Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Pewsitter Petition on Canon 915 has published an on-line petition by which Catholics may call upon bishops to withhold holy Communion from Catholic political figures who gravely disregard Church teaching on certain fundamental life issues. The petition invokes canon law in support of some of its propositions. I know nothing about the organization behind the petition, but I feel confident in commenting on its canonical aspects.

The petition seems to me to qualify under
1983 CIC 212.3 as one way of helping the faithful to express "to sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful." I do not think the petition pretends to an expertise it cannot claim, nor does it seem to be violative of basic norms on faith, morals, reverence toward pastors, etc. It does not impugn the fidelity of those who choose not to sign.

The petition calls for withholding of holy Communion under
Canon 915 and in this regard it avoids the highly contentious, and I think erroneous, claim that certain politicians should be subject to excommunication for their actions. Moreover, the petition avoids identifying specific politicians for action under Canon 915, even though a strong case can be made for such action in the case of, say, Nancy Pelosi. Each politician's situation, as I have said, needs to be examined individually by competent experts; this is by no means an impossible task, but it is not one best conducted in the blogosphere.

The petition highlights the scandal being created under the continued reception of holy Communion by those Catholic politicians who routinely ignore Church teaching on the sacredness of innocent human life; in this respect, the petition seems securely grounded in the arguments of Abp. Raymond Burke whose
landmark article on Canon 915 makes correction of scandal a centerpiece.

I would not have offered, however, in the petition any speculation on whether certain politicians need to be 'reconciled with the Church', for such language sounds more in the internal forum than the external. Given, however, that the rest of the petition has in view only observable political behavior and demonstrable Church teaching, and calls for action only in regard to one's external conduct, I am inclined to think that petition language about 'reconciliation' is the result of the authors' unfamiliarity with the nuances of certain phrases used by professionals, and that they intend no judgment about the state of the souls of Catholic politicians. In short, such language, to the degree a bishop might think it approaches an assertion about the internal forum, simply can and will be disregarded.

In the same vein, the petition's use of the word 'discipline', while it is canonically correct, is liable to confusion in the public mind, and I would have avoided it. Canon 915 is indeed a sacramental disciplinary norm (unlike, say,
Canon 1331 on excommunication, which is a penal norm) but, to describe a bishop's action under Canon 915 as a way to 'discipline' recalcitrant Catholic politicians seems to imply that some punishment is being inflicted on them. It is not, but it's a distinction one would not expect lay readers to make. Thus, while the word 'discipline' is defendable here, I would have phrased the line differently to avoid public confusion on the nature of the action being petitioned.

Same day update:

I just came across Michael Sean Winters' post on Canon 915 over at the America magazine group blog. Winters' qualifications to opine on matters canonical were not immediately evident to me, but he assures readers that applying Canon 915 in response to the scandal of pro-abortion Catholic politicians would be "a radical innovation that should be resisted", that it "requires applying the canons in ways that are novel and dubious" and that canon law "should be applied with gentleness not vengeance" (you know, as if everyone agrees on what those terms actually mean in the concrete order), and so on.

Winters bravely confronts an evil unnamed blogger who, in a series of obvious misstatements, paints a picture of Canon 915 run amok. This device allows Winters to assume the mantle of moderation and warn us against those dangerous "cranks" who would substitute a blogger's opinion for that of pastor. Nice way to dispatch opposing views, that, present an obvious caricature, then tsk-tsk it away.

Ironically, it does not seem to occur to Winters that he is quite willing to substitute his opinion on how canon 915 should be applied for that of actual pastors like Abp. Raymond Burke (a prelate whose credentials in canon law dwarf mine and, I'm guessing, Winters'). Burke offers
a powerful, and I suggest compelling, case for the application of Canon 915 in the face of the metastasizing scandal of the prominent pro-abortion Catholic politician. Has Winters read it?

In any case, I echo Winters' concern about "judgmentalism" being "profoundly uncharitable". But such concern should, I think, forbid labeling those who call for the correct application of Canon 915 as "cranks". Or is "judgmentalism" a temptation to only one side of this debate?