Hard Cases make Bad [Liturgical] Law

As we begin the process of opening up our churches again, we will have to make a lot of changes. Obviously, we all have to get used to changes, even when they seem somewhat burdensome. As Pope Francis said last Sunday at the Regina Caeli address, the reopening of churches must “go ahead with the rules, the prescriptions they give us, so as to protect the health of each person and of the people.”

Here at PrayTell there has already been a lot of discussions , and even disagreements, on the proposed changes that will have to be made in order to reopen our churches and restart public worship. Nobody should be surprised that these will be challenging time. In countries where the churches closed overnight, the reopening may take many months (or even years).

Some drastic changes may need to be made in order to reopen. These changes may need to stay in place for a long time. The Sign of Peace as a handshake or embrace may not return for a long time. Likewise, the offering of the Eucharistic Cup to all communicants or reception of Communion on the tongue may not be safe for many months or even for a couple of years. All of us are hoping for a vaccine, or even a reliable treatment, of COVID-19.

It is only natural that after some months of churches being closed for public worship, people will begin to rethink some liturgical practices as they reopen. We can reasonably assume that in 2025 the liturgy as celebrated in a given parish may well be quite more noticeably different from how it was celebrated in 2019. Change can be good. We must constantly reassess our liturgical practices and endeavour to see if they are being celebrated in the best way possible. At times we will have to make permanent modifications to these practices. This is natural and good.

I am aware of John Henry Newman’s famous adage, “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” But in our present context I want to add a word of caution. We can’t say that each and every change is intrinsically good, sometimes liturgical changes can lead to an impoverishment of our liturgies. We should be careful not to make permanent changes without thinking long and hard about them. We shouldn’t take advantage of the Coronavirus to make permanent changes simply because they make our life easier. The old legal adage holds true here: hard cases make bad law. Just because a change is necessary now, that doesn’t mean that it should automatically become a permanent change.

In the liturgical renewal in the wake of Vatican II, many people have pointed out a lack of liturgical catechesis and formation. This lack was of no help to the renewal. Today, I would urge those making the hard decisions that are needed to get our churches open again, not to simply write off any aspect of the pre-COVID liturgy they don’t like. If any change is to become permanent, then please let it be in the best interest of the People of God and accompanied by suitable catechesis and formation.

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