Can the State order Holy Mass to be canceled?

church-and-state-largeThe proliferation of COVID-19 hysteria is far outpacing the spread of the actual virus. Perhaps this is because the latter, unlike herd-panic, cannot be contracted from listening to those “public servants” whose singular greatest concern is amassing more political power, with the help of their fear-mongering friends in the media, of course.

That is not to say that there are not a lot of good people working very hard to monitor the situation and trying their level best to keep us safe and informed. The point is simply this, it would be foolish to assume that everything coming to us from journalists, public sector “experts,” and those in government is necessarily true or even remotely helpful. In other words, we need to apply common sense to the things we’re being told.

As of this writing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is recommending that gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled for the next eight weeks.

Here in my home state of Maryland, the Governor has officially issued an order reflecting CDC recommendations, prohibiting gatherings of 50 persons or more, including those that are “spiritual and religious.” Civil authorities in various other states have issued similar orders, limiting public gatherings to anywhere from 50 to 250 people – a wide range that reflects the degree to which such limits are inherently arbitrary.

When it comes to Holy Mass and the Sacraments, applying common sense to government rulings is not enough; rather, we should expect our leaders to act, and to teach, according to sure Catholic doctrine, especially if they present themselves as defenders of tradition.

In a March 14 letter from Fr. Wegner to the faithful of the SSPX in the United States, Regarding US District and COVID-19 Coronavirus, the District Superior stated, among other things, under the heading “Practical Directives”:

  • If there are government rulings regarding canceling or reducing the size of gatherings, we will follow the lawful government orders. 
  • All unnecessary public gatherings will be canceled. Your local priest or coordinator will be in contact regarding specific events at your chapel or school. [Emphasis in original]

“Gatherings” as mentioned in the former case includes public celebrations of Holy Mass, while in the latter it refers to other events; e.g., sports, bake sales, fish fries, etc. In other words, if the civil authority in a given jurisdiction issues an order that would require Holy Mass to be canceled, the SSPX will comply and Mass will be canceled.

Evidently, Fr. Wegner would consider this a “lawful” expression of the State’s authority. Catholic doctrine, however, tells us otherwise; namely, it would be an example of governmental overreach and an encroachment upon the unique rights and prerogatives of the Catholic Church.

According to authentic Catholic tradition, the Church is not subject to the State in matters pertaining to its salvific mission.

For example, Pope Leo XIII teaches:

Whatever, therefore in things human is of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church … To wish the Church to be subject to the civil power in the exercise of her duty is a great folly and a sheer injustice. Whenever this is the case, order is disturbed, for things natural are put above things supernatural… – Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, 1885

Announcing to the faithful, “we will follow the government’s ruling” concerning whether or not to cancel Holy Mass, apart from careful qualification, strikes me as a prime example of putting things “natural above things supernatural.”

In 1887, Pope Leo XIII once again asserted the Church’s eminent freedom, stating:

Of the rights of the Church that it is Our duty everywhere and always to maintain and defend against all injustice, the first is certainly that of enjoying the full freedom of action she may need in working for the salvation of souls … It naturally follows that the Church is a society as distinct from civil society as their reason for existence and ends are different; it follows that she is an indispensable society … a society eminently independent, and above all others, because of the excellence of the heavenly and immortal blessings towards which it tends … It is equally certain the Christ has given the Church full freedom to judge and decide as to the things that may best suit Her ends. – Pope Leo XIII, Officio Sanctissimo

In pointing out the shortcomings in Fr. Wegner’s letter on social media, as expected, I’ve invited the fury of certain Society devotees who are determined to defend its every move, as if SSPX leadership is utterly beyond reproach, regardless of whether or not Catholic tradition is being expressed in their actions. This post is likely to generate similar heat from Team SSPX, to which I say, You have a choice to make: Pope Leo XIII and Catholic tradition, or Fr. Wegner’s unfortunate letter.

It’s not a particularly difficult choice; in fact, the doctrine under discussion is very simple.

When the legitimate civil authorities issue rulings on such things as speed limits, taxation, banking regulations, etc., provided they violate neither natural nor divine law, the Church is duty bound to comply. This would be an example of “rendering unto Caesar.”

In matters pertaining to those things of a sacred character, the salvation of souls and the worship of God, however, these matters fall under the exclusive power and judgment of the Church.

This means that it is entirely up to the Church and those who exercise authority therein to decide whether or not to offer Holy Mass for the public in the face of a pandemic, whether it be for an assembly of one-hundred or one thousand.

In a recent conversation with a friend who is a longtime member of the SSPX faithful, he asked, “Are you saying that the SSPX in Italy should be disobeying the government and having public Mass?”

To be clear, I am not saying that the SSPX necessarily should disobey the government in this or a similar case. I am, however, insisting that the SSPX has every right to disobey or ignore the government when it presumes to issue a ruling that amounts to the cancelation of Holy Mass.

Relinquishing that right, or even giving the appearance of doing so, would be tantamount to indicating that the Church willingly acquiesces to “being subject to the civil power in the exercise of her duty,” something that Pope Leo XIII called “a great folly and a sheer injustice.” (See above.)

For the sake of clarity, it bears mention that the State does indeed have the right, and at times even the duty, to curtail the activities of the false religions; i.e., a government ruling that prohibits Protestants, Muslims and Jews from assembling is well within the scope of the State’s authority.

With regard to the activities of the Holy Catholic Church, by contrast, the State has no such power, and the reason is simple – she alone was established and given a mission by her Founder and Head, Christ the King – He who reigns over every individual, society and State. This, as opposed to the garbage that emerged from Vatican Council II, is what genuine religious liberty really looks like.

What I see in Fr. Wegner’s letter is a lost teaching moment for the SSPX, and a very valuable one at that. Rather than embracing this unique opportunity to give witness to the Sovereign Rights of Christ the King and the autonomy of His Church, the faithful are being led to accept the utterly false notion that the Church is somehow subject to the civil authorities, even in matters concerning its God-given mission.

An edifying response to the present public health challenge, one that is far more reflective of traditional Catholic doctrine on Church-State relations, might look something like this:

“In light of COVID-19, We, the sacred pastors of the SSPX, will carefully decide what is best for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the souls in our care; in particular, as it concerns the public celebration of Holy Mass and the administration of the Sacraments. After taking into consideration the advice of both healthcare experts and public officials, our decisions moving forward may, or may not, be in conformance with orders issued by the civil authorities. In either case, be assured that We remain committed to carrying out the mission that was given to us by Christ the King, the Guarantor of Holy Mother Church’s eminent freedom in society, as we labor for the salvation of souls and the greater glory of God.”

Surely some will counter with the question: If the SSPX happens to agree with the State’s assessment of the situation, and decides that it’s best to follow government orders and either cancel Mass or limit availability to it, what difference does any of this make? The SSPX is still making the decision.

It is one thing for Church leadership to decide, of its own volition, that the needs of the faithful are best served by canceling public Mass, it is quite another for churchmen to declare “we will follow government orders.” Precisely who makes the decision to either open or lock the doors to Holy Mass for the public matters a great deal; it matters because the Sovereign Rights of Christ the King matter.

In a sermon delivered for the Feast of Christ the King on October 29, 1989 in Dublin, Ireland, Archbishop Lefevre lamented with “great sadness”:

But you know, now, in our time, many refuse to acknowledge the Kingship of Jesus Christ. They are opposed to the principle of the Kingship of Jesus Christ.

Now, more than three decades later, the great majority of those who call themselves Catholic don’t so much refuse the traditional doctrine on the Sovereign Rights of Christ the King; most simply do not know it! Many, in fact, have never even heard it mentioned, much less taught in any detail.

Archbishop Lefebvre continued:

We need to do everything possible to extend this Kingdom of Jesus Christ in our souls, in our bodies, in our families, in our countries. We must extend the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in our minds by the practice of the Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is the obedience to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in our souls. We must extend this Kingdom of Jesus Christ in our wills, by following the laws of Jesus Christ, and in our families, so that He rules all the Catholic faithful. We must recognize the Kingdom of Jesus Christ and we must also labor to extend the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in our countries.

Among the things that must be done to extend the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, especially on the part of pastors of souls, is to invoke and assert Our Lord’s Sovereignty such as it is expressed in the eminent independence of His Mystical Body, the Holy Catholic Church, which alone enjoys perfect freedom at all times in all places – unencumbered by the civil authority – as she exercises her salvific mission.

As Pope Pius XI stated in the magnificent Encyclical, Quas Primas, On the Feast of Christ the King:

While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim His kingly dignity and power, all the more universally affirm his rights.

When the civil authority presumes to order the effective cancelation of Holy Mass; make no mistake about it, the kingly dignity, power and rights of Our Lord are not only being suppressed, they are being attacked. Therefore, they must all the more loudly be affirmed.

Fr. Wegner’s letter falls well short of doing that. On the contrary, it leads innocent Catholics to embrace a gravely deficient attitude of willing subjugation to the civil authorities in matters religious, extending even so far as access to Holy Mass; as if the Church is somehow under the jurisdiction of the State.

One expects as much in the Novus Ordo world, but is it too much to expect something better from the SSPX?

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