Down yonder, a reader writes:
Vatican documents teach that Lent has 40 days of penance.
I need to stop you for a moment. Lent is not a matter of Church teaching. It is a matter of the Church’s liturgical law. Therefore, no Church document "teaches" that Lent is forty days. I point this out partly for the sake of accuracy and to put readers on guard against thinking this is a matter of Church teaching, given the emotionally charge that the word "teach" has for faithful Catholics. It’s a matter of law, not doctrine, so the matter is a question of what the Church’s law provides, not what the Magisterium teaches.
Back over to you . . .
For example the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 540 "By the
solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the
mystery of Jesus in the desert."
I would point out several things in response:
- One must evaluate Church documents by their nature. They are not all the same, and you have to look to the question of the nature of the work, the kind of language it uses, and the kind of authority it has toward a specific matter.
- You are quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church here. As its name suggests, it is a catechetical work, not a legal work. It does not establish the Church’s law, whether liturgical or otherwise. You have to look at the Church’s legal documents for that.
- As a catechetical work, the Catechism uses traditional catechetical language, which (as I’ve noted) speaks of Lent in an approximative way as being forty days. Since this is traditional catechetical language regarding Lent, it is the language the Catechism uses. This language is not to be replied upon as providing the technical legal description that is to be found in the Church’s legal documents.
You also write:
Forty days is also prominent in the 17 December 2001 document from
the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the
Sacraments entitled Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy:
"124. Lent precedes and prepares for Easter. It is a time to hear
the Word of God, to convert, to prepare for and remember Baptism, to be
reconciled with God and one’s neighbour, and of more frequent recourse
to the "arms of Christian penance"(134): prayer, fasting and good works
(cf. Mt 6, 1-6. 16-18).
"Popular piety does not easily perceive the mystical aspect of Lent
and does not emphasize any of its great themes or values, such a
relationship between "the sacrament of forty days" and "the sacraments
of Christian initiation", nor the mystery of the "exodus" which is
always present in the lenten journey. Popular piety concentrates on the
mysteries of Christ’s humanity, and during Lent the faithful pay close
attention to the Passion and Death of Our Lord.
"125. In the Roman Rite, the beginning of the forty days of penance
is marked with the austere symbol of ashes which are used in the
Liturgy of Ash Wednesday. …"
While the Directory for Popular Piety and the Liturgy is a document published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which is the competent dicastery to revise the calendar, this document is still not the controlling legal document for the calendar. That document is the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, which was quoted earlier and which provides a definition of Lent that is not forty days long.
The Directory for Popular Piety is a pastoral document rather than a legal document. It contains language of a pastoral nature that draws upon the traditional and approximative mode of speech regarding Lent being forty days long. It does not re-define the length of Lent in supercession of the General Norms.
In order for it to do so, it would not only have to indicate that it was revising the calendar (it does not), it would also have to be approved by the pope in forma specifica (it is not; it has only general papal approval).
The presence of the traditional, approximative language in this or other documents thus does not override the fact that the controlling legal document for the calendar–the General Norms–specifies a Lenten period of more than forty days.
It’s understandable that folks would be confused on this point, because the traditional mode of speech, if taken literally, is at variance with the length specified in the controlling legal document–which is why this question comes up every year.
My compliments on your throughness in investigating this!