Apologia for Aboveground Mass: Moral Considerations for Priests

We love and pray for our priests. We need them to level up. The hour grows late.

Introduction

A somewhat helpful Rorate Caeli article appeared a while back, analyzing the moral case of a layperson assisting at Holy Mass within a territory where Masses have been suspended by the local bishop – a situation that some have aptly described as “CancelChurch.”

The act in question: A layman’s non-compliance with such an order from his bishop.

The author’s conclusion:

[I]n light of the conclusions that a) a bishop may be wrong in his decision to suspend Masses, b) the faithful have fundamental rights to the sacraments and liturgical life, and c) an unjust law is no law at all, I conclude that a person during the COVID-19 pandemic could, with a clear conscience, assist at underground Masses.

Full article here

Agreed.

However, there is one chronologically prior and far more grave moral consideration, which we would like to address here: namely, the case of the priest prohibiting, whether in reality or only ostensibly, the faithful’s attendance at Mass for the sake of public health. We include here the case of Catholic priests opting to offer secret Masses (that is, “underground,” in hidden non-compliance with a civil and/or episcopal order), because the central moral considerations are identical.

The only actor we have in view here is the priest, i.e., the individual prohibiting (even if only apparently) the faithful’s presence at the Holy Sacrifice. As always, of paramount concern is the morality of an act’s “object” – and thus we proceed to:

1. The Object of the Priest’s Act

The object of the act in this case may be specified as: prohibiting free and publicly discoverable attendance at Holy Mass to Catholics.

Specifying the object of the act gets us closer to its objective rightness or wrongness by way of two immediate observations, one following the other: a) such a prohibition can never directly serve a supernatural end, be it the glory of God or the salvation of souls, and thus: b) such a prohibition is only ever legitimately inflicted by lawful authority as a punishment, in view of the desired effect of spiritual conversion of a delinquent (indeed, such prohibition is the gravest of ecclesiastical punishments, and for this reason is only enactable by the highest offices of the Church for the most serious crimes).

An initial question, then, to any priest and bishop who has in the past, or currently is, or would in the future prohibit the faithful from attending Mass: Are you punishing someone? After all, you are the one locking the door.

At this point, the moral permissibility of CancelChurch should already fall apart: For, if the only legitimate circumstance for such a prohibition is ecclesiastical punishment for grave canonical crimes, and CancelChurch firmly denies that Mass is being forbidden as a punishment (on the contrary, it’s said to be for our good), then it must follow that such prohibitions are contrary to the glory of God and the salvation of souls, and thus may never be carried out.

Related Considerations: Scandal and heresy

We come now to two major considerations connected to the object of the act: scandal and heresy. For, regardless of the priest’s intention or circumstances, the objective prohibition of Mass in the name of public health will always give scandal: it unfailingly gives the impression, in layman’s terms, that “Mass just ain’t that special.”

Not only is such a scandal harmful to Catholics, but far more so to those outside the Church, as it undermines the marks of the Church and her motives of credibility: her divine origin, her essential holiness, her supernatural orientation. What are non-Catholics to make of our claim to be a divine institution, when nearly all our clerics have publicly regarded her highest function, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as no more “essential” than the functionality of the local Walmart? More to it, if this is an error on the part of the hierarchy, why are no priests prepared to cry foul in the public sphere, in order to mitigate such a scandal?

Furthermore, this prohibition of Mass favors any number of heresies: not least among them being the major Protestant error of regarding Mass as a communal function for the welfare of the assembly. Community meals can be canceled, but divine monuments cannot. Nor can they be reproduced virtually. They must physically be there in order to glorify God, and we must physically be there for the same reason, and to benefit sacramentally therefrom.

Beyond brassy, then, is the priest prepared to preach on the first three Commandments, the primacy of spiritual goods, the immortality of the soul, the physicality of the sacramental order, or the Eucharist as the source and summit of faith, while at the same time daring to prohibit, or even appear to prohibit, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Such is, at minimum, gravely scandalous – and if the priest himself does not in fact hold any of the above errors himself, then he makes himself a liar. He is willing to act contrary to what he actually believes to be true.

Recognizing that most priests, in order to evade the above analysis of the act’s object, plead “adverse circumstance,” we proceed.  

2. The Priest’s Circumstances

The circumstance in this particular case is held up as all-important in nearly every Catholic treatment of the current situation. So, let’s paint the circumstance in the boldest possible strokes, suspending all evidence of reality, and pretending that there really is a worldwide plague decimating the global population. Yet, even this circumstance could never warrant the categorical prohibition of public Mass (as it never has before), because such a prohibition cannot serve a supernatural end.

A second circumstance should be pointed out, however – and this is the one foremost in the minds of most traditional priests. That is: the possibility of losing temporal access, whether on the part of the priest or those to whom he ministers, to the spiritual goods of the Church. It is entirely possible that non-compliance with these unjust prohibitions of public worship will lead to civil penalties (e.g., fines or imprisonment) or ecclesiastical penalties (e.g., suspension or removal), and then where will they be who depended on them?

This circumstance is the “risk factor” that has long driven otherwise good priests to carry out unjust episcopal commands. It is also the reason that for many “traditional” Catholics, the mantra for decades has been: DON’T ATTRACT ATTENTION. Years of seeking to remain “in bishop’s good graces” (one must now inquire: at what cost?) has compromised nearly all – and in some, it has begotten a real loss of Catholic priorities. Whom is being served in these prohibitions: is it Christ the King and the honor of his holy Church, or is it convenience – and whose?

A final circumstance worth considering is the priest’s interior state – in which ignorance, moral weakness, and the psychological duress of confusion and fear have doubtless factored significantly for many. Such does not excuse wrong action or render it praiseworthy, though it may lessen individual culpability for sin in some cases.

3. The Priest’s Intention

The various intentions (or “ends”) that a priest may hold in this scenario begin to come into view. They may be summed up:

  1. Fulfill the commands of legitimate superiors (“Obedience”)
  2. Promote physical health (of oneself or others)
  3. Maintain/increase access to Mass and the Sacraments (“Availability”)
  4. Harm others

Moral Analysis

Notice first of all, how the glorification of God does not appear on the above list of intentions, inasmuch as the Sacrifice of the Mass was instituted principally for that end. Therefore, to prohibit it (in this case) can only ever indicate an intention other than or superior to God’s glorification. This is a major problem. 

Intention #4 can be ruled out for the vast majority of Catholic priests. True, there may be some shepherds who relish the arbitrary exercise of power at the expense of the sheep – such a mentality prompted Christ’s admonition: “You know that the princes of the Gentiles lord it over them; and they that are the greater, exercise power upon them. It shall not be so among you” (Mt 20:25-26). Such cases, however, are likely very few.

Intention #2 can be safely ruled out for the vast majority of “traditional” priests – particularly those of fraternities like the SSPX, FSSP, ICKSP, etc. – most of whom have at least been formed to regard supernatural goods as primary, and their ministry as ordered to the service of those goods. “Fear ye not them that kill the body” (Mt 10:28). However, it must be observed that there are very many Novus Ordo priests who would regard Intention #2 as the primary concern in this situation, or at least comport themselves as such. To our awareness, this would include every bishop in the United States.

There is little one can say to such priests, perhaps beyond asking: “For what end were you ordained?” Or, more specifically: “When was the cura animarum replaced with the cura corporis as the supreme law of the Church?” This is a query still unanswered by CancelChurch apologists everywhere.

For most good traditional priests, then, the two principle motives for forbidding access to public Mass would be #1 and/or #3: “obedience” and “availability,” respectively.

A Word on “Obedience”

The prohibition itself being unjust, carrying it out cannot be a virtuous, “radical obedience” to legitimate superiors. Traditional priests especially should be ashamed of Intention #1, “just following orders” – are these not the same men who have spent years ridiculing their Novus Ordo brethren for obeying other wicked episcopal commands? What of all the interreligious nightmares, all the heretical homilies, all the sacrilegious Communions, all the pachamamas adored because “bishop said so” – bridges that surely no traditional priest would cross? And yet, these same men will comply with the universal prohibition of Holy Mass and the Sacraments with nary a peep in open protest. Dreadful.

A Word on “Availability”

Regarding Intention #3, given the current civil and ecclesiastical climate, traditional priests may legitimately fear repercussions for acting like a Catholic in public, particularly when their bishops refuse to do the same. What’s very sad in this situation (as mentioned earlier), is that we can’t even guess at what might happen in such a situation, because almost no priests have attempted it. As the movement to relativize and control the public worship of the Church continues apace in this country, one wonders what our priests would ever fight for in the public sphere.

Some priests have even been telling lies for the sake of expedience, stating “Mass is canceled” on church doors and bulletins, while making it available to those “in the know” – a frightening prospect, and cold comfort to the numberless souls (Catholic and otherwise) who simply take the priest at his public word. Fortitude will not come through acts of the contrary vice, and Our Lady doubtless weeps for these men as she did for Peter. “Alas, Mother, for I have denied him!”

Guercino’s Peter Weeping before the Virgin (1647)

Finally, to pundits advocating for a Catholic sacramental praxis similar to that of the Chinese underground or Elizabethan England – what martyr could take that seriously? Priests have yet to risk their necks in this country, though they might get a phone call from Karen at the chancery. What can they answer their predecessors? This is not Tehran. Lawsuits are being filed and worshippers are winning. Heretics are publicly defying unjust laws, and rightly struggling for legal vindication – but where are our priests?

For unfortunately, a window of opportunity is rapidly closing. As we await solidly Catholic clerical leadership, we are watching the rise of a global techno-sanitary dictatorship, with rigorous enforcement in its train. The board is being set.

Conclusion

Prohibiting public Mass for the sake of physical health is a grave evil, inasmuch as it: 1) unjustly deprives God of the glory that is due to Him in the sanctuary, 2) unjustly deprives the faithful of those spiritual goods due to them in the Church, 3) endangers souls by rendering the Church’s sanctifying offices less accessible in a given locality, and 4) further endangers souls everywhere by scandal and heresy.

We therefore call on our priests to repent of such action, to diligently avoid the same in the future, and to immediately undertake brave public action sufficient to mitigate these scandals and lead their flocks in the (increasingly needful) stand for the rights of Christ and his Church in this country, contrary to the express orders of bishops if need be.

Lex iniusta non est lex,

…and Bravo the Restoration!

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