Questions Answered

March 2011

Priest altering the text of the Mass

Question: I am a priest and very troubled by some of the mistranslations in the English edition of the Sacramentary, for example, “When he humbled himself to come among us as a man” in Advent Preface I. My study of Christology underlined that the Word became man and the expression “a man” indicates the presence of a human person in Christ. The Constitution on the Liturgy, Vatican II in General Norms, 22 n. 3 decreed: “Therefore, absolutely no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.” It seems I cannot just change this translation on my own. Do I have an obligation to declare the heresy contained in this text?

Answer: In the film Becket, as Thomas Becket is going to be martyred, he tells his sacristan to be sure he is properly vested. He says: “All must be as it should be for divine service.” The question of personally changing even poor translations is related to the fittingness of divine service or worship. As a preamble to an answer, let me state categorically that the liturgy is the public cult of the whole Church. As a result, liturgical texts must be approved by the whole Church through the authority of the bishops and the pope. No individual priest enjoys the competence to speak either for the diocese or the Church in general. Sadly, there have been some priests who consider themselves exempt from the control of the hierarchy when it comes to the public prayer life. This is difficult in many circumstances, but is deadly when it comes to the ritual of the Mass.

The Eucharist is the sacrament of sacraments and so involves a miracle each time it is celebrated. The medieval theologians had no hesitation in calling it the miraculum miraculorum (the miracle of miracles). There is some potency in bread to become human flesh. It normally does this through digestion. But bread has no natural potency to become flesh instantaneously at the word of a man, let alone to become God. This can only be accomplished by the power of God. Moreover, the primary sacrificing priest and victim in each Eucharist is Christ himself. For this reason, the priest does not act in the Eucharist in his own person (in persona ministri). In every Eucharist, he acts in the person of Christ the head of the mystical body (in persona Christi capitis).

All the rituals of Mass emphasize this truth: the stylized vestments, the ritual gestures, the sacred music, the sacred architecture, the matter of consecration and the words. All should be what the Roman liturgy refers to as noble simplicity. Since this is true and since the Mass is an action of the whole Church, apart from the small places where the ritual allows some leeway in use of words, the priest must respect the fact he merely represents someone else and has no
authority on his own to make modifications, even if it is for the best of motives.

To put it another way, he is not acting as the person whose name is on his passport when he celebrates Mass. As this is so, it is not only a breach of etiquette but a serious breach of theology to claim the authority to alter the words or the ritual even for more traditional actions. Some priests today substitute the offertory of the extraordinary form for the ordinary form. Because what they are doing is more traditional, they think it is fitting. In fact, practices like these merely affirm the principle that the priest can alter the liturgy as he chooses.

The same principle would be true regarding poor translation. There is some accom­modated sense in which the above translation might be used. For example: the words “a man” would refer to an individual with a human nature, but not a human person. Since the Church herself recognizes that there are difficulties in the present translation, one may point out the problem in a homily but not presume the authority to change it on one’s own. Care must be taken not to injure the faithful. The use of inflammatory words like “heresy” or the incessant belaboring of the point should be avoided. It is better, then, not to act on one’s own in this, but merely to point out the difficulty and if necessary refer this to higher authority for action.

Performing same-sex marriages

Question: May a practicing Catholic mayor of a town or a state that allows same-sex marriage perform a same-sex marriage in good conscience (especially if he is opposed to the practice, despite its being legal)?

Answer: Questions like this have plagued Catholic moral theology since the triumph of the secular state in the nineteenth century. Originally the problem turned around how far Catholic judges could participate in performing civil marriages and pronouncing civil divorces.

The general opinion of moralists was summarized in someone like Dominic Prummer, who taught it was lawful to assist at a civil marriage as an official or a witness if “the parties to be married intend no more than to gain the civil effects of marriage; likewise if they intend and actually contract a true and valid marriage. Probably, if the parties knowingly and with certainty contract marriage invalidly, provided there exists a grave reason and there is no special ecclesiastical prohibition. Those officials who for a grave reason assist at such marriages cooperate merely materially in the sin of the parties” (Handbook of Moral Theology, 946, 1955).

Moralists thought that there would not be much danger of scandal, as everyone would know that such a judge was opposed to the validity of such a marriage if he were Catholic. There was also the further problem of how much one could cooperate in an unjust government. For both these problems it is useful to review material and formal cooperation.

Formal cooperation can be explicit or implicit. Explicit formal cooperation exists when one directly participates in and approves the evil action of another. Implicit formal cooperation has been defined as: “when, even though the cooperator denies intending the wrongdoer’s object, no other explanation can distinguish the cooperator’s object from the wrongdoer’s object” (Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services [1994], appendix).

Moralists think that when someone says: “I am personally opposed to this action,” but participates in it nonetheless, it is an action of implicit formal cooperation. Material cooperation is divided into immediate and mediate material cooperation. Immediate material cooperation exists when one actually performs the action with another, as in the case of the surgeon or nurse who assists the principal surgeon in an abortion. This is never morally permitted. Mediate material cooperation consists in a concurrence in a sinful action of another when one does not actually do the deed or agree with the evil intention of the evildoer. The deed must be good or indifferent and the possibility of participating in the evil of the other would be judged by how necessary or unnecessary or proximate or remote the action is to the evil done.

As to the civil official performing a gay wedding, this action is intrinsically evil. Since gay civil marriage is not a valid marriage, the only thing such a marriage would do is establish the civil effects of marriage. It would seem that the principles for civil divorce would apply here.

To see this as establishing or dissolving a valid marriage contract would be evil in itself. Any Catholic who participated in such an action would have to make clear publicly at the time of election that he was opposed in principle to this action and considered it immoral. He was merely enforcing the law and believed the law can and must be changed at the nearest opportunity. This would make his cooperation only mediate and remote, as he is only recognizing the marriage according to the law of the state and he in no sense intends to claim that gay marriage should enjoy the protection of law.

It goes without saying that no Catholic in conscience can work for any law which would sanction gay marriage, which is contrary to the natural law and the order of the state. The cooperation there would be formal and such a person could not receive Communion for that reason, and also for the scandal it would cause.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, "Questions Answered".

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