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Subsidiarity shows up in some unusual places

February 7, 2013

I laughed when I heard Al Kresta say a few months back that all I do is canon law. I laughed, but he’s right; canon law really is just about all I ever think about. So, naturally, when I saw that an Arkansas bill to allow churches to decide whether to allow guns on site was being opposed by, among others, the Diocese of Little Rock, I thought, Hmmm…is there canon law angle here?

Currently, Arkansas is one of 10 states to prohibit persons with carry-permits from bringing weapons into places of worship; the Arkansas bill would allow each church to make that carry-decision for itself. As such, this proposal seems like a simple exercise in the vaunted concept of subsidiarity, the amply-ecclesiastically-endorsed principle by which polices affecting people should be made at the most appropriate—usually the lowest and thus most responsive—level of authority feasible. So, if the State wants to accord individual churches the right to make policy on just about anything, I say, bully for the State. It certainly seems preferable to encouraging the State to impose its policies on churches, even if, in the short run, they are policies with which churches would agree. Dangerous precedent, that, as history teaches us time and again. Anyway, back to canon law.

Assuming this bill becomes law—and setting aside some questions I can’t answer about how Arkansas defines a “church”, etc.—canonically, it seems to me that, as parishes are “juridic persons” under canon law (c. 515 § 3) and pastors represent parishes in juridic affairs (c. 532), local pastors get to make this call. For several reasons (cit. om.), I think a prohibition against carrying would have to be announced if that were desired as policy in a given parish. That said, I think a bishop would have the authority (c. 381) to prohibit Catholics (as subjects of canon law) along with others (by dint of civil law) from carrying weapons in any Catholic sacred place (c. 1205). Of course, enacting such a policy would require of ecclesiastical leadership a conscientious weighing of its pro-s and con-s (including an assessment of the trend in recent years whereby lunatics target schools and churches as places packed with defenseless victims), of the enforceability of any policy as might be enacted, and of the consequences envisioned for violation of such a policy (which consequences might run up against certain canonical rights, say, to receive sacraments). In short, I don’t think there’s an obviously right, or wrong, answer to this one.

So, with all that on the table, maybe I sympathize a bit with the idea of letting the State decide this one for us. But only sympathize, not agree with.

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