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Breaking law once hardly justifies breaking it twice

November 10, 2018

If Pope Francis wants to change the canon law forbidding ecclesiastical funeral rites for “manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without scandal” (1983 CIC 1184 § 1 n. 1) he can do so. Till then Church law forbidding such funerals, a law that dates back many centuries, remains in effect, and its apparent gross violation last week by clergy of the Archdiocese of Boston, who (seemingly with approval from the chancery), granted notorious mob murderer James “Whitey” Bulger a Catholic funeral Mass, hardly justifies granting Church funerals to other “manifest sinners” who do not give “some signs of repentance before death”—which no one claims Bulger gave—not that that fact gave James Martin, sj, any pause before tweeting Bulger’s funeral as preemptive justification for Church funerals for “LGBT person[s even though] they are married”.

To be sure, few priests and prelates seem willing to observe even the softened canon law restricting ecclesiastical funerals that has been in effect since 1983. One bishop who did observe it was Brooklyn Bp. Thomas Daily who denied ecclesiastical funeral rites to John “the Dapper Don” Gotti, an American Mafia chieftain who died in prison in 2001. I defended Daily’s refusal here: Edward Peters, “Lest amateurs argue canon law: a reply to Patrick Gordon’s brief against Bp. Thomas Daily”, Angelicum 83 (2006) 121-142, on-line here. In accord with canon law (e.g., 1983 CIC 901), I would note, a later memorial Mass was permitted for Gotti (just as one would be permitted for Bulger and Martin’s ‘same-sex spouses’). But other bishops who think that canon law means what canon law says, besides Madison WI Bp. Morlino and Springfield IL Bp. Paprocki, seem few. 

Now, to be clear (in case some folks think law means always having to say No) following the canon law on funerals does not always mean refusing such rites in controversial cases. For example, in 2009 the Archdiocese of Boston accorded the notoriously pro-abortion, etc., Sen. Edward Kennedy a Church funeral, a decision I defended as being within the law given public evidence that Kennedy had met the admittedly very low canonical standards for giving “signs of repentance” prior to his death. See Edward Peters, “Still trying to get the Kennedy funeral lessons right”, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 34/1 (Spring 2011) 57-59. As I said, though, no such claims were offered re Bulger.

So if all of this boils down to, the canon law on funerals is not well understood for clergy or laity, and it might be pastorally more trouble than it’s worth, I say, okay, then explain and enforce the law as is, or modify, re-explain, and enforce a reformed law. But don’t leave the law in place, yet disregarded. There are good reasons for and against the law as written—pace, I would say, murder-suicides, and especially family annihilators like Steven Suepple, cases for which no justification, I think, can be foundbut for the rest I am willing to hear arguments for and against. So are many thoughtful others.

Till then, however, “manifest sinners” such as Whitey Bulger should not be accorded Church funeral rites and media priests such as Martin should not parlay violations of canon law into a reason to violate it again. That spreads disrespect for law and for the values it seeks to uphold; it implies that breaking the law itself justifies breaking it again. Of that mentality we need no more.

And may James Bulger, and his dozen-plus victims, rest in peace.

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