Saturday, August 7, 2010

Canon law and transcendence, or the lack thereof

My title conjoins two terms not frequently used together, namely canon law and transcendence. My mention of a lack of transcendence does not refer to canon law, but to those who have unfairly reacted to Pope Benedict's recent motu proprio, promulgated on 21 May 2010, amending Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, originally promulated in May 2001 by Pope John Paul II. Among other things, the original motu superseded the much maligned Crimen Sollicitationis, promulgated in 1922 by Pope Pius XI. Besides, canon law is not meant to be transcendent, whereas sacraments are. It is in and through the sacraments that we encounter Jesus Christ. Sacraments are where Christ comes to meet us in space and time. Liturgy is where past, present, and future touch. Hence, good liturgy is both immanent and transcendent.

Sacraments are so central to Christian faith and practice that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to exaggerate their importance. Hence, any abuse of the sacraments is serious, indeed. Nonetheless, there are those abuses so grave that the Holy See issues delicta graviora, which are canonical ways of dealing with those who abuse the sacraments in order to safeguard the sacred mysteries, a promise made by everyone in holy orders at their ordination. Accordingly, at the beginning of Pope Benedict's recent motu proprio we read: "The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, according to art. 52 of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, judges delicts against the faith, as well as the more grave delicts committed against morals and in the celebration of the sacraments and, whenever necessary, proceeds to declare or impose canonical sanctions according to the norm of both common and proper law, with due regard for the competence of the Apostolic Penitentiary and in keeping with Agendi ratio in doctrinarum examine."

After dealing with heresy, apostasy, and schism, the motu proprio goes on to list grave delicts about the abuse of the sacraments sacrament-by-sacrament, beginning with four things related to the celebration of the Eucharist, then moving on to grave abuses in the Sacrament of Penance, including "1° the absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, mentioned in can. 1378 § 1 of the Code of Canon Law, and in can. 1457 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches" and "4° the solicitation to a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue in the act, on the occasion, or under the pretext of confession, as mentioned in can. 1387 of the Code of Canon Law, and in can. 1458 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, if it is directed to sinning with the confessor himself." It is the latter of these two that was the subject of Crimen. I am not certain, but I presume that the term "accomplice" in 1° does not presume nor imply that consent on the part of this person was given. Not being a canon lawyer, I am certainly open to clarification and correction on this matter.

Staying in order, the next grave abuse is against the conferral of the Sacrament of Holy Orders via ordination. Canon 1024 stipulates that "[a] baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly." This subjects any cleric who attempts to act contrary to this canon, along with the person who attempts to be ordained, to the penalties of this motu proprio, which, by virtue of canon 1378 §1, is latae sententiae, or automatic, excommunication, which means no formal decree of excommunication need be promulgated.

The motu proprio then goes on to deal explicitly with the sexual abuse of minors by one in holy orders, to include the transmission of child pornography (i.e., pornographic images depicting anyone under age 14)"by whatever means or using whatever technology." It further says that the canonical statute of limitations does not expire until twenty years after the eighteenth birthday of the person who was sexually abused by cleric as a minor.

The main objection to this motu proprio is that, somehow, the Holy See, even if unintentionally, is morally equating the attempted ordination of women to the sexual abuse of minors and attempts to cover up such actions by abusing the Sacrament of Penance, or even making it a more serious crime because excommunication for a cleric attempting to confer holy orders and a woman attempting to receive orders is latae sententiae. Here is where the confusion enters in.

It is a fair enough question to ask why a cleric who abuses the Sacrament of Penance, or who sexually abuses a minor, is not also subject to latae sententiae excommunication, but, instead is "punished according to the gravity of the crime, not excluding, if he be a cleric, dismissal or deposition." A couple of delicate things need to be touched on here: It should go without saying that what constitutes the sexual abuse of a minor runs the gamut from ages of the persons abused to the seriousness of the action committed, the most gross abuses being rape or forcible sodomy. Of course, a formal decree of excommunication, especially if there is no contrition for the acts he committed, is not removed as an option. Certainly in the case of a contested accusation, the accused enjoys the presumption of innocence and has other canonical rights that have to be safeguarded.

The norms adopted by the USCCB and approved by the Holy See have also been largely applied to the universal church. So, when mention is made of being punished accordingly, we have to look to the binding norms that lay out the procedures and punishments, to which the motu proprio in question only alludes. These can be found on the Holy See's website and were made public to great fanfare: Guide to Understanding Basic CDF Procedures concerning Sexual Abuse Allegations. The failure, or even refusal, to connect these dots in favor of breaking out one's jump-to-conclusion mat and assigning the worst possible intention to the Holy Father's action, even on the part of the secular media, let alone by those who comment publicly from within the Church, constitutes, at least to my mind, a serious disinterest in the truth and a distinct lack charity.

Rushing in where angels fear to tread, it stands to reason that even a terribly maladjusted cleric who is sinfully disposed to abusing minors may well be a man of faith, who, despite failing miserably by the commission of horrifying sins and crimes for which he needs to face justice, both civil and ecclesial, may not dissent from the Church, or desire to be out of communion with the Church, especially if he is contrite. On the other hand, those who attempt to ordain, or to be ordained in defiance of canon 1024, are open and deliberate in their defiance, an intent that is usually expressed publicly by the celebration of a simulated liturgy that is then widely publicized. It is precisely here where the lack of transcendence comes into play. It is like the difference between a man who commits adultery habitually and a priest who consecrates doughnuts and Kool Aid at Mass. Morally, committing adultery is far more serious, but ecclesially, a priest who deliberately uses improper matter in the celebration of the Eucharist is acting in a openly defiant manner, not to mention denying the faithful the benefit of a valid communion, which is essential for living a life of faith.

Without going into any depth, the CDF's procedures, which have the force of law, right from the outset clearly stipulate that "[c]ivil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed."

In moral theology there is vincible and invincible ignorance, the latter either mitigates or completely relieves the acting subject of cuplability, the former, which can be overcome and constitutes a person's due diligence, especially when pronouncing publicly, does not. This same thing plays out in the debate about marriage, when the position of those who favor safeguarding marriage is reduced to a ham-fisted attempt to impose one's religious beliefs on others, when not only is that not one of the arguments being made, but an argument that would be rejected by many who see that the state has an interest in protecting marriage, an institution that pre-exists the state.


  1. Deacon Scott, God has placed you in my life and as a result, you have done more to help open my mind and heart more than almost anyone else... Well on matters with which I struggle. I am always grateful for your thoughtful approach to all manner of things.

    That said, I hear you and understand you (I believe I understand you here) but I must spend some time in prayer and reflection with this matter.

    Thank you for what you do. God bless you.

  2. Hi Scott:

    Thank you for this, but it raises some questions for me.

    Isn't women's ordination one of social justice? How can women be considered equal and full members of the body of Christ if we are not allowed to receive one of the sacraments just by the nature of our sex?

  3. Kim:

    First off, to say that women not being able to be ordained priests is a social justice is to beg the question, meaning to commit a logical fallacy. To agree that it is a social justice issue is to imply it is unjust, which it is not.

    As to your second point, women are equal to men in every way. To say that it is an issue of equality is to assert that ordained ministry in general, and the ministerial priesthood in particular, is about power. It is about humble service, not power, as Pope John Paul II beautifully pointed out in Mulieris Dignitatem.

  4. Thanks, Scott. But if it's not about power, but is about service, then why can't women serve in this capacity?

  5. The simple answer is women can't serve in this capacity because they are not men. While women and men are certainly equal, they are not the same. After all, justice does not mean everyone getting the same thing; that distinctions don't matter. One's gender is not accidental to one's being, but essential.

    To famliarize yourself with the Church's teaching regarding Her male-only priesthood, in addition to Mulieris Dignitatem, I encourage to read Sr. Sara Butler's book The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church. She is a member of the CDF's International Theological Commission. Besides being a world class theologian, she is one who formerly favored women's ordination, but her theological studies were the cause of her change.

  6. Thanks!
    I'd never heard of her. I will have to order her book. Doubt my local library has it.


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