|Cardinal Burke wearing the galero that|
someday will hang over his tomb
Can. 915 Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.
This is the text of canon 915, these days probably the most cited canon in the Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church as intra-Church disputes rage concerning congressmen and lesbians coming to Holy Communion.. But we not only have a text we have a context and the text needs to be put into its context for correct application.
The first part—those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared…” is fairly clear and does not need to be commented on other than to note it refers to those on whom excommunication has been imposed or declared. This does not include those who have occurred excommunication latae sententiae or “automatically.” Such people should not present themselves for Holy Communion but since reason for their automatic excommunication would be “internal forum,” it would not be in the scope of the minister of the Eucharist to deny them the sacrament. Presumably the only one who could tell their moral state with any certainty would be their confessor and he cannot do anything that would indicate knowledge gained in the Sacrament of Reconciliation even if it meant giving the Eucharist “unworthily.” Any other minister of the Sacrament would have to presume the person had been reconciled and the excommunication lifted.
The issues under debate revolve around “and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.” This provision is to cover those who in some circles are called “public sinners.” Who makes the determination?
The controversy has raged in the American Church at least since 2004 when then Archbishop Raymond Burke of Saint Louis and several other bishops declared that Democratic Presidential Candidate Senator John Kerry should not be admitted to Holy Communion because of his support—and his party platform’s support—for the legality of abortion. Burke had articulated this same position earlier as Bishop of LaCrosse Wisconsin but it only became a practical issue when he held a major See in which a presidential candidate might be likely to be present on a Sunday. Senator Kerry was not alone under the threat of a Eucharistic ban. Archbishop Burke had always been pretty free imposing this ban on those whom he perceived as disagreeing from Church teaching. After numerous conflicts in his diocese with priests, religious, and laity, Burke was (re)moved to Rome where he was given a significant post in the Church’s judicial system but without any direct pastoral responsibilities. This position rewarded him with a Cardinal’s hat and permitted the archdiocese to heal from his divisive leadership thus being a win/win situation. He was succeeded in Saint Louis by Archbishop Robert J. Carlson.
Not all bishops have interpreted Canon 915 in the same way that Archbishop Burke has. Indeed, most American bishops have tried to duck the issue. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago advised a Chicago Pastor where it was thought that 2008 Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden, a faithful Mass-attender, might attend Mass while in Chicago that he should not give Biden communion at Mass but allow him to receive privately in the church sacristy. The then Bishop of Biden’s family Diocese, Scranton PA, Joseph Martino, told Biden he was not to receive Holy Communion in the Scranton Diocese, but successive Bishops of Wilmington, Michael Saltarelli and William Malooly have not issued any such ban. Bishop Martino, like Archbishop Burke, had alienated various people and institutions in the Scranton Diocese and though only in his early sixties resigned his See “for reasons of health” soon after announcing that Biden was not welcome to Holy Communion. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas banned from Holy Communion then Governor Kathleen Sibelius. When Sibelius became Secretary of Health and Human Services, Naumann claimed that this ban was effective in Washington but Canon Lawyers have clarified that his authority to restrict an individual from Holy Communion is limited to his own diocese. When Sibelius took up residence in the Washington area such jurisdiction passed to the Archbishop of Washington or the Bishop of Arlington, depending on where the Secretary lives and/or attends Mass.
Of course, Cardinal Donald Wuerl (and his predecessors Cardinals Theodore McCarrick and James Hickey) and Bishop Paul Loverde of the Arlington VA Diocese are the most watched prelates for how the Canon is applied. Neither Wuerl (nor his predecessors) nor Loverde have shown any indication that they will ban individuals from the Sacraments because of their stance on political issues including abortion, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research or other “hot button” issues. Wuerl in particular takes much heat on this issue and is regularly picketed when he appears at his cathedral or other parishes by those who insist that he has a moral responsibility to invoke canon 915 against Democratic politicians. While Bishop Loverde, a very kind and pastoral man, was named to the Arlington See before this became an issue, Wuerl—as Bishop of Pittsburgh—had made his position very clear that he would not invoke the canon. This did not stop his appointment to Washington and some sources claim that Rome would not appoint a prelate to Washington who would stir up this controversy. Rome certainly knew what they were getting with Wuerl on this issue and there does not seem to have been any pressure on him from the Holy See to invoke Canon 915. But there are those more Catholic than the Pope who fault him for his “lax” defense of the Eucharist. Maybe the Pope should have appointed one of them as Archbishop.
More on this subject next time.