Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Thursday, September 24, 2009

I doubt Abp. Burke charged "the Church" with erring

While journalists usually have some say over how their writings are edited, even the best reporters tend to have little control over how their articles are headlined. Over the years I've cringed at some of the titles pasted atop my work, so I want to avoid assuming David Gibson's responsibility for the goofy charge that headlines his report of Abp. Raymond Burke's recent address to guests at's 14th Annual Partnership Dinner.

The title to Gibson's article reads "Vatican Official: Church Erred in Holding Kennedy Funeral." Not only did Burke never say "the Church erred" in this way or any other (seriously, can anyone imagine Burke making such a reckless claim about the Church?), Gibson's own article makes no such allegation.

What Burke did say about Catholic politicians who publicly support abortion (and a few other issues gravely at odds with Church teaching) was that "Neither Holy Communion nor funeral rites should be administered to such politicians", adding that "To deny these is not a judgment of the soul, but a recognition of the scandal and its effects." In speaking thus, Burke falls squarely within the bounds of Catholic canon law and orthodoxy, however little companionship he might enjoy there these days.

It was only later, in a line Gibson adequately paraphrased
but which he should have quoted, that Burke said "with greatly sinful acts about fundamental questions like abortion and marriage, [a politician's] repentance must also be public" adding, "Anyone who grasps the gravity of what he has done will understand the need to make it public." Again, a pastorally sound position, in my opinion.

But, from these two utterances, Gibson concludes that Burke "openly oppose(d) the judgment of Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley . . . regarding sacraments for Kennedy . . . and (held) that politicians like Kennedy should not be provided a (Catholic) funeral." Now, while Gibson's characterization of Burke's statements still doesn't support a headline claiming that Burke charged the Church with erring, Gibson does claim that Burke disagreed with O'Malley's decision to accord Kennedy a Catholic funeral. Hmmm. I wonder about even that.

I don't know whether Burke disagreed with O'Malley's decision, but Burke's actual statements here (at least the ones I have access to), when taken at face value, express no such disagreement.

Consider: what Burke actually said was that Catholic politicians who work in open contradiction to Church teaching on certain grave issues are ineligible to participate in the sacraments (like the Eucharist under
c. 915) and sacramentals (like funerals under c. 1184). All correct, in my opinion.

But, what Burke did not say was that such politicians, if they give "signs of repentance", should nevertheless be denied a Catholic funeral. (Really, show me where Burke ever said that.) Instead, what Burke said was that, in his opinion, such signs of repentance must be "public". Ah, I see how people are confused.

In speaking as he did, Burke seems to be accepting of the current legislation (and, as far as I can tell, of
the unbroken line of interpretation given thereto*) that Catholic funerals can be accorded to public sinners who give "signs of repentance", but that, in light of the obvious consternation caused in some cases by the current law, he wants to see canon law come to require "public signs of repentance" (as opposed to what we witnessed in Kennedy's case, namely, traditional but "private" signs of repentance, like calling a priest to his deathbed, and so on).

That's a very different claim, folks.

Many people feel that Kennedy's funeral exposed a weakness in the current canon law on funerals, and that the Code should be amended to require public signs of repentance before funeral rites are accorded public sinners like Kennedy. That's fine; one can certainly argue that. Even if I think that some such calls have been prompted by the terrible way that Kennedy's funeral was actually conducted, and that the present law, while not perfect, is better than any proposal I've seen to amend it, I grant that questions about how the law ought to read are much better assessed by ecclesiastical leaders like Burke than by little lawyers like me.

But, in the meantime, I do know how the law reads now, and I know how that law has been consistently interpreted over the centuries, and so I know that the decision to accord Ted Kennedy a Catholic funeral was made in accord with the current canon law on funerals.

And that's all I've ever argued. + + +

* The privation of ecclesiastical burial by this canon [1917 CIC 1240 then, 1983 CIC 1184 today] has the nature of a penalty, and hence is to be strictly interpreted; moreover any sign of repentance before death excuses from the penalty; this means some positive sign, such as calling for a priest, kissing a crucifix, an expressed desire not to die without the sacraments. In doubt the Ordinary is to be consulted, but if the doubt in favor of the deceased remains, the decision should be in his favor. Bouscaren & Ellis, Canon Law: a Text and Commentary (2nd ed., 1951) at 683, original emphasis.