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Bp. McGrath’s letter on sacramental service

July 5, 2017

In 1977, during the darkest period of canonical confusion that ran from the end of the Second Vatican Council until the promulgation of the 1983 Code, then-Fr Patrick McGrath earned a doctoral degree in canon law from the Lateran University in Rome. Now-Bp Patrick McGrath of San Jose is surely aware, then, that multiple canonical requirements for sacramental participation exist and he would, I imagine, be distressed to learn that his recent letter, implying that “good faith” is the only criterion for admission to the sacraments, could be pastorally misleading.

A key—not the only, but a key—norm controlling the administration of sacraments to the faithful is Canon 843 § 1 which states: “Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.” Phrased negatively (because, given the fundamental right of the faithful to receive the sacraments established elsewhere in the Code, the burden is on ministers to demonstrate why they should refuse someone requesting a sacrament), this canon sets forth three factors that can require a minister to withhold sacramental services from a member of the faithful, namely, a petitioner’s: (1) bad timing; (2) inadequate disposition; and/or (3) canonical ineligibility. Bp. McGrath’s letter, expressing only one criterion (“good faith”), is already confusing, therefore, for those who do not know that at least three factors, and not just one, impact sacramental administration.

Now, about those three requirements.

1. That requests for sacraments be made at “appropriate times” is not an issue here and so I pass over it.

2. That “proper disposition” for sacraments must be shown by a member of the faithful is contested by some and unappreciated by many in the Church these days. Thus, failing even to mention this requirement does not advance the cause of pastoral clarity.

A closer look at the pastoral tradition on “proper disposition” for sacraments (or “worthiness” for them, per most older commentators) suggests that two questions are involved here, specifically, what we might call ‘external disposition’ (e.g., completion of catechesis, public comportment with the Faith, even dress and decorum) and ‘internal disposition’ (e.g., the state of one’s soul, level of belief, advertence to the act). While, as will be seen shortly, some aspects of the third requirement (canonical eligibility, below) can impact one’s disposition for sacramental service, in brief, the failure to show a suitable external disposition (including, therefore, public comportment with the Faith) leaves a minister little choice but to withhold sacramental service; in contrast, one’s internal disposition can, in most cases of public administration, be presumed. None of these important nuances would be apparent, of course, if one is told that “good faith” alone (even if that phrase is understood as something akin to proper internal disposition) suffices for sacramental administration.

3. Finally, that one must be canonically eligible for a sacramental service would, in earlier days perhaps, be so obvious as to not need restating. But these are not those days and, again, failing to mention this requirement does not advance the cause of pastoral clarity.

But that we might be clear, for example, Catholics who do not repent of extra-marital sexual acts (whether heterosexual or homosexual) cannot be absolved in Confession; Catholics who undergo a “sex-change” operation cannot receive a new Baptism; two Catholics of the same-sex cannot marry each other (nor can a Catholic cleric officiate at such a ceremony); and Catholics who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin” as that phrase is understood by the tradition and those who take the time to study it, must not be given holy Communion or granted Christian funeral rites.

Bp. Paprocki’s decree, unlike Bp. McGrath’s letter, underscores the exclusion of certain persons (more precisely, of persons who have taken certain public actions) from sacramental services based on the express or implied canonical requirements established by the Legislator. And Paprocki (a canonist, too, Gregorian Univ. 1989) goes on to indicate the canonically recognized conditions under which some or all sacramental services might be restored to such persons—information omitted from McGrath’s letter as being, one supposes, unnecessary if “good faith” is really all that is needed for sacramental service.

I do not know whether McGrath’s letter was really a ‘response’ to Paprocki’s decree, but I do know that the latter’s document is a much more complete and accurate presentation of Church discipline on sacramental administration than is the former’s.


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