Expert Answer Forum

Papal assent QUESTION from Kevin October 31, 2000 My friend tells me that Papal assent on certain post-Vatican practices like female altar servers and communion in the hand should be rejected by the faithful because, although the Pope has said he is personally not in favour of these practices, he has allowed them because of public demand. My question is . . . do these teachings pertain to faith and morals? And, if not, are we still bound to obey?
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on November 5, 2000 Dear Kevin,
These practices do not pertain to faith and morals because they do not bind the faithful to believe in a certain doctrine. If the pope had required the faithful to believe that altar girls are permissible, or that communion in the hand is permissible, that would be entirely another matter.
People are often confused about what constitutes a matter of faith and morals because they conceive of the Church in a legalistic fashion. They see her as an authoritarian institution handing down decisions on a multitude of things, all which seem to be unquestionable. If you attempt to place these decisions in the Catholic context, then these teachings make more sense.
When you are unsure about whether a statement from the pope is a doctrine or not, ask yourself this: is the pope making a statement about what is to be believed? Is he making a statement about what is true or not true? And if so, is he making it binding on all the faithful?
Issues relating solely to liturgy tend not to be doctrines, with the exception of the sacraments. Singing, posture, responses, language, dress, attitude, vestments, lighting, etc are items that do not fall under faith and morals because when the Church makes decisions on these matters, she is not commenting on Universal Truths or the Supernatural. The Vatican may even make bad decisions on such items without compromising the Church's infallibility. Some people think that allowing Communion in the hand is a bad idea because they believe the hands of the laity are not consecrated to that purpose. But they nevertheless remain faithful because even though they think this decision is wrong, they know it does not in any way compromise their belief that the Church's doctrines are infallible.
We are bound to obey the Church's decisions on these matters first of all because it is in her sphere of competence, and secondly the actions she is asking us to perform are not sins. Therefore, since there is no heresy or sin involved in allowing girls at the altar, or communion in the hand, then we must obey or not discourage others from obeying; however, the Church usually shows some flexbility towards those who like the pre-Vatican II practices. I understand that Communion on the tongue is allowed, and that Tridentine Masses are permitted.
Catholics are not absolutely required to agree with every non-doctrinal teaching of the Church, however, they are bound to try to understand the pastoral decisions from the point of view of the Magisterium. That means that Catholics have no moral right to criticize liturgical practices from a dissident point of view, only from the standpoint of Faith. Theoretically, it could happen that the bishops or the curia approve liturgical practices that are based on heretic ideas. Myself, I strongly doubt that this is the case today.
Thank you for your question.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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