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By seeking diaconal orders, did Norma Jean Coon commit "heresy"?

April 7, 2011

The Norma Jean Coon case, which began so terribly and ended so beautifully, continues to occasion discussion.

One line of thought has lately caught my eye: in light of Canons 750-751 and ap. lit. Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994), Coon’s seeking of diaconal orders was tantamount to her committing the delict of heresy and resulted in her being automatically excommunicated under Canon 1364.

I don’t think so.

In order to be excommunicated for heresy under Canon 1364, one must, obviously, have committed the delict of heresy. Now, heresy is defined in Canon 751 as “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth that must be believed by divine and Catholic faith.” In Ordinatio n. 4, John Paul II declares “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

Setting aside the procedural problems endemic to applying latae sententiae penalties under the 1983 Code, there are at least three substantive problems with trying to parlay female ‘ordination’ into the crime of heresy.

First—as I have had occasion to point out in other contexts, and though it takes more time to explain the concept of qualitas delicti than I have now—acting in ‘violation’ of a Church teaching does not necessarily imply one’s heretical “doubt or denial” of that teaching. For example, if I commit murder, I do not necessarily deny the Church teaching that murder is always wrong, I might simply have chosen to act contrary to it. For the act of killing my neighbor out of hatred, I would be prosecuted for murder (c. 1397) not for heresy (c. 1364). It is possible, I grant, for an action to be the expression of heresy, but such characterizations still require proof of heresy, and not simply proof that an action was inconsistent with an important Church teaching. Coon’s seeking of diaconal orders was, to be sure, a violation of canon law (e.g., cc. 1024 and 1379) but whether it was also an action expressing heresy is a different question.

Second, any attempt to invoke Ordinatio against Coon labors under the obvious limitation that Ordinatio addresses, by its express terms, attempted female presbyteral (and by implication, episcopal) ordination, but not diaconal ordination. While one can propose a number of explanations for John Paul’s reluctance to extend Ordinatio to diaconal orders (and while I think the invalidity of such ‘ordinations’ can be proven on other grounds) the simple fact is that Ordinatio says nothing about diaconal orders, and Coon attempted only diaconal orders.

Third, and, I think, most conclusively, if also most subtly, Ordinatio asserts only the obligation to hold (tenendam) that the Church has no power to confer presbyteral orders on women; it does not require one to believe (credendae, let alone to believe “with divine and Catholic faith”) that the Church has no power to confer sacerdotal orders on women. But for heresy, recall, one must obstinately doubt or deny an assertion that must be believed with divine and Catholic faith. In other words, Coon can’t have committed heresy by “denying” Ordinatio.

This is no mere canonist’s quibble.

The difference between believing something (with divine and Catholic faith, no less) and holding something (even if “definitively”) is quite significant — so significant, in fact, that the failure of the 1983 Code to sanction those who rejected Church teachings which required mere (if I may put it that way) definitive acceptance (as opposed to requiring belief) was corrected in 1998 by John Paul II when he added a second paragraph to Canon 750 and additional text to Canon 1371. See JP2, m.p. Ad tuendam fidem (1998).

The new text in Canon 750 § 2 enunciates the obligation of Catholics to hold certain kinds of teachings of the Church (whereas previously the canon had only addressed the need to believe certain kinds of teachings), and the new text in Canon 1371 authorizes penal action against those who reject the teachings described in the new Canon 750 § 2. Now, a simple glance at Canon 1371 makes plain that it operates in cases other than heresy; moreover, Canon 1371 does not operate latae sententiae (and there is no evidence that Coon ever faced a formal penal process), and even at that, the canon calls only for a “just penalty”, which might or might not (and for several reasons, “not” is the more likely initial step) be excommunication.

In everyday conversation, of course, the terms “believe” XYZ and “hold” XYZ are used interchangeably. Those not trained in canon law could easily overlook the difference between the two expressions (to say nothing of their overlooking the other problems with trying to cast Coon as a one-time heretic). But, to borrow a famous phrase, while the world must construe according to its wits, a tribunal must construe according to the law, and in canon law and theology, the obligation of believing something and, the obligation of holding something, are not the same things. See CDF, Commentary on the Professio fidei (1998) esp. n. 8.

The strict interpretation that must be accorded all penal canon law (Canon 18 and Reg. Iur. 49) forbids punishing as heresy what is only (again, if I may put it that way) the rejection of something to be held definitively, as opposed to the rejection of something that must be believed with divine and Catholic faith. Thus (and buckle your seat belts before proceeding) even if Coon had said (and I know of no evidence that she did say): “I seek ordination from Patricia Fresen precisely to demonstrate my rejection of the Church teaching that the Church has no power to confer sacerdotal orders on women”, Coon could not have been convicted of heresy against the assertions definitively to be held (not believed) under Ordinatio sacerdotalis. Punishment under Canon 1379 (simulation of a sacrament) was certainly possible; punishment under Canon 1371 (for actions contrary to teachings defended by Canon 750 § 2) was certainly possible; but punishment under Canon 1364 § 1 (for heresy as defined by Canon 751 and against the obligations of Canon 750 § 1), does not seem possible.

In sum, I see no compelling argument that Norma Jean Coon, whatever might have been her moral culpability for seeking diaconal orders, and whatever other canons she violated, ever committed the canonical delict of heresy.

She should not be accused of having done so.

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