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

Saturday, November 24, 2007

What can Wuerl and Egan say now?

Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, my favorite American hierarch, has published a zinger of an article in the current issue of the world's most prestigious canon-law journal. It is entitled

CANON 915:

and has the endorsement of Dr. Ed Peters, probably the American canon lawyer whose publications—especially about marriage annulments—have been the most helpful to American Catholics who are not themselves canon lawyers. Peters has been especially helpful about the topic of American Catholic politicians who support the Roe regime; it was from him, for example, that I learned the distinction between the state of excommunication and that of mere unworthiness to receive the Eucharist.

As Peters indicates, it takes a certain background to understand all the article's references, and therefore all its arguments. More familiar with canon law than most Catholics, I myself still don't have all the necessary background; partly for that reason, I would welcome a scholarly critique of the article that would enable well-educated non-specialists like me to evaluate the case for themselves. But take it from a pro like Ed Peters: Burke's piece is first-rate stuff. And its conclusion is unmistakable. American bishops have no canonically legitimate alternative to doing what Burke himself does: denying the Eucharist to those who, after due personal warning, persist in the manifestly grave sin of supporting legal access to abortion.

Of course, that much ought to have been clear from what then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote to the U.S. bishops during the 2004 presidential-election campaign, when John Kerry's pro-abortion stance was a real factor for many Catholics who voted. But the then-Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal McCarrick, managed successfully to obscure the message. And the US bishops' conference has pointedly refused to adopt a clear, collective pastoral policy on the matter, leaving it to each bishop's prudential judgment as ordinary of his diocese. Now as a matter of mere polity, the USCCB could probably have done little else. It is bishops, not bishops' conferences, that have jurisdiction within their dioceses. That's what allows ordinaries such as the current Archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl, and that of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, to get away with refusing to impose the discipline called for by Canon 915. But that only tells us what they can do, given their authority—not what they should do, given their responsibility. Burke and a relative handful of other bishops, including my own, have made clear what they should do.

Burke is the kind of canon lawyer who most impresses me: a pastor who carries out real pastoral duties with love and courage, which includes complete honesty. In that respect he seems to me far more impressive than another important American hierarch who is also a canon lawyer: Cardinal Egan himself. To him, the Giulianis and Kerrys are "friends of mine" and for that reason won't be denied the Eucharist in his diocese. I suppose that means one shouldn't let canon law and pastoral responsibility get in the way of friendship. Perhaps a personal anecdote can shed some light on the spirituality motivating such a stance.

Twenty-five years ago, when Egan was still an official at the Roman Rota, I attended a talk he gave in New York about annulments. His argument was that the definition of marriage in Canon §1055 of the new, about-to-be-promulgated Code of Canon Law, and therefore the subsequently defined criteria for nullity, allowed for too much subjective interpretation. He said he preferred the narrower, more objective definition in the 1917 code: "a right to the body, a right both perpetual and exclusive, for the purpose of performing the actions apt by their nature to procreate children." Now it is quite true that, under that older legal definition, grounds for nullity were far narrower. That's exactly why annulments were so rare, which in turn is exactly why so many Catholics remained in sham marriages. Such a legal regime certainly made the work of tribunal judges relatively simple and allowed the Church to uphold the sanctity of marriage without much debate. But the old code included no recognition of what makes marriage a sacrament of the love between Christ and his Church, as opposed to just a contract that very few people could get out of by means short of death or homicide. Once one defines marriage in a way that does recognize what makes marriage sacramental—which is what the current code's definition does, in keeping with Gaudium et spes—the picture becomes more complicated. Jurisprudence is forced to evolve in a direction that allows many more people to nullify marriages that are not and never have been sacramental in the relevant sense. But Egan was more interested in keeping things clean and simple for men like himself than in where that left the people. And I see the same indifference in his current attitude about "personally-opposed-but" Catholic politicians who support the Roe regime.

Catholics need and have a right to a clear, consistent message about this matter from all their pastors, not just from Roman documents. Since Canon §915 facilitates such clarity and consistency, unlike how Egan once characterized Canon §1055, one would think a canon lawyer like him would see fit to enforce it. At any rate, it just won't do to send the message that support for legal access to abortion is no big deal. But that's the message being sent by bishops like Egan, whether they want to send it or not. It makes a mockery of the sacrifices so many people endure in order to be faithful Catholics. But keeping life simple and easy for members of the club is apparently more important to him than the needs and rights of the hoi polloi.

It is that same attitude in many other bishops, I am convinced, that facilitated the inexcusable coverup of the sexual abuse of minors. What's needed among the bishops is greater concern with truth, justice, and the Catholic way, as opposed to institutional self-preservation. Burke and his relatively few allies may not be supermen, but they've got the right idea.
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