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Alaska reverses ban on altar wine in prisons

One day after reporting from The Pillar, the Alaska Department of Corrections has revoked an interim policy prohibiting the use of altar wine in prisons in the state. 

Credit: wideonet / Shutterstock.


On July 13, The Pillar reported that the Alaska Department of Corrections had issued an interim policy memo banning the use or consumption of altar wine in prisons, effectively curtailing the ordinary celebration of Mass in state prisons.

On July 14, a spokesperson for the Alaska state Department of Corrections released a statement saying the policy had been reversed.

“Alaska Department of Corrections acknowledges the recent concern surrounding the June 6, 2023 Interim Policy and Procedures Memorandum (816.01),” the memo said.

“We respect the unintended issue generated by this memo and for that reason have repealed the memo in question. Our topmost priority is to ensure a secure and safe environment, but at the same time, to honor the religious beliefs of all those in our care and custody. Alaska DOC remains committed to serving the State of Alaska with the highest level of respect and integrity.”

The interim memo, dated June 6, had stated 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.”

Before the policy was reversed, a spokesperson for the Alaska state Department of Corrections had told The Pillar, “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.”

“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,” the spokesperson said.

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 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.

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Canon law requires 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.

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 permitted 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. 

In the past, 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.”

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

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