon law then? –Carlos

A:  In “The Virus and the Bishops: Twisting Canon 223 to Further an Agenda,” we took a look at a disturbing trend that was occurring around the world at the time: quite a few bishops and priests were wrongly telling the faithful that one canon of the code (canon 223) somehow permitted them to violate all the others.  In this way, they were falsely claiming that the Church authorized them to deny Mass and the sacraments to the faithful entrusted to their care.

What is happening now is similar, but much more insidious.  As Carlos and his family have found out, the latest fad is for bishops to claim that a letter written in August by Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), somehow gives bishops complete carte blanche to do in their dioceses whatever strikes their fancy, with complete impunity.  Let’s take a look at what Cardinal Sarah’s letter actually says, and then examine the implications of this dangerous and false claim that is being made about its message.

Entitled “Let Us Return to the Eucharist With Joy!” the letter—found here in English, starting on page 7—was addressed to the Presidents of all the Episcopal Conferences around the world.  (See “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain From Meat Every Friday?” for more on episcopal conferences, a.k.a. conferences of bishops, and how they function.)  That’s an important fact to remember right there: this letter was addressed to bishops, not to the faithful in general, and it contained information applicable to the episcopal conferences in every nation on the planet, regardless of the way its politicians have handled (or mishandled) the virus or the degree to which its people were affected by it.

As Prefect of the CDW, Cardinal Sarah is a theologian rather than a canonist, which is as it should be.  Thus it’s no surprise that in his letter, he discusses the celebration of Mass and administration of the sacraments in the era of Coronavirus in an abstract, highly theological way.  “God is a relationship of Persons in the Most Holy Trinity,” he rightly declares, and therefore God

puts Himself in relationship with man and woman and call them in turn to relationship with Him…. For this reason, the house of the Lord presupposes the presence of the family of the children of God.
… The Christian community has never sought isolation and has never made the Church a city with closed doors.

As should be clear already, Sarah may be speaking in abstract terms, but his general theological statements are directly applicable to the current situation throughout the world.

Cardinal Sarah thanks the bishops “for their commitment and effort in trying to respond in the best possible way to an unforeseen and complex situation,” immediately adding,

As soon as circumstances permit, however, it is necessary and urgent to return to the normality of Christian life, which has the church building as its home and the celebration of the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, as “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed, at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10).

Note that Sarah isn’t saying, “You were right to cancel Masses, deny the sacraments to the faithful, and refuse to celebrate funerals.”  Rather, in the above passage he is simply giving bishops the benefit of the doubt as to their intention, in doing whatever they’ve done in their dioceses—and telling them that things need to return to normal as soon as possible.

To reiterate, Sarah isn’t directly criticizing anybody here.  But by telling bishops that things need to get back to normal (i.e., the way they used to be) he is indirectly contradicting any assertions that there is “a new normal” in the way we attend Mass, receive the sacraments, and basically live like a true Catholic community.  In other words, any change that has been made in order to prevent spread of the virus in the course of our liturgical life is not normal, and should not be construed as permanent.

Cardinal Sarah emphasizes that bishops are to stand firm against any encroachments by civil authorities into the liturgical sphere.  Bear in mind that depending on the country, many politicians are overtly hostile to the Church and have tried to interfere directly in the way the Church conducts its worship.  It’s not up to secular authorities to decide whether and how we receive the Eucharist, baptize our children, or engage in any of the countless other specific elements of our faith—that’s up to the Supreme Authority of the Church, and in certain instances diocesan bishops (c. 838—more on this in a moment).  Sarah once again cites Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy to support his statements, and follows that with a sentence that ties in directly with Carlos’ question:

Liturgical norms are not matters on which civil authorities can legislate, but only the competent ecclesiastical authorities (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 22).

The participation of the faithful in the liturgical celebrations should be facilitated, but without improvised ritual experiments and in full respect of the norms contained in the liturgical books which govern their conduct. (Emphasis added)

Sarah’s assertion here is quite understated, most likely because it’s nothing more than a restatement of what all bishops should already know: nobody in the Church—not even a diocesan bishop!—has authority to play games with the liturgy, changing the Church’s rites as they are set out in the approved liturgical books.  On the contrary, canon 392.1 states unequivocally that diocesan bishops are required to defend the unity of the universal Church, foster common discipline, and press for the observance of all ecclesiastical laws (and this of course includes liturgical laws).  The canon’s next paragraph states that the diocesan bishop is to ensure that abuses do not creep into church discipline—especially in the celebration of the sacraments and divine worship, among other things (c. 392.2).

Thus it is clear that Cardinal Sarah’s letter is echoing the law, in that no bishop can randomly introduce novel ways of administering the sacraments in his diocese “because of the virus,” or ban the old ways—much less forbid the administration of some or all sacraments altogether (see “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” as well as “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” and “Refusing a Funeral Mass, Because of the Virus” among others).  There’s no surprise here; as Catholics, bishops are obliged to follow canon law like the rest of us!

Given all this, how could any bishop (or anyone else, for that matter) claim, as Carlos tells us, that this letter asserts that “Catholics must obey everything the Bishops say and do”?  They’re basing that claim on this subsequent paragraph:

A sure principle in order not to err is obedience. Obedience to the norms of the Church, obedience to the Bishops. In times of difficulty (e.g. wars, pandemics), Bishops and Episcopal Conferences can give provisional norms which must be obeyed. Obedience safeguards the treasure entrusted to the Church. The measures given by the Bishops and Episcopal Conferences expire when the situation returns to normal.

On the surface, if you don’t think about it too deeply and you take this paragraph out of context, it does sound like they’ve got a point, doesn’t it?  After all, Cardinal Sarah is saying here that bishops have the authority to issue “provisional norms which must be obeyed”—which seems to suggest that if a diocesan bishop declares that something(s) will henceforth be done differently in  his diocese “because of the virus,” the faithful cannot object.

The fact is, however, that when you look at this paragraph as a part of the entire letter, what Sarah is saying about obedience is perfectly obvious: priests and laity obey the diocesan bishops, and diocesan bishops obey the universal law of the Church.  (Remember that this letter is addressed to episcopal conferences, not to the faithful.)  This is how the Church has functioned from time immemorial, and so there’s absolutely nothing new here!

Yes, this paragraph notes that “Bishops and Episcopal Conferences can give provisional norms which must be obeyed.”  But as was discussed at length in “The Bishops and the Virus: Twisting Canon 223 to Further an Agenda,” laws cannot contradict each other.  If the liturgical books approved for use in your nation say that X is to be done during the Mass or during the administration of a particular sacrament, period, the diocesan bishop has no authority to decree the contrary.  As we just saw above, this is consistent with what Cardinal Sarah explicitly says earlier in his letter: bishops’ temporary provisions must be “in full respect of the norms contained in the liturgical books which govern their conduct.”  This is why, to cite a particularly blatant example, no diocesan bishop or conference of bishops has the power to forbid Catholics to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, if they wish (as was addressed in “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” and “Episcopal Conferences and Communion on the Tongue”).  Universal law says repeatedly and unequivocally that Catholics always have the right to receive the Eucharist on the tongue, and nobody can disregard that—because there is no provision in universal law for any exception.

So if a diocesan bishop can’t create norms like that, what kind of norms can he establish?  Here’s a concrete example which should serve to illustrate the sort of episcopal authority provided for not only in Cardinal Sarah’s letter, but in the Church’s universal law.

The Church’s General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) contains all the norms pertinent to the celebration of Mass, and was discussed in more detail in “Can You Be Refused Holy Communion If You Kneel?”  The GIRM has this to say about exchanging the sign of peace at the appropriate point during Mass:

The Rite of Peace

82.  The Rite of Peace follows, by which the Church asks for peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament.

As for the sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. It is, however, appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner. (Emphasis added)

That’s the norm, and as you can see, there is no single, set way that the entire Catholic Church is obliged to exchange the sign of peace at Mass.  The GIRM acknowledges that different cultures have different ways of doing this—e.g., some do so by shaking hands, others by bowing—and it specifically leaves the precise method up to the determination of each conference of bishops.

Now, it seems that pretty much every conference of bishops around the world today has established a norm that in order to avoid spreading contagion, during Mass there will be no hand-shaking, kissing, or other physical contact as a sign of peace.  In fact, a lot of the time the sign of peace is basically being omitted entirely, “because of the virus.”  It should be clear that this decision is in complete accord with the GIRM—and therefore, to use Cardinal Sarah’s words, it’s a provisional norm “in full respect of the norms contained in the liturgical books which govern their conduct.”  That’s why if anyone who might want to object because “we don’t do the Sign of Peace at Mass any more” would be on very shaky ground.

Here’s another example.  The GIRM states clearly that in certain specific circumstances, the faithful can be “permitted” to receive Holy Communion at Mass under both species (i.e., both the Host and the Chalice).  Note that this is not a right, but a permission (cf. n. 283; this important distinction was discussed at length in the above-mentioned “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?”).  If bishops declare that “because of the virus” the faithful will not be permitted to receive both the Host and the Precious Blood, but only the Host, that is (to quote Cardinal Sarah once again) “in full respect of the norms contained in the liturgical books which govern their conduct.”

These are the sorts of “provisional norms” that episcopal conferences and individual diocesan bishops have full authority to establish.  Note that this ties in perfectly with what canon 838 (already referenced above) has to say: “The ordering and guidance of the sacred liturgy depends solely upon the authority of the Church, namely, that of the Apostolic See and, as provided by law, that of the diocesan bishop” (c. 838.1, emphasis added), and “Within the limits of his competence, it belongs to the diocesan Bishop to lay down in the Church entrusted to his care, liturgical regulations which are binding on all” (c. 838.4, emphasis added).

Contrast this now with what some bishops around the world are currently claiming, that this letter from Cardinal Sarah states that bishops can prohibit the faithful from receiving Communion on the tongue, can delay indefinitely their reception of the sacrament of marriage, can forbid altogether the entry of diocesan priests into hospitals to administer the anointing of the sick to seriously ill Catholics, etc. etc. … and the faithful can’t object to any of this because “Bishops and Episcopal Conferences can give provisional norms which must be obeyed.”  The sheer illogic and deliberate deceit of such a statement is utterly mind-boggling.

Out here in the real world, the Catholic Church has a hierarchical order which requires certain Catholics to obey others, while all Catholics are obliged to obey the many laws which are universal and thus bind everybody in the Church.  Nowhere in Catholic theology (much less canon law) will anybody find that a diocesan bishop can decree anything he wants, even if it directly contradicts sacramental theology and/or universal law.  As we saw in “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” even the Pope himself is bound to observe divine law, whether he wants to or not—so not even the Supreme Authority in the Church has the kind of authority which these bishops are claiming to possess!

In addition to the obvious, there’s another, extremely dangerous implication being made by those bishops who are asserting that they have this sort of unbounded authority, and all Catholics need to recognize it for what it is:

In the section of the Code of Canon Law entitled “The Christian Faithful,” which enumerates rights and obligations applicable to all Catholics, canon 205 tells us that Catholics who are in full communion with the Church share (a) the same faith, (b) the same sacraments, and (c) the same governance.  If you don’t share all three, then you can’t claim to be in full communion with the Catholic Church—and that goes for bishops too.

Let’s look at that third qualification found in canon 205 more closely.  Catholics all share the same governance—a broad statement which includes a lot of things, but in short, we all acknowledge the Pope as the Church’s supreme authority here on earth, we accept his authority to make laws (including the Code of Canon Law, of course) and to establish other disciplinary rules within the Church, etc.  We Catholics also accept that diocesan bishops have authority within their dioceses (known in the code as “particular churches,” cf. c. 368), under the Pope as their superior.  And, of course, Catholics likewise acknowledge the authority of pastors within their parishes under the authority of the bishop, religious superiors within their religious institutes, and so forth.

If/when a Catholic in an authority position freely and knowingly opts to flout the laws/rules set down by those to whom he himself is subject, and to set up his own laws/rules to the contrary … it’s frighteningly easy to argue that he is willfully choosing to ignore the “same governance” listed in canon 205.  This is very, very dangerous business—because if you’re not careful, you can slide down the proverbial slippery slope, and ultimately find yourself flirting with schism.

Unfortunately there are plenty of historical precedents for this, and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (d. 1991) can be viewed as a recent case in point.  Lefebvre repeatedly and consistently asserted that he acknowledged the Pope as the head of the Church on earth; but in 1988, he consecrated four bishops without the required papal mandate, in violation of canon 1382 (see “Canon Law and the SSPX” for more on this).  Sacramentally speaking, as an Archbishop he had the power to validly consecrate new bishops, as per canon 1012; but bishops have no authority to do this on their own initiative, as they must first receive a mandate from the Pope, who alone chooses the men who are to become bishops (cf. c. 1013).  Lefebvre knew that he had no authorization from the Pope to consecrate these men—and was repeatedly reminded of this fact in advance—but he chose to act outside his authority as a Catholic bishop, and in direct violation of canon law.  The Vatican promptly declared that he had engaged in schism, and he was excommunicated as a result.

It must be emphasized here that this is not to suggest that every diocesan bishop out there who is currently violating universal laws/norms “because of the virus” is ipso facto in a state of schism!  But the point is, if you’re knowingly insisting that in your diocese Catholics must do X, while the Church’s universal law says they have a right to do non-X; or you refuse to give them Y although the Church mandates that they must receive Y if they wish … how can you be construed as acknowledging the “same governance” that all Catholics around the world are required to share?

As we already saw above, canon 392.1 states that a bishop is bound to defend the unity of the Church and foster common discipline.  Catholics should be able to travel from diocese to diocese, all around the world, and find that while there may be relatively slight variations here and there in matters over which the bishops themselves have been given flexibility by the law itself, universal law is nonetheless being faithfully followed no matter where they go.  But as too many of us know full well, these days this is not the case at all—it is scandalously common that the clergy of one diocese are obeying universal laws, while those in the adjoining diocese are directly violating them, ostensibly “because of the virus.”  In fact, this sort of discrepancy can often be found in different parishes within the same diocese, as many parish priests likewise have unilaterally taken it upon themselves to disregard laws which they are required to obey!

Three of the four Evangelists recount that it was Our Lord Himself Who said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Matt. 12:25; Mark 3:25; Luke 11:17).  Anyone who fails to see that this sort of dissension in the Church today must be diabolical in origin isn’t looking too closely.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is not a game.  Diocesan bishops have a lot of power within their dioceses—and that is as it’s supposed to be, for the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful for whom they are responsible.  But arrogating to themselves additional powers which properly belong to the Supreme Authority in the Church is a dangerous move, as it is not only illegal in and of itself, but it can potentially lead to rending the unity of the Catholic Church.  The night before He gave His life for our redemption, Jesus prayed that we “might all be one” (John 17:21).  We could all make that our own prayer right now, and ask Our Lord to see to it that we Catholics all remain united to each other, and united to Him.

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