Interpreting Liturgical Norms

And more on exiting after Communion.
by Father Edward McNamara, LC | Source:

ROME, AUG. 19, 2008 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Questions: Is there a Church document or scholarly treatise on "how" to interpret liturgical laws and norms? In civil law there is something known as "legal methods." This course and treatise contains a collection of "maxims" or accepted rules and standards of interpretation when reviewing cases or statutes. For example, I read in one of your responses an interpretation of the meaning and use of the word "fitting" as used in a particular liturgical norm. In civil law one could consult an official text or case to provide a standard for interpreting the term. Is that standard for interpretation discussed or defined anywhere either by the Church or by scholars? This seems to go to the heart of many challenges with interpreting Church norms. -- S.M., Westfield, Indiana

Answer: 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.

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, a factor which endows this form with a particular beauty, reverence and spiritual force when celebrated with due care.

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 of 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, OSB, and the even more complete Italian “Compendio di Liturgia Pratica,” by L. Trimelloni.

The 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.

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 the latter rite makes no determination as to distance and position of the hands, leaving this up to the discretion of the celebrant.

Also, 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. We saw this discrepancy in a recent column (Dec. 4, 2007) when some liturgists interpreted the English translation of the introduction to the lectionary to conclude that the Alleluia is omitted if not sung, an inference absent from the original Latin and other modern translations.

Unlike the liturgy, canon law has no official translations and only the Latin text may be used for legal purposes.

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 legal point of reference.

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.

Such authentic interpretations throw light on the mind of the legislator regarding similar texts and so help in resolving disputed points. In some cases historical decision 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.

Finally, again 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.

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Follow-up: Leaving Right After Communion

July 21 column dealt with people who leave Mass early. Several readers asked about those who arrive late for Mass. We addressed this question in several columns, principally on Nov. 4 and Nov. 18, 2003, and on Oct. 23 and Nov. 6, 2007.

At the risk of appearing presumptuous, I hazard a little publicity directed toward newer subscribers to ZENIT’s services. It is quite possible that your question has already been touched upon in previous articles, and I recommend searching the liturgy section on the ZENIT Web page.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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