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Bad ideas know no borders

I do not know Irish marriage law but my impression is that it operates rather as does marriage law in the United States, specifically, that clergy who officiate at religious weddings can certify those rites for civil effects. Some Irish prelates, however, faced with the possibility that Ireland might recognize “same-sex marriage”, are apparently threatening to refuse to certify any religious weddings for the state, such that Catholic spouses who wish the civil benefits of marriage (and they are many!) would have to go through a second, state-sponsored ceremony to secure those benefits.

If that is the idea, then it’s just as bad an idea in Ireland as it is over here. I’ve made this argument many times, but will summarize again.

The State has a right to know who is married and married couples have the right to the civil benefits accorded married couples. It is a good for the State and a good for the faithful if immediate and direct civil recognition can be accorded couples married in religious ceremonies. No one can seriously argue otherwise.

What some fear—and I understand their fear, however wrong it is—is that, in the wake of a civil redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples, religious ministers will suddenly be required to certify same-sex couples as married (says who?) and therefore (as if there were a logical imperative here, which there is not) we should preemptively cease certifying religiously married couples as married. How on earth does one arrive at that conclusion? Certifying as married, couples that are married, is a good! The fact that others might certify as married, couples that are not married is a bad, but their bad action does not make our good action into a bad.

Consider, for some decades past the State’s faulty understanding of marriage has resulted in the State certifying as married all sorts of couples whom we would hold as not married, namely, divorced and remarried couples. Those “marriages” are canonically null for prior bond (ligamen, c. 1085), but we don’t forbid Catholic clergy from certifying as married the couples over whom we officiate, just because the State will certify as married some couples (over whom we do not officiate) as married, do we? So why the ill-considered threat to cease certifying our couples married religiously as married, just because the State also treats as married some couples whom we know are not married?

Ah! comes the retort, the State might require us to officiate at same-sex-weddings! Oh, really? Has the State ever required us to officiate at the weddings of divorced persons? No. And if the State did suddenly require Catholic ministers to officiate at the weddings of simply divorced persons, or of same-sex couples, we would refuse. Flatly. Both scenarios are non-negotiable lines beyond which Catholics may not go. And if the State, in retaliation for such a Faith-demanded refusal, revoked their recognition of our religious weddings, that decision is on their heads, not ours.

In the meantime, we can and should cooperate with the State in regard to marriage for so long as what the State requires is not contrary to divine or canon law (c. 22). And certifying religiously married Catholics as married in the eyes of civil law is not remotely contrary to divine or canon law.

Rod Dreher should come back to the Catholic Church

Rod Dreher has been on a roll lately, one good column after another. I don’t much respond to Dreher’s essays because, beyond a “Yup, sounds basically right to me”, I don’t see much to add. But reading a couple three Dreher’s essays in short order this week, and looking forward to his piece in Time, has put me in mind of something I’ve thought about several times over the years in his connection, and I need, at least once, to say it, so I will: from one Catholic with a public profile to another Catholic with a public-er profile, Rod Dreher needs to come back to the Catholic Church. Mind, I hope that any Catholic who has left the Church (quietly and aimlessly as do most, impetuously and pointlessly as do some, or publically and articulately as did Dreher), comes back, but Dreher’s unusual profile and his good sense on so many other points prompts this particularized call.

The Second Vatican Council, in its dogmatic constitution on the Church stated “the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism (Mark 16:16, John 3:5) and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” Lumen gentium (1964) 14, emphasis added.

The Council was not engaged in posturing or rhetorical flourishes here; it was speaking with uncharacteristic bluntness about the necessity, for salvation, of membership in the Catholic Church for those “knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ”. I read no man’s soul when I opine that an intellectual’s conversion to the Catholic Church and his active presence in it for a decade suggests that, at some level, he has come to realize the soteriological necessity of the Catholic Church. Thus, I think Lumen gentium speaks directly to Rod Dreher.

Frankly, as a life-long Catholic who has seen pretty much anything Dreher saw and who has unquestionably put up with more than Dreher ever suffered (if only in terms of the liturgical insanity and catechetical nonsense of the ‘60s and ‘70s), I may be forgiven for wondering why Dreher’s experience of the Church in the ‘90s excuses his departure without demanding the departure of all others for the sake of their integrity, but that verges toward soul-reading, and such is not my point. To what others have said to and about Dreher’s departure, and notwithstanding Dreher’s doubling down on his leaving the Church, I can only add that there is no reason or pretext for leaving the Catholic Church that Jesus himself did not know was coming, and yet He told us who would love Him to join it and to serve within it. Especially in her dark and darker hours.

As for the mechanics of coming back into full communion, they are simpler than was the case in the 1917 Code. A priest and/or canonist with more specific information on specific situations can advise, but basically, reconciliation today is largely a sacramental affair, expressing contrition for having left and for having set a bad example for others, and receiving absolution therefrom.

Dreher’s departure column declared that he would not talk about his decision further. He has, to some degree at least, honored that promise. Likewise, I’ve said my say on this matter, and I don’t plan to revisit it.

British priests have canonical rights, too

There isn’t a word—not one single word—in the short, open letter signed by hundreds of British Catholic priests to the Catholic Herald (London) defending Church teaching on marriage and sacraments that any Catholic could not, and should not be proud to, personally profess and publically proclaim. The priests’ letter is a model of accuracy, balance, brevity, and pastoral respect for persons. It fortifies the soul to know it exists. It gladdens the heart to actually read it.

I am at a loss, therefore, to understand why Vincent Cardinal Nichols seems to chastise priests who signed the letter for their allegedly “conducting [a] dialogue, between a priest and his bishop … through the press.” The priests’ letter is a statement of Catholic belief, not an opening gambit in a negotiation; it is addressed to a journal editor, and through him to lay and clerical public, not to a particular prelate. Moreover, the letter is a text-book example of clergy exercising a canonical right guaranteed to all the Christian faithful, namely, “to manifest to sacred pastors [Code for ‘bishops’] their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.” Canon 212 § 3, my emphasis.

The Cardinal, of course, need not have said anything about the letter; frankly, his responding via the press is what might yet turn the event into a dialogue in the press. But, if a response was to be made, anything less than “I am delighted to know that so many priests love our Church, her teachings, and the people served by both” makes the direction of that dialogue suddenly worrisome.

Martin O’Malley and magical words

I know little of Martin O’Malley beyond that he is a Democrat, was governor of Maryland, and detects (along with the rest of America) blood in the waters of Clinton Sea. None of which interests me. What does interest me about O’Malley is his apparent belief in the magical power of words.

To judge from this clip, if O’Malley bestows a word on something, that something apparently becomes the word he bestows on it. For example, if O’Malley calls “unjust” laws that recognize as marriage only the union of a man and woman—then, presto! such laws are “unjust”. If O’Malley calls “marriage” the civilly-sanctioned union of two persons of the same sex—then, presto! such unions are “marriages”. Pretty cool things, these magical words.

Unfortunately lost on O’Malley is, it seems, a fundamental maxim of human discourse, namely, Quod gratis asseritur gratis negatur, that is, a mere assertion warrants no assent, or, one’s claim about this point or that warrants no agreement from others in the absence of evidence for one’s claim, and evidence, in turn, requires facts and reason—two commodities in very short supply these days.

And supposin’ someone does offer compelling facts and reasons in support of the civil law’s recognition of marriage only between persons of the opposite sex, what then? Not a problem, just use some more magical words against them: label them bigots or homophobes (a word whose etymology I am still trying to parse) or as blocking human progress—and presto, they are bigots or homophobes or are blocking human progress, and can be safely ignored. Not, mind, that O’Malley uses such abrasive language himself (not in the clip or two I’ve seen). He’s too carefully crafted cool for that. But plenty of others do.

Now, truth to tell, I know two more things about O’Malley, two things that prompted me to comment on him instead of on the legion of others who apparently think words have magical powers: O’Malley is a lawyer and he’s a Catholic. As am I. As lawyers and Catholics, O’Malley and I know that there are indeed certain times when the recitation of words brings about a reality that was not there before the words were spoken: a duly elected citizen becomes president upon recitation of the oath of office, bread and wine become the Eucharist upon the priest’s recitation of the words of consecration.

But precisely because, as a lawyer and as a Catholic, O’Malley knows that words sometimes do bring about new reality—not a magical one, to be sure, but an actual one nevertheless—he, of all people, should be even more cautious about acting as if his words, or any one else’s, necessarily create realities simply because he, or anyone else, speaks them.

Okay, what about Catholics and the death penalty?

Dr. Steven Long beat me to it.

His rejoinder to the “Capital punishment must end” editorial of America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor is essential reading even if, in some places, Long’s essay, “Four Catholic Journals Indulge in Doctrinal Solipsism”, needs to be translated into readable English.*

Worse, though, than the four journals editorial itself—which for the most part only repackages and recycles prudential arguments against the death penalty as if they were arguments in principle—have been some of  the “pile-ons” published in its wake, with Patheos administering an especially condescending tongue-lashing to Catholics who, tsk-tsk, can’t understand that opposition to the death penalty is demanded “for the simplest of reasons” and then walks Catholic troglodyte death-penalty enthusiasts through four reasons why they are (supposedly) so utterly and embarrassingly wrong, beginning each reason with “We are Catholic”.

Like, you know, I’m not.

As a Catholic squarely in line with the Catholic tradition that, as Dr. Long accurately if turgidly sets out, supports the just administration of the death penalty for capital crimes, I have grown used to having my motives for such support reduced to: my thirst for vengeance, my disdain for mercy, my obliviousness to Christ’s salvific will, my despair about conversion, and my contempt for compassion. I apparently do not understand that the death penalty does not bring murder victims back to life (gee, whodathunkit?) but that’s not to worry, because my support for the death penalty can be excused (and then dismissed) on purely demographic grounds (I am, after all, white, male, middle-aged, and usually vote conservative, so who cares what a heartless jerk like me thinks about anything?)

But, besides venting, there are two substantive points I would like to add to this discussion, the first, concerning how some seem to read the much-vaunted language added to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty.

CCC 2267 (as revised). Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.  Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent (John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56)”.

This passage is often presented as if it were some sort of significant development of doctrine—and, precisely as a new development, recalcitrants like me need to get with the program.  But I ask, is this language essentially new?

Fr. Henry Davis, sj, (I trust he needs no introduction) wrote 70 years ago: “If therefore capital punishment is necessary for peace and the security of life and property, and if no less punishment avails, it is conceded to the State by God the source of all authority … But this power must be exercised so as not to invade individual rights … the crime punished by death must be legally deserving of the supreme penalty, and it must be established beyond doubt …” Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology (1941) II: 151. See also Prümmer, Handbook (1957) n. 277; Jone, Moral Theology (1945) n. 214; and Häring, Law of Christ (1966) III: 123-126, to name just three others who speak of conditions on the in-itself-just execution of certain criminals.

Now, comparing Davis with the revised Catechism, two things, I suggest, stand out: (1) the Catechism restates in modern style what has always been the principled teaching of the Church (that the death penalty is morally licit under certain circumstances) and (2) the Catechism offers some prudential (and thus, by definition, debatable!) reasons not to use the death penalty (basically, modern states can afford to house murders till their natural death). In short, what’s principled in the Catechism isn’t new and what’s new in the Catechism isn’t principled.

So argue, if one will, the prudence of the death penalty—there are some very good prudential arguments against it, as Häring noted fifty years ago—but do not read the Catechism as making any principled points against the death penalty beyond those that have long been part of the Church teaching on the death penalty, that is, for the last 20 centuries during which no Catholic thinker, let alone any Magisterial pronouncement, asserted the inherent immorality of the death penalty. To the contrary, as Long points out, acknowledgment of the moral liceity of the death penalty justly administered, is the Catholic tradition.

Second, Catholic opponents of the death penalty should be aware that their (supposedly) faith-demanded opposition to the death penalty carries, right now, implications for real Catholics getting real summons to serve on real capital crime juries.

I assume that Catholic opponents of the death penalty would advise fellow Catholics in capital crime jury pools to express to the court (and jurors will be asked about this) their opposition to the death penalty. At which point, having answered Yes, they, like any other juror so answering, will likely be dismissed from the pool for cause. But, do we really want Catholic citizenswhile Catholic pundits debate the death penalty from the comfort of their officesexcluding themselves (or being subjected to dismissal by lawyers) from trials wherein a sound Catholic commitment to justice and fair-play is most needed? If not, may I suggest some moderation in the rhetoric being used by some Catholic opponents of the death penalty against Catholic support for the death penalty. Such rhetoric (besides likely being wrong-headed in itself) seems especially susceptible to the law of unintended consequences. + + +

* “That all the Doctors and Fathers of the Church–with the exception of Tertullian who died outside the faith–have taught the essential validity of capital punishment; and that it is the teaching of the Council of Trent that where all the Fathers and Doctors hold one interpretation of Scripture as the proper one, Catholics are to accept it, are two propositions that signify very little in the oppressive culture of mutationist accounts of doctrinal development.” C’mon, Doc. :)

Update (10 mar 2015): A not unreasonable reply, here, but one that still misses two central points: the death penalty is about justice (a much maligned word these days) and it is about the state’s duty to protect the common good (a much misunderstood concept these days). Moreover, it confuses the Church’s role of Magistra (binding teacher) and Mater (loving example): in a nutshell, the Catholic tradition has always allowed states to decide whether those convicted of capital crimes will, in fact, be executed (ut Mater), but she had never crossed the line into banning (ut Magistra) the sanction as a right of the state.

Update (10 mar 2015): There are several essays out there from Catholics who once supported the death penalty but who now wish to see it banned. With more or less rhetorical skill, these essays amount to narrations of how ‘the scales fell from my eyes and now I see the light’, etc.  Such essays are doubtless sincere; as arguments, however, they are not serious. Private intuition experienced as a sort of personal revelation is not binding on others (and in fact, it should not even be casually assumed by recipients). In the public forum, one either has arguments for one’s policy position, or one doesn’t. Here, one either has arguments as to why the Church has (?), can (?), should (?) change her teaching upholding the liceity of capital punishment, or one doesn’t. Everything else is either a matter of prudence (which others are free to debate) or a matter of feelings (which others are free to ignore).

Reminder: the ‘orans rubric’ for the Our Father still needs fixin’

On the list of ecclesiastical matters urgently needing attention these days, the odd practicing of laity using the orans gesture during the Our Father (and in turn that gesture’s morphing into a rite of hand-holding, often aisle-filling, discombobulation) is, I grant, fairly low in priority. Nevertheless, the orans issue has come to my attention twice recently, and neither time has the author in question seemed aware of the analysis of this issue that I first offered back in 2005. My feelings aren’t hurt, it’s just that, I wonder why more people don’t look more carefully to see whether their good questions might have been treated by others elsewhere. Oh well.

Bottom-line: the rubric calling for the priest to make the orans gesture during the Our Father, a prayer now prayed with the congregants (and not on behalf of the congregants, as had been the case for more than a millennium) is anomalous and should be replaced with a direction for him to join his hands at that time, not extend them. Once this is done, several points will resolve themselves in pretty short order.

It was worse than a crime—it was a blunder

There are credible reports that Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, head of the secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, ordered the confiscation of pro-marriage materials legally mailed to synod participants last October. In addition to whatever international and/or Vatican City State laws might have been violated thereby, and besides the possibility of the violation of Canon 1389 (abuse of ecclesiastical office), this action, if indeed it was taken by ranking prelate, offends at a level that will, I suggest, haunt Church staffers for years to come.

I cannot count the number of times over the decades that I have heard good Catholics, concerned for this problem or that in the Church, despair of having their voice heard as follows: “Why should I bother writing to the bishop? Someone on his staff will not like my letter and will make sure it never gets to him.”

I have many, many times, assured Catholics that such “mail-filtering” was a myth and that, in my experience, bishops see every letter addressed to them. They don’t always answer, I admit, but they do see it. Who knows, perhaps a few Catholics decided to write to their bishops after all, upon my comments.

Now, the myth of ecclesiastics filtering mail that they don’t want others to see has been given a new lease on life. We will be decades living the story down. Put another way, this stunt, assuming it happened as it seems to have happened, was worse than a crime—it was a blunder.

The truth of this matter needs to come out, and, if the story is false, it needs to be contradicted if only for the common good; if it’s true, consequences need to come. Quickly.


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