Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Is it morally wrong to deliberately deviate from the liturgy? How is culpability assessed? — R.C., Bangalore, India
A: This is a very difficult question to answer and requires several levels and some delicate distinctions.
From the objective point of view, a deviation in the liturgy can range from a minor ceremonial faux pas to a major abuse that renders a celebration invalid and even sacrilegious.
The question of moral culpability is also something of a conundrum as it depends both on the objective entity of the deviation and the subjective attitude with which it is carried out.
The same material error in liturgy could be caused by ignorance, due to an imperfect formation, or by knowingly and deliberately disobeying liturgical norms. The subjective moral culpability will, therefore, correspond in some way to the awareness and intentionality of the act.
In some cases, however, ignorance can itself contribute to culpability. For example, at least in important liturgical matters a priest should not plead ignorance as it is his duty to know how to carry out the principal liturgical rites in a proper manner. He might perhaps be unaware of some abstruse norms hidden in specialist books, but he would be at fault if he lacked knowledge regarding his basic ministerial duties.
The judgment as to subjective culpability for a liturgical deviation is mostly a question of conscience as only the person committing the error, sometimes with guidance from a spiritual director or confessor, can know his or her internal attitude at the moment the action was taken. This moral culpability might range from none whatsoever for a simple error to very grave for a willful abuse.
In some situations, the person committing an abuse publicly manifests the underlying motivations behind the act and this can either mitigate or exacerbate its gravity. For example, I knew a priest who was sent to a very isolated mountain community where Mass was rarely celebrated since access required a trek of several hours. He found a church full of expectant faithful but no chalice in the sacristy. He used the best vessel he could find but told the people that he was doing it as an exception, and it was not the proper thing to do. In a totally different context a few years ago a European priest made a grave violation of liturgical law while stating before the cameras that he knew that what he was doing constituted such a violation but was acting for ideological reasons that were contrary to Catholic teaching.
With respect to the objective judgment of liturgical abuses, perhaps the most thorough treatment of the subject is the 2004 Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum. Toward the end of the document, in Chapter VIII, it offers some pointers to determine the gravity and what it calls “remedies.” To wit:
“169. Whenever an abuse is committed in the celebration of the sacred Liturgy, it is to be seen as a real falsification of Catholic Liturgy. St. Thomas wrote, ‘the vice of falsehood is perpetrated by anyone who offers worship to God on behalf of the Church in a manner contrary to that which is established by the Church with divine authority, and to which the Church is accustomed.’
“170. In order that a remedy may be applied to such abuses, ‘there is a pressing need for the biblical and liturgical formation of the people of God, both pastors and faithful,’ so that the Church’s faith and discipline concerning the sacred Liturgy may be accurately presented and understood. Where abuses persist, however, proceedings should be undertaken for safeguarding the spiritual patrimony and rights of the Church in accordance with the law, employing all legitimate means.
“171. Among the various abuses, there are some which are objectively graviora delicta or otherwise constitute grave matters, as well as others which are nonetheless to be carefully avoided and corrected. Bearing in mind everything that is treated especially in Chapter I of this Instruction, attention should be paid to what follows.
“1. Graviora delicta
“172. Graviora delicta against the sanctity of the Most August Sacrifice and Sacrament of the Eucharist are to be handled in accordance with the ‘Norms concerning graviora delicta reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,’ namely:
“a) taking away or retaining the consecrated species for sacrilegious ends, or the throwing them away;
“b) the attempted celebration of the liturgical action of the Eucharistic Sacrifice or the simulation of the same;
“c) the forbidden concelebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice with ministers of Ecclesial Communities that do not have the apostolic succession nor acknowledge the sacramental dignity of priestly Ordination;
“d) the consecration for sacrilegious ends of one matter without the other in the celebration of the Eucharist or even of both outside the celebration of the Eucharist.
“2. Grave Matters
“173. Although the gravity of a matter is to be judged in accordance with the common teaching of the Church and the norms established by her, objectively to be considered among grave matters is anything that puts at risk the validity and dignity of the Most Holy Eucharist: namely, anything that contravenes what is set out above in nn. 48-52, 56, 76-77, 79, 91-92, 94, 96, 101-102, 104, 106, 109, 111, 115, 117, 126, 131-133, 138, 153 and 168. Moreover, attention should be given to the other prescriptions of the Code of Canon Law, and especially what is laid down by canons 1364, 1369, 1373, 1376, 1380, 1384, 1385, 1386, and 1398.
“3. Other Abuses
“174. Furthermore, those actions that are brought about which are contrary to the other matters treated elsewhere in this Instruction or in the norms established by law are not to be considered of little account but are to be numbered among the other abuses to be carefully avoided and corrected.
“175. The things set forth in this Instruction obviously do not encompass all the violations against the Church and its discipline that are defined in the canons, in the liturgical laws and in other norms of the Church for the sake of the teaching of the Magisterium or sound tradition. Where something wrong has been committed, it is to be corrected according to the norm of law.
“4. The Diocesan Bishop
“176. The diocesan Bishop, ‘since he is the principal dispenser of the mysteries of God, is to strive constantly so that Christ’s faithful entrusted to his care may grow in grace through the celebration of the sacraments, and that they may know and live the Paschal Mystery.’ It is his responsibility, ‘within the limits of his competence, to issue norms on liturgical matters by which all are bound.’
“177. ‘Since he must safeguard the unity of the universal Church, the Bishop is bound to promote the discipline common to the entire Church and therefore to insist upon the observance of all ecclesiastical laws. He is to be watchful lest abuses encroach upon ecclesiastical discipline, especially as regards the ministry of the Word, the celebration of the Sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and the veneration of the Saints.’
“178. Hence whenever a local Ordinary or the Ordinary of a religious Institute or of a Society of apostolic life receives at least a plausible notice of a delict or abuse concerning the Most Holy Eucharist, let him carefully investigate, either personally or by means of another worthy cleric, concerning the facts and the circumstances as well as the imputability.
“179. Delicts against the faith as well as graviora delicta committed in the celebration of the Eucharist and the other Sacraments are to be referred without delay to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which ‘examines [them] and, if necessary, proceeds to the declaration or imposition of canonical sanctions according to the norm of common or proper law.’
“180. Otherwise the Ordinary should proceed according to the norms of the sacred canons, imposing canonical penalties if necessary, and bearing in mind in particular that which is laid down by canon 1326. If the matter is serious, let him inform the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
“5. The Apostolic See
“181. Whenever the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments receives at least a plausible notice of a delict or an abuse concerning the Most Holy Eucharist, it informs the Ordinary so that he may investigate the matter. When the matter turns out to be serious, the Ordinary should send to the same Dicastery as quickly as possible a copy of the acts of the inquiry that has been undertaken, and where necessary, the penalty imposed.
“182. In more difficult cases the Ordinary, for the sake of the good of the universal Church in the care for which he too has a part by virtue of his sacred Ordination, should not fail to handle the matter, having previously taken advice from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. For its part, this Congregation, on the strength of the faculties given to it by the Roman Pontiff, according to the nature of the case, will assist the Ordinary, granting him the necessary dispensations or giving him instructions or prescriptions, which he is to follow diligently.
“6. Complaints Regarding Abuses in Liturgical Matters
“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 everyone, and all are bound to carry it out without any favoritism.
“184. Any Catholic, whether Priest or Deacon or lay member of Christ’s faithful, has the right to lodge a complaint regarding a liturgical abuse to the diocesan Bishop or the competent Ordinary equivalent to him in law, or to the Apostolic See on account of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. It is fitting, however, insofar as possible, that the report or complaint be submitted first to the diocesan Bishop. This is naturally to be done in truth and charity.”
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