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Communist ordinations: another issue

May 4, 2006

I had not intended to blog about canonical penalties, specifically 1983 CIC 1382 and its automatic excommunication, in my earlier remarks on the Communist ordinations, but the issue keeps coming up. Oh well, that often happens in a crisis; matters better left for discussion in calmer times are suddenly thrust into the limelight.

Briefly, there are two very complex and controverted canonical issues raised here: (1) what is the place of automatic (latae sententiae) penalties in a legal system; and, (2) do Canons 1323-1324 render practically unenforceable most of Book VI, Part II, of the 1983 Code? I will not suggest an answer to either question in this blog; I’m just alerting to folks to where the questions are.

In the case at hand, prescinding from several other worthy canonical defense arguments, 1983 CIC 1324 § 3 says that a latae sententiae penalty does not apply to one whose actions were coerced by grave fear (even if it is only grave in the perception of that person), even if the action tends to harm of souls. The Vatican’s own statement asserts what others reasonably surmised: some of these men were coerced by Communist officials into acting as they did. Now, I like to think that laws mean what the words say; thus, I cannot think how automatic excommunications were incurred under these facts.

But notice, the Vatican has not claimed otherwise.

While Navarro-Valls’ correctly referenced Canon 1382, he did not state that those involved in this case had incurred the sanction. He does not have that authority, and I frankly doubt that even the Vatican would have access yet to the kind of canonically relevant information necessary to form such a conclusion. Instead, the secular media has drawn that conclusion, though in this case it’s hard to blame them for doing so. Canon 1382, the only norm cited by N-V, sure seems to support it.

The sacramental questions raised by Communist ordinations still seem more interesting to me, but if this crisis occasions a fresh look at the legal problems associated with latae sententiae penalties and the affirmative defenses in Canons 1323 and 1324, so be it.

Last thought: the more that factors such as external coercion tend to diminsh penal liability, the more it seems that questions about sacramental validity can be raised; conversely, where there is less interefence with freedom, the more likely it is that sacramental actions are valid and that penalties for illicit celebrations would apply.

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