Five Questions on the Use of Wine for Mass in Prisions

Five Questions on the Use of Wine for Mass in Prisons


Parish Support Ministries has received inquiries concerning whether prison authorities can lawfully refuse to permit a priest to use wine in prison for the limited purpose of celebrating Mass for inmates. The following questions and answers were prepared by the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).


1. Why celebrate Mass in prisons?
Because the Mass “is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit,” 1 every effort should be made to provide prisoners with the opportunity to take part in the Sacred Mysteries. The Bishops of the United States have urged that the Church should have a strong presence in prisons and jails, “where we Catholics work to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of inmates.” 2


2. Can a federal prison refuse to allow a priest to use wine for the celebration of Mass?
No. Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Guidelines ( provide that the prison itself will purchase and store wine for use at religious rites.


3. Can a state or local prison receiving federal funding refuse to allow a priest to use wine for the celebration of Mass?
The answer, though not entirely settled, is probably “No.” The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act forbids prisons receiving federal funds to substantially burden an inmate’s religious exercise unless it is the “least restrictive means” of furthering a “compelling governmental interest.” The approach taken by federal prisons suggests there are less restrictive means of furthering prison order and security than the wholesale banning of wine for the celebration of the Mass.


4. What about a state or local prison which does not receive federal funding?
If a state or local prison does not receive federal funds, the answer is generally not as promising since prison regulation traditionally needs only be rationally related to legitimate penological interests under federal law. There may, however, be legal remedies under state law. In addition, if the denial of permission to use wine to celebrate Mass is because prison officials favor or disfavor certain faiths over others, it may be possible to bring a federal legal claim. It is prudent to seek the assistance of local counsel in every case to determine whether redress might be available from the courts or, alternatively, from prison authorities themselves, other executive branch officials, or the appropriate legislative body.


5. If a state or local prison refuses permission for a Mass with wine, can the Bishop give permission for mustum to be used instead?
No. “Permission to use mustum can be granted by ordinaries to priests affected by alcoholism or other conditions which prevent the ingestion of even the smallest quantity of alcohol, after presentation of a medical certificate.” 3








1. Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 14.
2. Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic perspective on Crime and Criminal Punishment (USCCB Publications, 2000), page 60.
3. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Norms for the Use of Low Gluten Bread and Mustum. (August 22, 11994).