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Three recent questions in the wake of the lesbian/Communion controvery

March 13, 2012

I get paid to explain canon law in the calm context of the graduate classroom, where things like definitions, nuance, history, and values can be reflected upon by well-informed peers (or at least by students who do the readings!) But I never let my students forget that canon law is fundamentally a legal system, and that legal systems deal with real people, and that real people can make a sorry mess of their lives and the lives of others in pretty short order. So, if the recent lesbian/Communion controversy affords us an unlooked-for opportunity, perhaps even a necessity, to explain some of the working of canon law, so be it. I’m game.

Here, I consider the three common questions about this case. Sometimes, yes, the questions are rhetorical and seem designed more to taunt than to inquire, but to the degree they nevertheless help surface issues that others might find instructive, let’s look at them.

Isn’t it just splitting hairs to describe Fr. Guarnizo as being on “administrative leave” when everyone knows he is suspended?

We are talking canon law, right? Well, canon law is an ancient legal system that, over many centuries, has developed numerous terms of art. Canon law is not secret, but neither is it simple. Those who want to discuss canon law intelligently must understand and observe canonical definitions, or risk talking nonsense. In any case, it is not incumbent on canon lawyers to run around explaining their terms to everyone under the sun who wants to express an opinion about this canonical issue or that. Instead, it is incumbent on those many others to find out (or at least to take some guidance on) how canon law uses certain words before pronouncing judgment.

The word “suspension” denotes a canonical penalty imposed only upon guilt for a canonical crime (c. 1333). In the not-too-distant past, some ecclesiastical officials, including bishops, misused the word “suspension” to describe what may be more accurately described as “administrative leave” (more about that in a sec), but when they did so, canonists, publicly and privately, corrected that misuse of terms and, for some time now, the mistaken use of “suspension” seems to have faded out among ecclesiastical leadership. Deo gratias. Only to reappear now among some bloggers. Sigh.

But: if you are talking canon law, and you describe a cleric as “suspended”, you have described him as being guilty of a canonical crime. Therefore, those describing Fr. Guarnizo as “suspended” are canonically defaming him. Whether they know it or not.

Now, about “administrative leave”. Canon law, a living legal system serving a living Church, is trying to catch up to some recent developments in, among other things, the theology of holy Orders, which developments have brought about, among things, the eclipse of the Pio-Benedictine category of “simplex priest”, leaving a hole in the law, or at least in its terminology, to describe a priest who is not under a penalty (c.o.), nor irregular for orders (c. 1044), nor restricted pursuant to a penal process (c. 1722). This category of priest undoubtedly exists (because faculties for preaching, confessions, sacramental acts, and so on, can undoubtedly be restricted or taken away without any suggestion of guilt, etc.), but the 1983 Code does not give us a neat term to denote such priests. Until such time, if any, as the Legislator chooses to give us such a term, the phrase “administrative leave” seems to cover that gap fairly well, or at least, it does so among people who know what they are talking about.

In short, the phrase “administrative leave” protects the reputation of the cleric in question; the term “suspension” marks him as a canonical criminal.

So, are priests supposed to help lesbian Buddhists commit sacrilege against Our Lord by giving them holy Communion?

Deep breath, Ed….Okay. Let’s break this down.

Lesbian. First, the Church regards the homosexual/lesbian condition as “disordered” in somewhat the same way that one may regard alcoholism as a “disorder”. According to our tradition, one may not deny holy Communion to an individual suffering from a “disorder”, so, those Catholics calling for the banning of “a lesbian” from Communion are violating our tradition (not to mention our canon law). That said, however, it is possible to deprive one of holy Communion who engages in conduct that amounts to canonically verified “obstinate perseverance in manifest grave sin” (c. 915), as canon law uses each of those terms. I have said from the beginning of this mess, verifiable conduct, not asserted status, is the only question relevant here. Now, if someone wants to make the case that all five (per c. 18) of those banning conditions were canonically satisfied a few minutes before Mass one day, they are free to try. I think they would fail in the attempt, but that’s just my opinion. In any case, at least such persons would be talking about what is relevant here, the law on holy Communion, and not just using rhetorical questions as cudgels.

Buddhists. Buddhists have no right to holy Communion; baptized persons, in accord with law, have the right to holy Communion (c. 912, etc.). This woman was baptized Catholic. The presumption is, therefore, that she had a right to Communion, and the burden is on those who would deny her same to prove that she is no longer permitted by law to receive holy Communion, here, on the grounds that she is a Buddhist. That is a heavy burden of proof, of course, and one not likely sustainable in a short conversation before Mass one day, and one made even more difficult in the wake of a Notification handed down in April 2006 regarding the “formal act of defection” and its relation to, among other things, the canonical crime of apostasy (cc. 751, 1364), and in turn its impact on the application of wider canon law to such individuals. In short, canonists know that a Catholic’s claim to be a Buddhist, and a Catholic’s being canonically recognized as being a Buddhist, are very distinct things. Those who are not canonists may be excused not being aware of the difference, but not for ignoring it once it is pointed out to them.

Given all the hoopla this lady has generated about herself, wouldn’t it be fair to say that if she presents herself for Communion again, she should be denied?

Yes. With one caveat common among the doctors who have discussed these situations for several centuries—in contrast to most bloggers who have been aware of these questions for maybe several days.

Notoriety (of the type needed for denial of the Eucharist) in one place is not necessarily notoriety in another. Like other human communities, the cyber-community exaggerates how widely known are matters of interest to it. I would not want to see a priest unaware of this woman’s profile, etc., and giving her Communion, being torn to shreds by Catholic hotheads for desecrating the Eucharist. This is one more reason why Canon 915 (and a half-dozen other relevant norms) are so narrowly drawn: the primary responsibility for approaching holy Communion worthily rests with the individual (c. 916).

This, mind, from someone who has labored for years, and who will continue to do so, to get Canon 915 enforced properly. + + +

See also Phil Lawler, The removal of Father Guarnizo—what we still don’t know (13 March 2012)

Ha! That’s the second time the “s” in “controversy” has dropped out of my title! How funny.


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