Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Monday, August 28, 2006

Take back whose Church?

A good organization should not let its opposition dictate the agenda, and certainly the Catholic Church has better things to do than to react to every media-hyped manifestation of the latest theological agitprop. But some problems, like "Take Back Our Church", might warrant a closer look.

Brian Saint Paul alerts us that TBOC is an opposition group, yes, but of a different caliber; Tim Jones did the same thing rather humorously last week, and Peter Nixon was on it back in July. I recommend each of their posts, and here underscore only some canonical points.

TBOC's assertions on canon law are frequently flawed. Example: "Canon law endorses a time-honored way for a nation to re-structure its governance. It is called a regional, or national synod." Um, no, it's not. Under current law, "synods" are held at the diocesan, not the national, level (1983 CIC 460-468), unless one is talking about the "Synod of Bishops" which, however, operates at the universal, again not the national, level (1983 CIC 342-348).

But guessing that TBOC meant "national council" (close enough for canonical horseshoes under 1983 CIC 439 et seq.), TBOC compounds the confusion: "[A] national synod can include non-bishops, up to fifty percent of the delegates. If those delegates were elected by Catholics in every state and claimed active voice, the synod might take on the character of a constitutional convention." Maybe one can forgive TBOC for muffing the percentage of non-bishop participants in plenary councils (even canonists read 1983 CIC 443 slowly). But for suggesting that Catholics-at-large can elect their own representatives to a council? or for asserting that non-bishops could have a deliberative vote (TBOC's "active voice") in the proceedings? No, both claims are quite wrong. Moreover, 1983 CIC 445-446 effectively preclude implementing council legislation that might be in conflict with universal law. So much for TBOC's "constitutional convention" model of governance.

But beyond canonical incompetence, there might be more in this case.

1983 CIC 1374 states: "A person who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty; however, a person who promotes or directs an association of this kind is to be punished with an interdict."

Now consider some TBOC assertions: "[W]e do plead guilty in our wish to overturn, at least in the United States, what the last pope called 'the divinely instituted hierarchical constitution of the Church.'" or: "[We Americans] must elect our own bishops. And retain the power to un-elect them if they fail to serve us." and ask: at what point do expressions of opinion, protected by 1983 CIC 212, become machinations against the Church penalized under Canon 1374? TBOC, it seems, is daring Church leadership to answer that question. Maybe this time it should.

The answer that Church leadership might make to TBOC need not be penal, of course; indeed, in accord with good canon law and pastoral practice, the first response probably shouldn't be penal (1983 CIC 1341). Instead it might take the form of plain words, the hard truth spoken in real love, the way that Milwaukee Abp. Timothy Dolan recently wrote to chronic dissenter Daniel Maguire. In any event, we have little evidence that simply ignoring challenges to Church authority makes them go away; and even if we did have such evidence, that would not excuse our letting real people get hurt in the meantime.

Many not in Church governance look at Canon 1374 and say "Ah, c'mon, do you really think there are sinister forces plotting coups against the Catholic Church today?" and too many within Church governance look at fringy groups and say "Ah, c'mon, do you really think the faithful are being taken in by such tomfoolery?" Considering TBOC's public assertions above, and its claim that nearly 600 persons have signed up with it in the last several weeks, it seems to me that the correct answer to both questions is Yes.

Perhaps all this overlooks a more basic question: just whose Church is it, anyway? I don't think it's mine, and I sure don't think it's theirs. I wonder why "His" keeps coming to mind?