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Was Jackie O excommunicated?

There is a rollicking Sun News broadcast editorial calling for, among other things, the excommunication of Justin Trudeau. It’s important viewing for several reasons. I’ll have some commentary on it later.

In the meantime, one comment in the broadcast startled me, namely, that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was excommunicated. Was she?

Any talk of Jackie’s excommunication centers on her October 1968 wedding to Aristotle Onassis. At the time, Jackie was (tragically of course) a free-to-marry Roman Catholic. Ari was a baptized non-Catholic divorced from another woman and thus not free to marry (1917 CIC 1069). The Jackie-Ari wedding took place on a private island and, as near I can tell, disregarded canonical form (1917 CIC 1094). In two respects, then, Ari’s presumptively valid prior marriage and Jackie’s apparent failure to observe or seek dispensation from canonical form, the Jackie-Ari marriage was invalid.

But where might an excommunication have come in?

Three possibilities occur to me, though none of them concern what I imagine most people might guess, namely, Jackie’s knowingly entering into an invalid marriage. Assuming that action is itself a crime under canon law (a difficult but not impossible case to make) it is certainly not a crime punishable by excommunication.

Let’s look, however, at three other theories.

1. Under Pio-Benedictine law, Catholics who disregarded canonical form in attempting to marry (certain persons) before non-Catholic ministers were automatically excommunicated (1917 CIC 2319 § 1, 1º). Setting aside my consternation at the interminable complications that arise from making certain excommunications automatic (including a number of ‘affirmative defenses’ that avail defendants even if they do not know to invoke them), Jackie might (depending on the person of the officiant) have fallen within the highly specific terms of this canon. But, in March 1970, Pope Paul VI, as part of a wider reform of marriage law, abrogated all excommunications levied in this regard (CLD VII: 717). Jackie’s marriage was not “validated” by the pope’s action but any penalty associated with her possibly having violated this aspect of canonical form would have ceased in 1970.

2. Bigamy and attempted bigamy were crimes under Pio-Benedictine law (1917 CIC 2356). Jackie, though herself free to marry, knew of Ari’s prior marriage and would have been liable to this penalty (Dom Augustine, VIII: 411-413). The penalty for bigamy, however, was not excommunication but “infamy” (1917 CIC 2293-2295) and, while the consequences of infamy were significant, they were not equivalent to excommunication. There is no evidence, moreover, that the canonical steps by which infamy could have been parlayed into excommunication were taken in Jackie’s case.

3. In 1884, the bishops of the United States enacted particular law by which divorced Catholics who attempted (even civilly) to marry another were automatically excommunicated. Although this penal law famously survived the advent of the Pio-Benedictine Code, its automatic nature meant, again, that a wide variety of ‘affirmative defenses’ could have prevented Jackie’s falling with its scope (assuming that she, not being divorced herself, were subject to it at all). In any case, Pope Paul VI abrogated all penalties associated with this special American law in October 1977 (CLD VIII: 1213-1214) and, as above, all sanctions possibly incurred under it immediately ceased.

Bottom line: it is possible, but not likely, that Jackie was excommunicated under universal law for some 18 months in the late 1960s and/or under particular law for some years into the 1970s; it is certain that Jackie labored under no marriage-related excommunications at the time of her death in 1994.

Et poenae latae sententiae delendae sunt.

Sure, celibacy is “disciplinary”, but then, so is …

In the wake of the latest off-hand, private, ambiguous, papal comment to be trumpeted around the world as a harbinger of impending change, I note that, for the proverbial umpteenth time, solemn heads are nodding in agreement that clerical celibacy is “merely disciplinary.” Good grief, everyone knows that. The question is not whether clerical celibacy is “merely disciplinary”—unquestionably it is; rather, the question is, What does it mean to designate an institute or practice as “merely disciplinary”?

In Catholic circles the phrase “merely disciplinary” conjures up things like the Communion fast or giving up meat on Fridays. In a very well-read crowd, perhaps the directing of bishops to make ad limina visits or requiring canonical form for marriage would be recognized (and rightly) as “merely disciplinary”. Now, provided one means by the technical phrase “merely disciplinary” that the institute or practice in question could be changed, even eliminated, without the Church ceasing to be the Church, then yes, Friday abstinence, ad limina visits, and clerical celibacy are all “merely disciplinary.”

But, considered from that technical perspective, there are very few things about the Church that aren’t “merely disciplinary”, that is, there are very few things in the Church that, when push comes to shove, are essential to her existence. An episcopal hierarchy would make the short list of non-negotiables, as would the seven sacraments. Eliminate the hierarchy and the Church ceases to exist, jettison even one sacrament from the Church and whatever that institution would be, it couldn’t be the Church founded by Christ.

So, yes, eliminate clerical celibacy and the Church would still be, in essence, the Church founded by Christ. No one can plausibly dispute that narrow claim. But those pushing for the elimination of clerical celibacy, touting the fact that it is “merely disciplinary”, should advise their audiences that, by the very same token, many other things could be eliminated in the Church as well, including:

• the Sunday obligation (not to mention all holy days)

• religious congregations, third orders, and secular institutes

• Catholic schools (including seminaries and universities)

• virtually everything in the liturgy

• parishes, arch/dioceses, provinces, etc.

• the College of Cardinals (and papal conclaves), and so on and on and on.

Each of these things appeared only in the course of Church history (sometimes only recently) and all have undergone major changes over time (sometimes in our very own lifetimes). Any of these things, and indeed all of them, could be altered, or even eliminated, and yet the Church would still be the Church founded by Christ. But is there (serious) talk about tossing them? Of course not. Just because something is “merely disciplinary” does not mean that it bears no connection to divine law (consider the Sunday obligation), or that it does not contribute to the holiness of the Church (consider religious life), or that ecclesiastical authority cannot impose its observance under pain of sin (consider liturgical law). This is so obvious it almost defies demonstration.

But if one can scarcely imagine (let alone seriously propose) doing away with any of these long-standing and spiritually formidable Catholic institutions and practices simply because they are “merely disciplinary”, then how do some propose eliminating an observance like clerical celibacy, of all thingssomething much older than most of the items listed above and at least as great a fount of holiness as the otherswith the facile assuagement that clerical celibacy is, after all, “merely disciplinary”?

You know, like we’re talking about a little Communion fast or something.

Much ado about, literally, who-knows-what

We either know what Sr. Jane Dominic said at Charlotte Catholic High School or we don’t. Is it too much to ask, which is it?

Sr. Jane’s remarks were either recorded or she spoke from a text that can be verified as being the one she delivered. The first option, however, has been repeatedly denied and the second seems not to have been mentioned (suggesting the talk was delivered ex tempore). I’d even grant some credibility, some, to Sr. Jane’s own assertions as to what she actually said. But Sr. Jane has, to my knowledge, said nothing publicly since her talk at CCHS.

But despite this screamingly obvious lack of reliable information, everybody and his brother has an opinion on Sr. Jane’s talk, including Sr. Mary Sarah, President of Aquinas College (where Sr. Jane teaches), who makes the following assertions.

In her presentation, Sister Jane Dominic spoke clearly on matters of faith and morals.” But how does Sr. Mary know what Sr. Jane said?

“[Sr. Jane’s] deviation into realms of sociology and anthropology was beyond the scope of her expertise.” How does Sr. Mary know that, and, while we’re at it, what does she mean thereby, sort of prohibiting theologians from commenting on anything beyond doctrine (which I doubt is Sr. Mary’s view.)

The unfortunate events at Charlotte Catholic High School are not representative of the quality of Sister’s academic contributions or the positive influence that she has had on her students.” The only way this phrase makes any sense is if it means that Sr. Jane’s “events” (her speech) are not representative of her positive influence. But if so, how does Sr. Mary know what Sr. Jane’s speech was, and what about that speech was not representative of her other work?

The students at Charlotte Catholic were unprepared, as were their parents, for the topic that Sister was asked to deliver.” Again, beyond the title of the talk, what does Sr. Mary know about the talk itself? And, by the way, whose responsibility was it “to prepare” the audience for Sr. Jane’s talk? Sr. Jane’s?

The consequence was a complete misrepresentation of the school’s intention to bring a message that would enlighten and bring freedom and peace.” The consequence of what? Of Sr. Jane’s talk? If so, how does Sr. Mary know what Sr. Jane said? If of the public’s reactions to whatever Sr. Jane’s talk was, how would that reaction be Sr. Jane’s fault, or Sr. Mary’s problem, or anyone else’s responsibility?

There are no words that are able to reverse the harm that has been caused by these comments.” For the umpteenth time, WHAT COMMENTS? How does Sr. Mary know what Sr. Jane said?

From where I sit, I cannot tell whether: (a) some nun with a doctorate in theology gave a lunatic address on sex to an audience of shocked children; (b) some nun with a doctorate in theology gave a reasonable address on Church teaching about sex to an audience that was not informed about what the address would be, which audience then went ballistic over the misleading advertising for the talk; or (c) some nun with a doctorate in theology gave a reasonable address on Church taching about sex to an audience who hates her message and hates her for giving it. I simply can’t tell which of these scenarios (or variations thereon) describe what happened at CCHS.

But everyone else sure talks like they know.

My series on select canonical issues in Deaf ministry is complete

Several years ago, I sat down to write a canonical study on the possibility that Deaf Catholics might be able to use video communication technologies for sacramental Confession. About half-way through the writing of that article, however, I realized that some important questions concerning the celebration of sacraments in sign language needed to be settled first, so I set aside the Confession article and started writing an article on sacraments and sign. About half-way through writing that article, however, I realized that several preliminary questions about the ordination of Deaf men needed to be examined, so I set aside the sacraments article and started writing the Deaf clergy article.

In 2008 my Deaf clergy article came out in the Josephinum Journal of Theology and about a year later my article on sacraments in sign language appeared in Studia Canonica. The Confession article, though, was unfortunately delayed by a string of pressing projects and I only was able to get back to it a year or so ago. But today I am happy to announce that it has been published by The Jurist.

The three studies are best read in this order:

• Edward Peters, “Canonical and cultural developments culminating in the ordination of Deaf men during the twentieth century”, Josephinum Journal of Theology 15 (2008) 427-443.

• Edward Peters, “The ordination of men bereft of speech and the celebration of sacraments in sign language”, Studia Canonica 42 (2008) 331-345.

• Edward Peters, “Video communications technology and the sacramental confessions of Deaf Catholics”, The Jurist 73 (2013) 513-537.

I don’t believe any of these articles are on-line (canon law is, and will remain for some time, a largely physical-medium science) but one might try academic interlibrary services for copies.

Here’s hoping these articles might help advance Deaf ministry.

Evil is bad, but pointless evil defies comprehension

Two Catholic men were murdered in the last few days, one an elderly Jesuit who elected to stay with his flock in a war zone, the other a young husband and father-to-be walking home, it seems, from class. I knew neither man but both seem to have led lives focused on God and neighbor. Both were shot yet their deaths strike me very differently.

The old Jesuit was killed by cowardly religious haters. The priest’s murder was immediately described as a kind of martyrdom, a final demonstration of the love that he had showed for decades to the victims of war and persecution. The old Jesuit is, and should be, recognized as a hero, an example to us all of that Love which conquers all.

The student, in contrast, died simply because some [supply your own expletive], not content with the young man’s wallet (and his identity, etc.), felt like shooting him in the gut for the hell of it. The young man’s death was utterly pointless. His last moments on earth are an inspiration to no one (though perhaps a few in the area will discreetly avoid walking along that stretch of road for a while).

I am sad for both men, but I take just a bit of vicarious pride in the legacy of the old Jesuit, in his serving faithfully and selflessly until death. He’s “one of our guys” and as a Catholic I share a just bit in the glory that is now his. But the young man, the husband, the father, I see in him a man and a family robbed of so incalculably much, apparently, for nothing. In his death I sense only the empty void left by gratuitous evil. I’d like to think that I could, if called upon, take a bullet for Jesus, but I shudder to think of taking a bullet for nothing.

Just as I know I can do more with my life so I am certain that this young man could have done much more with his had it not been stolen from him. I even wonder, if this young man’s life had to end in violence, why could death not have come after 50 years of serving others? Why could he not be a martyr? Why did he have to be statistic?

Someone, help me see the redemptive value of such mindless waste. Right now all I see is the nothing.

In the meantime, May their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Today, normal is newsworthy. Really.

If we didn’t live in such morally chaotic, socially unravelling, ecclesially antinomian times, none of this would have been news.

As things are, though, many Catholic politicians do not know (or care) that advocacy of abortion is mortally sinful (CCC 2271-2273), let alone that persons in mortal sin should not approach for holy Communion (Canon 916). Many priests do not know (or wish to recall) that holy Communion is to be withheld from persons who obstinately persevere in manifestly and gravely sinful actions (Canon 915). And many bishops do not know (or want to accept) that they are bound to enforce ecclesiastical discipline in all respects, including the protection of the sacraments (Canon 392)—the most august of which is the Eucharist (Canon 897)—and are to protect the rights of their priests and see to it that they fulfill their duties (Canon 384).

Against this backdrop of confusion regarding so many basic aspects of moral order and Church law, no wonder that Bp. Paprocki’s reaffirmation of support for a pastor’s decision to withhold holy Communion from a notorious pro-abortion Catholic politician makes news.

Today, normal is newsworthy. Really.

Mass at the border raises liturgical and canonical issues

I’ve been thinking about the bishops’ recent celebration of Mass at the US-Mexican border.

My concern is not political (both sides of the immigration debate make good points and reasonable minds may differ about those), nor is my concern religious per se (we have participated in faith-based events at the border and we made sure our kids experienced them too). Rather, my concern is liturgical and canonical, specifically, treating the venue of holy Mass as an opportunity to make political statements and regarding canon law on liturgy as little more than suggestions.

Canon 932 § 1 (one among the 1,752 canons that Roman Catholic bishops must observe and enforce per c. 392) states that “The eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in a sacred place unless in a particular case necessity requires otherwise; in such a case the celebration must be done in a decent place” (my emphasis). Obviously, no one suggests that the border is a “sacred place” in the canonical meaning of that term, so the question becomes whether necessity required holy Mass to be celebrated at the border.

I think not.

The intentions for which this Mass was offered (immigration reform and in memory of those who died crossing the border, both legitimate intentions of course) could have been amply asserted at a Mass celebrated in a sacred place as envisioned by c. 932, and there is no evidence that those attending Mass at the border were otherwise deprived of Mass in their own locales (indeed, many attending the border Mass had to make special arrangements to get there). Thus, the kinds of factors commonly invoked to justify Mass outside of a sacred space do not support this Mass at the border.

But I would suggest as well a prudential objection to using holy Mass this way: it encourages others to hold Mass in unworthy venues to suit their purposes.

I think it would be wrong, for example, to celebrate Mass outside an abortuary, no matter how fervent were the prayers offered for the babies who died there. Who would not think it wrong for a priest in conflict with his bishop to celebrate Mass in the chancery parking lot in the hopes that the bishop would change his mind? And most arch/dioceses have strict policies against wedding Masses being celebrated outside of churches or oratories—why?—because such venues are not “sacred spaces”! These and a host of other odd venues are inappropriate for Mass because they do not respect the surpassing reverence due the divine, to say nothing of how they distort the understanding of such canonical terms as “necessity” and “require”.

So, by all means, let bishops celebrate Mass in sacred spaces for immigration reform and for the repose of the souls of persons who died crossing the border (and for the souls of agents who died policing it). But let’s not assume that sacred spaces for worship may be ignored just because a photogenic backdrop for one’s political views (however decent they may be) presents itself, and let’s not distort Church law by claiming that “necessity requires” Mass to be celebrated in these sorts of places. Because neither assertion is true.


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