A Simple Change in the Code of Canon Law is Needed

If you are a real thrifty person, you might want to hold on to your 2022 calendar.  This is because the 2022 calendar can be used again in 2033.

While calendar years don’t repeat all the time, they do repeat more often than some may realize.  The 2022 calendar, for instance, will repeat in 2033, 2039, 2050 and 2061.  That means Christmas Eve will again be on a Saturday and Christmas Day will be on Sunday in 2033.

This also means that some Catholics will once again be asking the question “If I go to Mass on Christmas Eve, does that mean I’ve fulfilled both my Christmas and Sunday obligation?”

Of course, Catholics should know that attending a Saturday evening Mass fulfills the Sunday mass obligation.  And when Christmas is on a Sunday, attending a Christmas Eve Mass on Saturday evening fulfills the Sunday obligation and the Christmas Day obligation as well.

But this also brings up a couple more interesting questions: what constitutes “evening?” How early can a Mass on Christmas Eve be celebrated and still be considered fulfilling the Christmas Day obligation?  In fact, the same question is valid for Saturday Mass times in general – how early can a Saturday evening Mass be held and still fulfill the Sunday obligation?

One might think that the answer to this question could be found in the Church’s Code of Canon Law.  But one would be wrong to think this.  It seems there is no clear cut, universally accepted answer on how early a Saturday Mass can be held to fulfill the Sunday obligation.

A Minor Brouhaha

I bring this up because these questions actually caused a minor family brouhaha the day before Christmas Eve this year.

My niece and her husband were hosting my wife’s family’s Christmas Eve get together.  Since most of the nieces and nephews had little children, some thought it would be a good idea to attend a Saturday “Children’s Mass” at one of the parishes.  The Mass was scheduled to begin at 3:00 pm.

And then I started the brouhaha.  I pointed out that I didn’t think attending a 3 pm Mass would fulfill either our Sunday Mass or Christmas Day Mass obligation.

“Why would a parish offer a 3 pm Mass if it did not count as fulfilling the Sunday and Christmas Day obligation?” my brother-in-law asked.

“Because sometimes parish priests are not knowledgeable enough regarding all aspects of Canon Law,” I responded.

While the ensuing discussion was interesting it does not bear recounting because it went off in a number of different directions.  Suffice it to say I held my ground and we all ended up going to a 4 pm Mass at a different parish.

Was I Right?

A couple days after Christmas, however, I decided to recheck the grounds on which my 4 pm contention was based.  The source for my contention was Catholic Answers (CA).

Some years back I did a search on the CA website asking the question “how early can a Saturday Mass be to fulfill our Sunday obligation?” So I again went to CA and asked the same question.  Up popped the answer provided by Fr. Charles Grondin:

“The Code of Canon Law (can. 1248) permits Catholics to fulfill their Mass obligation by attending Mass “in the evening of the preceding day.”

“I don’t think many of us would consider 2 p.m. to be “evening.” The Church also does not view that as counting as the evening of the preceding day. Pope Pius XII, in the apostolic constitution Christus Dominus, set the earliest hour for such a Mass at 4 p.m. Unless the Church issues a new rule regarding when to officially define “evening” in canon 1248, 4 p.m. remains the earliest time a Mass fulfills the next day’s obligation.”

Just for the record, Canon 1248 §1 states: “A person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass.”

So I was pretty confident that my position was correct.  But since I like to double and sometimes triple check information, I decided to verify Fr. Grondin’s claim. I emailed noted Canonist Dr. Edward Peters to get his thoughts.

And guess what?  It seems that the timing question is not a settled matter.

Different Opinions

Dr. Peters initially referred me to a post in his In the Light of the Law blog from 2014, “A question on Mass-start times that warrants attention.”  In this post he presents commentary that says “any Mass attended beginning at 12:00 noon of the day previous,” or later, satisfies the “next-day attendance obligation.”

But in the same post he also quotes canonist Dr. John Huels as saying “Evening’ should be understood as anytime from 4:00 pm onward. The legislator uses the word ‘evening’ (vesper) not ‘afternoon’ (post meridiem); in keeping with the proper meaning of the word (cf. c. 17) an afternoon Mass before 4:00 pm is not an evening Mass and does not satisfy the [attendance] obligation.”

I then asked Dr. Peters if Pope Pius XII’s apostolic constitution Christus Dominus is any way applicable here. He replied, “It doesn’t apply; at least not in my view. Others might disagree.”

So it seems that my brother-in-law and I are both right – at least for now.  Attending a 3 pm (or even a Noon) Saturday Mass fulfills our Sunday obligation according to some.  But according to others it does not.  It all depends on to whom you want to listen.

But I wholeheartedly agree with what Dr. Peters says at the end his blog post.  He says, “Bottom line, this very practical question . . . needs to be investigated more fully, and settled authoritatively.”

Canon Law

So if Canon Law does not even provide an answer to the “what time is correct” question, why does the Church even have a thing called Canon Law?

As Canon Lawyer Pete Vere wrote, “The Church does not need a Code of Canon Law, but it has chosen to use such a structure. Canon law deals with the day-to-day affairs of the Church.” To put it simply, the Code of Canon Law codifies the New Covenant given to us by Jesus Christ.

The Church gets her authority to make these laws directly from Jesus.  He told Peter and the apostles, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19, and again in 18:18).

The Canons are set laws that the Church interprets and applies to given situations. The current Code of Canon Law, released by Pope John Paul II in 1983, has 1,752 canons. The previous Code (1917) had 2,414 canons. These canons are rules that govern the Church.

The Code contains seven sections:

  • Book I General Norms,
  • Book II The People of God,
  • Book III The Teaching Function of the Church,
  • Book IV Function of the Church,
  • Book V The Temporal Goods of the Church,
  • Book VI Sanctions in the Church.
  • Book VII Processes (penal law, and procedural law).

Many of these laws are practices, so they are subject to change over time, as the Church sees fit.  For example, the practice of women wearing a veil at Mass was done away with in the 1983 code.  As such, this practice is no longer required. Others laws however, are doctrinal and cannot be changed.

One Change IS NEEDED!

While Canon 1248 is not an infallibly proclaimed doctrine, it is a law of the Church.  So just as keeping the third commandment means attending Mass on Sunday, Canon 1248 is also a law of the Church.  But it is a rather vague law.

Catholic clerics, religious, and laypeople are all bound by these laws.  (A bishop or priest may only disregard any of these laws with an indult from the Pope.)  As such, it would not be a bad idea to make sure the laws are clear.

It would probably be a good idea if Pope Francis fixed this.  Instead of causing confusion he could actually eliminate some confusion!  All it takes is adding some words to Canon 1248: “Evening of the preceding day is defined as after [insert a time here] local time.”

A Simple Change in the Code of Canon Law is Needed