Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Thursday, March 17, 2011

Norma Jean Coon, excommunication, reconciliation, and the National Catholic Reporter

I read with bemusement the National Catholic Reporter story on the recent reconciliation of Norma Jean Coon, the San Diego woman who was ‘ordained’ a deacon but has since repented of her actions. My reactions to the Coon case and NCRep’s story on it fall into three parts.

Fair Warning: You’re gonna think I’m making the first part up.

1. About a week and a half ago I was contacted by a writer for the NCRep and asked to respond to several questions on the Norma Jean Coon case. There followed the usual journalist “I’m on a tight deadline” plaint.

Now, the Coon case is obviously important, so I took time from a very busy schedule and prepared responses which I sent in promptly (within about 4 hours). I also offered to be available for any follow-up questions. And what happened?


the second time this year, none of the careful replies on a news worthy topic that I prepared for the NCRep, at the NCRep’s request, made it into their article on the topic, even by way of token counterpoint to the NCRep editorial stance. And it’s not like the NCRep did not want to use e-mail responses, for at least two other e-mail responders were quoted at length in the story. So what exactly is going on?

Obviously, I don’t need the NCRep to get my views before the public, but I think readers of the NCRep need to know that, yet again, qualified information on a story was made available to the NCRep, at its request, and that again the NCRep chose not to share any of that information with their readers.

Well, I don't plan to waste my time again.

2. The NCRep story reports as a fact that Coon is excommunicated. As I stated in my interview, however, I am not at all convinced that is true.

This is what I told the NCRep:

Assuming the substantial accuracy and completeness of the information publicly available on this case, all Coon needed to do to effect her reconciliation was to make a good sacramental Confession. She almost certainly was not excommunicated for her deed, but not because the Church has any doubts about the gravity of her act. Quite simply, Coon’s actions fell in a gap that existed at the time between two canons.

On the one hand, Canon 1378, as it applied when Coon underwent her ‘ordination’ in July of 2007, did not criminalize the simulation of holy Orders, let alone did it impose an automatic excommunication for such simulation. The automatic excommunication for the attempted ordination of women that canon law knows today
did not go into effect until May 2008, some ten months after Coon’s deed.

On the other hand, Canon 1379, which would support ‘a just penalty’ for simulating holy Orders, can only be applied in a formal judicial or administrative process, and I know of no such process having been invoked against Coon. So unless Coon had been specifically precepted in this case, either against seeking ordination in the first place or failing to repudiate it within a certain period (as then Cdl. Ratzinger ordered in 2002 in regard to seven women who had been ‘ordained’ on the Danube River), or unless there was a formal administrative or judicial penal process convoked against her later, Coon was not excommunicated. And, if one is not excommunicated, a good sacramental Confession suffices to bring any one back into peace with the Church.

I think it’s an interesting question, and the NCRep story does not suggest that they found anything to preempt my analysis. So my question, at this point anyway, still stands: was Coon ever excommunicated? I do not think so.

3. Surfing the blogosphere on the Coon story, I am seeing several other questions being raised, at least some which I also addressed for the NCRep, thus:

Norma Jean Coon’s “Renunciation of Ordination” is a remarkable document.

The essence of reconciliation, whether we are talking moral theology or canon law, is repentance of wrong-doing. There is no doubt in my mind that Coon has manifested repentance of her actions.

Even some of the mistakes in her document suggest that her desire for reconciliation is sincere. For example, she refers to her ‘ordination’ as “illegitimate”, a term that in canon law means “illicit.” Of course, the attempted ordination of a woman is not just “illicit”, it is utterly null and of no moment whatsoever in the sacramental order. In this regard, the attempted ordination of women differs radically from, say, the schismatic ordination of four bishops by Abp. Marcel Lefebvre in 1988. While both actions will result in excommunication, the former will not result in a “cleric”, while the second admittedly would.

Also, Coon expresses regret for having read the Gospel at Mass (I would not know whether what she was present at would have really been a Mass) and indeed, such action is reserved to a cleric (and so a violation of c. 767), but she also apologizes for having distributed Communion (again, I wouldn’t know whether it really was Communion), but in any case, distribution of Communion is not reserved to clerics (c. 910). Small slips like this suggest to me that Coon writes from the heart, and not from a canon lawyer’s notepad.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think these, too, are interesting points and would have been of interest to many others following this story. Apparently, though, people will have to look for such points some place other than the National Catholic Reporter.