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Abp. Burke’s excommunication of the "women priests"

March 14, 2008

I would like to say that Abp. Raymond Burke’s excommunication of three women who recently participated in a pseudo-ordination in Saint Louis is a “text-book illustration” of how (non-judicial) excommunication is supposed to be applied in the Church today, but I can’t say that: Why not? Because Abp. Burke’s attention to juridic details and his provisions for the pastoral care of the people entrusted to his care so exceed what the textbooks teach, that it is the textbooks that must copy from him, not him from the textbooks.

The four-page decree of excommunication deserves to be read in its entirety, but I’ll summarize the sanctions themselves, for they are quite interesting.

1. All three women (Fresen, Hudson, & McGrath) are declared to have incurred latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication under Canon 1364.1 for schism. The consequences of excommunication are set out in Canon 1331.2.

2. All three women are also declared to have incurred ferendae sententiae (formally imposed) interdict under Canon 1371.1 for pertinaciously rejecting a definitive truth of the Faith (namely, that women cannot be ordained priests) subsequent to a specific warning to avoid such conduct. The consequences of interdict are set out in Canon 1332.

3. One of the women (Fresen) is declared to have incurred ferendae sententiae excommunication under Canon 1379 for simulating a sacrament other than the Eucharist or confession (here, holy orders). The consequences of excommunication are set out in Canon 1331.2.

Some observations:

A) Burke avoided a one-penalty-fits-all-crimes approach; different offenses (schism, pertinacious rejection, and simulation) were punished differently (excommunication, interdict, and excommunication respectively). His hands were basically tied in regard to the penalty for schism, but for pertinacious rejection he chose a sanction less severe than excommunication, namely interdict; he went back to excommunication, however, on Fresen for simulation, I’m thinking because she pretended to be a bishop conferring holy orders instead of, say, pretending to be a priest conferring anointing of the sick.

B) Each of the women is free to repent without the cooperation of the others; indeed it even seems possible, however unlikely, for them to repent of just one or two of the crimes and be reconciled in regard to that/them only. How so? Well, for example, Fresen could say “I still believe that woman can be ordained, but I sincerely regret taking the issue into my own hands and conferring what I think are holy orders, and I promise not to do it ever again.” She would have a good chance of being reconciled at least on that charge, I would think.

C) If the women take recourse against the penalties (my guess is they will, as others have done before them) the enforcement of the sanctions will be suspended per Canon 1353. I personally think this is an overly generous provision of canon law (indeed, an innovation over 1917 CIC 2243.1) in regard to those who have already been found guilty of grave crimes, but Abp. Burke would certainly honor it.

D) While Abp. Burke’s specific notification not to distribute Holy Communion to the three women was only published in Saint Louis (the limits of his jurisdiction), it applies throughout the world to anyone who comes into knowledge of the excommunications and interdict. Canon 915.

Burke’s action also indicates, by the way, where he stands on an interesting canonical dispute, namely, whether canons that authorize “a just penalty” (e.g., cc. 1371 and 1379) can be enforced by censure (e.g., excommunication). I’ve always held that they could. Nice to know I’m in good company.

I need hardly add that the faithful may, and in charity should, join Abp. Burke in praying for the reconciliation of all three women. Might I suggest, in that vein, seeking the intercession of St. Hippolytus, the some-time antipope who later reconciled with the Church and died a martyr’s death for her about 235. Miracles happen. +++

Read more about it: Excommunication and the Catholic Church (Ascension 2006)
See also Dr. Peters’ Excommunication Blotter

A few other points.

1. Abp. Burke’s line about “any of the Sacraments attempted to be celebrated by [these women] are utterly null and void” should be understood as applying to sacraments whose celebration is reserved to the priesthood which these women wrongly claim to possess; as these women are still lay persons, of course, they could still, strictly speaking, validly perform baptism, and for that matter enter marriage, albeit gravely illicitly.

2. The use Abp. Burke made of Canon 747.2 I thought was very insightful. That provision is usually understood to be oriented ad extra as a defense of the Church’s right to speak out on social affairs. Abp. Burke’s invocation of it in this case reminds us that Church leadership must also look to their own houses and not neglect their charges to comment on others’. Part of Abp. Burke’s credibility when he speaks on social issues arises, I think, precisely from his willingness to make hard decisions within his own community.

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