Canon Law


Canon Law, Vatican II, and Eucharistic Devotion

by Pete Vere


With the advent of the Second Vatican Council, the Church has unfortunately witnessed many strange happenings in the name of the "spirit of Vatican II." Yet as an old French Benedictine theologian once reminded me, "those who quote the spirit of Vatican II have seldom read the documents either of the council itself, or the papal encyclicals interpreting the council that came after." This remark readily comes to mind as I hear new rumors circulating that Vatican II suppressed eucharistic devotion outside of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

As a canonist, I normally would not comment on theological issues except in a secondary way, namely insofar as the Church's theology provides the foundation for her canonical jurisprudence. Nevertheless, in the spirit of Vatican II, certain theologians now tell me canon law has suppressed eucharistic devotion among the faithful outside of the Mass. I have yet to see such theologians substantiate this position with any canonical text, and having consulted various other theologians with whom I share a devotion to Christ's Real Presence, they assure me such texts cannot be found among the various theological conciliar and postconciliar documents either. Therefore, I feel more than comfortable defending the position that rather than suppressing eucharistic devotion outside of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the revised Code of Canon Law actually encourages such acts of eucharistic adoration among the faithful.

Who Interprets Canon Law?

Perhaps a good place to begin exploring canon law and eucharistic devotion is with the question, "Who is competent to interpret canon law?" The Code of Canon Law foresees this question, answering as follows in the first paragraph of canon 16: "Laws are authentically interpreted by the legislator and by that person to whom the legislator entrusts the power of authentic interpretation." Those with legislative power within the Church are the Roman Pontiff and the bishops in communion with him, and not canonists and theologians unless they happen to be the Roman Pontiff or a bishop. In the case of canonical legislation affecting the universal Church, canon 331 reminds us the Roman Pontiff is both the supreme legislator of canon law as well as the supreme interpreter of canon law.

Therefore, before accepting the claim that in the spirit of Vatican II canon law has suppressed eucharistic devotion outside of Mass among the Catholic faithful, the faithful ought to question the capacity of the claimant to put forward such an interpretation. For as canon 17 clearly states, "Ecclesiastical laws are to be understood according to the proper meaning of the words considered in their text and context. If the meaning remains doubtful or obscure, there must be recourse to parallel places, if there be any, to the purpose and circumstances of the law, and to the mind of the legislator." In other words, if eucharistic devotion outside of the Mass is of concern to the entire Church, and a survey of post-Vatican II papal legislation clearly shows that it is, canonical jurisprudence governing eucharistic devotion outside of Mass must be interpreted according to the mind of the Church as expressed through the teachings of the Roman Pontiff.

Pope Paul VI And Eucharistic Devotion

On the Feast of St. Pius X during the last session of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI broke with longstanding ecclesiastical custom and became the first Roman Pontiff to interrupt an ecumenical council in order to promulgate a papal encyclical. The title of this papal encyclical was Mysterium Fidei, and Pope Paul VI's purpose in promulgating it was to lay to rest various false opinions concerning the Holy Eucharist circulating in the Church at that time. With regard to eucharistic devotion outside of Mass, Paul VI exhorts his episcopal brethren to "tirelessly promote the cult of the Eucharist, the focus where all other forms of piety must ultimately emerge." In short, the mind of the very Roman Pontiff who presided over the majority of the Second Vatican Council's legislation calls for not the suppression of eucharistic devotion, but for its tireless promotion.

How tirelessly should bishops promote eucharistic devotion? Again, if we look at the mind of the supreme legislator who presided over the majority of the Second Vatican Council, within the same papal encyclical Pope Paul VI states the following as his goal: "In the course of the day the faithful should not omit to visit the Blessed Sacrament, which according to the liturgical laws must be kept in the churches with great reverence in a most honorable location." In other words, while not going so far as to legislate such devotion as a required discipline of the faith, Pope Paul VI nevertheless clearly encourages daily eucharistic adoration from the Catholic faithful. Therefore, as far as canon law is concerned, eucharistic adoration outside of Mass has not been canonically suppressed, rather the opportunity for daily eucharistic adoration ought to be made available to Catholics.

Pope John Paul II And Eucharistic Devotion

Yet the question arises: What type of eucharistic devotion is the Supreme Pontiff encouraging in the postconciliar Church? One of the claims now being put forward by the opponents of eucharistic adoration is that the Second Vatican Council merely encourages eucharistic adoration within the Eucharistic Liturgy, to the exclusion of eucharistic devotion outside of Mass. Of course eucharistic adoration finds its primary place within the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but according to the mind of the Church as clearly presented by the Supreme Legislator, eucharistic adoration is also to be encouraged outside of the Mass.

As the most recent reigning Successor of St. Peter, Pope John Paul II has also written extensively on the topic of eucharistic devotion. In particular, Pope John Paul encourages eucharistic devotion outside of Mass in the following passage taken from his apostolic letter Dominicae Cenae:

"Adoration of Christ in this sacrament of love must also find expression in various forms of eucharistic devotion: personal prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, Hours of Adoration, periods of exposition — short, prolonged, and annual (Forty Hours) — eucharistic benediction, eucharistic processions, eucharistic congresses."

In essence, the mind of the Church's Supreme Legislator clearly favors various forms of eucharistic devotion, including outside of the Mass. This must be kept in mind when interpreting canon law concerning eucharistic devotion and adoration, for like his Predecessor Pope Paul VI, His Holiness John Paul II encourages eucharistic devotion outside of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The Code Of Canon Law And Eucharistic Devotion

Yet for Pope John Paul II, eucharistic devotion is not merely encouraged among the faithful, but the faithful are also given a canonical right to have the opportunity for daily eucharistic adoration made available to them. This canonical right is stated in canon 937 as follows:

"Unless there is a grave reason to the contrary, a church in which the Blessed Eucharist is reserved is to be open to the faithful for at least some hours every day, so that they can pray before the Blessed Sacrament."

Furthermore, canon 941 1 encourages eucharistic exposition outside of the Mass in churches and oratories where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. The only limit one finds regarding eucharistic exposition for the faithful is in the second paragraph of this same canon, which forbids eucharistic exposition "while Mass is being celebrated in the same area of the church or oratory." This simple restriction upon exposition of the Blessed Sacrament — a type of eucharistic devotion — while Mass is being offered is nowhere close to complete suppression of eucharistic adoration outside of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass being claimed by some.

In fact if one reads the canon closely, the restriction placed upon exposition of the Blessed Sacrament while Mass is being celebrated is not even absolute; for during Mass it is permissible the Blessed Sacrament remain exposed in a different part of the church or oratory. Therefore, one can hardly argue based upon the post-Vatican II canonical jurisprudence that eucharistic devotion has been suppressed outside of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

On the contrary, although misinterpreted by those who wish to suppress eucharistic devotion, canon 942 of the same Code of Canon Law highly recommends that in churches and oratories where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, "there is to be each year a solemn exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for an appropriate, even if not for a continuous time, so that the local community may more attentively meditate on and adore the eucharistic mystery."

In light of this open invitation within the Code of Canon Law to solemn exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, it simply cannot credibly be maintained that since the Second Vatican Council, canon law has suppressed eucharistic devotion outside of Mass. As we have seen, pastors and theologians who maintain such a position have misinterpreted the Second Vatican Council, the magisterial teachings of Roman Pontiffs since the council, and canon law.

Pete Vere
The Catholic Legate
February 18, 2004

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This article originally appeared in The Wanderer.