Peter Kwasniewski

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Why the ordinary use of ‘extraordinary ministers’ has to go away

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

September 26, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – In the great tradition of the Catholic Church—in its Latin and Greek, Western and Eastern rites alike—only clerics or ordained ministers are permitted to distribute the precious Body and Blood of Our Lord. This tradition remained unbroken until the rash of liturgical experimentation in the 1960s paved the way for an almost indiscriminate multiplication of unprecedented lay “ministries.”

The reason for the traditional restriction is that, as the Church’s greatest theologian St. Thomas Aquinas explains, it pertains to the same one to bring about a certain effect and then to see that the effect is bestowed on those for whom it is intended. All the more is this true with supernatural effects that may be produced only by supernaturally empowered agents; it would simply not be fitting to entrust such effects to anyone who is not set apart for that ministry. That explains why, even under current Church law, the only ordinary minister of communion—the only ordinary minister—is the bishop, priest, or deacon, in virtue of his ordination, which consecrates him to the service of God.

Why is ordination so important? Because the Holy Eucharist is the Body and Blood of God Incarnate. It is God. When you hold the host, you are in contact with the Author of all life, all reality. This is not something to treat lightly, or to delegate to clerks like an office job. Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted a priesthood with its specific responsibilities, which the deacon shares and the bishop exemplifies.

Never in the recorded history of the Church had laymen (not to say anything about laywomen) been allowed to distribute the precious gifts, until just a few decades ago. This step was part of a larger enterprise of creating a “new” liturgy for Modern Man, where the old rules and customs no longer had to be respected, and where an informal, casual approach was preferred to a solemn, formal one. (This is why Byzantine Catholics, who have not abandoned their own customs and are keenly aware of the reverence due to the awesome mysteries of Christ, are rightly troubled by what they see going on in so many Latin Rite churches.) Unfortunately, when old rules and customs disappear, the faith itself, and the life that corresponds to it, also disappear, as our own eyes have seen, and as all the statistics confirm.

Just as the Second Vatican Council said nothing about abolishing Latin, the priest facing the people, or receiving Communion in the hand, it also said nothing about laymen distributing the Body and Blood of Christ. However, even when this practice began to be permitted, it was expressly limited to rare cases: bringing communion to the sick when no ordained minister was available, or helping distribute the host when the celebrant was too old or too weak to do so himself, or assisting when a very great number of people rendered it necessary. This can be easily proved by looking at all the relevant universal disciplinary norms (gathered here).

For this reason, as late as 1997, the Vatican made a clarification, and with some insistence, that “the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at Mass, thus arbitrarily extending the concept of ‘a great number of the faithful,’” is among practices “to be avoided and eliminated where such have emerged in particular Churches” (On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful).

Please note: There is not a single document from the Vatican, or any other document with legal force, that requires the distribution of Holy Communion under both species in spite of the absence of ordinary ministers. In other words, if there are ordinary ministers, communion may be given under both species; but if not, there is no overriding or compelling reason to do so. Communion under the form of bread alone is, and is considered to be, fully adequate to the purpose for which Our Lord instituted the Eucharist: unite the faithful fully to Himself—to the One who is really, truly, substantially present under either species.

Most of the Western world has turned a deaf ear to the repeated request of the Vatican that extraordinary ministers be limited to their intended purpose. According to the Modernist view, this would mean that the Vatican’s request is mistaken because the People of God (or perhaps some bureaucratic behemoth called an episcopal conference) have decided otherwise. 

But the Modernist viewpoint, which is inherently antiauthoritarian, was condemned by Pope St. Pius X. The fact that the Church in the Western world exists in statu abusus—in a state of (nearly perpetual) abuse—in no way undermines the law of the Church, or, above all, her wise tradition of two millennia. Neither tradition nor discipline evaporates just because everyone’s ignoring it and the Vatican chooses to tolerate this state of affairs, or rather, not to take punitive steps. 

We have, unfortunately, seen that in these days we cannot expect much help from the Vatican on any matter of substance. Hence, if change does not take place at the parish level, it may never happen. Blessed be the pastor who has the conviction, courage, and tactfulness it takes to remove abuses, in keeping with Redemptionis Sacramentum 183:

In an altogether particular manner, let everyone do all that is in their power to ensure that the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist will be protected from any and every irreverence or distortion and that all abuses be thoroughly corrected. This is a most serious duty incumbent upon each and every one, and all are bound to carry it out without any favoritism.

Perhaps more than in any other nation, Americans have simply chosen to be disobedient in regard to extraordinary ministers, creating their own rules as they go along. I ask: Is this a truly Catholic attitude? Or is it just one more example of how far the Church in America has drifted into making up its own religion with its own homegrown rules? The land of 30,000 denominations has a way of de-Romanizing and de-Catholicizing the Church, unless conscientious and determined efforts are made in the opposite direction.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.