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Mass at the border raises liturgical and canonical issues

April 4, 2014

I’ve been thinking about the bishops’ recent celebration of Mass at the US-Mexican border.

My concern is not political (both sides of the immigration debate make good points and reasonable minds may differ about those), nor is my concern religious per se (we have participated in faith-based events at the border and we made sure our kids experienced them too). Rather, my concern is liturgical and canonical, specifically, treating the venue of holy Mass as an opportunity to make political statements and regarding canon law on liturgy as little more than suggestions.

Canon 932 § 1 (one among the 1,752 canons that Roman Catholic bishops must observe and enforce per c. 392) states that “The eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in a sacred place unless in a particular case necessity requires otherwise; in such a case the celebration must be done in a decent place” (my emphasis). Obviously, no one suggests that the border is a “sacred place” in the canonical meaning of that term, so the question becomes whether necessity required holy Mass to be celebrated at the border.

I think not.

The intentions for which this Mass was offered (immigration reform and in memory of those who died crossing the border, both legitimate intentions of course) could have been amply asserted at a Mass celebrated in a sacred place as envisioned by c. 932, and there is no evidence that those attending Mass at the border were otherwise deprived of Mass in their own locales (indeed, many attending the border Mass had to make special arrangements to get there). Thus, the kinds of factors commonly invoked to justify Mass outside of a sacred space do not support this Mass at the border.

But I would suggest as well a prudential objection to using holy Mass this way: it encourages others to hold Mass in unworthy venues to suit their purposes.

I think it would be wrong, for example, to celebrate Mass outside an abortuary, no matter how fervent were the prayers offered for the babies who died there. Who would not think it wrong for a priest in conflict with his bishop to celebrate Mass in the chancery parking lot in the hopes that the bishop would change his mind? And most arch/dioceses have strict policies against wedding Masses being celebrated outside of churches or oratories—why?—because such venues are not “sacred spaces”! These and a host of other odd venues are inappropriate for Mass because they do not respect the surpassing reverence due the divine, to say nothing of how they distort the understanding of such canonical terms as “necessity” and “require”.

So, by all means, let bishops celebrate Mass in sacred spaces for immigration reform and for the repose of the souls of persons who died crossing the border (and for the souls of agents who died policing it). But let’s not assume that sacred spaces for worship may be ignored just because a photogenic backdrop for one’s political views (however decent they may be) presents itself, and let’s not distort Church law by claiming that “necessity requires” Mass to be celebrated in these sorts of places. Because neither assertion is true.

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