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George Neumayr’s double-barreled blast of Cdl. Wuerl was very wrong

March 19, 2012

George Neumayr is a terrific observer of things Catholic, and an excellent writer to boot. But everybody has a bad day from time to time, and today must have been Neumayr’s. Unfortunately, the object of his ire is not just a brother in the Lord but a major prelate governing a very important American see. Little, (frankly, nothing) in Neumayr’s on-line editorial today for American Spectator will help Cdl Donald Wuerl do a better job for the Catholic Church in Washington DC.

Amid his obvious anger, sacrcasm, and numerous ad hominem shots, Neumayr blasts Wuerl’s stance on Rep Nancy Pelosi with the same trigger pull by which he blasts Wuerl’s (sic: so far, Wuerl’s subordinates) response to the Barbara Johnson case. But the two cases differ markedly and, in going after an episcopal p.o.v. that deserves informed criticism, Neumayr took out a stance that deserves our support.

There is hardly a higher-profile Catholic in America who, more often than Pelosi does, expressly invokes the Catholic faith to defend the most consistently anti-…, anti-…, anti-almost everything that Catholics in public life should oppose about the culture of death. I have repeatedly called for Canon 915 to be invoked against Pelosi (for starters) to deny her holy Communion for so long as she falls afoul of what I think is every canonical aspect of “obstinate perseverance in manifest grave sin”, this call being made for her welfare and for that of the wider Church. Moreover, I have expressly argued that Wuerl’s interpretation of Canon 915 and his subsequent reticence to invoke Canon 915 as I think it should be invoked against Pelosi, is wrong.*

Now, if Neumayr had made only that point—and had he written in a tone consistent with the admonition in Canon 212 § 3 to express views in the Church “with reverence for pastors and … attentive to the dignity of persons”, I would be applauding his words (as I usually do when I read Neumayr). Instead, Neumayr drew the same bead on Wuerl for his inaction in the Pelosi matter that he drew on Wuerl (or his subordinates’) for his actions in the Johnson matter. To repeat: in re Pelosi, I think Wuerl’s thinking is remiss and that holy Communion should be withheld from her; but in re Johnson, I think the Archdiocese of Washington is right and holy Communion should not have been withheld from her that day.

So, Neumayr rants “The latest episode isn’t even a close call. If Cardinal Wuerl doesn’t have the guts to deny Communion to an agitprop lesbian Buddhist, he should close up shop and hand the keys to his chancery over to Obama.” Does anyone think that does not qualify as a rant? Before I say anything else, let me say, such invective directed against a sitting bishop is inexcusable.

Now, taking in reverse order Neumayr’s three reasons for denying holy Communion to Johnson:

First, Johnson is not a Buddhist, she is canonically a Catholic; if Neumayr is not happy with that conclusion, he should direct his complaints first to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts for their 2006 Notification in this area (which I questioned at the time), and then to Benedict XVI for his 2009 motu proprio virtually eliminating the possibility of defecting from the Church in any manner other than as a canonical criminal (which change in the law I of course accept because it is the law).

Second, although Johnson is a lesbian, being a lesbian does not disqualify one from being admitted to holy Communion any more than being divorced disqualifies one from receiving holy Communion—even though the Church takes a pretty dim view of both lesbianism and divorce; if Neumayr is not happy with that conclusion, he should direct his complaints to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for, say, its 1986 letter on the pastoral care of homosexual persons and its 1994 letter on the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist.

Third, whatever Neumayr means by his allegation of  “agitprop” by Johnson prior to her being denied holy Communion, and assuming we have the right Barbara Johnson (see the question raised by J. K. McPortland over at Mark Shea’s), and discounting as canonically irrelevant to this matter whatever activity Johnson has engaged in after being publicly denied Communion by Guarnizo, the minister of Communion must still have satisfied all of the elements of Canon 915 before withholding holy Communion publicly from a member of the faithful, lest the rights of the faithful be violated. I have argued that, reading the facts most favorably to Guarnizo, such could not have been done here, but, at a minimum, I have raised serious questions that it could have been done, and Canon 18 says that Canon 915 must be strictly satisfied, not just plausibly invoked.

In short, Neumayr’s blast of Wuerl flatly fails on two of his three points and it begs the central question being debated in his third. In Neumayr’s words, “this … isn’t even a close call.” I think, for its many failures in substance and for its egregious failures in form, Neumayr should retract his essay.

That said, if Neumayr is angry that too many bishops have for too long neglected the care they owe the Eucharist, he should say so. Prudently and without rancor. Others would listen. If Neumayr is angry that too many bishops have for too long neglected the care they owe clergy and faithful alike in matters of sacramental discipline, he should say so. Prudently and without rancor. Others would listen. If Neumayr is angry that too many bishops have for too long neglected to defend Church teaching against open and obvious assaults from a hostile world, he should say so. Prudently and without rancor. Others would listen. But he should not let his anger at these failings heat up in a closed heart until they explode one day against a bishop who, as it happened, got the case at hand correct.

If someone of Neumayr’s “cred” does so, others might imitate him, engendering more unmeasured intra-ecclesial invective at what is shaping up to be an absolutely critical time in Church history. + + +

* I can’t reparse all of Wuerl’s comments on Canon 915 here, but in regard to Pelosi, he holds not that she is eligible for holy Communion despite Canon 915, but rather, that a decision on her eligibility should come from her local ordinary (Abp. Neiderauer of San Francisco). As I say, I cannot respond to that argument here, but I can say that I have criticized Neiderauer’s actions under Canon 915 as well.


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