Employees of the Vatican?

Are priests and bishops employees of the Holy See? I don’t think so. I doubt our US court system will ultimately allow a lawsuit to go forward on the grounds that they are Vatican employees.

But still, I sure wouldn’t want to be called into court as a witness in this case. (I can relax, I think – I rather doubt they’ll be looking for the liturgical angle on this.) I imagine a rather painful round of being questioned by a lawyer from the other side:

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May the priest allow lay people to purify the Communion vessels in the sacristy after Mass?
No, he does not have the legal authority.

May the Bishop give authority to priests to permit lay purification? No, he may not.

Who decided this issue? The Holy Father personally decreed recently that purification of vessels may not be done by laity.

So the decision of the Holy Father on this small detail is binding on every Catholic parish and community of the world? Yes.

Did the Second Vatican Council give bishops’ conferences the right of final approval for liturgical translations? Yes.

Did the Council provide for review or approval of translations by the Holy See? No; the discussion at the Council shows that this was explicitly not given to the Holy See by the Council fathers.

How are vernacular liturgical texts now approved? The Holy See has decided, in successive decisions since Vatican II, that it has the right of approval, then recognitio, and finally the right to impose its own translations upon conferences.

Did the bishops of the world have a say in these legal changes? No. A cardinal from the U.S. who sits on the Roman Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship was taken by surprise when the document with that last change appeared on the Vatican website in 2001.

May a priest licitly decide to use only one chalice for the Eucharistic prayer, and then pour sacred species from a flagon into several chalices at the Agnus Dei of the Mass? No. The Holy See has decreed that if several chalices are used, wine must be poured into the chalices at the offertory and may not be poured after being consecrated.

*     *     *     *     *
The Holy See can’t have it both ways – increasing liturgical centralism and downright micromanagement on the one hand, legal protestations of the independence of bishops and priests on the other. It would be nice if the Catholic Church were to move to a more balanced model of governance, not just to avoid hugely expensive legal settlements, but to renew herself from within her own deep traditions and from the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. But however it comes about, I’ll take it.

I want to think seriously about this issue all morning. Then, I’m going to ask the Pope for a slightly longer lunch break.



  1. As a priest, am I an employee of the government of the USA? The federal government prescribes by law what I or my parish must do in terms of minimum wage, federal income taxes, employee taxes and laws concerning the handicapped, building new buildings, etc. In fact they micro manage these things. We had no bathrooms in our Church or vestibule but had a space where we could put two tiny bathrooms, larger though, than what is in a passenger jet. It was not allowed, we had to use the space for one bathroom that was handicapped accessible. So, does following canon law, obedience to my bishop and acknowledging the primacy of Rome even in areas of administration make me an employee of the Vatican? No more than if being an American citizen makes me an employee of the government. And yes, the government says that those who work for the parish get a lunch hour and two 15 minute breaks!

  2. Dom. Ruff, I’m not sure I understand the issue here. It seems to me that liturgical regulations are not a matter of (micro)managing people so much as managing the official, corporate worship-act of the Church.

    Is the chief of police trying to “have it both ways” if he imposes a protocol for everything from routine traffic stops to high-speed chases, and yet does not think he is to be held personally responsible for the conduct of a policeman who beats his wife at home? Or am I completely missing the point you’re making? (It’s very possible.)

    1. It’s micromanaging both worship and the people who do it. The US bishops believed it inadvisable to take away lay purification, that it would appear as a slap in the face to dedicated people who had been accustomed to this. Why should the Pope be able to over-rule their considered pastoral judgment, based on his pet theory of priestly identity? My monastery has poured consecrated wine at Mass every day of the year (except Good Friday) for 40 years without incident. Why should it be possible for an African cardial at the head of the SCDW to prohibit the practice, based on one incident he witnessed in his homeland? I’m all for managing the worship of the church. But I think we can learn from the Church’s first 1500 years that much of this can be better done by local priests and bishops.

      1. I was surprised by the shift from laity to clergy or installed acolytes purifying the vessels and also by the change from consecrating in a carafe to having the wine poured ahead of time prior to the consecration. But, with that said, over the 20 years of experience I had with it every Sunday and at every Sunday Mass, there were many accidents including a deacon dropping the carafe filled with consecrated Wine on the marble altar, breaking it and spilling the contents all over him, me, the altar and God only knows where else. I never saw people purifying the vessels after Mass as I was greeting people at that time, but was told that many did it in a rather irreverent or casual way sometime pouring what remained of the consecrated Wine down the sink side of the sacraium. Now after more than about 9 years of doing it as now prescribed, I don’t miss the old ways at all.

      2. I think Fr. McDonald’s anecdotes clearly reveal the difference between the liturgical activities in a parish church vs a monastery, where, one hopes, the priests and monks are more thoroughly educated and aware of what they are doing. Isn’t it just possible that, in this example, as well as others, the Holy See is simply correct!?

      3. Sure, they could well be right. But why can’t we trust people at the local level to make this right decision? I don’t deny that even the Holy See can be right 🙂 I know of too many cases where they’re not, however, and where local priest or local bishop is much more aware of what needs to be done.

      4. Sadly, I know of priests and laypeople who see the purification of the sacred vessels as no more than “washing the dishes” (they use that very language). What makes it ridiculous is that those priests feel this purification is a menial task that is “below them” and have no problem leaving the laity to do said menial task. Where’s the pastoral sensibility in that?

        At a parish I used to belong to, I witnessed the “dregs” of the Chalice being poured down the sink. I was shocked. The next day (a weekday Mass), against the rules of the Church and of my parish (since I wasn’t an EMHC), I “intercepted” the Chalice after Mass so that I could purify it properly. I figure, if it’s going to be done illicitly, it might as well be done properly. I did it as an act of reparation, despite it being an act of disobedience as well.

        What makes you think the discontinuation of lay purification of the sacred vessels was due to the pope’s “pet theory”? There was no other reason or consideration?

        What makes you think the forbidding of the pouring of the Precious Blood was Card. Arinze’s personal vendetta? There was no other reason or consideration?

        (Personally, I wish priests would stop “pouring” Hosts from one paten/ciborium to another as they walk back to the altar after Communion. While I’ve never seen Hosts fall while doing so, it seems too casual to me.)

      5. Well, the judgment of our bishops’ conference would be one thing. Why did our bishops feel that way, I wonder?
        FWIW – and yes, I fully believe in the Real Presence – I don’t see it disrespectful to call it “doing the dishes” – it is that. Sacraments and sacred things all make use of things from every day life, and they do not become ‘more sacred’ by having less connection to the real world.

      6. I don’t see it disrespectful to call it “doing the dishes” – it is that.

        Sorry, Dom. Ruff, but I don’t see it your way. How is the purification of the sacred vessels like “doing dishes”? When I do the dishes at home, I tend to be a bit sloppy, plates get a cursory wiping with a towel and they’re left to dry on a rack. The remnants of food on the plates gets caught in the trap in the sink, which is then emptied into the trash. I certainly don’t consume what was left over, nor do I pray about the dinner I just ate and the washing-up I’m doing now.

        Surely that’s not how your monastery purifies the sacred vessels.

        Maybe I’ve got someone else’s “pre-Vatican II goggles” on, but I thought the purification is about showing reverence to the Eucharist and respecting the sacred vessels as sacramentals. It’s about carefully collecting the leftover particles of the Hosts and the remains of the Precious Blood, reverently consuming them, and praying Quod ore sumpsimus…. It’s about not treating them as “leftovers”.

        The careful folding of the corporal and this meticulous purification makes me think of Jesus’ body being carefully taken down from the care, and the women’s desire to anoint Him with spices and oils.

        The image of Mary mopping up Jesus’ blood after the scourging (depicted in ‘The Passion of the Christ’) comes to mind.

        Am I off-base here? Is this overly pietistic?

      7. Oh, Jeffrey, I really want to respect your experience and beliefs and practices. Personally I find it too pietistic, or maybe I should say, more pietistic than I am. Your kind of approach would have been foreign (as far as we know) to anyone in the first several centuries of the Church – i.e., closest in time to Our Lord. That doesn’t definitely prove it, and no, I don’t believe in archeologism or trying to go back to an earlier time. But it is at least an indicator to me that something might have gone amiss.
        I think we need a whole sacramental theology of natural symbols, relationship between sacred and profane, how liturgy relates to life, etc.etc. But they only give me 1500 characters so I won’t try to lay out a whole semester course in this commbox! I’ll just say that trying to make things too ‘sacred’ can end up distorting the whole sacramental economy rather seriously.

      8. So what’s the middle ground here?

        In other words, what does the everyday anthropology of practical action have to teach us about what we do during (or after) the liturgy AND what does the liturgy have to teach us about how we do things in the everyday? Can doing the dishes at home and doing them at church mutually inform one another?

        I don’t treat my dinnerware as reverently or as carefully as I treat eucharisitic vessels, but I do try to bring a spirit of respectfulness to the work of doing the dishes after supper because, well, I eat off of them. I share food with others from them. They are part of the way in which I meet God who is always and everywhere present, and more often than not unrecognized.

        Even when they’re dirty… even when I slop and slosh cleaning them… or when I slop and slosh when washing up after Mass… not the elements, mind you, but the washing up after consuming, etc. Even done carefully, it tends to be a bit messy if done well.

        I think allegorizing the clearing of the altar and purification of the vessels is theologically problematic: why do we have to treat things reverently because of how Jesus’ body was handled after his death? Why can’t they be treated reverently because of the Real Presence that has been manifested sacramentally in the liturgy, endures by God’s grace in the remnants and dregs, and because of the holy people whose holy things these vessels are — and who will continue to use them as holy?

      9. “Your kind of approach would have been foreign … to anyone in the first several centuries of the Church.”

        Perhaps it has its origin in the admonition of St. Cyril of Jerusalem: “So then after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it; giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all carefulness, being on your guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Will you not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?”

        “But it is at least an indicator to me that something might have gone amiss.”

        Please, despite the 1500-character limit, try to tell me what you think it shows has gone amiss. I agree that the sacraments deal with “natural symbols”, but they are specifically symbols that have been raised from the profane to the sacred. Just because the liturgy relates to life doesn’t mean the liturgy is just like everyday life.

        For example, I find the “come, talk, eat, leave” dinner-party analogy for the Mass (which I’ve heard taught to RCIA candidates) terribly lacking. When at dinner parties is sacrificial love made present? [Edit: and I’m not talking about merely “slaving away in the kitchen”. I mean something that’s a decent analogy to the “Holy Sacrifice” aspect of Mass.]

        Instead of “dinner-party” analogies, why not talk about the Marriage Supper of the Lamb?

      10. Fr. Cody: “Why do we have to treat things reverently because of how Jesus’ body was handled after his death? Why can’t they be treated reverently because of the Real Presence … because of the holy people whose holy things these vessels are…?”

        Who says we can’t “have it both ways”? Is there only one level of symbolism allowed?

        Of course the sacred vessels are treated reverently because of what they have held and will hold in the future (the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist). But I find it helpful also to look at the Mass through the eyes of Jesus’ life and ministry.

        To be honest, I never thought of them being treated with reverence because of “the holy people whose holy things these vessels are”, although that makes perfect sense too. (After all, our prayers are like incense held in golden censers in Heaven, and we are called to wear pure white robes washed clean in the Lamb’s blood.) But that’s due to a tendency I have in liturgical matters to be “self-deprecating”. I try to consider the mystery in itself before considering it in relation to myself.

        I’m getting beyond that tendency, though. Take this reflection question based on the various gestures and postures of reverence made at Mass: “Our Lord tells us that He is present to us in the least of our brethren. (cf. Matt. 25:31-46) How should the reverence we show to the Lord in the Mass shape our respect for one another, especially those who are denied their dignity by the world?”

      11. Many, perhaps it is nearly all, world religions have a concept of sacred distinct from profane. But we’re Christians – we have to start with Jesus and the unique revelation of God which he is. Where is there the slightest indication in the New Testament that he left even one ritual prescription for his followers? Or if you look at his relationship to Judaism, the religion of him and his followers: he seems to have been a most willing participant in the Jewish religious rituals. But I don’t recall him scolding anyone for not following Jewish rituals carefully enough. It is a major theme of his, however, that change of heart is infinitely more important than ritual, even if this means breaking ritual laws. We have a fundamental worldview with Christ. So, if we, his followers, are overly concerned about religious rituals and prescriptions, there is at least a chance that we have missed his main point. There is a chance that we have lapsed back into the general religiosity of the world religions and missed the unique revelation which is Christ.

      12. Jeffrey, you write: “When at dinner parties is sacrificial love made present?”
        AWR: With all due respect, I would hope that sacrificial love, of precisely the sort the Sacrifice of the Mass is about, informs all our social gatherings, whether at a dinner party or at McDonald’s. Christ emptied himself – and here’s someone emptying herself by admitting she is wrong in spirited table conversation. Here is someone not bragging about how much time he spends at the Catholic Worker – and a friend who knows is inspired by his self-offering. And so forth. There is a quality of self-giving in every aspect of human relationships. Christ is the supreme model of this on the Cross. This is how, I would hope, every meal and every social interaction has an aspect of the Sacrifice of the Mass. Otherwise, we risk missing the whole point of why the Mass is a sacrifice.

      13. Cody says: “what does the everyday anthropology of practical action have to teach us about what we do during (or after) the liturgy AND what does the liturgy have to teach us about how we do things in the everyday? Can doing the dishes at home and doing them at church mutually inform one another?”

        Yes, they can. Michelle Francl-Donnay, one of our frequent visitors, wrote an essay in 2008 that demonstrates how. It has stayed with me ever since, to the point where when I went looking for it I was surprised to see I read it two years ago.


  3. I think the post which raised the question was considering the legal approach of the employer being liable for the actions of an employee. This arose out of sex abuse cases.
    Looking at it from my perspective I can see that accounting standard setters lay down rules for preparing accounts (they call them financial statements now) that accountants have to follow. But that does not make the standard setter the employer.
    Similarly the Holy See can lay down rules for how Mass is to be said without being the employer of the priest. That may be the diocese or, if working as a chaplain, the school or military or whatever.
    There is also the distinction between an employee (a curate) and an office holder (a parish priest) that may add further permutations.
    One way of looking at this is to see who pays the social security and pension contributions.
    Of course some take a casual approach to their responsibilities, this is true in all walks of life.
    Sadly the relative proximity of a McDonalds to Westminster cathedral makes some of the earlier comments rather too pertinent.

  4. It seems odd that it’s called the purification of the vessels. “Purification” implies that the vessels are being cleansed from an impurity, when the opposite is actually taking pace.

  5. “It is a major theme of his that change of heart is infinitely more important than ritual, even if this means breaking ritual laws.”

    I don’t disagree with you. David and his men ate the showbread which was reserved for the priests, and Jesus and His disciples ate raw grain on the sabbath. It sounds great in theory, but it can be a bit different in practice. Since we’ve been talking about the purification of the sacred vessels, is there an example you have in mind related to it? Or another example?

    “if we … are overly concerned about religious rituals and prescriptions, there is at least a chance that we have missed his main point.”

    Sure, if a person is obsessed with religious ritual to the point of neglecting charity to his fellow man. But I think the rituals of the Catholic religion are meant to teach us about virtues like charity. Sure, they’re not the only way we learn these virtues, but participation in the liturgy is the source of the true Christian spirit, is it not?

  6. Jeffrey is walking a dangerous tightrope.

    In Cyril’s time, they used bread which looked and tasted like bread, and the crumbs from it were recognizably breadcrumbs that could still be eaten. Today, it is difficult to recognize little bits of white dust as food which can be consumed.

    It is the same thing with the Precious Blood. Dregs in a chalice may no longer look like or taste like drinkable wine, and a stain on a carpet certainly does not.

    The theologians tell us that once the appearance of consumable food has disappeared, what remains is no longer a sign of the Real Presence in form of bread and wine, and that therefore the Real Presence has ‘ceased to exist’. Excessive scrupulousness is therefore neither necessary nor desirable.

    Here’s the dangerous bit. We also have difficulty in recognizing small white ‘cardboard’ disks as something truly having the appearance of food (as GIRM 321 has been reminding us since 1969 that it should be). The only reason to accept that this is food which can be eaten is because we are accustomed to seeing it like this, and because we know or have been told that it is so. But for many, an additional act of faith is required in order to believe that what we are receiving is actually bread.

    1. Paul, towards the end of the time when I regularly received Communion in the hand (only a few years ago), I would often notice crumbs left over in my hand. They weren’t there before I received Communion, so they clearly came from the Bread. I didn’t require a college degree to realize what they were, and I discreetly consumed them. Should I have just wiped my hands on my pants (as I most surely did many years before) without a second thought?

      I know that when the appearances of bread and wine have ceased to be present, the Real Presence is also no longer present. (Cf. Ep. Cardinalium Inquis., Pope Gregory XI, 8 August 1371 (Denz. 1101-1103)) A dried stain on the carpet is one thing; a fresh (wet) stain is another; and both are very different (at least in my mind) from consecrated Wine in the Chalice.

      As for the shape and form of the bread used for Communion, I’ve heard (and told) the joke about the two acts of faith necessary. Still, GIRM 321 says the bread must be unleavened and can be “baked in the traditional shape.” I’ve encountered varying thicknesses of the circular shape.

      1. I’ve never wiped my hands on my pants, so I’m unable to answer your question. 😉

  7. I go to a doctor. He is in private practice. He went to a private medical school. His training was regulated by both government standard and by private accreditation. His practice is run according to government rules and regulations, insurance industry standards, and medical standards developed by various professional boards. Does my doctor work for himself or is he an employee of the federal or state regulatory body, the insurance company, the American Medical Association, one of the boards he is a certified member of?

  8. I think the bottom line on whose employee I am is who pays me. I haven’t yet gotten a check from the Vatican or any monetary benefits from it. The Vatican doesn’t regulate my salary, insurance, and other perks apart from canon law that says a laborer is worth his wage. My bishop regulates what I make and what benefits accrue. In my diocese, though, the diocese does not even pay me, it is the parish which does, although I guess you could make a legal case that the diocese does so indirectly as the bishop is “corporation sole” a legality that really needs to be reexamined given all the lawsuits around the country. But the money for my salary, room, board and other benefits comes from the offertory, what my parishioners/congregation gives and what our budget has prescribed, but based upon diocesan policy and standards.

    1. Fr. Allan – I think that’s probably right – who pays is the employer. But there have been European countries where the state pays clergy and Church supervises them – I’m not sure which they are employees of. I suppose it is of the state. I’m not a legal specialist, so I can’t predict what the courts will say. It is complex – dioceses pay salary, but supervision is done by a combination of levels, including pretty detailed instruction from Rome.

    2. You bring up a good point. Even in the US, each state has a different way of setting up legal corporations. We saw what some in Connecticut wanted to do–take over of the church corporations. In NY each parish is a separate legal entity: The local ordinary is the president, the vicar general is the VP, the pastor is secretary/treasurer and there are 2 lay trustees. So basically there are 3 clergy vs 2 laymen on the board, but also 2 “diocesan” and 3 “parish” people on it.

  9. In the UK, the Catholic Church has an agreement with the Inland Revenue that, for tax purposes, priests are not employed. But nor are they self-employed. The term used is “office holder”.

  10. Another way of looking at it is to see the process by which a person is appointed to and removed from a post.
    General McCrystal was relieved of his command by his employer. The US president can be removed only by a process in an assembly (Congress) which is under no obligation to consider such an action. He is thus an office holder.

    The treatment of taxation authorities of the income of a priest is likely to have evolved over time. The parish or diocese may well be exempt from tax on income or profits (perhaps as a charity) whilst the individuals concerned are subject to tax on their income from all sources. There is therefore a need to distinguish between the income of the person and that of the parish. Whilst employment tribunals might take note of the arrangement they would not wish to have their hands bound by the decisions of tax authorities. So I do not think that the tax treatment is going to be a useful guide to deciding the employment status of an individual.

    1. Especially when individuals are seen as separate categories by different agencies of the same government (IRS, SS…)

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