Canonical Considerations for Public Worship in the Time of COVID-19

July 03, 2020
Joseph B. Johnson
COVID-19 is not very novel as plagues go; what is really unprecedented is its emergence at a time when humanity possesses the scientific, technological, and political infrastructure needed to actively combat a virulent contagion like this coronavirus. In a word, this is the first truly managed pandemic in history. Yet while this thought should calm us, its consoling value depends greatly upon the competence of the managers.
This observation pertains to the religious sphere as well as to the secular. Over the last few months, we have seen the suspension of public worship worldwide in compliance, ostensibly, with social distancing regulations enacted by civil authorities. Yet while most bishops have merely accepted the situation as inevitable, several have gone further than is necessary, ordering their churches to be locked and forbidding their clergy to administer the sacraments under threat of disciplinary action.[1] While the adoption of reasonable hygienic measures is commendable, such as limiting the size of congregations or holding services outdoors, the suppression of public worship by Catholic bishops in response to the threat of COVID-19 lacks a sound canonical basis, unduly prejudices the spiritual welfare of the faithful, and undermines the bishops’ own moral authority in an increasingly secular world.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law does not directly regulate the celebration of the liturgy.[2] It does, however, enunciate several principles that are significant for the Church’s worship. Canon 213 establishes that “all the Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments.” Canon 214 amplifies this, stating that “all the Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the prescripts of their own rite approved by the legitimate pastors of the Church, and to follow their own form of the spiritual life in keeping with the doctrine of the Church.” This makes it clear that the rights affirmed in canon 213 are conditioned by the communal nature and hierarchical constitution of the Church, in view of which the sacred pastors exercise a ministry of oversight vis-à-vis public worship and private devotion.[3] Other conditioning factors can be listed; thus, canon 843, §1 states that “sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.”
Pastoral responses to the threat of COVID-19 need to be judged on the basis of these canons, especially the lattermost, on which I shall now comment. First, the “prohibition of law” mentioned in the final clause of canon 843, §1 is canonical rather than civil. While magisterial documents recognize a legitimate sphere of activity for civil authority, they do not concede to it any regulatory competence over sacramental participation.[4] This is the exclusive prerogative of ecclesiastical authority, which may restrict participation through sanctions such as excommunication or interdict,[5] or by granting sacramental ministers discretionary authority to withhold sacraments from those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.”[6]
Second, Catholics ought to approach the sacraments with a proper disposition, that is, with sincerity and in a spirit conformable to orthodox faith. This is important often for reasons of sacramental validity, such as in confession where absolution depends upon the penitent’s firm purpose of amendment,[7] or to protect the faithful from harming themselves spiritually through sacrilegious reception of the sacraments.[8] A notable example of this is canon 916, which enjoins those conscious of grave sin not to receive the Eucharist without first making a sacramental confession. By requiring this self-examination, the canon seems to suggest that ministers must presume that those seeking a sacrament are properly disposed unless the contrary is proven.
Third, the faithful need to seek the sacraments at appropriate times, though it is difficult to say categorically what this means. Canon law becomes more flexible in extreme cases, especially those where physical or moral impossibility are factors or a danger of death is present.[9] This relates to the COVID-19 pandemic in several ways. For instance, the duty to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation does not bind when the bishop has suppressed Masses, just as the duty to wed in a Catholic ceremony does not bind when the bishop has suspended the solemnization of marriages for a period of at least thirty days.[10] The canonical duty of confessing at least annually likewise seems to be in abeyance, notwithstanding the moral imperative to avail of sacramental confession as often as is needed.[11]
Granting that the faithful are not bound to frequent churches during a pandemic, or any other disaster for that matter, we still need to ask: Is the current situation so extraordinary that it warrants the near total interruption of the Church’s sacramental life? The foregoing suggests that the burden of proof is on those who would restrict access to the sacraments. A bishop who would order his churches locked and his clergy to abandon their ministries would be subject to a canonical, to say nothing of a moral, duty to justify such measures, especially when they exceed the demands of civil law concerning quarantine, sanitation, and social distancing. A culture of episcopal positivism, however, seems to reign in the absence of accountability—no such justifications are ever advanced, and frankly, there is no way to get them which does not depend solely upon the goodwill of the bishop in question. With few exceptions, the silence of the bishops has been deafening, deeply demoralizing thousands of committed Catholics while confirming millions more in their indifference.
Allow me to relate the foregoing to what I have seen as a theology professor at Ateneo. The student body is becoming more diverse in terms of religion, with a sizeable Evangelical minority continuing to grow alongside a no-longer negligible number of openly atheist, agnostic, and unaffiliated students (or “nones,” in the parlance of religious sociology). Religious indifference is increasing as well; many students, regardless of their affiliation or lack thereof, have difficulty adducing a positive reason for believing what they profess to believe. Indeed, the pressures of social conformity often have greater explanatory power in this regard than do theological argumentation or philosophical reflection. Thus, many students are invested in religion only insofar as it confers social advantage or some other tangible utility. Authoritarian pedagogies of religious education that emphasize memorization rather than critical assimilation of religious content reinforce this tendency, creating serious challenges when theology teachers try to inculcate a faith that seeks understanding instead of expediency.
The upshot is that the upcoming generation of Catholics is already disposed to seeing religion as a “non-essential service” without the bishops signaling as much by their eager suppression of sacramental worship. What are these young people to think, when the grocery store is open and the parish church is closed? That man does, in fact, live by bread alone. And if even the bishops are not sanguine about reopening the churches—with appropriate hygiene protocols, of course—then what can be done to bring back the religiously indifferent after the last three months? Probably not much.
The damage, by now, has been done. Fixing it will require real leadership.
[1]Catholic News Agency, “Can I confess? Or be anointed? Here’s what’s suspended, or not, in your diocese,” National Catholic Register (April 2, 2020), (accessed June 25, 2020); D. Mallari, J. Yee, & J. Aurelio, “3 dioceses suspend Masses, weddings, baptisms, ‘Pahalik,’” Philippine Daily Inquirer (March 14, 2020), (accessed June 25, 2020); L. Dodd, “Masses suspended in Catholic churches across Britain,” The Tablet (March 18, 2020), (accessed June 25, 2020).
[2]Code of Canon Law of 1983, c. 2 (hereafter referred to as CIC). An indexed copy is available at
[3]CIC 1983, cc. 381, §1; 392; 835; 838.
[4]Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (December 7, 1965), §§74-76.
[5]Excommunication is not expulsion from the Catholic Church.
[6]CIC 1983, c. 915. In point of fact, this discretionary standard requires fairly egregious misconduct that is widely known in the subject’s community and moreover liable to cause confusion or doubt concerning the Catholic faith in the event of the sacrament being administered. This is a high barrier to clear, making the canon’s restrictions practically irrelevant for most Catholics.
[7]CIC 1983, c.. 987.
[8]1 Corinthians 11:27-32.
[9]See CIC 1983, cc. 861, §2; 862; 916; 976-977; 1003, §2; 1112; 1116.
[10]See CIC 1983, c. 1247, and especially c. 1248, §2, regarding celebrations in the absence of a priest.

11]CIC 1983, c. 1116, §1, 2°; see also cc. 1108, §1; 1117.

The views and opinions expressed in this note are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the School of Humanities and/or the Ateneo de Manila University.