By Anthony St. Louis-Sanchez
During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Christian faithful of the Archdiocese of Denver have received a dispensation from their Sunday obligation of participating in Mass. This dispensation was given in a decree of the Archbishop of Denver. One might wonder whether the Archbishop of Denver has the authority to issue such a dispensation. Let’s consider closely what a dispensation is and is not.
A dispensation is a relaxation of an ecclesiastical law, in a particular case, given by a competent authority, for a just cause, to a person or persons such that they are released from being bound to the law. This may sound complex, but let’s take it one step at a time. A dispensation is a relaxation of the law. The law does not cease. It continues to bind everyone who is not subject to the dispensation. A dispensation is also only good for one particular case or set of circumstances. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has already lasted for months and likely will continue for months to come, canon law would consider a pandemic to be one particular case. Dispensations are therefore only temporary relaxations of the law.
Dispensations are also only granted for ecclesiastical laws. There are many different types of laws: Divine laws, ecclesiastical laws, and civil/secular laws. The idea of a dispensation does not exist in civil law. Whenever a lawmaker makes a law, it is impossible to foresee every possible situation in which the law could apply. With dispensations, canon law is much more flexible than civil law because it can better respond to the unique situation.
However, this logic does not apply to Divine laws. Divine laws are laws that God established and enacted in the Sacred Scriptures. One example of Divine law is the Ten Commandments. God commands us in the third commandment to keep holy the sabbath. This is a precept of the Divine law. Bishops cannot grant dispensations from Divine law. The Archbishop’s decree does not attempt to dispense from the Divine law, but it does dispense from the ecclesiastical law.
For the Sunday obligation, there are two aspects to it. You have a Divine law foundation, upon which is added an ecclesiastical law extension. The Divine law stipulates the need to keep Sunday holy, whereas the ecclesiastical law directs this practice and requires attendance at Sunday Mass and on holy days of obligation. It is important to keep this distinction clearly in mind. The Archbishop can dispense you from the ecclesiastical requirement to participate in Sunday Mass, but not the Divine law requirement to keep Sunday holy.
The ecclesiastical law requires in-person participation at Mass. Vatican II calls for our full and active participation in the liturgy. Watching a virtual Mass is a pious and commendable practice, but it does not fulfill the ecclesiastical obligation for our in-person, active participation in the liturgy. During the pandemic, the Archbishop of Denver has relaxed this requirement of ecclesiastical law for those living in the Archdiocese of Denver. However, the Divine law requirement to keep Sunday holy cannot be dispensed. If Catholics do not attend Sunday Mass, then they must do something to fulfill the Divine law requirement. This can take the form of reading the Sunday readings, saying an Our Father and making an act of spiritual communion, among other pious practices. Such practices may fulfill the Divine law requirement, but not the ecclesiastical law requirement. Once the dispensation is revoked, Catholics will be once again obliged to actively participate at Sunday Mass, in person.
Once the dispensation is no longer in place, it will be necessary to prudently discern whether you are able to attend Sunday Mass. Even without a dispensation, it may be necessary for certain persons to refrain from attendance at the liturgy, such as those especially susceptible to the virus and those who are sick. How is it possible to legitimately skip Mass without a dispensation? There is a principle of canon law which states, “No one is obliged to do the impossible.” In canon law, if it is impossible for one to fulfill an obligation, then that obligation is suspended until the impossibility is removed. Things can be either physically impossible or morally impossible. If you are sick, then it is morally impossible for you to actively participate in the liturgy. Especially now, we have a moral responsibility not to spread illnesses to the vulnerable. For those especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, it may also be morally impossible to attend Mass. This takes discernment of your unique situation. In a case of impossibility, the situation itself lifts your obligation for participation at Mass. On the other hand, if you are physically and morally able to attend but have a just reason for not attending, then you should approach your pastor to request a dispensation.
Anthony St. Louis-Sanchez is a Judge for the Archdiocese of Denver Metropolitan Tribunal and Office of Canonical Affairs.