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Bishops’ ban on sacraments during pandemic violates Church law, priests can disobey: canonist

'If the priest believes there is a violation of divine law by the bishop’s directive, he has an obligation to the divine law'
Mon Mar 30, 2020 - 12:50 pm EST
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March 30, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Catholic bishops issuing blanket bans on the faithful receiving the sacraments as a response to the coronavirus pandemic is a violation of canon law, and a priest can in good conscience disregard such directives, according to an American canonist.

In fact, a priest is obliged to do so, says Philip Gray, the president of St. Joseph’s Foundation, which advises on canon law, and director of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF).

“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,” Gray told LifeSiteNews. 

“We’re talking about the life and death of the soul.”

Gray’s response was echoed by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Mary Most Holy in Astana, Kazakhstan, who told the traditional Catholic newspaper The Remnant that a priest, using discretion and following the necessary health precautions “has not to obey the directives of his bishop or the government to suspend Mass for the faithful.”

“If a priest observes in a reasonable manner all the necessary health precautions and uses discretion, he has not to obey the directives of his bishop or the government to suspend Mass for the faithful. Such directives are a pure human law; however, the supreme law in the Church is the salvation of souls. Priests in such a situation have to be extremely creative in order to provide for the faithful, even for a small group, the celebration of Holy Mass and the reception of the sacraments. Such was the pastoral behavior of all confessor and martyr priests in the time of persecution,” he said. 

And Cardinal Raymond Burke equally criticized the suspension of public Masses.

“Even as we have found a way to provide for food and medicine and other necessities of life during a time of contagion, without irresponsibly risking the spread of the contagion, so, in a similar way, we can find a way to provide for the necessities of our spiritual life,” the American cardinal said in a March 21 statement.

Gray told LifeSiteNews that Catholic bishops are wrong to cancel public Masses and scheduled confessions in response to the coronavirus pandemic, an argument he expands on in the current issue Christifidelis, the newsletter of the St. Joseph Foundation.

Under canon law, baptized Catholics “have a right to receive the sacraments if they ask for it at an appropriate time, and are properly disposed, and it’s the minister of the sacrament who makes that determination,” Gray told LifeSiteNews.

“It’s not appropriate for a bishop to put blanket prohibitions on the use of the sacraments.”

Rather, bishops “should be collaborating with their priests instead of issuing prohibitions against the sacraments; they should be setting guidelines for the priests to work with,” he said. 

“I’m not saying that people should gather 500 at a time and be crushed in like sardines in a church,” Gray noted.

“What I’m saying is that there are reasonable measures that a bishop can put in place to allow all the sacraments to continue. That is what Christ would expect of us. These are the ordinary means of salvation.”

However, as the pandemic continues, the vast majority of American dioceses have canceled all public Masses, and some bishops have gone so far as to ban confession, baptism, and even last rites.

Notably, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark suspended confession except in “extreme emergency” — as well as locking all chapels and churches — and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago has ordered a moratorium on baptisms.

Catholic blogger Fr. Zuhlsdorf reported Friday that another bishop ordered confession “be suspended except for those in danger of death,” and that “all other means of providing the Sacrament” should “cease” -- particularly drive-through confessions.

More recently, Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, told his priests in a March 27 message that the sacrament of last rites is “suspended” in the diocese, according to Catholic News Agency

When it comes to confession, prelates will “want to argue this is not a reasonable time” to ask for confession, “but there’s absolutely no health guidelines in the United States that would prohibit the exercise of regular confessions,” Gray told LifeSiteNews.

Catholics hold that the priest has the power to forgive all sins, acting as God’s instrument of mercy. Confession is integral to Catholic life since it cleanses one from deadly sins that would otherwise cut one off from God and the Kingdom of heaven.

For bishops to suspend this sacrament except in danger of physical death is “insane,” because “that’s placing the soul under the body, and that is a danger of death,” Gray said. 

“And if they’re going to say we’re concerned that we’re going to spread death, they are spreading death.”

The Church also teaches that mortal sin can be forgiven by an act of perfect contrition, which is inspired by love of God and sorrow at offending Him, not fear of hell -- and that the person must go to sacramental confession at the first opportunity.

But most Catholics in mortal sin don’t understand what perfect contrition means, and “what goes through their mind is to go to confession, so they’re going to go knock on a priest’s door or show up for confession,” Gray said.

He pointed to the Vatican’s March 20 note on providing this sacrament during the pandemic, which said bishops must provide guidelines for priests on implementing appropriate safeguards for hearing confessions. 

Bishop Jeffrey Monforton of Steubenville, where regularly scheduled confessions continue, is exemplary in this regard, said Gray.

Monforton “put out clear guidelines to make confessions safe and reasonable and fall within the bounds of what the health officials are telling us to do. And people still show up, and line up to go to confession every time.” 

Another case in point is Ave Maria Parish in Florida, where the priest, with the blessing of his bishop, devised a way to distribute Holy Communion after Mass to all parishioners. 

“My biggest concern is that the church authorities in North America are putting greater restrictions on the distribution of the sacraments than the civil authorities are,”  Gray told LifeSiteNews.

Moreover, under the First Amendment “many of the mass gathering laws or regulations that are being put out by health officials do not apply in churches in the United States,” he observed.

“It is unprecedented that in a time of crisis, so many bishops are choosing to close churches when they do not have to; or prohibit the exercise of sacraments without coercion from secular laws,” Gray wrote in Christifidelis.“It doesn’t have to be this way.”

He urged Catholics to look to the example of Japanese Catholics, who kept the faith without the sacraments for 250 years, principally through praying the Rosary, and to “not let this crisis distort your participation in God’s plan” but to respond in love.  

“Let us join this suffering to the Cross of Jesus Christ and make it redemptive,” he wrote.


  canon law, coronavirus, jeffrey monforton, joseph tobin, mass, mitchell rozanski, philip gray, sacraments

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