Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Regarding Lay Preaching and Canon Law

I stumbled on the news that Bishop Salvatore Matano of Rochester, NY is clamping down on a local tradition in his diocese which esteemed lay preaching. The article states more than once that lay preaching is forbidden by Canon Law, but no where cites, to my annoyance, the canons in question. No matter, a simple Google search found the answers.

In this post I'll parse the pertinent canons and, for what it's worth, offer my opinion and interpretation of the canons in play here.

First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, I am an Orthodox lay person. My pastor routinely each Sunday delegates to me the task of preaching. You can see an example of my style at the right of this post.

The Eastern Orthodox Church follows the canons ratified at each of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, as well as several local councils. As such, there is no formal canon governing preaching, apart from the received tradition that there are sermons, usually given by the priest, as the most theologically educated person.

In this post, when I say "Canon Law" I mean the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983 and which replaced the first constructed Code, which was issued in 1917.

Does Canon Law forbid lay people from delivering a homily?

Yes, it does. But it also makes provision for lay people to preach in a church.

Regarding Lay Preaching

Can. 766 states: Lay persons can be permitted to preach in a church or oratory, if necessity requires it in certain circumstances or it seems advantageous in particular cases, according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops and without prejudice to can. 767, §1.

In other words, lay persons may preach, as long as this does not violate the exercise of Can. 767, §1.

So what does Can. 767, §1 say? 

Can. 767, §1 defines a homily as something that is reserved to a priest or a deacon (et sacerdoti aut diacono reservatur; ).

Therefore, by definition, a lay person can never deliver a homily at Mass. 

But Canon Law itself admits that homilies are not the only form of preaching. It states that the "among the forms of preaching, the homily is preeminent" (Inter praedicationis formas eminet homilia; Can. 767, §1).

Therefore, there are other forms of preaching besides homilies.  If, by definition, only a priest or deacon can deliver a homily, then a lay person preaching in a church is still preaching, just not delivering a homily.

Now, any reasonable person will admit that there is such a thing as a bad homily. I've given plenty myself, on days when I just wasn't a hundred percent.

In a Catholic context, a thing might be a homily because it was delivered by a priest or a deacon in the context of a Mass. But it could also be a bad homily, because it was either poorly organized, wretchedly delivered, or lacking in any compelling content (or all of the above).

The canons refer to bishops, priests, and deacons as having the "faculty" to preach (Can. 764; facultas). But that is different from having the "power" (potestas) to necessarily do so effectively, because of circumstances arising from his health, native abilities, or work burdens.

So when could or should a lay person preach in lieu of a priest or deacon delivering a homily?

If Can. 767, §1 virtually precludes any scenario in which it is acceptable for a lay person to preach, then there would have been no reason to even include Can. 766. But instead, Can. 766 describes two different circumstances in which lay preaching is permitted:

 1) "If necessity requires it in certain circumstances" (si certis in adiunctis necessitas id requirat)


2) "It seems advantageous in particular cases" (in casibus particularibus utilitas id suadeat).

Reading 766 and 767 together, lay preaching under Roman Catholic Canon Law would not seem permissible if there were even two clerics in attendance at the Mass. In such a case, at least one of them should be understood to have the responsibility to have prepared some meaningful homily to deliver after the Gospel. 

Programs wherein lay persons would be delegated to preach merely as way to increase lay involvement would be equally precluded.

But if there are two explicit circumstances in which lay preaching can happen, the most important question is:

Who can authorize a lay person to preach?

Can. 767, §4 states that "It is for the pastor or rector of a church to take care that these prescripts are observed conscientiously."

"These prescripts" refers to the law governing preaching in the parish, lay or clerical. The Latin word translated "conscientiously" is religiose, meaning religiously. In other words, the pastor is expected to observe these canons out of a sense of appropriate religious responsibility.

I would assert that, on a local level, this may not just allow him to delegate preaching to a qualified lay person. It may demand it.

If the priest is burdened with duties such that preparing a meaningful homily is not possible, and he is aware of a qualified and talented lay person who can, in fact, preach with greater effectiveness than himself, delegating preaching would seem to be quite warranted.

Pastors allowing lay preaching should do so on a case-by-case basis, allowing it only if it is a more effective presentation of the Gospel than they could produce. 

But under Roman Catholic Canon Law, the allowing of lay preaching is explicitly something under the authority of the local pastor, not the diocesan bishop.

Interestingly, the Code of Canon Law of the Eastern Catholic Churches explicitly describes the bishop as being in direct supervision of all preaching in his diocese (Can. 609) and further states that only the bishop can authorize a lay person to preach in a church (Can. 610, §4):

In extraordinary circumstances, especially to supply for the scarcity of clerics, the eparchial bishop also may give the mandate to preach even in church to other Christian faithful.

By contrast, the canons of the Latin Church describe bishops, priests, and deacons as having the faculty to preach, but do not reserve the authority to approve lay preaching to the bishop. (763-764). 

While the article I first cited describes Bishop Matano as preparing guidelines to help pastors better understand the law on this matter, lay preaching in the Diocese of Rochester seems to have suddenly been largely cancelled as a result of the bishop's entry into the matter. I think that's a shame, because, while it may be that not all lay preaching was truly defensible under the law, I'll bet a good portion of it was. And, based on what I described above, it doesn't look like it was primarily his job to decide.

As I described above, it is left to the local pastor to apply "these prescripts" religiously. It is certainly the bishop's job to supervise how his priests apply the law, on this and all matters, but that should not mean doing their job for them, and risk disallowing lay preaching which, in that local context, was edifying to the People of God.

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