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WASHINGTON LETTER Apr-30-2004 (1,150 words) Backgrounder and analysis. xxxn
Canon law leaves much to interpret on sacramental sanctions

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- One side asks why bishops don't stop certain Catholic politicians from receiving Communion or even excommunicate them.

Aren't they openly defying church teaching on the most important subject -- the right to life? If such politicians don't follow bishops' advice and refrain from participating in the sacraments on their own, don't those bishops have an obligation to stop them?

Others ask how the few bishops who have said they would refuse the Eucharist to one politician or another can make such decisions.

Don't Catholics who must function in a secular society have the right to rely on their own conscience about public policy? If the church withholds Communion from politicians over their political activities, will the next step be the appearance of "sacrament police," scrutinizing everyone else's actions and pointing fingers at those they deem to be unworthy?

A task force of the U.S. bishops is weighing just such questions as it considers guidelines for how the church should relate to Catholics whose actions in public life conflict with church teachings.

However, the task force won't have a report until the bishops' mid-November meeting. In the meantime, each week brings new angles on the issue:

-- St. Louis Archbishop Raymond L. Burke told reporters in January that he would give Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., only a blessing if he came up in line for Communion. Kerry holds positions contrary to the church's on issues including abortion and fetal stem-cell research. His positions are closer to church stances on capital punishment, the Iraq war, programs for the poor and other social services.

-- Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said in his archdiocesan newspaper that politicians who publicly ignore church teaching on human life may try to look and sound Catholic, "but unless they act Catholic in their public service and political choices, they're really a very different kind of creature. And real Catholics should vote accordingly."

-- The day before his installation as head of the Diocese of Camden, N.J., Bishop Joseph A. Galante said he would deny Communion to Gov. James McGreevey at the installation Mass. Bishop Galante says his decision was based largely on McGreevey's remarriage without an annulment.

Several canon lawyers told Catholic News Service that church law on denying sacraments leaves the discretion and interpretation to individual bishops.

The relevant section of the church's law, Canon 915, says: "Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy Communion."

Those excommunicated or interdicted are barred from the sacraments. Someone interdicted is still considered a Catholic but someone excommunicated is no longer considered a member of the church.

In applying that law, "the question is whether someone is a public sinner," said Msgr. William Varvaro, pastor of St. Margaret Parish in Queens, N.Y., and past president of the Canon Law Society of America. "There's nothing specific about legislators or voting on bills."

The canon doesn't define what constitutes a "public sinner," said Msgr. Varvaro. "There's no explanation of how to determine that."

Mercy Sister Sharon Euart, vice president and president-elect of the Canon Law Society of America, said the key issue in refusing Communion is whether the individual is under a formal ecclesiastical penalty.

That means that the local bishop should have discussed his objections to the person's actions with him or her, made an effort to understand the person's thinking and instructed him or her on where the bishop saw errors or misunderstanding, she said. The bishop would explain that changes in the person's behavior are expected and what penalty might result if changes aren't made.

Then, the bishop would have to inform the individual in writing that a sanction was being imposed, Sister Euart explained.

"It's not something that (a bishop) does based on what he sees in the newspaper about someone," she said. "It's got to be done with as full knowledge as possible."

When he headed the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., then-Bishop Burke formally notified three state legislators in January that they were not to receive Communion. He published a canonical notification and a pastoral letter explaining that he took the step so the people of the diocese would not be scandalized "thinking that it is acceptable for a devout Catholic to also be pro-abortion."

He had previously sent letters to the three lawmakers, requesting private meetings to discuss their voting records. None accepted the invitation.

Father James Coriden, professor of canon law at the Washington Theological Union, said it's extremely rare for bishops to make the kind of public judgment Archbishop Burke did.

"It's very hard, from a canonical perspective, to justify the denial of Communion without some kind of due process," he said, because such a penalty is tantamount to excommunication. That ought to involve formally bringing charges and holding a trial, Father Coriden explained.

Such cases are vetted by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before being brought to trial, either at the Vatican or the diocese, he said.

This kind of trial is being pursued by some dioceses for priests who have refused to leave the priesthood after being implicated in cases of child sexual abuse.

Jesuit Father Ladislas Orsy, a visiting law professor at Georgetown University, said the bottom line is that within the church "we do have rules, but we do not have a very efficient machinery for imposing those rules."

Another problem is "what can you do in a pluralistic society?" he said. "Shall we now exclude all Catholics from public office?"

Father Orsy said that on some levels "the whole debate doesn't make much sense." A single politician, even the president, has almost no power to change the nation's laws about abortion, he said.

"No representative (in Congress) can bring (and pass) a bill to turn over Roe vs. Wade," Father Orsy said. "The only way a president can have influence for the future is to nominate justices to the Supreme Court and still the Senate must approve them."

Father Coriden said he thinks the bishops are justified in taking a strong stand with politicians who don't act in accord with church teaching on abortion. But even a doctrinal note on Catholics in public life released by the Vatican in 2003 "allows for freedom of conscience and political thought," he said.

"But to take that and say 'these people are no longer permitted to take Communion,'" he said, "I don't think it gives that authority."

There's a danger in asserting that only a part of the teachings of the church may be enforced by excommunication or interdict, Father Coriden said.

"It just cuts against the grain to take unilateral action," he said. "It would be better to keep holding up Christian ideals and saying 'let's get on board here.'"

END


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