From a reader…
Does the bishop of a diocese have the authority to prevent lay faithful from gathering in public or private with non-household members?
The following is background for the question.
A group of lay Catholics were organizing an informal faith walk on Good Friday. The bishop found out about it, so I sent him an invitation in order to avoid the appearance of being clandestine. In his response to my invitation he sent a letter stating he expected me and other to not proceed and further stated that, “The suspension of public Masses and all other gatherings is extended until further notice.” He implied this included gathering of lay faithful in public parks.
The present COVID “lockdown” is creating sad situations, strife, confusion and disappointment on many fronts.
However, it is also an opportunity to live our live from a more interior view. It is a chance to sort out values and plan for our renewal in the future when things let up. My hope would be that all those who want to do things now – in this time of pandemic lockdown – will be that much more zealous and outgoing and present when we are able to move around again more freely.
Your local bishop would not have the right to prevent Catholics from gathering across the board.
He would have the right to prevent such gatherings on church owned property or from being called a “Catholic” gathering (cf. can. 216). A bishop can and should exhort the faithful to be obedient to reasonable laws passed by civil governments.
Whether this is a reasonable “law” and whether it has been legitimately issued under our constitution is a matter for debate. The Constitutional right of the people to gather seems to be encumbered by the same interpretation as the Constitutional right to free speech (which does not permit, for example, yelling “fire” in a crowded theater).
In effect, the bishop expressed his preference to you and he may also be covering his back in case anyone points a finger at him because you, saying you are Catholics, gathered somewhere in contravention of local civil laws.
May I remind us all to pray for a MIRACLE?