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

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Confusing

Over the past week, there's been a bit of Catholic news epitomizing what's good, what's bad, and what's confusing about the state of contemporary Catholicism. The confusion arises from the clash of the good with the bad. We need to ponder that more.

During the Pope's trip to Brazil, there was a flap about whether Catholic politicians who support legal abortion are "excommunicated." That's a live issue in Brazil now because the government, in the persons of both President Lula de Silva and the legislature, is expanding the kinds of cases in which abortion is legal. We saw an earlier version of this movie in the U.S. during the 2004 election campaign; as then, the man who is now pope only said what ought to have been obvious. But as this sort of thing just isn't obvious to journalists, especially secular journalists, a flurry of "clarifications" ensued from those around the Pope.

Basically, the claim is that those who procure, carry out, or otherwise "formally cooperate" in abortion excommunicate themselves; public officials who support legalizing abortion are formally cooperating in abortion; therefore, such officials are, in a certain sense, "excommunicated." But what sense? In canon law, that kind of excommunication is called latae sententiae, i.e. "by broad judgment" not requiring a specific judgment or decree; call that 'ELS' for short. ELS is distinct from excommunication ferendae sententiae, i.e. "by judgment carried out," which must be expressed in a specific decree; call that 'EFS' for short. What a lot of people don't seem to understand is that stating when ELS holds does not constitute EFS. Stating when ELS holds does not bring about a state of affairs that didn't obtain prior to the statement; it merely describes a state of affairs that already obtains, given canon law and certain people's actions. But EFS does bring about a state of affairs that didn't obtain prior to the statement; that's why, in certain cases other than abortion, formal decrees of excommunication are occasionally issued by bishops or the pope. Thus, in saying that Catholic politicians who formally cooperate in abortion are "excommunicated," all that's being said is that such people have made themselves unworthy to "communicate," i.e. to receive the Eucharist. Such a statement does not make such people unworthy or otherwise impose penalties on them. It merely points out what is already and objectively the case.

That's the good news. The bad news is the reason why so many people don't get the good news: in practice, the clergy often do not behave accordingly. The pope, the bishops, and even some among the lower clergy can say until they're blue in the face that people who formally cooperate in abortion are unworthy to receive the Eucharist; but many bishops and priests will give the Eucharist to such people all the same, citing as justification that they can't be sure, in individual cases, whether the communicant is unworthy at that moment. That is a tiresome, hypocritical, and highly destructive dodge. Most such politicians are utterly unrepentant and make no bones whatsoever about that fact; so until most bishops and priests actually withhold the Eucharist from such people, the Church's claim that such people are unworthy to receive the Eucharist will not be taken seriously, and they will be understood to be "excommunicated" only when decrees of EFS are actually issued to that effect. Thus the clash between the good news and the bad news generates a huge amount of confusion, for which the bishops have only themselves to blame.

The solution is simple: withhold the Eucharist from those who, by their public actions and statements, formally cooperate in abortion. A scattering of bishops, both in the U.S. and abroad, do just that. But spreading that solution is not easy because it requires a courage that is in relatively short supply. We witnessed the lack of such courage during the coverup of the sex-abuse scandal. When will they learn that, in matters spiritual, clarity requires integrity and credibility requires both?
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