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What an invalid dispensation looks like

December 1, 2017

Christmas falls on a Monday this year, so the bis-septennial angst over back-to-back Mass attendance obligations is upon us. The US bishops could have suppressed the Christmas obligation under Canon 1246 § 2 (as they did with Solemnity of Mary, Jan 1) but they chose instead to let it stand. Most practicing Catholics will say, “Fine, two Masses on two days. No big deal.”

Not a pastor in Pennsylvania, however, who is attempting to dispense his parishioners from the obligation of attending Sunday Mass the day before Christmas, via a bulletin notice no less:

“Therefore, by my authority as pastor, I hereby grant a dispensation from the obligation for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in individual cases that meet the following conditions: 1. You are reading this dispensation as an individual right now; 2. You are my canonical parishioner, either by geography or by registration; 3. You place ALL the envelops for BOTH celebrations in the collection basket at whatever Mass you attend.”

I think “Fr. Penn’s” scheme fails utterly as a dispensation. Let’s see why.

The canonical obligation to attend Mass on Sunday and holy days, including Christmas, is set out in Canon 1246.

Generally priests (even pastors) do not have authority to dispense from canon law (1983 CIC 89) but, under Canon 1245, pastors (which Penn is) can dispense from the obligation to attend Mass under three specified conditions (themselves to be narrowly read per Canon 92), namely: (1) the presentation of a “just and reasonable cause” for dispensation; (2) compliance with the prescripts of the diocesan bishop regarding dispensations; and (3) that dispensations be granted individually.

Does Penn’s so-called dispensation meet any of these requirements, let alone all of them?

Just and reasonable cause?

Penn seems to think that the mere fact that Canon 1246 imposes an obligation (to attend Mass) is itself justification for dispensing that obligation. That’s absurd, of course, unless one holds that every legal obligation gives sufficient cause for its own dispensation. Canon law, however, requires that something ‘external’ to the obligation itself ground any request for a dispensation from the obligation.

For example, when a pastor dispenses wedding guests from the requirement of abstaining from meat on a day of penance, the reason for his dispensing is the desire to support the special festivities associated with a wedding, not because abstinence itself is a chore. Or, when the bishops debated suppressing various holy day obligations, part of their conversation turned on the special problems that back-to-back obligations placed on priests having to provide numerous liturgical services in a short time.

Penn, in contrast, does not require those wishing to use his “dispensation” to offer any reason or cause for their request.

Compliance with diocesan policy?

Penn cites no diocesan prescripts (as contained in, say, a Pagella of Faculties) on dispensation, so it is impossible to tell whether he has complied with diocesan regulations. I would be stunned, however, stunned, if anything in diocesan policy allowed pastors to dispense up to all parishioners from the Sunday obligation via, of all things, a bulletin notice. Which brings us to the next point.

Granted only for individual cases?

Penn knows that he has power to dispense only in “individual cases”, but he wants to dispense basically everyone in the parish from the Sunday obligation on Dec 24. So he plays a word game: anyone who reads his public notice “individually” is dispensed “individually”. Good grief, how else on earth could a bulletin notice be read other than “individually”? Penn’s requirement is too comical to merit even the appellation “legalistic”, but in any case it will not stand.

Canon law itself stretches the notion of “individual case” so that it can apply, say, to one person over a period of time, or to a somewhat larger group (within a community) facing an unusual situation (recall the wedding party example above). CLSA New Comm (2000) 1443. But it is ridiculous to treat a whole parish as simply a bunch of “individuals”, provided they “individually” read a document. Nor does it say much for Penn’s understanding of his parish as “a certain community of the Christian faithful … entrusted to a pastor as its proper pastor” (1983 CIC 515) and not as “a conglomeration of the faithful … entrusted to a pastor as their pastor”.

In short, I do not think Penn’s “dispensation” meets any of dispensation criteria set out in Canon 1245, let alone all of them. But there are more problems still.

Oddly, Penn purports to dispense not from the Christmas holy day obligation but rather from the Sunday obligation the day before! While dispensation from a Sunday obligation is conceivable under law, dispensing from it, rather than from the holy day, is inconsistent with the law’s treatment of Sunday as the primordial obligation observed in the universal Church by apostolic tradition. 1983 CIC 1246 § 1. This I think puts Penn afoul of Canon 90 § 1 which requires that dispensations to take account of the “gravity of the law from which dispensation is” sought. Nor does Penn seem to have considered all the “circumstances of the case”, circumstances that certainly include the fact that the US episcopal conference chose to suppress neither the Sunday obligation nor the Christmas obligation this year although it certainly had authority to do so.

Next, and very oddly, Penn places a startling requirement on those wishing to qualify for his dispensation: they must place collection envelops for both Sunday and Christmas in the collection plate. I say it again, good grief!

First, there is no requirement that any of the faithful place any collection envelops in any collection at any Mass; and second, to demand that collection envelops be given in exchange for the spiritual favor of a dispensation smacks of simony! CCC 2121; 1917 CIC 727. One is tempted to suggest that, per Penn’s directions, parishioners place envelops, empty of cash or checks, in the collection, as Penn only demands that “envelops”, not “envelops with money”, be given by those wishing to claim his dispensation.

Finally, Penn confuses things when he states “The [Sunday] morning Masses fulfill the Sunday obligation, the [Sunday] evening Masses fulfill the [Christmas Monday] Holyday obligation.” To be clear, an obligation to attend Mass is satisfied by one’s attending any Mass during the relevant time, regardless of what ‘kind’ of Mass it is. GB&I Comm (1985) 702.

Canon law detests invalidity (1983 CIC 10) and it takes a lot to render a pastor’s action toward his subjects invalid, but I think that Fr. Penn’s purported dispensation from the Sunday obligation, of up to all of his parishioners, needing to claim no cause, upon condition that they place two envelops in the collection plate, is, per Canon 90 § 1 and 92, invalid.

Come to Mass, dear Pennsylvanians, with all the rest of us, on Sunday Dec 24 and on Christmas Monday.

Update: The Diocese of Pittsburgh has just overruled this purported dispensation in an email to its clergy. … Reported here on Dec 1.

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