Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Ecclesiastical Discipline (such as Who Preaches at Mass)

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 28, 2011

A reader recently asked me a question about women giving the homily at Mass, which had occurred twice recently in her parish. I was surprised, because, well, that sort of thing is so seventies.

Wayward pastors, get a grip! There might have been some excuse for breaking rules and experimenting like crazy in the heady years following the 1960’s, when hopes were so high for a massive renewal without boundaries. Actually, there really was no excuse even then, but we might barely say it was understandable among people who simply didn’t know any better. Since then we’ve seen the bitter harvest of those years, an invasion of the Church by the surrounding culture too often welcomed and even facilitated by Those In Charge. Having sowed the wind, such priests and pastors have truly reaped the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7).

Therefore, everybody ought to know by now that deliberate deviation from ecclesiastical discipline on the part of a priest produces one of two results. Either it induces the faithful to hold ecclesiastical authority, including the Magisterium itself, in contempt, or it induces those faithful who care about authority to hold the priest in question in contempt. Neither is desirable, and the former leads to whole parishes drifting farther and farther from Christ.

My advice to priests tempted to ignore the directives and disciplines of the Holy See and of their bishops is the same as Christ’s: Be faithful in little things and you will be set over greater. Otherwise what little you have will be taken away.

Now for the record, in the universal Church generally no one but an ordained minister (a priest or a deacon) is allowed to give the homily at Mass. This task is reserved for those who have the grace of office (and thank God for that). It is true that in various places some provisions have been made for other forms of preaching by those who are not ordained. For example, in the United States, lay persons may preach at other times in churches and oratories when (and only when) the bishop “judges it to be to the spiritual advantage of the faithful”. The guidelines suggest that this should be done only when there is an absence of clergy, when there are problematic language requirements, or when there is a need for some particular expertise on the part of the preacher (or other similar specific and genuine needs).

But the bishop “may never dispense from the norm which reserves the homily to the sacred ministers” as set forth in Canon Law (canon 767). These complementary norms on preaching by lay persons were put into effect in the United States on January 15, 2002.

Ecclesiastical law is, of course, subservient to the demands of charity, which is a higher law by far. I do not intend to suggest otherwise. For example, suppose a person in danger of death needs viaticum. Let us further suppose that the usual priest is sick in bed, and no other minister, extraordinary or otherwise, is available. The sick pastor might call a trusted layman and say, “Quick, John, come and take the key to the tabernacle, get a host, and give communion to Betty in hospital room 304.” He could do this without reproach; indeed, he ought to do it. But there is one thing by which the demands of charity are not determined: They are not determined by whatever a priest or pastor (or any one of us) happens to think is a better way of doing things than the way the Church has carefully arranged for them to be done.

As I said, this sort of disobedience, which seems often to be born of a false populism, is so seventies. Or perhaps, at a stretch, eighties. That may not be much of an argument, but in some ways it is enough to make the problem self-evident. Such disobedience was always wrong, really, but to see it continuing among us even now seems rather obviously out of place. As in ludicrous.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: BANICAjerry - Apr. 03, 2011 4:53 PM ET USA

    I went to a Catholic Mass / Wedding in Chicago and a female Episcopal seminary candidate did the Gospel. I don't know if that church is still opened. Family said she was best friend of bride at college. Great!

  • Posted by: mwean7331 - Mar. 29, 2011 7:29 PM ET USA

    I would be interested to know if the Bishop of the diocese was informed and what action he took to correct this . Too often these "diversions" are allowed to continue and we wonder is this still the Roman Catholic church?