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About that funeral Mass homily, some points

December 15, 2018

I do not know Fr. Don LaCuesta or the Hullibarger family nor do I know what LaCuesta said in his homily at last week’s funeral for 18-year-old Maison Hullibarger (who had killed himself some days before) or how LaCuesta said what he said (reports here and here). Such caveats, however, in light of my treatments of other issues related to the canon law on Church funerals, might qualify me to make some objective comments on the controversy erupting in the wake of LaCuesta’s funeral homily wherein, it seems, Maison’s ‘life was not celebrated’ and doubts about his entry into heaven were expressed. Three points need to inform discussion of this controversy.

First, until just a generation ago and for many centuries before, controversy over homilies delivered at the Catholic funerals of suicides was unheard of for the simple reason that Church law forbade all funerals for suicides, so, no funeral homilies on suicide could have been preached. See 1917 CIC 1240 § 1, n. 3. With the appearance of the Johanno-Pauline Code, however, the prohibition of funerals for suicides was dropped (see 1983 CIC 1184). True, a qualified restriction on funerals for those who die in “manifest sin” remains (and suicide is unquestionably a grievous sin, see CCC 2280-2281), but the nearly-universal pastoral practice is to accord funerals to suicides in light of legitimate questions about, among other things, the likely-diminished psychological freedom enjoyed by someone who suddenly kills himself (CCC 2282) and in deference to the doctrinally-sound hope that, in ways unknown to us, God may save such persons (CCC 2283).

Second, nothing in liturgical or canon law suggests that Catholic funerals are intended to serve as ‘celebrations of one’s life.’ Instead the primary focus of funeral rites is on “the paschal mystery of Christ”. Rite of Funerals, Intro., n. 1. Per the USCCB, “At the funeral liturgy, the Church gathers with the family and friends of the deceased to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to seek strength in the proclamation of the Paschal Mystery. The funeral liturgy, therefore, is an act of worship, and not merely an expression of grief.” Some brief “words of remembrance” of the deceased are permitted (usually just before the end of the funeral Mass) but these are to be brief and nothing like a eulogy or ‘celebration of a life’ now sadly gone.

Third, while every Catholic should die in hope of salvation, none (absent private revelation) dies with the certainty of salvation, a fact that, in turn, obliges the family, friends, and the wider Christian community of the deceased to pray for the departed—no matter how they died—and to avoid attitudes that discourage prayers for the dead such as happens with the modern mindset that, basically, everybody’s good and we all go to heaven. This sort of thinking, a species of presumption (CCC 2092), has become common among clergy and laity and has impacted attitudes toward death, judgment, and the meaning of funerals. For example, a cleric of the Archdiocese of Chicago holds that “For a priest to even hint that the person [who kills himself] might not be in heaven is grossly wrong.” This priest’s claim, of course, is precisely what is “grossly wrong”, but it is consistent with his condemnation of others “who view suicide as a mortal sin,” supposedly because “That [assessment] has been categorically denied by church leadership.” Again, this cleric’s claim is rubbish but years of such sloppy talk has seduced many into a superficially comfortable, but doctrinally indefensible and pastorally dangerous, way of thinking about death—whether by suicide or otherwise.

At this point, though, without specific knowledge of what LaCuesta actually said, my citing to canons on homilies in general (including those norms that call for the doctrine of the Church to be preached therein, such as Canons 769-769) and to rubrics that call for funeral homilies to be brief and phrased so as to avoid “offending those who mourn”, per the Rite), would be of little avail. The Archdiocese of Detroit has restricted LaCuesta’s faculties for preaching at funerals (I imagine, per Canon 764) and one trusts that, in taking such action against LaCuesta, they had access to more specific information about his homily than was available in main stream media reports. If LaCuesta said the right thing the right way, he should be defended; if he said the right thing the wrong way, he should be corrected; if he said the wrong thing the wrong way, he should be chastised.

Meanwhile, those seizing upon this young man’s devastating choice, his family’s unimaginable grief, and the as-yet uncertain remarks of a homilist, to misrepresent Christian teaching against self-murder, to presume the salvation of anyone, and to minimize the need to assist the dead with our prayers, should cease their harmful talk.

Update: 17 Dec 2018.

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