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Posted Friday, April 23, 2004 at 8:48 a.m. CST

Document on liturgical abuse a stern call to discipline
Vatican reaffirms no communion for those conscious of 'grave sin'

By John L. Allen Jr.

At a time when the Catholic church in the United States is debating whether pro-choice Catholic politicians such as John Kerry ought to be denied communion, the Vatican has issued a document reaffirming that anyone conscious of "grave sin" should not receive the Eucharist.

At an April 23 news conference, it seemed clear that from the Vatican's point of view, this means no communion for Kerry.

Asked whether a politician who supports abortion should be denied communion, Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian who heads the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, said unambiguously at an April 23 Vatican news conference: "Yes."

"Objectively, the answer is clear," Arinze said. "The person is not fit. If he shouldn't receive it, then it shouldn't be given."

At the same time, Arinze declined to wade in specifically on the Kerry debate.

"The norm of the church is clear," he said. "The Catholic church exists in the United States. There are bishops there. Let them interpret it."

Titled Redemptionis sacramentum, the new Vatican document is a long-awaited disciplinary response to various "abuses" in the way Catholic rites are celebrated around the world, above all in the Sunday Mass.

In treating conditions for the reception of communion, the document states: "Anyone who is conscious of grave sin should not celebrate or receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession."

Some American Catholics contend that by voting in favor of legalized abortion, Kerry should be disqualified under this rule. Arinze cited this paragraph of the document, number 81, in responding to the question about Catholic politicians.

The U.S. bishops have created a committee to consider what should be done regarding Catholic politicians such as Kerry. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., had a private meeting with Kerry on April 15.

Kerry recently received communion from a Catholic priest at the Paulist Center in Boston.

On liturgical abuses, the April 23 document amounts to a stern call to discipline, but does not add any new prohibitions or restrictions to church law. Rumors that it would ban liturgical dance or the use of altar girls, for example, or create new limits on ecumenical celebrations, were unfounded.

John Paul II had requested a disciplinary document on liturgical abuses in his April 2003 encyclical, Ecclesia De Eucharistia.

On the question of giving communion to Protestants, Arinze called for firmness and charity.

"The priest should wish our Lutheran brother well, but not give him communion," Arinze said. "The Mass is not an ecumenical celebration. It is the peak celebration of the Catholic church."

Arinze denied that the document amounts to a Roman crackdown.

"We didn't crackdown on anybody," he told NCR. "Look, it's like soccer - you have to have some rules. If you could just score from anywhere, fighting and tossing bottles would be the result. This is much more serious, because it's not just a game, it's our faith."

At the same time, Arinze did not deny the disciplinary thrust.

"There's a sense in which, if we didn't crackdown, somebody should crackdown on us for not doing our duty," he said.

Other key points in the document include:

  • A ban on the use of unapproved texts and rites;
  • The absolute necessity of an ordained priest for the celebration of the liturgy;
  • Use of appropriate vessels and vestments;
  • A ban on using non-Biblical texts for the readings and responsorial psalms;
  • A ban on lay people giving homilies;
  • An insistence on using lay ministers of the Eucharist only when there is an insufficient number of priests to distribute communion;
  • Laity may not hand one another consecrated hosts or the chalice;
  • The Mass may not be divided, with different parts celebrated at different times;
  • Priests always have the right to celebrate the Mass in Latin, but according to the post-Vatican II rite;
  • The obligation of Sunday Mass cannot be satisfied with ecumenical services;
  • Insistence that communion must not be given to non-Catholics and non-Christians in violation of church rules.
Despite the clear emphasis on distinguishing priests and laypersons, Arinze insisted that the spirit of the document was upholding a correct understanding of the nature of the Mass. It is not, he said, a matter of "prejudices against the laity."

Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, told reporters that the document originated in complaints about abuses that had arrived at the Vatican over the years from various parts of the world.

"At the origin of this document, as with the encyclical, was an action of the people of God in relation with the Holy See, who requested clarifications and made protests. There is a sensibility and a love of God, and people often suffer from the way in which the Lord is sometimes treated."

"It's a predictable document," said Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, who teaches liturgy at Rome's Gregorian University. "It's obviously a further attempt at tightening the reins, but it's much less offensive or restrictive than had been rumored."

Pecklers told NCR there are some clarifications that liturgists will welcome. He cited the clarification that the Eucharistic bread should not be broken in the moment of consecration, for example, or that priests should not improvise the Eucharistic prayers.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 2004

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