September 4, 2020

Canon law, COVID-19 and our dispensation from attending Sunday Mass

By Very Rev. Joseph Newton, JCL, VJ (Special to The Criterion)

Given the centrality of the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, #11), and keeping in mind the Third Commandment to “remember the sabbath day, [and] to keep it holy,” the Catholic Church states that “on Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass” (1983 Code of Canon Law, c. 1247).

However, the Catholic Church in its wisdom recognizes that it cannot command the impossible, and for some people and in some circumstances, for a grave cause, it is not possible to observe their Sunday obligation (c. 1248, §2).

There are three types of ways in which a person would be released from their Sunday obligation. They are impossibility, dispensation, and excuse.

Impossibility means the person is unable to attend Mass because of circumstances beyond their control; a dispensation is a relaxation of law granted by a competent authority; and an excuse is a reason founded in conscience and determined in a prudential way that would excuse one from attendance.

An example of an impossibility would be if your local parish Mass has been canceled, and it would be a burden to travel and attend another Mass at a different location.

In such a case, the norm states that “it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a Liturgy of the Word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop, or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families” (c. 1248, §2). While this is commendable, it does not satisfy the obligation to attend Mass, but one is not bound to the observation of the obligation by reason of impossibility.

The second way in which a person can be released from their Sunday obligation is by way of dispensation. For example, because of COVID-19, the Archbishop of Indianapolis issued a universal dispensation for all Catholics of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis from their Sunday obligation.

Examples of reasons why a pastor may dispense from the Sunday obligation include an individual who must work on a weekend such that they would have no way to attend Mass, or a person is traveling by airplane and is not able to attend Mass or if to attend Mass would cause a grave burden. It is up to the prudent discretion of the pastor to determine whether the reason for dispensing from the Sunday Mass is a just cause (c. 1245).

In this time of COVID-19, perhaps the most relevant reason for a person being released from their Sunday obligation is by way of excuse. The main reason that one would be excused from attending Mass is due to illness; this would apply to both the person who is ill and to the caregiver of the ill person.

Since illness is individual, and symptoms can be felt differently, it is up to the person’s discretion to determine whether the illness prevents one from attending Mass. For example, a person with a headache may be able to take medication and attend Mass, while a person with a migraine headache needs complete bedrest. Simply put, if a person feels that they are too ill to attend Mass, then that person is excused from the obligation to attend Mass.

Another aspect of illness when considering a just excuse is the risk that is presented by the person with the illness. For example, a person with a chronic non-infectious condition would pose no threat to others by attending Mass, whereas a person with a highly contagious disease (COVID-19, flu, cold, etc.) would pose a grave threat to others. In such a case, that person is not only excused from their Sunday obligation, but, as a matter of charity, would be morally obligated not to attend.

Thus, a person is excused from their Sunday Mass obligation if they are too ill to attend Mass, or if their attendance at Mass poses a threat for others by way of serious infection.

Consideration for being excused from the Sunday obligation in time of a pandemic is a current concern that needs to be addressed. So far, what is known of the nature of COVID-19 is that a person could be carrying and transmitting the disease without being symptomatic. Additionally, those with comorbidities—two or more diseases or medical conditions—are at far greater risk of serious illness and death if they contract COVID-19.

In such situations, a person would not be excused from their Sunday obligation if the person is afraid of attending Mass in a general way. By way of contrast, a person would be excused if they are afraid of attending Mass because they have specific comorbidities which could compromise their immune system (such as diabetes, heart and respiratory issues, age, etc.)

When considering whether one is excused from Mass or not, it is a prudential judgment call (and not a call of convenience) considering one’s serious obligation to attend Sunday Mass weighed against the factors as outlined above.

Finally, for the above scenarios, it is a matter of conscience and one is accountable to the Lord in evaluating the conditions for being excused.

(Father Newton is the Vicar Judicial of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.)


Related: A quick guide to when one is not obligated to attend Sunday Mass

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