Canon Law

Coronavirus, Mass, and Catholic Life

by Steve Ray on March 19, 2020

Coronavirus, Mass, and Catholic Life  by Jimmy Akin

First, here is my 15-minute show with John Harper on Relevant Radio discussing how the shutdown is affecting families and what we can do. My segment begins at the 30:00 minute mark.

Now to Jimmy Akin’s excellent article:

The coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic has produced many questions and controversies, including how it is impacting people’s ability to attend Mass and receive the sacraments.

How dangerous is the virus? What should be our response as Catholics?

Here are eight things to know and share.

1) How dangerous is the coronavirus?
Nobody knows for sure. The virus only emerged a few months ago, so doctors are only now getting experience with it.

Some have compared Covid-19 to the flu, which is a well-understood and predictable disease.

It appears that Covid-19 is much more infectious than the flu. A person with the flu will infect an average of 1.3 other people, but a person with Covid-19 will infect an average of between 2 and 3.11 additional people. Covid-19 thus has the chance to spread much more rapidly.

Covid-19 is also much deadlier than the flu. In the United States, the death rate for the flu is usually around 0.1%. The death rate for Covid-19 is not yet well understood, but it appears to be between 1.4% and 2.3%—making it between 14 and 23 times more deadly than the flu.

While it is true that—at present—more people are killed by the flu than by Covid-19, governments and health authorities are working to keep the latter from becoming as common as the flu.

There are around 27 million cases of flu each year in the U.S., resulting in around 36,000 deaths. If COVID became as common as the flu (and, remember, it’s actually more infectious than the flu), there would be around 500,000 deaths.

This is what authorities are trying to prevent. Current Center for Disease Control guidelines for how to protect yourself are online here. 

2) Is everyone equally at risk?
No. Covid-19 hits certain people much harder than others. People younger than 60 are much less likely to die because of the disease, though they can still catch and spread it.

They may even have it but not feel sick and yet spread it to others. In fact, a recent study suggests that more than 80% of current cases were spread by people who did not know they had the virus.

People older than 60 are much more likely to die, and the risk increases with each decade of age.

People with other underlying conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease also have increased risk of dying. Current Center for Disease Control guidelines for how to protect yourself are online here.

3) Why are bishops cancelling Masses and dispensing people from their Sunday obligations? Aren’t Christians called to be martyrs?
Christians are called to be martyrs when we are forced into the situation. If we are directly asked if we are followers of Christ, we cannot disown our faith. “If we deny him, he also will deny us” (2 Tim. 2:12).

However, this doesn’t mean we are called to rush into martyrdom. In fact, Jesus said that we can flee persecution for our faith: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Matt. 10:23).

The requirement to witness to our faith thus does not mean Christians can’t take reasonable steps to protect themselves from physical danger.

If it is morally permissible to leave town to avoid one physical danger (being killed by people who hate our faith), so is staying home from Mass for a few weeks to avoid another physical danger (being killed by a plague).

4) Are bishops being too quick to cancel Mass?
The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11), so no bishop will take the decision to suspend Masses lightly.

The decision involves a prudential judgment call, so there is no single answer that obviously applies in all situations. This means the faithful should pray for the bishops as they wrestle with this issue and show respect for the difficult decisions they are having to make.

They also should bear in mind that:

  • The conditions in some areas are much worse than others.
  • In some places, bishops may not have much of a choice, as public authorities have prohibited public gatherings over a certain size.
  • Epidemics grow exponentially, so the only way to stop them is to take early action—before the situation becomes severe. If you wait until an epidemic has gotten really bad in an area, it is too late.

5) When are people allowed to stay home from Mass?
People are allowed to stay home from Mass in three situations:

  • When one has a legitimate excuse (e.g., because a person is at elevated risk of acquiring Covid-19)
  • When one is dispensed by the competent authority (e.g., the pastor or bishop)
  • When it is impossible to go (e.g., because Masses have been cancelled)

6) On what basis can pastors and bishops dispense a person?
The Code of Canon Law provides that the pastor of a parish can give a dispensation in individual cases, as can the superiors of religious institutes (can. 1245).

The bishop’s authority is greater. He can “dispense the faithful from universal and particular disciplinary laws issued for his territory” by the Vatican (can. 87 §1). This is the category of laws that the Sunday obligation belongs to.

7) What should we do if staying home from Mass?
One is not legally obligated to do anything on these days. However, the Church strongly recommends that the faithful undertake another form of spiritual activity:

If participation in the eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause, it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families (can. 1248 §2).

Watching a Mass on television or the Internet also is a possibility, and some parishes and dioceses stream Masses on their web sites.

Participating in the Liturgy of the Hours is another possibility (can. 1174 §2), as are reading the Bible or spiritual works.

8) What should I do if I’m not sure whether I’m getting sick?
Err on the side of caution. With many diseases, people are most infectious just before they start feeling sick and just after they start having symptoms. Therefore, if you think you might be getting sick, you may be at the point where you have the greatest chance of infecting another person.

Even if you do not feel sick, you may be able to spread the virus to others, so it is important to follow safety practices even if you currently feel fine.

This applies especially if you have contact with older people or those with health conditions that put them at greater risk of dying from Covid-19.

Remember: We are not just protecting ourselves; we are protecting those around us.

If we don’t have the virus, we can’t give it to others. Even if we’re young and healthy, we’re protecting the more vulnerable. That is a physical work of mercy, and it’s an act of love for others. As Jesus taught us, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).


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Catholics will begin to wonder if they should go to Mass or not, and what if Mass is not available. The coronavirus is radically changing our society and Canon Lawyer Ed Peters’ provides an excellent primer on “to go to Mass or not to go to Mass.”


The obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and (locally observed) holy days of obligation set out in Canons 1246-1248 (see also CCC 2180-2183) is gravely binding in conscience. No reliable commentator disputes this. The Church does not, however, enforce this attendance obligation in the external forum (e.g., Church police do not take attendance at Mass and issue tickets to no-shows), but she has articulated guidance to assist observant Catholics in assessing their obligations under various circumstances.

Preliminary point.

Regular ILOTL readers know that, in discussing some questions regarding the Mass attendance obligation, I do not apply the “How much can I miss and Mass still counts?” analysis and instead prefer a “Why did I miss however much of Mass I missed?” assessment of one’s reasons and/or justifications for missing part or all of an obligatory Mass. That same approach—one that asks not How much of it did I miss, but Why did I miss it?—helps one assess, I suggest, the force of one’s Mass attendance obligations in times of pestilence.

Three factors can obviate one’s obligation to attend certain Masses, namely: impossibility, dispensation, or excuse.


Since ancient times it has been recognized that no one is bound to the impossible. If Mass has been canceled in one’s locale (and even though some effort to find a Mass outside of one’s usual locale is expected), one is not required to undertake burdensome efforts to find and attend a Mass somewhere else. Indeed, canon law anticipates that attendance at Mass, even obligatory Masses, might be impossible sometimes and recommends that the faithful engage in some other liturgical exercise (say, the Liturgy of the Hours, per Canon 1174) or otherwise spend an appropriate amount of time in prayer, per Canon 1248. Watching a televised Mass might be a good exercise but such exercises do not satisfy the Mass attendance obligation—that obligation having been obviated by impossibility—for only attendance at Mass satisfies a Mass attendance obligation.


The obligation of weekly divine worship (and to some extent the holy day obligation) reflects divine law directives going back to the Decalogue but the modern Sunday obligation is a function of ecclesiastical law and is thus liable to diocesan-wide dispensation by the diocesan bishop per Canon 87. In addition Canon 1245 authorizes parish pastors (but not just any priest, etc, per Canon 89) to dispense those belonging to or present in his parish from this obligation. To be sure, Canon 90 urges executive authority figures to consider carefully the spiritual welfare of their subjects, the gravity of the law being dispensed, and other circumstances in deliberating about dispensing from a law. Nevertheless, doubts about the sufficiency of the reasons behind a dispensation are resolved in favor the dispensation.


This method of obviating the Mass attendance obligation is the one that most likely impacts individual Catholics and it takes more time to discuss.

Among the reasons long recognized as excusing (not technically ‘dispensing’) one from attending an obligatory Mass is one’s personal illness. Two points need to be made about illness.

First, people experience the symptoms of personal illnesses in different ways such that what one person might find to be an inconvenience (say, a headache) another might find to be a dolor seriously impacting one’s ability to act, think, pray, etc. Each member of the faithful is accountable to God, and not to others, for how he assesses the experience of his symptoms against the obligation to attend certain Masses. As far as the faith community is concerned the individual’s assessment of the effects of his illness is what counts. If one feels too ill to attend Mass one is excused from the obligation of attending.

Second, personal illnesses can present different degrees and kinds of risks to others. Many serious illnesses pose no risk to others (e.g., cancer) while some minor or moderate ails are highly contagious (e.g., colds and flu). Beyond, then, the personal experience of illness relevant to assessing the obligation to attend Mass, one must also weigh the risk that one’s illness poses to others by attending a Mass (obligatory or otherwise), this consideration, moreover, not undertaken as an expression of charity toward others but as an exercise of justice toward them. So, to take an easy case, if one knew that one was contagious with a serious illness then, even if one personally felt just fine, I think one would be obligated not to attend Mass, even one obligatory.

In sum, those suffering from serious illnesses are excused from the grave obligation of attending Mass under either, and perhpas both, headings above, namely, they might feel too ill to attend Mass and/or they might pose a serious risk of infection to others.

But a more difficult question is presented by coronavirus, it seems, in that one is contagious with this very serious virus for a considerable period of time before one is even aware of being infected. In terms of assessing the obligation to attend Mass, this scenario fits under neither the first scenario above (for one does not feel ill, but is only, albeit not unreasonably, afraid of becoming ill), nor is one aware of being especially contagious to others. What to do, then, about assessing one’s Mass attendance obligation during times of serious pandemic when (a) it is feasible to find a Mass; (b) one has not been dispensed from the obligation of attending Mass; and (c) one does not feel ill, although many in the community are falling ill after a considerable time without showing symptoms.

I propose the following approach. Because these considerations are largely prudential (and I use that word in its good sense, and not as cover for doing what I what I find convenient), be aware that even small changes in facts could greatly change how my advice plays out in practice.

A) If one is simply, however understandably, afraid of being infected by others, I do not see sufficient excuse obviating fulfillment of a serious religious obligation such as Sunday Mass attendance. The more one’s fears over being infected are, however, augmented by factors such as, say, one’s advanced age or underlying medical complications (e.g., diabetes or pregnancy), the more likely sufficient excuse from the obligation to attend Mass can be found, even though one feels fine.

B) If one has no special reason to think that one is contagious for others, I do not see sufficient excuse obviating fulfillment of a serious religious obligation such as Sunday Mass attendance. Factors that increase the chances that one is contagious for others (e.g., someone in one’s household has fallen ill, or one works with or around ill persons) will more likely result in excuse of the obligation to attend certain Masses, again, even though one feels fine.

Recall, again, that in the both of the above scenarios the Church does not attempt to police one’s self-assessment of the satisfaction or avoidance of the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and certain holy days. As a matter of conscience, one is accountable to the Lord for one’s decision, and the Lord can neither deceive nor be deceived.


Article below by Canon Lawyer, Dr. Ed Peters:

(Steve Ray here: It is amazing how many people today are rejecting the papacy of Pope Francis, claiming that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is really the pope. It comes up on my Twitter and Facebook accounts almost daily. Even though Canon Lawyer Ed Peters wrote his legal opinion in 2017, it is just as apropos now, maybe even more.

Screen Shot 2020-01-18 at 8.42.30 AMThe publication of the new Ignatius Press book has brought out speculations and challenges from every quarter. I support Ignatius Press and Cardinal Sarah 100% in the truth of their claims regarding the co-authorship of the book between Sarah and Benedict and their decision to publish it. But this again raises the question for many about the validity of Francis’ papacy and the chaos in the Vatican.


(Peters’ opening Note: I am giving this one shot. If it sways some adherents of the ‘Francis-was-never-pope’ group, great; but if it only reassures observers who, regardless of what they think about how Francis is governing, are disquieted by the suggestion that his papacy itself is a chimera, that satisfies me as well.)

Two small but persistent arguments attack the very foundation of Francis’ papacy: first, Benedict XVI’s resignation was invalid (take your pick as to reasons why, but mostly because of pressure allegedly brought on Benedict, as supposedly evidenced by his resignation wording), so there was no vacant Holy See to fill, and so a conclave could not elect a pope; or, second, various irregularities were committed before or during the conclave itself, so the election of Francis was invalid.

20130313nw543_0Both sets of arguments are offered in inexcusable ignorance of Canon 10 (which sets a high standard indeed for declaring any kind of ecclesiastical acts invalid, etc.), but the arguments alleging the invalidity of Benedict’s resignation are so vacuous that no time will be spent refuting them here.

On the other hand, some (okay, basically one) of the claims that irregularities allegedly committed in the conclave itself resulted in an invalid election do have a modicum of plausibility and deserve at least a brief hearing. So here goes.

For the whole article, click HERE.


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