The Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Robert Sarah, had strong words for the world’s bishops this weekend – of encouragement and perhaps of reproof – especially regarding their responses to the spiritual needs of the faithful during the global coronavirus emergency.
“It falls to the prudent but firm action of the bishops,” Cardinal Sarah wrote in the letter dated August 15th – the Solemnity of the Assumption – addressed to the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences and published in Italian in the Sunday edition of L’Osservatore Romano, “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 went on to say 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,” may do so.
Civil authorities in many jurisdictions have imposed strict rules regarding venues and numbers of participants allowed to participate in religious services. There has been genuine perplexity over some restrictions, and significant public outcry. The statement from the Vatican’s chief authority on liturgy – published with Pope Francis’s explicit approval – is bound to be viewed as a line in the sand.
That’s if it is not taken as fighting words – which they may be in Italy, where the bishops themselves played a close game at the beginning of the emergency. They floated the idea that they might shutter Italy’s churches during the coronavirus lockdown. “Not because the state imposes it on us,” Italy’s bishops wrote on March 12, “but out of a sense of belonging to the human family.” The Italian bishops did not end up taking the step. As the Catholic Heraldnoted at the time, however, the Italian bishops were at pains to show themselves prepared to do something on their own, which they would not do on the government’s orders.
If it is fair to say there were mixed signals over that matter and other related issues from Pope Francis and the Vatican, this letter appears to show that Pope Francis’s mind is made up – and he is backing Cardinal Sarah’s take.
The world’s bishops themselves came in for some more direct treatment when Cardinal Sarah turned to their role in helping the faithful navigate the crisis. “The participation of the faithful in liturgical celebrations should be facilitated,” the Cardinal Prefect wrote, “but without improvised ritual experiments and in full respect of the norms contained in the liturgical books which govern their conduct.” His next sentence explicitly addressed the frequently controverted question of how the faithful are to receive Holy Communion.
“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.”
Some bishops – and some conferences – have issued emergency decrees prohibiting Communion on the tongue. Cardinal Sarah’s letter makes it clear that this is contrary to universal law. The letter also recognises that bishops have a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of the faithful and the broader communities in which their Churches live and minister. 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. “Obedience,” he continued, “safeguards the treasure entrusted to the Church. These measures given by the Bishops and Episcopal Conferences expire when the situation returns to normal.”
One may do more than quibble with applications of Cardinal Sarah’s maxim regarding obedience to other areas of ecclesiastical life, but broadly and generally – and certainly in this particular case – the point is clear: paper authority is one thing; power to act in the real world is quite another. Bishops will do things from time to time, so it is better to restrict the exercise of emergency power to the emergency, than it is to fight battles one can ill afford to wage even and perhaps especially when one has a legitimate claim.
Said shortly, the thrust of Cardinal Sarah’s letter is a recommendation of prudent restraint when it comes to intra-ecclesial matters, however contentious, in view of the need to present a unified front in the face of a much more serious threat from the outside.
Whether his words will unite and galvanize the bishops and the faithful behind them, or end up as another strongly worded letter in a long series of them that go largely unheeded, remains to be seen.