Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I have previously worked as a liturgist and continue to volunteer by training altar servers and acting as master of ceremonies for the bishop. In my experience, it is quite difficult to navigate the waters of liturgical law since there are so many different documents. I know that there is the Code of Canon Law, but it purposefully does not address liturgical law. Are there currently any attempts or efforts to codify liturgical law into a comprehensive collection? Canon law gives laity the right to licit and valid liturgy, and it seems that a codifiedliturgical Law could help to ensure that right and prevent continuous liturgical abuses. — J.M., Michigan
A: In this answer we reprise some material used in a reply of 2008.
Although the Church’s canon law was first codified only in 1917, the codification reflected a long legal tradition eventually rooted in Roman law.
Thus, expert canon lawyers are able to drink from a deep wellspring of traditional interpretations in stating the meaning of laws. Most canonists will claim that doubts regarding the objective meaning of a law are fairly rare.
They do occur, however, and are usually clarified over time by an authentic interpretation promulgated by the legislative authority, by a new law that further clarifies the question at hand, or by development in canonical doctrine until a consensus is reached among the practitioners of the craft.
The Holy See has a special body dedicated to the authentic interpretation of laws. Its first decision regarding the 1983 Code of Canon Law dealt with the meaning of the word “iterum” (which can mean either “again” or “a second time”) in Canon 917, which refers to reception of Communion. The decision fell on “a second time” as to how often one may receive Communion in one day.
All but the most essential aspects of liturgical law are found outside the Code of Canon Law and have never been completely codified into a single volume. And given the complexity and variability of the situation, it is not likely to be codified anytime soon.
Within liturgical law we must distinguish between laws applicable to the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman rite.
The rites of the extraordinary form are meticulously determined.
Over four centuries this rite generated a considerable body of jurisprudence gathered together in the volumes of authentic decrees of the former Congregation of Rites. Fortunately, this series of complex laws were frequently digested by sedulous scholars into descriptive manuals for use by priests and masters of ceremonies. Two of the best of these have been republished: A. Fortescue and J.B. O’Connell’s “The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described,” updated by Father Alcuin Reid, O.S.B., and the even more complete Italian “Compendio di Liturgia Pratica,” by L. Trimelloni.
The codification and interpretation of the norms of the ordinary form presents some particular difficulties. The rite’s relative youth (at least as regards its rubrics) means that there is little in the way of historical jurisprudence that could clarify any doubtful passages.
An added difficulty is the range of different liturgical books which are the most important sources of liturgical law. These are sometimes updated so that one has to be sure of having the latest editions of each rite as these might modify earlier norms in the light of practical experience.
There is also the difficulty that in general the rubrics quite deliberately eschew detailed descriptions of the rites so as to leave a certain degree of flexibility. For example, both the extraordinary and ordinary forms indicate that the priest pray with hands extended, but while the extraordinary form has detailed descriptions, the latter rite makes little determination as to distance and position of the hands, leaving this up to the discretion of the celebrant. Indeed, the most precise description is found in the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 104. Apart from the fact that this book is not usually found in every sacristy, the description does not enter into much detail, saying only that the hands are “slightly raised and outstretched” and also quotes Tertullian in saying that the gesture is done to imitate Christ in his passion.
Another factor is the involvement of other instances of liturgical legislation besides the Holy See, such as legitimate customs and bishops’ conferences. The conferences may propose particular adaptations for their countries requiring approval from the Holy See before becoming particular law. They may also publish other documents such as guidelines on certain liturgical questions which, while not strictly legally binding, in practice become a point of reference.
Likewise, the existence of official translations can sometimes make interpretation difficult, especially when translations vary the meaning of a text, even among countries sharing the same language. Unlike the liturgy, canon law has no official translations and only the Latin text may be used for legal purposes.
In spite of these difficulties liturgical interpretation is not arbitrary.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments sometimes makes authentic interpretations of the liturgical texts. For example, it declared that No. 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in stating that a celebrant’s facing the people seemed “more desirable,” did not constitute a legal obligation.
Recently the Congregation for Divine Worship has begun to publish its official review and its most important decrees on the Vatican webpage, although it is still incomplete. There is also a very useful private initiative in the site: http://www.ipsissima-verba.org/ containing practically all of the official responses over the last 50 years many of which are accompanied by an English translation.
There are also the official “instructions” which are technical legal document that establish binding rules on specific aspects of the liturgy. Recent examples are Liturgiam Authenticam on the translation of texts and Redemptionis Sacramentum on liturgical abuses.
Such authentic interpretations throw light on the mind of the legislator regarding similar issues, and so help in resolving disputed points. In some cases historical decisions regarding the extraordinary form are still useful in understanding the present form.
Another means is to examine the use of a particular word throughout the official documents so as to gauge its overall sense. Compared to civil law the totality of liturgical ordinances constitutes a relatively small corpus, and this makes such comparisons fairly easy.
There are some excellent references books that can help the inquirer wade through the morass of liturgical law. In several countries books have been printed that bring together the most important documents and allow research through excellent thematic indexes — for example, in Italian the Enchiridion Liturgico (1994) and in English the four-volume “The Liturgy Documents” (latest edition 2012). There is also the older, 1511-page “Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979” (published in 1983).
It is true that many of these documents are available online, but they lack the benefit of a thematic index that can clarify the state of the question.
There are also some liturgical manuals for the ordinary form which digest the norms into practical explanations of the celebrations.
Among the first, and probably still the best, is now-Bishop Peter J. Elliott’s “Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite” (2004) and “Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year” (2002). For the Mass there is also the fine “A Commentary on the General Instruction of the Roman Missal” (2008). I would probably quibble with a few interpretations, but the book is a mine of background information on the sources of the GIRM which greatly assist in interpreting more obscure elements.
Finally, unlike much civil law, liturgical law is actually designed to be clearly understood by non-experts, and so it actually means what it says based on a literal reading. Therefore priests, deacons, sacristans and other liturgical actors are absolved of the need for a law degree in preparing for Mass.
The difficulty in liturgical law is not usually in the understanding but in the faith, love and will to carry it out.