Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Is the Cuomo-Communion case about conduct, law, or lawyers?

Phil Lawler, in a thoughtful column over at regarding the Cuomo-Communion controversy, makes a simple but important point: there are two related-but-distinct canons applicable in this case because there are two related-but-distinct issues in this case, namely, private conduct and public scandal.

Canon 916 binds Catholic faithful in all cases, and Canon 915 binds Catholic ministers in certain cases. No Catholic with a guilty conscience should approach for holy Communion (c. 916), but if certain Catholics publicly and obstinately engage in seriously wrong conduct, and approach for holy Communion, they must be turned away (c. 915). As Lawler says, unless Canon 916 has language in it a la “This canon supersedes the previous canon and renders it irrelevant”—and Canon 916 has no such language—then Canon 915 must be applicable in some cases beyond those addressed in Canon 916.

Reading dozens of news articles and opinion columns (not to mention hundreds of combox posts) over the last few days on the controversy following my narrations of the requirements of Canon 915, I recall yet another thing my Jesuit spiritual director told me lo these many years ago. “Nobody, Ed, least of you, likes being told what to do.” Who among us does not chafe at being told how to conduct ourselves? Throw in looming consequences for our (mis)conduct, and we are easy prey for siren voices chanting “Rules are written by hypocrites to control the weak!” or, perhaps more subtly, “Maybe this rule is okay for most people, but you’re the exception!” Original sin and personal sin are a deadly duo. It took Jesus dying on the Cross to give us a fighting chance against them.

And so, I am not terribly surprised that no one has taken on (in any specific or cogent way) the canonical arguments I make that (1) Andrew Cuomo’s living arrangements* are objectively scandalous, (2) he should refrain from approaching Communion as long as he engages in them, and (3) if he does not refrain from approaching, Communion must be withheld from him. Instead, I suggest, most of the people criticizing me (and there are plenty, of course) are criticizing not so much me, but the rule in Canon 915, even if they don’t realize that’s what they are doing.

Consider this argument posted recently by a young Franciscan.

For Francis, the Eucharist was so important that nothing could come between him and his participation in the liturgical celebration. Likewise, nothing should come between any member of the faithful and the Blessed Sacrament; including, and most importantly, priests, bishops or any minister of Communion.

I won’t dispute a Franciscan’s representations about the spirituality of St. Francis, but I am quite sure that Il Poverello’s love of the Eucharist does not remotely, let alone “likewise”, guarantee my or anyone else’s eligibility to receive It. More tellingly, though, the religious continues:

The only person that can know the state of someone’s soul (as the language goes) is the individual person and, perhaps, his or her confessor. But the confessor is, under the threat of excommunication, forbidden from disclosing or acting on that knowledge. So no minister of Communion — ordinary or ‘extraordinary’ — is in any justifiable position to refuse a member of the faithful who presents him or herself at the Celebration of the Eucharist to receive Holy Communion. Period.

Now, his first two assertions (about knowing the state of souls and the penalties for violating the seal) are basically right, but they provide little logical foundation for his third, and quite erroneous, claim that, 'No minister of Communion is justified in refusing holy Communion to any faithful who presents himself.' Period, lest we miss the point.

Is it not plain that this writer actually has no complaint against the lawyer here, but rather, that his ire is directed at the law? According to his view, Canon 915 should not even be in the Code because it can never be invoked! Such a stance might, I suppose, prompt one to write to the pope asking that Canon 915 be removed from canon law—or at least that the ‘Lawler Amendment’ be inserted into Canon 916 (pardons, Phil!)—but it hardly refutes my interpretation of Canon 915 as it reads now, and as it has read in Catholic tradition going back to St. Paul’s chilling remonstrance of the recalcitrant Corinthians.

In short, I can understand people not liking it when the Church tells them how to act. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part III. I can even understand people’s not liking it when the Church tells them what to do when they don’t act the way they are supposed to act. Canon 916. But I am having trouble understanding why so many people don’t even like it when the Church tells her own ministers what to do when certain other Church members don’t act the way they are supposed to act. Canon 915.

* I have mentioned, but not pursued, the additional complications for Cuomo’s access to holy Communion arising from his political actions such as consistently supporting the horror that is abortion. Maybe I should address them. As it is, my emphasis on the ecclesial aspects of Cuomo’s case has not silenced the crowd that sees all of this as a violation of the “separation of Church and State.” Oh well.