"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Rewriting the book on excommunication

Among Catholics, the loudest school of thought about excommunicating people is the "progressive." The progs find the exercise presumptively neanderthal, typically useless, and often counterproductive. If done at all, it should only be done to people who are publicly and pertinaciously un-PC. Thus, I've heard occasional praise from progs for the 1962 excommunication of segregationists in New Orleans, and for the Italian hierarchy's excommunication of certain Mafia types. But that's about it. Heaven forfend that anybody should be excommunicated for pertinaciously denying some de fide doctrine—i.e., for heresy—or for brave public acts such as voting against a partial-birth abortion ban or doing a womyn's ordination. Since progs are still somewhat influential in chanceries and very influential in Catholic universities, they have most bishops pretty cowed about the whole thing. But that not only should change; it can change, given leadership that is competent and creative as well as courageous. Believe it or not, we've actually got that.

Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis has just formally decreed the excommunication of three women involved in that pseudo-ordination last year about which I wrote at the time. Of Burke's decree, Dr. Ed Peters, a top-notch canon lawyer from whom I learn often, writes:

I would like to say that Abp. Raymond Burke's excommunication of three women who recently participated in a pseudo-ordination in Saint Louis is a "text-book illustration" of how (non-judicial) excommunication is supposed to be applied in the Church today, but I can't say that. Why not? Because Abp. Burke's attention to juridic details and his provisions for the pastoral care of the people entrusted to his care so exceed what the textbooks teach, that it is the textbooks that must copy from him, not him from the textbooks.

That ought to lend some encouragement to those of us who think bishops have got awfully woolly about excommunication and need to do a bit more of it for the good of people's souls, including the souls of those excommunicated. Why should we all care about that?

As I've written before:

There certainly are quarters of the Church in this country where the virtue of faith, and the orthodoxy on which it depends, are understood and fostered. But such a witness is severely undermined by the degree to which the bishops allow dissent to go unpunished. E.g., even personally orthodox bishops such as Egan of New York and Wuerl of DC refuse to withhold the Eucharist from Catholic politicians who openly defy Church teaching on points that the Pope himself has indicated are non-negotiable. Other personally orthodox bishops, such as Flynn of the Twin Cities or O'Malley of Boston, refuse to discipline heterodox theologians on the faculties of universities over which they have at least nominal authority. And then there's the fact, so widely known as to be rarely mentioned, that on the literally vital matter of contraception, lay Catholics are allowed to do exactly as they please—which in most cases involves rejecting the constant, irreformable teaching of the Church. Even Catholic media are caught up in the corresponding ambiguity: we have the National Catholic Register, yes, but we also have the National Catholic Reporter. Of course it is well-known, among those who give thought to such matters, that the Catholic Church in America is polarized. But what is not so well understood is that the very persistence of that polarization strengthens the heterodox sides of the spectrum. Once again, it gives out the impression that orthodoxy is optional: not merely for American Catholics as Americans—which is and ought to be unexceptionable—but as Catholics. That makes it impossible for the virtue of faith to be widely fostered and understood among rank-and-file Catholics.

If we get more bishops doing the sort of thing Burke is doing, the virtue of faith can once again be fostered and understood wide-scale, not just here and there. To that end, I once again recommend his brilliant, peer-reviewed academic article about Catholic politicians who support abortion "rights."
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