by Maria d’Arienzo*
As an emergency issue according to the contagion prevention, the doors of the churches remained locked, and when open, no public celebration have been admitted. Some States, for example Italy, have decided the suspension of all religious ceremonies, including funeral. Nevertheless, Masses have been celebrated sine populo, often live streamed by television and social media.
I want to express further considerations regarding the power of ecclesiastical authority to preclude the faithful from attending Mass. In many articles – even published in the press – it has been affirmed that the decision of Catholic Church authorities to suspend religious ceremonies constitutes a violation of the right of the faithful to participate in the Sacraments.
Actually, canon 1245 of the Codex juris canonici expressly allows the competent ecclesiastical authority (i.e. the Bishop and, according to its provisions, the parish priest) to «grant in individual cases a dispensation from the obligation of observing a feast day» for a «just cause», and it is possible to commutate the precept «into other pious works».
The possibility of dispensing from a universal and particular obligation falls within the capacity recognized to the Bishop « whenever he judges that it contributes to their spiritual good» (can. 87 § 1), and for a «just and reasonable cause» (can. 90 § 1). Such a dispensation does not prevent general compliance with the rule but limits its exercise in particular cases and for individuals.
On another hand, one must consider that attending Mass is not only a duty, but a right of the faithful, since « sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them» (can. 843 § 1). So, in the specific pandemic situation, the Bishops have dispensed from the duty, and have applied can. 223 too, according to which it falls to the same authority to define the exercise of the Christian faithful, both as individuals and gathered together in associations, taking into account «the common good of the Church, the rights of others, and their own duties toward others».
That decision does not affect the right of the faithful, since it simply defines its method of exercise.
The measures of suspension of the public Masses are necessary and exceptional, and do not interfere with the sacramentality which concerns the Eucharistic rite, which is part of the Mass. Although the participation via web or video is a very different way to attend it. The Holy Father himself, in the homily of the Mass in Santa Marta on 17 April, warned about the risks of a «virtual faith», hoping for an imminent return to «normalcy».
* Full Professor of Law and Religion and Canon Law at the University of Naples “Federico II”