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Was Jackie O excommunicated?

April 17, 2014

There is a rollicking Sun News broadcast editorial calling for, among other things, the excommunication of Justin Trudeau. It’s important viewing for several reasons. I’ll have some commentary on it later.

In the meantime, one comment in the broadcast startled me, namely, that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was excommunicated. Was she?

Any talk of Jackie’s excommunication centers on her October 1968 wedding to Aristotle Onassis. At the time, Jackie was (tragically of course) a free-to-marry Roman Catholic. Ari was a baptized non-Catholic divorced from another woman and thus not free to marry (1917 CIC 1069). The Jackie-Ari wedding took place on a private island and, as near I can tell, disregarded canonical form (1917 CIC 1094). In two respects, then, Ari’s presumptively valid prior marriage and Jackie’s apparent failure to observe or seek dispensation from canonical form, the Jackie-Ari marriage was invalid.

But where might an excommunication have come in?

Three possibilities occur to me, though none of them concern what I imagine most people might guess, namely, Jackie’s knowingly entering into an invalid marriage. Assuming that action is itself a crime under canon law (a difficult but not impossible case to make) it is certainly not a crime punishable by excommunication.

Let’s look, however, at three other theories.

1. Under Pio-Benedictine law, Catholics who disregarded canonical form in attempting to marry (certain persons) before non-Catholic ministers were automatically excommunicated (1917 CIC 2319 § 1, 1º). Setting aside my consternation at the interminable complications that arise from making certain excommunications automatic (including a number of ‘affirmative defenses’ that avail defendants even if they do not know to invoke them), Jackie might (depending on the person of the officiant) have fallen within the highly specific terms of this canon. But, in March 1970, Pope Paul VI, as part of a wider reform of marriage law, abrogated all excommunications levied in this regard (CLD VII: 717). Jackie’s marriage was not “validated” by the pope’s action but any penalty associated with her possibly having violated this aspect of canonical form would have ceased in 1970.

2. Bigamy and attempted bigamy were crimes under Pio-Benedictine law (1917 CIC 2356). Jackie, though herself free to marry, knew of Ari’s prior marriage and would have been liable to this penalty (Dom Augustine, VIII: 411-413). The penalty for bigamy, however, was not excommunication but “infamy” (1917 CIC 2293-2295) and, while the consequences of infamy were significant, they were not equivalent to excommunication. There is no evidence, moreover, that the canonical steps by which infamy could have been parlayed into excommunication were taken in Jackie’s case.

3. In 1884, the bishops of the United States enacted particular law by which divorced Catholics who attempted (even civilly) to marry another were automatically excommunicated. Although this penal law famously survived the advent of the Pio-Benedictine Code, its automatic nature meant, again, that a wide variety of ‘affirmative defenses’ could have prevented Jackie’s falling with its scope (assuming that she, not being divorced herself, were subject to it at all). In any case, Pope Paul VI abrogated all penalties associated with this special American law in October 1977 (CLD VIII: 1213-1214) and, as above, all sanctions possibly incurred under it immediately ceased.

Bottom line: it is possible, but not likely, that Jackie was excommunicated under universal law for some 18 months in the late 1960s and/or under particular law for some years into the 1970s; it is certain that Jackie labored under no marriage-related excommunications at the time of her death in 1994.

Et poenae latae sententiae delendae sunt.

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