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The best defense is no offense

May 20, 2014

Athletes often quip that “the best defense is a good offense” meaning that, if one scores more points than does the other side, what does it matter how many points the other side scores? I’d like to offer a canonical variant on that: “the best defense is no offense” meaning that, if ecclesiastical authority fails to prosecute wrong-doers, what does it matter how guilty they are?

Sr. Jeannine Gramick, a chronically controversial Loretto religious, has signed a public letter to President Obama expressly urging him (as if he needed urging) to fund abortion overseas. In her letter Gramick claims the mantle of ‘leader of a faith-based organization’, declares it “immoral” not to pay for overseas abortions, asserts that paying for abortions is a “moral imperative”, and signs the letter “In Faith.”

Canon 1369 of the Johanno-Pauline Code states: “A person who in a public show or speech, in published writing, or in other uses of the instruments of social communication utters blasphemy, gravely injures good morals, expresses insults, or excites hatred or contempt against religion or the Church is to be punished with a just penalty” (emp. added). Gramick’s open letter urging, as a moral imperative no less, the funding of deliberate pre-natal homicide, satisfies, in my opinion, the elements of this canonical crime and suffices to launch a criminal investigation of her under Canon 1717. As I have noted in many similar cases, Gramick has not, on these facts, violated Canon 1398 (on abortion) and the question of her (in)eligibility for holy Communion under Canon 915 is not a criminal matter. At the same time, though, besides her egregious letter to Obama, Gramick’s other public writings on Church doctrine and discipline can, and should, be examined in light of Canon 1369.

As a religious, Gramick is immediately answerable to her superiors, of course, but the diocesan bishop of her place of domicile or quasi-domicile (c. 102) has jurisdiction over her in regard to penal matters (c. 1408, and see c. 1412). The “just penalty” envisioned under Canon 1369 is intentionally flexible so as to enable its application under a variety of circumstances but, in my opinion, that penalty could not be excommunication; obstinance, however, in the face of earlier sanctions could be used to increase subsequent penalties (cc. 1326 § 1, 1°, and 1393).

Of course, if Gramick is not called to account for her pro-abortion, etc., writings, what matters how canonically guilty she might be for them? Who needs a good defense when confronted by no offense?

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