Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Friday, January 11, 2008

Book notes: James Coriden, The Rights of Catholics

Dr. James Coriden, professor of canon law at Washington Theological Union, is a prominent American canonist. His publications address many topics in Church law and I have invoked his authority often in support of points I wished to carry. Having just read, however, his 2007 monograph The Rights of Catholics in the Church (a work intended for a popular audience), I think some comments are in order. While Coriden's treatment of several topics raises questions in my mind, I'll limit these remarks to two with special interest to me, annulments and pro-life.


Coriden discusses a woman's plausible but faltering annulment case and wonders how the failure to secure a nullity declaration would impact her plans to marry another man (90-92). After noting that petitions can still be proven against uncooperative respondents, Coriden puts forward only one option in case the woman's petition fails: "She may be able to find a priest who will concur with her judgment that her marriage . . . was not valid, and who will witness her marriage even though she does not obtain an annulment from a tribunal." I think this is a terrible suggestion.

Canon 1066 states that "Before a marriage is celebrated, it must be evident that nothing stands in the way of its valid and licit celebration." Now, if an existing, presumptively valid marriage does not stand in the way of a subsequent valid or licit celebration of marriage, what does? Furthermore, Canon 1085.2 expressly forbids weddings "even if the prior marriage is invalid . . . before the nullity or dissolution of the prior marriage is established legitimately and certainly." If the kind of wedding being suggested by Coriden on these facts would not violate Canon 1085, what kind would?

That there are priests willing to collude in these certainly illicit and probably invalid weddings is scandal enough. But how a prominent canonist, in a popular treatise, could float that idea before the faithful without rejecting it or without at least warning them about its canonical and pastoral dangers, I cannot fathom.


In his introduction, Coriden termed the right to life "the most fundamental right of all" (xii), but his actual treatment of several pro-life issues seems less robust.

1. Coriden describes a certain woman as "a lifelong and staunch Catholic but at the same time . . . strongly pro-choice" (96). At a minimum, using the terms "staunch Catholic" and "strongly pro-choice" to describe the same person requires, I think, some qualifications, perhaps along the lines of the failure of catechesis or the mystery of sin. Coriden suggests neither. But his ambivalent treatment of pro-abortion Catholics is not limited to parenthetical comments.

2. Coriden relates Agnes Mansour's rationalization for administering public funding of abortions in Michigan from 1983 to 1987, namely, that "even greater harm [would follow] if the funding was not available to the poor" (104). Of course, elemental moral theology on the obligation to form one's conscience correctly (e.g., CCC 1750-1756) could have refuted Mansour's attempt to defend her direct positive cooperation in objective grave evil, but Coriden did not offer it. Instead, writing as if Mansour were some sort of role model for women religious following their conscience, he concludes that, in eventually resigning from the Sisters of Mercy, Mansour "stood by her conscience, but at great cost" (104). What an odd lesson to draw from the Mansour episode. Coriden might have asked what cost the aborted babies of Medicaid mothers in Michigan bore for Mansour's conscience, but he didn't.

3. Coriden begins his discussion of Catholic lawmakers and embryonic stem cell research by noting that a wide range of opinions may be held by conscientious Catholics on many political issues, and by urging that differences be discussed in charity and with concern for the common good (84). He then turns to the issue of embryonic stem cell experimentation: "The Church opposes the destruction of innocent human life and the process of in vitro fertilization . . ." he writes. So far, so good.

But then we read: ". . . but there are genuine differences of opinion when it comes to the legitimacy and the wisdom of using federal funds for experiments on human embryos donated by couples who no longer need them for their fertility treatments." There are numerous problems here.

Who, I ask, within the pale of orthodoxy holds that it is ever permitted to "experiment" on embryonic humans? Assuming parents "need" embryonic children in the first place, how does their later not "needing" them render those children liable to experimentation? And since when are parents ever authorized to "donate" their children of any age for any purpose?

Coriden continues, "The embryos in question were obtained in efforts to conceive . . ." (what possible conclusion can flow from this premise? however they came to be, they are human beings now) ". . . and those not used will be destroyed in any event." This sounds like Katie Couric moral theology: because someone can, and probably will, destroy embryonic humans "for nothing", others may, and probably should, destroy them "for something".

"The embryos are human. . ." writes Coriden (though it would be better to say the embryos are humans), ". . . but were never implanted." Again, so what? How does one's place of residence or degree of dependence affect one's right to be treated as a human being?

Coriden asks "Is it permissible or prudent to use them in a search for cures for several serious diseases?" but does not answer his own question. So I will answer it: No, it is not permissible (and therefore it cannot be prudent) to experiment on embryonic humans unto death in a search for a cure to anything. In fact, the deliberate destruction of an embryonic human being places one at risk for excommunication for abortion under 1983 CIC 1398 and the authentic interpretation thereof dated 23 May 1988; see Canon Law Blog and scroll to 29 June 2006. Surely this major canonical aspect of embryo destruction should have been mentioned in a canonical discussion of the topic.

Some might call these criticisms of Coriden unfair; after all, they think, he is only asking questions. But even if I were to grant that Coriden is only asking questions (which I don't), I submit that it is irresponsible to ask certain kinds of questions today and not give them an immediate and correct answer.

Suppose, for example, that someone were to say, "Condemned prisoners are going to be executed anyway, so why not run experiments on them if it might help find cures for several deadly diseases?" but then not give an answer to that question. Surely, even to suggest that such a superficially intriguing, but ultimately gruesome, position is worthy of consideration, is to challenge the right of a class of human beings to not be treated as means to someone else's ends.

At some point, hypothetical formulations and rhetorical questions cease serving as attractive ways to introduce topics for consideration, and become instead vehicles for promoting the opinions of those placing them in conversation. It is the responsibility of those who such literary devices to make very sure that they are not misleading their audiences thereby.

Back in 1994, Russell Shaw, not a canonist of course, published a very good introduction to personal rights in the Church entitled Understanding Your Rights: Your Rights and Responsibilities in the Catholic Church. It is not listed in Coriden's short guide to further studies on rights (137-139), but I think Shaw's book is still well worth reading today. Meanwhile, despite his mastery of canonical sources, and notwithstanding his solid presentation of some topics (e.g., admitting homeschooled children to the sacraments at 105-107), the kinds of weaknesses in Coriden's latest work outlined above should be carefully weighed by those wishing to consult it.

Note: This review also appeared in Christifidelis 26/1 (15 March 2008) 3, 8.