Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Some canonical thoughts on Rod Dreher's case

I have never met Rod Dreher and know little about his work. Folks whose opinions I trust indicate that he is an intelligent, thoughtful man.

A few days ago, Dreher publicly announced that he had left the Catholic Church and joined the Russian Orthodox Church, this, apparently, being at some level his reaction to the clergy sex abuse crisis and its associated scandals. See also his Clarifying and Gratitude posts. On the whole, I found Dreher's arguments for leaving the Church unoriginal and unconvincing, but then, I don't think there are any original arguments for leaving the Church (sub sole nihil novum) and I wouldn't find any of them convincing anyway (Domine, ad quem ibimus?), however much I might sympathize with what I was hearing.

If I may rephrase him in canonical terms, it seems that one of Dreher's deepest disappointments in the Catholic Church was the reprehensible failure of so many bishops to take effective action against priests who were gravely violating Church law. Now, every legal system knows that, when authority allows laws to be broken with impunity, it becomes harder to enforce them in the future. No doubt some bishops today feel compromised in their duty to hold the faithful accountable under canon law (1983 CIC 392) after so many terrible failures to do so in the past.

In any case, here I highlight some of the canonical issues I think might be raised by Dreher's actions. Of course, Dreher and those who agree with him might find little of interest in my remarks, but I offer them as evidence that, if nothing else, canonical laws do correspond to real life situations.

1. By all accounts Dreher has committed a formal act of schism; according to 1983 CIC 1364, he is liable to latae sententiae excommunication. But, as I and others have often said, the provisions of 1983 CIC 1323-1324 render very complicated, often nugatory, one's confidence regarding automatic censures in a particular case; it is tiresome to have to stop every time and debate the intricacies of the canonical penal process at the expense of focusing on the offensive behavoir that needs correcting. I repeat: it is time to abandon the latae sententiae operation of sanctions, and to restrict the application of penalties to ferendae sententiae procedures.

2. Dreher brought his wife and, more to the point, his young children with him into the Orthodox Church. Even assuming that parents can remove their children from the Church (at least in a way that such children would later need to be readmitted formally to enjoy the benefits of full communion), the "sincerity" of a parental decision to deprive a Catholic child of his or her religious heritage does not rehabilitate that decision. 1983 CIC 1366 authorizes "a censure or other just penalty" against parents who "hand over their children to be . . . educated in a non-Catholic religion."

3. Apparently most Orthodox Churches receive Roman Catholics into their communion by the celebration of the sacrament of confirmation or chrismation. The Catholic Church, in contrast, presumes the validity of Orthodox chrismation and does not re-confirm those coming into full communion with us (instead, Orthodox converts to Catholicism make a profession of faith). Assuming the 40-year-old Dreher was already confirmed in the Catholic Church, if he underwent this Orthodox rite (I cannot verify either point in his case), his "second" confirmation would be invalid and objectively sacrilegious as an attempt to re-confer a seal sacrament (1983 CIC 845, 1379).

In brief, there seem to be several aspects of this matter that warrant closer attention.

Let me say, I don't think that all the ills of the Church are reducible to violations of canon law, nor is perfect adherence to law a guarantee of sanctity; but I do think that disregard for Church law has caused or worsened many of the problems we face today. Dreher would be right to decry the anomian attitudes that pervaded various hierarchies in recent decades.

But no one should think that serious violations of canon law are unique to the clergy, nor should one underestimate the harm caused when someone, especially of a high profile, violates Church law in protest against those who violate Church law.