Saturday, December 12, 2009

Denying Holy Communion

I already wrote about this more than a year ago but, as election campaign again approaches, potential candidates who value their Catholic affiliation are asking about the same matter. It is no secret that some politicians do not agree with moral positions taken by some bishops and understandably they are concerned about what their bishio might do to them. Let me therefore rehearse what I said earlier.

What is the church law on this subject? I do not profess to be an expert in Canon Law. But what I have to say is what I myself follow. And when I first wrote about this, no Canon lawyer nor any bishop contradicted me. That probably says something.

Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law enumerates three categories of persons who should be refused Holy Communion,: (1) those excommunicated through a penalty that has been imposed or declared; (2) those interdicted through a penalty that has been imposed or declared; (3) those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.” Some explanation is necessary

First, what is the difference between an excommunicated person and an interdicted person? In general, an excommunicated person is excluded from the public life of the church. This would include holding church office or receiving the sacraments. An interdicted person, on the other hand, is one who is excluded only from certain liturgical functions.

How does one incur the penalties of excommunication or interdiction? According to church law, there are two ways of incurring a penalty: (1) automatically (or in church jargon latae sententiae) upon the commission of certain external acts clearly and specifically defined by law, and (2) upon the intervention of a competent ecclesiastical authority who declares officially and in legal form that a penalty has been imposed (ferendae sententiae).

What is important for purposes of refusal of Communion under Canon 915 is that the excommunication or interdiction must have been incurred not automatically but through an official imposition or declaration (ferendae sententiae). This means that to be legitimately refused Communion under Canon 915 there is need for a competent church authority (a bishop, a judge of an ecclesiastical court, a superior with respect to his subject through an extrajudicial or administrative act) to have issued a public instrument declaring that a penalty of excommunication or interdiction has been incurred by or imposed on a person. This should be a relatively rare case and would normally also be highly public and notorious.

The third category of persons who may be refused Communion under Canon 915 are those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.” As one Canon lawyer wrote, “The description of the third category is bristling with qualifications; not ordinary run-of-the-mill sinners but sinners who persist; they do not merely persist, they obstinately persist; the sin is not only a grave sin, but one that is manifestly so.” In general, it would seem that such a case would be relatively rare. If I were a bishop, which I will never be, I would not be too eager to find a case fulfilling all these stiff requirements.

Usually placed under this category are people who may be cohabiting without benefit of the sacrament of marriage, or people who may have been divorced and are now living together on the strength of a civil marriage. One reason for excluding them is the fear that admitting them would give the impression that the Church is changing its teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

But whether or not to exclude from Communion people in such marital relations is not always clear. There has been disagreement about the meaning of this third category. The disagreement has been around whether the subjective element of full knowledge and full consent, which is required for mortal sin, should also be considered for purposes of Canon 915. After all full knowledge and full consent are internal and beyond the knowledge of the minister administering Communion.

The authentic interpretation now seems to be that grave sin in Canon 915 is not the equivalent of mortal sin. Mortal sin requires full knowledge and consent which are known to the sinner himself but not to the minister who administers communion. For this reason the term “publicly unworthy” expresses better what is meant by persons who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.” The focus is on the external element of the act which can be known by the minister who administers communion. In other words, those excluded from communion must be “notorious public sinners.”

It should be remembered, moreover, that denial of communion is a restriction of a right. Hence, I would interpret the Canon strictly. Communion should not be denied if there is any doubt as to the fact of the sin, as to its notoriety or gravity, or as to the possibility that the person may have already been reconciled with the Church. Avoidance of scandal, after all, is not the supreme law of the Church. For my part, I would prefer a pastoral and not a confrontational approach. It must be kept in mind that church penalties are not intended to humiliate but to bring a person around to sorrow and contrition for sin.

Having said all that, I might be asked whether I would deny communion to legislators favoring the controversial bills on reproductive health. Let me just say that bishops themselves do not have a unanimous voice on the subject. I myself would not say that what legislators are doing now in a pluralist society is a manifestly grave sin enough to characterize the legislators as “notorious public sinners.”

30 November 2009

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