Extent of a Bishop's Authority

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Extent of a Bishop's Authority


Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. Q: I have received from one of my confreres in the Philippines a question regarding the celebration of the Latin Mass. The question is: The "motu proprio" of the Holy Father Benedict XVI allows a priest to celebrate the Mass in Latin, if he so chooses, without need to ask permission from the ordinary. Could a bishop have a right to forbid the celebration of the Mass of Paul VI facing the altar, not the people, when he is using this liturgical form and not the extraordinary form of John XXIII, for pastoral reasons? — S.L., Rome

A: The question is really more canonical than liturgical, and I speak as one who is not a trained canonist.

The question revolves around the bishop's authority with respect to regulating the liturgy. No one doubts that the bishop has the right and duty of supervising the liturgy within his diocese. Thus the Code of Canon Law states:

"Canon 838.1 — The supervision of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church which resides in the Apostolic See and, in accord with the law, the diocesan bishop.

"Canon 839.2 — Local ordinaries are to see to it that the prayers and other pious and sacred exercises of the Christian people are fully in harmony with the norms of the Church."

In the task of promoting the sacred liturgy, the law grants the bishop a wide range of authority to make determinations within his diocese. He may, among other things, make pastoral decisions as to some feasts; grant dispensations from some obligations; approve specific musical settings; and mandate certain days of prayer and celebrations. He must also ensure that any abuses are eliminated — if necessary, through the use of canonical penalties.

However, his authority is not absolute. On several occasions the Holy See has made decisions which in some way limit this authority. For example, the bishop may permit the use of female altar servers, but may not impose their use on pastors. A bishop or major religious superior cannot oblige a priest to concelebrate if he prefers to celebrate on his own. A bishop should give confirmation to a child who is sufficiently prepared and spontaneously requests the sacrament, even if diocesan policy requires an older age.

The question that is addressed here is: Can the bishop determine or limit options granted to all priests by universal liturgical law, such as the possibilities of different directions for celebrating Mass found in the Roman Missal?

Liturgical law already provides a complex process through which a bishops' conference can propose permanent adaptations to the postures and texts of the liturgical books. Such adaptations require a two-thirds majority of the bishops and the subsequent approval of the Holy See before these changes can be mandated as particular law for that country.

Since this elaborate process would be moot if individual bishops could establish alternative postures on their own, I think it is safe to say that establishing stable amendments to the Roman Missal, having the force of particular law in a diocese, is not a prerogative of the diocesan bishop.

It could well happen, though, that a particular situation arises in a diocese which would allow a bishop to make a particular determination for serious pastoral reasons. This decision would be binding as an act of obedience, but it would probably not acquire the force of stable particular law and its effects would be necessarily tied to the pastoral situation that motivated the decision.

Such a situation occurred about 10 years ago in the United States. A bishop forbade in his diocese the celebration of Mass toward the apse. It was a response to certain theological arguments which seemed to present this position as being somehow more orthodox than facing the people.

While I believe that the canonical arguments used at the time to back up the decision (based, above all, on the law of custom) were not unshakable, I also believe that it could fall within the province of a bishop to make a decision of this nature if faced with a pressing pastoral situation.

The bishop consulted with the Holy See which responded: "As regards the position of the celebrating priest at the altar during Holy Mass, it is true as Your Excellency indicates that the rubrics of the Roman Missal, and in particular the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, foresee that the priest will face the body of people in the nave while leaving open the possibility of his celebrating towards the apse. These two options carry with them no theological or disciplinary stigma of any kind. It is therefore incorrect and indeed quite unacceptable that anyone affirm, as Your Excellency sums up this view, that to celebrate towards the apse 'is a theologically preferable or more orthodox choice for a priest who wishes to be true to the Church's authentic tradition.'"

Although I am unaware if the bishop later withdrew the decree, I suppose that it fell by the wayside once the underlying theological and pastoral question had been resolved by the Holy See.

The possibility of celebrating toward the apse for the Eucharistic Prayer is a legitimate option offered by the ordinary form of the Roman Missal. It is an option which our present Holy Father has used publicly on at least two occasions in the Sistine Chapel. Some other bishops have also done so in their cathedrals.

At the same time, it is understandable that a bishop would wish to coordinate with priests who desire to use this option at parish Masses so as to ensure that the faithful understand the reasons behind a practice which most of them would not have experienced before. For this reason I would say that a bishop could order that the practice not be introduced in a spontaneous or haphazard way, or he could order that its implementation be delayed for a certain time. It is doubtful, however, that he would have the authority to make a formal and permanent ban on an option offered by the Roman Missal.

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