Environment and Art in Catholic Worship: What Force Does It Have?

Author: Duane Galles


Duane L.C.M. Galles

The St. Joseph Foundation has received dozens of pleas for help from parishioners whose church buildings are threatened by renovation. In most cases, a booklet called "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship" (EACW), published in 1978 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy (NCCB/BCL) is cited as the authority for the sometimes drastic changes such as destruction of communion rails, ripping out of high altars and replacing them with "tables" in the center of the church building, moving the reserved Blessed Sacrament out of the sanctuary, etc.

The Foundation's files contain a number of claims by pastors and bishops that EACW is an authoritative document which must be followed when churches are renovated and that all unrenovated churches must eventually be brought into conformity with its provisions. The following assertion made by the administrator of a parish in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is typical: "Many who object to the design do not realize that the Church has given rather specific directives for Catholic worship space. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has published "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship." If major repair work is to be done, this authoritative teaching from the Bishops has to be a guide. Please do not interpret this as an endorsement of the proposed redesign. But the design of worship space is not simply a matter of taste; all must come to terms with the directives from the Bishops." When the parishioners took their concerns to the Archbishop of Cincinnati, Archbishop Pilarczyk responded: "There is an authoritative statement from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops regarding the construction and renovation of churches. Father S. has consistently advocated the study of this document. He has said time and again that some type of survey will be conducted, but such polling cannot be construed as a vote. I agree with him: Catholic theology, whether "Humanae Vitae" or "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship," is not up for a vote. "

Before commenting on these assertions concerning the force of EACW, it is necessary to first see what the NCCB/BCL itself has said on the subject. The following appeared in the NCCB/BCL Newsletter in 1985:

The Role Of Liturgy Committee Statements And Guidelines

From time to time, the Secretariat receives inquiries regarding the various statements, guidelines and other documents of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy with regard to their "legislative force." In order to respond to these questions it is important first to understand the nature and role of a standing committee of a conference of bishops. The Committee on the Liturgy is only one of many such standing committees of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB).

According to the Statutes and Bylaws of the NCCB standing committees may not issue statements unless these have received a two-thirds majority of the Conference's Administrative Committee, what the Code of Canon Law calls the "permanent council of bishops" of an episcopal conference. According to canon 457 the Administrative Committee (permanent council) "is to prepare the agenda for the plenary meeting of the conference and see to it that the decisions made during the plenary sessions are properly implemented; it is also to care for other matters which are entrusted to it according to the norm of the statutes. " Thus when the NCCB is not in plenary session the Administrative Committee acts in its name according to the Conference's statutes and bylaws.

When a standing committee of the NCCB proposes to issue a statement or a set of guidelines it must first gain, at least in principle, the approval of the entire conference during a plenary session when each committee's plans, programs and budgets are approved. Thus, for example, when the Committee on the Liturgy proposed to issue guidelines on church architecture and art it received the approval of the entire membership (two thirds of the "de jure" members of the NCCB) in 1976. When the Committee's proposed document, then known as "Environment and Art in Catholic worship" (EACW), was ready, the Committee presented it to the Administrative Committee for approval. That approval was given at the Administrative Committee meeting of September 13-15, 1977.

In 1978 EACW was published. As an explication of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Chapter V), EACW has the force of particular law in the dioceses of the United States. It expands those norms and sets policy for building, renovation, decoration, and furnishing of churches. When the NCCB approved the Liturgy Committee's proposal it recognized the duty of its "liturgical commission" to prepare such guidelines and see that they were issued. The same may be said for other Liturgy Committee statements and guidelines, e.g, "Music in Catholic Worship," "Liturgical Music Today," "A Call to Prayer," "Sign of Peace," etc.

These Committee statements are analogous to the "instructiones" issued by the various Roman dicasteries. Instructions are restatements of previously promulgated law. Often they elucidate the reasons behind the law and provide guidance for proper interpretation of the law.

Guidelines issued in the name of the Liturgy Secretariat have the general approval of the NCCB (approval of plans and programs) and the particular approval of the Liturgy Committee. Such guidelines and publications must first be authorized by the General Secretary of the Conference before publication. The purpose of Secretariat publications is also to explain previously promulgated norms and directives and to offer guidance on their implementation. However, no "legislative" claim is made for such publications.

I am puzzled with the declaration that "EACW has the force of particular law in the dioceses of the United States." This statement seems most confused and is couched in much the same murky and imprecise language as EACW itself. First, the NCCB/BCL argues that EACW is an instruction and in so being it enjoys binding force. Then The Committee concludes that EACW has the "force of particular law." They mix two distinct categories.

Canon 34 nowhere says instructions have the "force of particular law." Indeed, paragraph 3 of that canon implies precisely the reverse and c. 6, Para. 1, 4 would support this. If instructions had the force of particular law, they would not cease to exist but would retain their own force despite the repeal of the universal law. Thus, in the first place it must be clear that even if an EACW were an instruction, it could not have the "force of particular law," since instructions "qua" instructions do not have such force.

Nor is EACW even an instruction, in the canon 34 sense. Canon 34 Para. 1 tells us that "those with administrative authority may...lawfully publish" instructions. Presumably those without administrative authority may not then publish instructions. Canon 135 Para. 1 tells us that one distinguishes between legislative, judicial and executive power. "Executive" here is but a newer name for "administrative" power. Canon 137 goes on to speak of "ordinary executive power" and canon 137 Para. 3 speaks of "delegated executive power," in case we had any doubts about this traditional category of administrative power. Canon 134 tells us that those with "ordinary executive power" are "ordinaries" and then proceeds to give an all-inclusive list of "ordinaries." Alas, episcopal conferences are not listed as "ordinaries" and so do not have ordinary executive power. If episcopal conferences do not possess "ordinary executive power," they might, nevertheless, have delegated executive power. But in that case they would have expressly to show the source of their grant of delegated power and this is precisely what the BCL has failed to do.

What kind of power does an episcopal conference have if not "administrative" power? Canon 447 in describing episcopal conferences says that they exercise "certain pastoral functions," "quaedam pastoralia munera." Canon 455 tells us what episcopal conferences can in fact do: in limited situations they can make "general decrees."

Now if we want to know what kind of power episcopal conferences really do have, we need to find out what a "general decree" is. Canon 29 tells us that general decrees stem from "competent legislators" and are "true laws" and are regulated by the canons 7-22 governing laws. Thus, we see that, while the "Code" clearly gives episcopal conferences limited legislative powers, nowhere does it give them administrative power. Furthermore, it would make no sense to claim that the force of EACW rests upon the limited legislative power of an episcopal conference because the document itself was never submitted to the plenary session of the NCCB, as the NCCB/BCL acknowledges in the last sentence of the excerpt from its Newsletter quoted above.

It must, then, be abundantly clear that episcopal conferences do not have "ordinary administrative power," are not "ordinaries," and so, under canon 34 lack the requisite authority for making instructions. While they may as a housekeeping measure and counsel of prudence provide that their staffs are not free to issue statements to the public, unless these statements have been approved by the conference or its administrative broad, they cannot by such a restriction confer on those statements which receive such approval an authority which the "Code" does not deign to confer on any of their statements approved or otherwise. In short, a restriction intended to restrain the exuberance of staff cannot be bootstrapped into providing an authority which does not exist in canon law for such documents as EACW.