31 July 2020

An Apologia for the Underground: Objections and Replies on the Subject of “Underground” Masses during COVID-19

A scholastic defence, based on sound theology and Canon Law, of those Priests and laymen who defied our 'shepherds' lockdown during the CCP virus pandemic.

From Rorate Cæli

The following article was submitted to Rorate from a writer in the American Midwest.

The unprecedented suspension of public Masses during COVID-19 left many lay Catholics with the question: “During suspension of public Masses ordered by the bishops of the Church in response to COVID-19, could members of the lay faithful assist with clear consciences at Masses where priests ignored their bishops’ rulings and did not lock the doors?” In the following objections and replies, I develop an answer to this question. I am not a canon lawyer; I claim to have no authority in matters of Church law. With Saint Teresa of Jesus, I simply say,

If these writings contain error, it is through my ignorance; I submit in all things to the teachings of the holy Catholic Roman Church, of which I am now a member, as I protest and promise I will be both in life and death. May our Lord God be forever praised and blessed! Amen, Amen. [1]

Objection 1: 

The lay faithful don’t necessarily have a right to be present at Holy Mass. Therefore, their concern at being barred from Mass by their bishops during the COVID-19 pandemic is not warranted.


According to the Code of Canon Law* (emphasis added):

Liturgical actions are not private actions but celebrations of the Church itself which is the sacrament of unity, that is, a holy people gathered and ordered under the bishops. Liturgical actions therefore belong to the whole body of the Church and manifest and affect it; they touch its individual members in different ways, however, according to the diversity of orders, functions, and actual participation. (Can. 837 §1)

Notice the bolded words, “Liturgical actions therefore belong to the whole body of the Church.” Thus, by means of one’s Baptism, which makes one a living part of the body of the Church, one is endowed by God with the right to assist at liturgical actions, the chief of which is, of course, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

This canon is informed largely by the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which states:

It is to be stressed that whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private. [2]

While it is true that there are cases in which Masses are not open to the faithful, such as a monk’s private Mass or a papal Mass with limited seating, in these cases, it is always presumed that the faithful who wish to assist at Mass should be able to find a Mass elsewhere in which they are allowed, encouraged, or even expected to be present. [3]

A priest and moral theologian summed it up in an article he recently contributed to Rorate Caeli (emphasis added):

So, when traditionally reference was made to a “private Mass,” it did not mean a Mass from which the faithful were banned, but a Mass that simply had no reason to be open to the public because other Masses were available. This being said, we must add that there is really no such thing as a “private Mass,” the principal reason being that the priest is by nature a public minister of the Church and, as such, even if he is a member of an enclosed religious order, he cannot positively refuse any of the faithful to attend a Mass he is celebrating, unless other Masses are readily available. It seems that what we witnessed during COVID-19 was unprecedented and, in my opinion, unwarranted and unjust, being contrary to one of the most fundamental rights of the Catholic faithful. [4]

His Excellency, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, also called attention to the fundamental right of Catholics to be present at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the following statement (emphasis added):

We are witnessing a unique situation: It is for the first time in the History of the Church that the public celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice has been prohibited almost on a worldwide scale. Under the pretext of the Covid-19 epidemic, the inalienable right of the Christians to the public celebration of the Holy Mass has been infringed, disproportionately and unjustifiably. [5]

Therefore, the lay faithful do have a right to be present at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as affirmed by Canon Law, documents of the Church from the Second Vatican Council, and leaders within the Church both past and present. It is natural and right that the lay faithful question and guard vigilantly against any infringement of this fundamental right.

Objection 2:

The lay faithful don’t necessarily have a right to receive Holy Communion, Confession, or Last Rites.


According to the Code of Canon Law:

Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them. (Can. 843 §1)

It would be a distortion of the meaning of the canon to claim that the phrase “appropriate times” refers to times when there is no risk of danger or contagion. If such were the case, then the sacraments would never be administered in certain parts of the world where there are wars, famines, diseases, and constant religious persecution. Rather, the phrase “appropriate times” merely implies that the faithful who seek the sacraments are obliged to show discretion and patience in their requests for the sacraments.

For instance, a member of the faithful should not expect to apprehend his priest at any hour of the day or night and demand Holy Communion for no reason other than that he desires to receive Communion at that particular hour. In this case, the appropriate time to receive Holy Communion would be at the day’s conventual Mass.

Or, taking another example, in some Masses where a number of non-Catholic laity are present, such as a wedding Mass, the priest may refrain from distributing Holy Communion in order to avoid the sacrilegious reception by non-Catholic laity who cannot or will not understand the Church’s teaching that only Catholics may receive Holy Communion. In such a case, the priest does not infringe the canonical rights of Catholics present at the Mass because it is presumed if they desire to receive Holy Communion on that particular day, they may receive in the context of some other Mass.

Regarding confession, Canon Law is, once again, quite clear:

All to whom the care of souls is committed by reason of an office are obliged to provide that the confessions of the faithful entrusted to their care be heard when they reasonably ask to be heard and that the opportunity be given to them to come to individual confession on days and hours set for their convenience. (Canon 986 §1)

The use of the word “reasonably” in this canon is much like the use of the phrase “appropriate times” in the canon on Holy Communion.

And, finally, on the subject of Last Rites, Canon Law states:

All priests to whom the care of souls has been committed have the duty and the right to administer the anointing of the sick to all the faithful committed to their pastoral office. (Canon 1003 §2)
A priest and moral theologian treated on these very same canons in an article he recently contributed to Rorate Caeli, and he summarized his discussion in this way:

It would seem therefore that a priest may not be prevented in any situation from administering the sacraments to his people, for the simple reason that the faithful have a right to them and he has a duty to administer them. It does not seem to be within the competence of the sacred minister (and this includes the bishop) to deny the sacraments to a Catholic who is properly disposed. [6]

Therefore, the faithful have canonical rights to the sacrament of the Eucharist, the sacrament of Penance, and the Last Rites.

Objection 3:

Even if the lay faithful have a right to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and receive the sacraments under ordinary conditions, it is true that the bishops still have authority to direct the liturgical activities within their Sees and even suspend public Masses under grave circumstances [7][8]. Therefore, out of obedience, the lay faithful ought to refrain from questioning and objecting to the decisions made by the bishops during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


The Code of Canon law has two very clear points on how the faithful may respond when they question their bishop’s rulings:

The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires. (Can 212. §2)

According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons. (Can 212. §3)

In light of the first point, it is clear that the laity may object to the bishop’s decision to bar them from the liturgical and sacramental life, and they may make known to him their desires that he change his decision on the matter. In light of the second point, the lay faithful have the right and even the duty to manifest to their pastors their opinion on the suspension of public Masses and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful.   

Therefore, it is well within the rights of the lay faithful to form opinions regarding the decisions of their respective bishops during COVID-19, and to make these opinions known to their bishops and the Christian faithful. Far from disobedience or disrespect, this attitude is born of love for the Church and seeks the good of the whole Church.  

(photo courtesy of St. Joseph's Apprentice)
Objection 4:

Even if the lay faithful have good reason to believe their bishop has erred and that their fundamental rights to the liturgical and sacramental life have been infringed upon, in a spirit of obedience [9], they still ought to avoid partaking in any so-called “underground” liturgical activities such as Masses where the priest does not lock the doors.


It is both unnecessary and impossible to judge the hearts and the minds of the world’s bishops. God alone knows whether they truly did everything in their power to feed His sheep during the COVID-19 pandemic, or whether they acted as hirelings. While the lay faithful should refrain from passing judgement on the interior motives of their shepherds, it does not follow that they should refrain from using their powers of reason to test the objective quality of decisions which so profoundly impacted their lives and the entire life of the Church.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, medical personnel and civil officials weighed in with words of caution and startling statistics. These so-called “experts” enjoyed almost absolute authority regardless of their sometimes dubious credibility in matters of science and many indications that they adhered to a leftist agenda. Most bishops made it very clear they were listening to these experts, and they used the pretext of prudence to set aside the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful—as if spiritual wellbeing did not far exceed the importance of physical wellbeing. Bishops bowed to worldly powers who hold nothing but contempt for Catholicism. Many priests and bishops would not even admit they were depriving the faithful, and they lauded live streamed Masses to the extent that it seemed they believed watching these was no different from the act of physically assisting at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In short, the hierarchy put aside her mission to seek the salvation of the souls and forgot her traditional mode of action in times of pestilence. [10][11]

Moreover, in the vast majority of dioceses around the world, essential services were never prohibited. This is the point where the bishops turned a deaf ear to the cries of the faithful. The sheep clamored that the liturgical and sacramental life was essential; the shepherds deemed that it was not. In a recent interview with Diane Montagna, Bishop Athanasius Schneider commented on this confounding state of affairs:

As long as supermarkets are open and accessible and as long as people have access to public transportation, one cannot see a plausible reason for banning people from assisting at Holy Mass in a church. One could guarantee in churches the same and even better hygienic protective measures. [12]

The shepherds stated again and again that their number one priority was the health and safety of their flocks, even as the sheep looked at the words of the Gospel, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew, 10:28)

No reasonable person claims that precautionary measures should not have been taken or that a dispensation should not have been set in place at least for the sick and elderly. The lay faithful would have gratefully accepted outdoor Masses, a greater quantity of Masses in order to reduce crowding, frequent church cleanings, and other such measures. However, in the vast majority of cases, these were not offered. There was little or no indication from the hierarchy that the continuance of the liturgical and sacramental life for the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful was a thing worth fighting for or even suffering some inconvenience for. It bears noting too that the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful, that is, their sanctification, ought to be the very highest concern of all bishops. Canon Law describes the bishops’ obligation toward promoting this sanctification (emphasis added):

Since the diocesan bishop is mindful of his obligation to show an example of holiness in charity, humility, and simplicity of life, he is to strive to promote in every way the holiness of the Christian faithful according to the proper vocation of each. Since he is the principal dispenser of the mysteries of God, he is to endeavor constantly that the Christian faithful entrusted to his care grow in grace through the celebration of the sacraments and that they understand and live the paschal mystery. (Can. 837)

While a person should not judge the motives of the heart that guided his bishop to suspend public Masses, he, as a creature endowed with reason and a member of the Church, has a right to consider the facts of the situation in light of the teachings of the magisterium highlighted thus far. After such consideration, he may conclude that his canonical rights have been infringed upon and the care of his soul put aside for specious pretexts. It is then for him to turn to God and discern the appropriate response to this injustice.

In an extensive article on the subject of priests offering public Masses contrary to the ruling of their bishops, Canon Lawyer Cathy Caridi points to the rights of the faithful and reminds the reader of the words of St. Augustine, “lex iniusta non est lex”—an unjust law is no law at all. [13]

Bishop Athanasius Schneider unequivocally stated this same view in an interview with Diane Montagna (emphasis added):

Priests must recall that they are first and foremost shepherds of immortal souls. They are to imitate Christ, who said: “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own, and my own know me.” (John 10:11-14) If a priest observes in a reasonable manner all the necessary health precautions and uses discretion, he has not to obey the directives of his bishop or the government to suspend Mass for the faithful. Such directives are a pure human law; however, the supreme law in the Church is the salvation of souls. Priests in such a situation have to be extremely creative in order to provide for the faithful, even for a small group, the celebration of Holy Mass and the reception of the sacraments. Such was the pastoral behavior of all confessor and martyr priests in the time of persecution. [14]

Thus, in encouraging priests to continue allowing the faithful access to their Masses, Bishop Schneider implicitly encourages the faithful to seek out these Masses for the good of their souls. Priests and people need have no scruple to continue, even under cover, the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church.

Therefore, in light of the conclusions that a) a bishop may be wrong in his decision to suspend Masses, b) the faithful have fundamental rights to the sacraments and liturgical life, and c) an unjust law is no law at all, I conclude that a person during the COVID-19 pandemic could, with a clear conscience, assist at underground Masses.

*All references to Canon Law come from the 1983 Code of Canon Law. https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_INDEX.HTM#fonte
[1] Teresa of Jesus, Interior Castle. Conclusion.
[3] Canon Law made Easy, “Can Priests Cancel Public Masses, and Say a Private Mass Instead?”, Cathy Caridi J.C.L., https://canonlawmadeeasy.com/2020/04/16/cancel-public-mass-private-mass-instead/
[4] Rorate Caeli, “A theologian analyzes the morality of the cancellation of public Masses and the closure of churches by the State — superb Thomistic treatment”, https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2020/05/a-theologian-analyzes-morality-of.html
[5] Gloria Dei, “Coronavirus in the Light of Fatima: A Tragedy and a Source of Hope”, https://www.gloriadei.io/coronavirus-in-the-light-of-fatima-a-tragedy-and-a-source-of-hope/
[6] Rorate Caeli, “A theologian analyzes the morality of the cancellation of public Masses and the closure of churches by the State — superb Thomistic treatment”, https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2020/05/a-theologian-analyzes-morality-of.html
[7] Code of Canon Law. Can. 223 §2, “In view of the common good, ecclesiastical authority can direct the exercise of rights which are proper to the Christian faithful.”
[8] For a detailed discussion of the term “grave” in light of COVID-19, see this article by Canon Lawyer Cathy Caridi: Canon Law made Easy, “Can Priests Cancel Public Masses, and Say a Private Mass Instead?”, https://canonlawmadeeasy.com/2020/03/20/bishops-authority-cancel-masses/
[9] Code of Canon Law. Can. 212 §1. Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church.
[10] Rorate Caeli, “‘Don’t Call Me Hero’: The Catholic Attitude”, Fr. William J. Slattery, Ph.D, S.T.L, https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2020/05/dont-call-me-hero-catholic-attitude.html
[11] Irish Society for Christian Civilisation, “How Saint Charles Borromeo Fought the Deadly Virus in Milan”, Domenick Galatolo, https://www.isfcc.org/post/how-saint-charles-borromeo-fought-the-deadly-virus-in-milan
[12] The Remnant, “A REMNANT INTERVIEW: Bishop Athanasius Schneider on Church’s handling of Coronavirus - Written by  Diane Montagna”, https://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/articles/item/4826-exclusive-interview-bishop-athanasius-schneider-on-church-s-handling-of-coronavirus
[13] Canon Law made Easy, “Do Bishops have authority to Cancel Masses Completely?”, Cathy Caridi J.C.L., https://canonlawmadeeasy.com/2020/03/20/bishops-authority-cancel-masses/
[14] The Remnant, “A REMNANT INTERVIEW: Bishop Athanasius Schneider on Church’s handling of Coronavirus - Written by  Diane Montagna”, https://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/articles/item/4826-exclusive-interview-bishop-athanasius-schneider-on-church-s-handling-of-coronavirus

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