No Human has the Power to Dispense from Divine Law?

Cardinal Burke spoke during the Rome Life Forum in May 2020. One of the things he said was that bishops do NOT have the right to dispense the faithful from their holy obligation to attend Mass on Sundays. Quote below:

“The Sunday Mass obligation, for instance, participates in natural and divine law, the Third Commandment of the Decalogue, which we are obliged to observe, unless, for reasons beyond our control, we are not able to do so.[2] During the present crisis, it has been said that Bishops dispense the faithful from the Sunday Mass obligation, but no human has the power to dispense from divine law. If it has been impossible, during the crisis, for the faithful to assist at Holy Mass, then the obligation did not bind them, but the obligation remained.”

Who is correct or incorrect here?
And if we haven’t been attending Mass because we thought we were dispensed, are we now in mortal sin since learning of this?

Not Cardinal Burke, as there is historical precedent for dispensing with the obligation. Now, whether or not it is PRUDENT is a different thing.


I agree with him that no human has the power to dispense from Divine Law.

However, the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday is not the same as the Third Commandment. How could it be? The Third Commandment existed for thousands of years before the institution of the Mass was created.

Therefore, the obligation to attend Mass is a human extrapolation of the Third Commandment, and thus, a human can dispense with it.

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The mass obligation is ecclesial law, not divine law.

Keeping Sunday holy is a divine precept, but HOW we do that is not restricted to mass attendance, and the obligation to attend mass on Sunday is not divine law. It’s ecclesial law.


If your bishop dispensed you, you are dispensed. Cardinal Burke does not have the authority to overrule bishops in their own dioceses.

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Of course not.

When you’re a Catholic, you obey 1) the Pope/ Vatican and 2) your own Bishop.

Cardinal Burke says many interesting things and some good things, but he is neither (1) or (2) (I don’t believe he has a diocese right now).
Therefore, you don’t owe him any obedience, and his opinion is just that, his opinion.

If your own bishop has seen fit to dispense the faithful from their obligations and the Vatican has not objected, then that’s the last word on it for your diocese.


I think the relevant passage is this:

Then Jesus said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
Mark 2:27-28


I’m sorry for being short of time to research this properly, but I would say that mortal sins only happens during grave matter, and you must both consent to it and know that it’s wrong (gravity of it).

If in fact it came out now or in the future that you should’ve been going to Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation, the fact that you were innocently of mind that you were dispensed helps to avoid any grave matter…from my understanding.

Mortal sin is only mortal with consent and knowledge.

Remembering the Sabbath really helps to be mindful, it means being charitable (as Jesus was on many Sabbath days throughout his life), and it means being prayerful (maybe even meditative?). The obligation for Sunday Mass is not something we’ve always had I don’t think. But we do now, though in a temporary dispensation. I went back as soon as I could, because I couldn’t afford to stay away.

So once you know something you’re doing could be a sin and could be construed as grave matter, then further offences past that point would be, but it’s not retroactive to include the period of time you’re “ignorant” of the sin itself being a sin at all. This is across the board, not just for whether or not a dispensation is valid.

Note: This is all my understanding and some could be wrong, incomplete, or incorrect. If I’ve worded this poorly, I’m sorry. Running on super low sleep and was taking quick coffee break.

Cardinal Burke is 100% correct but you have to see the precise point he is making. Well, two points. Maybe three. We’ll see. First, the divine law here is the required observance of the Lord’s day. This observance goes beyond participation in Mass, which is a requirement of ecclesiastical law. Second, it is possible for church authorities to dispense ecclesiastical law. If this is done, those who are dispensed are not obliged to observe that law. Third, the obligation itself remains part of the law–dispensation does not change the law but merely relaxes it in a certain circumstance. Fourth, if we are dispensed from the obligation, we would not sin if we utilized the dispensation.



Following. I am so disheartened by this. We just planned to social distance for a time in a location where it would be very hard to get to Mass. We felt okay about this because the obligation is waived & we could watch on the computer. But is it waived?? Ugh. Such confusion.

There is no need to be.

If your bishop dispensed you, you are dispensed. Period.

Even when there is no dispensation from mass such as there is now in most places due to Covid, when we are UNABLE to attend mass, there is no obligation.

Actually, no confusion at all. Same as it ever was.

Sorry if the article caused you to become concerned or to question your bishop’s dispensation.

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But didn’t the article just say bishops can’t dispense from the obligation??

It didn’t actually say that.

Although, depending on how you read the words, the wording might imply it. The phrasing is a little awkward and ambiguous.

Dan, I agree with your analysis, but like most legal analyses, many non-lawyers are not going to get it and are going to jump straight to “If the bishops can’t dispense, did I commit a mortal sin by not going to Sunday Mass?”

Am I the only one who is about to puke if I hear one more ambiguous statement from our bishops??

Look, it’s pretty obvious that Cardinal Burke doesn’t like the dispensations from Mass or suspensions of public Mass during COVID. It’s what you’d expect him to say.

He’s not your bishop so there’s no reason to be bothered about it.

If I laid awake every time some bishop somewhere in the world said something, I’d never get any sleep.


I guess it’s not what I expected anyone to say so I’m unsettled. It’s great it’s not bothering you.

Not only can Bishops dispense the Sunday obligation, even priests can for people in their territory.


[quote=“BlueMantle, post:1, topic:620125”]
If it has been impossible, during the crisis, for the faithful to assist at Holy Mass, then the obligation did not bind them, but the obligation remained.”]

Wait, run that by me again. We have a non-binding obligation??? In the words of Dr Spock, “that is completely illogical, Jim.”

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Basically, obligation is only present if we can logically fulfill it. We can’t hence we aren’t obligated to go to Mass but Law itself still remains.

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