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Excommunicated Catholics are still Catholic

An essay published some five years ago purporting “to clear up confusion about excommunication” recently popped up again and sowed anew confusion on several aspects of excommunication. I don’t recall responding to the original publication but I will briefly respond now.

Preliminarily, there are, of course, several good points made in the essay, such as noting that excommunication is rarely imposed these days and that the sanction is primarily aimed at the reform of the offender. But at least two hot-button issues related to excommunication were wrongly presented in the essay and warrant correction.

The first is the mistaken idea that, upon excommunication, a “person is no longer a member of the Catholic Church.” Actually an excommunicated Catholic is still a Catholic in rather the same way that a convicted felon is still a citizen. An excommunicated Catholic is simply (sadly, but simply) a Catholic who is excommunicated.

Canon 205 recognizes as Catholic any baptized person who is joined with the Church “in its visible structure by the bonds of profession of faith, of the sacraments, and of ecclesiastical governance.” Now a priest who, say, violates the seal of confession (an excommunicable offense under 1983 CIC 1388) might well believe everything Catholics believe, share in the seven sacraments to the extent allowed by canon law (and, mind, all Catholics are restricted from certain sacraments under certain conditions), and acknowledge the governance of the Church in the very act of accepting the excommunication and in working diligently to have it lifted—as happens from time to time. Such a priest, regretting his act and distressed by his excommunication, does not need to make a ‘profession of faith’ (as if he were coming into full communion from some other religious body) but rather admits his specific fault and seeks the lifting of the Church sanction.

If the foregoing does not suffice to show that excommunicated Catholics are still Catholics (albeit excommunicated ones), consider: excommunicated Catholics are still bound to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation (1983 CIC 1247), something non-Catholics are not required to do; excommunicated Catholics are still bound to observe the Church’s laws on marriage (1983 CIC 1059) something non-Catholics are not required to do; and excommunicated Catholics are still bound to contribute to the material needs of the Church (1983 CIC 222, 1262), something non-Catholics are not required to do. I could list another score of canons that excommunicated Catholics are bound to observe in ways that non-Catholics are not so bound, again, in rather the same way that felons are still bound by the laws of the state while in prison (e.g., prisoners are still subject to income taxes and might have to file tax returns from behind bars). All of these serve to demonstrate that excommunicated Catholics are still Catholic.

In short, while there are some ways for a Catholic to cease juridically being a Catholic (e.g., “defection” from the Church, a topic too far afield from ours), excommunication is not such a way. Excommunicated Catholics are still Catholic. Bad Catholics, sure; but Catholics.

Second is the mistaken idea that “legislators who promote abortion and make it possible … surely must incur the penalty” of excommunication. No, they don’t, but I have made this point in so many venues that I see little use in making it again. Those interested in seeing why those reprehensible Catholics who vote to legalize abortion are, for all that, not excommunicated for abortion, or for anything else, (as if, you know, merely dodging excommunication for one’s evil deeds suffices to show the goodness of such deeds) can look here or more generally here for more information. 

There are still other problems in the recirculated essay—such as its uncritical reference to the lifting of Lefebvrite excommunications and to the subsequently regretted lifting of Williamson’s sanction, both matters I consider to have been canonically botched, as discussed here: Edward Peters, “Benedict XVI’s remission of the Lefebvrite excommunications: an analysis and alternative explanation”, Studia Canonica 45 (2011) 165-189; reprinted in Canon Law Society of Great Britain & Ireland Newsletter 172 (Dec 2012) 1, 8-29—but let the above two examples suffice to show that, in dealing with matters of canon law, especially penal canon law, and most especially with matters of excommunication, readers should beware.

Ceterum, poenae latae sententiae delendae sunt.


Breaking law once hardly justifies breaking it twice

If Pope Francis wants to change the canon law forbidding ecclesiastical funeral rites for “manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without scandal” (1983 CIC 1184 § 1 n. 1) he can do so. Till then Church law forbidding such funerals, a law that dates back many centuries, remains in effect, and its apparent gross violation last week by clergy of the Archdiocese of Boston, who (seemingly with approval from the chancery), granted notorious mob murderer James “Whitey” Bulger a Catholic funeral Mass, hardly justifies granting Church funerals to other “manifest sinners” who do not give “some signs of repentance before death”—which no one claims Bulger gave—not that that fact gave James Martin, sj, any pause before tweeting Bulger’s funeral as preemptive justification for Church funerals for “LGBT person[s even though] they are married”.

To be sure, few priests and prelates seem willing to observe even the softened canon law restricting ecclesiastical funerals that has been in effect since 1983. One bishop who did observe it was Brooklyn Bp. Thomas Daily who denied ecclesiastical funeral rites to John “the Dapper Don” Gotti, an American Mafia chieftain who died in prison in 2001. I defended Daily’s refusal here: Edward Peters, “Lest amateurs argue canon law: a reply to Patrick Gordon’s brief against Bp. Thomas Daily”, Angelicum 83 (2006) 121-142, on-line here. In accord with canon law (e.g., 1983 CIC 901), I would note, a later memorial Mass was permitted for Gotti (just as one would be permitted for Bulger and Martin’s ‘same-sex spouses’). But other bishops who think that canon law means what canon law says, besides Madison WI Bp. Morlino and Springfield IL Bp. Paprocki, seem few. 

Now, to be clear (in case some folks think law means always having to say No) following the canon law on funerals does not always mean refusing such rites in controversial cases. For example, in 2009 the Archdiocese of Boston accorded the notoriously pro-abortion, etc., Sen. Edward Kennedy a Church funeral, a decision I defended as being within the law given public evidence that Kennedy had met the admittedly very low canonical standards for giving “signs of repentance” prior to his death. See Edward Peters, “Still trying to get the Kennedy funeral lessons right”, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 34/1 (Spring 2011) 57-59. As I said, though, no such claims were offered re Bulger.

So if all of this boils down to, the canon law on funerals is not well understood for clergy or laity, and it might be pastorally more trouble than it’s worth, I say, okay, then explain and enforce the law as is, or modify, re-explain, and enforce a reformed law. But don’t leave the law in place, yet disregarded. There are good reasons for and against the law as written—pace, I would say, murder-suicides, and especially family annihilators like Steven Suepple, cases for which no justification, I think, can be foundbut for the rest I am willing to hear arguments for and against. So are many thoughtful others.

Till then, however, “manifest sinners” such as Whitey Bulger should not be accorded Church funeral rites and media priests such as Martin should not parlay violations of canon law into a reason to violate it again. That spreads disrespect for law and for the values it seeks to uphold; it implies that breaking the law itself justifies breaking it again. Of that mentality we need no more.

And may James Bulger, and his dozen-plus victims, rest in peace.

A note on the other kind of schism

Most Catholics correctly, but incompletely, understand schism as “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff” (1983 CIC 751). Overlooked here—perhaps because it is much rarer than is typical ‘anti-papal schism’ and is harder to spot when it does occur—is the second kind of schism, namely, “the refusal … of communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (1983 CIC 751). In other words schism comes in two varieties, ‘vertical schism’ whereby one refuses submission to the Roman Pontiff and ‘horizontal schism’ whereby one refuses to extend that Christian unity owed to others who are, in fact, in union with the pope. If the poster boy for vertical schism was, say, Martin Luther, the horizontal schismatic is, I suggest, one whose devotion to the pope is so extreme that he regards as disloyal those who don’t share his opinions on all things papal and, for that reason, shuns them.

Of course Catholics’ opinions on popes and prelates may vary widely, and, to be sure, the canonical requirements for proving schism, vertical or horizontal, in actual cases are high. But Catholics critical of Pope Francis and/or his governance of the Church—Catholics, mind, in full communion with the Church per Canon 205—notwithstanding their demonstrable communion with the pope, are frequently disparaged these days, sometimes by ranking bishops, as being adversaries, accusers, and gossip-mongers. To some extent, of course, such verbal insults should be written off as Life in This Valley of Tears and those subjected to them simply reminded that others have endured far harsher treatment for the Faith. But lately I wonder whether this demonizing of papal critics risks taking a canonical turn.

Long-time Vaticanista Marco Tosatti recently claimed (Eng. trans. here) that word has been passed down by papal representatives to bishops not to invite Raymond Cdl. Burke to their dioceses and that, should Burke appear at an event in their churches, they should not even appear with him. If this report is true, then understand: bishops working in close collaboration with the pope are instructing other bishops to avoid and, if necessary, to refuse manifestations of Christian unity due to a bishop who is, beyond any question, in full communion with him and them. That report, if true, would suggest something well beyond mere verbal disparagement of a fellow bishop.

Again, journalist claims of such counter-catholic (in the sense of ‘unity’ and ‘oneness’) directives are a long way from constituting proof of horizontal schism in their authors, but that such measures could even be plausibly alleged is a sign of the times and deeply troubling. Like Catholics admonished to avoid sin and even near occasions of sin so prelates should avoid schism and even actions suggestive of schismatic attitudes. If such disgraceful directives were quietly issued may they be quietly and quickly withdrawn; if they were even contemplated may be they be rejected lest they open the door to even deeper divisions than we already suffer.

A bishop’s failure to enforce canon law does not excuse his faithful from following it

It needs no long blog post from a canon lawyer to explain how wrong would be a failure by a bishop to protect his faithful against scandal (CCC 2284, 2287) and/or to defend the Eucharist against potential sacrilege (CCC 2120) but, make no mistake, in reiterating that “it is not [his] policy” to withhold holy Communion from persons in ‘same-sex marriages’, that is what Cdl. Cupich’s refusal to act as ‘the guardian of the entire liturgical life in the church entrusted to him’ (c. 835 § 1) and “to exercise vigilance so that abuses do not creep into ecclesiastical discipline, especially regarding … the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals, [and] the worship of God” (c. 392 § 2) in this matter, does.

Cupich’s failure ‘to bishop’ in this regard, of course, effectively abandons his pastors and other ministers of holy Communion to face alone the anger of some Catholics in ‘same-sex marriages’ who (like persons in merely civil marriages following divorce) must nevertheless be refused holy Communion by pastors correctly recognizing that, no matter what their archbishop doesn’t say, they are still required by canon law not to admit to holy Communion those who ‘obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin’ (c. 915).

Canon 915, as has been explained many, many times, rests on ancient, indeed Biblical, foundations, nothing in modern canon law or recent magisterial literature annuls it, and it unquestionably applies in regard to Catholics who have attempted a ‘same-sex marriage’. But it might still be useful to explicitate briefly the application of Canon 915 in some same-sex pastoral situations.

1. A homosexual inclination or orientation does not, in anyone’s opinion, disqualify a person from being admitted to holy Communion.

2. Cohabitation by homosexuals does not, in my opinion, disqualify them from being admitted to holy Communion because one does not assume that persons of the same sex are engaged in sexual activity (and in this respect, yes, homosexual cohabitation differs from heterosexual, or has differed, according to about 5,000 years of recorded human behavior).

3. Attempted civil marriage between persons of the same sex (just like those following divorce between heterosexuals) disqualifies, in the common and constant opinion of learned persons (which I share), such Catholics from being admitted to holy Communion because the sign-values that marriage (c. 1055) enjoys in the Church and civil society—itself a public sign proclaimed, by the way, irrespective of whatever private sexual activity might or might not be occurring between the persons involved—are contradicted by persons purporting to be in a ‘marriage’ that cannot be a marriage.

The above analysis applies, I suggest, even if it is not promoted by local Church authorities.

+ + +

PS: Speaking of Chicago, has an announcement been made yet that the two Chicago-based priests recently arrested for XXXing each other in a car parked a short distance from a playground in Miami will be prosecuted canonically toward their dismissal from the clerical state? If not, might one ask what the delay is?

The cerberus of clerical sexual misconduct: a canonical overview

The cerberus of clerical sexual misconduct has three heads: (1) clerical sexual abuse against minors; (2) clerical sexual misconduct with consenting adults; and (3) episcopal complicity in both. Canon law is not the only means of addressing these three snarling problems, but it is, or could be, one means to address them. It behooves all to understand what canon law does, and does not, say about these matters so that discussion of responses to the crisis may proceed more efficiently.


To keep this discussion of the Roman canon law on clerical sexual misconduct manageable some issues need to be set aside.

Clerical sexual misconduct in the context of sacramental Confession (i.e., “solicitation” per Canon 1387) and misconduct related to the possession of some forms of pornography are not treated here, nor is misconduct that turns on one’s protracted ‘status’ (e.g., clerical concubinage per Canon 1395 § 1) or that committed against adults of diminished capacity.

The definition of clergy “sexual misconduct” itself is left aside* but, for present purposes, it includes what, I trust, any reasonable person would recognize as gravely immoral sexual activity with another human being. Such misconduct could consist of a single incident (e.g., a priest’s ‘one night stand’ with a married woman). The term “clergy” refers to deacons, priests, and bishops but whether those men might also be vowed religious or cardinals is irrelevant here.

An important penal norm, Canon 1399, could be (and in some cases, I think, should be, now) invoked against sexually offending clerics, but that canon does not expressly deal with clergy sexual misconduct and it is poor legislative technique, I think, to expect it to serve as the primary disciplinary norm against a variety of behaviors that are erupting in many places and that are so disruptive of personal lives and ecclesial order. I cannot not discuss its application here.

1. Clerical sexual abuse against minors

Clerical sexual misconduct (both heterosexual or homosexual) against minors (persons aged 17 or under, per Canon 97 § 1) is punishable with penalties up to and including dismissal from the clerical state (commonly called “laicization”) under Canon 1395 § 2 which criminalizes such misconduct with persons aged 15 or younger, and under special law, Substantive Norms art. 6 § 1 n. 1 issued in support of m.p. Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (2001) which criminalizes clergy sexual misconduct with all minors. (By papal indult this higher ‘age of consent’ had been in effect in the US since 1994.)

Under the Pio-Benedictine Code, effectively all forms of clerical heterosexual misconduct against minors was expressly or impliedly punishable with sanctions up to and including dismissal from the clerical state, and certainly all forms of clerical homosexual misconduct (including that directed against minors, which homosexual aspect makes up the vast majority of clergy sexual misconduct cases identified in the last several decades) was punishable. 1917 CIC 2359 §§ 2-3**. Perhaps historians can advise as to how often Canon 2359 was applied but that it was the law until late 1983 is incontestable.

Additionally, under special law, the Holy Office instr. Crimen sollicitationis (1922, 1962) tit. V, clerical sexual misconduct against children (impuberes) was punishable as above, and all clerical homosexual misconduct (including that against all minors) was criminalized, but the unusual way this special law was promulgated decreased its effectiveness in addressing these clerical crimes. In 2001 Crimen was abrogated leaving the 1983 Code and m.p.  Sacramentorum as the two express canonical bases for the prosecution of clerics sexually offending against minors.

Others might explore whether, at least in the United States, the clerical sexual abuse of minors has been largely eliminated in the wake of, say, a better appreciation of canonical options for prosecution of offending clerics, a heightened willingness to take such actions in the wake of the “Dallas Charter” of 2002 as revised, pro-active prevention programs implemented throughout pastoral ministry, and more effective screening of candidates for holy orders.

2. Clerical sexual misconduct with consenting adults

Clerical sexual misconduct with consenting adults is generally not a crime under current canon law whether codified or special. This is a serious omission in current law and, whatever other harms come in its wake, it leaves canonically unaddressed a grave form of sacrilege (CCC 2120, 2139).

Currently the only forms of clerical sexual misconduct involving adults that are identified as canonical crimes (see Canon 1395) are those committed: “by force” (seldom alleged and difficult to prove); with “threats” (not commonly alleged, but perhaps more frequent than is realized); or “publicly” (itself a controverted term in canon law, but, as a practical matter, given cultural mores concerning sexual activity, rather seldom engaged in—the two Chicago-based priests recently arrested in Miami being exceptions that prove the rule).

Under Pio-Benedictine law, as noted above, most heterosexual clerical misconduct with adults and all homosexual misconduct with adults was expressly or impliedly punishable per 1917 CIC 2359 §§ 2-3** and/or Crimen sollicitationis, both now abrogated.

Whatever factors led to the effective de-criminalization of most consensual clerical sexual misconduct with adults under the 1983 Code (a variety of factors both sinister and benign were probably involved), the fact is that, for example, two clerics performing homosexual acts on each other, a married deacon committing adultery against his wife, a pastor having a ‘one-night stand’ with a female member of the parish council, and a dozen other gravely sinful and seriously scandalizing behaviors besides, are not expressly recognized as crimes under current canon law. Thus I say, Canon 1395 stands in urgent need of reform.

To be clear, some of the more egregious recent cases of clerical sexual misconduct can even now be dealt with under current law, but comprehensively getting at the personal, sacramental, and ecclesiastical wounds that clergy sexual misconduct inflicts on the Mystical Body of Christ requires principled and clear thinking followed by resolute action–commodities admittedly often in short supply during times of crisis.

3. Episcopal complicity in clergy sexual misconduct

Treating offending bishops as a distinct head of the clergy sexual misconduct crisis, whether because those bishops are accused of their own misconduct (Archbishop McCarrick being the face of that travesty) or because they are accused of failing to act adequately in the face of others’ misconduct, is appropriate for several reasons.

First, bishops enjoy the fullness of holy Orders and therefore offenses committed or tolerated by them offend Church order even more gravely than do similar offenses committed by lower ranking figures. 1983 CIC 1326 § 1 n. 3. Second, in a society such as the Church, a society that depends heavily on good example as a means of leading persons to The Good, malfeasance by bishops deprives the Church and her faithful of the crucial pastoral benefits that good example in high office affords.

Now, while the 2002 clergy sexual misconduct crisis focused, it seemed, on abuse committed by individual priests and deacons, with the Church and the world looking to bishops to enforce ecclesiastical discipline against offending lower-ranking clergy, the 2018 crisis seems more focused on bishops themselves as complicit in the clergy sexual misconduct crisis, this, in two main ways.

Some bishops are themselves accused of personal sexual misconduct, in which case everything said above concerning “clerics” applies to them. More recently, however, the majority of complaints against bishops concern their actual or perceived failures to supervise and discipline their clergy in cases of suspected sexual misconduct (to some degree, an issue raised in the 2002 crisis) and, even more so, assertions that some bishops have covered for or ignored misconduct (whether personal and/or supervisory) among their own.

Essentially, then, these complaints come down to allegations that bishops (a) abused their offices to commit crimes personally (which is itself punishable by sanctions up to and including loss of office under Canon 1389 § 1); and/or that they (b) culpably failed to exercise the responsibilities of supervision that bind all bishops (which itself is punishable by a “just penalty” under Canon 1389 § 2 in light of Canons 128 and 392).

That being clearly said, however, several important doctrinal principles rooted in the divine constitution of the Church, and the canonical correlatives of those principles (summarized in Canon 1405 § 1 n. 3), must be recognized and respected in order for real reform of the canon law governing bishops, especially regarding crimes and negligence committed by them, to proceed effectively.


I hope the above observations help provide a better understanding of the canon law impacting what I describe as the three heads of the clergy sexual misconduct cerberus. In brief: the first head, clerical sexual abuse against minors, seems at least to have been muzzled; the second head, clerical sexual misconduct with consenting adults, is not adequately curbed in modern canon law; and the third head, various forms of episcopal complicity in clergy sexual misconduct, requires very careful, and very prompt, doctrinal and canonical attention.

* For an introduction to this complex matter, see, e.g., my “Applications of the Essential Norms in cases of doubt”, CLSA Advisory Opinions (2009) 133-138.

** 1917 CIC 2359. § 1. Concubinious clerics in sacred [orders], whether secular or religious, previous warnings not being heeded, are to be coerced into giving up their illicit relationship and to repair scandal by [being] suspended from divine things, [and by suffering] the loss of the benefits of office, benefices, dignities, the prescriptions of Canons 2176-2181 being observed. § 2. If they engage in a delict against the sixth precept of the Decalogue with a minor below the age of sixteen, or engage in adultery, debauchery, bestiality, sodomy, pandering, incest with blood-relatives or affines in the first degree, they are suspended, declared infamous, and are deprived of any office, benefice, dignity, responsibility, if they have such, whatsoever, and in more serious cases, they are to be deposed. § 3. If they otherwise sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, let them be coerced with appropriate penalties according to the gravity of the case, not excepting deprivation of office or benefice, especially if they have care of souls.

Some reactions to Mary Eberstadt’s essay

In an excellent essay on the sacerdotal sexual abuse catastrophe Mary Eberstadt makes some canonically interesting comments. My thoughts on them follow.

Eberstadt writes: “[1] Individual cases and secular studies have shown that childhood sexual abuse increases the risk of becoming an abuser. [2] Whether that causal connection rises to the level of a ‘perpetual impediment’ to ordination, to use the language of Canon 1040, is for lawyers to decide. [3] For the rest of us, it is enough to know that if seminaries had screened for a history of childhood sexual abuse, the ledger of the past several decades might have been radically different.”

Sentence 1 is true; sentence 3, though tentatively phrased and something of a post hoc  fallacy, works at the rhetorical level to suggest that something needs to change; but sentence 2 is of concern.

Preliminarily, whatever one makes of Eberstadt’s substantive idea below, placing it in the Code is not something “for lawyers to decide”; it is wholly and solely something for popes to decide.

Substantively, Eberstadt seems open to the idea that one’s status as a victim of some circumstance (here, having been sexually abused) should impact one’s right to be considered for holy orders. I also am open to considering that proposition but we should be clear that that is where Eberstadt’s idea leads.

Until recently canon law recognized that some circumstances over which one had no control could nevertheless impact one’s eligibility for orders. Thus—besides those whose personal actions barred them from later pursuing orders (e.g., those committing acts of heresy or self-mutilation)—the Pio-Benedictine Code of 1917 also declared “irregular” for orders those who, for example, were born out of wedlock or suffered certain genetic or adventitious deformities. 1917 CIC 984-985. Dispensations from irregularities were available and granted often-enough, but the point was that canon law treated certain aspects of one’s background, including some circumstances over which one had no control, as negatively impacting one’s suitability for orders. Canonists developed good arguments defending these ‘circumstance-based’ irregularities but their arguments faced the obvious rejoinder that at least some of these exclusions smacked of unfairness.

The Johanno-Pauline Code of 1983—while retaining most of the traditional, ‘act-based’ obstacles to orders (e.g., heresy and self-mutilation)—removed basically all ‘circumstance-based’ obstacles to pursuing orders such that today bishops focus mainly on whether a candidate for orders “is endowed … with the necessary qualities” (1983 CIC 1025 § 1) and “is suitable to receive orders” (1983 CIC 1052 § 3). Eberstadt simply invites us to consider whether the law should establish at least one ‘circumstance-based’ factor (to wit, having been sexually abused) as an irregularity for orders.

Maybe Eberstadt is on to something. Maybe one’s having been sexually abused should bar one from seeking holy orders. We should trust the Church’s pastoral wisdom (recalling Paul VI’s famous description of the Church as “an expert in humanity”) to illuminate the answer.

But toward finding that answer I suggest we clarify whether the claim is that: (A) childhood sexual abuse experiences make males more likely to abuse others sexually; or (B) childhood sexual abuse experiences make males more likely to develop homosexual tendencies which tendencies make them more likely to abuse others sexually. In other words, we should ask whether there might be a step or a status between one’s victimization and one’s likelihood of abusing others, namely, the development of a homosexual orientation (whether it arises from earlier victimization or from some other cause). If there is such an intermediate status, and if that status is statistically distinguishable from victimization status, and if that status is discernable by those in formation work, canon law—which is supposed to make the Church’s pursuit of her mission more efficient—should focus not so much on whether a seminarian was a victim of sexual abuse but on whether he is homosexually-oriented.

Of course, looking at homosexual orientation (not to a victim’s history) is the direction that a few Church directives already point. See Cong. for Catholic Education (Grocholewski), instr. In continuità (04 nov 2005), Eng. on-line here, passim, discouraging the ordination of those men (indeed, their admission into seminary) with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”, and Cong. for the Clergy (Stella), Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (08 dec 2016), Eng. on-line here, esp. nn. 199-200, making the same suggestion.

But, as I pointed out here, neither dicastery document suffices to establish a canonical obstacle (an “irregularity”) to orders on par with, say, certain mental disorders or the canonically criminous acts mentioned earlier. Why Rome has not used the authority of codified canon law to support the efforts of a dicastery or two toward preventing the ordination of men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”, I do not know.

I only know that Rome hasn’t done so.

Some reactions to Fr. de Souza’s essay

Apologies for a long post; I don’t have time to write a short one.

I don’t mean to single out Fr. Raymond de Souza, whom I have read with profit many times, but his essay over at National Catholic Register, “It’s time to turn down the temperature”, touches on several issues related to the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its recent, very grave Roman ramifications that need airing. So, first some canonical matters, then some rhetorical ones.

Resignation in general.

Canon law provides for resignation from ecclesiastical office. 1983 CIC 187-189. The threshold for any resignation is pretty low (namely, “a just cause”) so resignation from office for a good cause would be more than acceptable. Indeed it would be preferable, I think, to an unfit (or worse) occupant continuing to hold a Church office.

Canon law encourages, and frankly pressures, a pastor to resign from office when his ministry becomes “ineffective … even through no grave personal negligence”. 1983 CIC 1740, etc. That norm and others imply that pastors who have acted in ways that actually render themselves unfit to stay in office should resign.

Finally, canon law, albeit in more nuanced terms (given the ecclesiological issues involved), encourages a bishop to resign his see when he “become[s] less able to fulfill his office because of … some other grave cause…” 1983 CIC 401 § 2. The allegations swirling around several bishops and cardinals in various countries and in Rome itself would, if true, surely suffice as “grave cause” for such prelates to tender their resignations immediately. The world must await evidence of wrong-doing before making demands in this area but prelates who know the truth of their own situations should act accordingly. Now.

By the way, resignation from Church office motivated by one’s own, or the community’s, awareness of malfeasance in no way renders a resignation invalid (see Canon 188) or prevents ecclesiastical authority from later prosecuting and punishing said resignee for those misdeeds. One who resigns Church office under such circumstances has not ‘picked his own punishment’, rather, he has performed a good act by ending one aspect of his scandal. After that, let justice take its normal course.

Papal resignation, Francis.

De Souza writes: “It was a mistake for Archbishop Viganò to call for the resignation of Pope Francis.” Oh?

Of what was said above concerning resignation from Church office in general, what would not apply to a pope, of all office holders, if he, as alleged by Viganò, from the first months of his papacy knowingly protected and favored a cardinal who was [pick a disgusting verb]-ing seminarians? By what possible stretch of the imagination would such an occupant be suited for the Chair of Peter? Does the historical fact that some pretty bad popes held on to office despite committing various offenses justify other popes acting badly in shirking even the minimal gesture of resigning?

Viganò is unquestionably in a position to know, and claims to know, whether his central allegation that Francis’ was covering for McCarrick, big time, for years, is correct. Believing, as he does, that his claims are correct, Viganò, in calling for Francis’ resignation, has done nothing more or less than exercise his right under canon law “to manifest to the sacred pastors [his] opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make [his] opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful…” 1983 CIC 212 § 3.

I have not called for Francis’ resignation because I do not know (with the degree of certitude that a lawyer seeks) whether Viganò’s key allegations against Francis are substantially true; most assuredly, however, if I reach the conclusion that they are true, I would say, without hesitation, that Francis should resign. Such a resignation would, I think, result in the very opposite of what De Souza fears when he worries that a papal resignation “under a cloud would be a catastrophe for Catholic credibility and unity.” Balderdash. If Viganò’s allegations are proven, I think a papal refusal to resign would be a catastrophe for Catholic credibility and unity.

Papal resignation, Benedict.

De Souza writes: “The mistake that Benedict XVI made by abdicating in 2013 need not be compounded by people — especially high-ranking prelates — treating the papal office as something worldly that can be relinquished under adverse circumstances.” Others, such as Raymond Arroyo, have expressed ‘squeamishness’ over the prospect of a Francis resignation, lest ‘there be three popes’ sitting in Rome. Nonsense. A Francis resignation would no more result in three popes than Benedict’s resignation resulted in two.

Time does not permit me the luxury of squeamishness so let me say a few things directly.

In my view, first, Pope John Paul II should have resigned at least five years before his death; he was effectively ignored by the corrupt elements in his curia for at least that long and the Church has suffered sorely for it. Second, and despite my professional misgiving about how Ratzinger/Benedict understood and used canon law, I think it was a grave error for him to have resigned, and, if his resignation gave the impression that the papacy was essentially “something worldly that can be relinquished under adverse circumstances”, well, that’s on Benedict, no one else. Third, Benedict’s unjustified resignation and its disastrous aftermath does nothing to answer whether Francis should, upon his own knowledge and/or in the face of public proof of malfeasance, resign. That is an entirely separate question to be answered on its own merits.

What really gets me irked.

Most of De Souza’s essay urging disputants “to turn down the temperature” savors of that rhetorical style, now wearing very thin, wherein paternalistic, above-the-fray advice comes down from a supposedly calm and objective observer to squabbling children who are letting emotions get in the way of problem solving, a la, ‘Now, now boys and girls, play nicely.” For crying out loud.

If, even today, a priest still does not see that the last thing in the world that lay faithful—who represent 99% of the victims of clergy sexual abuse and who make up 98% of the voices demanding accounting, cleansing, and deep ecclesiastical reform—need to hear is yet another cleric telling them to quiet down about clergy sexual abuse and/or weighty allegations that abuse was being covered up at the highest levels of the Church, well, I don’t know what to say in the face of such chronic cluelessness.

It certainly does not suffice to excuse the proffering of such advice by pointing to the obvious fact that some laity (among the millions wounded directly or indirectly by decades of clerical indifference in this area) are hot heads forsaking love for fury. We all know that! Such persons are, in fact, a bonus for the devil, for he gets these sad souls to violate charity in their desire for justice! Good priests who want to lend a special hand in repairing the damages wrought by some of their evil brothers and superiors could well reach out in a special way to such persons, to these victims in their own way of clergy sexual abuse and cover-up.

Moreover, this ‘everybody-calm-down’ advice supposedly aimed at ‘both sides’ of this matter is frankly insulting to that one side which, beyond any question, has been severely betrayed by the other. Even the idea that ‘both sides’ are engaged in roughly equal exchanges is groundless. Francis, for example, sees himself as choosing the high road of silence and, after taking some digs at “people lacking good will, … people who only seek scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within the family”, seems intent on saying nothing more. Sure, a few mouth-pieces such as the papolatrous Fr. Rosica, and few prelates who, it seems, owe their current offices in some measure to the great influence that Francis is alleged to have accorded the disgraceful and disgraced McCarrick, have spoken out intemperately, but for the most part these voices are very, very few.

No, the shouting in this mess is coming overwhelmingly from one side, the side that has been wronged! To call on ‘both sides’, then, “to turn down the temperature” is, therefore, effectively aimed at squelching one side here, the victims! 

Deep breath time…

As for some other points in De Souza’s essay, such as his minimizing the personal attacks on Viganò as a “tactical mistake” that “muddied the waters for a few days”, or his concession that “it would [be] very damaging to the Holy Father personally and to the Church generally if Archbishop Viganò’s charges are true” (just “very damaging”?), or his generous interpretation of Francis’ “dramatic and heartfelt admission of error and expression of contrition” in the Chilean debacle—well, to borrow a phrase, who am I to judge? Maybe it was “heartfelt”. I hope it was. But that being granted, may I ask, who is De Souza to judge the pope’s heart? I pray the pope’s conversion was as De Souza sees it, heartfelt. I only know it was the right thing to do, and got done it did, regardless of whether the pope’s motives were heartfelt, self-serving, both, or neither. Fine.

Let me close with this observation: De Souza and I are on the same side of this crisis; I have not the slightest doubt that he detests what has happened to the victims of clergy sexual abuse and is in palpable pain over the very prospect that cover for such abuse was extended even by those in the highest ranks of Church authority. We each, in our respective spheres, have dealt with the aftermath of problems for which neither of us are to blame. We both want the truth to come out. And we each wince when others equally appalled at what has happened purport to speak for all of us with hatred, exploitation, or vengeance in their voices. What can I say, that’s not me and it’s not Fr. De Souza.

But that said, sometimes even allies offer advice that is ill-conceived, and in the respects outlined above, I think that applies to some of what Fr. De Souza wrote for the Register. And I have no doubt, of course, that others might disagree with my disagreements. That’s fine, too.

As I have said from the outset, the cleansing of the Church from the defilements she has suffered of late will come and true reforms will be put into place, but it’s not going to be a smooth process and it’s not going to be a pretty one.

It’s just going to be.