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Alaska ban on altar wine blocks prison Masses

An interim policy memo from Alaska’s corrections department has banned the use or consumption of altar wine in prisons, effectively curtailing the ordinary celebration of Mass in state prisons, and the ability of Catholic inmates to attend the Eucharist.

Credit: lightpoet / Shutterstock. 


Dated June 6, the memo, signed by the Commissioner of the State of Alaska Department of Corrections, Jennifer WInkleman, modifies “the altar wine policy while [the] Faith-Based Programming and Chaplaincy Services is under review,” and “applies to all Department employees, volunteers, and prisoners.”

The policy provides that “no altar wine or other alcoholic beverages will be used by anyone who is involved with any activity. The use of a non-alcoholic substitute (juice) for altar wine may be considered.”

The policy as written would seem to prevent the ordinary celebration of Mass in the state’s 14 prisons. 

A spokesperson for the Alaska state Department of Corrections told The Pillar on Thursday that the memo is not yet a permanent rule.

 “The memo was issued as temporary guidance as DOC reviews the policy in its entirety. The final policy will be reviewed by the Department of Law to ensure the appropriate balance between security in DOC facilities and inmates ability to practice their religious beliefs,” the spokesperson said.

“Alaska DOC’s previous policy allowed altar wine with approval of the superintendent or chaplaincy coordinators, but to our knowledge altar wine has never been approved,” she added.

Asked whether the lack of approval of altar wine meant that Mass had not previously been celebrated in the Alaska state prison system, the DOC spokesperson clarified that Masses had taken place. 

The spokesperson declined to answer further questions on the matter.

It is not clear if Mass was previously celebrated without asking permission to use altar wine, or if permission was given at the level of individual prisons, without the involvement of the DOC.

But news coverage from The North Star Catholic indicates that weekly Mass in some prisons has drawn steady attendance in recent years.

Still, Catholic chaplains have apparently faced challenges in Alaska’s prisons previously.

In a 2010 article in the Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, local priest Fr. Thomas Brundage spoke about ministering in the Archdiocese of Anchorage. 

He said there were elements of the Alaska prison system “that have tried very hard to keep me out of there.”

Brundage specifically noted difficulties in bringing altar wine into the Palmer Correctional Center to celebrate Mass.

“After being berated for 10 minutes by the second in command of the prison, I was able to later on show them that even on their Web page (it) lists the procedure for bringing in wine for those churches that use wine, and the founders of the constitution would be turning over in their graves knowing that a denomination would have to change the way they worshiped that day, because of state officials,” he said.

Eventually, the priest said, officials apologized and allowed him to celebrate Mass there.

Neither the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau nor the Diocese of Fairbanks answered questions from The Pillar about the new interim policy.

Catholics are bound to what the Church calls the “Sunday precept,” requiring them to attend Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of obligation once they have made their first Communion — usually at the age of 7.

Canon law provides that “on Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.” However, “participation” in the Mass is distinct from and does not necessarily include the reception of Communion. 

Canon law provides a separate obligation that Catholics receive Communion at least once per year. 

While it is possible for prison inmates to receive Communion from either a priest or extraordinary minister outside of the celebration of Mass in the context of a Communion service, canon law states that it is “highly recommended that the faithful receive Holy Communion during the Eucharistic celebration itself.”

State prison systems heavily restrict the amount of wine which Catholic chaplains can bring into prisons for the celebration of Mass, often restricting it to the minimum amount required to consecrate the chalice. 

Some states do not permit prisoners to consume the consecrated chalice during Mass and inmates are only permitted to receive Communion under one species. 

However, while the assembly can receive under a single species, and the Church teaches that to receive the host alone constitutes the full reception of the sacrament by a Catholic, the priest must still consecrate and consume both species himself during the celebration of Mass.

Canon law provides that “It is absolutely forbidden, even in extreme urgent necessity, to consecrate one matter without the other or even both outside the Eucharistic celebration.” 

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It is not clear whether Alaska’s interim policy will be appealed on religious freedom grounds. 

Previous challenges to less restrictive policies have met with some success. While courts have frequently upheld that prison authorities can ban alcohol, they have also recognized that the religious freedom of Catholic inmates can limit the absolute nature of these policies.

In 2002, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling upholding a ban by federal prison officials in Florida on inmates receiving Communion under both species. 

Federal prison regulations currently state that: “Inmates may be permitted to receive small amounts of wine as part of a religious ritual only when administered under the supervision of BOP chaplains, clergy contractors, or clergy volunteers authorized by the Bureau to perform the ritual.”

The consecration of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is the constituent part of the celebration of Mass. For validity, the Church teaches that the Eucharist “must be offered with bread and with wine in which a little water must be mixed.”

“The wine must be natural from the fruit of the vine and not spoiled,” according to the law. While the Alaska policy permits for the use of a “non-alcoholic substitute (juice)” with approval, “juice” properly speaking would not be valid matter for the celebration of Mass.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal requires that “The wine for the celebration of the Eucharist must be from the fruit of the vine, natural, and unadulterated, that is, without admixture of extraneous substances.”

Apart from the possibility that external substances like sugar, coloring, and flavoring may have been introduced, juice is invalid matter for the celebration of Mass because it has not undergone the process of fermentation. 

However, in some circumstances the Church approves the use of mustum, which is grape juice in which fermentation has begun, but has been suspended with the result that its alcohol content remains essentially negligible but still present, in the same way that extremely low gluten hosts can be validly consecrated, but entirely gluten free hosts cannot.

A 2003 letter from the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed by the then-prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, explained that the local diocesan bishop is competent to grant permission for the celebration of Mass using mustum, but noted it is intended only for situations where the priest celebrating the Mass could not otherwise consume the consecrated chalice because of serious “alcohol intolerance” including alcoholism. 

The CDF letter, addressed to U.S. bishops, noted that “when the principal celebrant at a concelebration has permission to use mustum, a chalice of normal wine is to be prepared” for others to receive, especially any concelebrating priests.

There is no expectation or provision in canon law, liturgical norms, or the dicastery’s guidance for mustum to be used because wine is otherwise forbidden by the secular authority in the place where Mass is to be celebrated.

While doctrinal matters regarding matter for the Eucharist are under the authority of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, disciplinary issues regarding the use of mustum are under the purview of the Dicastery for Divine Worship.

In order for Alaska’s two dioceses to grant habitual permission for the regular substitution of mustum for wine by state prison chaplains, both the state Department of Corrections and the Dicastery for Divine Worship would need to approve the usage.

Alaska houses roughly 4,000 prisoners in 14 state institutions. The state is home to fewer than 70,000 Catholics.  

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