Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Thursday, May 07, 2009

A response to Abp. Wuerl's claims that canon law supports his inaction in regard to Nancy Pelosi

Abp. Donald Wuerl of Washington DC continues to defend his refusal to withhold holy Communion from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in a number of ways, but his recent claims that canon law supports his inaction attract my attention. I think the prelate's canonical claims are wrong.

First, Wuerl claims that "there's a question about whether [Canon 915] was ever intended to be used to bring politicians to heel . . . I stand with the great majority of American bishops and bishops around the world in saying this canon was never intended to be used this way.''

Okay, for starters, "the great majority of American bishops and bishops around the world" (that's more than 3,000 men!), have not made any comments about the impact of Canon 915 on politicians, let alone have they made statements holding Canon 915 inapplicable to politicians. There's no need to belabor this exaggeration further.

More importantly, I wonder: exactly where is "the question" about whether Canon 915 was "intended to bring politicians to heel" (that's a derogatory description of Church leaders and Catholic politicians alike) being raised? Who poses the problem in this manner? I'd be happy to examine such sources for the claim as one might care to offer, but I rather doubt any serious ones can be found. Why? Because
no canon in the Code was written with the intention of bringing politicians to heel. That's a disingenuous way to frame this issue.

Canons are designed to advance the salvific mission of the Church (c. 1752). They help to establish an ecclesial order rooted in Scripture and Tradition (JP2, ap. con. Sacrae disciplinae leges, esp. para. 16). To hold, therefore, that any canon is intended to bring a particular secular grouping of people "to heel" is to misunderstand what canon law is for. But the mistake is compounded when one goes on to use that mischaracterization of canon law to avoid the correct application of canon law.

Let's consider this matter from another angle: Catholic politicians are members of the Catholic Church and thus subject to its discipline (c. 11). Right? Of course right. But one may still wonder whether Catholic politicians might enjoy some express or implied exemptions from canon law.

Actually, they do!

"Heads of state", for example, can be tried only by the pope (c. 1405), certain civil officials are exempt from testifying about official secrets (c. 1548), and others enjoy the privilege of choosing the place wherein their testimony must be offered (c. 1558). Rare cases, I grant, but clearly, if the 1983 Code wants to make exceptions for politicians, it knows how to. So, does Wuerl think there are other exemptions?

Are Catholic politicians not bound by, say, the canons on the Sunday obligation (cc. 1246-1248) or the laws of fast and abstinence (c. 1252)? Are they exempt from the canons on marriage (c. 1108) or from the duty to educate their children in the Catholic faith (cc. 1136, 1366)? Do Catholic politicians (of all people!) not have the responsibility "to imbue and perfect the order of temporal affairs with the spirit of the Gospel and thus give witness to Christ" (c. 225)?

If, as I feel sure, Wuerl would not regard Catholic politicians as exempt from any of these canonical requirements, where does he find an exemption for them (or for anyone else) from Canon 915? The answer is, he cannot: there simply is no "politician" exemption from Canon 915.

If Wuerl wants to argue that Pelosi has not acted in a way as to make herself liable to consequences under Canon 915, he's free to make his case. (I think he'd lose that argument, but he's free to make it.) But he cannot gratuitously assert that Canon 915 was never "intended" to apply to the Pelosis of this world and leave the matter thus. Canon 915 unquestionably applies to all Roman Catholics regardless of their civil status or secular profession.

Second, Wuerl asserts, "Pelosi, as a San Franciscan, isn't part of my flock!"

Wuerl is the chief shepherd over the territory assigned to him (cc. 369, 372, 381) and chief presider over the Eucharist celebrated therein (c. 835 and Catechism of the Catholic Church 1142, 1369, 1561). Canons on sacramental discipline are universally applicable to Roman Catholics (cc. 12, 915). None of these norms is thwarted by the fact that a specific member of the faithful might have a "foreign" domicile, quasi-domicile, or residence if that individual is acting within the territory of the arch/bishop.

Consider moreover, by way of analogy, that if Pelosi's actions in Washington were canonically criminal (that is not my claim here), Canon 1412 would authorize Wuerl to take penal action against her regardless of her "foreign" status. Now, if Wuerl is authorized to take the harsher route of penal action against someone based only on the fact that his or her actions occurred within his territory, it is difficult to see how he is suddenly forbidden from taking merely disciplinary action against anyone who is acting contrary to sacramental law in his territory.

There is, I conclude, simply no question but that an arch/bishop is authorized by canon law to take the steps necessary to protect the sacraments (especially the Eucharist, cc. 897-898) from unworthy administration in his territory and his people from the danger of scandal that might be given by such reception.

The only question I see here is whether, and if so when, Wuerl will take that action. +++

A final note: The ultimate solution to this problem is, of course, for Nancy Pelosi to give up her unrelenting campaign against unborn babies, or, in default of that, at least to refrain from approaching holy Communion (c. 916). Unless she takes either step, however, I see no choice for Abp. Wuerl but to order enforcement of Canon 915 against her. In the meantime, however, I must say, nothing gives the forces of darkness greater pleasure than to see those committed following Christ at serious odds with one another. Such disputes must, in a fallen world, arise, but we should strive to resolve them correctly as quickly as possible and, once settled, to go on more united than ever toward the next struggle. There is no place for brooding over one another's failures, or for gloating over one another's corrections.