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Reacting to Prof. Reid’s over-reaction

October 15, 2015

A few weeks ago Abp. John Myers of Newark issued a brief letter underscoring some basic expectations for Catholics in the midst of our increasingly secularized culture, things like, oh, ‘Catholics who publically reject Church teaching should not approach for holy Communion’, and ‘Catholic facilities should not be made available to persons attacking Catholic beliefs’. Myers’ letter is pretty ordinary stuff, remarkable, if at all, only in that so few bishops issue admonitory letters these days.

Now, a couple of phrases in Myers’ letter do, I think, warrant closer parsing (something expressly provided for in Myers’ letter), and there is even one ‘Doh!’ sentence in the prelate’s letter: “Catholics must be in a marriage recognized as valid by the Church to receive Holy Communion”. This, if true, would be bad news for my five youngest children, none of whom are “in a marriage recognized as valid by the Church” (or any kind of other marriage). Such a slip should not appear in a letter written by a canon lawyer, let alone in one vetted by several others. But, c’mon, we all know what Myers’ meant and, having enjoyed a chuckle over his phrasing, I planned no comment on the letter.

But then I read Prof. Charles Reid’s (a respected historian of canon law) reaction to Myers’ letter. Reid excoriated Myers’ letter as “insanely, hysterically overreaching” and claimed that, if it were followed, “even a football coach who loudly swears after a close loss or a parent who attends their gay son’s wedding would be barred from seeking Communion.” Setting aside the laughable disparity between the two supposedly Communion-disqualifying acts Reid offers (more on that below), my first reaction to Reid’s over-reaction was “Good grief! Did Abp. Myers write two different letters?” Of course, Myers wrote only one letter—the dull, not perfect, but basically routine letter I had read. What Reid read, however, what to him “looks petty [and] vengeful [and] a dying gasp if you will,” what Reid “can’t imagine a bishop doing” a few years from now, what Reid actually thinks was intended as a direct challenge to Pope Francis himself (!), I can hardly guess. It is certainly not Myers’ letter, and I am at a loss to account for Reid’s startling over-reaction to it.

Well, as long as we are here, let’s do look at two phrases in Myers’ letter that, I think, need further study.

1. Myers writes: “Non-Catholics and any Catholics who publicly reject Church teaching or discipline, either by public statements or by joining or supporting organizations which do so, are not to receive the Sacraments.” A few points: (a) Catholics may always approach the Sacrament of Confession, something so obvious Myers did not need to restate it; (b) Non-Catholic participation in holy Communion is regulated largely by Canon 844 and it would have been better simply to refer to this norm; (c) Catholics who “publicly reject Church teaching or discipline” are to refrain from holy Communion per Canon 916 and the moral tradition which that canon summarizes, but, as to whether one’s joining an organization “opposed” to the Church (Canon 1374, anyone?) is, by itself, always gravely sinful, or about what constitutes “support” for such an organization, these are good questions best addressed in concrete cases. Myers’ brief reiteration of the principles involved in these cases does not, by his own acknowledgement, settle such practical questions (thus he directs those with questions about such matters to consult appropriate ecclesiastical authorities). So, whether Prof. Reid or I would have phrased this passage as Myers did is beside the point: the archbishop’s language here has hardly descended into the realm of ‘insane hysterical over-reaching’ and it is an injustice for anyone to claim that it has.

2) Myers writes: “Catholics, especially ministers and others who represent the Church, should not participate in or be present at public religious events or events intended to endorse or support those who reject or ignore Church teaching and Canon Law.” Perhaps this passage is what set off Reid’s eruption about potty-mouthed football coaches (which is so gross a caricature of Myers’ message that it needs no refutation) and, more significantly, his supportive comment about parents attending their gay son’s ‘wedding’.

Note first, it is Reid, not Myers, who raises the whole ‘gay wedding’ scenario, and, while Myers urges his pastors to explain difficult cases to the faithful “in appropriate ways, privately if possible”, it is Reid who engages in a public media tirade. The contrast between the two approaches could not be starker.

But, let there be no mistake: in Western culture, to attend a wedding (pace the I’ve-never-heard-of-it-but-it’s-theoretically-possible scenario wherein someone attends a ‘wedding’ but sits in the back row and offers rosaries in reparation for the affront that the ceremony might be), to attend a wedding, I say, is to offer public support for the actions of the two persons supposedly marrying. Thus I hold that a Catholic’s attendance at a ‘wedding’ believed to be invalid, such as a ‘same-sex wedding’, is itself an objectively gravely sinful act, and thus something forbidden to Catholics, even if one is related to the parties. Sometimes Christianity costs. More than once—need I say it?—Church history has been sprinkled with the blood of Catholics martyred because they would not accept a ‘wedding’ that was plainly forbidden by the law of God. Is the price they paid in their day so unthinkable among us in ours?

Now, Myers did not advise parents who have been invited to attend their child’s ‘same-sex wedding’, but I am pretty sure I know what his advice would be. Suddenly, however, we have to wonder what Reid’s advice would be regarding conduct by which, per Canon 209, one must preserve communion with the Church, here, in regard to a fundamental teaching rooted in natural law and divine revelation.

Bottom line: If Myers did not put all of his points perfectly (and he did not), he certainly put them plainly. Scholars should endorse what is sound (i.e., most of the letter), and help clarify what is deficient (as Myers himself notes). Avoiding over-reacting to the letter would be a good way to start.

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