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This week: Canonical conflicts over access to the sacraments

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 03, 2020

During another week dominated by news about the CO19 epidemic, the most interesting theme that emerged this week involved the conflict between legitimate forms of authority: the authority of the state to protect public health and the authority of the Church to administer the sacraments.

When should the Catholic Church bow to the demands of the state? I have a simple answer to that question: Never.

However, the Church can and should respect the authority of the state to protect public health—provided that the state’s demands do not threaten the Church’s central mission. Parish churches should be built in compliance with zoning regulations and fire codes; making the buildings safe does not compromise the administration of the sacraments or the work of evangelization.

But what happens when a major crisis—like the current epidemic—prompts public officials to issue emergency regulations that do interfere with sacramental ministry? Then bishops and pastors must navigate a tricky course, respecting the rightful authority of the state without forfeiting the rightful (and greater) authority of the Church.

As American mayors and governors have tightened restrictions on public meetings, many bishops have followed suit, with directives that have limited—in some cases virtually eliminated—public access to the sacraments. So another conflict of authority has arisen: a conflict between the undoubted authority of the bishop to set standards for ministry in his diocese, and the equally certain right of the laity to have access to the sacraments.

Parish priests are caught in the middle of this latter conflict. They have taken a vow to respect their bishop’s authority. But they are also bound by the Church’s law to provide their people with the sacraments, and they were ordained for that purpose. Should they obey a directive from the bishop’s office, if they think that directive unjustly deprives the faithful of the sacraments? The problem becomes still more complicated if the directive does not come directly from the diocesan bishop, and/or does not clearly invoke the priest’s duty to obedience.

In a CNA exposition of the problem, J.D. Flynn and Ed Condon (both trained in canon law) summarized the difficulties and found: “And some priests have begun considering a question they never expected to find themselves asking: ‘Should I obey my bishop?’”

Ed Peters, whose canon-law blog has (as usual) provided invaluable insights on this crisis, suggested that it’s time to take a deep breath. A priest is not obligated to respect an illegal order from his bishop. However, Peters cautioned: “Do not assume that some wrong, even stupid, policies being announced by various levels of Church government are necessarily canonically illegal policies.” He recommended that priests and lay people alike should be “very wary” of the claim that any authoritative directive can be ignored.

But notice that Peters did not deny that in at least some cases a directive could be ignored. And another distinguished canonist, Philip Gray of the St. Joseph Foundation, made that case forcefully in a statement to LifeSite News: “If the priest believes in his conscience—because primacy of conscience is a matter—if the priest believes there is a violation of divine law by the bishop’s directive, he has an obligation to the divine law.”

This second potential conflict, between priests and their bishops, reflects in this case the potential tension between Church and state. Because the state has a legitimate interest in protecting the physical health of the populace. But the Church has a more important purpose. As Philip Gray put it succinctly, “We’re talking about the life and death of the soul.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: FredC - Apr. 04, 2020 9:29 AM ET USA

    The problem arises because the government prohibits groups of more than 10 people -- even if they are 10 yards apart. Limiting the group size is irrational. Requiring a distance apart is not.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Apr. 04, 2020 12:41 AM ET USA

    Provided the Church involved follow the guidelines of social distance, cleanliness, and having those attending sanitize their hands, we should be able to attend Church. Also don't overcrowd a service. Have more Masses. Set up guidelines and have some help to keep the guidelines. Place tissue boxes along each pew. Just ask they stay there. I am sure there are many good suggestions. Just ask. ST. MICHAEL HELP US.

  • Posted by: jan02 - Apr. 03, 2020 9:10 PM ET USA

    Maybe it's time for the Church in the United States to go underground.

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Apr. 03, 2020 7:49 PM ET USA

    I think you missed the actual questions. Does the laity have a “right” to the sacraments if it will endanger the health of his neighbors, both Catholic and non Catholic? Do the priest and laity have an obligation to avoid spreading a disease which is potentially fatal to others? If our Bishop decides that depriving us of the sacraments temporarily, with an exception for someone in danger of death, are we obliged to obey? When both the Church and State agree to a temporary closure, must we obey?