The National Catholic Review
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Canon Law on Sanctions Leaves Much to Interpret

People on one side ask why bishops don’t stop certain Catholic politicians from receiving Communion or even excommunicate them.

Aren’t they openly defying church teaching on the most important subjectthe right to life? If such politicians don’t follow bishops’ advice and refrain from participating in the sacraments on their own, don’t those bishops have an obligation to stop them?

Others ask how the few bishops who have said they would refuse Communion to one politician or another can make such decisions. Do not Catholics who must function in a secular society have the right to rely on their own conscience about public policy? If the church withholds Communion from politicians because of their political activities, will the next step be the appearance of sacrament police, scrutinizing everyone else’s actions and pointing fingers at those they deem to be unworthy?

A task force of U.S. bishops is weighing just such questions as it considers guidelines for how the church should relate to Catholics whose actions in public life appear to conflict with church teachings. But the task force will not present its report until the bishops’ mid-November meeting, after the presidential election. In the meantime, each week brings new angles on the issue.

Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis told reporters in January that he would give Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, only a blessing if he came forward for Communion. Kerry holds positions contrary to the church’s on several issues, including abortion and fetal stem-cell research. His positions are closer to church stances on capital punishment, programs for the poor and other social services.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver said in his archdiocesan newspaper that politicians who publicly ignore church teaching on human life may try to look and sound Catholic, but unless they act Catholic in their public service and political choices, they’re really a very different kind of creature. And real Catholics should vote accordingly.

Catholic politicians who dissent from fundamental church teachings in their public policy stands should be honest about the fact that they are not in full union with the church and should stop receiving Communion, said Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J. Gov. James McGreevey, who supports legal abortion and has advocated making New Jersey a leader in fetal stem-cell research, said he would refrain from going to Communion at public masses.

Several canon lawyers told Catholic News Service that church law on denying sacraments leaves the discretion and interpretation to individual bishops. The relevant section of the church’s Code of Canon Law, Canon 915, reads, Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy Communion. Those excommunicated or interdicted are barred from the sacraments.

In applying that law, the question is whether someone is a public sinner, said Msgr. William Varvaro, pastor of St. Margaret Parish in Queens, N.Y., and past president of the Canon Law Society of America. There is nothing specific about legislators or voting on bills. The canon does not define what constitutes a public sinner, said Monsignor Varvaro. There is no explanation of how to determine that.

Sharon Euart, a member of the Sisters of Mercy who is vice president and president-elect of the Canon Law Society of America, said the key issue in refusing Communion is whether the individual is under a formal ecclesiastical penalty. For this to be the case, the local bishop should have discussed his objections to the person’s actions with him or her, made an effort to understand the person’s thinking and instructed him or her on where the bishop saw errors or misunderstanding, she said. The bishop would explain that changes in the person’s behavior are expected and what penalty might result if changes are not made. The bishop would then have to inform the individual in writing that a sanction was being imposed, Sister Euart explained. It is not something that [a bishop] does based on what he sees in the newspaper about someone, she said. It’s got to be done with as full knowledge as possible.

When he headed the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., then-Bishop Burke formally notified three state legislators in January that they were not to receive Communion. He published a canonical notification and a pastoral letter explaining that he took the step so the people of the diocese would not be scandalized thinking that it is acceptable for a devout Catholic to also be pro-abortion. He had previously sent letters to the three lawmakers, requesting private meetings to discuss their voting records. None accepted the invitation.

The Rev. James Coriden, professor of canon law at the Washington Theological Union, said it is extremely rare for bishops to make the kind of public judgment Archbishop Burke made. It is very hard, from a canonical perspective, to justify the denial of Communion without some kind of due process, he said, because such a penalty is tantamount to excommunication. That ought to involve formally bringing charges and holding a trial, Father Coriden explained. Such cases are vetted by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before being brought to trial, either at the Vatican or in the diocese, he said. This kind of trial is being pursued by some dioceses for priests who have refused to leave the priesthood after being implicated in cases of child sexual abuse.

Ladislas Orsy, S.J., a visiting law professor at Georgetown University, said the bottom line is that within the church we do have rules, but we do not have a very efficient machinery for imposing those rules. Another problem can be put thus: What can you do in a pluralistic society? he said. Shall we now exclude all Catholics from public office?

Father Orsy said that on some levels the whole debate doesn’t make much sense. A single politician, even the president, has almost no power to change the nation’s laws about abortion, he said. No representative [in Congress] can bring [and pass] a bill to overturn Roe v. Wade, Father Orsy said. The only way a president can have influence for the future is to nominate justices to the Supreme Court, and still the Senate must approve them.

Father Coriden said he thinks the bishops are justified in taking a strong stand with politicians who do not act in accord with church teaching on abortion. But even a doctrinal note on Catholics in public life released by the Vatican in 2003 allows for freedom of conscience and political thought, he said. But to take that and say these people are no longer permitted to take Communion,’ he said, I don’t think it gives that authority. There is danger in asserting that only a part of the teachings of the church may be enforced by excommunication or interdict, Father Coriden said. It just cuts against the grain to take unilateral action, he said. It would be better to keep holding up Christian ideals and saying, Let’s get on board here.’

Board Head Says Some Bishops Rethinking Policy

Some bishops are having second thoughts about independent oversight of their policies on child sex abuse, said Justice Anne M. Burke of Illinois, interim chairwoman of the lay National Review Board appointed by the U.S. bishops to monitor church compliance with their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. But any efforts to return to self-monitoring could backfire in terms of credibility with the laity, she said. I have news for them. It’s not their church. It’s our church, she said. The church belongs to all of us. Burke gave a talk and answered questions on April 23 in Bloomington, Ill.

Burke said that as the crisis seems to be calming down, some members of the hierarchy are concerned about preserving their own autonomy and accountability. As an example of this tendency, she cited the tabling by the bishops’ administrative committee in March of a funding request for further study by the review board of the causes and context of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

News Briefs

Enrollment in U.S. lay ministry formation programs dropped 27 percent this year, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University reported. The drop marked a seismic shift in lay ecclesial ministry formation, which grew from about 10,000 students in 1985-86 to more than 20,000 in 1994-95 and first topped 30,000 in 1999-2000. It hovered around 35,000 for three years before this year’s drop to 25,964. The number of Catholic seminarians in post-college studies declined 4 percent this year.

A coalition of community, political and religious leaders in Inglewood, Calif., defeated a ballot measure sponsored by Wal-Mart that would have allowed the Arkansas-based retailer to build a giant retail and grocery superstore without an environmental review or public hearings. Many times people feel powerless against these huge corporations, said Msgr. David O’Connell, pastor of St. Michael Church. This defeat shows the power that small organizing has. You say to Wal-Mart, You can’t do this.’

Pope John Paul II told U.S. bishops on April 29 that their effectiveness as church leaders rests on an attitude of service and a witness of personal holiness. That includes adopting a lifestyle that imitates the poverty of Christ so that the church can better identify with the struggles and suffering of the poor, he said.

The violent repression of the Montagnard, or Dega people in Vietnam is a matter of grave concern, the head of the U.S. bishops’ international policy committee said in a letter to ietnam’s ambassador to the United States.

Fear that a recent wave of deadly violence in Ambon, the provincial capital of Indonesia’s Moluccan Islands, could spiral out of control has prompted the city’s bishop to call for U.N. intervention. Bishop Petrus Mandagi of Ambon has appealed to the United Nations to pressure the Indonesian government to put an end to the violence.

Comments

Thomas M. Howard | 5/12/2004 - 4:18pm
America magazine continues providing me with some important tools in my attempt to bridge the gap between my faith and reason.

The intuitive juxtaposition of two separate news stories involving Archbishop Raymond L. Burke (on denying communion to politicians for their political views) with Justice Anne M. Burke (on her role as head of the National Review Board to monitor church compliance on child sex abuse) in your Signs of the Times (5-17) gave me deeper insight into the immeasurable quality of my Catholicism.

Interpreting the signs of the times in the news through a Catholic lens is an exercise that both stretches and enriches one’s faith. I admire the courage that both Burkes (no relation) demonstrate in engaging contemporary issues within the context of our Catholic faith. It certainly is an exciting time to be a Catholic!

Let us not despair but rather seize these ‘graced’ moments as invitations to broaden our Catholic perceptions (which are in nature universal) and strengthen our faiths (which ultimately call us into oneness).

(Rev.) Aldo J. Tos | 2/9/2007 - 2:02pm
At a time when the credibility of many of our bishops is questioned or denied by substantial numbers of Catholics, some cardinals and bishops in the Vatican and the United States think they are being pastoral when they use severity and prohibitions in their pronouncements. This is particularly the case where several of them have prohibited Catholic politicians from receiving the Eucharist if they legislatively support abortion (Signs of the Times, 5/7).

That extraordinary pope, Blessed John XXIII, in his opening talk at the Second Vatican Council, was mindful of the presence of errors often condemned by the church. Nevertheless, he said: “Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” Is there anything more severe than the denial of the Eucharist to members of the ecclesial body of Christ?

Bishops who act in this manner seem unable or unwilling to engage in public dialogic discourse about the relationship of Catholic faith and conscience in a democracy, where politicians must represent the whole electorate, not only people who agree with Catholic teachings. If bishops continue to deny the Eucharist, preferring severity to mercy, they may find that even fewer Catholics, laity and clergy, will listen to and obey what they say.

Thomas M. Howard | 5/12/2004 - 4:18pm
America magazine continues providing me with some important tools in my attempt to bridge the gap between my faith and reason.

The intuitive juxtaposition of two separate news stories involving Archbishop Raymond L. Burke (on denying communion to politicians for their political views) with Justice Anne M. Burke (on her role as head of the National Review Board to monitor church compliance on child sex abuse) in your Signs of the Times (5-17) gave me deeper insight into the immeasurable quality of my Catholicism.

Interpreting the signs of the times in the news through a Catholic lens is an exercise that both stretches and enriches one’s faith. I admire the courage that both Burkes (no relation) demonstrate in engaging contemporary issues within the context of our Catholic faith. It certainly is an exciting time to be a Catholic!

Let us not despair but rather seize these ‘graced’ moments as invitations to broaden our Catholic perceptions (which are in nature universal) and strengthen our faiths (which ultimately call us into oneness).

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