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Bishops reject priests’ challenge to liturgy ultimatum

Syro-Malabar Church leaders in India rejected a canonical challenge this week to a letter threatening priests with suspension from ministry for failing to adopt a new Eucharistic liturgy, after priests argued that their bishop had exceeded the authority given him by Eastern Catholic canon law.

Bishop Bosco Puthur. Screenshot from @syro-malabareparchymelbour9233 YouTube channel.

The Syro-Malabar Church is the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It has 5 million members, most of whom live in India. 

For decades, the Syro-Malabar Church has been embroiled in a liturgy dispute centered on the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

In a July 8 message to priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy, apostolic administrator Bishop Bosco Puthur said he had received appeals from individual priests following a controversial June 9 circular letter, but that he would not acquiesce to them.

The June 9 letter, signed jointly by Puthur and Syro-Malabar leader Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, told clergy that if they failed to adopt Syro-Malabar liturgical norms by July 3, they would be considered to be in schism, and thus barred from priestly ministry.

Priests in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy interpreted the June letter as a “penal precept” —  a Church decree ordering a person to take or refrain from a particular action while threatening determined penalties for non compliance.

Any diocesan bishop can issue a penal precept, imposing defined temporary measures against a priest under his authority for failing to comply with a legitimate instruction.

But the priests responded to the June 9 letter by asserting their right to recourse — canonical legal appeal — enshrined in canon law.


When a priest seeks recourse against a precept, the order is automatically suspended while the appeal is considered. The first phase of an administrative recourse — a challenge to an administrative act — involves the filing of a remonstratio, asking the authority to reconsider its decision.

For his part, Puthur insisted that the circular letter was not a penal precept and therefore its provisions were not suspended by the priests’ appeal for reconsideration.

Underlining that he was also responding to priests on behalf of Major Archbishop Thattil, Puthur referred to a June 29 letter he sent to priests, in which he insisted that “the circular was not issued as a penal precept” directed at individual priests and “the act of filing a remonstration against it does not stand” — despite that the fact that the June 8 letter threatened a latae sententiae penalty for non-compliance with the letter’s preceptive instruction.

Nevertheless, the bishop insisted this month that his earlier letter was not a precept, even while it did include penalties. 

“I reiterate this statement in the present letter,” wrote Puthur, who was called out of retirement to serve as apostolic administrator in December 2023.

The bishop, who previously oversaw the Syro-Malabar Church in Australia, added: “In the [priests’] letter, the claim of ‘the evident illegitimacy of both the circular letter as a penal precept and its provisions’ are mentioned.”

“As it is evident, both signatories of the joint circular letter are competent to issue such a circular, its contents and provisions remain both valid and lawful.”

Puthur noted the priests had also challenged the circular letter under canon 1487 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (CCEO), the Eastern Catholic equivalent of the Latin Code of Canon Law.

The canon says that recourse can be made within 10 days of receiving a decree imposing a penalty and the decree is suspended due to the recourse.

But Puthur insisted that the priests’ objection was “not legally tenable as no penalty was imposed by any extra-judicial decree … nor a penal precept was served through that circular.”

“Therefore, your letter does not bring forth any suspensive effect,” he said.

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The 78-year-old bishop concluded his letter by urging priests to accept the new “unified mode” of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Eucharistic liturgy and “exercise the priestly ministry in obedience to serve the people of God in the archeparchy.”

However, priests appealing against his decision argue that the circular letter contains all the hallmarks of a precept, in terms of legal form, effectively threatening a specific penalty for a particular crime — in this case, immediate and indefinite suspension from office and ministry for schism. 

The circular letter states that any priest who continues to celebrate the Eucharist in any manner other than in the approved form “will be barred from performing priestly ministry in the Catholic Church… without further warning.”

However, unlike the Latin Church’s Code of Canon Law, the Eastern code does not allow for latae sententiae penalties, which are automatically incurred by the person through the act of committing a particular office.

Eastern canon law also prohibits certain penalties, including loss of office or suspension from ministry for more than a year, from being imposed by extra judicial decree, including by precept. Instead, Eastern law requires that major penalties can only be imposed following a canonical penal process. 

The priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy have argued that the June 9 circular letter appeared to create a latae sententiae penalty of suspension from ministry for schism, which is not possible under Eastern canon law.

Shortly before the July 3 deadline for the adoption of the new Eucharistic liturgy, Church leaders and priests agreed a fragile truce, in which parishes in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy will offer one uniform liturgy on Sundays and major feast days, but continue to offer their preferred form of the liturgy, in which the priest faces the congregation throughout.

A priest celebrating the uniform liturgy faces the people during the Liturgy of the Word, turns toward the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and faces the people again after Communion.

The “unified mode” is designed to reconcile the two different forms of the liturgy: the ancient tradition of celebrating facing east (ad orientem) and the post-Vatican Council II practice of celebrating facing the people (versus populum). 

The majority of priests and people in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy want the versus populum liturgy to be recognized as a legitimate variant. But the Synod of Bishops — the highest authority in the autonomous Syro-Malabar Church — asked all of the Syro-Malabar Church’s 35 eparchies (dioceses) to accept the new Eucharistic liturgy by November 2021. 

The Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy, the most populous and prominent eparchy, has strongly resisted the change. Supporters and opponents of the new liturgy have clashed in the streets. There have also been hunger strikes, demonstrations in which cardinals were burned in effigy, and scuffles in the sanctuary of the archeparchy’s cathedral, which remained closed for more than a year following police intervention.

The archeparchy also saw protests against the June 9 circular letter, in which lay people burned copies of the document and even turned them into paper boats and set them adrift on Kerala’s Vembanad Lake.

A draft version of the circular letter was leaked ahead of its June 9 publication. The draft raised eyebrows because it was dated June 15, the day after members of the Synod of Bishops were due to hold an online meeting to discuss the liturgy crisis, but written before the Synod of Bishops held its deliberations.

Divisions within the Synod of Bishops emerged into the open with the leak of a June 13 letter to Major Archbishop Thattil from five Syro-Malabar bishops, who expressed firm opposition to the threat to excommunicate priests. 

Following talks between Church leaders and priests, Major Archbishop Thattil and Bishop Puthur issued a July 1 explanatory note, announcing that all parish churches in could continue celebrating the liturgy versus populum after July 3, provided they offered at least one new uniform Eucharistic liturgy on Sundays and major feast days.

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