QUAERITUR: How much power does a bishop have over the liturgy in the diocese?

Say The Black Do The RedFrom a reader:

I was introduced to Canon 838 and surrounding. My understanding is that the bishop is free to do whatever he wants liturgically provided that the Apostolic See has not decreed to the contrary. Of course, he is meant to preserve the heritage of the Church, but in a strictly legal sense he gains a lot of leeway.

I’m pretty sure that the Missale Romanum has authority from the Apostolic See and thus outranks the bishop. Does the GIRM also outrank the bishop? Also, do declarations by the USCCB that are contrary to the GIRM and/or Missal outrank either of these? Are there specific texts/canons that make the hierarchy clear?

I wanted to consult a good canonist on this one.

Here is what I have come up with from my consultation.

In the Latin Church the moderation of the liturgy lies primarily with the Holy See.  That said can. 838 establishes that the diocesan bishop has a moderating role over the liturgy “according to the norm of law” (par. 1) and “within the limits of his competence” (par. 4).

The General Institution (not Instruction) of the Roman Missal is an essential part of the the Missale Romanum.

In English the GIRM (or variously IGRM) is often mistranslated as the General Instruction (I have done that a lot).  Thus, some liturgists and canonists want to apply to it the principles of canon 34.  The General Institution of the Roman Missal is part and parcel of the whole. The things which are established as normative by the General Institution, as well as the approved text of the Missal itself, are not subject to alteration by an individual diocesan bishop.

The adaptations to the GIRM made by bishops’ conferences are subject to recognitio by the Holy See.

If the bishops as a conference wish to alter some portion of the Missal or the GIRM they can only do so with that recognitio – which is not exactly a permission, but rather an acknowledgment that the proposed adaptation is reasonable and within the competence of the bishops’ conference. Not all the proposals of bishops’ conferences around the world have been granted a recognitio.  Some proposals from the USCCB, once given recognitio, have had that recognitio withdrawn (e.g. the proposal to allow the Precious Blood to be consecrated in a flagon and then poured, after consecration, into individual chalices was granted recognitio, then, after Redemptionis Sacramentum, this recognitio was withdrawn.). Once granted that recognitio, the proposed adaptations have the same force, in that territory, as the GIRM itself.  Until they don’t, apparently.  We have to pay attention to changes.

An individual diocesan bishop’s role in directing the liturgy is left to those areas of the liturgy that have not been regulated by a higher authority.

For example, a diocesan bishop could regulate that only white wine be used for Holy Mass, or that every altar in his diocese be rectangular. If he wished to derogate from some norm in either the universal norms or the adaptations approved by the bishops’ conference, he would need the direct approval from the Holy See. Such derogations are seldom granted.  The bishop would need a good reason.   In matters of the calendar, for example, he would probably get a good hearing from Rome if he wanted to emphasize some locally important feast or saint.

Canon 838 is pretty clear in laying out the hierarchy of authority over the liturgy.

The presumption is that the bishop will not seek to do harm to the liturgy.  Rather, in keeping with the whole of the legislation and of the Missal itself, it is presumed that the bishop will see his role as that of preserving the liturgy from abuse and recognizing the right of the faithful to the authentic liturgy of the Church (can. 214).

If an individual bishop exceeds his authority, or uses it capriciously, the faithful have the right to seek recourse to a higher authority.  That authority is the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome. The law gives the bishop lots of latitude.  Some have abused that latitude.  Yet the latitude comes from the fact that a bishop is a successor to the Apostles, not merely the Pope’s branch manager.

There is a tension here, no doubt, but the principles are clear.  In specific instances of abuses, people have recourse.

I am sure this will earn me another shout from Fishwrap as “TEMPLE POLICE!”  I can live with that.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, 1983 CIC can. 915, ASK FATHER Question Box, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Our Catholic Identity, The Drill and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. jbas says:

    Number 111 of the GIRM offers something of a puzzle, stating that liturgical decisions are made in accordance with the missal and “…after the consultation with the faithful about things that directly pertain to them. The priest who presides at the celebration, however, always retains the right of arranging those things that are his own responsibility.” So, the faithful must be consulted about their parts and the celebrant has the final say, within the limits described in the missal, about his own responsibilities. But, does this section limit the bishop? If, for example, the faithful want the Agnus Dei chanted in Latin and the priest chooses ad orientem, but the bishop say “no” to both, then…?

  2. Father Z’s commentary accurately reflects, I believe, the mind of the Church on this question, and to what he has written, I would add only this principle: No diocesan bishop may allow what the Church forbids or forbid what the Church allows. Let me illustrate with examples.

    If a diocesan bishop ordered that only the third of the three forms of the Penitential Rite found in the Roman Missal could be used in his diocese, he would have exceeded his lawful authority and no priest would be bound to obey him. If a diocesan bishop ordered that every priest performing the Washing of Feet during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in his diocese had to include women among those whose feet were to be washed, he would likewise have exceeded his lawful authority and no priest would be bound to obey him. Finally, if a diocesan bishop ordered that Holy Communion could not be administered in his diocese either on the tongue or to those who are kneeling or that whenever Holy Communion is administered in his diocese to the lay faithful it must be administered under both kinds, he would have exceeded his lawful authority and no priest would be bound to obey him.

    In this spirit, one of the most useful practical effects of Summorum Pontificum is that bishops and priests alike have been reminded that the role of the diocesan bishop in the regulation of the sacred liturgy is not to impose his personal opinions upon what belongs to the entire Church. There is no obligation to obey a bishop when what he orders is unlawful, and it is therefore not a breach of a priest’s promise to obey his diocesan bishop should a priest decline to obey an unlawful order.

  3. StMichael71 says:

    Would this apply equally to religious Ordinaries, such as a religious prior provincial? I would imagine so. This also brings up the issue of the limits of “custom.” What are those limits? Canon law has a set of regulations, but I don’t know how those are commonly interpreted. For instance, some churches still consecrate in a flagon and claim this can be done as “legitimate custom” because it has been doing it for some time. Similarly, others omit genuflections entirely for the same reason – “custom” of the particular church dictates otherwise. These seem to me to go directly against the grain of Can. 24, 2. Thoughts?

  4. muckemdanno says:

    Fr Newman seems to imply that a priest sometimes is allowed to disobey his bishop. What of the virtue of obedience? The question ofwho has authority in the Church is about as clear as mud. [You may have missed Fr. Newman’s explanation that the bishop’s “order” has to involve something that is within the bishop’s authority to “order”. The bishop cannot, for example, tell a priest what kind of toothpaste to use, and he cannot tell a priest to do something that is illicit, and he cannot say that a priest may not do something which the Church’s law gives him the right to do.]

  5. Anne 2 says:

    GIRM on the USCCCB site states “General Instruction of the Roman Missal”, not institution.
    Whatever is wrong should be corrected. (In the English language, instruction seems more accurate, ie how to.)

    For Lay People to understand – any Bishop or Priest or Lay person, who violates the
    “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition”,
    or GIRM,
    or Canon Code which can be found on the Vatican web site,
    is out of line, and needs correction.

    What is the difference between an “indult” and “recognito”?
    They both require special permission from the Vatican, and can not be done by a Bishop or Priest.

  6. Anne 2 says:

    Sometimes my computer make an error :). Should have read USCCB.

  7. dans0622 says:

    The distinction between the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” and the “Instructions” of c. 34 is important and real. The GIRM is made up of true, ecclesiastical laws: it is legislation. It is not simply an “instruction” which is of executive power and based on law. Since the CDWDS issued the GIRM, and Congregations are not usually endowed with the authority to promulgate law (cf. Pastor bonus, art. 18), and there is not any mention of a special faculty given to the CDWDS for the promulgation of the GIRM, it is not obvious that it is law. Yet, it is…as are all other rubrics for the celebration of Sacraments.

    One point of “latitude” for the bishop may come from his power to grant dispensations, as in c. 87. Liturgical laws, it would seem, are often universal, disciplinary laws. If/when they are such, they could be dispensed for a just cause.

  8. Tim Ferguson says:

    The Latin text of the GIRM is the norm – the Latin text is entitled “Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani” not “Instructio” – thus it would seem that the USCCB translation is incorrect.

    As to muckemdanno’s comment – the Church has always and consistently taught that an order from a superior which exceeds that superior’s authority need not be obeyed. If one is uncertain about the legality of a command from a legitimate superior, and obeys the command out of obedience, that can be a virtuous act, but if one clearly knows that the command exceeds the superior’s authority, one is not bound to obey, and one commits no sin in disobeying an illegitimate command.

  9. jcn0903 says:

    What if a bishop were to order that reception of the eucharist on the tongue kneeling were the only acceptable manner, would that be binding? Or Holy Mass celebrated ad orientem. Bishop Bruskewitz famously does not allow female altar servers. It seems a bishop may act to limit the damage done by his confreres. Am I correct?

  10. Let me restate the principle I started with above: No diocesan bishop may allow what the Church forbids or forbid what the Church allows. Using this principle, we may conclude with certitude that no bishop could now lawfully command that Holy Communion be received only on the tongue and/or while kneeling, and the reason he could not do so is that the present liturgical law of the Roman Rite permits Holy Communion to be received while standing and in the hand.

    The case of altar girls, however, is a bit more complex. It is now possible in principle for females to assist priests and deacons at the altar in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist (though how this bizarre innovation came to be tolerated should be the topic of a doctoral dissertation some day); however, each bishop in his own diocese is free to decide whether or not the practice will be permitted. If the local bishop decides not to permit females to serve, no parish in his diocese may lawfully permit the practice. BUT … and here’s a key point … even in dioceses where the local bishop permits the practice, each pastor is free to decide whether or not to permit it in his parish. In fact, according to one document published in Notitiae, it seems that each priest is free to decide whether or not he will accept the presence of female altar servers at any Mass at which he is the principal celebrant.

    Finally, of course there are cases in which a priest must disobey his bishop. If the bishop, for example, orders a priest to do something illegal or immoral, then not only may the priest disobey the order, he must. The condition implicit in the promise of obedience is that what the bishop will command is in conformity with the Gospel and with the teaching, law and discipline of the Church, which the bishop himself has sworn to uphold. In other words, the obedience owed by priests to their bishops is not absolute or unregulated, and no bishop may lawfully command that which is contrary to the law of God, the law of the Church or the rule of right reason.

  11. jarhead462 says:

    Where can I enlist in the Temple Police S.W.A.T. Team?

    Semper Fi! [OOH-RAH!]

  12. dans0622 says:

    “What is the difference between an “indult” and “recognito”?” Here’s my understanding of it:

    An indult allows the non-observance of a law on a more permanent and/or widespread basis. A famous example is the modern origin of Communion “in the hand.” The law was for reception on the tongue but an “indult” was granted so that people could receive in the hand. It can be granted only by the authority who promulgated the law (I think). So, a bishop could not grant an indult related to a law given by the Pope.

    A recognitio is an approval of a translation or application of a law. For example, the GIRM has many instances where the conference of bishops is to provide specific directions for a particular issue. Whatever the bishops decide must receive the recognitio before their decision is binding upon the faithful. The bishops make a law and the higher authority gives it the ok.

  13. jcr says:


    It would not apply to Ordinaries. In canon law, Ordinary is a broader category than Diocesan Bishop. Cf. canon 134 § 1 for those who are Ordinaries besides Diocesan Bishop. This includes major superiors of clerical religious institutes of pontifical right and of clerical societies of apostolic life of pontifical right (but not of other religious institutes or societies of apostolic life): they are Ordinaries for their members, but are not Diocesan Bishops. On the other hand there are some persons who are Diocesan Bishops for the purposes of canon law even though they are not bishops of dioceses. An example of this would be a vicar apostolic, who would typically govern a mission territory where the Church is not sufficiently established to create a diocese.

Comments are closed.