The potential Risks of a Shortage of Sacraments wanted by the Ecclesiastical Authorities
On the day of the Annunciation, the author of these lines watched the live-streaming Rosary from Lourdes. He was in his bed, sick with the Covid-19 virus. For him, nothing worst than a rather benign flu; which translated this particular day in a difficulty to pay attention, notably to pray. Why not then receive some help, especially the one the Bishop’s conference had mentioned, next to the ringing of the bells later that same day, at 7:30?
At half past three, thus, on his cellphone screen, he was looking at the Rector of the sanctuary, Mgr Ribadeau-Dumas, and a chaplain. Most likely, thousands of other Catholics were “connected”; but a gripping impression was the solitude in which we all were: from the sick person in his bed, to the two priests in Lourdes, all separated by a distance symbolized by the sanctuary esplanade, terribly empty; all this, no matter the sensible graces received during this prayer.
Faithful and priest: distant from each other?
Parish priest of an average size city, I found himself, thus, prepared to the phone call I was to receive on the following day. A young father telephoned in regards to the baptism of his new born girl. The priest who was initially going to administer the baptism had told him, without it being a surprise, he could not come and had, as expected, advised the father to perform a water baptism of his child, if a local priest could not replace him. Before he told me about the response of that first priest, I suggested the same approach, telling him about the state of my health and my temporary unavailability by way of prudence. Then, he had this response to me:
“It is already quite difficult to live with the sacraments, without being able to attend mass, if on top of that, we have to do without a priest for baptism, then !…”
It is possible that this man might come to develop a certain defiance vis a vis the priests. His thought, expression of the strong return in the theological reflection of a sensus fidei, under the impulse of pope Francis, proves rather the contrary.
This reflection is, however, symptomatic – the word is well chosen – of the recurring wrong that the distanciation between clerics and faithful represents, and eventually, in its worst case, of the mistrust it would bring. The occasions of this loss of trust, during these last few years, came from theological or moral options, societal more recently, which is no small matter. In the current situation, the fertile ground is more basic, short of options and debates, and thus more painful when it is challenged: it is about the sacraments and the ministers of the sacraments; it is not about the validity of the sacraments (a question which was raised around what was modestly called liturgical abuses) nor the disgrace of some ministers (a recent topic, but independent from the present situation, at least humanly speaking); but about the possibility to receive them and, jointly, the courage and the zeal of the minister to give them.
In a book published recently, La suppléance dans l’Église (“Suppletion in the Church”, Le Cerf, 2019), Father Hervé Mercury analyses the situations of exception when the regular norms of administration of the ecclesial structure cannot be applied. The plan of divine salvation, then, makes itself effective by other means than the ones it instituted and entrusted to his Church, extraordinary means: for example, a suspended priest, or dismissed from the clerical state, can absolve from his sin a person in peril. Outside of this case, the ordinary norms of which he speaks about apply to all, protect the Church and its members. The author, thus, presents, distinguishes and gives hierarchy to what he calls an ecclesiology of the rule (for regular circumstances) and an ecclesiology of exception (in these said situations), the second one not being anarchy but confirming the first one, following the well-known adage: the exception proves the rule.
In these extraordinary situations, we find the impossibility for faithful to have recourse to the ministers of the sacraments. The case of Japanese Catholics who during several generations, as those of the island community who’s bishop took much time before sending a replacement for the deceased rector – base for a novel by Henri Quéfellec in A rector of the island of Sein, and later brought to the screen under the title of: God needs men – are famous examples of this. But in this case, it was about the situation of a lack of priest people had to endure, not a lack of priest implemented, or at least worsened, by the hierarchy.
Will we have to ask Fr. Mercury for an appendix to give account of the lack of sacraments available these last few weeks in many dioceses around the world? One would have, for that, to take into account at least one particularity. It could first be presented in the form of a two-fold question:
– Does the present situation which leads to a disappearance of the sacraments come in the category of hold-ups as manifested in the history and law of the Church?
– And, to further the situation that concerns us and to anticipate, the character of exceptionality of this pandemic and confinement situation being validated socially and by the ecclesiastic authorities, should we be concerned that the same process may be renewed, possibly often, in the name of the precautionary principle and according to health or social norms, addressed by the Church in very different ways in past centuries?
Let us further this in an affirmative form: the particularity of the exceptional current situation is that the lack of sacraments is decided and implemented by the ecclesial authorities. The editorial clearly describes how the bishops’ conferences have preceded the decisions of civil authorities which rested a posteriori on the episcopal precautionary measures. A stupefying ensemble of consistency, slowly silencing those who disagreed, could be deployed since the decision to empty holy water basins and to limit the administration of Holy communion to communion in the hand only.
The ecclesiology of exception sometimes comes from this adage: Ecclesia supplet. The Church supplies what is missing in certain circumstances for the sacrament to be valid and fruitful: in a situation of emergency, the durable or temporary lack of ordinary ministers for the sacrament of baptism; the defect of jurisdiction for confession asked in good faith to a priest who would not have the necessary jurisdiction, etc. But, when it is the Church which lacks? When the Church, in regards to temporary dispositions organizing the sacramental discipline, seems to discard on God her responsibility in the sanctifications of the souls? What then?
Receiving the sacraments: truly impossible?
As we said earlier, though without justifying, in regards to the writing of Fr. Mercury, even the most legitimate exception does not replace the law of the Church… and even less in the case of the Church herself. Deus supplet ?… Some beautiful and quite instructive videos on spiritual communion and perfect contrition are being shared. But has everything been implemented to ensure this would be the ultimate recourse? As far as we can tell, this was the case in many places by the will of certain priests. But what about other places? What about these parishes or chapels where the priest was not allowed by a parish priest, a dean, or a bishop? Who will, one day, draw the inventory of the interdictions, the incitations, suggestions made to priests, which have all had, as a consequence – foreseeable – to make more difficult attending mass, receiving communion outside of mass, going to confession, etc.
As useful these texts and videos may be, as fruitful as spiritual communion and perfect contrition may be – and they certainly are -, the shepherds should not miss the opportunity to alleviate the heavy burden put on Christians.
One last point is worth mentioning, in this line of thought. Some voices have denounced, few bishops (Mgr Schneider, Hispanic bishops), some influential lay people in larger number, an abuse of power in regards to these temporary measures – which, we must emphasize, extend over Easter, depriving of baptism thousands of catechumens. Doesn’t the protest indicate, indeed, a questionable use of the sovereign power of the ministers of the Church? The bishop is not, as Fr. Mercury reminds us (we do not say though that he follows us in our analysis), the sovereign according to Carl Schmitt, the one who, as a matter of fact, defines himself by the unlimited power to call for a state of emergency. He is, by the plenitude of his priesthood, invested of a sovereign power, indeed; but the authority is received from God and it is a service owed to the flock entrusted to him.
The general authoritarian character of the recent decisions infers also a certain way of taking away the responsibility of the faithful. Wouldn’t they have been more capable than the bishops to judge, for themselves and for those who they care for, regarding abstaining or not from the sacraments, according to the health, and how far the place of worship from their home, etc.? The virtue of faith and prudence, the sensus fidei and common sense, could have been honored. To the contrary, the possibility of a judgment was taken from the conscience in circumstances, when it seems to us, it should have been encouraged. These abrupt decisions, as much vertical and without possibility of recourse, ring painfully on what they say of the power and its arbitrary exercise because guided by criteria foreign or very secondary to the mission for which it was instituted: the salvation of souls, the liberty and expansion of the Church. When we discussed in the beginning a potential distanciation between faithful and ministers, it is also what we were pointing out. We often spoke of a tendency of a catholicism becoming more protestant, faithful who too often get to “work out”, each on his own, a catholicism without mediation. In the time of an epidemic, wouldn’t this complete pastoral abstention be the opportunity to make matters worst?
Fr. Jean-Marie Perrot
 For instance, recently: “Let’s us think, everyone of us, what side are we on: if we are in the middle, a bit undecided, if we are with the sentiment of the people of God, the people faithful of God who cannot fail: they have this infallibilitas in credendo [infallibility in the faith and the life which derives from faith]. And let us think about the elite which detaches itself from the people of God, this clericalism.” (Homily at Saint Martha, 28 March 2020).
 We could thus consider that a situation of an attack justifies the closing of places of worship, instead of the surveillance and protective measure France has experienced not long ago.