There are three takeaways from the letter Cardinal Sarah sent last month, regarding pastors’ duties to the faithful during this persistent global health crisis: the law is the law; reality is reality; the Catholic way of standing mightily on principle is not incompatible with determination to muddle through.
Signed on the Assumption and published with the Pope’s permission in L’Osservatore Romano, the letter was written by the Church’s highest authority on matters of liturgical discipline and addressed to the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences.
The letter recognised the reality of the coronavirus pandemic and forthrightly acknowledged that some restrictions are necessary, though certainly less than ideal. It called for unity as we navigate fraught waters largely uncharted.
Cardinal Sarah’s missive contained some bracing passages regarding the rights of the faithful to experience the Church’s liturgy as she herself intends and to receive the sacraments of the Church unencumbered by unnecessary restrictions. “Let the right of the faithful to receive the Body of Christ and to worship the Lord present in the Eucharist in the manner provided be recognised,” Cardinal Sarah wrote, “without limitations that go even beyond what is provided for by the norms of hygiene issued by public authorities or bishops.”
Those lines spoke most directly to the bishops and bishops’ conferences that have enacted emergency decrees basically prohibiting Communion on the tongue. Cardinal Sarah’s letter makes it clear that this is contrary to universal law.
The letter also recognises bishops’ duties to the health and safety of the faithful and their broader communities. Basically, Cardinal Sarah walks a tightrope: bishops cannot ban Communion on the tongue as a matter of personal preference, but they do have broad powers to enact emergency measures in times of crisis.
“In times of difficulty (we think for example of wars, pandemics), bishops and episcopal conferences can give provisional norms that must be obeyed,” Cardinal Sarah wrote. “These measures given by the bishops and episcopal conferences expire when the situation returns to normal.”
It is prudent, in other words, to limit the exercise of emergency power to the duration of the emergency itself, rather than press issues at inopportune times.
This was especially in light of genuine threats from civil authority to the autonomy of the Church.
“It falls to the prudent but firm action of the bishops to ensure that the participation of the faithful in the celebration of the Eucharist not be reduced by public authorities to a ‘gathering’, and that the Eucharistic celebration not be considered comparable or even subordinate to forms of recreational activity,” Cardinal Sarah wrote.
Different civil jurisdictions will in practice conduce emergency management differently, according to legal framework and culture. Cardinal Sarah’s basic concern, however, is to see the irreplaceable role of religion in social life duly recognised and properly protected everywhere.
Cardinal Sarah stressed that civil authorities are not competent to make law in matters directly regarding the liturgy.
“Liturgical norms,” he wrote, are not matters on which civil authorities may legislate, but only the competent ecclesiastical authorities.”
He also left room for bishops to take certain steps on their own, which they should not take on orders from the state. The publication of this letter appears to show that Pope Francis agrees.
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